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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
September 22, 2019
1 Corinthians 15
A Reading from First Corinthians
. . .For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day . . .
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. . . .
But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. . . .
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. . . . So, it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. . . . But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
On our first full day in Israel last summer, we drove north, from the suburbs of Tel Aviv, where we had slept after two long days of air travel, towards Galilee, where our pilgrimage in the footsteps of Jesus would begin in earnest. Halfway through the drive, and I think precisely because it was something to do along the way, our bus wound its way up the narrow road that climbs to the top of Mount Carmel, famous in Biblical history for being the site where the prophet Elijah goes to battle with the false gods of Baal. Nowadays, the mountaintop is home to a quiet monastery — a Carmelite monastery, no coincidence there, with a small Catholic chapel, the first of dozens of spaces of worship that we would encounter over the two weeks following. And so we all piled off of the bus, next to all the other buses doing the same thing, and we all strolled around the gardens, and we all took pictures of the landscape rolling down towards the Mediterranean, and somewhere in the background our tour guide tried to tell us things about what we were looking at.
And then I noticed a group of us gathered up against the rear door of the chapel itself, and when I walked over, I realized that while we were touristing on the outside, on the inside, worship was happening. A fully robed priest was at the table, presiding over communion, and the pews themselves were overflowing, mostly with what looked like tourists in their own right, who had just gotten here a few minutes before we had. Any of us could have opened the doors and walked in, but there weren’t many seats left, and it wasn’t clear how much time we had, and nobody wanted to interrupt communion, and for sure nobody wanted to interrupt communion and only then have to dash out again to catch our ride. So, we watched through the window, in this odd sort of juxtaposition. On the outside, we could hear tour guide after tour guide telling the same stories about Elijah and pointing out the same facts about Israel’s topography. On the inside, we could see this priest’s lips moving, with words we couldn’t make out, but could probably recite.
And then I saw the sign, just underneath the window, just next to the chapel door, in Hebrew, and then in English, a sign to sit at that boundary between the space of worship and the rest of the world. It said, “We call attention of all guides and visitors. This is a Catholic Church. A House of Prayer. Only for Quiet and Silent Prayer. And Therefore All Explanations Must be Done Outside.” It took my jet-lagged brain a minute to process the gap between their English and my English and then I realized what the sign meant was it is just fine for the tour guides to stand here in the courtyard and talk all they want but you couldn’t do it in the chapel. In chapel, you can’t remind everybody about who the prophets of Baal might have been or what modern scholarship thinks about Elijah’s likely biography. In the chapel, you couldn’t say anything about how the valley guided armies through the land because look where the fresh water is and look what a defensive position this is and no wonder these hills became the stronghold. All the Wikipedia stuff stays in the courtyard. In the chapel, we have worship.
Now, nobody makes a sign like that unless they have to, which means there must have been a time when worship in that chapel would have been nigh impossible thanks to the constant recitation of the same tour guide lectures over and over. In fact, as the trip went on I began to suspect that the whole country had only recently recovered from an epidemic of tour guides explaining things inside sanctuaries, because from then on, every chapel door we found, every church entrance we went through, all of them had a sign right by the window. “No explanations.” And to be sure, there was a part of me that became grateful for this little bit of housekeeping; we visited churches that were so small and where the acoustics were so live, it would have hurt the experience of the visit to be listening to another tour group all the way across the nave.
On the other hand. As a matter of principle. I like explanations. I like explanations in church. I like to know why things happen. I like to know where things came from. A year ago here at UPC we redesigned our Sunday bulletin so that we could put those little margin notes throughout precisely so that visitors might understand why we do what we do when we do it, because we thought that explanations were a good thing, even in a church. And more than that, on a personal level, I also like explaining things. I’m a forty-year-old white male husband and father and Presbyterian preacher. Explaining things is my bread and butter. I grew up going to churches where folks who looked then a lot like I look now would get up in the pulpit and read the scripture and then explain things. When I went to seminary, I spent three years preparing for ministry by listening to people explain things. Enough of that has rubbed off that I actually quite enjoy this moment of life here with you all when I, too, get up into the pulpit, and read scripture, and join in this part of worship called the sermon where somebody stands here and explains things. If we had a sign here in the sanctuary that said “All explanations must be done outside,” I think I would be psychologically unable to proceed.
And yet something about what we do here defies explanation.
Even for Paul, writing to the Corinthians, and Paul can get about as explain-y as anyone. This whole letter is Paul in a constant state of explanation. The Corinthians can’t figure out how to worship right, but he can explain it to them. The Corinthians can’t figure out how to do communion right, but he can explain it to them. The Corinthians have written to Paul asking him to explain some things about how to do church and Paul is thrilled to indulge them, like you have asked Paul some of his favorite questions, like if you ask me why it’s called a Prayer for Illumination instead of a Prayer of Illumination, or, even better, if you ask me why the American League uses the Designated Hitter but the National League doesn’t, like these questions aren’t work. It’s a gift, to me, because then I get to explain some of my favorite things. And Paul just rounds the corner towards the end of this letter, and he has built up such a explain-y head of steam that he rushes full on into a systematic explanation of the resurrection itself: “for I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised again on the third day.” We’ve already figured this out. We already know how it works. Let me just explain it one more time.
But as Paul’s sermon unfolds, it also sort of unspools. I say this with love to my good friend Paul, and I do consider him a good friend. I also say it with recognition, because Lord knows I’ve been there. But I think the harder Paul works to try to explain this, the harder it becomes. Round and round he goes, on the perishability of the body and the imperishability of the spirit, on the order of operations set forth by this elaborate invocation of Adam and Jesus back to back, on the different kinds of flesh, some for humans and another for animals and birds and fish, and I think I recognize the hope embedded in the text which is the hope that if he keeps trying to explain it somehow he will make it to the other side of the argument intact. And it keeps not happening. It keeps not coming together. It keeps not condensing itself into one easy soundbite, something to wrap up the whole of the Gospel and the whole of the promise of God into one elevator pitch that will knock the Corinthians off their feet. Finally, instead, he runs out of words. Finally, he has to yield. Finally, he has to get on his knees. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery. We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” He can’t quite explain it, but there it is.
There are a lot of sermons in scripture, but I wonder if this is perhaps the most honest one, a sermon that runs out of explanations. In 2019, of course, the sermon is a very odd institution. It is odd that for many pastors, part of the job is preparing and delivering a 15-20 minute weekly monologue. It is odd that part of our understanding of Christian worship is that you should come and listen to one. There aren’t that many jobs that call for that particular skill set — a few teachers, a few politicians, maybe a late-night talk-show host. And surely this thing called the sermon is in its own way, a bit of all of those, a bit to teach you about the richness of faith, and a bit to call you into lives of public witness, and surely a bit to make you feel good at the end of the day. But, if you just want to learn, we have Sunday school classes. And if you just want to hear about the affairs of the world, we will name them in prayer. And if you just want to feel good, we will hear the words of blessing that close this service every week. So, I wonder if something else might make the sermon unique, I wonder if it might have some other sacred duty, which at some point, perhaps, is simply to loudly and publicly run out of explanations.
A few times in my childhood I heard my mother imagine something about her ideal Easter Sunday sermon. On an ideal Easter Sunday, her ideal would go, the preacher would get up into the pulpit, look carefully down at her notes, and then look out at the congregation and say “Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Amen!” and sit down and let the choir do the rest. This is a good vision and I may yet try it. But over the years I have occasionally wondered what the point of even having the sermon would be in such a dream. Why even bother with the charade of it, why not just let the choir have at it from the beginning. But my good friend Paul has reminded me that there is Gospel truth in watching our explanations run out. There is some powerful witness in watching the guy with the most words get stumped. It is one of the ways the Spirit conveys to us the unimaginable vastness of God’s power and God’s grace and God’s love for the all the world. We take the most explain-y people in the room and we humble them against the the Gospel of Jesus Christ risen from the grave. And the next week we do it again.
I have a picture of that sign on my phone. It’s not really a photographer’s picture, I just snapped it so that I could remember the words, but it tells the whole story. The letters are clear. The framing is fine. But in the album of photos on my phone, it is surrounded by pictures of an entirely different character, which were all my attempts to capture what the rolling Carmelite hills looked like as they sloped down towards the Mediterranean. We all did it, everyone I saw that day who got off a tour bus went instinctively towards the edge of the mountain, pulled their phones out of their pockets, and started taking pictures. Sometimes they’d turn around and do a selfie. Sometimes they’d get a stranger to take a group shot. Sometimes they’d do the panoramic where you hold the phone still and turn it and try to get the whole thing in one go.
Of course, none of those photos actually do justice to the experience of being there. Even as you’re taking them, you know. It never works. It’s not the same. The camera on my phone and the camera on your phone is one of the most sophisticated pieces of technology in human history and it is totally outmatched by a mountaintop that has been largely unchanged for three thousand years. But that’s the thing, right? Everybody knows those pictures are inadequate, but we do it anyway. Everybody knows they don’t work, but we do it anyway, so we can come home and load up the slideshow for friends and family, and nobody wants to see a picture of a sign. They want to see a picture of a mountaintop. And maybe it’s even a good picture. Maybe it’s downright beautiful. Maybe the crowd oohs and aahs, oh my gosh, what a gorgeous slice of creation!
And then you say. Well, I couldn’t really capture the whole. This is the best I took, but it hardly does the mountaintop justice.
Thanks be to God.