To hear this sermon as preached, press play below:
It was a while back now – back when my boys were still in diapers – when I had a job teaching expository writing to incoming freshmen at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The first writing assignment that I gave my students at the beginning of each term, was a three page paper in which they explored a topic that meant a lot to them personally.
We would dive into the more complex business of analyzing texts, doing research and constructing rhetorical arguments later… for starters, I wanted them to just have some fun and show me what they could do with the written word.
“You ought to be able to pull this off,” I told them. “After all, on this topic – you are the world’s foremost expert”
This was all very well, but I soon discovered a disturbing trend. Well, “disturbing” isn’t the right word, it was more just boring. It felt almost as though all of the incoming freshman boys had gotten together and formed a conspiracy because almost all of them ended up writing about the same thing!
Can you guess what it was?
The Red Sox!
The girls wrote about all kinds of things, but the Red Sox seemed to be the only thing any of the guys were interested in. I liked the team well enough myself, but, as you can imagine, reading a dozen adolescent fan odes got old pretty quick.
Of all those papers, though, one stands out in my memory. The essay, which was written with a kind of sly deadpan humor, was a lengthy analysis of how the fortunes of the Red Sox actually had nothing to do with the athletic prowess of the team vis a vis the opposing team – it had nothing to do with the stats of the starting pitchers or the number of RBI’s the clean up hitter had notched on his Louisville Slugger….
According to this kid, the fortune of the entire season of the Red Sox franchise had nothing to do with any of these things.
The success of the Red Sox, it turned out, really depended on whether this student’s Uncle managed to chug a bottle of Rolling Rock before the first out of the third inning. A pitch could turn into a single if he – the kid – skewed his cap sideways on his head when the count was full. A home run might be lost to a strike-out if uncle and nephew forgot to intone a certain incantation under their breath each time Papi sauntered up to the plate.
I tell this story, this Easter morning, because I think it illustrates a certain way of thinking that sometimes gets mixed up with faith – a kind of attitude that is relevant to our understanding of the Easter story, and so is worth investigating to see where it takes us.
The sideways cap, the chugged beer, the mumbled incantation – these were all ways that the kid and his uncle were trying to influence the outcome of something that they had no power over. We call this superstition. When we hear about it in this way, it feels innocuous enough. We can share a little chuckle over the whole thing because in the end the baseball game will be won or lost, and there’s no harm done other than the possibility of a tipsy Uncle or a kid with a minor case of hat head.
Likewise, in our daily lives, when I say something that I fear might tempt fate a little bit, I half-heartedly protect myself by knocking on wood. I don’t place any real store in this superstitious little reflex – its not a high stakes maneuver. What I mean to say is, when I “knock on wood,” I don’t take myself too seriously.
The trouble arises when we do – when our shared desires become so strong, and our shared ritual so elaborate that we manage to convince ourselves that by turning around and clapping three times we actually will make the sun come out.
If you are getting a little nervous right now, I wouldn’t blame you. A lot of the things that we do here in church seem perilously close to this kind of magical thinking – and that, of course, is one of the reasons why more and more people have given up on the whole idea of organized religion. To plenty of folks – especially young people – the church seems to be nothing more than an elaborate tradition created to give us the illusion that we can influence our fate when, in fact, all evidence seems to point to the contrary.
Sadly those critics are not entirely wrong. I wish they were. The thing is, though – when they imagine church, they don’t think about places like the United Church of Jaffrey.
The prevailing impression that most folks out there have about Christianity is formed by the images of Evangelical Megachurch stadiums with their jumbo-trons, there twelve piece praise bands, and their finely coiffed forty-something preacher-influencers who stride on stage through the billowing fog of a dry ice-machine. These places make people feel really good. Why? Because not a whole lot is required of you as a person of faith. Your part i’s simple – all you have to do is accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, drop an offering in the basket, and you’re good to go.
That is what Christianity looks like in a lot of America. Plenty of entertainment, not a lot of substance. It’s a religion that has been nicely customized to the demands of American culture. Magical thinking abounds. You can get what you want if you’re willing to pay.
This megachurch phenomenon exists because of the traditional interpretation of the Easter story.
In shorthand, this traditional interpretation (known to theologians as “substitutionary atonement”) can be expressed in a five word sentence:
“Jesus died for our sins.”
Here it is in a little more detail – the paragraph version, if you will:
Jesus was the son of God, and since he was born of a virgin, he was not tainted with the original sin of disobedience that the rest of us inherited from Adam and Eve. This perfect man – this sinless Jesus – willingly sacrificed himself on the cross and when he did this, he paid the debt that we owe to God for our sins. His blood can cure us of our inherited sin – but only if we accept Jesus as our savior. When we do this – when we accept Jesus into our hearts, his blood settles our account with God, and our salvation – our entrance to eternal life – is secured.
This interpretation of Christ’s death is so pervasive that when I stand here in the pulpit and tell you I don’t accept it, I fear that you may think I am being sacrilegious.
But I don’t. I don’t believe it.
As a minister I affirm that this traditional interpretation is just that – an interpretation of a story, and I – like all of you – reserve the right, – as a person of faith – to have a mind, heart, and soul of my own, when it comes to interpreting the Bible.
I cannot reduce the mystery of divinity and humanity to some kind of balance sheet in the sky. What an ugly and depressingly clinical idea! I will not accept a system that allows another person to suffer for bad things that I have done. That doesn’t seem in the least just. As a father, I find the notion of accepting the death of my own son as ransom for someone else’s sins, repugnant to any and all sense of decency. This is no way to express love.
Both the megachurch goers and the atheist naysayers have sold our religious tradition short. One need only give the Bible a cursory glance to promptly discover that there isn’t a “live happily ever after…” to be found from Genesis to Revelations. So why do they use it to create fairy tales? The Bible is not unicorns and butterflies. It hits hard. I challenge you to find a body of literature that lends itself more robustly to the subversion of capitalist culture than the gospels. This is why megachurch preachers may often invoke the name of Jesus, but keep their Bibles at a safe distance. The brutal lessons of human life are all too clearly recorded there. The Bible can be a source of comfort, but more often, in my experience anyway, it is a challenge.
I know my life might be easier if I could stop constantly measuring my life against it.
Easier, but not better.
On this Easter morning, I stand in this pulpit with an audacious suggestion – I offer to release you from thousands of years of traditional Easter interpretation by changing two words.
I suggest the following edit:
Instead of “Jesus died for our sins”
I suggest that we take responsibility for our own actions and say.
“Jesus dies because of our sins”
I’m not talking about some hypothetical sin that happened in the Garden of Eden. I bring the statement into the present tense: “Jesus dies” because I’m talking about the sins that have tangible evil influence in our lives today – the terrifying sins that our society puts up with, and we play along with because they suit us.
I’m talking about the sin of genocide that cleared this land of its native peoples. That sin – that we continue to benefit from to this day – that sin brings Jesus to the cross.
I’m talking about the sin of chattel slavery, that manacled African people, shipped them across the ocean and enslaved them in enforced servitude. The sin that shifted, in 1865 to become Jim Crow, and then shifted again to become mass incarceration. These sins continue to bring Jesus to the cross today.
In this interpretation of the Easter story, we find ourselves standing at the foot of the cross.
Jesus is before us.
He suffers, not for us, but because of us.
God tells us that the story does not end here.
The possibility exists for the rock to be moved.
For life to prevail over death.
But when the risen Jesus appears, does he instruct the women who have come to the tomb to “Accept me as your personal savior”?
No he doesn’t.
He doesn’t do this, because this story isn’t about magical thinking. It’s not about making everything ok for the women who have come to the tomb.
When the risen Jesus meets the women who have come to the tomb he says:
“Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
The women must do something. They must tell the disciples to Go to Galilee.
The women themselves – they must also go to Galiliee.
What does this mean?
This is our Easter question.
What does it mean to meet Jesus in Galilee?
On this Easter morning, our sins – the grave burdens that lean on us today – are calling us to go meet Jesus in Galilee.
This is not magical thinking.
This is the call to discipleship.
Seek the LORD while he may be found, Isaiah says. Call upon him while he is near!
Come, let us seek Justice.
Come, let us find love.
Come, let us go to Galilee.