Sermons

Sermon for Easter 3 2018

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

This sermon gets a little heady, so I thought I’d start with a reflection on something a bit less daunting- namely, television. Many of you know that we don’t have cable, but I still try to keep somewhat in touch with what is going on in the zeitgeist, and I’m fully aware of the ascendancy of reality television as a phenomenon. Some years ago I heard about a program called Ghost Hunters, in which a team calling itself The Atlantic Paranormal Society (or TAPS) investigates old buildings rumored to be haunted. I’ve looked up some clips online from time to time, and, as you will have already guessed, I find the program to be more-than-a-little silly.

You may think this is an example of the pot calling the kettle black, since some of you know that I quite like scary movies, but I find Ghost Hunters especially silly because it presumes to be based in reality. That said, the show has been a phenomenal success in terms of ratings. It’s no wonder, since polls have shown that nearly one-third of Americans believe in ghosts (I am, by the by, among the two-thirds that don’t, but I suspect – simply because of the statistics – that not everybody here agrees with me).

I bring all this up, because I’m afraid that the popular view of the afterlife is more like a ghost story than the traditional, orthodox teaching of the church. The view of American folk Christianity, which has progressively found its way into the mainline, historic churches, is that at the moment of death one’s soul leaves one’s body behind, springing from these ugly bags of mostly water, the husks which contain our essential being until freed by death.

But this is about as far from the Christian view of the Resurrection as one can get. Consider this morning’s Gospel reading. The disciples were terrified because they thought Jesus was a ghost. So, Jesus has them touch him, and see that he is as much a flesh-and-blood person as they. To make the point even stronger, Jesus asks for food and eats it. A ghost doesn’t need breakfast, but a man certainly does (preferably with bacon, but broiled fish will do).

We are told over-and-over in scripture, that our Resurrection will be like our Lord’s. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans writes:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

In the First Epistle to the Corinthians he writes that at the last trumpet blast the bodies of the dead shall be raised incorruptible.

Likewise, look to the Old Testament. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones doesn’t have ghosties flying around, but bones and sinews and flesh and skin coming together.

Or take the Fathers of the Early Church for that matter. For example, the following is excerpted from Justin Martyr’s treatise on the Resurrection from A.D. 153:

Indeed, God calls even the body to resurrection and promises it everlasting life. When he promises to save the man, he thereby makes his promise to the flesh. What is man but a rational living being composed of soul and body? Is the soul by itself a man? No, it is but the soul of a man. Can the body be called a man? No, it can but be called the body of a man. If, then, neither of these is by itself a man, but that which is composed of the two together is called a man, and if God has called man to life and resurrection, he has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body

Examples from both scripture and Christian tradition could be cited ad nauseum, but it should suffice to say that orthodox Christian belief unequivocally rejects body-soul dualism and affirms the bodily Resurrection not only of Christ but of all believers.

Two questions remain. First, if this were the case, why have so many Christians got it wrong? Second, why does it even matter?

The first question is easier to address. It seems to me that the Christian insistence on a bodily resurrection requires more explanation than the dualistic approach to be pastorally satisfying. I am often asked if a departed loved -one is now in the presence of God, and I can say “yes” in all sincerity, but it requires more explanation. We have not yet heard the final trumpet blast nor have we seen the bodies rise from their graves, but this is a function of our human need to experience reality as chronological. The passage of time is a constraint neither of the mind of God nor of the life of His Kingdom. So, while from our perspective our loved-ones are now plainly dead, resting in peace awaiting the Resurrection, from God’s perspective they can already be said to be alive. For this explanation to be emotionally satisfying, it requires us to think philosophically. It is much easier to say “yes, Aunt Myrtle’s soul just sprung from her body, and now she’s a ghosty living in the clouds.” It’s a rather lazy approach, and patently false, but I suppose it’s one way of comforting a person.

The second question is “So what?”. Why does this matter? Well, believe it or not, it matters a great deal. The sort of dualism which claims that the body is nothing more than a shell in which the soul resides suggests that the material world is somehow lacking. It ignores God’s declaration in the Creation story that His Creation was good. We start to see our bodies as prisons and the world we inhabit as inherently bad.

Our bodies and the rest of the material world are not crude shadows of the real. God made them and called them good. God reaffirms this truth in choosing to raise us from the dead with bodies real enough to touch and to eat and to do everything else a body is meant for. God reaffirms this truth in choosing not to consign us to some cloudy never-never land but rather to create a new heaven and a new earth on the last day.

When we fail to see this, there are serious implications. When we see our bodies and the world as temporary hindrances rather than gifts, we abuse them. We abuse Creation by polluting it, because deep down we believe it’s bad and it has no effect on that dull world inhabited by clouds and harps which we created out of whole-cloth without consulting Scripture and Church Tradition. When we start to see bodies as aberrations, violence (against ourselves and others) stops being so shocking.

Doctrine has moral implications. Bad theology can lead to poor morals. Take, for example, the homophobic hate-group Westboro Baptist Church that pickets military funerals. Good theology, conversely, can lead us to moral maturity. So, if this romp through the theology of the body does anything, I hope it helps us start to treat our bodies and the rest of creation with love and respect. Christians of all stripes haven’t done a bang-up job of this all the time. We, however, have the added benefit of knowing that God is with us. He has promised to restore to fullness whatever has been broken by human sin. He has promised to restore our bodies and our earth, making them whole once again on the last day. How we act as stewards of these gifts now, though, is of eternal significance. Thanks be to God that we have His Word and Sacraments to sustain us in this task. Pray that we may rise to so great a challenge.

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

Sermon for Easter 2 2018

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

Friday night Annie and I attended the premiere in Toledo of I Dream, a new opera based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought it was really cool that the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination was being marked with an opera here in Northwest Ohio. The music was beautiful and the direction and production quite interesting, and while it was technically a little bit rough (perhaps taking it to New York, where audiences are a bit less forgiving, would have been premature), I could see the piece really making waves in a larger market as soon as the kinks are worked out.

My favorite aspect of the opera was that it didn’t shy away from acknowledging Dr. King’s own doubts and fears, both during his work in Birmingham and Selma and, especially, leading up to his death in Memphis in April 1968. It is widely known that Dr. King was remarkably prescient (prophetic, even) when it came to his assassination. The opera does a masterful job investigating King’s own doubts about his mission and the legacy of his work in this final hour before being consoled and inspired (quite literally) by visions of his grandmother, who had first taught him to overcome hate with love, and his wife Coretta who had kept him focused on the struggle during his times of desperation and insecurity. It was beautifully done, and I guess this would be a kind of advertisement for the opera except that (as those of you who are Toledo Opera patrons know) there is only one more performance – this afternoon’s matinee – and when I checked yesterday morning there were very few seats remaining!

Anyway, the reason this element of the opera – its recognition of King’s own doubts and fears – struck me so profoundly might be because I was considering it in light of this week’s Gospel, our annual reminder of poor “Doubting Thomas.” Last year I said that we miss the point of the story if we turn Thomas into a charicature – the icon of incredulity – whether we lambaste his doubting ways or affirm them as the saint par excellence of modernity and scientism. His life as a whole and his response to this Risen Lord in particular is more rich and nuanced than that straw Thomas.

This year I want to focus not on the doubt itself, but what grew out of it- viz., a stronger belief and a commitment to living out that belief as an apostle after the Resurrection. The more I consider doubt as a part of the believer’s life, the less ready I am to make a normative judgment about it. This goes both ways, you might say. Some would reckon doubt of any sort a serious moral failing. I don’t think I’ve ever been of that opinion. Unequivocally denouncing all who would question their own beliefs can lead to a shallow sort of faith or, even worse, to the kind of unquestioning obedience to a set of beliefs and actions which strikes me as an element of cults rather than true religion.

On the other hand, there are those who would elevate doubt itself to a kind of article of faith, as ironic as that may sound. Such an approach might hold that one must question everything to come to any kind of certainty about anything. Now, I love wrestling with hard questions (it’s the philosophy major in me, I guess) and I think new insights often depend on our being open to admitting we were mistaken about some article of faith, even a central one, like the Resurrection. That said, if doubt is the primary mode of religious imagination, it seems to me we’ll never be able to find our footing. We’ll be captive, it seems, to infinite regress. What’s more, to climb back onto my favorite hobby horse, such an approach is helplessly individualistic, finding no recourse to the community of the faithful, the communion of saints of which we are a part, and, thus, more-than-a-little arrogant. No, it seems, if we’re to have any foundation at all, it must be upon convictions which have by some process and at least to some extent been inoculated against doubt.

What if, however, we didn’t view doubt and faith as moral antipodes, but rather as spiritual givens? Each, no doubt, abides alongside the other. Thus the father of the epileptic boy in Mark’s Gospel can without self-contradiction proclaim, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

The blessedness (or happiness to use the more literal translation of the Greek Μακάριος) of those who have not seen and yet believe, then, does not make them morally superior to Thomas, but simply spiritually better off in the moment. It is what is done by that small seed of faith, no matter the concomitant doubt and fear, by which we are judged. That mustard seed of faith was enough to raise Thomas from doubt and despair to a heroic life spent, even to the last, in service of the Gospel. Likewise, young Martin’s faith in the God of love and the moral nature of the universe that same God had created gave him strength throughout his life and to the last to rise above doubt and despair and personal imperfections to do the Good God had intended.

Just so must we acknowledge our misgivings, our uncertainties, our lack of perfect confidence and ask the God of all confidence to give us the strength to persevere in belief and in trust that he will not leave us comfortless. We’ll not be on the wrong path so long as we keep praying for that assurance, so long as we can honetly say, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

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

Sermon for Easter Day 2018

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

Something that I often forget about my religion is just how weird it is. It’s sometimes an interesting exercise to try to look at what we do and what we believe from the perspective of an absolute neophyte. I’ve been so steeped in church culture for so long that this is a rather difficult exercise for me, but I thought it useful since Easter is one of those days where someone with little or no background in my (or perhaps any) religion might feel more comfortable going to church for curiosity’s sake; it is a little easier to blend in on Easter morning. I think that’s great, and if you’re in that boat, welcome.

Anyway, my little exercise in looking at Christianity (and liturgical Christianity specifically) with new eyes remindes me, as I mentioned, just how strange a lot of what we do must seem. I mean, I’m up here in front of a crowd of people dressed like a Fourth Century Roman official who decided to wear his own clothes and his wife’s clothes all at the same time. We sing songs together. Outside of church, most of us haven’t done that since we were forced to go to summer sleepaway camp. We make a sacrifice, albeit a bloodless sacrifice, on an altar to which we bow and kneel. To an outside observer, say an alien anthropologist, this looks positively primitive.

And that’s just stuff we do. Think of what we believe. We believe a virgin conceived a child. We believe someone turned water into wine. We believe that same person fed five thousand people with five small loaves of bread and two small fish. We believe a dead man just got up and walked away from his own grave. We believe that two-thousand years later he is still alive. This stuff is crazy!

And that is why I believe Christianity to be the single most compelling worldview for the modern person. Because, in its purest form, it conspicuously rejects modernity. It is predicated on an epistemology which would cause most analytic philosophers to run screaming into the night. It eludes one’s ordinary human reason. It always will. That’s why we need it. We’ve forgotten how to be creative. We’ve forgotten how to be enticed by the big questions which our existence necessarily entails. We’ve forgotten how to be bowled over by the mystery of it all.

It drives me crazy when I read someone trying to make an empirical argument for a point of faith, particularly the Resurrection. It doesn’t drive me crazy for the typical reason I hear, though; it’s not that evidence precludes faith. Rather, it’s because these arguments don’t allow for mystery, don’t realize that there are just some things in the world we cannot know, and that, far from being a source of disappointment, this is a very exciting thing.

You see, the Resurrection (Christianity in general, actually) is not the kind of mystery that you find on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. Those all make sense by the time you reach the last page. No, the mystery of Christianity is strange. It’s something for which you have to use your imagination and, along with the entire body of the faithful, create some sense and meaning.

This for me is a whole lot more interesting than being given all the answers on a silver platter. It’s a great deal more difficult and a great deal more rewarding than just having to accept a set of propositions. God created us in God’s own image, and that means we are trusted with the capacity to join in on the very act of creation. Don’t be afraid of that. In fact, you can have fun with it. New insights can come from a playful approach to scripture and theology.

So, let’s take an example: “Supposing him to be the gardener.” I remember an image, perhaps from a film (and maybe of you remember this, and can tell me what it’s from): Jesus is hiding behind a bush when he and Mary Magdalene start talking and that’s why she doesn’t recognize him. Now that’s about the most boring, un-mysterious, reasonable explanation possible. Maybe that’s how it went down, but I’d be terribly disappointed if I got to heaven and found out that’s all it was.

What if it was just the gardener, and the story is about how the risen Christ dwells in each of us? That would make sense, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s only slightly less disappointing than Jesus taking cover in a shrubbery.

Or, maybe it was actually Jesus in the flesh, and Mary mistook him because he was down on his hands and knees with a trowel, gardening. Why would he be doing that? Was this actually the garden outside the tomb, or are we being literarily or even mystically transported back to the Garden of Eden? Maybe he’s replanting the tree of life, and this time we all get to eat from it.

Now, that’s just my weird speculative exegesis, but that’s the point. We’re dealing here with weird stuff, weirder even than funny clothes and grown-up singalongs and arcane rituals. We’re talking about the very order of things being radically changed.

Creation had been rocking along pretty well by itself for about fourteen billion years, and then something bizarre, something so outside the realm of human understanding happened, that space-time got turned on its head. The universe skipped a beat, the Creator so flagrantly breaking the laws he had created. Everything came into sharp focus for just an instant; we saw the light.

And we come back here, week by week, and catch another glimpse – sometimes almost focused, sometimes impossibly blurry, but always there in the Word proclaimed and in the Word made flesh on the altar. It’s strange; it’s inexplicable; it is totally contrary to the way we have all been trained to consume and integrate information. But, if you ask me, it’s about the most exciting, enriching, fun exercise a person can sign up for.

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