A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
August 24, 2014
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
Exodus 1:8-2:10 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20
Lassie, the world’s most beloved collie, and canine star of TV and movies in the ’50s and ’60s, is making a comeback. DreamWorks Animation acquired the rights to Lassie in 2012, but decided there would not be a new movie or series, because Lassie’s rural escapades on the farm with Little Timmy “would have little relevance for viewers now keen on explosions, aliens and superheroes.” Also, Lassie was never that great in the acting department.
Lassie is now a salesgirl. According to the New York Times, Lassie’s “brand” will be the qualities of hominess, nostalgia, simplicity, and “Americana.” There will be an onslaught of merchandise due out next year from dog products to products for humans endorsed by Lassie. Her summer calendar has been filled with appearances to return her to the public eye. Lassie has been serving as assistant weather girl at an L.A. TV station, where she sits on a stool near the weather map and endorses weather predictions:
“An 80% chance of rain tomorrow, right, Lassie?”
In current lingo, a “brand” is what makes a product different from other products. And the Christian church’s “brand” is in trouble. Membership in mainline denominations continues to decline. The Roman Catholic Church has major credibility problems. Christianity is no longer a moral touch stone in the public arena—we have no one articulating a progressive Christian position, except perhaps former president Jimmy Carter, while fundamentalist Christians speak up to push a conservative political agenda.
The theologian Martin Smith suggests the image of a magnet and the force field it emits as a way of thinking about Christian faith. It is not that a magnet pulls us in against our will, but that it causes the various elements of our lives to align with a common focus.
We might remember the lesson in elementary school when a large magnet was placed on a table and a sheet of paper laid over it. The paper was sprinkled with iron filings and after banging the table with our fists, we saw the filings jump up and down and fall into the pattern of the lines of force coming from the magnet below, from a meaningless mass of fragments to a shape with beauty and form caused by the invisible forces of the magnet.
We already align our lives with some “magnets of meaning” by which we live. Everything might revolve around the importance of family, the value of friends, the satisfaction and security bought by economic wealth, the value of history and tradition, or the truths revealed in art.
So the question is, what gives the magnet that is Christian faith its power? Is the force field strong enough to draw our hearts and our minds in more than a superficial way?
One part of the force field that is Christianity is stories. Of course, we have family stories of how Uncle Bob walked five miles a day to school (uphill both ways), literary stories like Hamlet, and cinematic stories like Rocky, but Scriptural stories are different, not only in their longevity— over 2000 years—but because they are accounts of people’s search for and understanding of God. These stories often intersect with events of our own lives in instructive, inspiring and challenging ways.
Today’s first lesson begins with this phrase, “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” And isn’t that the case—a new boss arrives who doesn’t know about your fabulousness; a new rector arrives who doesn’t know how it’s done here; a new stage of your life arrives and your own treasured experiences are trivialized into quaint nostalgia…
Scripture not only has the capacity to affirm our experience, but also to provide us with a window into ourselves. One person says that we don’t only read the Bible; the Bible reads us, often to wake us up.
In today’s first lesson we read about the suffering imposed on the Israelites by their Egyptian slave masters and the fact that the Pharaoh is terrified of the Israelites growing in numbers and, it follows, not only being a threat, but using up too many of the country’s resources.
Reading this, of course, we identify with the Israelites. Yet statistically, we are the Egyptians! The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and recent studies say we use up to 40% of its resources. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. Wait—are we the exploiters and not the good guys? Is the Bible reading us this way?
Another example: I was at a national “diversity” conference for educators a while ago and had brought a couple of high school students from The Blake School. One night we had a black speaker who was chair of the African-American Studies department at a major university. He gave a compelling lecture, covering not only the horrors of American slavery but arguing that the original Egyptians were actually black; hence, all of the achievements of their golden era, including the Great Pyramids, were the work of black people.
A hand went up in the back of this room, full of professors and academics from across the country. It was a short, bespeckled Jewish kid from Blake, who stunned the room when he said, “With all due respect, sir, those pyramids were actually built by my people whom your people kept under the lash.”
Utter silence. Then the speaker went on to explain something about this being a different kind of slavery, but the point had been made. We don’t only read the Bible; it is interactive in the sense that sometimes it reads us in sobering ways, always calling us to align our lives with the force fields of the deepest human truths, even the ones we prefer not to think about.
Besides stories, a second element of the force field that is Christianity and the church is its perspective on suffering.
The news has been especially traumatic in the past few weeks: Ebola, Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, barbaric executions, the death of a beloved comedian. What do we do with our sorrow? How do we manage the vulnerability and hopelessness it produces? Especially now that we are told in detail about pain and terror in every single place in the world, seconds after it occurs? The accumulation of emotion produced by events over which we have very little control takes a spiritual toll.
I don’t know if there’s a connection, but there were a lot of people in church last Sunday, after an especially traumatic week in the news. I do know that I have never seen the church so full as the Sunday after 9/11. Maybe at such times, as well as those occasions when suffering enters our individual lives, we’re more open to answers, desperate for comfort, eager for a perspective to ease the pain and fear.
And that we have in Jesus on the cross. A good man whose powerful message was a threat to the authorities, much like the Israelite slaves threatened the Pharaoh. And in the resurrection, so consistent with the many resurrections in our own lives, is the surety that goodness will ultimately triumph, even over suffering so great that it is like watching your son die.
A third element of the force field that is Christian faith is that it builds spiritual muscles.
Much about the faith is very logical; much of it is historically verifiable. However, that is not enough for those of us who wonder about bigger questions than those answered by the scientific method.
Spiritually, most of us have seen more than we let on, experienced things we can’t explain, and this can empower us if we don’t quickly dismiss it all as coincidence or wishful thinking. Those things that overflow the conscious mind: the moment when a child is born or you hear Handel’s Messiah or look at the stars at night. Lincoln said that “I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how he could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.”
There is such a telling moment in the new film The 100 Foot Journey. Helen Mirren portrays the very French, demanding owner of a Michelin-star French restaurant in a village outside Paris that famous for its exceptional cuisine. She has the sophisticated palate of a true French chef, and has launched the careers of several of Europe’s culinary stars.
When hiring a new chef, she never looks at résumés or credentials and is totally uninterested in testimonials or even any conversation. She simply asks the candidate to make her an omelet, and after one bite, she knows if the cook has elements of greatness.
A person she has disregarded largely due to ethnic difference gets her to agree test him. We see her taste his omelet—enlivened with mysterious Indian spices as well as traditional French technique—and after one bite, she knows this is perhaps the greatest chef them all. And she puts her head down and quietly weeps in wonder.
Sometimes you just know. Such moments convince you that your search for more—for God—has a validity, because you have tasted the reality of another presence, if ever so slightly. Spiritual confidence—spiritual muscle—is strengthened.
Finally, the strongest element of the force field that is Christian faith is love. The very definition of God, Scripture tells us, is love.
And what other force could possibly draw you away from loving and caring for certain people in your life? Love even transcends time and space; we love those we can no longer see and those sitting right next to us.
And the resurrection shows us that ultimately love will win it all and that, in the meantime, goodness has staying power. We see love at work now amidst the backdrop of tragedy when we do what Mr. Rogers told us: Look for the helpers. Love is not defeated. God has not left the building. Or the world.
The prolific English poet T.S. Eliot became a Christian only late in his life, deciding, he said, that “poetry will not bear the weight of a life.” And we might ask ourselves if whatever we have aligned ourselves with can bear the weight of what life throws at us, if it can prevail against the strength of the forces put upon it by our own actions, the actions of other people, and the heavy influence of a culture that has, in many ways, lost its way
I am not rebranding Christianity, I assure you, but asking what force field we want to align ourselves with. If we allow ourselves to be drawn into the force field that is Christian faith, we are not out there alone, steering our small boat by the stars. Instead, we are using a compass that has worked faithfully for 2000 years; a magnet that shows us true north, to a life of meaning and hope, and ultimately will guide us home.