Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Right Answer is Always G-d

N.B. I was asked by our rector to preach for Easter Vigil service, the first service of Easter held at sundown Saturday in which the Paschal candle is relit. It was an honor to do so. The following is the text of my sermon. I have provided the references to the lessons I developed in the sermon in notes at the end. 

May I speak in the name of G_d who creates, redeems and sustains us? AMEN.

            As I eagerly plunged into the readings to prepare my sermon this week, I suddenly realized that there was a total of 20 readings, eleven from the two testaments, seven psalms and two canticles. And, of course, being the diligent, duty-bound Episcopal preacher that I am, surely I would need to develop each one of those 20 readings in my sermon.
            Fortunately, the rubrics in our prayer book provide relief from what might otherwise be an excruciatingly long sermon. Following the recital of the Baptismal Covenant, one finds these instructions: A homily may be preached after any of the preceding Readings. In other words, the preacher gets to pick and choose which lessons s/he wants to focus on. And this is good news for all of us particularly given how long this service is to begin with!
            But as I read through the readings, it occurred to me that there was an overarching theme that flowed through each of them. It is a theme we hear virtually every Sunday in our children’s sermons, a theme which identifies a kind of bottom line for people of faith. When any child responds to one of the impromptu questions Alison (our rector) poses with the answer “G-d,” Alison always says, “Right! The right answer is always G_d.” And in our readings tonight, the reason it is the right answer becomes very clear to us.

Two Sides of the Same Coin
             Our lessons tonight began with the two Creation narratives found in the Genesis text,[i] one by a group of writers called the Yahwists for their use of the name YHWH to identify G-d. The other was written by a group of writers called the Priestly writers who came in at the end of the long editing process that would produce the Hebrew Scripture as we know it today. It is these writers who add the lyrical poetry that we all know and love: “In the beginning when G-d was creating the heavens and the earth…”
            In the halls of higher education where I work, there has long been a war between religion and science over the implications of these texts. For dualistic thinkers, either the Creation narrative according to the Genesis writers is historically factual or the completely scientific explanations lacking any spiritual dimension must be right. In Ethics, my field of study, such dualistic thinking is recognized as a logical fallacy we call a false dichotomy.
            The reality is that the account of the sudden eruption onto the scene of an Earth surrounded by heavens where none previously existed is a lyrical description of an event scientists call the Big Bang. Once the new universe had stabilized, a period of development of life begins on the planet in this solar system best suited for it. That process begins with unicellular life, develops first into plant life and then into animal life which happens first in the sea, then springs into the air and crawls out onto the land to develop into a multitude of species.
            At the end of that long period of development a thinking animal finally appears on the scene called homo sapiens, the wise hominid. They have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and now must be responsible for their moral decision making. If one did not know better, they would think the writers of Genesis had read a book called Origin of the Species written by a scientist named Charles Darwin who was an Anglican until the day he died. The order of Creation is the same in both accounts.
            It’s easy to read the Genesis stories and appreciate the beauty of its lyrical accounts of Creation. The Priestly writers did a wonderful job of splicing together disparate texts and creating a masterpiece. But there are two important truths in their account which are fundamental to our own stories as Christians and Episcopalians which must be recognized.

All Things Come of Thee, O Lord….
            The first is that all that exists comes from G-d, the source of all that is. One of the names for G-d used in the Creation narrative is YHWH. It is a word with no vowels, difficult for non-Hebrew speakers to pronounce. Some Hebrew sages have long noted that at a basic level, the initial part of the name YH replicates the sound of the human intake of air while the WH portion produces the sound of exhalation. Try it. Inhale with YH exhale with WH. How close is G-d to all of us all the time? As close as the very air we breathe. Without  G- d, no living thing exists.
            This is a critical recognition for a human species that today often revels in its self-reliance and atomistic individualism. Our connection to G-d is created by G-d the divine Creator. And while we human creatures may ignore, neglect or even deny our ultimate connection to G-d, we can never sever it. Whatever we might think, do or say, G-d remains connected to us from our creation, continuously calling us creatures who bear G-d’s very image into ever deeper relationship with our Creator and with each other.
             That connection is seen in our readings tonight. G-d preserves a humanity which will be repopulated after a great flood through the agency of a righteous man who walks with G-d named Noah.[ii] G-d calls a people who will ultimately be called Israel, meaning the ones who struggle with G_d, to be a blessing to the rest of humanity through the agency of a devout servant, Abraham.[iii] G-d calls that people out of slavery to the world’s greatest imperial power of its time through the events of the Exodus  and saves them at the Red Sea from certain annihilation.[iv]
            G-d calls to G-d’s people in exile, seeking to restore and renew their covenant with their Creator, calling them back from the nations among whom they have been scattered, replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, hearts needed to live into the calling of relationship.[v] Even in death, the connection to G-d is not lost. G-d appears in the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel to breathe the breath of life back into the dead, call the people once again back to relationship.[vi]
            The connection of G-d to all that is created is intrinsic to Creation and infinite in endurance. We cannot understand the events of the Holy Week we have just completed with its conclusion at the empty tomb of Mark’s Gospel[vii] without a recognition that the connection of G-d to all living beings is eternal, inseverable and thus trustworthy. It is precisely that understanding with which Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, knowing what awaits him there, yet willingly faces his own death upon the cross. Jesus is so certain of the connection of G-d to all living beings that he is willing to trust his very soul to that G-d he calls Father. It is the ultimate demonstration of an existential trust in a
G-d whose connection to us does not end in death.

Connected to G-d and Each Other
            But the empty tomb of Mark’s Gospel is not the end of the story. It is merely the beginning. Let’s return to Genesis for a moment. If G-d is at the heart of all that exists, that means that every aspect of Creation – living and non-living - is intrinsically and inextricably connected to each other through our common creation in G-d. We are bound to this beautiful blue and green planet home that our Eucharistic prayer celebrates. And, despite the incessant message with which our individualistic consumer culture pounds us, it’s ultimately not all about me, you or any one of us, we are bound to each other. Whether we flourish or whether we flounder, we do so together. And in an age in which human behavior threatens to render our island home unfit for most life forms - including us -  that truth has never been borne in upon us more immediately.
            So, if G-d is always connected to us, never gives up on us and continues to call us into relationship with our deepest selves, our neighbors and the entirety of the good Creation, how should we respond? I believe there is no better job description of that calling than the Baptismal Covenant[viii] which we all just recited.   
            For those of us who would follow the Way of Jesus, we are called to critically consider the teachings which have developed within our tradition, to be in fellowship with those who walk this Way with us, to break bread together – not just at this altar but in fully fleshed out fellowship in which we share our very lives together. We are called to pray -  for ourselves, for those whose lives are connected to our own and for the good Creation we share.
            We are called to constantly reconsider the meaning of our lives. This is what the word repent actually means. In doing so, we must consider the possibility that some of the very things we think are most pious, holy, moral, even divinely ordained, might actually prove harmful to ourselves, others and the good Creation and thus sinful.
            We are called to proclaim to the world the Good News of G-d as personified in the Way of Jesus in words but more importantly in deeds. St. Francis would remind us to preach the Gospel at all times but only to use words when necessary. Francis knew that talk is always cheap but acts of loving kindness are always priceless.
            We are called to seek and serve G-d in all persons and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The image of G_d is indelibly implanted on the face of every living being from the moment of Creation and G_d’s assessment of Creation once completed was that it is “very good.” If we cannot see that goodness, that image of G_d lurking behind a multitude of disguises ranging from poverty and disease to crime and addiction, we need to unflinchingly ask ourselves, “Why not?”
            Finally we are called to move beyond the limited bonds of our families, friends and neighbors, our tribe, to consider the needs of the world. What in our lives together creates a world marked by peace and justice? What prevents it? And we must ask ourselves how our lives together demonstrate respect for every living being knowing that when we fail to do so, it is the very image of G-d we defile.

“I Will….With God’s Help”
            The Way of Jesus we have constructed through our Episcopal tradition is not for the faint-hearted. It is a tough road we have chosen. There are many points of crucifixion along this road. But G-d calls us to nothing less. And because we know we cannot do this alone, when we answer the questions our Baptismal Covenant poses to us, we must be realistic enough to admit to two things: First, we must be willing to act when G_d calls to us, and second, we must always remember we will need the assistance of the G-d who is calling us. That is why we humbly answer those questions in our Baptismal Covenant with the response “I will - with God’s help.”
            Our children are right. The right answer is always G-d, the source of all that is, the ground of our being and the destination of our souls.  At every step of our lives from our first breath to our last, G-d is present with us. And tonight we celebrate the assurance that when we, like Jesus, breathe our last the strong but gentle hands of G_d will be there to receive our souls.  For that, I say, thanks be to G-d!     
            Happy Easter, everyone. AMEN.

[i] Genesis 1:1-2:4a
[ii] Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13
[iii] Genesis 22:1-18
[iv] Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21
[v] Ezekiel 36:24-28
[vi] Ezekiel 37:1-14
[vii] Mark 16:1-8
[viii] The Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer (1979), pp. 292 et seq.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Professed, Third Order Society St. Francis
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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