Tuesday 6 April 2010

ER: an Easter sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

ER – Easter Resurrection, of course! But ER also refers to something else – the “Emergency Room” – which is what Americans call your “Casualty Ward”. It also refers to the award-winning American hospital drama ER which concluded in April last year.

For me one of the most memorable episodes is the one in which Carter flies from Chicago to the civil war-torn Congo to fetch the body of his Croatian friend and colleague Kovaç. Kovaç has been out in the African bush doing voluntary medical work, but he has now been reported killed in the fighting. In fact, Kovaç is still alive. Flashback: it shows a group of men captured by irregulars, kneeling in a clearing, their arms thrown back over their heads, their wrists tied together. One by one they are being dragged by soldiers into a hut and summarily executed. A close-up shows Kovaç talking to the terrified man next to him about how he lost his belief in God. It had happened during the recent bloody ethnic conflict in the Balkans: Kovaç’s devout Catholic faith died as a result of the genocidal atrocities he had witnessed. And then motioning his head towards the hut and the atrocity they are now witnessing, Kovaç says, “It is hard to believe in the reality of God amidst such suffering and death.”

“It is hard to believe in the reality of God amidst such suffering and death.” It is indeed. Kovaç speaks for all of us. For ask yourself: What, in fact, act as triggers for, or a confirmation of, popular belief in the reality of God?

Nature for one: a stunning sunset, a star-lit sky, a snow-covered mountain, or just a glorious summer day. Or, more philosophically, the sheer existence of the world, the fact that there is “something” rather than “nothing”; more specifically, the exquisite “design” of the universe, its order, beauty, and variety.

Then there is worship and prayer – here too people say they know the reality of God. There is the Bible and (for some!) the sermon, and also the sacrament. There are stirring hymns. And there is prayer, spoken or silent, “the peace of God that passes all understanding”.

Then there is music, art, and literature. In a symphony by Beethoven or an opera by Mozart, in a sculpture by Michelangelo or a painting by Rembrandt, in a sonnet or play by Shakespeare or a novel by Tolstoy – there too people say they sense the reality of God.

And, of course, in human relationships – in romantic and conjugal love, in the birth of a baby, in the bond between parents and children, in close friendships – here also people see God at work.

But “amidst suffering and death”? How often have you heard someone say they found faith amidst suffering and death? No, amidst suffering and death people don’t find faith, rather, like Kovaç, they lose it. The question “How can one believe in God after Auschwitz?” haunts the post-Holocaust religious imagination and continues to beggar contemporary belief. And the answer is: “Only if one can believe in God in Auschwitz.”

Which takes us to a graveyard in Jerusalem on the first Easter Sunday morning. Jesus of Nazareth, who attested to the reality of God in his ministry, is dead, murdered by judicial execution, taken out and, not shot, but crucified, a much worse fate. His mangled body now lies in a tomb in the early stages of putrefaction. On the large stone that covers the tomb might well be written the graffiti “God is dead”. God certainly does not seem to be present. The disciples have scattered in fear, the women have gathered to mourn, but they do not feel that God is there with them. They feel only the gaping hole of God’s absence.

We moderns – we think that the question raised by the crucifixion of Jesus, and answered by the resurrection of Jesus, is: Is there life after death? But that was not the burning question on the minds of the first friends of Jesus. The Sadducees did not believe in life after death, but most of first century Judaism did. So too did almost all the pagan world. Socrates could drink the hemlock with a smile, knowing that his soul was escaping the tomb of the body and returning to the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty. But Jesus died on the cross in agony and doubt. The God he claimed to represent did not save him. Had Jesus been deluded, or borne false witness? Had God, by his silence, dissociated himself from Jesus and consented to his death? Indeed, did the execution of Jesus signify God’s judgement and curse on Jesus? These questions about the reality of the God of Jesus – questions not about life after death but questions, indeed, of life and death – these were the questions of the first friends of Jesus. For, with Dr. Kovaç, they would have agreed that it is hard to believe in the reality of God in the midst of such suffering and death.

Can you see, then, the really radical content of the Easter message that the crucified Jesus is risen and reigns? That his coronation has taken place not on a throne but on a cross, and that his regalia were a crown of thorns, not jewels? That his reign begins not in a royal palace but in a wretched graveyard? That even now he wears the scars of his torment, and that he will wear them for all eternity? It is hard to believe in the reality of God amidst such suffering and death? On the contrary, Good Friday and Easter proclaim that one can only – ultimately – believe in the reality of God amidst such suffering and death, that such suffering and death are the acid test of authentic faith.

You might say that Easter relocates the reality of God and redefines the holy, taking us off the sacred path of spiritual highs and into the wilderness of desolation. Easter tells us that God is precisely in those places where you would never expect to find him. Easter confirms that Jesus was not deceitful or deluded, confirms that God was with Jesus in his ministry, confirms that his practices of forgiveness in the face of vengeance, truthfulness in the face of lies, and non-violence in the face of intimidation are the practices of God himself; but, further still, Easter asserts that the places such practices lead – the witness box of Caiaphas, the judgement hall of Pilate, the torturer’s cell and the executioner’s block, and, finally, the graveyard – that these seemingly most unholy of places are, in fact, the holiest of grounds.

Not apart from suffering and death and only in those pleasant places of nature, worship, art, and family and friends, but in suffering and death God, God experiencing it, absorbing it, transforming it into a new kind of life – that is the message of today’s ER. And it turns out to be the message of the telly ER too. For even as Kovaç, the last man left, awaits his execution, he suddenly begins to pray. Not the atheist’s prayer of desperation, a prayer for deliverance with nothing left to lose. No, it is a prayer of communion with the God Kovaç suddenly senses is real in the midst of such suffering and death. His former faith was truly dead and buried, but a new faith has risen from its grave. As the poet W. H. Auden would put it, he doesn’t believe still, he believes again. My friends, it’s a new day: like Kovaç, may we all experience “a joy whose historical form is integrity in darkness” (Nicholas Lash) – and believe again.


Fat said...

I was pretty pleased with my Easter Sunday effort until I read yours Kim.

"The question “How can one believe in God after Auschwitz?” haunts the post-Holocaust religious imagination and continues to beggar contemporary belief. And the answer is: “Only if one can believe in God in Auschwitz.”"

Thank You

Anonymous said...

I like the coordination between your Good Friday and Easter Sunday sermons, particularly the call to ethical consideration on and Good Friday and assurance of Christ's redemptive identification with us on Sunday.

Also, I like your conclusions:
Good Friday: In any case, let Easter be not yet.
Easter Sunday: may we all experience... and believe again.

Thanks for posting this.

spg said...

Hey, on the ER theme, I really like this ER-themed easter poster we did ages ago--


Erin said...

^what Fat said.
Thanks, Kim.

roger flyer said...

What Fat and Erin said.
Thanks Kim.

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