Preachers are such an easy target.
And church-goers in general, way too easy
for the culture to lampoon and caricature.
I’m not breaking any news here, am I?
We used to be the mainstream
and one of the weightbearing pillars of society,
and when we occupied that space,
it was just pot-shots from intellectuals.
Now, reduced to categories and demographics
in the partisan cultural divide,
us church-goers have become easy sources of humor.
But the best of that humor, and
one of the first and most famous,
is still “Elmer Gantry,” by Sinclair Lewis.
It was written in the 1920’s when Fundamentalism
and Pentecostalism were taking off
in non-denominational form,
and infiltrating the more mainline
Baptists and Methodists.
It was a satire of Christian hypocrisy
with Elmer an amoral, self-interested charlatan
that becomes a nationally renowned
preacher and evangelist.
I’m sure many of us read it once, years ago.
It is a little painful to read now
because it appears that the Elmer Gantrys
have taken over religion and politics
in our moment in history.
Be that as it may,
I want to read a brief excerpt of a sermon
Elmer preaches, a kind of signature theme of his.
You have to hear this as Burt Lancaster
playing Elmer Gantry,
preaching in a tent to the suckers born every minute,
with a smarmy lilt and slight drawl:
“Love! Love! Love! How beauteous
the very word! Not carnal love
but the divine presence.
What is Love? Listen!
It is the rainbow that stands out,
in all its glorious many-colored hues,
illuminating and making glad
against the dark clouds of life.
It is the morning and the evening star,
that in glad refulgence,
there on the awed horizon,
call Nature’s hearts to an uplifted rejoicing
in God’s marvelous firmament!”
Love, love, love. (“Elmer Gantry” by Sinclair Lewis, Chapter 20)
I offer that bit of satire
in contrast to Teihard de Chardin,
the famous French Jesuit paleontologist
Maybe they are almost the same,
except the religion that Sinclair Lewis
is built upon wiggly worms of anxiety about death,
while Chardin embraces death
as a natural source of fire in a cosmos of love.
“And on that day, for the second time
in the history of the world,
we shall have discovered fire.”
Elmer Gantry knew we hate death.
Death is like a raspberry seed stuck in our teeth.
It doesn’t matter how magnificent and beautiful
just the idea that death is inevitable
makes it a ghostly presence in our midst.
This anxiety and struggle against death
goes way back, way…way back.
We can cast our gaze on those iconic cave paintings
from prehistoric France,
and imagine how they express hope
for something more from life
long before the advent of words.
But we also see it more directly
a mere two-thousand, six-hundred years ago –
in that poem from which the Book of Revelation
snagged its poetic imagery.
Six-hundred years before Jesus was born,
the poet Isaiah envisioned
a new heaven and a new earth,
but it was on a mountaintop
rather than a city,
where John of Revelation envisions it.
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And God will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples…”
(by which he meant death).
And note that the opposite of death is a feast.
He went on to write:
“God will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of God’s people will be taken away from all the earth…”
So, we can see how much John,
in the book of Revelation,
writing from some dark, dank corner
of a Roman prison,
was paraphrasing Isaiah, when he wrote:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…
And I saw the holy city of Jerusalem
coming down…(and there)
God will dwell with (God’s) people,
and God will be with them,
(and) wipe away every tear from their eyes,
and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning nor crying
nor pain any more,
for the former things have passed away.”
So we see that the musings
in John’s book of Revelation
barrow directly from old Isaiah,
and both of them,
like prophets, poets, and sages
from the past and present,
imagine a world without death.
We need to see this in the context
of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs:
Once we have food stored up in the cave
or the barn or the refrigerator;
and once we have a nice warm fire going
to keep the cave warm
or the pipes from freezing;
and once we have a sense
that we are pretty well hidden and protected from the tigers,
or the tribe living around the next bend in the river,
or the gang of criminals prowling the neighborhood,
or the cops who bang on us…
then we can look up to the heavens and say,
“Hey, is this all there is?”
When we humans
get enough of a cushion
between ourselves and starvation,
and even a hint of stability and security,
it is then
we start asking questions about life and death.
It is then
that no matter how fat and sassy we are,
it does not feel like enough.
And it is then
we want some assurance
that this is not all there is,
and in fact, the rest of it needs to be pretty good too.
Nirvana…all the ideas
about what happens after we die,
reflect what the cultures they derive from
believe would be an improvement
on what is now.
In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions of the West,
a very human-sounding distributive justice
is exacted upon the good guys
and the bad guys alike,
and the rewards and punishments
meted out at the end of life
will right the scales of justice.
In Hinduism, the scales of justice
are measured somewhat differently than in the West,
and balanced through reincarnation.
Hinduism explodes the mind into openness
with a withering array of gods
and levels of the universes,
and succession of lives
that make possible
any and all conceptions of fairness.
Buddhism, of which there are as many brand names
as there are Christian denominations,
reckons that all lives,
good and bad,
are spokes stuck on a wheel of suffering.
The only hope hinges,
not upon the balancing of a scale,
but upon release into nothingness.
Nirvana is not heaven,
it is the absolute going out of existence
and so disappearing from the relentless cycle of lives.
Modern science, with its own brand of religion,
has given us a new vision:
an odd kind of afterlife
knit within the matrix of molecules and atoms.
Science has declared
that no energy is ever lost
but simply changes form.
We live, we die, we become part of the soil
and that in turn feeds
and becomes a part of the on-going
cosmic cycle of energy –
whether confined to planet earth
or released into space.
But is that all there is?
Are those our only choices?
Heaven, Reincarnation, Nirvana, Thermodynamics?
I suspect that all of us, to some degree,
have that pervasive human desire
to know what is next.
For some people that desire
is an underground river
coursing through their upper consciousness
with nerve-endings of anxiety.
For others, the desire to know
holds the key to peace of mind.
Some people cannot accept
their powerlessness before death
without the certainty
of knowing what is next.
Those people cannot, will not,
comprehend the value of any religion
that is unable to satisfy all questions of eternity.
But there are also people
who find the focus on life after death
and theories of heaven and hell,
a loud distraction from the ethical action
upon which they believe Christianity is built.
To some of those people,
all our talk about Original Sin,
Heaven and Hell,
the Age to Come and Life Everlasting,
keeps us from the real business of the religion
and makes people vulnerable to the
Elmer Gantrys of this world.
But as is often the case,
there is a third way, a middle way, and
Trust that the creator loves us.
When we trust – deeply and profoundly –
that someone truly loves us,
then we make ourselves vulnerable to them.
When we trust
that someone truly loves us,
we know – not by any scientific measurement,
but in our gut – that our welfare matters to them.
When we trust
that someone truly loves us,
we put ourselves in their hands
in ways we do not even calculate beforehand.
We do that, knowing
they may not be able to protect us
from all dangers, or even
keep from hurting us sometimes themselves.
But we trust their love
and we bank on it
and we live by it,
and we know
no matter what happens,
we can live into it
because they love us.
That kind of love is as powerful as fire.
So, if we trust in the love of God,
if we trust that God loves more completely
than we have ever been loved before,
then no matter what happens,
it will be okay.
You see, if we can find for ourselves
that kind of trust
in the love of God,
then we will no longer need to speculate
about what happens when we die
because we are loved…
because we are loved by God
and whatever else happens,
it is okay.
Obviously, we do not
get to know ahead of time anyway.
All religious theories are fantasy at best.
When our trust is in fantasy
we are most vulnerable to the Elmer Gantrys.
But the love of God,
if we have ever felt ourselves touched by,
is enough to hold onto.
In fact, if we can only extrapolate
the love of God
from the most profound human love
we have ever experienced,
that too is enough to hold onto.
And that, by the way,
is what the Biblical Hebrew word for faith means:
“to hold onto.”
Literally, faith means, to hold onto.
Yeah, though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I hold onto
the love of God.
In the end, that’s all we’ve got…
and it turns out to be enough.