By Shakko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pranking the Devil

The biggest mistake contemporary believers often make when reflecting on the mysteries of the Christian faith is to relate to them, either as mere historical events that took place in the distant past, or else as mythical fables that never really took place at all.

This mistake keeps us tangled in the weeds of history, arguing about things that may or may not have happened as they are written and handed down to us today. Viewed through such a myopic lens, the Bible becomes either an infallible textbook in competition with the findings of modern science, or else a highly questionable compendium of ancient thought. The Sacraments become mere memorials that mark us as adherents to a particular religious tradition. The Church itself becomes just another dated institution, devoted to a particular set of dogmas and morals, and having no existence outside the buildings and budgets sustained by its members. Theologically, the imprisonment of the mysteries of the faith in cells of history or mythology leaves people of faith with no real choice except empty secularism, on the one hand, or radical fundamentalism, on the other. Either way, the dismissal of the Easter mystery causes us to miss out on the eternal power Christ’s resurrection has to transform our lives today, for this world and the next.

St. Paul shows us the way out of this intellectual quagmire in tonight’s reading from his epistle to the Romans. He asks the Roman Christians, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

This is a brilliant question. Implied in it is the conviction that the death of Christ is not an historical event, but a present reality. The word baptize, used by Paul in this text, comes from the Greek word baptizo, which means “to immerse” as one would soak dishes in a sink or a baby in a bathtub. What Paul says here is that the Sacrament of Baptism, more than just a memorial of past events, “soaks” us in the ever-present reality of Christ’s death on the cross. The scattered fragments of our lives and deaths are gathered together and joined into one, through Christ’s life and death, in Baptism. This is an important truth to consider because it gets at the central mystery of the Christian faith and illuminates the central predicament of every human life on earth.

We humans live in a state of detachment from the world around us. When we are born on this planet, each of us begins the long process of dissociating our identity from our mothers and families. The goal of all childhood is to grow up and leave the nest in which we were raised. With the increased privilege of adulthood comes increased responsibility, and with that an increasing sense of isolation and loneliness.

We earn the right to become masters of our own destiny, only to discover early on that we are actually poor masters, indeed. We find ourselves driven by unconscious impulses in our own minds: rage, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, vanity, and arrogance. And then we discover that we are simultaneously trapped by those very same unconscious forces at work in the world around us. These forces lead to the inevitable breakdown in our relationships. We go on living lives of “quiet desperation” in isolation from one another, failing to understand what is truly going on within ourselves. St. Paul right names the cause of our predicament when he tells us that we are “enslaved to sin.”

Sin is something of a loaded term in today’s society, as it has been for millennia. Religious people are often quick to use that term when pointing out the faults of others, so the rest of the world has learned to tune out the message whenever “sin” is mentioned.

With that in mind, I intend to be very careful about how I use the term sin in this message. Put simply, sin is our address; it is where we live. Sin describes the state of broken relationships between each one of us and our neighbors around us, between our conscious thoughts and our unconscious motivations, and between our souls and our Creator. There is not a person in this room whose life is unaffected by this breakdown in relationships. We did not choose it, we do not want it, but we cannot get free of it. As St. Paul tells us, the present reality is that each and every one of us is “enslaved to sin.”

But this is not the whole story. Even though we find ourselves in a state of broken relationships, we also sense within ourselves a deep connection with each of these things. Our very existence depends upon our relationship with one another, our inner thoughts, nature, and God. The fact that we are aware of our predicament is the first step toward resolving it.

The Church teaches that God has become one with our human nature in Jesus Christ. The gap between divinity and humanity was first crossed at Christmas and continues throughout Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus opens eyes that are blind, ears that are deaf, and tongues whose songs of praise have never been heard. To the hungry, Jesus offers bread. To the lonely, Jesus offers welcome. To the guilty, Jesus offers amnesty. To the oppressed, Jesus offers freedom. To those who are dead, Jesus speaks wonderful words of life. All of these things Jesus did in his thirty-odd years on earth, and he does them still in our lives today.

One would think that people so bereft of the inner and outer necessities of life would gladly welcome such gifts from the Source of Life himself, but the stories of Holy Week demonstrate that this is not so. The revelation of pure divinity in a human life exposed the lies and the futility of our emotional programs for happiness that we construct for ourselves. Rather than risk the journey into freedom that God offers in Christ, the powers of this world reacted with swift vengeance to silence the voice of God-in-the-flesh. We learn again each Passion Sunday and Good Friday how this world-system treats those who challenge its power. Better a familiar slavery, they say, than an unknown freedom. The death of Christ on the cross was the sad-but-inevitable result of his life on earth. Yahweh told Moses at Sinai that no human could see the face of God and live, but our forebears declared the opposite to Jesus at Golgotha: that no God would be allowed to expose the true face of humanity and live. If this were any other story, it would end there as a cautionary tale about the fate of those who dare to challenge the way things are, but this is not just any other story; this is the Gospel.

What happens next makes highly appropriate the coincidence that Easter Sunday should happen to fall upon April Fools’ Day this year. The ancient fathers and mothers of the Church were fond of portraying the events of Holy Week and Easter as Christ’s elaborate practical joke on the devil. They chuckled as they told the story of how Christ tricked the devil into killing him and then sprang his trap, destroying death from the inside out, like a Trojan Horse that was ushered into the bowels of hell itself. St. John Chrysostom writes:

“Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.”

Easter is Christ’s April Fools’ prank on the devil. Just as Good Friday revealed how brutal we are, Easter Sunday reveals how we ridiculous we are. God, faced with human evil, is as patient, loving, and resolute as a mother faced with her toddler’s tantrum. Just as there is nothing a preschooler can do to lose his mother’s affection, so there is nothing we can do to out-sin the love of God.

Friends, this is good news for us as we begin our annual Easter celebration. Despite our best efforts, we have utterly failed in our effort to silence the voice of Love in the face of Jesus Christ. We did our worst, but all of it together was not enough to stifle the power of God’s love. Despite our best efforts, we are still loved. In the words of the ancient Easter Troparion:

 “Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and, upon those in the tomb,
bestowing life.”

Friends, these are not simply historical events that we remember tonight, nor are they mere mythology to stir our imaginations to good behavior. As Father Randall is fond of reminding us: “Christianity is not a religion about being good so Daddy will love you.” No, the mystery of Easter is a present reality in our lives today. As St. Paul told the Roman Christians, so he tells us today, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Baptism, like all the Sacraments, is a mystery that unites the scattered fragments of our lives to the one life of Christ. In Baptism, our old lives of sin are buried and we are raised to the new life that God intends for us. In Baptism, God’s love in Christ is made real to us. In Baptism, even our deaths take on meaning because they are vanquished by Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection.

Living as a Christian in the world today, I continually find that Jesus Christ gives me access to a dimension of reality that is not available to me through other, more rational means. Encountering the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the Church as unfathomable mysteries, I have discovered time and again that they are means of grace through which God continues to speak to me, day after day. In those all-too-frequent seasons when I labor under the burden of doubt or despair, it is you, the people of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who call me back with laughter and tears, with words of encouragement and challenge, to the one life of the risen Christ who still dwells in our midst.

Friends, I thank you for this gift and ask your fervent prayers for me, and I offer mine for you, as we journey together toward the discovery of all God offers us in Christ, both now and for eternity. Amen.

The Great Ends of the Church: Love Conquers All

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster): a distant relative of the legendary Phoenix? Image by Pierre Dalous. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster): a distant relative of the legendary Phoenix? Image by Pierre Dalous. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons,

Before I say anything else, I think it would be appropriate on this particular Easter morning to express thanks for the brave work of the men and women of the Boonville Volunteer Fire Department in their handling of the fire that destroyed part of downtown Main Street this week.

I don’t know if you heard, but there was a class of kindergarten students that was looking at a picture of a fire truck with its crew and trusty Dalmatian close at hand.  One student asked the teacher why fire trucks always traveled with Dalmatians.  The teacher didn’t know, so the kids began to speculate.  One said, “Maybe they help control the crowds.”  And another one said, “Maybe it’s just for good luck.”  But in the end they all agreed that the best answer came from the third kid who said, “They must use the dogs to find the fire hydrants.”

Like Dalmatians on fire trucks, there is so much in this world that we simply accept as present without asking why it’s there.  Take the church, for instance.  A lot of people go to church their whole lives without ever really asking why.  What is the purpose of the church?  Why is it here?  Is it just to keep the pipe organ and stained-glass window companies in business?  Is it just to give our pastor a place to bring all his corny jokes that no one else will laugh at?  Is it a civic organization where people can gather as a community to reflect on their beliefs and values?

According to our ancestors in the Presbyterian tradition, the church does have a particular purpose.  Actually, it’s a six-fold purpose.  It was most clearly delineated and written down a little over a hundred years ago by the United Presbyterian Church in North America, one of the predecessor denominations to our current national church: the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The statement written by our forebears is called The Great Ends of the Church and it reads as follows:

The great ends of the church are:

  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world

Now, I don’t expect you to remember all of these points at once.  But starting today, we’re going to spend some time with the great ends of the church over the next several weeks (not including next week, when I’ll be away from the pulpit).  One by one, we’re going to look at these related ends and ask ourselves why we are here.  My ultimate hope is that our discussion of the great ends of the church might lead us to explore questions about what it is that God might be calling our particular congregation to be and do in this community and the world at large.

Today, we’re going to look at the first great end of the church: The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

Now, that’s a mouthful of theologically loaded terms that don’t always conjure up the most positive mental images of the church.  When the average person hears church-folks talking about “proclaiming the gospel” and “salvation”, the first thing they tend to think of is proselytism (the active recruitment of converts to one’s religion).  In other words, they think of people going door to door with Bibles in hand, winning converts for Christ and saving souls for heaven.  At best, people see this kind of activity as misguided and self-seeking.  After all, aren’t these people just trying to grow the ranks of the church and fill the offering plate?  Most folks (understandably) would much rather be left alone from this kind of “gospel”.

So what else might we mean when we say that the first great end of the church is the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind?  Well, we’ll have to take a closer look at the words “gospel” and “salvation” in order to get a clearer picture about that.  The word “gospel” simply means “good news” and the word “salvation” comes from the Latin word “salve” which means “to heal or make well”.  So we’re really talking about some piece of good news that has the capacity to bring wellness to the entire earth community.  When I let that definition roll around in my head, I imagine a TV news bulletin interrupting regularly scheduled programming in order to inform the public about some momentous discovery, like a cure for cancer, for instance.

For Christians, we see the life of Jesus as representing just such an occasion of good news.  We see in him a way to heal the darkness, chaos, and brokenness of this world.  We hear it in his teachings.  We see it in his actions.  Most of all, we believe this good news to be embodied in the stories we tell about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Whether or not we take these stories literally, we see them as expressions of truth: the truth that the pure Love living in Jesus could not be silenced or held back by the hateful, violent, and power-hungry forces of this world.  No, this Love that he revealed to us is more powerful than all the crosses, all the bombs, and all the schemes of all the nations of the world.  Death itself is not strong enough to keep this Love down.  This Love is so powerful that we would even call it divine.  We would go so far as to say that the Love revealed in Jesus pulses in the nucleus of every atom, in the core of every star, and in the heart of every person.  No matter what you try to say or do to it, the divine Love of Jesus lives.

In other words: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

That’s it.  That’s the message of resurrection.  That’s the story of Easter.  That’s the gospel: the good news that brings wholeness and well-being to all.

The first great end of the church, the first reason why we exist at all, is to make this good news known to as many creatures as possible.  The Love we see in Jesus should be apparent in our words and deeds as well.  Our lives, as Christians, should make it easier for others to believe that Love does indeed conquer all (even death).  Every service, every prayer, every hymn, every sermon, every building, every service project, every committee meeting, every rummage sale, and every dollar raised or spent should be directed toward making this one truth more clear and visible to the world:

Love conquers all.

God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Can we say that our church currently embodies this truth in everything we do?  If not, how do you think we can do it better?  What concrete steps can we take toward that end?

How about your individual life?  Do people ever look at you and say, “Wow, that person’s life makes me want to believe that Love really does conquer all”?  If not, then what concrete steps can you take to make the reality of Love more apparent in your life?  Maybe it’s even something as simple as learning the name of your server in the diner where you eat lunch today?

There are bigger ways we can do this as well.  This Easter morning, our congregation is collecting the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, which will go to support national and international organizations that provide, disaster assistance, hunger relief, and self-development resources to people all over the world.  Grants funded by One Great Hour of Sharing go to support initiatives like the Water for Life project in the African country of Niger.  Since 2006, Water for Life has dug six large wells for drinking water, 85 small gardening wells, and ten water-retention pools.  “As a result,” according to the website of the Presbyterian Hunger Project, “19,892 people in 3,292 households, as well as 28,000 livestock animals, have benefited from improved access to potable water for drinking and food production.  Additionally, over 853 acres of land have been cultivated with food crops and over 4,942 acres have been reforested.”

This is Love in action, embodied at a distance for people we’ll never meet.

On a more local level, I’d like to draw your attention to the post-fire recovery effort currently underway at the Boonville United Methodist Church.  From the very beginning of this crisis, before the buildings had even stopped smoldering, the Methodist Church opened its doors as a command and resource center for victims.  Donations of food, clothing, and supplies have poured in from all over our community.

Rev. Rob Dean tells me the one thing they need most right now is people who can come down to help sort and distribute donations.  Starting Tuesday, I’ll be spending most of next week over there as well, lending a hand and assisting Rev. Dean with any pastoral care needs for the families.  You’re invited to come along as well.  We could really use the help.

I spent yesterday afternoon over there.  When we sat down to dinner last night, we had more food than we knew what to do with.  In that upper room together were displaced families, dedicated volunteers, exhausted firefighters, and two bewildered pastors who still had services to lead and sermons to write for Easter Sunday.  Looking around the room last night, I discovered this sermon.  I realized that I was witnessing resurrection in action, right before my eyes.  In the midst of these people: suffering, hugging, laughing, and eating together.  Within them and among them, new life was rising up from the ashes and taking flight like the Phoenix of Greek legend.

Friends, this is not just charity, nor is it simply a worthy cause.  This is the good news that brings wholeness and well-bring.  This is the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.  This is the first great end of the church.  It is why we are here.

A Tale of Two Strangers

Happy Earth Day!

This week’s sermon from Boonville Pres.

Click here to listen at fpcboonville.org

Luke 24:13-35

“We had hoped.”

Those were the stinging words that reverberated within the hearts and minds of the disciples in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion.

When John the Baptist first pointed to Jesus and said, “He’s the one we’ve been waiting for, the one whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie: the Lamb of God,” they had hoped.

When Jesus preached his first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth, he read those inspirational words from the book of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” they had hoped.

When he then started his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” they had hoped.

When they saw him make good on that promise, bringing sight to the blind, food to the hungry, and good news to those who had never heard anything other than bad news, they had hoped.

When Jesus told them to get ready, because the new reign of heaven-on-earth was at hand, they had hoped.

When he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem and kicked those corrupt money changers out of God’s house, the sacred temple, they had hoped.

But then, the pounding force of a Roman hammer driving twisted spikes of iron through flesh and wood put a sudden and bloody end to their hoping.  They heard Jesus recite lines of ancient poetry about being forsaken by God.  At the bitter end, he had pathetically muttered, “It is finished,” just before giving up his fight for life.  And he was right: it was finished.  It was over.  Three years of their lives wasted on this cult leader who died in disgrace.  Perhaps he would be remembered as the David Koresh or Jim Jones of his day.  They would be lucky to escape with their lives and slink back to their families in shame.  They had hoped.  Look what it got them.

Such was the state of mind of the two disciples who shambled slowly down the road on that Sunday afternoon.  They probably hadn’t eaten or slept much in the few days prior.  What’s the point of eating when all food has lost its taste?  One might as well be eating ashes.  Getting out of bed probably felt like working out with lead weights strapped to your arms, legs, and head.

Emotionally, they probably oscillated between feeling nothing at all and that sickening sensation of a knot in the gut that makes its way up to your throat and finally threatens to burst out through your eyeballs.  These folks were heartbroken.

Most of us will experience real heartbreak at some point in our lives.  It might come with the loss of a relationship or a job.  It might stem from the regret of a missed opportunity.  It might come from a serious diagnosis with a poor prognosis, the death of a parent, spouse, or child, or with what Howie Cosell used to call “the agony of defeat.”  Whenever and however it comes, real heartbreak is undeniable and unforgettable.

For these two disciples of the late Jesus, walking down a lonely road on a hot Sunday afternoon, heartbreak had come with the dashing of their highest aspirations against the concrete of imperial power and religious corruption.  They were probably just beginning to formulate a plan of what to do next when, suddenly, they realized that they were not alone on the road.

A stranger met them as they walked along the road between Jerusalem and a town called Emmaus.  In an attempt to join the conversation, the stranger politely asks about the topic.  The question literally stops the disciples in their tracks.  It’s like they can’t even bring themselves to answer the question directly.  The subject is just too painful.  Finally, one of them answers the original question with another question: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  I take that to be another way of saying, “Well, y’know…” in hopes that the stranger won’t ask them to finish the sentence.

Unfortunately for them, the stranger keeps pressing.  He asks them, “What things?”  Eventually, they open up to this stranger about the grief in their broken hearts.  “We had hoped,” they tell him, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  The stranger listens, talks back, and engages them in conversation as they walk along.  They talk about Jesus, they talk about faith, and they talk about the Bible.  It seems like this stranger became a real pastor to them in their moment of deepest heartbreak.  He was there for them.  They didn’t know him from Adam’s housecat, but they felt safe (or at least desperate) enough to allow him to take part in their pain and shame.  Later on, those disciples would talk about how their hearts were “burning within [them]” as the stranger walked and talked with them.

Before they knew it, the group had arrived at Emmaus.  The two disciples had reached the place where they were going, but the stranger kept walking.  They looked at the sun going down in the distance.  It would be dark and cold soon.  Traveling at night could be dangerous.  They saw an opportunity to give back to this stranger a little bit of what he had given to them: hospitality.  Maybe they even thought about what Jesus had once taught them: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”  They called out to their new friend as he walked away, “Hey!  It’s getting dark outside.  Stay with us tonight.  It’s the least we can do.”  The stranger agrees.

Later that night, at dinner, this mysterious stranger “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”  And just then, in that moment, something happened.  They couldn’t explain it.  Maybe one of them caught a glimpse of a scar on the stranger’s wrist as he reached for the loaf of bread.  Maybe it was the sound of the stranger’s voice as he blessed and broke the bread, just like their dead friend had done only a few days prior.  Maybe it was something deeper than that.  Whatever it was, something happened.  In that moment, the text of Luke’s gospel tells us that “their eyes were opened.”  They squinted across the table at the stranger in the dim and flickering lamplight and then, just for a split second, they saw something that almost made their broken and burning hearts jump right out of their chests because, in that moment, they could have sworn (as impossible as it sounds) that they were looking into the eyes of Jesus!  And then, just as quickly as it came, it was gone.  The moment was over, but the experience had shaken them to their core.

This startling and disturbing encounter led them to go back to Jerusalem and their fellowship of broken-hearted disciples.  Much to their surprise, others among the group reported having similar experiences.  They didn’t know what to make of it all.  They just shared their stories with one another.  And then, in the while they were doing that, it happened again: that sense of peace and the experience of the presence of Christ in their midst.  He wasn’t dead and gone.  He was alive and with them.  They had seen him in the eyes of a stranger who had walked with them on the road and broken bread with them at home.  With eyes wide open and hearts on fire with passion, they realized that the brutality of the centurion’s hammer had not beaten the hope out of them permanently.  They had hoped.  They were still hoping.  In some way that defies explanation, hope was alive in them: opening their tear-filled eyes and setting their broken hearts on fire.

I believe the power of Christ’s resurrection is available to each of us in this Easter season.  In the midst of our heartbreak, whatever its cause, hope still has the power to open our eyes and set our hearts on fire.  There are many ways in which this can happen.  Taking a hint from today’s New Testament lesson, I want to focus on one way in particular that this might happen: Resurrected hope has the power to reach us through the presence of the stranger.

We meet all kinds of strangers in life: the random strangers we meet on the street or at the store, the strangers we think we know but don’t really (do any of us really understand our spouses, parents, or children?), then there are those strangers we don’t physically meet but whose lives are connected to ours in some way (think about the people who grow our food, make our clothes, or construct our cars), and then there are those strangers who aren’t even human: the plants and animals who share this planet with us.

There are two ways of recognizing the risen Christ in the many strangers who live around us.  First, there are those strangers who help us in some large or small way.  We saw this happening in today’s New Testament lesson as the stranger walks alongside the two disciples and gets them to open up about their broken hearts.  He was there for them in a time when they were at the end of their rope, dangling over a deep, dark chasm of despair.  He brought them back from the brink and set their broken hearts on fire with his words of hope.  The text of Luke’s gospel tells us that this stranger was the risen Christ, coming to meet them on the road.  How many times have you been blessed by a kind word, a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on?  Have you ever been in a situation where a simple visit, a card, or a casserole, given as a symbol of love, meant the whole world to you?  In such moments, the risen Christ is present with us, igniting a fire in our broken hearts and rekindling hope.

Second, we recognize the risen Christ in those strangers who we get to help.  We saw this happening as well in today’s reading.  As the stranger in the story prepares to wander into the night, the disciples seize their opportunity to offer Christ-like hospitality.  Their eyes were later opened to the truth that it was actually Christ that they were welcoming into their home.  This is eerily similar to what Jesus told them would happen:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Today is the third Sunday in the season of Easter.  We are celebrating today as Compassion Sunday.  We give thanks for the particular ministry of a group in our church: the In His Name Women’s Mission Society.  Among the many other ministries that they support locally and globally, In His Name sponsors a little girl named Gladys, who lives in Guatemala, through an organization called Compassion International.  Compassion International is a faith-based group that provides food, water, medical care, and education to over 1.2 million kids in 26 countries.  In His Name’s sponsorship of Gladys is part of the mission of this church.  In a small but very important way, we get to demonstrate to her the compassion of Christ in our hearts.  But, in an even bigger way, Gladys is Christ to us.  Through Gladys and so many other children in need, Christ calls us to make a difference in this world.  Whatever we do for them, we do for Christ.

Finally, today also happens to be Earth Day, where we give thanks for the abundance of creation and pledge ourselves to work for its healing.  I believe we can celebrate the presence of the risen Christ in these our fellow creatures in the natural world.  In this age of mass pollution and global warming, we can no longer afford to limit our religious and spiritual vision to the well-being of human beings alone.  We are part of an interdependent web of life that connects us to all forms of life on this planet.  We must respect this life and care for it.  But we must also remember to celebrate and enjoy it.  As this spring speeds quickly into summer, get yourself outdoors into God’s green earth.  Let the presence of the risen Christ in nature ignite your heart and open your eyes again.  Relearn what it says in the book of Isaiah: that “heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory.”  Let this celebration of resurrected glory inspire us to care for our planet and its creatures.  As the preacher Tony Campolo once said, “Every time a species goes extinct, a hymn of praise to God is silenced.”  These strangers (the animals, plants, and the Earth itself) are also members of Christ’s family.  Whatever we do for them, we do for Christ.

Christ is alive and comes to meet us in the guise of strangers: those we help and those who help us.  All of these strangers are connected to us and I believe we have the capacity to see and serve the risen Christ living in each of them.  They are Christ to us and we are Christ to each other.  Whatever we do for each other, we do for Christ.  This Easter, may the risen Christ rekindle hope in you by setting your broken heart on fire and opening your eyes once again.

Resurrection People

Click here to listen to this sermon for free at fpcboonville.org

Acts 4:32-35

Today, as many of you may or may not know, happens to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  The story of the Titanic is one of the most well-known tragedies of the 20th century (I am, of course, referring to the actual ship and not the movie… although the movie was pretty bad).  I am proud to say that I was a Titanic enthusiast long before the film came out.  I was just a little kid in 1985 when the wreck was discovered by Robert Ballard, the legendary ocean explorer.  When I was learning to read, my mother bought me a copy of a kids’ book called Titanic… Lost and Found!  Later on, my very first “grown up book” was The Discovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard.  I even own a small piece of coal that once sat in Titanic’s boiler room.  It was recovered from the wreck site at the bottom of the ocean.

In addition to the popularity of James Cameron’s blockbuster film, I think there are many reasons why the story of the Titanic continues to haunt our collective memory and imagination.  One could easily call it a “multi-faceted tragedy.”  On the one hand, it is a story of foolish human arrogance: unwavering faith in “progress” and technology that led to calling the ship “unsinkable,” even though it obviously was not.  On the other hand, it is a story of human vanity.  Titanic’s builders used the cheapest and most brittle of low-quality iron in their construction of the ship’s hull.  They preferred to spend their money on lavish decorations like gold-gilded dinner plates and the magnificent grand staircase that we saw in the movie.  Some scientists have theorized that, had the ship’s hull been made of sterner stuff, it might not have buckled as badly after striking the iceberg.  The ship would still have gone down, but it would have happened much slower and allowed more time for rescue ships to arrive and save lives.  But, in my mind, the greatest tragedy of the Titanic is that it is a story of human prejudice.  Great pains were taken to maintain the distinction between the upper and lower class passengers on the Titanic.  They were not allowed to mix under any circumstances.  There were still many in that day who believed in the inherent superiority of upper class people over others.

These class distinctions were maintained, even after Titanic received her fatal blow from the ice berg.  The crew shut iron gates in the hallways to keep the lower classes below deck.  As a result, people in steerage were blocked from getting to the lifeboats.  Meanwhile on deck, lifeboats for first class passengers were being lowered only half-full.  Apart from the crew, most of those who died on the Titanic were from the lower classes.  This, to me, is the single most tragic fact of the Titanic disaster.  It represents an almost total breakdown in human community.  Artificial distinctions and privileges were maintained, even in a life-or-death situation.  I can’t think of anything else that takes us farther away from what God intends for us as a human family.

It’s easy for us to sit here this morning, look back in time, and shake our heads at their prejudice.  We think we’ve evolved beyond that.  In some ways, we have: most folks these days have dropped the overt sense of aristocratic pedigree that once dictated social relations in Europe and North America.  But, in other ways, we in 2012 are still very much as our ancestors were in 1912.  We still like to categorize ourselves and write each other off for being different from one another.  Some of our distinctions are obviously trivial, such as preference in music or sports.  Other distinctions, like those involving politics and religion, seem to bear more momentous weight in the public sphere.

Looking at the bitterly divided state of things in our society and world today, it seems to me that we too are guilty of maintaining artificial distinctions and privileges among ourselves, even in the face of dire consequences.  Folks seem only too willing to write one another off as “those people” and forego the gentle arts of communication, coexistence, and compromise.  Even after one hundred years, it seems that we have not yet learned our lesson.

I believe the sacred scriptures of our religion offer us an alternative vision for human community.  We read this morning in our passage from the book of Acts a very different scene from the one described on the deck of the Titanic in her final hours.  We are told that the members of the early church were “of one heart and soul.”  So deep was their commitment to God and one another that they abdicated their rights to private property.  Yet, we are also told, “there was not a needy person among them.”  I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds a whole lot more like a hippie farm than a church!

In the midst of this “experiment with socialism,” the text tells us that there is something else going on that is of paramount importance to the church’s identity.  It says that they “gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”  Somehow, this singular activity of testifying to the resurrection was central to everything else that was going on in their community.

What I find interesting is that the text of Acts doesn’t tell us what they said.  It doesn’t tell us how the apostles and early Christians testified to the resurrection.  To be sure, this is something that Christians continue to do to this day.  Some folks try to “testify to the resurrection” by constructing historical and scientific arguments for the likelihood that Jesus got up out of his tomb and walked the earth again.  Some folks simply tell the story over and over again (like this church does at Easter).  But the most important way that people (back then as well as now) “testify to the resurrection” is in the way they live.

When I look at that beautiful depiction of the early church, sharing what they have, meeting peoples’ needs, and generally being a community “of one heart and soul,” I am struck by that community’s similarity to Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, where “the last will be first” and “the greatest among you will be the servant of all.”  The powers-that-be of Jesus’ time were threatened by his message.  The crucifixion was their final “no” to everything that he was and did.  But the resurrection was God’s resounding “yes” that trumped the world’s “no.”  Truly, where God is concerned, love is stronger than death.  In this chapter of Acts, we have a community where people dared to love like Jesus did.  Their daily lives served as indicators that Jesus’ dream was coming true and that the life of Christ was alive in them.  Their lives together served as a living testimony to the resurrection of Jesus.

This reminds me of the words to an old gospel hymn:

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and He talks with me

Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.

You and I have not had the privilege of physically walking and talking with the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, as the early apostles did.  However, we are not therefore excused from the task of testifying to his resurrection.  We, who claim to be his followers in the world today, give testimony to the world through the presence of the risen Christ in our hearts.  When we allow that Christ-like love to have its way in our lives, it does something inside of us.  It puts us back in touch with the true meaning for our lives and the center of the universe.  We experience Christ, not as an historical figure who lived two millennia ago, but as a living and breathing presence in our midst today.  Like the hymn says, “He lives within our hearts.”

There is another hymn that communicates this same idea.  We sang it as our opening hymn this morning.  Did you catch the lyrics?

They cut me down and I leapt up high,
I am the life that can never ever die!
I’ll live in you if you live in me,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

Earlier in that same hymn, it says, “I am the dance and I still go on!”  Your life is a testimony to the presence of the living Christ in you.  Wherever faith conquers fear, Christ is alive!  Wherever equality dissolves prejudice, Christ is alive!  Wherever selflessness conquers selfishness, Christ is alive!  Wherever opposing individuals or groups sit down together to seek peace and understanding, Christ is alive!  God’s resounding “yes” trumps the world’s final “no.”  Wherever these dreams become reality in our lives, we show the world with our lives that Christ is a present and living reality, not just some inspirational figurehead confined to the annals of history.  Christ is the dance we dance.  Christ is the undying life within us.  How do we know he lives?  He lives within our hearts!  Just look at our lives and see!

This is good and empowering news for us, but it also bestows a great responsibility upon us.  We need to ask ourselves on a regular basis whether the lives we live, as individuals and as a church, are proclaiming a message of resurrection to the world.  We need to ask ourselves if we are living as resurrection people.  Are we practicing what we preach?  The great American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said, “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”

There are all kinds of big and little ways that we can live as resurrection people.  Some of us will change the world with our testimony.  Most of us will not.  All we can do, according to theologian William Stringfellow, is “live humanly in the midst of death.”  Our little deeds of compassion and care must carry the light for us.  We, through our actions, can create a small community of kindness around us that has the potential to outlast the empires of history.  The Christian church began as a small, persecuted sect in the shadow of the Roman Empire.  Yet, here we are, Christians still celebrating, worshiping, and caring together, centuries after the fall of Rome.  The presence of the risen Christ in us is stronger and more enduring than the dominating force of empire.

Then again, we never know what kind of impact our small acts of kindness might have on the world at large.  There is a story of a young black boy and his mother walking down a city street in South Africa during the reign of Apartheid.  There was a law then that black folks had to step aside when white folks passed their way on the sidewalk.  As this mother and son were walking along, they encountered a white man walking the other way.  As he drew near, the boy was shocked to see the white man step aside and lift his hat as they passed by.  The boy asked, “Mummy, who was that man?”  His mother replied, “That man was an Anglican priest and furthermore he is a man of God.”  The little boy would later say, “That was the day I decided that I wanted to be an Anglican priest and furthermore a man of God.”  That little boy grew up to be Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the pastor to a nation who helped to peacefully dismantle Apartheid and usher in a new era of equality for his country and set an example to the world.  Who could have predicted that his calling would be inspired by one small, illegal act of kindness and respect given one day on a street corner?  Christ is alive!  Christ is risen indeed!

I’d like to close with another story from the Titanic.  In the midst of all the arrogance, vanity, and classist inhumanity of that tragic story, there is the noble tale of Fr. Thomas Byles.  He was a Catholic priest on his way to officiate at his brother’s wedding in the States.  During the night, he was twice offered a space in a lifeboat, but gave it up to other passengers both times.  He said he would stay on board so long as there was a single soul in need of his ministrations.  He heard confessions and said prayers.  The last time anyone saw him alive, he was saying the rosary on deck, surrounded by a crowd of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.  There, in the desperation of that moment, distinctions between race, class, ethnicity, and religion were all erased.  It seems that only grace remained once the gravity of the situation set in.  I find it amazing that, even there, in the midst of this great tragedy, a small group of people encountered the eternal mystery of God together in ad hoc community.  Even as they walked together through the valley of the shadow of death, their lives “gave testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”

The Empty Tomb

Easter sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.

The text is Mark 16:1-8.

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

A Wall Street executive once hired a consultant from the Czech Republic to come and advise him on business matters.  After a highly productive and successful series of meetings, the time had come for the consultant to return to his home country.

“I want to thank you for all you’ve done to help our company.”  The executive said, “Before you return to the Czech Republic, is there anything you would like to see or do here in America?”

“Well,” the consultant said, “I have always heard such wonderful things about the zoos in America.  We don’t have anything like them back home in the Czech Republic.  I would really like to go to the zoo.”

So the executive makes arrangements and takes the rest of the day off in order to escort his new friend to the zoo.  While they are there, the consultant is fascinated by the lions’ den.  He leans as far as he can over the railing to get a good look at them.  But suddenly, the unthinkable happens: he loses his balance and tumbles headfirst into the lions’ habitat!  The lions are on him in a flash and devour him so quickly that there is nothing left by the time the zookeeper arrives with the police.

“Okay,” the authorities say to the executive, “You were the only eyewitness to this tragedy.  Did you happen to see which lion actually ate your friend?”

The executive gives it some thought and says, “Yes.  It was the male lion with the large furry mane.  I’m absolutely certain that he was the one who ate my friend.”

So they shoot the male lion and open him up.  Alas, the lion’s stomach was empty!  So they proceed to shoot the female lion and open her up.  Sure enough, there was the poor consultant in her stomach.

Now, there are two morals to this story:

The first is that you should never trust the word of a Wall Street executive who tells you, “The Czech is in the male.”

The second moral to this story is that you should never be too certain about certainty.

As a society, we tend to put a lot of stock in certainty.  We buy products that come with a “guarantee.”  We buy all kinds of “insurance” to protect us from anything bad that might happen.  We trust the words of our political and religious officials as if they were gospel truth.  But just take a minute and think about all the times in history when people lost their lives over a certainty that later turned out to be completely false?

Several years ago, there was a science fiction movie called Men In Black starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.  In one scene of this movie, Will Smith has just found out that there are aliens from outer space living on Earth in disguise.  Tommy Lee Jones tries to comfort him with these words about certainty: “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”  Certainty, it seems, is a very fickle thing.

Certainty is also something that is commonly associated with people of faith.  Preachers, theologians, and church goers often speak with great passion and conviction about things they know to be true, beyond any shadow of a doubt.  On the other hand, those who struggle with faith are often called “agnostic” which can be translated as “not knowing” or “uncertain.”  Agnostic people sometimes ask religious people questions about certainty like:

  • “How can you be so sure that God exists?”
  • “How can you be so sure that there’s life after death?”
  • “How can you be so sure that everything will turn out for the better in the end?”

In the minds of average people (agnostic and religious alike), certainty and faith seem to go hand in hand.  This association is so firmly ingrained that religious people are often made to feel a deep sense of guilt whenever they question some or all of their beliefs.  Likewise, agnostic people are often made to feel like there’s no place for them communities of faith (like church).  So many of them feel like they have to choose between the intellectual integrity their minds long for and the sense of reverence and belonging their hearts long for.  If faith and certainty are permanently associated with one another, you have to make a choice.  There is no room for questions or doubt.  It’s black and white.  You’re either in or out.  In the minds of average people (agnostic and religious alike), that’s what faith is all about.

This morning, I want to take that preconceived notion (faith = certainty) and put it on trial next to what the Bible actually says or, more importantly, what it doesn’t say (because you can learn a lot by paying attention to what the Bible doesn’t say).

Let’s start by looking at today’s New Testament reading.  Do you notice anything missing from it?  We have the women who show up at the tomb.  The stone is rolled away.  There’s a young man in white telling them that the person they’re looking for isn’t there.  They run away in fear.  Do you notice anything missing?  How about anyone?

Jesus!  That’s right, Jesus forgets to show up to his own party!  Today is Easter and we’re celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Isn’t it at least a little odd that the risen Christ doesn’t even make a single appearance in the reading?

Let me add a little more wood to this fire: today’s reading is from Mark’s gospel, which most biblical scholars agree was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written.  It was probably written about thirty or forty years after the death of Jesus.  Now, we don’t have any original manuscripts for this (or any other) book of the Bible.  All we have are copies of copies.  Sometimes, these copies differ from one another.  For example, the later versions of Mark’s gospel have Jesus showing up and giving some sage advice to his disciples, but the earliest manuscripts we have end with this passage: the one where the women run away in fear at the end.

That’s kind of anti-climactic isn’t it?  I mean, the resurrection is kind of the central miracle in the Christian faith.  It’s the reason for today’s celebration, the highest holiday in our religion.  Wouldn’t you expect a more certain and definitive record of it in the earliest accepted account of its occurrence?

Now, let me be clear, I’m not trying to argue that it did or didn’t happen.  What I’m trying to point out here is that the earliest available editions of Mark’s gospel leave us with a big question mark, rather than an exclamation point.  Mark simply presents us with an empty tomb and then leaves us to make up our own minds about what happened.

I think this is good news for those of us who struggle with faith (and I include myself in that number).  It means that we are not required to check our brains at the door when we come into church.  It means that there is a whole lot more mystery than certainty in authentic Christian faith.  Most of all, it means that faith is more about staying open and asking honest questions about what might be true rather than forging and holding onto hard-and-fast answers about what we think is true.

It means furthermore that doubt is a friend of faith, not its opposite.  In fact, if we’re defining faith as openness to possibility, then doubt is what makes faith possible.  For those of us (like me) who worship at the empty tomb, standing there with a big question mark hanging over our heads, the only real opposite to faith would have to be certainty.

You and I seem to live in a time of unparalleled questioning.  Thanks to many brilliant advances in information and communication technology, we probably know more but understand less about the incredible diversity on this planet than any generation that has come before us.  We’re facing questions about science and sexuality, faith and philosophy, politics and pluralism.  Whether we’re talking about robots, rocket-ships, or religion, we are already coming up with answers to tough questions that our ancestors never would have dreamed of asking.

In the face of such daunting challenges, it’s only natural (healthy, even) to feel more than a little intimidated.  There are powerful voices in our society who are calling on us to return to yesterday’s answers in response to today’s (and presumably tomorrow’s) questions.  These fearful folks long for the comfort that certainty brings, so they hunker down, roll up the sails, and batten the hatches, hoping that their ship has the right stuff to weather the winds of change.  As those winds grow stronger and stronger, those voices of fear grow louder and louder.

It would be easy to let those loud voices and that powerful wind of change intimidate us.  It would be easy to give in and huddle together below decks in hopes that the wind will eventually stop.  That would be so easy to do if we didn’t know who we are, where we’ve come from, and how we got to where we are today.  Our ship, the church, was made to sail in these winds.  The wind is our friend.  If it wasn’t for the wind, we never would have left our home port.

Allow me to offer a few examples:

Today’s wind has brought us to face controversial and challenging questions about issues like religious diversity and human sexuality.  Fifty years ago, we were asking questions about whether two people of different races or ethnicities could get married and have a healthy family.  There were those who said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order for human society laid out in the Bible.  Sound familiar?  It wasn’t until 1967, in the case of Virginia v. Loving that the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled bans on interracial marriage as unconstitutional.

Before that, folks in our church were arguing about whether or not women could be ordained to serve as clergy in our church.  There were some who said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order laid out in the Bible.  Yet, here I am, a proud member of a generation where women in ministry are not only my peers, but also my predecessors in the pulpit.  I don’t think I even need to mention the name of Rev. Micki Robinson and her epic seventeen year ministry in this church.

Before that, there were folks who stood up and proclaimed that, because all people are created equal, the institution of slavery should be abolished.  People said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order laid out in the Bible.  They even fought a bloody war over that question.  Yet, I think we can all agree that our country is better off for having faced that question and challenged its previously conceived notions.

Before that, another group of people declared that, because all people are created equal, a country should be run by democratically elected leaders and not a royal monarchy that was handed down from generation to generation by supposed “divine mandate.”  These same people also had a bold new idea that church and state should remain separate, in order to protect the freedoms of both.  Thus, the United States became the first country in the history of the world to be founded on an idea, rather than a common ethnic identity.

Before that, people like John Calvin and Martin Luther challenged a millennium of church tradition and authority, believing that people have the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, rather than waiting for some Pope to issue an authoritative doctrinal statement on behalf of the people.

Before that, a man named Jesus of Nazareth challenged the very foundation of religious and political power in his day.  He proclaimed a bold new vision of the kingdom of heaven-on-earth.  He gave us the core spiritual principles and beliefs that continue to shape our lives to this day.

Before Jesus, in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), there was a long line of Jewish prophets like John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Moses, who stood up to “the way it is,” questioned the legitimacy of the status quo, and proclaimed a bold and prophetic new vision of what might be possible, which leads us right back to that definition of faith as openness to possibility.

We gather together this morning to celebrate this mystery of the resurrection of Jesus.  We are confronted with the image of an empty tomb and a huge question mark hanging over our heads.  We are not given many concrete answers, backed up by the guarantee of certainty.  But, as we have already seen, we gather at this empty tomb with a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.  They, like us and the women at the tomb in today’s gospel story, were gripped with an overwhelming sense of fear and amazement.  I can imagine us all standing there, staring into the darkness, maybe holding onto each other for support, wondering together what might be happening, not certain of anything, but open to what might be possible.

Where do you find yourself in this story today?  Are you perhaps a questioning believer who is afraid to let your doubts shine, for fear that they might invalidate or undermine your faith?  Are you perhaps a hopeful agnostic who yearns for a sense of transcendence and community, but is afraid that there is no place for you in any institution that calls itself a “church?”  Are you perhaps one of the frightened faithful who miss the old comfort of certainty from the “good old days,” who long for an anchor for their souls amid the winds of change, and who look to answer today’s questions with yesterday’s answers?  Whoever you are, I want to invite you, on this Easter morning, to join us at the empty tomb.  Let us hold onto each other as we stare into the darkness together with more questions than answers, overwhelmed by that odd emotional combination of fear and amazement, and let us do our best to remain faithfully open to what might be possible for us at this time and in this place.

The Greatest Crime of All: Being Poor

Rene Girard is a mythology scholar and theologian who has made a name for himself by naming what is potentially one of the most terminal spiritual diseases in western, capitalistic society: Envy.

According to Girard, humans perpetually compete with one another in an attempt to imitate certain models of appearance, behavior, and status.  This constant competition would quickly degenerate into an anarchic “war of all against all” were it not for periodic episodes of “scapegoating” where the hostile energy of the community is directed toward a chosen outsider (individual or group) who is subsequently “sacrificed” for the good of the group.  The sacrifice of the scapegoat temporarily releases the pent-up tension and allows this cycle, which Girard calls “the cycle of mimetic violence,” to begin again.

One could easily point to the scapegoating of Jews during the Third Reich as an example of cycles of mimetic violence in action.

I got to see this phenomenon take place firsthand on a citywide scale in Vancouver during the buildup to the 2010 Olympics.  City legislators passed the notorious “Safe Streets Act” which made it illegal to panhandle anywhere within 30 feet of businesses, residences, or bus stops.  In a west coast urban center of two million, is there anywhere in the city that meets these criteria?

Poverty was thus outlawed in pre-Olympic Vancouver.

In a culture that has made an unholy idol of success, failure is criminal.

Here is a link to an NPR article that documents a similar process going on in Hungary.  The primary difference is that Hungary itself seems to be in a state of economic failure and the powers that be would like to attach blame to those who are least likely to have caused the collapse and least likely to defend themselves in the event of a large-scale attack: the homeless.

I find this to be an appropriate article to post this Easter weekend, as we remember the ignominious death of another sacrificial scapegoat who was unjustly made to endure the wrath of a political-religious system that could not imagine another way of being human…

Homelessness Becomes A Crime In Hungary

Evolutionary Thoughts: The Paradox of Resurrection

Yes, we are a resurrected people.  Evolution has been telling us that since time immemorial.  Resurrection is the mythical/religious name we give to the triumph of matter over antimatter, life over death, meaning over meaninglessness, cosmos over chaos.  But it is also the name we give to that baffling transformative process that requires paradox – apparent contradiction – as an essential ingredient in every transformation, whether personal or global…

Assuredly, not everything in our world is in harmony, and often we are overwhelmed by mysterious forces that push our sanity and sanctity to their very limits.  But before we address these big questions, let’s get our own house in order.  Let’s begin by resolving and dissolving all the meaningless suffering that we ourselves cause either directly or indirectly.  Then the chances are that the other great paradoxes that baffle and confuse us will not seem that irrational anymore.  We then will be in a position to understand with greater wisdom and equanimity the paradoxically creative Spirit who energizes the E-mergent miracle of our evolving universe.

Then, too, we are likely to be more at peace with the paradoxical enigmas of each day.  With graced intuition we will be more at ease about the fact that death is a precondition for new life; we do not know why, but it is.  Chaos is the fermenting ground for creative order; light is meaningless without the dark; pain and beauty have a strange familiarity; suffering awakens us into compassion.  The evolutionary cycle of creation and destruction manifests itself in every realm of life and permeates every recess of our being.

Diarmuid O’Murchu, Evolutionary Faith (p. 107-108)

How Important is the Afterlife?

Ok class,

My classes will never be as cool as this guy's.

Time to sit up and pay attention.  I’m asking YOU a question today, so I want to see lots of answers and comments down below!

This is a question that my philosophy students at Utica College are pondering and discussing this week and I thought it would be fun to put it before you.

I was having lunch at a cafe yesterday when someone walked up and handed me a religious pamphlet that asked whether I knew for sure that I was going to heaven when die.  This is an interesting question.

It’s even more interesting that so many in the fundamentalist camp choose to start their evangelistic pitch with this question.  If one’s faith is based on fear for the ego’s survival in an unknown afterlife, then it doesn’t seem to be qualitatively different from the dog-eat-dog drive for survival in this world.

I’m not trying to disparage eternal hope for anyone, but during Holy Week, Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself.  His vision and ultimate concern was much larger than his drive for egoic survival.  He embraced death willingly and so became the primary model by which Christians measure their faith.

There is an extent to which I believe we Christians are called to do the same.  Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  Christians like to remind each other that Christ died for us, but there is also a very real sense in which we are called to die with Christ.  We are participants, not merely consumers, in the unfolding drama of eternity.

Friedrich Schleiermacher said it like this in On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799):

Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. … Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one’s own finite self.

The question I am putting before you, superfriends and blogofans, is taken from chapter 9 of William Rowe’s Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction.

How important to religion is the belief in personal survival after death?  Do you think that religion must stand or fall with this belief?  Can you imagine a viable religion which accepts the view that death ends everything?  What would such a religion be like?  Explain.

Post your answer in the comments below!

A Wild Communion

Wild Ramps

During the week after Easter Sunday, I had the opportunity to gather wild ramps with my friend Nancy in the forest around her farm.  For those who are unfamiliar, ramps are kind of like little wild onions.  It was a clear and mild day during an unusually rainy spring.  Before heading out into the woods, we took a trip over to the greenhouse, where some seedlings needed watering.  Her greenhouse is a homemade structure with a cathedral ceiling covered in clear plastic.

As Nancy walked up and down the aisles with her water-hose, I thought back to the Easter Vigil service I had attended at an Episcopal church the Saturday night prior.  My friend Ed, the priest, had dedicated the church’s new Paschal candle, led us in the renewal of our baptismal vows, and sprinkled us with holy water in the same way that Nancy was now blessing the baby plants, nurturing fragile new life with the most basic elements of water and light.

After Nancy finished her botanical asperges with the seedlings, we made our way through some of the muddiest terrain imaginable toward the hillside where wild ramps were to be found.  As we sloshed through the quagmire, Nancy and I talked about how she came to fall in love with organic farming.  The details of that story are hers to share, but the process of telling the story as we walked reminds me of the many biblical readings from the Torah and the prophets that take place in the middle of the Episcopal Easter Vigil service.  The readings chronicle the long and messy journey of the Jewish people from slavery and exile into freedom.

Finally, we arrived at the wooded hillside that was covered in patches of wild ramps.  These precious little vegetables are currently in high demand among upscale restaurants all over the country.  Some farmers earn a significant portion of their annual income with a single load in their pickup trucks.  And there we were, sitting in the abundance of a remote hillside in rural New York with a small fortune growing around our feet.

Is this not the essence of Easter?  The triumph of abundance and life over scarcity and death!  It’s no mistake that Christians celebrate this, our highest holiday, during the springtime.  The smell of dirt emerging from beneath the melting snow and the sight of flowers bursting forth from their buds are sacramental reminders of the resurrection life that pervades this universe in which we live.  This most precious treasure is the free gift of God for all who will open their hearts and embrace it as such.

Nancy the farmer, priest of God’s green earth, made this truth real to me in a new way as she tore off a piece of edible ramp-leaf and handed it to me on that hillside saying, “Here.  This is Communion.”  As I put it in my mouth, I couldn’t stop myself from saying “Amen” with my whole heart.

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

-William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Rejecting Rejection: An Easter Sermon

The Risen Christ by He Qi

My first Easter sermon at First Presbyterian, Boonville.  The text is Matthew 28:1-10.

Philip Gulley and James Mulholland tell a story in their book, If Grace Is True (HarperCollins: 2003), about a scene that is probably familiar to all of us (especially those of us who are parents).  It goes like this:

When I was about five years old, I demanded my mother buy me a certain toy.  She refused, explaining she didn’t have the money.

I recall flying into a rage and screaming, “I hate you!”

My mother was utterly unperturbed.  She didn’t spank me and send me to my room, though that would have been understandable.  She didn’t break into tears.  She didn’t drag me to a therapist.  She most certainly didn’t buy the toy.  She simply said, “Well, I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.”  (p.110)

I think most of us have been there, am I right?  If you haven’t experienced it firsthand, you’ve probably seen something like it in public.  As the father of a two-year-old, I’m intimately familiar with what goes through a parent’s head in a moment like that.  I worry about making a scene.  I wonder what other people must be thinking about me as a parent.  I’m scared that, no matter what I do, I might be psychologically scarring my child for life.

But when I see other parents dealing with similar meltdowns in public, I don’t judge them.  In fact, my heart goes out to them.  I don’t think they’re bad parents.  I see others like me who are just doing the best they can in a difficult moment.  The only parents I worry about are the ones who return the rage in kind.  You know what I’m talking about.  All of us lose our cool with our kids on occasion, but it’s pretty obvious when a parent in public crosses the line verbally or physically.  In the effort to maintain control of the situation, they lose control of themselves.  Those are the parents that other people tend to worry about.

Imagine what people would think if the mother in Gulley and Mulholland’s story had shouted, “I hate you, too!” and stormed out of the store, leaving this five-year-old little kid to find his own way home.  We would be horrified!  We would run to the child’s aid and probably call the police.  We would say that such a mother deserves to be locked up in jail.

Unfortunately, there are those among Christians past and present who believe that this is exactly how God behaves.  Those who turn their backs on God, so they say, are doomed for eternity.  Those who reject God will be rejected by God.  They claim that God, who is infinitely holy and righteous, must respect the freewill of these unrepentant sinners and allow them to receive exactly what they deserve.  Most Christians who believe this can quote lots of Bible verses to support their position.

What I can’t understand is this: if we would call the police on any human mother who abandoned her child in that way, then why wouldn’t we do the same for a parental deity who abandons even one of God’s children to eternal torment?  Why should we worship God for doing that for which we would incarcerate a human?  It doesn’t make sense.

Fortunately for us, that is not the God who we worship.  The God of love revealed in Jesus Christ is more like the mother in the first story from Gulley and Mulholland’s book.  When we scream, “I hate you!” at God, God responds, “Well, I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.”  This God rejects the rejection of the rebellious children.

This God would rather leave the ninety-nine sheep in the field to go search for the one who is lost.  Jesus tells us in Luke 15 that this good shepherd searches until that lost sheep is found and carries it home rejoicing.  Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemies because that’s what God does.  He says, in Matthew 5:44-45,

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Not only did Jesus teach us about God’s love, he showed it to us in the way that he unconditionally accepted the most messed-up and undesirable people of his day as members of his own family.

More than any other story in the scriptures, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection shows us just how far God is willing to go in order to reject our rejection.  Last Sunday, and then again on Good Friday, we heard the story of how the powers that be in the world rejected Jesus.  The political and religious authorities wanted to shut him up.  His closest disciples betrayed, denied, and abandoned him.  Last week, we also looked at the hard fact that you and I are really no different from the crowds who shouted, “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify!” only five days later on Good Friday.  The cross stands as a reminder of the lengths to which we, the people of this world, will go in order to reject Jesus.  Like five-year-olds throwing temper tantrums, we scream, “I hate you!” to God at the top of our lungs.  With all our pretended power, we lash out with the very worst torture and death that we can muster.  Intoxicated by our ability to inflict death, we delude ourselves into thinking that we’re so strong.  We can even make God go away… permanently!

But then, on the third day, on that first Easter Sunday, something happened.  It says in today’s reading from Matthew that there was an earthquake.  Matthew is the only one of the four gospels to record this fact.  What does it mean?  I like to think it means that something fundamental at the very heart of reality shifted in that moment.  The power of life overcame the power of death.  The very worst of human hatred was undone by the very best of God’s love.  In the cross, the world rejected Jesus Christ.  But in the resurrection, God rejected the world’s rejection.  This is what Easter is all about!

As if this weren’t enough, look again at what happens in verse 10.  Jesus appears to the two Marys and gives them a message for his “brothers” (meaning the twelve disciples).  Remember that the last time we saw any of them in Matthew was in 26:56, when they were all running away from Jesus in his hour of need.  They rejected him.  But the risen Jesus nevertheless calls them “brothers” and invites them to return to the mission they had begun together.  He rejected their rejection.

This is (very) good news for people like me who struggle with our loyalty to God.  If God were to respect my freewill and give me what I deserve (and sometimes ask for), I would be abandoned like a five-year-old in a department store with no way home.  I am thankful that God does not respect my freewill, but goes out of the way to seek after me until I am found.  I am thankful that God has rejected my rejection.

What does this mean for all of us?

Maybe you are a Christian, but you struggle with things like sin and doubt.  Well, the good news for you is that you don’t have to impress God with your morals or your dogma.  The only thing for you to do, in the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, is “accept the fact that you are accepted.”

Maybe you’re here today and you’re not a Christian.  Maybe you want to believe in something, but can’t wrap your mind around some theological point or maybe you’re sickened by the judgmental hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians.  The good news for you is that the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ is not the cold-hearted and small-minded bookkeeper of conventional religion.  The God I believe in is not standing at a distance, waiting to burn you in hell.  My God is just as angry about the pretended piety of so-called “saints” to which you have borne witness.  Likewise, God is not threatened by honest questions on a quest for truth.

Whatever your individual struggle may be, what I want you to take away from this Easter is that, in the resurrection of Jesus, God has rejected your rejection.  Sure, you might kick and scream like a kid having a tantrum.  You might even deny God’s existence or yell, “I hate you!” to the empty sky, but in those moments, the God I believe in just holds you that much tighter with an eternal love that will not let you go.