Sunday, November 24, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Freud's Last Session"

John 3:1-10 

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” 4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” 5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit[b] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?” 10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? (Common English Bible)

“The Screwtape Sermons: Exploring Scripture With C.S. Lewis,” Week Five

I was raised an hour’s drive east of the den of horrors that is Westboro Baptist Church.  For those of you who do not know—that’s the church that pickets the funerals of dead soldiers and gay men with signs saying “God Hates F*gs.”  Kansas was—and is—known for them, just like we are known for other forms of Christian extremism, like anti-abortion vigilantism.  We suffer by association, when really none of us want anything to do with Fred Phelps and his devilish ilk.

But several weeks ago, NPR did an interview with two of Phelps’s granddaughters who had been disavowed by the WBC after they left for, you know, not being hateful enough.  And one of the daughters, Megan Phelps-Roper, who is my age, said:

I’m at a complete loss…I was afraid we were going to hell.  Many times when we were driving, I thought God was going to kill us…but I do know that I want to do good, to have empathy.

So now the sisters travel the country, speaking to groups and conferences about religious respect.  And what struck me was that, essentially, they were doing this homeless—Megan even said as much, saying, “We don’t have a set home.”

And I thought to myself—that is exactly how Jesus did it.  And even then, we didn’t understand.

Okay, with Thanksgiving coming up this week, it no longer sounds so crazy to say: this will be the last sermon series before the holidays are upon us.  And this is it—the last sermon series before we spend four weeks on Advent and two more on Christmas, but also for this particular series, we end it here today.  This is a series that I have wanted to do for a long time, but never quite found the right spot in the calendar until now.  And it’s a bit different than my usual series, which are often about a book of Scripture or a book by a contemporary author, or some other theme…this series is centered around a person: Clive Staples Lewis, the 20th century Christian writer and apologist who wrote a great many books you may have heard of: the Chronicles of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Mere Christianity.  He’s a popular fellow in a great many Christian circles, and so I decided to use him as the proverbial guinea pig in this new experiment of mine in taking a slightly different approach to a sermon series.  We began the series by touching on perhaps Lewis’s most famous work, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which contained allegory about the most basic of Christian belief: Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  We then turned to not just belief, but practice, in Lewis’s 1942 book “The Screwtape Letters,” and last week we arrived at Lewis’s most famous nonfiction book, “Mere Christianity.”  Last week we pivoted from practice once more to otherworldly matters in Lewis’s 1946 book on the nature of heaven and hell, “The Great Divorce,” and finally, we end this week not with a book that Lewis wrote, but with a play based on his writings, a play that supposes that Lewis and the great atheist psychologist Sigmund Freud had met and had tea one day.  It is a play that Carrie and I saw in New York, and I enjoyed it immensely…here’s what the (fictional) Freud and Lewis say (in part) to each other in a debate concerning the nature of Christ in Mark St. Germain’s play entitled “Freud’s Last Session:”

FREUD.  …Christ was a lunatic.
LEWIS.  That(‘s an) option.
FREUD.  It’s more than an option, it’s a likelihood.  Why should I take Christ’s claim to be God more seriously than the dozen patients I’ve treated who claim to be Christ?
LEWIS.  Did you find a single person whose concept of reality was otherwise sound?
LEWIS.  So let’s put aside the possibility that Christ was delusional for the moment.  The second alternative is that he was consciously deceiving His followers for some other purpose.
FREUD.  Power.  His followers deified Him.  He performed magic trick miracles.  His strategy was a complete success.
LEWIS.  I wouldn’t call any strategy ending with crucifixion a complete success.
FREUD.  If he truly died.  His reappearance to His disciples after the crucifixion could have been designed to mislead them.
LEWIS.  After which he changed His name, hung up His shingle as a carpenter, and was never recognized again?  Not even by his enemies desperate to discredit Him?
FREUD.  I concede it is unlikely.
LEWIS.  So if the man was neither a lunatic nor a sham, it forced me to consider the only choice I was left with…I accepted that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

What the playwright Mark St. Germain is drawing on is, in fact, a famous passage from Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” which we tackled two weeks ago, but which contains more than enough material for a sermon series all its own.  And in “Mere Christainity,” Lewis presents the following argument, aptly referred to as ‘the Lewis trilemma:’

A man who was merely a man and said the sorts of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would be either a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.

Now, this passage has attracted much attention and with it, much praise and subsequent criticism, and there is one critique of it I do agree with: that Lewis forgoes the possibility of Jesus also being made into a legend of sorts by some of His earlier followers like the Gnostics, who believed that Jesus was entirely divine and not at all human.  And so the trilemma becomes, in fact, a tetralemma: is Jesus a lunatic, a liar, a legend or Lord?

This is where the passage from John 3 comes into play.  Jesus is talking with a Pharisee, Nicodemus, about the nature of the Spirit, and Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Unless you are born anew, you cannot see God’s kingdom,” to which Nicodemus says wha has to be the ancient equivalent of “WTF?”  “It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb a second time, isn’t it?”

Well, sort of.  The Greek word Jesus uses here is anothen, which has two meanings.  One is “anew,” or “again,” which is where we get the phrase “born again.”  But the other meaning is “above.”  And what if both of those meanings apply here?  We have already been born “below,” of the earth, by emerging from our mothers’ wombs, but we also must be born “above” by emerging from God’s creative hands, set into the world with the charge of Adam, to care for it.

Jesus is trying to get this through Nicodemus’s head, and Nicodemus is so slow on the uptake that eventually, Jesus just throws up His hands in frustration and basically insults the poor chap: “You’re a teacher of Israel, and you don’t know these things?”  In other words, from the immortal Lucy Van Pelt to Charlie Brown: “You blockhead!”  (Yes, in this case, Jesus is Lucy, so apparently, Jesus offers deranged psychiatric advice for a nickel.  I admit, it is not a perfect metaphor.)

Nicodemus is struggling with the exact same tetralemma I described earlier—that began as the trilemma from Lewis and expanded by his critics: he is more than willing to accept Jesus as a teacher, because he is clearly willing to be taught by Him, or he wouldn’t have welcomed Him in.  But accepting what Jesus has to say about the nature of Himself and the Spirit?  That’s another kettle of fish for poor Nicodemus, and he just isn’t ready to take that leap of faith yet.

And maybe you feel like Nicodemus too, sometimes—more than willing to say, yeah, I’m open to Jesus’ teachings.  Love thy neighbor?  I’m fine with that.  Do unto others?  Check.  Turn the other cheek?  Sure, I’ll give it the old college try.  What?  You’re the Son of God?  Whoa, there, kookyboots, I only signed up to be taught, not saved.  Let’s keep this relationship at first base, mmmmmkay?

(I’m probably going to hell for just comparing my relationship to Christ with the milestones teenagers use when making, wait, 90s era contemporary Christian music did that first…)

But Jesus asks more of us.  And it is right that He should do so.  Jesus asks us to take, as Soren Kierkegaard called it, a leap of faith—a leap of faith in Him as the One who saves us from evil, who saves us from death, who saves us from ourselves.

I do not pretend it is easy to understand—that is simply a part of my privilege in having been born and raised in the church, having been brought up under God from a very early age, just as we hope to do for little Lucian as we dedicate him here this morning.  And so I can’t say for sure that I would understand your own reservations or hesitations, whatever they may be.  I’d like to think that I could, being your pastor and all, but the truth is, sometimes, it’s difficult for me to.

Which is why, even for those of us who have been in the church our entire lives, recognizing Jesus for who He is—not who we want Him to be—is often a trying assignment.  Just because I can see Jesus in the quests of these two young women who extracted themselves from the most hateful of Christian cults does not mean that others would—although I hope they do.  And just because someone sees Jesus elsewhere does not mean that I always will's like artwork--someone can look at a Jackson Pollock piece and see a masterpiece and be moved to tears, and I am left trying to understand it.

In other words, there will always be moments where we are like Nicodemus in this story, no matter how strong our faith or how great our spiritual journey.  Sometimes we will fail to recognize Jesus when He is trying to teach us something.  And that makes us human.  Just like everyone else—everyone else whom Christ loves and calls us to love as well, despite ourselves.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 24, 2013

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