Sermon for Easter Sunday 2019

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our ongoing quest to find a movie which actually scares us after desensitizing ourselves thanks to the availability of Japanese and Korean horror movies in the Western market, Annie and I went last month to watch the new adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Semetary. It was okay, though (with the exception of fellow-Episcopalian Jordan Peele’s two feature films, Get Out and Us) we remain underwhelmed by the scares on offer in American horror movies; Pet Semetary did not break the mold.

Even so, the film made an interesting theological point, believe it or not. The main characters are Dr. Louis and Rachel Creed (note the surname, no doubt a reference to the sets of propositions we Christians hold as sufficient standards of faith) and their two children, Ellie and Gage. The adult Creeds have very different views of death and life-after-death. Louis is by all accounts an atheist, and (as a doctor) views death as a perfectly normal metabolic process which one should neither fear nor harbor any expectations of experiencing anything afterward. His wife, Rachel, seems to have a rather sentimental view of life-after-death (what some of us call “pie in the sky when you die”), likely to compensate for a rather horrific experience of her sister’s death in childhood.

On Halloween, the family cat, Church (again, not a terribly subtle choice of names), is run over by a truck. Rachel convinces Louis to lie to the children, saying the cat ran away (suggesting, the popular religious view of death and life thereafter is not a little bit inclined toward death-denial), which he does. A well-meaning neighbor then has Louis bury the cat in an old Micmac graveyard, which leads to a sort of feline resurrection, though the results are more zombie-like or demonic than one would hope. When one of the Creed children is later also killed by a speeding truck, Louis, the self-proclaimed atheist, engages in some death-denying activity himself, digging up the kid’s body from the churchyard and reburying her in the spooky Indian graveyard. You can imagine where it goes from there.

The film levels an interesting, and I think appropriate, indictment of both ontological materialism and ontological idealism. The former would hold that the only thing that exists, fundamentally, is matter and the latter that the only thing that exists, fundamentally, is consciousness or spirit. I’ll not belabor the philosophical problems with both of these propositions on Easter morning (you all want to get to your lamb dinners and chocolate eggs and so forth), but I will note that neither of these ontologies–neither of these views of what does or does not exist–passes the smell test of our lived experience. On some deep level we seem to know that there is more to our human existence than the theoretically perfectly predictable interaction of subatomic particles whose every imperceptible move could have been charted from the big bang until this moment. On that same deep level, we also seem to know that we are not just conscious souls hallucinating our physical existences. As the philosopher Robert Nozick is supposed to have said. “Of course I have a hand. Here it is.”

So what does this have to do with the resurrection? What does it have to do with the audacious claim that Jesus rose from the dead and that we too, at the end of the age, will be raised with him? It means that the resurrection is neither scientifically explicable nor is it a merely spiritual reality. It means that the resurrection of Christ is neither a magic trick nor a mere sentiment. It means that these bodies and the material world which God has created and called good and in which he made a home for us are not rubbish to be despised or destroyed, but it also means that someday they will be something greater than they are now.

In this morning’s epistle, Paul writes,

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died… He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Let us make no mistake, the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior is not merely a metaphor for some way in which his memory and ours can live on to inspire others. To quote the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, which some of you will remember reading in my Easter letter this year: “If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.”

No doubt some of you took on a bit of trouble to get here this morning. Maybe you got out of bed earlier than you normally would have done. You’re missing the Sunday morning political talk shows, though that may be more of a relief than a spiritual discipline. Some of you have children here, and I’ve been told it’s hard to get little boys into khakis and ties (even clip-ons) and little girls into dresses and bonnets, or really to get any child into anything other than Spiderman underoos. Presumably you’re not here because you think Jesus was just a friendly chap we ought to remember from time to time, though if that’s it I’m still glad you’re here and I’m pleased to inform you that what we celebrate today is a whole lot more exciting than that.

What we celebrate today is the glorious truth that nothing of all that God has made is lost forever. We celebrate the truth that though sin once enslaved us we have been set free. We celebrate the truth that our souls have been redeemed. We celebrate the truth that even these old bodies, as decrepit as they might have become, will too be saved and made glorious in the Resurrection on the Last Day, even as Christ the first fruits of that Resurrection stood up and walked out of his tomb.

In this vein, I would like to share a poem by another notorious Episcopalian, John Updike, his “Seven Stanzas for Easter”:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all It was as His body; If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit, The amino acids rekindle, The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers, Each soft spring recurrent; It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the Eleven apostles; It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes The same valved heart That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered Out of enduring Might New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor, Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence, Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded Credulity of earlier ages: Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache, Not a stone in a story, But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of Time will eclipse for each of us The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb, Make it a real angel, Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in The dawn light, robed in real linen Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty, Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed By the miracle, And crushed by remonstrance.

When God created the heavens and the earth he called them good, and in raising his only-begotten Son, he speaks that same affirmation, beginning the re-creation of all things, which in the end he will declare good again. Let us not spurn this gift. Let us accept it and rejoice, for today Christ is risen from the dead. In Baptism he has made us a new creation already, in expectation of the consummation of all things, when the graves will open and the seas will give up their dead, and we shall be welcomed, body and soul, into the new and everlasting Kingdom where he has gone to prepare a place for us.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Good Friday 2019

Two images have struck me this week as being resonant on this sorrowful night. The first, of course, was the collapse of the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral, and I am quite sure many of my colleagues in pulpits around the world are lingering on that image as apropos for Good Friday. The other image that struck me came from the front page of the Findlay Courier yesterday morning. There was Lady Justice atop the Hancock County Courthouse, and the scales of justice had fallen out of her hand an onto the sidewalk below.

We see the scales of justice come crashing to the ground tonight. We see, perhaps, the greatest miscarriage of justice in human history because the one truly, perfectly blameless human being ever to have lived is murdered by an empire which claimed to be the greatest champion of peace and justice the world had ever seen. Three times Pilate states that he finds no case against this man, but in the end his cowardice led him to follow the path of injustice. We see a crowd, putatively committed to the proposition that the Lord, who alone executes justice and righteousness, is King shout, “We have no king but Caesar.” And we see Peter, three times perjuring himself, bearing false witness in the courtyard of the high priest and in the courtroom of his own soul.

But we miss the truly damnable truth about our Lord’s Passion if we try to assign blame particularly to one of these characters or another. Quite rightly, considering the history of the Twentieth Century, there has been a concern in recent decades about the passion narratives having being used for antisemitic purposes at various points in history, and it’s more than appropriate to say it was the Romans, not the Jews, who killed Jesus in terms of the historical facts. But this historical question, rightly addressed, should not distract from the theological truth.

A few moments ago we sang the ponderous hymn Herzliebster Jesu and in the second stanza answered a most bitter question:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.

‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:

I crucified thee.

The Passion invites us to place ourselves into the shoes of those surrounding Jesus, including Judas and Peter and Pilate and the Chief Priests. We are the crowd who cry out “Crucify him,” and, shockingly un-ironically, “we have no king but Caesar.”

Conversely, in a few moments I will place myself in the very uncomfortable place of our Lord by carrying the Cross into church and you will do the same in the disconcertingly imprecatory reproaches. We are called to experience the crucifixion from both sides of the camera, as it were, and I think it’s intended to be more than a little disquieting. Indeed, I think it intentionally borders on blasphemy.

There is but one Savior. We are not him; but in some sense, through our mystical union in his body, we are. We didn’t crucify the Lord; but in some sense, we did and we still do. We both love and despise this man. We are Jesus and we are anything but Jesus. God is so close and yet so impossibly far away at this moment.

Good Friday is what we call a liminal space, a threshold between what we were and what we are to become, a moment of ambiguity and disorientation, a moment lacking alterity, which is to say, as did the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, there is no longer a discrete “I” and “thou.” Our identity is all mixed up. Perhaps it is lost.

The veil of the temple is rent. Our Lady’s Cathedral has burned. The scales of justice have crashed to the pavement. God has abdicated. The church is a tomb. Last night we ate the Passover meal in haste as commanded. Will we have to wander here another forty years? Even longer? For eternity?

Were Jesus’ last words accurate? Is it finished? Is that a declaration of praise or of lamentation? Is this all there is? Will the powers of sin and death hold sway from this time forth for evermore?

Today, like Job, our only prayer is that our sorrow be published. Today, like Jeremiah, we reach out our hand but find no one to comfort us. Today, like the Psalmist, we mourn the loss of our friend and resign ourselves to a life with darkness as our only companion. Today, like the Thessalonians, we grieve as men without hope.

The light of life has been extinguished. Can it ever be rekindled?

We have nothing to do but to keep watch. We return tomorrow night and keep vigil together, and God knows what new thing is in store. We hold on to what hope may be left in us, and if there be none, what hope may be left in each other. Perhaps streams of living water will rise up in the desert. Perhaps a light will peek out of the darkness in the distance, and perhaps it will grow and encompass us all. Though death has won this day, maybe, just maybe, life has one last trick up its sleeve. Keep awake, watch, and pray.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2019

We are invited during Holy Week to do a number of things which we no doubt find uncomfortable. We began this week by turning on Jesus. We had our great triumphal procession with palms, singing Hosanna, and not much later we all shouted “Crucify him!” during the reading of St. Luke’s Passion. Tomorrow at the proper liturgy for Good Friday, we will also do some uncomfortable things. We’ll do a lot of kneeling, which may be physically uncomfortable. We’ll also observe a fair amount of silence, which for many of us can be extremely uncomfortable.

And tonight we engage in what might be the most uncomfortable liturgical act of all, having our feet washed as a symbol of giving and receiving self-abnegating love. So discomfiting is this symbol, that I have heard of clergy who opt to wash hands instead of feet, or else omit the rite entirely. The latter is indeed a possibility, as the prayerbook rubric suggests the rite is optional, while the former (washing something other than feet) would be a rubrical violation, though I’ve never heard of anyone being brought up on canonical charges for it.

I’m a bit disappointed that the English monarch gave up washing feet sometime in the seventeenth century, instead giving purses of commemorative “Maundy Money” to pensioners, but I guess the Church of England’s supreme governor can do what she wants in the context of the Church of England.

Feet are kind of icky (right?) and in the ancient world they were worse because almost everyone walked everywhere they went and wore sandals and got their feet all dusty or muddy or worse. This is why it was the job of a slave to wash feet and why Peter is so taken aback that the Lord should take on this task.

Perhaps a modern equivalent would help us understand just how uncomfortable this would have been for Peter. I’ll use a personal anecdote so as not to embarrass anybody besides myself. I have never had a massage, not because I couldn’t use one when sore or stressed, but because it requires a level of nudity and physical contact with which I am uncomfortable. Anyway, during my senior year of seminary, during the General Ordination Exams–the week-long gauntlet of written examinations every seminarian must take before being ordained–we were part of a wonderful tradition of underclassmen and other community members providing hospitality of various sorts to those of us being tested. One day at lunch there was a drawing for a special prize- the wife of one of my classmates was a licensed massage therapist and she had offered a free session to whoever won the drawing. Well, my name was drawn, and as you can guess I was not terribly excited about this turn of events. Fortunately I was able to transfer this prize to a classmate to whom I explained my hesitation. She said, “well wouldn’t the fact that you know the massage therapist, that she is your friend, mitigate your discomfort?” My response, as you might have guessed, was “Absolutely not! That makes it even worse!”

I think Peter’s hesitation to have his feet washed, and perhaps our own, points to a larger truth about the nature of giving and receiving love. For love to be the sort of love Jesus calls us to requires a level of intimacy and vulnerability which can make us not a little uncomfortable. Paying a stranger for a massage may or may not be uncomfortable, but having a friend do it seemed even worse to me. Having a servant wash one’s feet may or may not be uncomfortable, but having a friend do so, now that probably is.

So is sharing some deep, dark secret with a loved one. So is revealing some strange or embarrassing peccadillo to your new spouse as a natural result of living together for the first time. So is relating some awkward, intimate medical information because you desire a friend’s prayers or a ride to the hospital, but you’re not 100% sure they won’t be grossed out by your self-revelation. So is asking for a loan from a friend or, God forbid, a relative because some disaster happened and you can’t seem to make ends meet.

Christ’s new commandment, to truly love one another, if it is the kind of love I have just described, is especially difficult in the Western World in the year 2019. We are less likely than those in previous eras to be active in a church, to be involved in civic organizations and social clubs, to belong to political parties or labor unions, to know our neighbors or to go to a friend’s house for dinner. Political scientist Robert Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community made this determination nearly twenty years ago, and I don’t suspect things have gotten much better since then. The most likely place we encounter the word “friend” these days is probably on Facebook, and maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t see how the kind of loving friendships based on intimacy and vulnerability are likely to develop in the context of our carefully curated social media personae.

How much more difficult it is in these times, and so how much more critical it is that we, as Christians, model the kind of self-sacrificial love perfectly expressed by Christ Jesus! “By this all men shall know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

In his Apologeticus, the church father Tertullian remarked how this counter-cultural witness to the power of love surprised the people of the late second century: “’See,’ [the Pagans] say ‘how [these Christians] love one another’ (for they themselves hate one another); ‘and how they are ready to die for each other’ (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).”

You see, in the culture of the ancient Greco-Roman world, beneficence, acts of apparent loving-kindness, were about gaining some advantage. One showed one’s benevolence because one expected something in return, whether it be a tangible benefit or honor. One practiced philanthropy with the assumption that one would receive recognition, and such philanthropy was directed to humanity in general, not the poor specifically, in whom the gods were not particularly interested. I read an excellent article published last month from the Dutch New Testament scholar Pieter van der Horst titled “How the Poor Became Blessed,” in which he makes a compelling (if impolitic) argument that caring for the poor being intrinsically good and required was a Jewish creation and that organized charity done for its own sake was a Christian invention. This idea of truly loving others–not just having warm fuzzy feelings for them, but putting their own good above ones own with no expectation of personal gain–was radical in Jesus’ day, and I think it’s just as radical now.

It’s just as radical now, because our culture has fallen victim to the same pagan impulse to treat others as commodities rather than as beloved sisters and brothers to whom God has indissolubly bound us. College admission boards and corporate pr departments now receive the sacrifices once offered to the Roman goddess Liberalitas. I suspect something like the “social credit system” now being formally instituted in the People’s Republic of China has on some level already been informally instituted in the broken way we in the West treat our fellows bound to us, not through the Blood of Christ and the Water of Baptism, but through what remains of our common social fabric on the internet, and, decreasingly IRL (“in real life”).

Tonight we are called to not just a higher purpose but a different way of life. We are called to wash feet, which is to say we are called to place the well-being of those whom God has given us to love before our own in ways that are uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing, even dangerous. This is how the world will come to know who our master is. When the world can see how these Christians love each other, how they will even die for each other, then the Kingdom of God has a chance in the midst of the darkness that now surrounds us. Then the world can be shown that love and hope have a chance when all around seems to be darkness and despair. They will know we are Christians by our love, and maybe, just maybe, they can find that love, too, when all seemed lost.