"Growing in Faith" (aka "Christeners and Heretics")
This sermon was originally given at First Congregational Church of Kittery UCC on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. Special thanks to Garvin McCurdy for the alternative title.
Matthew 28: 1-10 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he[a] lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead,[b] and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Rev. Mary Luti is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and one of the greatest seminary professors I had the pleasure to learn from at Andover Newton Theological School. Rev. Luti has written this about Easter and the importance of the Easter Story in our lives, “Easter is neither a documentable historical event nor a poetic metaphor for renewal; it is a great mystery of faith…No matter how much glorious light it sheds, at its core is the darkness of unknowing.” We have heard many Easter messages in our lives. How many of them have welcomed us with the joy and glory of Easter Sunday, into the dark core of unknowing that lies at the heart of our faith?
At this church, we recently discerned a mission for ourselves, the first part of which is to “Inspire Spiritual Growth.” Here in this place we are God’s People anchored in love and growing in faith. For those who desire to grow in faith, the only way to go is through this deep, glorious “darkness of unknowing,” until we can hear the simple and extraordinary claims this story makes on our lives…when we finally hear it. We credit Mary Magdalene and her friend, also called Mary, as the first tellers of this story. It only seemed fitting that on this blessed Easter morning, we rely on women of our faith tradition in our own time to guide us deeper into this unknown dark…taking us by the hand…helping us to learn what it means to reach out for this risen Christ.
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, from the Lutheran Church, has learned a lot about Heresy. Heresy is a word that has traditionally referred to any teaching that goes against the orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church. Rev. Nadia has, until recently, served as the founding Pastor of a Christian Community in Denver called “A House for all Sinners and Saints.” It’s a community that intentionally lives out the belief that all of us are “simultaneously sinners and saints,” where corporate executives share the communion meal with homeless immigrants, drag queens rub elbows with conservative grandmothers. It’s a place that welcomes all and dares to live as though God has truly called each and every human being to share life together. As you can imagine, Rev. Nadia has challenged many traditional standards and norms within the Lutheran church, including the definition of the word “heresy.” In her updated definition, Rev. Nadia would passionately and clearly say that the definition of heresy is “bad theology,” teachings that have “all the trappings of Christianity and messages given in the name of Christianity that actually violate the essence of Christianity.”
If we try to tame the Easter story into an easy-to-understand folk tale with a clear moral that allows us to go undisturbed back into our normal lives…we are committing heresy.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is a minister in the Mennonite tradition in South Carolina. This week, through the magic of the internet, I was treated to some of her reflections on the version of the Easter story we are sharing this morning: Mary and Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it…For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.” Melissa Florer-Bixler read the story in the original Greek and she reported to her followers this last week that the Greek text directly contrasts the women with the guards. A more accurate account of this story is that, yes, the guards shake and quake and pretend to be corpses because they are so afraid of the angel that has appeared. And the angel looks at the women and says, “You don’t need to be afraid. THOSE guys need to be SUPER afraid.” The trained Roman military men who rule the world through violence and coercion…those guys who thought they could kill God’s People and return to business as usual…those guys who only achieve success through terrorism and division…those guys need to be super afraid in God’s new Creation. But Mary…and Mary…all of us…have nothing to fear. Not anymore.
Christian teaching that stokes fear in others is heresy. Christian teaching that seeks to control others, or coerce them to behave a certain way…that is heresy. When preachers use words like “forgiveness,” and “humility” to try to guilt and shame people into remaining in unhealthy situations or abusive patterns…those are examples of using all the trappings of Christian teaching in order to violate the essence of Christianity. The essence of Christianity is to be set free from all fear and worry in order to love and serve one another. Through the lens of this mystery, there is nothing more to fear…because God will even overcome death in order to unite the cosmos as One. Not only are fear and control and hatred manipulation all heretical to Christian teaching…but they are a waste of everyone’s time.
Brie Stoner lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is on staff at the Center for Action and Contemplation, and last week she asked a really great question, “What if we were to say, instead of ‘I’m a Christian,’ ‘I’m a Christen-er?’” The word Christ is Greek for “Anointed.” She wonders how different our world would be if people in this faith stopped identifying as “Christians” or “believers in Christ,” and started acting as “Christen-ers,” people who anoint one another and anoint the experience of Life Itself in the world. She asks, “Am I someone who is ‘christening’ others and ‘christening’ the world?” Am I just talking about God…or am I starting to act as I believe God acts? Brie Stoner has rediscovered for herself—just like Mary Luti, and Rev. Nadia, and Melissa Florer-Bixler and countless others—a version of faith that does not ask you to believe in a specific doctrine, or force you to behave a particular way, it doesn’t seek to control and terrorize your life…but a version of faith that invites each of us to bless this life, to anoint life for the purpose of love and service at all times, in all circumstances; even in the face of fear and uncertainty. How are we supposed to do it? How are we supposed to unlearn the patterns this world has instilled in us—shaming, blaming, cursing, demonizing, divisiveness and distrust and violence of all kinds—how are we supposed to unlearn all that so we can anoint one another as light-bearers and servant-healers, to unite as One in God’s new and enchanted Creation? How do we do it? It’s a dark, mysterious core of unknowing that lies at the heart of our faith. We don’t know how…but we have the ability to learn together.
A very wise woman in our community, Mary Jane Rowan, voiced at our most recent Annual Meeting that this is “a home for people who think they are different from us.” We aren’t different from one another…but we think we are. We think we don’t believe the same, we think that others don’t do things right, we think maybe others are better than ourselves, or others are more simple and trusting than ourselves, or more righteous or faithful than ourselves…but it’s not true. God welcomes one and all to this mysterious path of faith…people of all ages, people from every walk of life, regardless of what you believe or don’t believe. Life anoints us all to be loving, healing servants to one another and this entire enchanted world of ours. We belong to one another…united through the God who rewrites the rules of the universe to reconnect the dead to the living…ensuring we can live every day of our lives without fear of threat, intimidation or reprisal, without shame or blame. All that lies in wait for us is life itself…the One Life that all of us Belong to. Come and take hold of that life…together. You don’t have anything to be afraid of. Not anymore.