I used to exercise in a cemetery. It was always a bit of an odd feeling, walking and jogging through a cemetery, although I have to admit it was a good source of motivation to work on my health. One of the reasons why it was a sometimes an uncomfortable feeling is because of the people who would be in the cemetery as I walked and ran. I was often surprised at how many people were in the cemetery, visiting the graves. Some were tending flowers, and trimming grass and pulling weeds around the headstones. Others would sit and talk to the deceased. Some would pray. I always felt as if I was intruding on a very personal moment.
But there was one thing I always knew to be true – no one goes to a cemetery expecting to find life. That was true on the first Easter morning as well, as we find in today’s Scripture reading. And yet life is what they found –
1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.
5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?
6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee:
7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ”
8 Then they remembered his words.
9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.
10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.
11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
Some years ago, as I took my seat on a flight, I started a conversation with the person in the seat next to me. What’s one of the first questions you ask someone when you strike up a conversation? What do you do for a living? When the person asked me that question I replied I’m a minister, to which they responded oh, I’m sorry! I’m not sorry and have never been sorry about what I do, but it occurred to me at that moment that something had changed in the way that people think about faith.
I think it is safe to say that the role of faith has reached an interesting station in our society. There are more skeptics and critics of faith, of religion, and churches than ever before. As a member of the clergy, I have become accustomed to the skepticism and negativity that is aimed at my work, that is aimed at churches and is aimed at faith itself.
Although I don’t like the criticisms that are leveled at churches and people of faith, I have to admit that some of it is deserved. Sometimes churches have been less than sensitive to people of other perspectives. Sometimes churches have been too closely aligned with particular political methods and styles of politics that have alienated others.
When it comes to the word religion, to use the language of the day, we have some work to do on the brand.
As we gather on this Easter morning, we are, certainly, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. We are celebrating this wonderful gift of life that was discovered, first, in the most unlikely of places – a cemetery. We live in a world where so many expect to find life where life will never be found. On the first Easter, life was found in the most unlikely of places – a cemetery.
The resurrection forms the foundation of who we are as followers of Jesus, and I want to use the idea of resurrection in relation to Resurrecting Faith. Faith has been somewhat battered and bruised in Western Society in recent years, although it is flourishing in other parts of the world. I want to speak to what I believe are some essentials for Resurrecting Faith in the modern world.
To resurrect faith, some things must first die.
There are, unfortunately, too many members of what has been termed the “church alumni society.” There are far too many people who have given up on the church. They’ve seen the power struggles, the hypocrisy, the judgmentalism, or other failings, and they’ve said I’m out of here. Perhaps you are one of those, and you are here today because you are either looking for a reason to give it one more try, or you are wondering if it is time to give up once and for all, or perhaps you are meeting some type of obligation that exists in your mind.
If you fit into any of those categories, if you don’t like a lot of what you see and hear from religion, take heart, because neither did Jesus.
In John 12:24 Jesus said Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.
It is time for some things to die. It is time for bigotry in the name of faith to die, it is time for self-righteousness to die, it is time for hypocrisy to die, it is time for those negative aspects of the church to fall into the ground and die so the true nature of God’s great gift of the church can grow and produce much fruit.
Sometimes I am a critic of the church, and the reason why I am a sometime critic of the church is because I love the church so much. When I critique the church it is done with sadness, because I love the church and it has been and will be an indispensible part of my life until my final breath. I can’t imagine anything that would ever bring me to give up on it, and I hope you feel that way as well.
There are days I see the church in the same way as one person described it – it’s a bit like Noah’s Ark; kind of chaotic and messy inside, sometimes even kind of smelly, but superior to the alternative that you find when you step out the door.
To resurrect faith we must reject the false narrative that religion and the church are the source of the world’s ills.
If you hear anyone passing this false narrative ask them if they paid for their education. Do they have a college degree? If so, they might want to ask for their money back.
Very few things get under my skin quite like this false narrative, which is factually untrue and can only be supported by a painful twisting of history and intentional ignorance of reality. Turn down the church but at least use a reason that is not a reflection of such bad reasoning, bad logic, and false assumptions
In spite of the failings, church, religion, faith – whatever word you want to use – gets a bad rap, I believe, in too many instances. Churches and religious people have earned some of the scorn they received. Some. Not all. Unfortunately, many people adopt what I would call a false narrative. The false narrative goes like this – religion has been the cause of all the major wars, has resulted in more death and more suffering, caused slavery and all the other ills suffered in human history, and might even be the reason UK lost in the NCAA tournament. The false narrative is summed up in the title of Christopher Hitchen’s book – God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. To which I would add the subtitle – How did such an intelligent man write such a misinformed and erroneous book?
To resurrect faith we must give up the obsession of right belief over right action.
This is the basis of legalism. Max Lucado defines legalism in this way – legalism has no pity on people. Legalism makes my opinion your burden, makes my opinion your boundary, makes my opinion your obligation. Nothing will keep a (person) more immature than tying to keep a long list of rules (Up Words, May 1993).
Legalism is even better explained by an old story of a young couple. Recently married, one evening they had ham for dinner. The young husband noticed that his wife had cut the ends off the ham before cooking it. Intrigued by this, he asked, why did you cut the ends off the ham before cooking it? To which she replied, that’s the way my mother cooked ham. About a month later they went to her parent’s house for dinner, and guess what was served? That’s right – ham. And the young man took note that the ends had been cut off the ham. Intrigued once again, he asked his mother-in-law I notice that you and your daughter both cut the ends off the ham before you cook it. Why do you do this? To which she replies, that’s the way my mother cooked ham. About a month later the couple have dinner at her grandparents house, and guess what they have for dinner? Fried chicken. Just kidding – they have ham. And guess what he notices about the ham? That’s right, the ends were cut off before cooking. By now the young man is overwhelmed with curiosity, so he asks the grandmother I notice that your daughter, and your granddaughter cut the ends off the end of the ham before cooking it. They both get the practice from you. Why do you cut the ends off the ham before cooking it? To which she replied, it’s the only way it would fit in the pan!
That is legalism, where people eventually forget the function and begin to follow the form. Legalism is remembering the commands but forgetting the spirit behind the commands. Legalism is revering rules and regulations but forsaking the meaning and spirit behind them.
It’s not that beliefs aren’t important; they are. If, for instance, you believe certain people are not equal to you it’s a very short step to marginalizing them and mistreating them. But how much time, energy, and even love has been squandered in the countless arguments over making sure that everyone has the correct belief? How many arguments do we need about Calvinism or some obscure theological point that is little more than arguing over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin or whether or not God can create a rock so large that it is impossible for him to life?
Our world needs churches concerned with right action – with the action that comes from loving God and loving neighbor, not in loving an argument. There are two churches in another part of Kentucky that came into being as a result of a church split. Evidently, the congregation had a disagreement over a particular doctrine and they experienced a rather messy split. The two new churches chose as their new names, without any comprehension of the irony, Harmony Church and Unity Church. Do you think the community couldn’t see through those names? Of course they could!
To resurrect faith we must take it to the streets.
Today’s religious atmosphere is remarkably similar to that of the time of Jesus in several ways, but primarily in this way – in the time of Jesus, people felt disconnected from the institutional religion of the day, saw it is as out of touch and somewhat irrelevant, and in need of some serious change and renewal.
Does that sound familiar?
One of the reasons why people had come to such a belief is because the religion of the day was, in too many cases, removed from the every day world where people lived.
I fear that sometimes, as people of faith, we have built a very comfortable but alternative universe within the larger universe. We have a bubble in which we can live, a subculture that provides us with everything we need so we never have to venture out into the scary and intimidating real world. But we have to move out of our comfort zones and into the streets of the world (I will refrain from singing Takin’ It to the Streets by the Doobie Brothers, but you can listen to it when you get home. It’s a great message – taking it to the streets).
This is a great facility. I am grateful we have such a great building. I’m grateful our congregation is generous and welcoming with our building, opening the doors to a lot of groups from our community. But as much as I enjoy and appreciate our building, one thing is true of every church building – if you stay in the building, eventually you die. The goal of a church is more than getting people inside our building; the goal of a church is to connect people to God and to help them utilize the gifts and talents given them by God to reach out to other people.
Easter is about resurrection, even resurrecting faith itself. And the Easter proclamation, the affirmation that is the fuel for our faith is, He is risen! He is risen indeed! He is risen! He is risen indeed! He is risen! He is risen indeed!
May we go forth in a resurrected faith that comes through the power of the resurrection of Jesus!