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I Samuel 16.6-13

Jeremiah 9.23-24

I Corinthians 1.20-31

The Gospel in a Nutshell

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is considerably off the beaten track, and the church I served there even more so.  We were four hours north of Green Bay, and it is an eleven hour drive to Detroit.  So for a local church minister, opportunities for continuing education were rare.  But one spring writer Robert Short came to the U.P. and offered a class on a book of his I’ve had since high school, The Gospel According to Peanuts.  If you follow Peanuts at all, you’ll have surmised that, in addition to being a canny cartoonist, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz sometimes moonlight, in his own strips, as a closet theologian.  He never hits you over the head with his religious ideas, but he has an uncanny way of sneaking up on the reader with a gentle nudge, and makes you think about things in a different way.  It’s rather like Snoopy’s experience with his water dish in the first cartoon on this morning’s bulletin insert.  Snoopy is thirsty but obviously can’t operate the water spigot.  As he stands there, thirsty and helpless, along comes a passing rain shower to fill up his water dish.  When he gets back to his doghouse, he thinks to himself, “That’s one I’m going to have to think about for a while,” which is exactly the response Schulz wants to draw out in his reader:  we’re going to have to think about that for a while.

You may be forgiven if you’re wondering about using a comic as a takeoff point for such a theological endeavor as a sermon, but I think it is when the gospel comes at us from unexpected quarters that it makes its most powerful impression.  We’re used to encountering religious ideas in books and in church and in sermons, but probably not so much in what my grandmother used to call the funny papers.   But humor has always been a great conveyor of the gospel of Jesus.  You and I have seen Jesus’ sense of humor at work, for example when he talked about a camel going through the eye of a needle; and Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard once observed, “Christianity is the most humorous point of view in the history of the world.”  Kierkegaard’s sentiment is not far from Paul’s idea that Deb Calamari described for us this morning, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe… God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”  As Kierkegaard  wrote elsewhere, “Humor is the joy which has overcome the world.”

Charles Schulz’s sense of humor both recognizes the human predicament and knows the way out:  the predicament is sin, the way out is grace, and more to the point, love.  But he also recognizes the precariousness of the subject, as witness the second cartoon this morning, Lucy and Linus’ conversation about prayer; it leads Linus to conclude, “Religion is a very touchy subject!”  So when Schulz approaches that admittedly touchy subject, he does so both gingerly and with a wry sense of humor.  I recall a cartoon tht I could not find for you this morning, which raised a distinction between Santa Claus and the Great Pumpkin, and settled the matter by attributing the difference between the two to denominational differences.  Yet, regardless of our differences, Schulz reminds us that we’re all in this together.  Cartoon #3 is a helpful reminder that at the end of the day, we are all moving in the same direction.

Speaking of Santa, in the fifth chapter of the New Testament book of Acts, we meet a wise, respected Pharisaic rabbi named Gamaliel.  A crowd of Jews had come to Gamaliel to complain, and to seek the life of, Peter and the apostles for their heretical teaching of a crucified messiah, but Gamaliel counseled moderation:  “Keep away from them” he replied, “and leave them alone.  For if this plan or undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”  Sixteen centuries later a similar thought occurred to French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said, to oversimplify things a bit, If you believe in God and God does not exist, you’ve lost nothing, but if you don’t believe in God and God dies exist, you’ve lost everything, so the smart money is on belief.  The shorthand name for the idea is Pascal’s Wager.  Schulz puts Gamaliel’s advice and Pascal’s wager on the lips of Charlie Brown’s friend Shermy:  “If there is a Santa Claus, he’s going to be too nice not to bring me anything for Christmas no matter how I act, right?  And if there isn’t any Santa Claus, then I haven’t really lost anything, right?”  And while Charlie Brown recognizes the cynicism in Shermy’s proposition, he can’t quite put his finger on why.

Charles Schulz understands the human predilection toward \sin to be two-sided:  we are estranged from God, witness the previous comic’s assumption that it doesn’t matter whether God exists or not; and we are estranged from each other.  Humanity’s unique capacity for conflict is a repetitive theme in the Peanuts comic strip.  Lucy and Beethoven-loving Schroeder are perpetually at odds over the lid of his piano, Lucy and Linus fight like only brothers and sisters can, Snoopy is a world unto himself, and the entire gang is convinced that Charlie Brown is a blockhead.  Schulz knows all too well how cruel children can sometimes be to one another.  In the fifth comic good old Charlie Brown is trying to reason with Violet:  “The world is filled with problems… people hurting other people… people not understanding other people…  Now, if we as children can’t solve what are relatively minor problems, how can we ever expect to…”  At which point Violet pops him in the nose because, as she explains, Charlie Brown was beginning to make sense.  But it is Linus who has it figured out in number six:  the analogy has broken down, because nations and adults are able to get along about as well as little brothers and their big sisters – which is to say, not very well at all.  Our estrangement from God and one another, Schulz would remind us, is our sin.

It is a classic Christian tenet, and Schulz not only knows the illness but he knows the cure as well.  The way out of the predicament that so infuses the Peanut characters’ complex interrelations with one another is love, but it is not a simple solution.  Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, Schulz admits, we often try and fail; we would rather a Band-Aid than a cure.  I can not look at the seventh cartoon without thinking of the church in some of its less charitable moments.  When we see someone in need, do we look for the easiest solution, tor do we seek the solution that would really make a difference.  “Snoopy looks kind of cold, doesn’t he?”  “I’ll say he does… maybe we’d better go over and comfort him.  Be of good cheer Snoopy.”  “Yes, be of good cheer!”  And as Charlie and Linus walk away from a still cold Snoopy, you can almost hear him thinking, “What was that all about?”  To me it is reflective of the church that sees  hungry people and wants to save their souls before it feeds them.  It’s what Schulz called applying a “spiritual tourniquet” instead of an effective cure.  Not even Jesus did that!  Jesus always filled a person’s physical need before sharing the good news.  First he healed, first he fed, first he had compassion, and in the healing and the feeding and the compassion God’s love is revealed.  It is a simple act of undiluted, self-giving and unconditional love which stands up to adversity that constitutes the real cure.  This is what marks the eighth and final cartoon: it is Linus who counters Lucy’s harangue about the unfairness of life by telling her he loves her.  “Well, for one thing, you have a little brother who loves you.”  And it that moment, on hearing that simple yet profound expression from her little brother, all Lucy’s anger and resentment melt away.  Love wins - for the moment, anyway.

I think Schulz is so effective in conveying the gospel of love in part because Peanuts’ community is a microcosm of humanity.  But it is also because the vehicle is a group of little children with whom we identify.  There is something special about childhood, Schulz understands, a kind of suspension of disbelief that leads us to believe all the more.   In the passage from I Samuel we heard this morning, it is precisely David’s youth that distinguishes him from his older brothers.  Remember, in Hebrew custom, it would have been Jesse’s oldest son who should rightly have been anointed by Samuel.  But God looks on the heart, and knew that David would make for Israel’s finest leader.  The story serves to remind the reader that while wisdom often comes with age, age is not the sole proprietor.  Sometimes the youngest among us have something important to say as well.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote these words:  “There is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home.  People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.”

Amen.

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