You may want to keep those bibles open for just a second. I have an open book quiz for any of you who are feeling brave.
Before modern science the ancients had the notion that the universe was constructed of four elements. Can anyone tell me what they were?
Those of you who were here last night at the Easter Vigil may have recognized that these same four elements were present in the four movements of our worship. No real surprise; the ancients who shaped that liturgy were deeply connected to the earth in a way that we are only now recovering as we take an honest look at the results of our actions on our fragile ecosystem. They knew it 1800 years ago. Our forebears on this continent knew it too. We’ve had to remember.
So you have fire in the lightning and water in the snow. The third element is present as the fiery, snowy angel appears in the story to roll away the stone and the earth quakes. So there’s… earth.
But noticeably missing from Matthew’s story is the fourth element—air. The Greek and Hebrew words for air both evoke the image not only of air, but breath, life, spirit. The two images are coupled in the language of faith. And perhaps this raises a question for many of us who come to this place wondering what truth we can speak on a morning like this. Is God really in these bold and joyful claims for the possibility of new life? And if so, how?
You see, this is why I think the ancient elements play so frequently in these stories. We may have a more sophisticated scientific knowledge than they did a few thousand years ago, but we share with the ancients the sense that faith isn’t really much of anything unless it is connected to our daily life, unless it makes a difference in our relationships and our well-being, and in the very survival of our planet and the creatures that dwell in, on, and above it.
The writer Barbara Johnson said we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. And every year the world seems more of a Good Friday world. Whether it is North Korea or Syria or pretty much all of Africa or if it’s your own best friends and their sick child, the reality is we don’t really have the luxury of playing around anymore with religion that’s empty.
Anne Lamott tells the story of going on a shopping trip with her best friend Pammy, about two weeks before Pammy died from cancer. Pammy was in a wig and a wheelchair and Lamott was buying a dress for a boyfriend she was trying to impress. “I bought it tighter and shorter than I was used to,” she writes. “And I [asked Pammy], ‘Do you think this makes my hips look big?’ And she said to me, so calmly, ‘Anne, you don’t have that kind of time.’”[i]
In an NPR interview, Lamott relates that story to the invitation of Easter. She says, our lives are too precious, and the moment too urgent to waste them away.
I think Easter has been about the resonance of that simple statement; and that when I stop, when I go into contemplation and meditation, when I breathe again and do the sacred action of plopping and hanging my head and being done with my own agenda, I hear that, 'You don't have that kind of time,' you have time only to cultivate presence and authenticity and service, praying against all odds to get your sense of humor back.
Here’s a challenge, though. Biblical faith is built on a logical impossibility. At various points within our scriptures we find witness to these three claims: First that God is all-powerful, second that God is just or good, and third that people suffer unjustly. God is all-powerful; God is just and people suffer unjustly. Does that sound about right?
The problem with these claims is that you cannot hold onto them all at once. Imagine them as three points of a triangle. In any given moment, the scriptures inevitably lop off one of the points of the triangle in order to make it work. So do we, of course.
So we can have an all-powerful God and we can be honest about the fact that people suffer even though they don’t deserve it. But we cannot then imagine God to be just or fair or loving. That gets lopped off.
We can affirm that God is just and good, and we can affirm that we witness real suffering, but we typically square it in our minds by imaging God’s power to be limited, not unlimited. The idea of an all-powerful or omnipotent God gets lopped off from the triangle.
At other times we hold onto the idea of an all-powerful and just God by denying the suffering we see others experience. Either it isn’t really suffering or they deserved it anyway. We lop off the idea that someone else’s suffering might be real and undeserved.
But here’s the thing: Taken collectively, our Easter faith doesn't solve the problem for us. It argues about it; it explores different responses, but it ultimately affirms the question over any and every simple solution. There is no single, all-encompassing answer. There are only tough questions and the witness to wrestling and doubt. There is only the invitation to come to the tomb and face it full on, to summon the courage to wait and see what God just might do to bring new life from what we thought was dead. And in the doing there is the abiding affirmation that precisely in these difficult and real-life places—in grinding loneliness, in hunger and political struggle, in tombs and death—that in facing our fears together precisely in these places we find the seeds of new life, life to the full, life as it was intended.
Christianity is not about morality as much as it is about art. It is not about having the right answers, and living in your certainty as much as it is the ongoing process of making and re-making, visioning and re-visioning, of changing the world by changing your way of seeing.[ii] Authentic faith is about meaning that we can grasp, but it is always bigger than what we can hold. There is always more there there.
Mary may get a hold of Jesus’ feet, but she doesn’t get to hold on for long. Jesus is on the move. Her work is to follow. Authentic faith and the God we find within it is always out ahead of us paving the way of possibility and newness. It is the breath that breathes life into everything.
The image of the font and its story of baptism that we witnessed to last night with Molly, Kendra and Raiden is similarly large and compelling. In Romans 6, Paul tells us that baptism is our entry into the death and resurrection of Christ. It teaches us that, contrary to the dominant voices of our culture, the giving up of ourselves is the way to the finding of ourselves. Dying to self and self-interest is the way to new life not just for us, but for the sake of the world, for the generations of the whole human family and for the earth on which we live.
This big candle by the font is called a Passover Candle or Christ candle. Like any good art, it reaches out to our hungering imaginations with a surplus of meaning; it calls out to our spirits to remember that the God who burns in the bush that is not consumed is the same God who in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night lead Israel through wilderness to a new home, is the same God who is revealed in the love and self-giving of Jesus that we encounter in the Gospel story—alpha and omega, beginning without end. It is the same God who burns in our hearts with a hunger to know and be known, who calls us by name, whose light shines in the darkness and is not overcome.
These are claims that we cannot prove with scientific certainty. They exist in tension with the world and with our experience. But we believe them to be true. Our life together teaches us what is possible.
William Sloane Coffin said it this way:
“If you ask me if Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead, literally walked on water, and changed water into wine, I will answer, ‘For certain, I do not know. But this I do know: Faith must be lived before it is understood, and the more it is lived, the more things become possible.’ I can also report that in home after home I have seen Jesus change more beer into furniture, sinners into saints, hate-filled relations into loving ones, cowardice into courage, the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. In instance after instance, life after life, I have seen Christ be ‘God’s power unto salvation,’ and that’s miracle enough for me.”
Dear friends, what we claim we cannot prove anymore than we can see the air that our lungs take in for life. The opposite of faith, after all is not doubt, it is fear. But this I believe: the only meaningful argument for the reality of the resurrection is embodied in the community that is in baptism re-born as Christ’s body, who have declared their allegiance to the crucified one and together constitute his body re-membered at Table from which it is broken for the world. And that for me is enough.
[i] Anne Lamott was interviewed on NPR April 18th about Lent and Easter.
[ii] Cf. Timothy Beal. The Rise and Fall of the Bible (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 182.