Senseless

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Like many of you, I woke up on Monday morning to the news that 59 people had been murdered and hundreds injured by a gunman in Las Vegas last Sunday night. Like many of you, I was horrified and grief-stricken; I found myself weeping in my car as I listened to reports about the massacre. As troubled as I was by the news itself, I was just as dismayed by the way people reacted to the tragedy. It wasn’t that anyone said anything particularly offensive or insensitive; it was that the reaction was so predictable. On Monday night, the late night comedy hosts “got real” in their opening monologues. By Tuesday, some politicians were insisting that it was not the time to discuss gun control while others were insisting that it was. On Wednesday, news outlets posted the article they always publish when mass shootings occur. By Thursday, conspiracy theories began to circulate. Even the reaction of the church felt like it was following a grim routine. At Redeemer, we tolled the bells, just as we did after the Pulse nightclub, just as we did after Sandy Hook. It was as if everyone had been assigned a role in some grotesque drama designed to help us make sense of the fact that 59 more people were dead.

In some ways, this isn’t all that surprising. After all, we often turn to familiar narratives to comfort us when we are grieving. We look for ways to distract ourselves from the pain we feel when we realize what human beings are capable of doing to one another. We try to make sense of these tragedies, even though we know in our hearts that they are senseless.

Paul certainly understood this impulse to make sense of the world. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul explains that he once found meaning by positioning himself within the story and traditions of Israel. By his own account, Paul was completely devoted to the Jewish tradition. He asserts that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” It might be tempting to gloss over these verses as just another list in Paul’s letters, but that fails to recognize the value Paul placed on these identity markers. They represented his pedigree: the fact that he came from the right family and did everything that was expected of him. More importantly, these defining characteristics helped Paul know exactly who he was and what God expected him to do. If Paul wanted to understand his place in the world, all he had to do was consider his identity as an Israelite. Paul’s birth allowed him to tap into a heritage and a shared narrative that gave his life meaning. Paul was “confident in the flesh” because his religious identity helped him to make sense of the world.

For this reason, it is nothing short of remarkable that Paul goes on to write, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” It’s not as though Paul was looking for a change when he became an apostle. Paul didn’t hit rock bottom before his conversion. He was an influential man who understood his place in the world better than most. And yet, Paul regards this identity as something to be cast aside. In fact, he describes that which he once held most dear a term that, literally translated, means “dung.” Paul is not demeaning his tradition of origin; he is simply demonstrating that his experience of Christ has completely overshadowed what he once prized. Paul’s “confidence in the flesh” is replaced by a confidence that “Christ Jesus has made him his own.” This kind of transformation demanded a great deal of philosophical courage. Paul’s conversion obliged him to abandon a tradition that helped him make sense of the world and embrace a worldview in which things were far less certain. Such a radical shift would have required something earth shattering, a fundamental reordering of the world as Paul knew it.

Ultimately, it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ that caused Paul to reevaluate the way he understood the world. For Paul, the resurrection is not an isolated incident. It is not just some miraculous event that proves how special Jesus was. Rather, the resurrection represents a fundamental shift in the ordering of things. Paul reasons that if the power of death has been nullified for even one individual, it must, by necessity, be nullified for everyone. The normal pattern has been disrupted: death is no longer the end of the story. The implications of this are profound. It means that life, once destined to end, now has a meaning that transcends every narrative we use to explain the world. The resurrection, in other words, invites us to adopt an entirely new perspective on reality. It challenges us to recognize with Paul that the world has been fundamentally transformed by Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.

In times like these, we often ask our faith to help us make sense of the world. We ask “why?” and expect Scripture or the Church to provide a clear answer and a clear path forward. The Christian faith, however, is not prescriptive. The Bible is much less concerned with how we act than it is with God’s action in the world. Moreover, our faith cannot make sense of that which is fundamentally senseless. In fact, our desire to find a reason for this tragedy prevents us from truly wrestling with the reality of what happened. What the Christian faith does provide in times like these is something much more valuable: an opportunity to reevaluate our perspective. Rather than helping us make sense of the world, our faith challenges us to look at the world differently. It asks us to adopt an attitude shaped by the resurrection. This can be a terrifying prospect, because it requires us to critically examine and sometimes abandon that which we hold most dear: whether it is the narratives that give us comfort when tragedy strikes or our inviolable assumptions about security and personal freedom. Nothing can be off the table when we adopt a perspective shaped by the resurrection, because nothing is unaffected by God’s undoing of death.

The only way we can adopt this perspective is if we share Paul’s confidence that “Christ Jesus has made us his own.” The only way we can honestly face a senseless and uncertain world is if we put our trust in the Providence of God. In our darkest moments, the gospel calls us to remember this fundamental truth of our faith: no matter what happens, we belong to God.

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Perspective

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be heard here.

A few weeks ago, George Clooney received the Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes.  For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Clooney is a film actor, director, and producer who is generally considered one of Hollywood’s elite.  He was also regarded as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, that is until his marriage in September to Amal Alamuddin, a lawyer with an international reputation and an impressive resume.  imgresAt the Globes, host Tina Fey introduced Mr. Clooney’s bride, saying “Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three person U.N. Commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip.  So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.”  This joke is effective not only because it exposes the ludicrousness of awards ceremonies in which celebrities give golden statues to one another, but also because it puts the entire enterprise into perspective.  Though George Clooney is among the most celebrated people in Hollywood, his accomplishments seem trivial when compared with those of his spouse.  Tina Fey’s one liner highlights the importance of perspective, the necessity of making sure that our priorities are oriented correctly.

In our epistle reading this morning, we hear Saint Paul highlight the importance of perspective.  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is among his more practical: he addresses specific issues pertaining to community discipline, attempts to mediate disputes among members of the community, and makes discrete suggestions about how to live faithfully.  The portion of the letter we heard this morning comes from a much longer passage in which Paul takes up questions about marriage.  From the misleading brevity of this passage, we might assume that Paul does not regard marriage as a worthwhile enterprise.  In these three verses, Paul comes across as a Stoic philosopher, appearing to suggest that we ought to be completely unencumbered by worldly attachments.  Indeed, this is how many of the Corinthians understood the path to holiness.  Their sense was that the pleasures of the flesh, even within the bonds of matrimony, prevented one from being spiritual.  As a result, certain members of the Corinthian community would abstain from marital relations, often without first consulting their chagrined spouses.  This approach to spirituality was actually fairly common in the first century.  In certain circles, ascetics were held up as spiritual athletes; those who abstained from worldly pleasures were celebrated and believed to have charismatic authority.  For these groups, the more one abstained and the more temptations one resisted, the more spiritual power one acquired.  Apparently there were some Corinthians who thought that this correlation of abstinence and spirituality was a characteristic of the Christian life.  Moreover, they supposed that Paul, the confirmed crotchety old bachelor (probably never as eligible as George Clooney), would endorse this path to holiness and praise them for their temperance.  The snippet of text that we heard this morning might lead us to assume that the Corinthians supposed correctly.

But in fact, Paul has very little patience for this Corinthian approach to holiness.  While he concedes that some people are called to live single lives, Paul affirms that those who are married ought to behave as though they are married.  His rationale for this is striking.  Paul tells the Corinthians that spouses should give each other their conjugal rights because “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.”  A statement like that is precisely what we might expect from a man living in a patriarchal culture.  But Paul immediately provides a corrective: “Likewise,” he writes, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”  Paul describes a mutuality of relationship that was unheard of in the first century.  In describing how marriage ought to be, he implies that none of us is our own master, that we are all subject to the sovereignty of the God made known to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Ultimately, this is why Paul refuses to endorse the ascetic path to holiness.  While the Corinthians believed that they could abstain their way to spiritual power, Paul insists that true holiness comes only from what God has done through Jesus Christ.  While the Corinthians believed that spiritual charisma was something to acquire, Paul affirms that it is a gift given by the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  For Paul, the resurrection is the standard by which we measure every aspect of our lives.  For Paul, the resurrection reorients our priorities and changes the way we experience the world.

This brings us to the passage we heard this morning.  Paul tells those who are married, those who mourn, those who rejoice, and those who have dealings with the world to live as though none of these things were true.  Though it may seem like Paul is being dismissive, it’s pretty clear from his earlier meditations on marriage that he believes these states of being to be incredibly important, vital elements of the Christian community.  Far from encouraging the Corinthians to ignore their marriages or their livelihoods or their emotions, Paul is exhorting the congregation to put these into the proper perspective.  Now for George Clooney, proper perspective is viewing his achievement in light of his wife’s accomplishments.  imgresFor Paul, however, the proper perspective is viewing everything in light of the resurrection. This is essentially Paul’s primary purpose in writing first Corinthians.  The whole letter builds to a soaring, comprehensive meditation on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event Paul affirms is so significant that it dwarfs every other event in history and every other concern of humanity.  For Paul, the resurrection exposes the triviality of the Corinthians’ petty squabbles, claims to spiritual authority, and economic differences.  For Paul, the resurrection tempers earthly sorrows and joys, because it allows us to experience the fullness of God’s glory.  For Paul, the resurrection empowers us to live our lives unchained from the uncertainties of this life and to put our trust in the God who has defeated the power of death.

There’s no question that we live in an uncertain world.  From terrorism to economic malaise to questions about the fairness of our justice system, there is much to be anxious about.  But I would also contend that we live in a world that lacks perspective.  Our culture tends to respond to every event in a very predictable way: first we are shocked, then we are outraged, and then we forget.  Far from encouraging understanding, this pattern leads us to privilege novelty and ignore issues that are actually important.  Living in light the resurrection allows us to shift our perspective.  It enables us to disregard the ephemeral and recognize that which is of lasting importance.  It equips us to participate in God’s transforming work as we build for a future that has been and will be redeemed.  It liberates us from worldly anxiety and encourages us to put our trust in the faithfulness of God.  Above all, living in light of the resurrection empowers us to look at the world with a new perspective, one shaped by the knowledge that through Jesus Christ, God is making all things new.