Editors Note: this sermon was preached on 4/27/14 at the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd; and after mentioning it to a friend realized it was not on the site, so here it is… What Plato and Twilight can teach us bout God and suffering.
There is so much that I can talk about in today’s scriptures. If you were to take Barry to Good People and ply him with drinks (just don’t post it on facebook), he would probably at some point admit what all those of us who preach know but don’t say, some weeks give you more than others. There is so much low-hanging fruit to this week, it is tempting to go here or there. I could talk for days about the historical proof of the resurrection as it is seen in the Acts verse or as an old Charismatic talk for weeks about the Holy Spirit or I could just vamp for months on the impact of the resurrection.
Take a deep breath, I will spare you the days, weeks, and months. Instead I would like to connect my sermon from last month to the passages today. Relax, I will not be giving a pop quiz or asking you to tell me what you remember, I am neither that vain nor that much a glutton for punishment to ask what you remember. But if you do remember forgive the rabbit trail. I asked us a question: what does it mean to kill a messiah. I answered that to kill a messiah is to kill the dream of that messiah. A dead messiah is a dead hope. A dead messiah is a dead way of life. The Romans knew this. The Jews knew this. And this knowledge provides the backdrop for the story. The apostles and the followers of Jesus were gathered together (maybe in hope but most likely in fear). They had the doors bolted. They were hiding. They were involved in a wake, a wake for their dreams of Jesus’ messiah-ship. I would think that is why one of the apostles, Thomas- always the realist was not there, he knew the dream was dead. They all knew it.
But something happened. In their midst appeared the Lord. In a body, not as a ghost or apparition, in a living, breathing, body. So let me ask this. If a dead messiah is a dead hope, what is a living messiah? Let us reread the words of Peter, one of those in that room:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
A living messiah is a living hope. A living messiah is the arbiter of an inheritance that will not die. It is imperishable. It is undefiled. It is unfading. It is protected. This is the promise and hope of which each of our passages today discuss. This living hope.
It is one thing to preach this hope on Sunday morning; but as Barry said last week, it becomes quite another task to live out that hope on Monday morning. I think this is a reality that Peter understood quite well. Because he goes on:
“In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials,
so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
This is our task as Christians born in this country at this time and called into this space: we are to rejoice and be genuine even as we suffer various trials. Growing up I belonged to a group that if it was not taught explicitly, seemed to often imply that trials meant you were doing something wrong. Trials meant that you were under attack from the enemy and you needed to pray so that your faith would be revealed by the absence of trials. Yet this teaching is condemned by the words of Peter. To be in a trial is to be tested, and our prayer should be that in this testing, our faith will be vindicated: not by the absence of further trials but within the trial itself. This is not a verse that you will hear Joel Osteen quote. This is not a verse that Kenneth Hagin or Pat Robertson is likely to dwell upon. Yet it speaks, truth, truth about our situation. So how do we make sense of this passage; how do we take the truth of this living hope out of the afterglow of the Eucharist and into the reality of Monday morning?
To be honest, I am not entirely sure. I fail at this almost as much or perhaps even more than I succeed. So I am going to do something very biblical and quite Jesus like. I am going to tell a few stories back to back and then as your faces quiver with doubt, I am going to seek to make some sense of them all. We are going to talk about WWII, Vampires, and Doctor Manhattan of the comic Watchmen; Plato, Augustine, Luther, and a former slave. I will then conclude by talking about my keys and why I chose to jingle them last week instead of bringing my cowbell. I hope that one or more of these catch and together they will bend our minds.
How many of you have seen Saving Private Ryan? If you have seen it or some other more realistic depiction of D-Day such as in Band of Brothers, you have a taste for what a horrible experience it was. I cannot see that iconic picture of the landing vessel surging to shore without thought of the moment in Ryan when the doors open and the men in the front are mowed down by machine gun fire. It was a bloody affair. Wikipedia, that arbiter of facts for our age, says that 24,000 American, British, and Canadian men were involved with a casualty rate approaching 12,000 (of which there were 4,414 confirmed deaths). It was a bloody day which led in turn to many more bloody days. In fact many will argue that more people were killed in the year or so from D-Day to V-E day than in the previous four years leading up to it. Yet ask any modern military scholar and he or she will tell you this: from the moment the Allies established a beachhead in France, the war was over. Hitler was finished. This is the reality as we see it now. It was the hope of the Allied leaders on June 7th. Yet it took a year of the bloodiest fighting imaginable to make that hope a reality. As we look back it seems so clear; but as the Allies froze in the forests of Belgium it seemed a distant and mocking hope.
Now as promised: Vampires. Though their popularity is waning a bit, vampires have been all the cultural rage for a good bit of the past decade. Thanks to Twilight, vampires were our go-to antihero or villain. Whether attacking Abraham Lincoln in the camp of Seth Graham-Greene’s book; or in the bored shenanigans of Sookie Stackhouse and her Louisiana friends, vampires ate up our attention. Zombies have taken their place as the chief horror of our landscape; but the idea and stories of vampires have scared us for over 1000 years. My favorite review from this period was discussing the new Twilight movie when it said (and I paraphrase): “this new hero is a vampire stuck forever as a teenager, forever attending high school, and this the author and much of America seems to think is paradise. To me it seems like hell.” Vampires are eternal creatures we are told by myth. Their form of eternity is as the reviewer described it. They are bitten and turned and can never die, staying at the age or shape at which they were bitten. Each day passes in turn and the vampire faces them in an unending fashion. I guess this is considered heaven to some; but to me it seems like a hell. And many authors have actually focused on this aspect of vampires. They have asked if living each day in an unending line of sameness and differentness might be more curse than blessing. It is a living hope but a hope that in reality seems less than good.
Have you got that image in mind? Do you still remember what we said about WWII? Good. And now: Plato. Plato agreed that such a view of eternity as a day to day existence without ending could be a philosophical possibility; but in looking at the idea of eternity, he asked if there was perhaps another kind of eternality. In fact he argued that there is one being for whom this alternate form of eternality existed. This being, he argued, existed outside of time. For this being time did not exist. He stood outside of it. For this being there was no past, there was no future, there was just the eternal now. This figure stood apart from the constraints of time. For him time did not exist as we mere humans might experience it. For him there was no passing of days. Looking at this view, many of our church fathers connected it to a verse of scripture, for God a one day is as a thousand. At the backs of many of the early fathers sat this Platonic theory of the eternal. As they talked and wrote about hope; they were writing with this sort of eternal being in mind.
Three ideas. Three stories told in brief. WWII. Vampires. Plato. Three pieces of a jigsaw puzzle I am dumping out before us today. Yet I would argue that these pieces connect together in a way that ought give us a mental picture to carry us from the joy walking down the aisle to partake of the Eucharist to the fear of walking down the hall to the boss’ office on Monday morning.
Allow me to launch an argument by comparison and allusion. I would state that for all of us humans, the way we experience the eternal is like that of vampires. We experience the day to day to day. This is what hope looks like for us: the promise of an unending slew of days. Each day passes. Each new day begins. We are; like vampires, set in time and place. Yet for God, our God who transcends all, eternity is like that of Plato. Our scriptures tell us that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Our scriptures speak of one day being as a thousand. This is not as the over-literalistic dispensationalist might tell you a exact qualification to be used in understanding the literal meaning of apocalyptic prophesy but a description of what it feels like to be God. In Him there is no beginning, no end, no past, no future, just the eternal now.
So allow us to compare this analogy to the historic event I have described. For the soldier climbing into the beaches of Normandy there was D-Day and the succession of days moving toward V-E day (a hoped for future day). Yet for God, there was no linear movement, D-Day and V-E have been experienced simultaneously. They have blurred together into the eternal now. To experience D-Day is to experience V-E day and vice versa. For the soldier it was one day at a time; past to present to future. For God it was all now.
Does this make sense to you? If it doesn’t don’t be scared. I will never forget hearing a professor make this same argument, not understanding a bit of it, walking out outside and listening to my friend try to explain what the professor had just said, still not getting it, and walking home in a fog. Yet sometime later I was on a plane; listening to music, watching the ground roar by, and suddenly it locked into place. Sometimes the best truths are like that. They morph and blur until in the blink of an eye, you experience that a-ha moment. And this truth is like that. I urge you to be like Mary, to take this truth and ponder it in your heart.
Because what happens if we can the events in question to that of the cross, the empty tomb, and say that future day of the Lord in which He will return to set everything right. For us vampires and soldiers of 21st century America, the cross and empty tomb exist in the murky past while the great day of the Lord exists in some blank of hopes and dreams. We can imagine what we hope it will be; but it exists just that: a hope, a dream that inevitably we wake up from, and have to face the reality of our present day. We are so like those soldiers freezing in the cold winter of the Belgium forest. D-day has come and gone. The fighting continues unabated. We are cold. Exhausted. Numb. Possibly depressed. Maybe suicidal. We are lost in the cold and the fog. For us V-E day stands as some expected and hoped for moment in the future. Yet in the murky twilight that hope winks at us and seems to be laughing and mocking us.
And yet for our God. The cross. The empty tomb. And the Great Day of the Lord. Exist. They have happened. They are all part of the eternal now. If we could call up God on the phone, and yell “where are you? Why haven’t you beaten evil, yet?” He would quite possibly answer, “I have.” For the God who exists outside time, all of it is as one piece. To experience the creation is to experience the cross. To experience the grave is to experience the Great and Awesome Day of the Lord. And vice versa.
When we experience the terrors of battle and scream, “my God where are you?” He is saying, “I am right here on the cross dying for you. Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.” And when we cry, “how long, O’Lord, when we will see you in your fullness.” He is saying, “Beloved look not in the tomb for I have risen. Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.”
I think it is telling that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room, he said “do this in remembrance of me.” I think in many ways we are to take the Eucharist and remember. But I think another reason to take the Eucharist is to remind God of us and his promises to us. We are saying, “God for the past and future have no meaning, look upon us and our place in the unfolding drama of our days. Remember our days. Remember your plans. Remember us and we will remind ourselves that in your eyes, the eyes of faith, all is well.”
It is also telling that as Jesus entered the locked doors of the Upper Room in the days past his resurrection, he breathed upon the disciples. If you could remember the creation account read to us on Easter Vigil on Saturday, you might ask what made Adam and Eve different from the other animals. How were Adam and Eve different from everything else the creation account describes…..
The answer is that of all that was created, these were the only two upon which God gave his breath. In this way Adam and Eve were set apart from all else. They, alone, had the breath of God animating their bones.
And so we have the account of the upper room andiIn this there is an inversion of the creation account. Once again we are told of God’s choosing to breath upon a group of people. Out of everyone who existed or had existed. God chose to breath upon these collected individuals. In much the same way that Adam and Eve were set apart from creation; so would these disciples be set apart. They alone would have the power of God animating them.
We stand in an unbroken line of succession to these men, and I would hope that each of us in this room have experienced God’s breathing of his life and spirit into their lives. This experience that Wesley described in his own life as his heart being strangely warmed. If you have not, please see me or Bishop, or Barry, or Bart or someone else after our meeting and we will be glad to pray that the spirit come upon you and enliven the dead bones of your body. That you might be revived and reformed and renewed. This, by the way, is a prayer that I renew with each new day, “God be with me today. Grant me your strength. Grant me your courage. Grant me your blessing.”
As we talk about Easter, you probably saw a lot of people talking about how Easter means that you are forgiven. You hear a lot of sermons that strike a similar tone to mine, that tell you that all is accomplished in the work of the cross. These men and women then urge you to get right with God and pray the sinner’s prayer that you might receive the promise of new life. That you might eventually share in the Great and Awesome Day.
This good and true; but we cannot stop speaking there. To discuss one, let me go on to the figure figure- story I mentioned earlier: Dr Manhattan. When I said I was going to talk about WWII, most of you probably thought, I know what that is. Same with vampires. But when I dropped the name Dr Manhattan, you probably scratched your head. He is a somewhat obscure comic character in the much beloved Watchman graphic novels. He is a doctor who experiences a tragic scientific failure. His physical body is destroyed; yet the radiation that killed the physical body kept his psyche alive and he reformed as a new type of person. In his new form he could experience past and future all at once. For this human who was used to the linear, this new existence was bizarre and scary. And there was a catch, there was a point in the future that remained a mystery and served as a dampener to his powers. In the end of the story you learn that a massive explosion in the future has so corrupted the plane of existence that it has reverberated back to corrupt Dr Manhattan’s powers. So he is a almost godlike creature with a limited perspective due to damage to himself that he is unaware of experiencing.
At this point of my description I have a mental image of my mom saying, “this is weird, why do you read this strange comic with these weirder people.” You may be thinking that now. But for me there is no figure in comics that better explains what it means to be Christians.
All of us who have experienced the new birth, all of us who have experience the power of God breathing into our bodies, are like Dr Manhattan in that we are now people for whom the past and future have merged into a new kind of existence. In fits and starts we experience the merging worlds of the old and new. We live in that in-between time; but yet we continue to get glimpses of the future. These glimpses can be hopeful and exciting and yet just as for Dr Manhattan, they can be scary and unnerving. And like the Dr, we have a corruption of which we are often unaware. For the Doc it was the coming Tachyon bomb. For us, it is the past experience with sin. We are utterly corrupted to the point in which our new powers and abilities seem endless and can also seem bleak.
“We don’t just need a new life; we need power to live that life. As I prepared for Holy Week, I read a spiritual memoir from a pastor in Denver. In it she wrote:
“ God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings.
My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word. My selfishness is not the end-all… instead God makes beautiful things out of even my own s#*t.
Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail (only) then stepping in like a hero to grant us grace- like saying ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.’
It’s God saying ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.'”
It is great to receive forgiveness from our sins. It is great to know that God has reopened relationship with us. But this is just the start. We need to be forgiven and empowered to live out that forgiveness.
A god who pats us on the head and says “That’s OK, I forgive you;” yet refuses to grant you the power to change is not a good god. When comparing notes about bad managers with others, I often mention a manager I once had. He would come by my desk and tell me I had made a mistake, tell me he fixed the mistake, but then refuse to tell me what mistake and how he fixed it. It was so frustrating. It made me want to scream. Others were able to laugh and go on; but it would kill me. Was this because I am a bad person? No. It was because I wanted to be a good employee; and I did not want to repeat my mistakes. Yet this manager while granting me forgiveness for my mistakes was not granting me to power to rectify my mistakes. He was dooming me to a groundhog day like existence, making the same mistakes over and over again. This is behavior that many in church have come to expect from our God; but this type of god would not be a good god.
No our God says, “Your sins have been forgiven. Go and sin no more.” Our God makes all things new. The breath of his Spirit reforms us, changes us. If the cross allows us to die to sin with Him; then the empty tomb allows us to enter into a new life with him.
If we were cars, we would be hybrids. We are vampires and soldiers putting each foot in front of us as we trudge from D-Day to V-E Day. We also beings who have received the breath of God and burning the new fuel of his body and blood. Though we have not yet experienced V-E Day in its reality; the reality of it is fixed. We are moving toward it. It is a part of us. It is our joy in suffering. It is our hope in darkness.
This new fuel economy can only be explained by our poets and so I go to one of my favorite lyricists, Conor Oberst, who has written these words:
“If you hate the taste of wine
Why do you drink it ’til you’re blind?
And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares
How come you say it like you’re right?
Why are you scared to dream of god
When it’s salvation that you want?
You see stars that clear have been dead for years
But the idea just lives on
In our wheels that roll around
As we move over the ground
And all day it seems we’ve been in between the past and future town
We are nowhere, and it’s now
We are nowhere, and it’s now
You took a ten-minute dream in the passengers seat
While the world it was flying by
I haven’t been gone very long
But it feels like a lifetime
I’ve been sleeping so strange at night
Side effects they don’t advertise
I’ve been sleeping so strange
With a head full of pesticide
I got no plans and too much time
I feel too restless to unwind
I’m always lost in thought
As I walk a block to my favourite neon sign
Where the waitress looks concerned
But she never says a word
Just turns the jukebox on
And we hum along
And I smile back at her
We are nowhere, and it’s now
We are nowhere, and it’s now
You took a ten-minute dream in the passengers seat
While the world it was flying by
I haven’t been gone very long
But it feels like a lifetime”
We are nowhere and its now. It explains our existence as purposely as I dare. I go through life. I try to look for God and meet him where I may. In the neon sign. In the smile of an overworked waitress. In a ten-minute dream on a plane. And most importantly to me in the church and its sacraments. Of the many things I have experienced as an Anglican one of my favorites has to the bells on Easter Sunday. As I was preparing for last Easter, I looked at my cowbell and considered bringing it to the service. But then Mary mentioned that if we forgot our bells, we could shake our keys. Upon hearing this the sports fan in me lit up to the possibility. How many of you are sports fans? What does it mean for a sports fan to stand in a crowd and jingle his keys?
In the sports world, it is the way that we show our disdain for the chances of our opponent winning a game. When the game reaches a point in which we believe the opponent has no chance to win, we grab out keys and we jingle them. In our racket we are saying, “Yes there is game left; but admit it you have no chance. Just pull out your keys. Start up the bus and go home. It’s over.” And that is why I love pulling out my keys on Easter morning. It’s my own little taunt to the enemy. I am saying, “It’s over. Admit it. You’re finished. There may be game left to play. But you might as well start up the bus and got to <you know where.>”
And then on Easter morning when I walk into work and I am all alone. When my boss has scheduled me to handle the chaos of a holiday alone. I reach for my keys and I remember, “We are nowhere and its now.”