Monday, June 7, 2010

Final Vespers Sermon - The World Is Not Fine.

by Kurt Nelson

My final reflection on term-long discussion of "The Meaning of the Resurrection."

I've long pondered  the meaning of the resurrection this term,
as I took in our broad ranging reflections so far.
We've heard about Love and joy, and sainthood.
Literary theory and theology of all kinds.
I decided that my closing sermon would have a fairly simple thesis:
The world is not fine,
but neither is it hopeless.
The world is full of sin.
That is, it's full of war and inequality and injustice and disaster.
And our actions,
yours and mine,
contribute to its troubles.
We can thus not appreciate the meaning of the resurrection,
until we appreciate the meaning of the crucifixion-
appreciate what it teaches us about ourselves and the world.
These two events are inextricably bound
and they teach us together,

 Now, I'm wired such that conversations
with people who speak a different language if faith than I,
are uniquely helpful and clarifying.
My faith, and experience of faith,
are perhaps uniquely formed by my consistent conversations with non-religious folk.
Maybe it's because of my own lengthy sense of estrangement from religion.
Or maybe due to some deep-seated evangelical desire.
But mostly it's because of their consistently simple and biting questions and comments
about the life of faith, which come from my conversations with non-believers.
And as I ponder the meaning of the resurrection,
in my own life,
I am left to think as much,
about my conversations with non-believers,
than of sermons, and Easters, and bible-studies growing up.

And this thesis that the world is not fine,
nor is it hopeless,
bears out nicely in conversations with atheists nearly every time.
I’ve long been attuned to the notion, the critique,
that people of faith,
are quite simply too-naïve.
Too happy. 
Too optimistic  about the possibilities of humankind,
of community,
and of the universe.
We see, so goes the claim,
organization where there is only chaos.
We see meaning where there is none.
We find joy where there is only tragedy.
Such critique of Christian joy,
is clearly levied by those who haven’t spent as much time with Christian grumpiness as I.
But fair enough.
We might well be too willing to abide suffering for the sake of some far-off kingdom.
Too able to await ultimate justice in the face of immediate need.
Too busy reveling in the resurrection moment,
and promise of good to come,
to really see life for what it is.
But I’m not convinced.

I’m newly and increasingly sensitive to a new movement of non-religious critique, however.
One which asserts rather that life is fine just the way that it is,
and thus we have no need for God, or religion or spirituality.
“There is no hole,”
as one student recently said to me,
“which needs to be filled by spirituality.”
There’s meaning and joy enough in the world,
so why would we waste time on God, or religion?
A position neatly summed up by bus adds all over London,
which read:
“There’s probably no God
Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
The world is fine.
You’re fine.
We’re all fine.
Let’s just get on with being fine.

And it strikes me that we followers of Christ.
Believers in the resurrection,
rest somehow uneasily between these two poles.
We boldly assert,
that the world is neither fine, nor hopeless.

The hope of the resurrection is not that we will be joyful at all times and in all places.
Nor that we,
and the world,
will not suffer.
But rather our hope rests in the notion,
that suffering will come,
but that meaning, and goodness, and God
can shine in spite of it,
or occasionally through it.

We are not so cynical as to believe there is nothing valuable or meaningful in the world.
And not so naïve as to assert that meaning is always easily present.
To really live into this,
we must, I think, pause to truly consider first the crucifixion.
We ought remember that this was a terrible,
painful, earth shattering,
curtain ripping event.
Christ came to preach, and heal, and teach.
And was instead persecuted, beaten and killed.

In Mark’s Gospel the final words of condemnation are place on the lips
of a faceless, nameless crowd.
Christians have long been good at identify this crowd as the other.
As the Jews, or Priests, or Pharisees.
But I think we're rather meant to see ourselves there
Faces in a complicit crowd.
A few full of passion and anger,
but many simply allowing it to happen.
And thus participating in this tragic event.
complicit in the world’s sins, in this great sin.
This is a tragedy,
and a participatory one.
The world is not fine,
and we are not fine.
Karl Rahner famously described the nature of sin,
not as passing genetically from generation to generation.
But through systems and history,
which allow a simple act such as purchasing a cheap banana,
to support corrupt business and regimes,
and to oppress poor workers.
This seems to me, at least partially, the meaning of the crucifixion,
which can be easily ignored,
If we look too quickly ahead to the resurrection.

Dartmouth’s campus has, recently,
been rocked by arrests for cocaine use.
And troubling as the events have been,
more troubling for me has been the rhetoric surrounding.
I would never recommend,
but can't seem to personally avoid,
checking in on comment boards on newspapers
and bored at baker,
for unfiltered reactions to campus events.
This has been a conversation more about “betrayal” and “brotherhood”
than about drug abuse and safety,

Common to much of the conversation is the simple notion that drugs aren’t so bad,
since they only hurt those who choose to do them.
This isn’t real crime.  Or a real issue.
The real issue is loyalty to your brothers.
Never mind that 4,000 people have been killed over drugs so far in 2010 in Mexico,
from whence comes 90% of the US cocaine supply.
Our appetite for illegal drugs has fueled a literal war south of, and along, our border.
One in which the Mexican government is out-financed, out-gunned,
and out-manned.
And we are, in some small way, a part of it,
abiding by their use and purchase in our communities,
complicit faces in a crowd.
The world is far from fine.

Perhaps more directly touching each of us is the crisis facing the Gulf Coast,
now in its 43rd day.
it’s hard not to remember the thousands of barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf waters.
We’re collectively angry.
Angry at BP
Increasingly angry at the ineffectiveness of government oversight.
But the problem is ours too.
The cause is ours.
It's our unquenchable thirst for cheap fuel,
that has driven oil company profits up,
and their drills deeper and deeper into the ocean.
Our drilling technology has unsurprisingly passed our capping technology.
And every drop of oil which pours into the ocean,
belongs at least partially to you and me.
 We are far from fine.

We could cite countless more abstract examples about our economy,
and means of production.
Suffice it to say, if one believes that the world is fine,
I think they aren’t paying attention.
We are complicit actors in systems of poverty and inequality.
In environmental degradation,
It would likely be easier to white-wash such notions.
To push them into the background of our thought.
But we can do no such thing.
The crucifixion is real, and a tragedy in which we too are complicit.

And it would be easier, I often think,
to turn cynical.
To insist that such is the nature of the world.
Such is the nature and truth of the universe.

And yet we have this nagging little resurrection. 
I've read today the entire ending of some of the earliest versions of the Gospel of Mark.
It ends in mystery.
A small group of women seeing a vision of the empty tomb,
and walking away silent, afraid, and awed.
And that’s it.

But we know the story doesn't end there.
For it's carried forth by Paul, and Peter, and James
by John and Mark, and Luke.
By those awed and afraid women.
Stories of hope and wonder,
mixed with suffering and fear.

Resurrection stories,
about how death and fear and violence are real.
But hope and love and faith are real-er.

This is not a naive hope.
Not a hope which denies the pain and reality of the crucifixion.
Nor of the Gulf Coast,
or the war on drugs,
or of poverty and despair.

But  a hope which proclaims that there is yet more to the world.
A hope which we can see and feel even in the midst of suffering.
Not to excuse it,
but to bring forth greater love and light and truth.

The world is not fine,
but neither is it hopeless.
And we've got much to do.

Songs to sing, and prayer to pray.
Communities to build, and tests to take.
The sick to heal,
and the oppressed to set free.
Hungry to feed, 
the afflicted to comfort,
and the comfortable to afflict.

This is, for me, the meaning of the resurrection.

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