JOKING ABOUT SIN, HEAVEN, HELL, AND GRACE JUDITH B. BRAIN TEXT: MATTHEW 20:1-16 JULY20, 2003 PILGRIM CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH—UCC LEXINGTON, MA ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ SERMONS ALWAYS INVOLVE RESEARCH This is number two in my sermon series on jokes and religion. Two weeks ago we examined what messages were being given in jokes about the church. In two more weeks, we‟ll look at jokes about Jesus. This Sunday, my topic is jokes about sin, heaven, hell, and grace. It‟s been a rigorous task preparing for these sermons. I‟ve had to spend hours trawling internet humor sites and reading joke pages in religious journals. The amount of time I have spent in research has been formidable! No seriously, folks. It was, at times, a pretty agonizing struggle. There is a lot of BAD humor out there. But, for you, I was willing to make the sacrifice. Do any of you know about “Beliefnet?” It‟s the web site of religious phenomena carrying links to every imaginable topic that might be considered religious from Orthodox Judaism and Feng Shui to the forgotten language of the Ugaritic people and herbal love potients. Of course there is also a link for humor where I spent a fair amount of time. The introduction to that page includes this quote: Everyone knows that religion isn‟t supposed to make us laugh--precisely why everyone has their favorite religious joke. Enjoy the ones below, and add yours to the list! RELIGION AND LAUGHTER I don‟t know where the idea came from that religion isn‟t supposed to make us laugh. The Bible is full of humor, Hinduism has an elephant-headed God, Ganesha, whose purpose is to bring delight and joy to his worshipers, and many of us have been coaxed into a better mood by gazing at the smiling Buddha. There is a place in all religions for fun and laughter. If there is one thing I hope we will all get out of this series it is to turn that killjoy assumption on its head. We need to go out of here saying, “Everyone knows that religion is supposed to make us laugh….” OK, so how about a few laughs? About sin. ••• A woman bought a very expensive dress and brought it home. When her husband found out how much it cost he was upset. "How could you buy such an expensive dress?!" he demanded. "The devil made me do it." she replied. "Why didn't you say, 'Get behind me Satan!'?" he asked, "I did!" she said, "But he said, „Girl, it looks great from back here too!‟" ••• When Marilyn Monroe died, she was met by St. Peter. "Okay, St. Peter said, "so you're Marilyn Monroe. Welcome to our place. Yonder is the Pearly Gate. To get there, you have to cross that bridge". The bridge which is so narrow that only one person can walk on it. Below the bridge is the burning inferno with souls crying in agony. "I want to warn you Miss Monroe", St. Peter advised, "that only those who are pure in heart, thoughts and spirit can cross that bridge. So never, never for an instance think of any evil, sensual or bad thoughts. For once you do, you will fall to that hell and suffer eternal damnation. So go ahead and I'll be right behind you." So Marilyn Monroe with her familiar gait carefully walked on the bridge with St. Peter following closely behind her. Sure enough, halfway on the bridge, St. Peter fell in! SIN JOKES ARE BIG ON SEX WHILE MORE DAMAGING SINS PERSIST While I get a kick out of both those jokes, they are typical of the “sin” genre. There is a big emphasis on lust and other sexual sins—like that was the category of sin most deserving punishment. I think that is a reflection of our culture which is obsessed with sexual moralism. In our political discourse shame is heaped on unwed mothers, and sexually active teens and gay people. How much more shameful is corporate greed that demolishes a company and puts thousands of workers out of jobs? Or national leaders who undermine democracy by deceit? Or billions spent for weaponry and health care suffers and cuts are made in aid to children who are starving and dying of illness. Perhaps it is because we feel we can control and confront individual sins against purity but the sins embedded in a system we feel helpless to change. Jesus did not take that easy way out. He trashed his culture‟s obsessions with purity and was not afraid to name the sins of the empire. JOKES ABOUT HEAVEN, HELL, AND JUDGMENT So, that‟s where my musings about sin jokes have taken me. To feelings of frustration and anger at the unfairness of things and our too-narrow view of sin. And that brings me to “Heaven and Hell.” Stay with me, it‟s a natural progression. I was a “respondent” at an interfaith panel. The question I asked the presenters was, “What is the most valuable teaching in your religion? The Muslim representative answered, “I am most comforted by Islamic beliefs about the Day of Judgment.” I was taken aback by that. Comforted by judgment? She went on. “Life is unfair. You only need to look around to see that. People die young. Evil prospers. Doing good does not assure that your life will be without adversity. Islam teaches that at the Day of Judgment, justice will be done. Good rewarded, evil punished.” That really makes sense. If we despair of fixing things on earth, at least balance can be restored in the next life. I hope none of you are one of those sinners who deserves Hell. But in case you are, here‟s what to expect. ••• The top 5 good things about Hell. 5. None of that annoying check-in procedure like with St. Peter. 4. Newly passed law. Three strikes and you‟re back in East Boston. 3. Everywhere you look there‟s a smoking section. 2. Free mammograms administered daily. 1. Every night is Karaoke night. ••• As for Heaven, it‟s just what you thought it would be too. This 85 year old couple had been married almost 60 years, but they died in a car crash. They had been in excellent because the wife was devoted to health food and exercise. When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion which was decked out with a beautiful kitchen and master bath suite and Jacuzzi. As they oozed and ached,” the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost. “It‟s free,” Peter replied, “this is Heaven.” He continued the tour showing them the championship golf course The old man asked, “What are the green fees?” “This is heaven, you play for free.” Next, they it was the club house and saw the lavish buffet lunch with the cuisine‟s of the world laid out. Free! All you can eat. “Well, where are the low fat and low cholesterol tables?” the old man asked timidly. “Noah, ...you can eat as much as you like of whatever you like and you never get fat and you never get sick. This is Heaven.” With that the old man went into a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping on it. Peter and his wife looked puzzled. The old man shook his finger at his wife and yelled, “This is all your fault. If it weren‟t for your blasted bran muffins, I could have been here ten years ago. Jokes seem to indicate a lot of denial about Hell—either it is trivialized as in the top 5 list, or nobody really expects to go there. Of course, Hell, especially imagined by medieval artists and writers, has been so grim, you‟d have to make a joke about it to bear it. CHRISTIAN TEACHING ABOUT HEAVEN AND HELL But actually, Christian teaching about Heaven and Hell is quite diverse. Not every strain of understanding develops such a literalistic view of Hell. Conservative, orthodox teaching seems to dominate; why, I don‟t know. It assumes a very ruthless and rigid deity. It condemns everybody to Hell by nature of their innate sinfulness. Only the intervention of Jesus can save us. And only our own personal choice to accept that intervention will do the trick. Everyone who does not acknowledge Jesus as his or her savior is doomed. That includes the entire population of the world who is not Christian and also Christians like me who reject that particular theology. The evangelist, Billy Graham, represents this point of view. ••• The story is told that Graham arrived in a small town to preach a sermon. Wanting to mail a letter, he asked a young boy where the post office was. When the boy told him, Rev. Graham thanked him and said, "If you'll come to the Baptist church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to Heaven." "I don't think I'll be there," the boy said. "You don't even know your way to the post office." I do not accept Billy Graham‟s roadmap to heaven. The God I worship does not set us up to fail and does not punish us just for being human. The God I believe in, loves us and would not devise a system so unfair and partial. To counterbalance this very draconian belief—you are either in or out—the Catholic Church developed the theory of Purgatory. It satisfies logic and fairness. After death you have an opportunity to make up for the failings in this life and gain another shot at Heaven by continuing to do good works or having prayers said on your behalf. Much as that idea makes sense to me. My faith teaches me something else. We do not gain Heaven by good works. Heaven, which I would define as abundant life in God now and always, is attained simply by accepting God‟s offer of it. That offer is never withdrawn, it comes in many forms, and it comes to all people regardless of which path they are following to God. MATTHEW 20:1-16 GOD’S JOKE Here is one of my favorite Bible passages. It is God‟s joke. Jesus says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o‟clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, „You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.‟ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o‟clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o‟clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, „Why are you standing here idle all day?‟ 7 They said to him, „Because no one has hired us.‟ He said to them, „You also go into the vineyard.‟ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, „Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.‟ 9 When those hired about five o‟clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, „These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.‟ 13 But he replied to one of them, „Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?‟ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Or to put it another way: ••• A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you can get in". "Okay," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years, and never cheated on her even in my heart." "That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth 3 points!" "Three points?" he says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service." "Terrific!" says St. Peter. "That's certainly worth a point." "One point? I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans." "Fantastic, that's good for two more points," St. Peter says. "Two points?!" the man cries. "At this rate, the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!" "Bingo! 100 points! Come on in!"