This is the day when the church proclaims most boldly and joyfully its most absurd and improbable convictions: That Jesus, murdered by the state, came back to life; and that this unlikelihood points towards an exponentially greater unlikelihood: That Love has conquered Death. That Death no longer has dominion over us – in some mysterious and ultimate sense, since people continue to die on a regular basis.
I know that people have questions about it all. Not just little questions but big questions. And not just visitors or seekers, but people who worship here every week. Is this true? Does it matter? Does the church take this seriously? Does Rev. Miranda really believe it? Am I supposed to really believe it – and if so, which parts are most important? And what does it mean if I don’t, or can’t? Or if I have to cross my fingers or edit the Creed a little, when we read that ancient statement of faith together on Sundays?
There are people here, too, who do believe, at a deep level, even though a lot of it is hard and weird. We have the full range in the room today. We have the full range in the room every Sunday.
And that’s fine! Nobody has to believe anything; that’s not how Episcopal and Anglican churches work. By design, we are a way of faith that defines membership and belonging by what we do together – by our participation in common worship. If you find meaning, comfort, peace, insight, purpose, beauty, connection, truth, joy in what we do together when we gather for worship, enough that you come back, regularly or when you can, then congratulations! You’re Episcopalian.
But that doesn’t mean your questions and struggles don’t matter. And there is a particular kind of pressure on Easter Sunday. When the church preaches Christ crucified and risen – which is, as the apostle Paul noted two thousand years ago, a scandal and foolishness to those who don’t or can’t believe it.
I mean, that’s just facts. It’s not news that this is hard to swallow. It was hard to swallow for the first Christians and those around them, too.
People sometimes ask me if I believe it. And the answer is: Yes, I do. Partly, the miracles just have never bothered me that much. It’s not that I’m not a scientific thinker. But I guess … my brain just doesn’t catch on that. I don’t have a hard time believing that the God who invented DNA could reverse decay, for example.The fact that my faith doesn’t trip over the notion of a literal bodily resurrection, or the other miracles of the Gospels, doesn’t mean my faith is stronger than anybody else’s. I think that’s more a matter of personality and wiring.
But actually: Whether or not I find this particular physical process credible is… not that central for me? Religious faith is not intellectual agreement with a list of doctrinal statements. One issue is with the word “believe”, as used in English. We use that word both in a religious sense and in a more everyday sense, meaning that we think something is true, factually speaking. That’s a confusing conflation of two rather different things. Many scholars say that the “belief” of the Bible is better translated as trust, loyalty, solidarity. Choosing your allegiances for the work and struggle of life. The word “belief” points too much towards the head, and not enough towards the heart and the gut.
I resonate with what Francis Spufford says in his book Unapologetic: “I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions… But it is… a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas…”
My faith is made up of a lot of things, and the fact that I’m able to tolerate the mystery of the resurrection flows out of those other things, rather than the reverse. My faith is made of the times when I’ve heard God speak to me to guide, challenge, or affirm, and the times when I have experienced divine mercy – consolation – clarity. My faith is made of my own lifelong experience of being embraced, cared for, raised up by faith community. Made of the witness of the church and the saints, living and dead; of my ongoing conversation with Scripture, loving and lively and contentious.
My faith is made of the moments when I can look at the world around me and see that, in the words of a favorite prayer, God is working through our struggle and confusion to accomplish God’s purposes on earth. There is much cause for dismay, anxiety, grief in the world today. I am never one to downplay the seriousness of our shared circumstances. AND: I am 48 years old, beloveds. When I was born, women couldn’t yet legally be priests in the Episcopal Church. In my not quite half a century, so much has changed. When I hang out with our youth group, I’m staggered by everything they know about neurodiversity, mental illness, diversity of gender expression and sexual orientation, racial diversity and systemic oppression… They know so much more about all the different ways to be human, and what we owe to one another, than I did at their age. If you believe, as I do, that one of God’s purposes on earth is for people to be able to be fully themselves in public, and to share their voices and gifts and skills, and access the things that help them flourish – then God IS working through our struggle and confusion – a LOT of struggle, a LOT of confusion, to be sure – but God IS working through it to accomplish God’s purposes.
My faith is made up of lots of things. And the fact that I can tolerate the perplexing idea of Christ’s victory over death flows out of all these things, rather than being the precondition for them.
But I cannot talk you into that in three more pages of sermon. Faith can’t be transplanted. Each of us is on their own path.
And how do I know that my capacity to have faith – to believe that we are held in love, that an active power of good works in and through us – isn’t fundamentally because I was born into a family where I was able to form secure attachments? Because I’ve always had enough money to be able to feed myself and my children? Because I’m white and middle class and most doors have opened for me, over the course of my life? How can I know that my capacity to have faith isn’t simply a symptom of my privilege? Why should you take my word for it?
Those are great questions! I’ve wondered about them myself. And the fact is that I don’t fully take my own word for it. The witness of a lot of other people is really important for me. Some are living individuals whose faith and way of being in the world sustain and inspire me. People who’ve lived through loss, pain, struggle, and need, and bear witness that God was in it with them; people who have spent far more time in contemplation, prayer, study and seeking than I have, and have found that the Holy met them on that terrain. I trust their testimony.
Others are more public property – names you might know. Jon Daniels of blessed memory, a bright, complicated young man from New Hampshire who grappled his way into faith, then heard Martin Luther King Jr. and Mary the Mother of God calling him to join the protests in Selma in 1965. His journals of his time in Alabama show him second-guessing his own motives, mocking his own white-saviorism, learning, growing, seeking, submitting himself more and more fully and finally to God’s purposes. That path led him to death on a dusty road on a hot August day when he stepped between a young black friend and a racist’s gun.
King himself, who delivered the famous Mountaintop speech 55 years ago this past Monday. He wasn’t scheduled to speak that night, and was exhausted and ill. He spoke frequently of death, that evening; he knew how much danger he was in, moment by moment. Evoking the story of Moses’ death, he told the crowd that he’d been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land; that their journey would continue even if he didn’t get there with them. That his eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. King was assassinated the next day; he was 39 years old.
Sophie Scholl, whom I preached about a few weeks ago, and another martyr of the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer’s resistance to white supremacist thought was shaped by the experience of studying with African-American theologians and worshipping with a Black church. Bonhoeffer thought deeply about grace, purpose, right and wrong. His faith led him to active resistance to the Nazi government – resulting in his execution as a threat to the state, just like Jesus.
And it’s not just people who died for their faith, though their witness bears a particular weight; but people who live for their faith also encourage and ground my faith.
Desmond Tutu – the first black African bishop in the church in South Africa during Apartheid – who embodied holy joy and holy courage for so many. Once, in August of 1989, Tutu held an Ecumenical Defiance service at the Capetown cathedral, a church counterpart to the anti-apartheid protests outside. When military police entered the cathedral and lined the walls, weapons in hand, Tutu addressed them directly: “You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you have already lost, come join the winning side!”
Pauli Murray, born black, poor, female-bodied and queer in North Carolina in 1910, who fought their way to a distinguished legal career and important work advocating against both racial and sex-based discrimination— and then, late in life, felt a call to the priesthood, becoming the first female-bodied African-American to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.
Core to both Pauli’s activism and their priesthood was a commitment to reconciliation among humans and between humans and God, with the goal of transforming the world.
Our own Martina Rippon, who went on ahead last fall. Blocked from pursuing her chosen career as a doctor, Martina spent her life nonetheless in service to others – disaster relief, chaplaincy work, and community organizing. Martina had that Jesus-like quality of being able to talk with anybody – and not just superficially but about the real stuff. She told me, near the end, that she didn’t need anybody with her when she died. That was between her and God, and she was ready, and not afraid.
When I second-guess myself and wonder if I have faith because my life has been easy, or because I’ve just never really thought it all through, I look to the saints I’ve named here and others. They were able to place their trust in the life and love made known to us in Jesus Christ because of their experiences of divine consolation, clarity, and courage.
And in thinking of these people, naming these people – I’m not marshaling examples to prove some point to myself or others, as you would in an academic paper. I’m calling my faith community around me. Just as when it’s been a long time since I last had a clear word from God, or a strong sense of that bedrock of love under my feet, or of the tug of a purpose larger than my own… then a friend, or a colleague, or sharing worship with this community, sustains me and keeps me on the path. Because not only is faith not really a head thing; it’s also not really an individual person thing.
Your struggles and questions – and mine – they do matter, but they also… don’t? This whole – thing – what we do and proclaim today, and every Sunday – does not depend on your personal capacity to assent to a list of propositions. Or mine! It doesn’t depend on it because in the Episcopal Church believing is something we do together. The Creed, the church’s statement of faith, begins, WE believe. (Though for some reason the version in the baptismal liturgy we’ll use today says “I believe” – breathe through it! It’s OK!) We place our trust, our loyalty, in this holy story and what it says about humanity and God and the world, together. As a body. That’s deep in our way of faith as Christians in the Anglican way. It’s why Episcopalians don’t do altar calls, beloveds. Because we don’t believe one by one, like that. We believe together. We trust, we claim, we commit, together.
And the other reason not to be too weighed down by whether you can say a hearty Yes to any given line of the Creed, beloveds, is that if any of us are right about any of it, it doesn’t depend on our believing, on our knowing. This holy story, and the One at the center of it, doesn’t need us to be fully clear and fully convinced to be able to offer us grace, joy, consolation, purpose or possibility through the story and its work within and among us.
Sixteen hundred years ago or so, the theologian and bishop John Chrysostom wrote a sermon for Easter. Orthodox churches read it every year; we read parts of it at the Easter Vigil. It’s a wonderful, playful text about how the Easter celebration is for everyone. You who have been part of the community for a long time, and you who showed up at the last possible minute – You who are hard on yourselves, and you who are easy – You who have kept a Lenten fast faithfully, and you who have not – Celebrate! Rejoice in this glorious feast of feasts! You are an invited and honored guest.
That’s what I want to say, dear ones. The things the Church proclaims today – the absurd, beautiful Easter Gospel: Christ is arisen, Death is defeated, Love wins – the things we sing and shout, with joy and hope, today, are for everybody. Not forced on you or drummed into you, but offered with welcome and delight.
You for whom this is so familiar, your umpteenth Episcopal Easter, that you struggle to find refreshment here; and you for whom it’s all so new and strange that it’s hard to keep your feet under you –
You who have seen resurrection enough times that it doesn’t faze you in the least, and you that have seen so much death and loss that the Alleluias come heavy –
You that came here driven by memory, seeking the past, and you that came here looking for hope, seeking the future –
You that came here for the music or the sound of voices raised together, and you that came here in hope of a little holy silence –
You who haven’t been to church for a while and are disappointed by how much has changed, and you who haven’t been to church for a while and are delighted by how much has changed –
You that want to believe and can’t quite get there, and you that believe almost in spite of yourself –
You that find faith easy but church hard, and you that find church easy but faith hard –
All of you, all of us, nevertheless: Welcome! Rejoice! The banquet is prepared and you are invited! The Kingdom belongs to us all! Christ is risen and Love reigns! Alleluia!