Friday, August 23, 2019

Tragedy or Comedy? An Expanded Sermon on Faith

What follows is an amplified version of a sermon I preached for Proper 14, Year C

What would you say? Are life and history a tragedy or a comedy?

I want to suggest to you that the Christian faith understands life and history to be a comedy. Not comedy in the sense that it is always funny, but comedy in the classic theater sense. Bear with me a bit here, I used to be an English teacher. Classically, a tragedy is a story that ends, well, tragically. There might be some humor along the way as there is for example in Romeo and Juliet. But, because the ending is tragic, it is a tragedy. A comedy on the other hand is a story that ends well. There might be lots of confusion and heartache along the way as for example in Much Ado About Nothing, but in the end, love conquers all and there is joy and laughter.

And that is the Christian faith – that in the end, Love will indeed conquer all and there will be joy and laughter for all eternity. Certainly, there is lots of tragedy along the way. But Christians believe that that is not how the story ends. Not my story. Not your story. Not the story of the world. The story of Jesus is a comedy. There is certainly some drama and there are definite rough patches. There is the poignancy of Jesus in the Garden and at the Last Supper. There is the seeming tragedy of Good Friday. But Easter comes and the story resolves in joy and laughter. And Christians believe that is a foreshadowing of how the story of the world ends. Faith is largely about living as though we believe that to be true.

There is much about faith in the lessons this morning, especially Hebrews 11. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for the conviction of things not seen?” And what are those things hoped for and not seen? Of course, God is unseen and yet we have faith in God and the things we know of God through Jesus. We cannot see beyond the grave and yet we hope for life after death. But, while faith in God and the hope of heaven is part of what the passage from Hebrews is about, it seems to be pointing toward something a bit different. Abraham “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect is God.” He and the other faithful in Hebrews 11 were “seeking a homeland” and “desiring a better country,” the city God has prepared for them. That is the promise they saw and greeted from a distance. That is not just about heaven, but about the promise that in the end God will set everything right and all that is broken will be repaired, all that needs forgiving will be forgiven, and the old tired creation will be made new.

We get a glimpse of that new creation, that city whose architect and builder is God, in the last chapters of the book of Revelation.

the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband
(Revelation 21:2)

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
(Revelation 21:3-4)

the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more.
(Revelation 22:1-3)

And we see it in the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom in Isaiah 11:1-9 where,

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them. 
(Isaiah 11:6)


They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.
(Isaiah 11:9)

This is the kingdom of God which Jesus refers to in this morning’s gospel, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” “Do not be afraid.”

That is how the story ends – with joy and peace and much laughter (Psalm 126:2) in the presence of God forever and ever – not as a tragedy, but a comedy.

New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, proposes that our situation is something like this. Imagine someone found an old play in some dusty attic in England that turned out to be a long lost, but clearly authentic play of Shakespeare. Here’s the problem. Acts I, II, III, and IV are all complete. But all that remains of Act V is the very last scene. So, we know how the story end. And, given the way it ends – a happy ending with joy and laughter – we know it is a comedy. Now, if we wanted to perform this play, what would we do? It can’t be performed incompletely. So, what to do? N. T Wright suggests we would gather some experienced actors who really know their Shakespeare. Have them learn the lines of Acts I thru IV and the final scene of Act V. They immerse themselves in it. Then they act. And when they get to Act V? At that point they have to improvise. What needs to happen, what might happen, to continue the story so that it is true to what went before and leads to the happy ending of Act V.

N. T Wright says we are like those actors in Act V. We know the story so far. Act I is creation. In the first two chapters of Genesis, we learn that this world is not an accident. Rather is is the exuberant creation of God who has declared it “good”, “beautiful”, “delightful”. And God is especially taken with these creatures created such that they can return his delight and delight in God’s creation and one another. It is glorious.

But then there is Act II. Everything goes sideways. The Man and the Woman and all humanity refuse to delight in God, the rest of creation, and one another. As a result there is division, deceit, and loneliness; violence and greed; there is selfishness, envy, and unlove. We are all infected. We all infect one another.

But, in Act III, God begins to intervene to prepare a way out of the mess we have made of things. God calls Abraham and Sarah. And from them comes the people of Israel, Moses, David, and the prophets.

Act V is Jesus and the New Testament. Out of Israel, out of the Jewish people comes the One longed for who shows the way the play is supposed to be acted. Jesus lives, teaches about the kingdom of God, heals infirmities, and forgives iniquities. He takes on all of human sin and suffering, takes it to the cross and dies for us to set us free. And then, foreshadowing how the play ends, he rises from the dead and ascends into heaven.

So here we are. In Act V. Like N. T. Wright’s imaginary Shakespearean actors, we are cast in the role of those who live as though we know the story so far. And more importantly, we know how the story ends – as a comedy in with joy and laughter and all longing for love fulfilled. What might that look like?

Because we know that, in spite of some of the day to day evidence, our story is not in fact a tragedy we can relax a bit. We can learn to let go of our greed and grasping, our fear and suspicion. Jesus, after all, tells us to not be afraid. We can practice hospitality and generosity. We can “seek peace and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:10-11).

As actors in a comedy, we can live with the assurance that, as Charles Williams wrote in his novel, The Greater Trumps, “Nothing was certain, but everything was safe – that was part of the mystery of Love.”

Because we seek a better homeland, the city God has prepared for us, we will hold lightly all earthly loyalties to family, ethnicity, nation, ideology, etc.

Because we believe this is a comedy that ends in mercy and justice, we can begin now to heed what we hear from Isaiah this morning. We can cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. We can seek justice rather than bloodshed (Isaiah 5:7).

We can rejoice in God’s mercy and forgiveness and offer the same to others.

We can look to Jesus as our director and contemplate those lines from Act IV that describe most clearly how to live toward the final scene of Act V: the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, Philippians 2, 1 Corinthians 13, 2 Corinthians 5.

We can pray and pay attention to the Holy Spirit’s choreography. And trust that we are not left only to our own devices, but filled and accompanied by that same Spirit.

None of us knows when the final scene will come. And there is nothing we can do to make it come. Faith includes trusting that God, the Divine Author, will bring the story to its end in his good time. We can only live as though we know what the final scene is. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "No one has the responsibility of turning the world into the kingdom of God, but only of taking the next necessary step that corresponds to God's becoming human in Christ." (Ethics, p. 224-225). That is what faith is, living now in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not yet seen as we prepare to receive our inheritance, that better homeland, that city God has prepared for us.

So, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This story is not a tragedy. It is a comedy.