Realism & Naivety
by Fr. Blake
The following sermon was preached at 8am, 10am, and 5:30pm on Sunday June 7, 2015, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George in St. Louis, Missouri. This was my first Sunday here at this parish. It was also the first Sunday of the summer choir schedule. The Mass Ordinary at 10am was Healey Willan’s “Missa Sancta Maria Magdalena.”
Collect: Keep, O Lord, we beseech thee, thy household the Church in thy steadfast faith and love, that by the help of thy grace we may proclaim thy truth with boldness, and minister thy justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
“We are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen:
“Come on, let’s be real. You don’t actually believe all that stuff, do you? You’re a nice guy, but you’ve got some naive ideas about the way the world works.” How many times have we heard something like this? From our friends, TV commentators, family, you name it. We Christians get a bad rap for being gullible, believing too readily every next smiling face claiming to speak for God. We get charged with mere “wishful thinking,” about death and crises and the afterlife; and to make matters worse, polls reveal that it is often Christians who are the most systemically unaware of the news and problems of the world.
But before we get too defensive, or pass off all these charges on Christians of other churches or traditions, let’s face it: there is something about Christian faith that is undeniably naive. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that God made the heavens and the earth, that everything consists somehow in the will of God, and that some day at the end of time, everything will be set right again. These are core doctrines of the faith, but you have to admit: from the perspective of your average unbeliever, they sound like fantasy, no more.
How do we answer these charges? We can’t abandon our hope, but we have to begin with an unrelenting realism, an unflinching honesty about ourselves and the way the world works. This kind of realism starts with careful observation. We have to take a hard look at our wants and desires, and what we claim as our goals and values. Are they really the best thing for me? How am I justifying them to myself? To what or to whom am I really holding myself accountable, in individual decisions and in the long arc of my moral life? Do the values I claim for myself match what I do with my life?
There are lots of answers to these questions, some better than others. But the point I want to make here is that whatever our answers, we must not lie to ourselves. Too often we Christians get away with using religious language to justify unhealthy, immoral, and frankly unchristian decisions. Our first task as religious people is to tell the truth. And if we’re not doing that with ourselves first, we can’t possibly hope to be believed in our families or in the world at large.
This requires a good dose of humility, and a readiness to take ourselves down a peg or two if need be; and sometimes to be kinder to ourselves than we’ve been in the past. But we have to tell the truth. No amount of religious language, no amount of superhuman devotion, no amount of good works, can relieve us of the requirement first and foremost to be honest with ourselves, and to tell the truth.
The more we learn about ourselves, the more we learn about our strengths and weaknesses, our moral successes and failures, the better we’re able to navigate the avenues where we can make real improvements. The more we learn about ourselves, the more prepared we are to fulfill our duties to our families, and to make contributions in the world. The more honest we are with ourselves, the more generous we can be with our friends and neighbors, knowing that we too have work to do.
There’s a funny thing about truth though. When we uncover something incontrovertible, something certain, no matter how much we poke or prod it, we can stop there, and make that thing the center of our lives. This is the real trouble with those who criticize Christians for our naivety and our seemingly fantastic claims. They are honest enough to see that the world is a rough place, and that human beings have done a lot to mess it up. But they stop there. They make that observation, true enough as far as it goes, the center of their approach to the world. And that’s why they have a hard time seeing how anything could be different.
You’ve probably heard the quote, favorite of teachers and scientists and politicians alike, that goes, “The more we learn, the less we know.” In other words, greater knowledge leads to a greater sense of what we still don’t know. It’s a truism, but it makes a good point. Truth, real truth, always opens into further possibility. The trouble with those who say, “The world is hopeless and there’s point in believing pie-in-the-sky religion,” is that it elevates one person’s view of the truth as the only possibility. It leads to tunnel vision, despair, and death. Real truth requires us to admit that we might be wrong, and that in any case there is more out there than we can predict.
Several years ago in another parish, a man came to me to talk about problems in his marriage. They say “It takes two to tango,” but in this case it really was mostly his fault, and he admitted it. He’d made a mess of things, in every possible way. He said he still loved his wife very deeply, but he was sure that there was no way she could forgive him. That was his error: he knew that he had made a mess, but he did not know that his wife would refuse forgiveness. It was certainly improbable. And there was no question that he didn’t deserve it. But he didn’t know. He had two options. Either he believe that she wouldn’t forgive him, and accept the death of that relationship. Or he could accept that forgiveness was a possibility despite the reality of what he had done.
In the end he chose to ask for forgiveness. It required real courage: to admit what he had done, and to surrender his control of events to the possibility of a different future than all the evidence suggested to him. His wife miraculously accepted his apology and offered her forgiveness; and the two of them began the long and serious work of repairing their relationship.
That restoration would not have been possible without both unflinching honesty and belief in the possibility of a different future than the truth of the situation, taken alone, might have suggested.
Unrelenting realism and a commitment to telling the truth is the first step in answering the charge of cynics and unbelievers. But the second, equally important step is to acknowledge that truth opens onto further possibility. Forgiveness is a possibility despite the reality of what we’ve done. The restoration of relationships can and does really happen, even when we’ve done a lot to tear them down. The choice each of us is left with is how we’re going to live, what we’re going to rely on as we go forward. Will we say that ruin and death is the only possible outcome for the world? Or will we live in hope that reality might ultimately be different than what all the evidence seems to suggest?
This last possibility is at the heart of Christian faith. Jesus is risen from the dead, and this means that life, not death, has claimed the last word. We live in hope: that even though everything around us seems decaying, dying, or dead, redemption is not only possible, but is the divinely appointed purpose of all creation.
What is it like to live out of that hopeful conviction? That is the real task of the Christian religion. To the rest of the world it looks like hopeless idealism, pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. But that is because the world does not understand our reason for hope. We are relentlessly honest with ourselves and with the world, because this opens the way for God’s grace to forgive where there had been sin, to raise up what had fallen, to give life where there had been death, and to make all things new in Jesus Christ. This kind of confidence is not naivety born of ignorance or denial. But it is a new and higher innocence born of truth-telling and the Spirit of God.
“Come on, let’s be real, you don’t actually believe all that stuff, do you?” There’s only one way for the Christian to answer this, and that’s by saying, “With all my heart, yes.” In effect this is what Paul is saying to the Corinthians today: we live in hope and its possibilities, not in the certainty of empiricism and its limitations. Though it seems madness to hear, the Gospel is nevertheless not only sane, but at the heart of everything that is, and of every person on earth. We live, not of ourselves alone, for that leads only to tunnel vision, despair, and death; but we live in him who died and rose again. And that gives us a new hope of new life: every day, forever.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.