The Old Rugged Cross: Rene Girard and the Resurrection of Substitutionary Atonement

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St. Martin’s Cross, Iona Abbey. Image by Colin Smith. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Friends and commentators from all over the theological spectrum have mentioned that I don’t seem to have given susbstitutionary atonement theory its due in my post from earlier this week, The Wrath of God and the Presbyterian Hymnal.

In that post, I leaned heavily on presenting substitutionary atonement as “cosmic child abuse” (an excellent turn of phrase I’m borrowing from Sarah Sanderson-Doughty).  I wrote:

…penal substitution sets up a scenario where Jesus saves humanity from the rage (not the wrath) of an out-of-control, abusive parent.  When all is said and done, the church gathers around a crucifix and hears, “This is your fault.  Look at what you made God do.  You are so bad and dirty that God had to torture and kill this beautiful, innocent person so that he wouldn’t do the same thing to you.  Therefore, you’d better shape up and be thankful or else God will change his mind and torture you for all eternity.  And don’t forget: this is Good News and God loves you.”  If any human parent did that, he or she would be rightly incarcerated, even if the innocent victim was willing.  If that’s what Christianity is, then you can count me out.

Sadly, this (admittedly extreme) depiction accurately portrays substitutionary atonement as it was presented to me by fundamentalist pastors and teachers I encountered in high school and college. 

However, I realize that thoughtful evangelicals and catholics will cringe at my presentation, since they accept the theory, but not in its “cosmic child abuse” form.  For them, it represents the epitome of love and sacrifice.  I remember seeing an art project made by a teenager that showed one person pushing another out of the path of an oncoming car with John 15:13 written across the top: “Greater love hath no man (sic) than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  For them, substitutionary atonement is precisely the opposite of child abuse: it is the ultimate standard of loving sacrifice, established by Jesus himself, to which every parent, spouse, and friend should aspire.

I understand and respect this angle, but I suspect that many of these more informed and compassionate evangelicals and catholics may not realize what is being propagated in their name.  The heresy of “cosmic child abuse” is alive and well in traditional, orthodox congregations and parishes the world over.  Curious outsiders and wounded insiders are being exposed to violent, hateful theology and end up rejecting Christianity at large based on this misrepresentation.  That’s why I think it is incumbent upon liberals, evangelicals, and catholics alike to think well about what their atonement theology does mean to them and then speak up (loud and often) to counterbalance the voices of violence and hate that dominate public media in Jesus’ name.

With that in mind, I thought I might revisit the subject of substitutionary atonement today and present what I think are some of the more positive contributions it might make to the Christian theological project, writ large.  Sections of this article have been lifted and adapted from my reply to a comment on the previous post.

Many of the New Testament passages dealing with substitutionary atonement center around interpreting the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of sacrificial worship in Second Temple Judaism. The use of such a schema made total sense as an apologetic strategy in that time and place (much like Anselm’s strategy made sense in feudal Britain).

Jesus, of course, is presented as the priest and the sacrifice that supersede the Temple cult. The temple authorities claimed exclusive access to God through their rituals and institution. The early Christians, on the other hand, used this priest/sacrifice imagery to legitimate their own Christocentric practice while demonstrating its continuity with traditional Judaism. The language of temple, priest, and sacrifice would have helped the gospel make sense to a first century Jewish mind. Obviously, the strategy worked: Christians and Pharisees were the only forms of Judaism to survive the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. This interpretive schema gave Christians the framework they needed to survive without a standing Temple.

The Pharisees, for their part, had the Torah, the synagogue, and the family home as centers for their faith-practice. They went on to complete the Talmuds and form the basis for modern rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. The Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots all pretty much died out as movements by the end of the second century.

Substitutionary atonement, understood within the cultural context of Second Temple Judaism, makes total sense as a first century apologetic strategy. It’s actually rather brilliant and obviously effective, given the lasting impact it’s had on the development of Christian atonement theory. The scholastic Anselm further developed the idea susbstitutionary atonement in the 11th century as part of his own brilliant and timely apologetic effort.

My only problem with it is when it is used as the primary or only legitimate atonement theory in our day. Such a narrow focus ignores the multiple other models for salvation presented by scripture and tradition. I fear that a one-sided emphasis on individual guilt and forgiveness through substitutionary atonement is unnecessarily handcuffing our evangelistic efforts by ignoring the many ways in which the gospel might be interpreted, preached, understood, and received by people today.

In addition to priest and purifying sacrifice, Christ can also be embraced as a physician for the sick, a liberator for the oppressed, a light in the darkness, food and drink for hungry souls, or a friend for the lonely. My hope is that Christians today might let these many images take root in our imaginations so that we might be inspired to become more faithful and effective witnesses of Christ in word and deed.

Rene Girard is one writer whose work presents, in my opinion, some rich possibilities for understanding the crucifixion of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice.  A Roman Catholic scholar of mythology, Girard identifies patterns of mimetic violence at work in the development of religions and societies.

From birth, human beings are presented with models that we are meant to imitate.  This happens on a primal level with one’s parents and siblings.  As societies grow, our caches of models will grow as well.  Post-industrial consumer capitalism in the Information Age presents us with a greater supply of models than any other culture in the history of the planet.

As imitators of models, we compete with one another.  Over time, our competition grows fierce.  The “war of all against all” (thank you, Hobbes) threatens to unravel the fabric of society and return us to primal chaos.

At this point, according to Girard, a scapegoat is chosen: someone at whom the rest of society can redirect the energy of their internal conflict and self-hatred.  The scapegoat is made to bear the blame for this conflict and is summarily sacrificed.

In the wake of the sacrifice, the mimetic conflict is temporarily relieved and the community enjoys a period of relative peace and stability.  Previously blamed for the violence, the scapegoat is now credited as the source of the temporary peace and is deified as a god.  Girard’s theory is that this is how the deities of classical mythology received their identities.  The cycle of violence then resets and repeats itself.

Applying his theory of mimetic violence to his own Roman Catholic theology, Girard presents Jesus as the willing scapegoat.  Jesus deliberately enters into the cycle of mimetic violence with the intention of stopping it.  He is aware of what is involved in that process and embraces the role of scapegoat.

According to this reading of the atonement, Jesus is still “sacrificed for our sins” but the wrath he is appeasing is not the wrath of God, but the rage of sinful, selfish humans.  He substitutes himself in the place of all other scapegoats who endure the unjust violence of society.

In the resurrection, God intervenes to vindicate the scapegoat, unmasking and disarming the patterns of mimetic violence.  Christians, as followers of Jesus the willing and vindicated scapegoat, are called to side with all future scapegoats and end the cycles of violence and exclusion, even if it means being crucified ourselves.

Rene Girard’s theory presents us with a way of unserstanding susbtitutionary atonement that can redeem it as a viable apologetic strategy in this consumer capitalist society, just as Anselm of Canterbury and the New Testament authors used it in their respective eras.

In this Girardian sense, I am able to reclaim substitutionary atonement and “cling to the old rugged cross”.  I see in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection the end of all hate and violence.  I look forward to a time when all humanity will “exchange [the old rugged cross] one day for a crown” as cycles of mimetic violence come to an end.

Not One Stone: Facing Mortality, Finding Meaning

Wailing Wall and Dome of the Rock at the site where the Jerusalem temple once stood. Image by Peter Mulligan. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Click here to listen to this sermon on our church’s website

A middle aged man goes to see his doctor for a physical.  At the end of the examination, he asks, “Well Doc, do you think I’ll live to be a hundred years old?”

“Let’s see,” the doctor said, “do you smoke?”

“No,” the man said, “absolutely not.  Never.”

Doc: “OK then, do you drink?”

Man: “Not a single drop in my entire life.”

Doc: “Do you eat a lot of sugary or fatty foods?”

Man: “No way!  I’ve always been very careful about what I eat.”

Doc: “Do you drive very fast?”

Man: “Never!  I always drive 5 miles an hour below the speed limit, just to be sure.”

Doc: “I don’t quite know how to ask this one, but have you had a lot of girlfriends?”

Man: “Absolutely not.  I’m celibate and I’ve been celibate for my entire life.”

Doc: “Then why on earth would you want to live to be a hundred?!”

Why indeed.  You and I live in a culture that has mastered the art of denying death.  Everything from anti-aging cream to plastic surgery is designed to keep us from facing the reality of our own mortality.  Consumer advertising and commercial television keeps us distracted from thinking about death until we absolutely cannot avoid it anymore.  At that point, if we so choose, they can give us drugs that will “make us as comfortable as possible,” effectively tuning us out until our bodies stop functioning.  Our culture’s goal, it would seem, is to first ignore and finally numb the dying process so that we won’t ever have to come to grips with it.

Of course, the wisest among us don’t wait until that point to reflect upon their own mortality.  They find their own way to accept it and even make peace with it.  For these people, thinking about death doesn’t have to be something dark or morbid.  In fact, it can give their lives a sense of meaning and purpose.  People who know and accept the fact that they are going to die live with a conscious awareness that they have a finite amount of time on this earth and it’s up to them to make the most of it.

If you knew that you only had a week, month, or year to live, how would you choose to spend that time?  What do you want your life to stand for?  When other people look back at your life, what would you want them to remember about you?  These are the questions that a wise person asks in the face of mortality.

When we accept that this life will not last forever, we realize that it cannot be an end in itself.  Like the man in the joke, we have to ask ourselves: what’s the point of living to be a hundred years old if all you’re going to do is eat Brussels sprouts?  The truly wise among us realize that life cannot last forever, therefore the truly wise among us also realize that each life must be lived for something larger than itself.  Every mortal life, it seems, is a means to an end.

In spite of our culture’s death-denying attempts to distract or numb us, each of us has probably known, met, or heard about at least one person who made his or her mortal life meaningful by dedicating it to something larger than himself or herself.  We tend to respect or admire such people when we meet them.  Their examples might even inspire us to look more deeply at our own lives, face our mortality in new ways, and discover meaningful possibilities within us that we hadn’t noticed before.  It’s a beautiful thing when that happens.

However, it’s at this point that our cultural programming kicks back in and tends to shut us off toward the next step in our development.  Our culture is so individualistic that we don’t even think about the larger social bodies of which we are a part.  We tend to stop with ourselves and not notice how it is that an awareness of mortality applies to larger realities.

People are mortal.  We know that.  We accept that fact, at least theoretically, even if we choose to ignore it for our entire lives.  However, not many of us stop to think about other things that share our mortality.  These things might last much longer than we do, but they too will one day fade from existence.  Families are mortal.  Surnames and lineages come to an end through a lack of offspring.  Churches and other faith communities are mortal.  There comes a point when dwindling membership and a lack of funds causes an institution to close its doors.  The same thing is true of entire religions at large.  There are very few people on this planet who continue to worship the gods of Mount Olympus in the same way that they were worshiped by Greeks in centuries past.  Nations are mortal.  The Roman Empire was once the dominant superpower in the world, unlike anything else that had come before it.  Where is the great Roman Empire today?  Buried under the rubble of history and preserved in ruins frequented by tourists in Bermuda shorts.  Species are mortal.  Dinosaurs no longer roam the earth like they did 65 million years ago.  Finally, even the planets and stars are mortal.  One day, our very own sun will burn up all of its hydrogen fuel and explode into a violent supernova, momentarily becoming the brightest star in some distant sky.

If coming to grips with our own individual mortality is difficult, accepting the mortality of families, churches, species, and stars feels almost impossible.  Yet, the same truth applies to these larger mortal beings that first applied to mortal human beings: it is in facing mortality that we find meaning.

Let’s look at this idea in relation to this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel.  The story opens as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the great Jerusalem temple, the epicenter of Jewish worship in the first century CE.  Jesus, as usual, is walking away from yet another fight with the established religious leaders of his day.  In the previous chapter, chapter 12, you can read about Jesus butting heads with representatives from almost every major Jewish sect and community: Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and temple scribes.  The conflict between Jesus and the organized religion of his day had reached such a boiling point that Jesus, in his frustration, was about ready to give up on it.  When this morning’s passage opens with him leaving the temple, he’s not just out for a stroll, he’s right in the middle of storming out in a huff.

It’s at this point that Jesus’ disciples, in their usual tactless and somewhat dimwitted manner, decide to stop and admire the lovely architecture of this religious icon and national monument of Judaism.  They say of the temple, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Jesus is unimpressed.  He says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

He’s talking about mortality of the temple: this central symbol of religious and national identity for the Jewish people.  They were under the impression that this sacred building would stand forever under divine protection.  For them, the temple was immortal.  It was an end in itself as a center of worship.  The idea had never occurred to them that it might not be there one day.

As it turns out, Jesus’ prediction was spot-on.  The Jerusalem temple, like any human being, was mortal.  It was eventually burned to the ground by the Romans during an uprising in the year 70 CE.  It was never rebuilt.  The site where it once stood is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred places in Islamic religion.

The destruction of the temple was unthinkable to the average Jew, but to Jesus it was inevitable.  The wisdom of Jesus did not stop with an awareness of his own individual mortality, but extended to embrace the mortal and finite nature of all things.  Just as it was for individuals, so it is for temples, religions, countries, species, planets, and stars: to face mortality is to find meaning.

If our great struggle in life is limited to ensuring the continued existence of particular people, places, institutions, or things, then we have already doomed ourselves to failure.  Nothing lasts forever.  We need to accept that.  What Jesus said about the Jerusalem temple, we could say about anything: ““Do you see these? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  All things are mortal.

The sooner we realize this truth, the sooner we can get on with the business of asking the really important questions about existence in reality.  Concerning our individual selves, we can ask: “What am I living for?  What will people remember about me when I’m gone?  What will be my lasting contribution to the world around me or the universe as a whole?  What is the meaning of my life?”

We can ask these same questions about our mortal families or this mortal country.  The day will come when the United States, like the Roman Empire, will only exist as a chapter in a history book.  Accepting the inevitability of this fact, we need to ask ourselves as Americans: “When that day comes, what will that chapter say?”

As Christians, we can also ask these same questions about our church, our denomination, and our religion as a whole.  We need to get over this ego-centric idea that God will protect and preserve us from our own collective mortality.  Just look at the way Christianity itself has changed over the last two thousand years.  We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that the Christianity we practice is identical in faith and form to the Christianity practiced by the Apostle Paul or St. Augustine of Hippo.  We identify ourselves as Presbyterians, but if John Knox and John Calvin (the founders of Presbyterianism) were sitting in this church right now, they would be horrified by much of what they would see.  Likewise, if a Christian from the year 2412 were to time travel into this sanctuary right now, that person’s faith would likely seem so foreign to us that we wouldn’t even want to call it ‘Christian’ at all.  Just as Paul and Calvin have shaped us, our faith will shape the future long after we are gone and the pressing crises of our era have ceased to be relevant concerns.  What will be our lasting contribution to that future?

Finally, as members of this church, I think we need to ask these questions about our mortal congregation.  This little church has been in Boonville for over two hundred years.  We take great pride in our history and our building.  Maintaining the integrity and beauty of this place is a chief concern for many people in this room.  But all of us together need to hear Jesus saying to us what he said about his own temple: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  This place, this building, and this congregation are all mortal.  They will not last forever.  “All will be thrown down,” as Jesus said.  If our only motivation in coming here week after week is to keep the doors open and the lights on, then we’ve already failed.  We’re like the man in the joke at the beginning of this sermon: we have no reason to live for another hundred years.  Wise individuals live with a conscious awareness of their inevitable death and then adjust their lives accordingly, so as to make them as rich and meaningful as possible.  It is no different with wise churches.

This church will die eventually.  Whether it’s in ten years or another hundred years, it will happen.  We need to remember that.  We need to embrace that truth for ourselves so that we, as a church, can make the most of the time we’ve been given right now.  Knowing that this church will one day die and “not one stone will be left here upon another,” we need to ask ourselves, “Why are we here?  What is this church living for?  What will be our lasting contribution to the life of this community after our doors are closed and our lights shut off forever?  What is the meaning of our life together, as a church?”  Those are the real questions that we need to be asking, not just once for a special project or a mission study, but continually.  We need to set these questions before our eyes like a carrot dangling in front of a horse during a race.  These are the questions that need to drive us, propel us, or perhaps lure us forward into the future.

As we explore these questions within the conscious awareness of our church’s impending death (whenever that will happen), I believe we’ll start to see a slow-motion miracle in progress.  Even as we are facing and embracing death, I believe that we will also start to experience a kind of resurrection.  It’s been my experience and observation that the most vibrant, active, and growing churches are the ones who have found their reason for being, the meaning of their existence, outside themselves.  These churches are passionate about spiritual growth and community service.  Their members gather together, Sunday after Sunday, not to maintain what they have, but to seek what they desire.  There is a yearning deep within such people for “something more.”  They are hungry for silence, prayer, scripture, and sacrament.  They long to deepen their connection with the sacred mystery of divine love.  This love, in turn, leads them out, away from the church and into the streets of this community where love demands to be shared with hurting people through compassionate word and deed.  This is my vision of a church that faces mortality and finds meaning.  When the day comes that “not one stone will be left here upon another,” such a church will live on in a state of resurrection, even if our doors are closed, our lights shut off, and our roof caved in.  Even then, even if our church dies, it will live.

As a church, as individuals, as a country, and as a species, may we be people who live with a consciousness of death.  May we face mortality and find meaning.  In the midst of these piles of rubble, where stones have been thrown down from the broken remnants of our sacred temples, may we walk together the path of our own, continual, slow-motion resurrection, following in the footsteps of the Living Christ, the Risen One in our midst, the faithful friend who abides with us and guides us on our way.

Bone

Re-blogged from the United Church of Christ’s Stillspeaking daily devotional.

Original source:

http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/bone.html

Excerpt from Ezekiel 37:1-14

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones…I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

Reflection by Quinn G. Caldwell

Here’s what the story says: dry bones are not the final state of things.  Death will not win.  Here’s what it says: life wins.

Here’s what it doesn’t say: that they were human bones.  Or that those bones went back together in their original order.  Or that the bodies at the end were the same as the bodies in the beginning.

We tell this story as if it’s only about humans, as if we’re the only species God loves enough to waste the energy on.  But this is the God that notes the fall of every sparrow, right?  Surely God noted the fall of every pterodactyl.  Surely, God noticed the fate of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis just as fully as he does that of the hominid Homo sapiens.

99% of all the different species that once lived are now extinct.  And yet, the place is full of life.  Why?  Because God does not let extinction win.  The dinosaurs go down to bones and molecules, and the mammals rise up to take their place.  Homo habilis goes extinct, and up rises Homo sapiens.  One very particular Homo sapiens goes down to dust, and rises up the King of Heaven.

Death happens, but so does resurrection.  Extinction happens, but so does evolution.  And if our bones fit together differently when we walk out of the valley than when we walked in, maybe that’s not so bad.  I mean, you’re better looking than Paranthropus boisei any day.

Prayer

For evolution, thank you.  For resurrection, thank you.  For not giving me a protruding brow ridge and shallow brain pan, thank you, thank you, thank you.  Amen.

Where Is He Now?

Acts 1:1-11

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

Shirley Temple now

Do you ever watch those TV documentaries that follow the lives of celebrities from days gone by and ask, “Where are they now?”  I must admit that I find them fascinating.  Obviously, some of them are more fun to watch than others.  It’s always sad to hear about those who get swallowed up by fame and lose themselves in an ocean of drugs and revelry.  But then there are those who somehow manage to outlive their own fame.  Many of them go on to lead perfectly normal lives with spouses and families.  Others go on to do even bigger and more important things than when they were in the limelight.

My favorite example of this kind of celebrity is none other than the unforgettable Shirley Temple.  Shirley was the sweetheart of the silver screen in the 1930s and is still the youngest person to ever receive an Academy Award.  What most people don’t know is that, since then, Shirley Temple has had an illustrious career as an American diplomat.  She was a delegate to the United Nations and the Ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia at different points in her life.  All in all, I’d say that she’s had a pretty successful post-show-business career!

It’s kind of the same way with Jesus.  Today, we’re celebrating Christ’s Ascension into heaven where he “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”, according to the Apostles’ Creed.  The Ascension represents the early Christian church’s way of answering the question, “Where is he now?” when it comes to Jesus.  After all, they claimed that he had risen from the dead, so they had to have some kind of response ready when people asked, “Well, if he’s really alive, why then can’t we see him?”  So then, the Ascension, on one level, is kind of a cheap cop-out.  But, on another level, it expresses a truth that goes much deeper than mere historical fact.

The Ascension is kind of a hard topic to write a sermon about.  It’s so abstract and mythical-sounding that it’s hard to pull anything useful or relatable out of it.  Have you ever seen a Jewish rabbi come back from the dead and then fly off into the wild blue yonder like Superman?  I can’t say that I have.

Biblically speaking, we read about the Ascension in two different places in the New Testament: at the end of Luke’s Gospel and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.  This is more appropriate than you might think because Luke and Acts are actually related to each other.  They were probably written by the same author(s).  Acts follows Luke like the sequel to a blockbuster movie.  The first movie (Luke) tells the story of Jesus’ life.  The second movie (Acts) picks up right where the first one left off and tells the story of what happened in the early church immediately after Jesus’ earthly lifetime.  The Ascension event serves as a kind of fulcrum or turning-point between these two stories.  Jesus continues to be an important and active presence in the book of Acts, but, like Shirley Temple, much of his most important work takes place after he exits the spotlight.

The Ascension represents an expression of the earliest Christian belief that Jesus is more than an historical figure who lived two thousand years ago.  For Christians, Jesus is a living reality and an icon of the divine (which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus shows us what God is like).  This amazing person who worked as a carpenter and rabbi in Nazareth during the first century is, when seen from the Christian perspective, the king of the universe and the revealer of all that is sacred.

Jesus holds an iconic, even cosmic, status for us Christians.  What does it mean for us to hail him as the ascended king of the universe who “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”?  There are many who say that, as king of the universe, Jesus is in charge of every little event that happens.  It’s easy to see why people might think this when things are working out for the better (e.g. during times of prosperity, happy coincidences, and chance encounters with opportunity).  But this same idea becomes a big problem when we think about things like disease, disaster, and death.

Do these events fall under the sovereign rule of King Jesus?  Some say yes.  They try to comfort suffering people with pithy phrases like, “God is in control” and “everything happens for a reason.”  If you’ve ever heard someone say that to you in the middle of a crisis, you’ll know how much it doesn’t help.  In fact, it’s downright offensive.  Phrases like that do more to comfort the speakers than the hearers.  It’s something people tell themselves in order to dismiss the suffering of others.

So, when I think about Jesus as king of the universe who reigns in power at the right hand of God, I don’t think of him controlling everything that happens in this world.  If we believed that, we would have to blame Jesus for a whole lot of horrible things that happen.

If we believed that, we would end up asking the very question that the story of the Ascension was meant to answer: Where is he now?

When we get that cancer diagnosis: Where is he now?

When we lose a job: Where is he now?

When accidents and disasters happen: Where is he now?

When children are made to suffer and die: Where is he now?

That’s why the idea of Jesus as “the king of the universe who controls everything” is so unsatisfying for me.  It leaves me asking the very question it was meant to answer.

When I think of Jesus as ruler over the cosmos, I think of him ruling from within rather than without.  The throne of the risen and ascended Christ is not on some cloud in an alternate dimension, but within our own hearts.  The power of Christ is the power of persuasion rather than coercion.  Christ works with our free will, not against it.  When we, as Christian people, freely follow Jesus and choose to live our lives in accordance with his spirit and words, the risen Christ lives and reigns in us.  The spirit of Christ is embodied again in us.  This is what it means for the risen and ascended Christ to rule from within rather than without, by persuasion rather than coercion.

Where is Jesus now?  Jesus is in you.  Christ lives and reigns in you.

When people are suffering, Jesus is in those who work to offer comfort and relief.  Even when the pain is too great to be healed by human hands, the spirit of Jesus is alive in those who sit by the bedside or on the other end of the phone, holding hands, listening, and offering the comfort of companionship so that those who suffer don’t have to do so alone.  That’s where Christ lives and reigns in power today and his work continues, long after he has physically left the spotlight.  That’s where his kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven”.

We are the ones who must be Christ’s hands and feet in this world.  Our risen Lord and Savior sets his throne in our hearts.  Will we pledge our allegiance to his kingdom?  Will we walk through our life in this world as he did: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God?

Will we prize our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom of heaven-on-earth above every other conviction and commitment?  Will we take risks that put as odds with the interests of the powers-that-be?

If we can do that, we will learn what it means to worship the risen and ascended Christ who “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”.

I would like to close by sharing with you a prayer that I love.  It was attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, although he probably didn’t write it himself.  It’s quite famous, so you may have heard it somewhere before.  If you feel stirred by what we’ve talked about here today, if you find yourself asking “Where is he now?” in relation to Jesus, and you want to experience the risen Christ as a living reality and not just an historical figure, I invite you to join your heart with mine in praying this prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

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.

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!

Elements of Worship: Service

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  Part 3 in a series of 5.

The text is Matthew 16:21-28.

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

Star Trek's George Takei (Mr. Sulu). Image by Gage Skidmore.

Did you know that there’s a civil war going on in our country right now?  I’m serious.  There is.  It’s been happening for over thirty years.  Unlike the last Civil War, this one isn’t between the North and South.  You might be thinking, “He means the war between the political Right and the political Left.”  Nope.  Black and White?  Nope.  Haves and Have-nots?  Not even close.  Right now, I’m talking about the bitter divide that exists between Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans.  The geeks and nerds community is a house divided against itself.  My fellow Americans, this cannot be!

I feel so torn in this conflict.  The fight between Star Trek and Star Wars runs right through the center of my own heart.  I dream of one day being beamed aboard the starship Enterprise so that I too can “boldly go where no one has gone before.”  At the same time, I also fantasize about trained as a Jedi by Obi Wan Kenobi.  How can they ask me to choose sides between these two epic artifacts of science fiction lore?

Fortunately, there is one person out there who has issued a call for “Star Peace” and it’s none other than George Takei, the original Mr. Sulu on Star Trek.  He’s calling for a “Star Alliance” of fans from Star Trek and Star Wars who are willing to put aside their differences and fight the real threat to good science fiction: Twilight.  You may have seen the Twilight books and films being advertised in recent years.  For those who haven’t experienced it, Twilight, in George Takei’s own words, is all about “Vampires who sparkle and mope and go to high school.”  In Twilight, according to Takei, there is no “sense of heroism, camaraderie, and epic battle… There are no great stories, characters, or profound life lessons to be had… In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: ‘Does my boyfriend like me?’”

Now, I don’t actually care if people like Twilight.  So why am I telling you this?  Why am I taking time out of my sermon to drag you down this wormhole into the darkest depths of the nerd kingdom?  Because I’m very intrigued by the way in which Mr. Takei has criticized Twilight.  Let me give it to you again in his words:

Gone is any sense of heroism, camaraderie, or epic battle.  In its place we have vampires that sparkle and mope and go to high school… there are no great stories, characters, or profound life lessons to be had in Twilight.  No.  In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: ‘Does my boyfriend like me?’

What Mr. Takei is saying, in so many words, is that good stories are always bigger than the people in them.

As it is in science fiction, so it is in real life.  Imagine those who live entirely selfish lives with no connection to anyone or anything other than that which maximizes their own personal profit.  The thrill of financial stability lasts for a little while, but wears thin eventually.  Who can’t think of tabloid headlines depicting any number of celebrity scandals brought on by conspicuous consumption and wanton indulgence?  Despite its material benefits, I think most of us can agree that such a life does not sound ultimately appealing.  Something deep within us longs to be part of a bigger story than that of our own little lives.

We’ve been talking about the Elements of Worship these past few weeks at our church.  On the first week, we talked about the Word of God as an Element of Worship.  Last week we talked about Prayer.  If you missed either of those sermons, you can listen to them on our website at www.fpcboonville.org.  In coming weeks, we will discuss Sacrament and Relationship as Elements of Worship.  This week, we’re talking about Service as an Element of Worship.

“Service” is a word that we use a lot.  If you go out to a restaurant where the staff is friendly and the refills keep coming, you’re probably going to say, “Wow!  This place has really good service!”  And what will you do next?  You’ll probably leave a bigger tip.  Isn’t that interesting?  A waiter brings his whole self to work, welcomes customers with genuine personal warmth, and people just naturally respond with generosity.  Remember that point because it will become important later.  Here’s another example: When a person is a soldier or sailor in some branch of our country’s armed forces, we say that she is “in the service.”  In other words, she dedicates her whole self to the cause of national defense by risking her life in a combat zone.  We tend to respect that, don’t we?  A lot of people wear yellow ribbons that say, “Support the Troops.”

In the same way, when we talk about service as an Element of Worship, we’re talking about more than this one-hour-per-week ritual that we do on Sunday mornings in this building.  We’re talking about more than the cash we fork over in the collection plate.  We’re even talking about more than the time and energy that so many of you tirelessly volunteer for our various church projects during the year.  Just like that waiter or soldier, real service happens when you offer your whole self to something bigger than you.  Service, as an Element of Worship, is a self-offering.

As Christians, we see our self-offering as connected to and growing out of the self-offering of Jesus.  His life, death, and resurrection provide us with a lens through which we can come to understand what it means to give ourselves as an offering.

First, his life.  Jesus gave himself as an offering in two ways.  He offered himself to God and he offered himself to others.  These two ideas cannot be separated.  Jesus believed that God is Love, therefore you can’t love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength without loving your neighbor as yourself.  If you try to do one without the other, you’re going to end up very confused about what love is.

Jesus’ commitment to love (in this dual sense) got him into trouble on more than one occasion.  He exposed the hypocrisy of the powers that be.  He threatened the security of religious and political authorities in ways that no terrorist ever could.  Leaders in the public and private sectors alike were so frightened by what Jesus stood for that they even temporarily put aside their mutual hatred for each other in a grand conspiracy to have him killed.

Under these circumstances, no one would have blamed Jesus for mounting a defensive strategy in order to ensure his own survival, but that’s not what he does.  It says in today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Jesus walks straight into the belly of the beast, knowing full-well what the beast is about to do to him.

Jesus was not so caught up in his own ego that he wasn’t willing to offer himself.  He knew that his personal story was part of the universe’s bigger story.  Sure, he could pick up a sword and fight for his own survival, but he knew that survival isn’t everything.  His fellow Jews were fighting for their survival every day and, ironically, it was killing them.  “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” he said.

So, instead of the path of survival, Jesus opted for the path of self-offering.  He lived his life of love as an offering to God and others.  When that love brought him into conflict with powerful forces that wanted to kill him, he walked the way of the cross and let them do their worst.  But that’s not the end of the story.

What happens next is the best part.  We celebrate it every year at Easter time.  The offering turned into a miracle.  Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, three women found an empty tomb.  And an angel asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen!”  This is where the big story really gets going.  Death itself starts to unravel like an ugly old sweater.  The powers that be were vanquished by the power of love.  Christians remember this event annually as our most sacred holiday.  We celebrate it weekly in order to remind ourselves of what we really believe in.  As Christians, we don’t believe in survival; we believe in resurrection.  That is the true meaning of service (self-offering) as an Element of Worship.  Jesus taught us that.

What does this look like for us?  That’s a great story about Jesus, but how can we live lives of self-offering and resurrection today?  Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  The way of the cross is a path, not just for Jesus, but for all of us as well.  We who claim to follow him must decide whether we will choose survival (like the world) or resurrection (like Jesus).

When we choose to follow the way of the cross, we become part of a story that’s bigger than us.  We say that we are willing to jeopardize our survival for something more important.  It’s a dangerous move to make, but if we move in faith, we see miracles.  I once heard someone say that, until you find something worth dying for, you’re not really living.  Are we really living?  Are you?  What are you willing to die for?  What is this church willing to die for?  When we find an answer to that question, we’ll learn what resurrection is really all about.  Like George Takei was saying: there we will find heroism, camaraderie, and epic battles.  There there are great stories, characters, and profound life lessons to be had.

I heard a story this week from Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, the senior minister at All Souls’ Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK.  He said their church made a rather controversial decision several years ago.  They decided to take all the money that came into the church through their collection plate (about $20,000 per year) and give it away.  People were scared because that’s a lot of money.  The church depended on that money for their operating costs.  But they decided it was the right thing to do, so they amended their budget and went for it.  In that first year, rather than the $20,000 that usually came in through the collection plate, they raised $150,000 and gave it all away.  Now, you might say, “That’s great, but it’s too bad that they couldn’t meet their budget.”  Actually, according to Marlin, they did meet their budget that year.  They even took in about 10% more than they needed.  “Generosity begets generosity,” Marlin said.  Remember what I said about the waiter?  When somebody serves from the heart and offers him/herself, aren’t you just naturally inclined to leave a bigger tip?  Generosity begets generosity.

Let’s find another example, maybe one that’s a little closer to home.  I’ve mentioned this already, but I can’t help bragging on you folks again.  You remember this past Christmas Eve, right?  We heard about a crisis in our community where the county government was cutting funding to daycare programs.  Hundreds of kids were being affected and some of the most reputable and affordable daycare agencies were in danger of closing.  And the elders of our church voted unanimously to take the collection from Christmas Eve, our single biggest worship service of the year, and send the whole thing to one of those struggling daycare agencies.  Did you know that, with what came in that night, our little country church was able to cut a check for $1,000 to Thea Bowman House?  We’ve never taken up a Christmas Eve collection that big!  Generosity begets generosity.  Did you know that there are people in the community who noticed what we did and decided to join our church because of it?  That’s resurrection in action.

One more story about you folks.  Last summer, controversy was in the air as New York state was making a decision about legalizing same-sex marriage.  I drove down to Albany that week and stood in the halls of the state capitol building.  I saw the crowds of people shouting and holding signs with Bible verses about hellfire and damnation.  During that time, our little church took a stand.  We stood up and said, “All God’s children are created equal: black or white, male or female, gay or straight.”  At a church supper only two weeks before that happened, one of our own long-time church members came out of the closet to us at a church supper.  He shared his story with us.  And I remember the first thing that anybody said, after a long silence, was, “Well, God don’t make no junk!”  Our church took a stand.  We made a statement that this is a welcoming church.  We told the world that this church is a place where the law of love trumps the letter of the law.

Sure, it was a controversial thing to do.  It still is.  Our survival instinct might tell us to keep quiet and not rock the boat, because we don’t want to lose church members to controversy.  But you all chose resurrection instead of survival.  Did you know that people in the community noticed what we did?  On the very next Sunday after the legislation passed in Albany, a news crew surprised us during our morning worship.  They had TV news cameras set up right here in the sanctuary.  People heard about our little country church and said, “What?  A church that accepts and welcomes gay and lesbian people?  A church that believes that God loves everybody?  We’ve got to check this out!”  In the past few months, families have driven in from as far away as Utica to visit our church.  We didn’t lose people by being controversial, we gained them!  That’s resurrection in action!

And let me tell you what: we’re going to keep doing it.  We’re going to open the doors of this church so wide that the whole world will know it’s welcome here.  There are a lot of churches in Boonville, but there’s not very many where people can go and know they’ll be loved and accepted no matter who they are.  But people know they’re welcome here.  This sermon is being played on the radio, so even more people will know after this week.  I know it’s controversial but I don’t care (and neither should you).  Just like Jesus, we are offering ourselves to God and our neighbors.  We are choosing resurrection over survival.

When we go downstairs after worship today, we’ll be hearing our annual reports from all our different church committees.  We’ll be voting on this year’s budget and deciding our thoughts together for 2012.  As you look at the paperwork and hear the reports, I want you to remember what service and self-offering are really all about.  I want to invite you to look past your ego-driven instinct for survival and look to your God-given faith in resurrection.  That, more than anything else, will make a difference for the future of our church.  Like George Takei was saying: here we will find heroism, camaraderie, and epic battles.  Here there are great stories, characters, and profound life lessons to be had.

Here is a video of George Takei’s call for Star Peace: