April 1, 2013

A Hope Greater Than Pity


Text: 1 Corinthians 15:19: “Truly, if our hope in Christ were limited only to this life we should, of all people, be the most to be pitied!” (J.B. Phillips)

I just have to start here: You all just look so good from up here! I’m glad that the days are over when we all had to put on our Sunday best every Sunday; but Easter is different, and you all just look so beautifully turned out.

My grandparents came from England and somehow decided on Michigan to raise their family, in the midst of the Depression. They were astonishingly frugal, but every year at Easter my grandfather would go downtown to the department store near his office and buy an Easter dress from the discount rack for my grandmother. And there would be a predictable scene: the giving of the gift; the unveiling; the protest; the lecture about the dangers of profligacy; the trying on; the cheers and accolades from my mother and her siblings; the retreat; the making up.

Easter is our day to strut. Easter is our day to do it up right. Yesterday there were a dozen of us here inside and outside the place getting everything just right, the garden and the shrubs and the trees and the altar and the brass and the books in the pews—all of it just for you, all of it just for today. Easter is our day to shine.

Because this is what the whole project is about, this day. The message of this day, the point of this day, we live on for the whole rest of the year. If you are only here on this one day every year, well, you are missing out on a lot of fun, but you really are in the right place at the right time.

The whole claim of the Christian faith to have something new to offer the world, the whole idea that in the Christian story there is something we have learned about the nature of God, the purposes of God, the plan of God that has changed all of history behind us and all of the possibilities before us, all of that comes down to Easter day.

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So yes, we really should be at our best today. We really should shine up our shoes and put on the special necklace or whatever it is you do to for a special date.

Then why on earth would anyone pity us today? Saint Paul is the very first writer that we can call Christian. This morning we got to read some of his mail. It’s part of a letter he wrote to one of the churches he started. And in it there is this bizarre idea that instead of going out and strutting our stuff in the Easter parade, we should be in an Easter pity party.

I used one of my favorite translations to help get this point across this morning, the one produced in the 1950s by J. B. Phillips. Let me just slightly amend how he renders this line to make the point. Here’s what Paul writes: “Truly, if your hope in Christ is limited only to this life, you should, of all people, be the most to be pitied!”

Or we could render this in the somewhat more contemporary translation of the New Testament rendered by the renowned biblical scholar Mr. T: “I pity the fool who decides to be a Christian just for this life!”

Look, here is a basic fact about us. All of us want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. That is a basic fact about humans. We want a vision, we want a purpose, and we want to be part of something that is growing, gaining, and going forward.

We want to be part of something that others will follow, if only so that when they join we can have the satisfaction of having been part of it first. But more important than that we want to be on the winning team. That’s something very, very deep in our nature. It makes us great at working together.

But the bad news about that is that it will make us chase after all kinds of things that aren’t good for us, just because we get caught up in the excitement. It can be political movements or Ponzi schemes, or pet rocks—we want to sign on for something that looks like the Next Big Thing.

That’s what Paul is warning us about. There are a lot of good reasons to be part of the Christian movement—and understand this: it is a movement, it is still a movement. But being part of something that’s going to win you favors and privilege in this life? Not likely.

It wasn’t always that way. Most of us here have lived through not just Christianity, but Christendom. Christendom was when the shops didn’t open on Sunday and everyone got Good Friday off. Christendom was when your neighbors all belonged to a church and you could compare notes about your churches in polite company. Christendom was when the culture around us was a tailwind behind us on our way to church on Sunday morning.

You probably don’t need me to tell you, but those days are over. Being an out Christian is not a guaranteed way to be accepted in all the right clubs anymore. Being an Easter person isn’t a way of getting an upgrade anymore. Just look at the lovely gift the City of Newton gave us right along Lowell Avenue here that began on the Monday of Holy Week. Being a Christian, even being a church, won’t win you much in the world these days.

For which I say: Thank God. Because now we can get back to what this is really about.

This is about the idea that there is something beyond this life, something more important, more real, and a heck of a lot more urgent.

This world comes down to stuff, stuff that wears out, breaks, falls down, or burns up. The Christian vision sees what is substantial, what is eternal, what is lasting—because it sees possibility of the spiritual behind and before the illusion of the cheap stuff.

This world comes down to what you own and what you owe. This world comes down to what you have, and what has you. The Christian vision says that no matter what you have or what you lack, you are sacred—can you believe it? A thing that has no price and that is the most worthy thing about you.

If we don’t grasp that, then we really are to be pitied. Because the greatest treasure we have in this place, in this community, in the amazing ideas of this faith, all of it is something we are missing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Easter is not just about the hereafter. The Christian faith is not just about pie in the sky when you die.

If you carry only one idea out of here today, this should be it: The Christian faith is about the possibility of changing the reality around us because of the hope ahead of us.

So being part of the church may not be, at least not any more, being part of the thing everyone just does because we’re expected to. It may not be something we know everyone will like us for doing.

But being part of this group of people is being part of a movement of people just crazy enough to know that there is something beyond this vale of tears, something beyond the tragedy and turmoil and the terror we see around us every day.

Being part of this movement is being part of a group of people you may not always understand, and you certainly will not always like, but who together have the collective power to change this world for the better—because of what we finally cannot deny about the power of God’s love to preserve and empower the sacred in every one of us.

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So now let me give you a little advice. When you leave here this morning, looking as resplendent as you do, they are all going to be looking at you. Wherever you’re going next, to your brunch reservation or to you sister’s for lunch, or—well, wherever it is—they’re going to have their eyes on you.

They will know you’ve been here. And they’re going to be looking for signs. They’re going to be looking to see whether there is something different about you, something, I don’t know, strange or different something.

And there is something different about you. You have the possibility of hope with which to confront the problems of today. It’s not that you don’t see the problems, or don’t know the sorrows, or don’t have the fears and the tears that every other human has.

But you have something more. You have the knowledge that God has acted in all this for you. You don’t have to understand it, you don’t even have to know why. Hope is not proof; if it were it wouldn’t be hope.

So when they ask you how you are, don’t give them proof. Give them hope. Confound them with the audacity of your hope. How are you? The Christian’s answer is not: I’m okay, thanks... I’m managing...

No: our answer is, I flourish! Great things have been done for me, and great things are expected of me. I may be full of mistakes and fears, but I am sacred. Everyone else may have the data on how bad things are, but these friends of mine and I are going to change the data, because we have the capacity to believe in audacious things: human dignity, and the power of compassion, and even empty graves. Amen.

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