Sunday, May 22, 2011

Homily: The Fifth Sunday of Easter [May 22, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

There are times when the religious news abroad in the culture seems like something made up by the staff of The Onion or The Daily Show, and this week we’ve had several bizarre messages from the sacred front. First, of course, we had the predictions of judgment day and the rapture, scheduled for 6 p.m. local time—that’s funny in itself—on Saturday, May 21. A radio preacher named Harold Camping did the biblical math, and he figured that if you date creation 13,023 years ago and the flood an exact 7,000 years ago (both, of course, at 6 p.m. local time) then our destruction by fire will take place on October 21, and with five months for rapture and tribulation, that means 6 p.m. last night. I thought seriously about not writing a sermon for today—those raptured wouldn’t need to hear one, those left behind wouldn’t want to—but I decided to go ahead anyway. Unlike Mr. Camping and his followers, I was not sure that I would be one of the ones taken aloft. In fact, such presumptuous assurance of salvation strikes me as evidence that one might be left behind.
So that’s the first bit of news. Then came a second: the story that some canny entrepreneurs have jumped into the rapture business with post-Judgment Day services. One company is called “You’ve Been Left Behind,” and it is prepared to send letters to your nonbelieving friends after you’ve been taken up. Another, Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, offers to care for Fluffy and Fido after you’ve gone up into the sky to be with Jesus. There have been stories about people leaving their jobs, quitting medical school, and spending their life savings. I wonder if they continued to floss.
And then just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the American Roman Catholic Bishops announced the results of their study about the causes of sexual abuse among clergy. They blamed it not on anything inherent in the life of the church but on the permissive culture of the 1960s. That’s right. Woodstock made them do it. That’s a good excuse for misbehaving American priests, but what made all those Irish clerics misbehave. Riverdance?
Now why, you might ask, do I find all this so bizarre? Well, I guess I find it weird because the only other explanations would be less charitable. I find the Judgment Day story odd because it’s yet another case of Fundamentalists doing a lot of complicated Bible math with prophecies while ceasing to attend to what Jesus himself says in Luke 21: ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!”* and, “The time is near!”* Do not go after them.’ [Luke 21.8] The problem with Fundamentalists is that, like all of us, they read the Bible selectively. Unlike the rest of us, they’ve convinced themselves that they don’t. They’re prisoners of an ideology.
And then there’s this Roman Catholic thing. Both recent Popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have bound themselves up with an ideology, too. They want to blame all the problems in their church on American culture—specifically on what they think of as American decadence. Now I’m as much a critic of our culture as anybody, but to suggest that people in power abuse those without it because they wore too many love beads or danced the Frug is just ridiculous. I can’t think that even they believe it. People abuse other people because of the power dynamic within their system—be it a family, a church, a school, a business, or a nation. The clerical elite of the Roman Catholic Church has exercised power unchecked by lay authority for eighteen hundred years. That’s why they abuse children. Blaming it on Woodstock is the theological equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” Whether it’s in the Vatican, on Wall Street, or in Washington, when people are in such denial about their own ethical responsibility you have to laugh if only so that you won’t weep.
So if two prominent wings of Christianity—the Fundamentalists and the Catholics—are leading with their delusions and their foibles this week, where are the rest of us to turn? Today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, we gather in the ongoing celebration of the resurrection that began on Easter Day. If we believe that Christianity proclaims something profoundly true about life, how do we connect with that and not find ourselves being led astray by those who play numerological games or pass the ethical buck?
This morning’s Gospel [John 14.1-14] is one we commonly read at funeral services. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” It’s a Gospel of comfort, and we read it this morning because, as the logic of the Easter season works itself out, Jesus is preparing his companions for life without him in the world. After his resurrection, Jesus stays with his companions for 40 days. But then, at Ascension, he departs for good, and the community waits for the Spirit to come on the fiftieth day, Pentecost. So this morning, as he prepares his friends for his absence, Jesus begins by saying, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” He continues,
“In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going."
Then Thomas, always the skunk at the picnic, breaks the mood by saying, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus replies with these famous words:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. “

Let’s look at the second part of that sentence first: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” This phrase has been used by exclusivistic Christians throughout history to bolster the claims of their own enterprise. If you’re a Catholic, that means that there is no salvation outside the church. If you’re a certain kind of Evangelical, it means that you cannot be saved unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior. Neither of those claims is supported by this saying of Jesus, though. In the framework of John’s Gospel, Jesus is not talking about other religions or nonbelievers. He’s talking about his relationship with God, the One he calls his Father. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me, “he says. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life not as a divine secret handshake that excludes everybody else. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life because he and God are one—and if they are one, then the way we understand God is to keep our eyes on Jesus.
What he is saying here is that if you want to know God, look at Jesus. God is not some abstract vengeful being in the sky. God is like Jesus—loving, forgiving, compassionate, hospitable. The way to truth and life is through Jesus—not in a way that excludes those who don’t know him but in a way that takes on his way of being toward others and the world. To twist Jesus’s words as a way of condemning unbelievers to hell, or unraptured people to the tribulation of being left behind is totally to betray everything he actually stood for. As a character in Woody Allen’s movie, Hannah and Her Sisters says, “If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up.” It’s not only other traditions that would make Jesus queasy; some of our own smug Episcopalian behavior might also make him nauseous. Imagine how Jesus must feel hearing all the words that preachers put into his mouth. How would you feel being so persistently represented by people wanting to justify themselves?
What must give enormous pain to Jesus and to God is the way we all continue to project onto Jesus our own fears, ideologies, prejudices, and judgments. That’s true even for us more moderate Christians. We make Jesus exquisitely tasteful. It seems we cannot look at Jesus without making him into someone who will bolster our own political, cultural point of view. This morning he says to us, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” How do we take that in and make that real in a fashion that gives us not a club to beat someone else up with but will serve as an internal source of joy, peace, and power?
I have a friend and seminary classmate, Steven Charleston, who is a bishop, like me a former seminary dean, and now serves the Cathedral in Oklahoma City. Steven is a deeply thoughtful and prayerful person, and he recently posted this on his Facebook page. Steven is a Native American and a Christian, and he has done a lot of work with Native Americans who have suffered abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries and school teachers in the United States and Canada. And yet he continues to love and serve the church. Someone asked him why he stayed with Jesus. Here is what he said in reply:
I've stayed with Jesus all these years because Jesus has stayed with me. Beneath the intellectual trimmings and poetic sentiment is the core of earthy experience. Jesus didn't dump me even when I deserved dumping. God's love saw me through the kind of hurts you don't forget. Plain talk for plain faith. Simple truth for honest hearts. God's love is real. Prayer works. Faith heals. I can't say it better than that. [Steven Charleston, Facebook, May 16, 2011]

I’m not sure I can say it better than that, either. “God’s love is real. Prayer works. Faith heals.” We can’t let the way people—others, and even we ourselves—misuse or misrepresent Jesus get in the way of letting him into our lives and hearts. When the church of whatever variety—the Family Radio Network, the Roman Catholic Church, Christ Church Cranbrook—lets you down, do not confuse the church’s bad behavior with Jesus. Jesus has entrusted us with his reputation, and sometimes (perhaps most of the time) we get it wrong. But still Jesus stays with us and loves us into something new. Here’s another thing Steven says:

God bless the church, our traveling tribe, our motley crew, caravan of the conflicted and courageous, stumbling toward paradise, the hurt and hopeful, wounded healers, singing along the way. Life within her tents is never easy, but life without her would be a darkness, beyond our imagining. Bless the church, dear God, your quarreling brood, your stubborn flock, your love living for love, your dream of what might be. [Steven Charleston, Facebook, May 19, 2011]

We persistently get it wrong, but the presence of Jesus among us helps us get it right. We justify ourselves and cast blame on others in ways that are laughable, but Jesus stays with us and leads us on a pilgrimage toward oneness with God, each other, and the world. Jesus gathers us now, together, around his table to laugh with him and each other and ourselves about how we so consistently get it wrong. And then he calls us to get up, go out, and serve and love each other and the world. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Stay with him and he will stay with you. I can’t say it any better than that. Amen.

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