Sermon By Rev Joel Crouse
This week, while thinking about this sermon on the occasion of Christ the King Sunday, I happened across a quote by Bertrand Russell. “The whole problem with the world,” Mr. Russell observed, “is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts.” Now the Right Honorable Bert Russell, philosopher, pacifist, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is an odd choice to quote in a sermon. He once described himself as “a dissenter from all known religions,” which he hoped would eventually peter out. He argued that the bad of human-designed religion outweighed the good – surely a debatable position. But his main objection was that traditional religion, as he saw it, prevented free thought. And the all-important value of thinking freely and how to achieve it was his chief preoccupation. So he would probably be surprised to be quoted here today. And even more surprised to hear me argue that Mr. Russell, the atheist, had indeed defined not only a most thoughtful kind of faith life, but also a very modern relationship with Jesus, whose teachings guide us, whose life and death inform our own as Christians, and whose being we celebrate today. That is, to truly live out the gospel, we must be fools, and fanatics, and wise doubters, all at once. First, to live out the gospel we must be fools. Much time and many pages have been spent parsing out the truth of Jesus’s story. What did the writers of the gospel get right – and how could they get anything right at all, having written it down so long after the events they are depicting? Did the virgin birth really happen? Could the son of – of GOD - really have been just a carpenter’s son who became a little bit famous for a few years, and then, thanks to the earnest work of a few human followers and scribes, famous for a lot longer after that? Some parts of the gospel make sense only in the whole. As one New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, observed, in an essay about Jesus, “It’s like the idea that the ring of power should be given to two undersized amateurs to throw into a volcano at the very center of the enemy’s camp.” It all makes sense in the Tolkien story, “but you would never expect to find it as a premise at the Middle Earth Military Academy.” But that’s because the stories that most capture us are always – or often – the ones that are carefully fact-checked, or logical, or fit into the real world. Frodo and Sam in The Lord of Rings are the worst choice, and also the best; and more than that, their mission doesn’t just make sense, but we come to feel it, to believe it, to care about it. Just sit with the marvelous narrative of Jesus’s life, and it is wondrous, and funny, inspiring, and terrifying. It reveals the most important truths. We become fools not for the story itself, but for what it means to us, for how it speaks to us, and for what it teaches us. To the second, the word “fanatic” is full of problems, today especially; but ultimately it is about believing something so fully that it seeps into all aspects of your life. Again and again, Jesus taught us the cost of discipleship, and then paid it himself. Jesus covered so much ground with his teaching in a few short years that there is no aspect of our life to which we cannot look to the gospel for guidance. He taught us about the gospel’s place in our family life with the prodigal son, in our community with the widow at the well, at work with the taxpayer in how we relate to leaders, with the Pharisees in the temple, and to strangers with the good Samaritan, and to our friendships with Lazarus. He showed us how to respond to hate with the stoning of the woman, to doubt with the devil in the desert, to love with the Last Supper. Jesus showed us how to be fanatics about the gospel; to be ever guided by it. Reflecting on Mr. Russell’s quote, I don’t think he was saying doubt itself was bad, more that the world would be better if the human fools and fanatics would doubt in equal measure to the wise among us. But I’d argue he had religion wrong; or at least he had the gospel wrong. Because Jesus doesn’t only teach us to think freely; following the gospel requires us to be free thinkers. The gospel as it is written, leaves us with all sorts of parables that aren’t clear, stories without endings. What exactly happens after the father throws the party for the prodigal son? What did Jesus really mean when he told us to cast aside our mother and fathers – even as his mother walked beside him? Think of how many times Jesus answers a question, with another question. Do you say you are the son of God? “Who do you say that I am?” He asks questions to force the followers to think deeply about meaning and purpose. “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Jesus, by his actions, forced doubt: why was he always hanging out with the lepers, and the women, and the outcasts? What did Jesus see that we were missing? Many of Jesus’s statements are designed to use doubt to lead us to our own conclusions. In one of the gospel’s most dramatic scenes and, in my view, one of Jesus finest moments, a group of men are about to stone a woman for adultery. Rocks in hand, the raw energy is mounting. The law says this is her punishment. They ask Jesus, what say you? Everything we know about Jesus by then tells us he does not want this violence to happen against this woman. But he doesn’t charge in and save her. He crouches down and draws in the sand with his finger. Their attention shifts to him and away from the woman; they want an answer. And then Jesus says, and we imagine he could have just whispered it by then: Let the person among you who has not sinned throw the first stone. The accusers, we are told, slip away one by one. They have been made to doubt themselves. Just as that line brings us pause in our own lives to this very day. There is no such thing as free thinking without doubt. And there is no gospel without it, either. On this Sunday, we celebrate the Jesus as King; and yet the Jesus of our gospel would have thrown off that crown. A king does not countenance doubt; Jesus, the teacher, the storyteller, the person among the disciples, welcomed it. We have elevated this Sunday to pay honour to Christ, to acknowledge Christ’s divinity to celebrate the otherness of the Son of God. And I hope you feel the glorious presence of Christ on this Sunday at the end of the church year. But let us not elevate Christ so high that Jesus becomes out of reach. Perhaps more than King, or at least equal, and what I wish for all of us is to feel the friendship of Jesus, the presence of someone you respect deeply and trust implicitly; someone to whom you are loyal, and who, in return would never betray you. Someone you may challenge and debate; a friend who makes you a better, wiser, kinder person. For there, in that friendship, in that close relationship, we discover our own foolish, fanatical, and wisely doubting way to live out the gospel. Not only for Christ whom we elevate with honour today, but with Jesus who walks, faithfully, beside us. Amen.