A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
April 27, 2014.
1 Peter 1:3-9
What an Easter service we enjoyed last Sunday! We baptized three, the handbells played, and the Sanctuary Choir sang three lovely anthems, from Christ the Lord is Risen Again to the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. What joy and what a gift it is to worship here at UBC! What a reverent time of celebration! Yet in the midst of that service, during my sermon, Jack Averill flipped through his choir book and made a discovery: his sheet music to Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus was missing! Not missing a beat, Jack turned to his neighbor and confessed, “I’ve lost my Messiah!”
Is it OK to make a joke in the middle of the holiest service of the year? Why, yes, it is. In fact, today is “Bright Sunday,” a centuries-old tradition within the church observed on the Sunday after Easter. As I wrote in my column this week, the early church theologians such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom sometimes interpreted Easter as a joke. They didn’t mean this in an irreverent or dismissive way, the way we might describe something poorly done as “a joke.” Instead, they quite literally felt that Easter was a holy joke, the moment when God played a joke on death itself, turning a grim time of mourning into a festive time of laughter. As Isaiah phrases this sort of transformation, Easter is a time when we find “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of grief, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” We hear the same idea in the Psalms, which praises God for turning “wailing into dancing” and for casting aside our sackcloth and instead clothing us in joy.
The early Church recognized that the season of Easter was a time of celebration, for praise, for joy. So in light of this, indulge me while I tell a few lighthearted stories about some of the many joyful servants this church has been blessed to know.
Let’s start off with Howard Newlon, the man who literally wrote the book on UBC. You could ask Howard anything at all about this church … if you had the time. A professor at U.Va.’s engineering and architecture schools, Howard was an expert not only on this church, but on civil engineering, Virginia’s historic bridges, the history of Albemarle County, and any number of other subjects. Upon his retirement from U.Va., his students painted a tribute to him on Beta Bridge saying, “Thanks for the schoolin’, Professor Newlon.” Howard was a serious scholar, a committed theologian … and a serious sports fan, rooting for the Redskins and U.Va. If it’s OK for a minister like Jack Averill to tell a little joke in the choir loft on Easter Sunday, then perhaps it’s also OK for a dedicated choir member like Howard Newlon to sneak a little transistor radio and earpiece into choir rehearsals so that he could keep up with UVA men’s basketball games!
The next person who comes to mind is Don Gardner. Our first clue to his playfulness is how he won young Lynne’s heart by doing an Elvis impersonation at a gathering at Larry Johnson’s parents’ house. Don grew up in Charlottesville, where he provided lawn services, sold real estate, delivered dry cleaning, and was loved by all. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I could give an entire Bright Sunday sermon telling stories about Don’s antics – how he hosted the church’s variety show, how he blared country music to embarrass his teenaged sons. On a spring day a lot like this one, Don was downtown for the annual Dogwood Festival Parade. As the procession was moving along, the elegant Elizabeth Taylor was in a convertible waving to everyone. As luck would have it, Don worked his way to the front of the crowd just as things came to a halt in front of him. “Hey Liz,” he called out. ”Remember me?” She had a quizzical look on her face for a split second before Don said, “I sat on the front row of National Velvet six times!”
A favorite story about Don is not an Easter story, but a Christmas story. Don’s son Steve recalls how he and his brother ran downstairs early one Christmas morning, eager to find their presents neatly stacked under the tree. Instead, they found chaos – chairs pushed astray, lamps overturned, torn wrapping paper everywhere, and presents scattered all over the room. Even the Christmas tree was leaning against the wall. The bewildered boys turned to their parents, and their father had an explanation. “I heard some noise in the middle of the night,” he told them, “so I came down to see what Santa was leaving for you boys. And all he had left for you was two teeny little boxes – probably filled with socks or underwear. So I said, ‘Say now, Santa,’ but that old guy was scooting off to the front door as quick as he could. So I looked down and saw one of your baseball bats and I grabbed it and just started whacking that bag of his, left and right like a piñata, and the presents just started flying out. Santa made it out the door, all right, but I don’t think he’ll ever forget to leave you boys good presents again!”
While Don often had a “large” sense of humor, his good friend Jennings Wagoner had a subtle sort of wit. Jennings was a professor at U.Va.’s Curry School of education, where he helped generations of students and colleagues with expertise, warmth, and charm. At Jennings’ funeral service, Jack Averill mentioned that the service emerged from conversations between Jennings and Shirley. For instance, Jennings wanted Alba to sing “How great thou art” and a cellist to play a beautiful solo. He requested that the words for Taps appear on the back of the bulletin. He suggested the hymns and asked for the 23rd Psalm and the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians—those words about love were sung at Shirley and Jennings’ wedding over 50 years ago; Jennings read that same scripture at David and Jennifer’s wedding, and then at Brian and Katie’s wedding.
Two of Jennings’ suggestions, however, were not included in the service. As Jennings’ health declined, Shirley asked him, “I really want to know: Is there anything you’d especially like to have for your service?” He replied, eyes twinkling, “How about a fly-over of F16s?” On another occasion, Shirley was again encouraging him to specify whatever he would like for his funeral service. “I suppose,” he twinkled, “Mozart’s Requiem would be too heavy.”
Another person who had a subtle sense of humor was Ruth Clark, a woman who embraced me and my family, even crocheting a baby blanket for my children. Like her daughter Shirley, Ruth had a quieter personality, but she was still warm and loving. She, too, could surprise you with her humor. Judy Scruggs often sat with Ruth and Shirley during Wednesday night dinners here at UBC. Judy remembers how Ruth would sometimes turn to her daughter and say, “Shirley Ann, I’m stuffed and can’t eat another bite of anything. Now, pass me my dessert!!”
And as we speak of Wednesday night suppers, I remember Herman Johnson, who was faithful in attending them and in helping to serve the dinners. Herman lived his life in the gentle spirit of Bright Easter – he even carried around a book of clean jokes so that he’d be ready with a quip at any moment. To look at Herman’s childhood, you wouldn’t think of joy – his father died when he was just four, and he and some of his siblings spent their youths in an orphanage in Lynchburg since his mother didn’t have the resources to support them. While of course Herman missed his mother, he showed a spirit of resilience and gratitude – years later, he remembered with thanksgiving the good care he received at the children’s home. The orphanage didn’t have money, but they did want the kids to have a good time – so they formed a football team to play area schools. Since the school couldn’t afford uniforms or cleats, the team was called the “Barefoot Wonders,” but you shouldn’t feel too sorry for those orphans. Herman played on a team that was so good, it was cited in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, because they beat the heck out of everybody, all the while playing barefooted! After the challenges of growing up in the home, Herman encountered more challenges. He enlisted in the army, serving three-and-a-half years in the notoriously difficult Pacific Theater in WWII. For his service and courage, he was awarded multiple Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star.
Again – you might think that a man who grew up in poverty and faced the perils of war would not, could not be the playful, gentle Herman who we loved so much. Yet Herman’s life was filled with humor, joy, and even dancing. I love the fact that just this past fall, Herman and Lillie took a Cajun two-step dance class. In Herman’s life, Psalm 30 literally came true, as Herman moved from a life that could have been filled with wailing and instead chose one full of dancing. It’s impossible to have known Lillie and Herman and not have seen how much they loved each other, even if that love was sometimes shown in playful ways. During one Wednesday night supper, he snuck his broccoli on to Lillie’s plate so that the more she ate, the higher her pile of veggies became. When he had a growth removed from his forehead this fall, he came to church with a big bandage that looked almost like a horn. When people asked about it, Herman replied, “I got into an argument with Lillie and she gave me a good punch.” And in the weeks before his death, he required a feeding tube, so Lillie had to be trained to care for it and him. He explained to visitors, “Lillie is a good RN: a ‘Real Nagger’ . . . oh, I mean she’s ‘Real Nice’.”
It’s good to laugh, isn’t it? These stories that I just shared of our church members Howard, Betty, Don, Jennings, Ruth, and Herman were also shared in their funeral or memorial services during the past year or so. As believers whose faith was in the risen Christ, they lived lives of joy for they knew that death is conquered and love has won. Even as we fondly laugh at the stories of these saints who lived among us, I sense that they are laughing along with us, because they are now in the joyful presence of their resurrected Lord. We too may have such joy, because of the promise of the Resurrection, the gift of Easter. As our New Testament lesson reminds us, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have been born into a living hope; we are filled with an “inexpressible and glorious joy.”
May the joy of Easter continue to lift up your spirits on this Bright Sunday! Thanks be to God for the risen Christ! Amen.