THE GOSPEL OF GOOD CHEER -
MARK TWAIN, PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER
Of the few sermons I am privileged to give each year, this one has been the most fun. Although it is intentionally written to be entertaining, it also stands on its academics and theology. Instead of just providing the sermon, I am giving you most of the worship service I presented on August 16, 2015 at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Sacramento, California.
This sermon also include music that Mark Twain would have heard when he attended church, including "I Love to Tell the Story," "Onward, Christian Soldiers," "Down By the Riverside," What a Friend We Have in Jesus," "God is so Good," "Holy, Holy, Holy" and, of course, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
All the quotes are from Twain and are differentiated in the service by BOLD print. If anyone would like more information, I have annotated each quote with its source. I sincerely regret the lack of recording equipment at our church as I would have like to heard this sermon. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did in presenting it.
Good morning and welcome to Bethany Presbyterian Church.
The Reverend Dr. Lori Sprinkle is on a sabbatical and will return in October, so she won't be preaching teaching today.
In her stead is the Rev. Judy Davis, who leading the church retreat this weekend. So... she won't be preaching today.
My name is Jim Guida and it is my sincere pleasure to be here before you today. We are going to have a different kind of service and I hope your indulgence is rewarded. By the way, you may notice the stole I am wearing. My Mother made this for me, hoping that some day my graduate degree in Theology would pay off. Technically I'm not supposed to wear it because I'm not ordained, but I figured most anyone who cares is at the retreat and if none of you rat me out… I mean, my MOM made this and it doesn't do any good in the closet.
As for the service today, we have a theme. Generally, a good preacher will base a sermon and service on the Lectionary readings from the church Biblical calendar. At least that's how I usually do it. However, the theme today is Mark Twain - Presbyterian Minister. If you don’t know who Mark Twain is please let me know and I'll let you borrow one of the 32 books I have on him. For those who know Twain, you may be surprised that he wrote an awful lot on religion. Today, we are mostly going to focus on this thoughts on church, heaven and hell. And yes, he does consider them as one in some of his works.
I will try to distinguish my words from his, without going Hal Holbrook on you. But if you are confused as to who is saying what, ask yourself - "Is it clever? Is it witty?" if the answer is "yes," then very likely I'm quoting Twain.
As an additional treat, all our today are the same songs and hymns that would have been heard by Mark Twain when he was in church. Thank you, Doctor Tucker, for helping to make that happen.
But before we get into that, I encourage you to read your bulletin for announcements and ask if there is anything else that needs to be announced? If not, then let us greet one another as friends, old and new, with the great blessing, "May the peace of Christ be with you."
Mark Twain was one of the most beloved authors of his day and we still enjoy his works, 105 years after his passing in 1910. Born in 1835, as Halley’s comet careened across the sky, he claimed “I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: "Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together."
Twain was a writer, a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, a printer’s apprentice, a soldier, a newspaper reporter and a gold prospector amongst other things. But he claimed I never had but two powerful ambitions in my life. One was to be a (river boat) pilot, & the other a preacher of the gospel. I accomplished the one & failed in the other, because I could not supply myself with the necessary stock in trade - i.e. religion. I have given it up forever. I never had a "call" in that direction, anyhow, & my aspirations were the very ecstasy of presumptive. But I have had a "call" to literature, of a low order - i.e. humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit. (I shall concentrate my attention on) seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God's creatures.
(Preaching) was the most earnest ambition I ever had....Not that I ever really wanted to be a preacher, but because it never occurred to me that a preacher could be damned. It looked like a safe job.
The fact is, Twain did preach, at least once, in 1902, at the Fifth Street Baptist Church in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri – a church that is still going strong today. The title of his sermon then – and our sermon today – is The Gospel of Good Cheer. He told us that the art of preaching is to influence. He talks of his Mother, who had passed away but Her preaching did not perish when she passed away, but goes on and on with me. Although there are many long silent in the grave, they have not ceased so to preach. They did not stop when their mouths were closed in death. See that your preaching, when alive, be of the character that, when you are dead, others may reap the secondary effort of what you did. Let it be good, not bad. Preaching, when dead, is not lost. Washington died over 100 years ago, but he still preaches. His character, service, and words still live. Every day nations striving for liberty fully appreciate what he did. Words sometimes perish, but conduct is lasting.
In 1865, he wrote Now I don't know how you regard the ministry, but I would rather be a shining light in that department than the greatest lawyer that ever trod the earth. What is the pride of saving the widow's property or the homicide's trivial life, to snatching an immortal soul in mercy from the jaws of hell? Bah! the one is the feeble glitter of the firefly, & the other the regal glory of the sun. I do not know what we should do without the pulpit. We could better spare the sun -- the moon, anyway.
On the other hand, he did remark on his friend, Pastor Joseph Twichell: A good man, one of the best of men, although a clergyman.
Not only was Twain inclined to the ministry, he was brought up a Presbyterian. I was sprinkled in infancy, and look upon that as conferring the rank of Brevet Presbyterian. It affords none of the emoluments of the Regular Church - simply confers honorable rank upon the recipient and the right to be punished as a Presbyterian hereafter;
But Presbyterian, though he may be, I do not take any credit to my better-balanced head because I never went crazy on Presbyterianism. We go too slow for that. You never see us ranting and shouting and tearing up the ground, You never heard of a Presbyterian going crazy on religion. Notice us, and you will see how we do. We get up of a Sunday morning and put on the best harness we have got and trip cheerfully down town; we subside into solemnity and enter the church; we stand up and duck our heads and bear down on a hymn book propped on the pew in front when the minister prays; we stand up again while our hired choir are singing, and look in the hymn book and check off the verses to see that they don't shirk any of the stanzas; we sit silent and grave while the minister is preaching, and count the waterfalls and bonnets furtively, and catch flies; we grab our hats and bonnets when the benediction is begun; when it is finished, we shove, so to speak. No frenzy, no fanaticism --no skirmishing; everything perfectly serene. You never see any of us Presbyterians getting in a sweat about religion and trying to massacre the neighbors. Let us all be content with the tried and safe old regular religions.
Twain wrote a good deal about the afterlife. I have never seen what to me seemed an atom of truth that there is a future life...and yet--I am strongly inclined to expect one.
Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven & hell & I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.
But allow me to offer some academics before we delve deeper in this subject.
DO WE ENTER HEAVEN ON MERIT OR ON WORKS?
Martin Luther, a Catholic friar in the 1500s and founder of the Protestant faith of Christianity – that is the “not Catholic” faith of Christianity - was excommunicated from the church when he taught that salvation and subsequently admission to heaven is not earned by good deeds but is received only as a free gift of God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin and subsequently eternity in hell
On the other hand, there is a tenet of the Catholic Church that says upon death, the souls of those who rejected Christ are sent to hell. The souls of those who accepted Christ and performed sufficient acts to be purified of sin go to heaven.
Let’s save the non-Christian heavens for another sermon and go to the source – the Bible – which, of course clears everything up. Not.
I will limit my readings to the Gospels, starting with the ever-popular John 3:16, which reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” So obviously, all we need do to enter heaven is to believe in Jesus the Christ as the only son of Creator God.
However, in Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
We are taught that “the will of my Father” is to love God, love your neighbor, show mercy, justice and kindness, and obey the Ten Commandments. There’s more, but you get the idea.
In Matthew 16, Jesus goes on to say, “ For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”
But John 14 quotes Jesus as saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do…”
So is believing in Jesus and learning his lessons an automatic compulsion to do good works, which in turn gets you into heaven?
It’s a question that has raged for nearly 2000 years.
“Suggestion to Persons entering Heaven,” is likely Twain's last literary manuscript, written just a few weeks before his death. As a Suggestion to Persons entering Heaven, Twain wrote: Leave your dog outside. Heaven goes by favor. If I went by merit, you would stay out and the dog would go in. Personally, I believe my Buddy will be waiting for me, but you won’t find that theology in the Bible.
However, Twain hedges his bet a bit when he writes Nobody deserves to be helped who don't try to help himself, and "faith without works" is a risky doctrine.
Regardless of how one gets there, Twain didn’t think much of the place. He said Heaven … has not a single feature in it that (man) actually values. It consists - utterly and entirely - of diversions which he cares next to nothing about, here in the earth, yet is quite sure he will like in heaven.
Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it's as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.
He goes on to say elsewhere There is no evidence that there is a Heaven hereafter. If we should find, somewhere, a ancient book in which a dozen unknown men profess to tell all about a blooming and beautiful tropical Paradise secreted in an Antarctic continent - not claiming that they had seen it themselves, but had acquired an intimate knowledge of it through a revelation from God - no Geographical Society in the earth would take any stock in that book; yet that book would be quite as authentic, quite as trustworthy, quite as valuable, evidence as is the Bible. The Bible is just like it. Its Heaven exists solely upon hearsay evidence - evidence furnished by unknown persons; persons who did not prove that they had ever been there.
Not surprisingly, even Twain's characters get into the act. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered one of the greatest works of American literature, Huck talks about the Widow Douglas, who took the orphan boy in. She went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn't think much of it.
Miss Watson (the widow Douglas' sister), a tolerable slim old maid, with goggles on. . . told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. She got mad then, but I didn't mean no harm. All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn't particular. She said it was wicked to say what I said; said she wouldn't say it for the whole world; she was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldn't see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it. But I never said so, because it would only make trouble, and wouldn't do no good.
Although Twain finds fault with a heavenly hereafter, it does have its advantages over the other place. A Dying man couldn't make up his mind which place to go to -- both have their advantages, "heaven for climate, hell for company!"
But given the choice, the literary Twain would probably chose the place down under. When I reflect upon the number of disagreeable people who I know have gone to a better world, I am moved to lead a different life.
One could suppose Twain had reason to walk between the two worlds. At a Hartford dinner party one day, the subject of eternal life and future punishment came up for a lengthy discussion, in which Twain did not participate. A lady near him turned suddenly toward him and exclaimed, "Why do you not say anything? I want your opinion."
Mr. Clemens replied gravely, "Madam, you must excuse me. I am silent of necessity. I have friends in both places.
In "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," the great American humorist writes, There is no humor in heaven. Also, Let us swear while we may, for in heaven it will not be allowed.
Twain was riding over the prairies in a wagon without springs, when the driver carelessly drove over a boulder and Twain was unceremoniously jolted out. When the driver came back to help him he, he inquired if Twain was much hurt. "No," he replied, "but if I ever went to hell, I would like to be taken in that wagon."
"Why is that, Mr. Clemens?"
"Because if I was going to hell in this wagon, I would be extremely glad to get there."
His religious contemporaries tended to agree with him. As for me, I hope to be cremated. I made that remark to my pastor once, who said, with what he seemed to think was an impressive manner, "I wouldn't worry about that if I had your chances."
And when he remarked Being in Bermuda was like being in Heaven, the Reverend rebukingly and rather pointedly advised me to make the most of it then.
But on the subject of a heaven that brings us all together in the afterlife, his daughter, Clara, had the final say. On his tombstone, she wrote "Death is the starlit strip between the companionship of yesterday and the reunion of tomorrow."
Twain's views on humanity were equally sardonic. His wonderful stories rarely ended in a "Happily Ever After." Frankly, he didn't think much of mankind.
Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.
I believe that our Heavenly Father invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey.
The human race consists of the damned and the ought-to-be damned.
No man that has ever lived has done a thing to please God--primarily. It was done to please himself, then God next.
And my favorite, Man was made at the end of the week's work, when God was tired.
Although he is not entirely without compassion for us - God puts something good and loveable in every man His hands create - he is more likely to chide us for our foibles. One hundred fifteen years later, his words still ring true when speaking to us Christians. If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be -- a Christian.
Twain quoted his daughter, Susy, when he wrote "Now I can only pray that there may be a God -- and a heaven -- or something better."
But it was in his own biography that he wrote, The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also. I would not interfere with any one's religion, either to strengthen it or to weaken it. I am not able to believe one's religion can affect his hereafter one way or the other, no matter what that religion may be. But it may easily be a great comfort to him in this life--hence it is a valuable possession to him.
I hope these words today will become a valuable possession to you. There are many things Twain said with which I would not agree. But the blessing is that he said them and they are being repeated today, in the hope that they inspire you to think about your own faith. Because There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, Faith is believing what you know ain't so.
(After The Sermon)
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
You cain't pray a lie.
(Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
(After the Lord's Prayer)
It's a great mistake to get everybody ready to give money and then not pass the hat. Some years ago in Hartford we all went to the church to hear the annual report of Mr. Hawley, a city missionary (who sought donations to help the needy, whether they wanted it or not.) Well, Hawley worked me up to a great state. I couldn't wait for him to get through. I had four hundred dollars in my pocket. I wanted to give that and borrow more to give. You could see greenbacks in every eye. But he didn't pass the plate and my enthusiasm went down, down, down - $100 at a time, till finally when the plate came round I stole 10 cents.
Will the ushers please come forward. And hurry. But just in case anyone is so inclined, (drop dimes in the collection plate).
Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.
I say this is true even if we are speaking of the evils men do in this world Go forth and spread the Good News - Preach it so that others may reap the secondary effort of what you say and do. And do so courage and the serene confidence of a Christian with four aces.