Sermon for Festival of the Hours, August 2, 2014: Empty Places
Please be seated.
I’m not a physician, but I’m pretty sure that television is not good for my blood pressure- because television appears to have this magical ability to turn truth into lies and lies into truth. Let’s start with “reality” TV, which, as far as I can tell, does not seem to have anything to do with reality. How about the news, which seems to contain as much opinion as information? And then there are the shows that call themselves “self-help” programming. Dr. Oz, The Doctors, Deepak Chopra – some of these are predictable – but Suze Orman, Steve Harvey – America’s Top Model?! Really?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t watch these shows. I watch television. And I certainly don’t believe that television is the only medium that inspires us to believe in things that are generally pretty unbelievable. I just wonder why we watch these shows. Just as I wonder why a young woman with a college degree from Georgetown doesn’t want to get a job because it might interfere with her ability to write fan fiction. Or why people are willing to almost kill one another over a sports game.
The easy answer is that all of these things make us feel something – give us something to believe in. Perhaps their function is similar to the one served by religious texts in the ancient world. Our psalms, for example, are actually songs that were meant to be performed with appropriate spectacle. Similarly, the letters in our New Testament that are attributed to various authors were also part of the popular media of their time. Christianity began as an oral tradition, so each of the letters would be read aloud – likely with some excitement. And it’s not just how these texts were communicated, but what they said that made them noteworthy.
Today’s psalm is attributed to Asaph, King David’s choir director, and, like the music we are hearing this weekend, it does not disappoint in either its poetry or the way in which it taps into the emotions of its audience. We don’t really know who wrote this psalm or when, but it clearly expresses the people’s envy “of the arrogant,” their resentment of the wealth and power of the “wicked,” and, most especially, their bitterness that even though these people who have everything seem selfish and unkind, the general public praises them and finds “no fault in them.”
This psalm may resonate with people who have issues with the Kardashians. After all, the psalmist might as well be writing for those of us who bewail the emptiness of celebrity culture and society’s rejection of more intellectual pursuits. And yet, just like the people in the psalm, many of us still follow the lives of such celebrities – without even being able to explain why we do it.
Perhaps it’s because we are comforted by the fact that all of their wealth and privilege does not keep their hearts from – as the psalmist puts it -overflowing with follies. By watching them we confirm that they are just as likely – more likely perhaps – to act foolish as those of us with lower profiles and incomes. Because we all overreach ourselves from time to time. We are all susceptible to pretending we know things we don’t. We are all vulnerable to stretching the truth when it suits our purposes. Which is why we shouldn’t be surprised that the author of the second letter of Peter was willing to do it too.
Scholars tell us that it is highly unlikely that this letter was written by the Peter we think of as a disciple of Jesus. It’s also probable that the author didn’t write the first letter that is attributed to Peter. And it’s almost certainly the case that this letter-writer was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Nonetheless, he felt perfectly comfortable not only in claiming to have heard the voice of God talking to Jesus, but also in scolding unbelievers for calling him a liar.
This is important information, because it is on the authority of Peter that the bible passage we just heard has become one of the most quoted – and most divisive- passages in the Bible. “No prophecy of scripture,” the author writes, “is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” This sentence is consistently cited by Christians to argue that the Bible should not – cannot – be interpreted. That it is completely accurate – inerrant –as it is. You can already see the problem. You have probably already experienced the problem. It is, you might say, a fundamental problem. If we question whether the writer of this letter is the disciple Peter, or that he was a part of Jesus’ earthly ministry, or that we don’t know what “prophecy of scripture” the author is talking about, then we have already made an interpretation of sorts. But how can we not do that? How can we read scripture without understanding its context?
Many Christians believe the answer to that question is simple: literally. Which is how Nicodemus took Jesus’ words when Jesus told him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Quite understandably, Nicodemus was confused by Jesus’ statement. “How can anyone be born after having grown old,” he asked. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus’ answer -“You must be born of water and the spirit…You must be born from above” – is the basis for our belief that initiation into the Christian Church is performed through baptism, and that when you are baptized you are figuratively reborn.
Jesus’ response to Nicodemus did not, however, appear to satisfy the Pharisee. “How can these things be”? he wanted to know. Christians have continued to ask that question – and others – throughout the ages. What is the “right” way to baptize? Does it require immersion? Does it count if you’re baptized as a baby? John’s gospel suggests that Jesus was impatient with Nicodemus’ question – just as he might be with ours. According to the gospel writer, Jesus’ next words closely echo those we read in the letter attributed to Peter. “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen” and you don’t believe us. And if you don’t believe us about these earthly things, how can we let you in on the secret to eternal life?
I think Jesus’ question is ironic, because three verses later he tells Nicodemus the “secret” anyway: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” That’s it. Belief in the loving sacrifice of God on our behalf is the not-so-secret path to participation in a new life of everlasting joy. And despite the fact that Jesus appears to tell Nicodemus that the Pharisee is not smart enough to understand it, he nonetheless freely gives Nicodemus this “secret.” Which is why it’s hard to understand how some 21st century Christians can still think of it as a secret -– a code – a code that can be found on bumper stickers, posters, t-shirts , social media and, yes, television. “John 3:16.” God so loved the world that he gave he sacrificed his son for it. The big Christian secret.
Personally, I don’t think this is a great way of doing evangelism. I don’t think it’s logical to think you can bring people into the church by telling them that we don’t want them unless they believe exactly what we believe. Or by explaining how and why we know better than them. Or by letting them think that we don’t need them. In other words, I don’t think you can help people find God by turning the truth that is Jesus Christ’s life and death and resurrection into lies. And I think we are lying if we do those things. Because I don’t think that the reading we heard today means that Peter – or whoever he was – meant that we can’t interpret scripture. I think he meant that our individual interpretations don’t matter. And I don’t think that how we baptize one another is important. What matters is that we do. I believe that what these two troublesome pieces of scripture are telling us is really quite simple: belief is what is necessary – and belief can be hard – and that’s why Christians exist in community. It is the interpretations we make as a community that matter. It is the baptism we share in Christ Jesus that matters. It is our faith in the promise of new life together that matters.
These are the things we need to tell others. This is the evangelizing we need to do. Because I believe the real reason that self-help programs – and sports and gaming and reality television – are so popular is because there are empty places inside of us that we don’t know how to fill. I believe that people want to have faith that there is something beyond the follies of the arrogant – beyond our own envy and anger. I believe that people need to believe in something greater than ourselves. And I believe with all of my heart that that “something” is God. But many people don’t believe – many people won’t believe, because Christians have frightened them away. By arguing over liturgy and doctrine and the nature of sin and the truth of scripture and the place of God in the affairs of human beings, Christians have driven them away. Christians have inadvertently shut out the very people that need Jesus the most. Christians have made it possible for people that are desperate to believe in anything to believe in anything but God. And those of us who do not believe these – who do not turn the truth of our salvation into lies – cannot let that stand.
Because what we know – what we believe – what we have in Christian community can teach us much more than any television program. It can provide us with so much more joy than any team championship. It can give us, in fact, far more than we can ever imagine. God so loves this world. Let us love it too. Let us make it a better place. Let us fill our empty places with the joy of God’s presence. Let us fill others with the understanding of God’s gifts. And let us with gladness accept the fullness that is already ours, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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