Sermon for Easter 2 2019

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

Looking back at sermons from previous years, I discovered that on the second Sunday of Easter in years past I invariably preached about “doubting Thomas.” So, this year I thought I’d do something a bit different. For the next six weeks, the second lesson is from the Revelation of St. John the Divine, so I’m going to try to preach on those lessons this Eastertide.

If there’s one book of the bible which has created more consternation and controversy than any other, it is Revelation. We’ll get more into the meat of the book in the upcoming weeks, and I’ll try to convince you that it’s not a frightening tale of things to come, but a hopeful, symbolic exploration of the victory of Christ over the powers of death as early Christians in the Roman Empire were experiencing intense persecution.

More on that in the coming weeks. As for this morning’s lesson, there are two points on which I want to concentrate- namely, the genre of the book and its protagonist.

First, the genre of the book is what biblical scholars call apocalyptic. Now, when we hear the word “apocalypse” we tend to think it denotes destruction- the end of the world and such. This isn’t what the term means, though, and it’s not what the book of Revelation is about. The word “apocalypse” is taken from the Greek words apo and kalupto, which literally means uncovering or revealing (hence the common, English title of the book Revelation). The first verse of the book signals that this is what it’s aiming to do:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place; and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

John is claiming that the words he writes were given him by God.

We often refer to the whole of the bible as revelation, as being somehow given or inspired by God, but this is the only New Testament text which explicitly claims to be revealed. One might make the argument that it’s the only book in the New Testament whose author knew he was writing scripture while he was writing it.

This brings up an interesting question. How do we test a document or a prophecy to determine whether it’s genuinely revealed, whether or not God actually inspired it? Anyone could claim to be speaking on God’s behalf, and such a claim could just as easily be used to justify horrible things. Hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and the Family Research Council claim to speak on God’s behalf.

One way orthodox Christian groups have safeguarded against this is by claiming that direct revelation simply ceased with the end of the apostolic era, that God stopped speaking directly to people after the first generation of Christians died and now the Church is left to protect and proliferate the early revelations alone. I’m not so certain about this argument, as it places a limit on God. If God wants to reveal something to us, God is perfectly well-entitled to do so.

I think a more moderate approach is more helpful, an approach based on prayerful discernment and consensus. In this approach, the Church does not serve to silence God, but rather to carefully determine what is and isn’t of God. Many have had compelling experiences of the divine, and it is left to the whole community to confirm or dis-confirm those experiences in the light of the Gospel.

And that brings us to the second point, the protagonist of this revelation:

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden girdle round his breast; his head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters; in his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 

Here Christ is identified with God the Father who a few verses earlier had claimed to be “Alpha and Omega.” Jesus claims to be “the first and the last, and the living one.” For this reason he says “fear not.”

In this book which many have seen as a terrifying vision of coming gloom, Jesus reminds us not to fear, because the whole sweep of history is in his hands and proceeds according to his plan. The reassuring hand of the risen Lord fell upon John, and falls upon us, to gently console us and make us know that all will be well.

Perhaps this is the best test of a prophet, the best way to determine the difference between revelation and a made-up story. Does it place power in the so-called prophet or in the hands of our gentle Lord? Is it a message of judgment or of hope? Is some charismatic leader the source or is it he who is alpha and omega? Next week we’ll get four beasts and a creepy dead lamb and some mysterious elders. Stay tuned for that. For now, remember that all will be revealed by him who has suffered and risen triumphantly for our salvation and freedom.

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

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.