I was driven recently to reread a sermon preached over thirty year ago by the chaplain in my college days, “You Can’t Keep God Dead in Your Life.” The occasion for wishing to “hear” this sermon again was not exactly a crisis of faith. But, admittedly, I was needing… looking for some hope.
You see, I am reading Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.” Taylor is tracking the transformation of western society — from the time it was virtually impossible not to believe in God until now when, even for the staunchest believer, faith is one of many human possibilities — and, perhaps not the most obvious or easiest one.
Most interesting to me is Taylor’s description of how the contemporary faith is colored, even hemmed in by our secular context and assumptions. For instance, now even the faithful regularly wonder how and how much God can affect them and the world.
Taylor paints a picture of the passing of an earlier “enchanted world,” wherein human life was porous enough to be affected by external, supernatural forces – whether the hand of God or the trickery of sprites and goblins. More importantly, he points out, in our former, enchanted world, the fulfillment of human life was enabled by a transcendent power everyone was confident in… even though it was beyond human existence or control. Likewise, human fulfillment was located and therefore to be found outside of human life.
Our contemporary world, on the other hand, leaves us essentially to ourselves. Taylor speaks of buffered selves. Individuals who are protected from outside forces. I suspect, that means we are also less vulnerable to one another. It’s a lonelier, and, to me, less hopeful world where we are left at the mercy of our own limited devices. There is no more transcendence. No power beyond ourselves. From whence cometh our help? Well, there’s no more sense of fulfillment to be found outside our mortal lives.
So, both personally and professionally, it’s an important, albeit sort of tiring read. I think it’s necessary, crucial to recognize and understand the world in which we are to live our Christian lives and perform our individual and communal ministries and mission.
Still, only at page 274 (of 776 total) — somewhere among the various twisted threads of the 18th century — I found myself needing some reassurance!
And I remembered the sermon. Actually, when I located it, I realized it was Coleman Brown’s Easter sermon to the University Church the year after I graduated. Somehow, perhaps in a visit back to campus, it had become known me.
Coleman’s sermon began with the last words from the Gospel of Mark. Mary the mother of James, and Mary Magdalene and Salome have come upon the empty tomb. Despite an angel’s reassurance, they are not just astonished, but afraid.
The preacher began with the promise of the empty tomb: : “whatever else the resurrection of Jesus Christ means, it means – you can’t keep God dead… in your life.” That’s what I remembered and wanted to hear again. I assumed the proposition stretched beyond my personal experience, and so it wasn’t going to far to say, “we can’t keep God dead in our world.”
He then added, using the women’s fear as his launching pad: we need to confess that deep down all of us at one time or another hope we can keep God out of our lives.
That’s why we hide our lives. Or parts of ourselves from others, and even from ourselves. We duck giving an account of our actions, individually or as they add up to form how we live. We specialize, become experts in the ways we can avoid questions like “What are you doing with your life?” We fill our time with busyness. We work hard at religion. We drink ourselves into forgetting. We spin elaborate fantasies and justifications as avoidance. Or we opt out in despair, nursing ourselves that “nothing really matters anyway.”
The sermon crescendoed with the Christian contradiction to all such subterfuge of doubts and fears. Instead of “nothing matters,” our faith teaches, promises that everything matters. “Every sparrow that falls; every crushed woodchuck on the road; every lost toy, every lost dog or cat; every lonely, lost or dying child, every lonely, lost or dying one of us.”
God — even in a world that makes it easier not to believe — is the One from whom the truth of your life cannot be hid. The one from whom we need not hide. “Where could I flee from your presence?” is not a threat, so much as a reassurance. Because Truth cannot be destroyed. We can kill God’s love for us, but we can’t keep it dead and buried.
Which has made me wonder… is our modern secularism all an elaborate deception, a social construct that we might not have to answer the most basic question, “what are we doing with our lives?” I will tell you when I finish the book!
And the sermon has made me remember the Erasmus quote that Jung hung over the door to his home: Bidden or unbidden, God is Present.”
“I meet you, “ says the Risen Christ, “in the familiar places of your life, where you are under threat, under duress, under pressure, have failed, are grieved, angry, afraid… I will meet you in those places and guide you and be with you. Look for your brothers and sisters. I will be there. And with me there is mercy and forgiveness. “ Amen.