Monday, November 4, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Screwtape Letters"

Philippians 1:27-2:4 

27 Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel. Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel. 28 That way, you won’t be afraid of anything your enemies do. Your faithfulness and courage are a sign of their coming destruction and your salvation, which is from God. 29 God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. 30 You are having the same struggle that you saw me face and now hear that I’m still facing.

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. (CEB)

“The Screwtape Sermons: Exploring Scripture with C.S. Lewis,” Week Two

The teenage singer’s voice was melodic—soothing, even, despite the silliness of the lyrics she was covering.  It turned out she had spent her all breaks at school singing for her friends, so of course she had tons of experience, and you could hear it in her voice…her’s was a singing voice that already had a bit of polish to it, a singing voice you could listen to on repeat.

And believe me when I say that I wanted this singer—Olivia is her name—to choose a different song to cover—it was Katy Perry’s “Roar,” which, if you haven’t heard it, is basically a strung-out list of clich├ęs.  If I’m going to listen to Katy Perry, then for the love of all that is good and right in this world, at least let me listen to “Teenage Dream,” which is at least a little bit original.

But what sticks with you after seeing this performance by Olivia isn’t the lyrics, it’s the performer: see, she had to be wheeled into the recording studio because she was—and is—dying of brain cancer.  At the age of 17.  As I speak these words, she is at home, slipping in and out of consciousness, surrounded by her friends and family.  But on this day, just under two months ago, she immortalized her voice in an incredibly profound way—by not just recording it, but by videotaping it, so that the world could see her physical state, and I promise you, if all you listened to was the audio, you would not have been able to match it up to the video.

But herein lies a dilemma I think many of us face, as Christians and as human beings.  We could ignore the forest for the trees, and focus on Olivia’s choice of songs to cover as her statement to the world.  Or, we could decide to dwell upon the wonderfulness of a young girl, dying far before her time, offering the farewell gift of her voice to the world before it is gone forever.  The problem is…I think, as Christians especially, but also as people, it is easier for us to reach for the former and to find something to criticize.  And it is easy because, well, it is a form of temptation.

This will be the last sermon series before the holidays are upon us…that still sounds crazy to say.  But yep, this is it—the last sermon series before we spend four weeks on Advent and two more on Christmas.  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 last week 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.  Now, we turn to not just belief, but practice, in Lewis’s 1942 book “The Screwtape Letters.”

The premise of “The Screwtape Letters” is that there is an uncle-and-nephew pairing of demons operating from hell: the nephew, Wormwood, is a neophyte demon still learning his trade, and he receives a series of letters (which make up the book) with advice, reproach, and encouragement from his uncle, Screwtape (which really calls into question the entire sermon series…I mean, I named the series after a fictional demon for the sake of alliteration and a catchy-sounding title.  So sue me).  One of the letters from the elder demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood contains this passage on how to tempt a person into following not God, but evil and temptation:

Let him under the influence of partisan spirit come to regard (partisanism) as the most important part.  Then quietly and gradually nurse him onto the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor (or opposition).  The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience.  Once you have made the world an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.  Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms), the more securely ours.

In other words, what temptation can so often look like to someone is that which on the surface looks like a righteous cause, but that in the end, produces only division, because what is being valued isn’t Christianity, but something else entirely.  Instead, Christianity is used as a means to the end of whatever else that other thing is—a politics, an ideology, a worldview that God may in fact not ultimately support.

So, cut to Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Paul holds the congregation at Philippi very dear to his heart—a “You foolish Galatians!” type of letter this is emphatically not.  But the church at Philippi is going through some very real growing pains, as evinced by Paul’s need to repeatedly reassure them, even going so far as to tell them, in effect, “it gets better.”  For just as Paul struggled with the same things early in his faith and eventually moved beyond them, so too shall the Philippians.  How are they supposed to move beyond their growing pains, though, you ask?

Well…by embracing their faith as a totality of their lifestyle.  Paul makes it abundantly clear in this passage that his interpretation of Christianity is not, as New Testament scholar Ernest Saunders puts it, “a set of doctrines, but to (a) whole way of life.  The gospel for Paul was not a creed, or a set of propositions, but a total lifestyle.  Indeed, in this passage he uses a striking expression, found nowhere else in his letters.  It is translated “manner of life” in most versions.”  He is referring to verse 27, where alone in his letters, Paul exhorts another people to live in a particular manner.  To continue from Saunders, “we still continue to reduce the gospel to a set of theological statements in the face of the repeated insistence of the New Testament that the response to God’s act on our behalf is a new kind of being and doing—not just thinking.  We are called into a new life-world that requires human transformation, not a rearranged belief system.  That is what we are hearing from Paul in this account of the gospel as a ‘manner of life.’”

So to *be* a Christian is to, in fact, *do* Christianity.  The faith of a Christian is not centered simply around right belief, but around right action and right living, which are, at their core, informed, oriented, and fueled by that right belief.  For us to resist the *doing* part of Christianity in favor of other actions that we may think are Christian but aren’t, that is a form of temptation.  We may feel good for dwelling on a crusade that criticizes our political or cultural enemies, but that good feeling does not come from Christ.  It comes from our own sinful nature that has learned long, long, ago that it is far, far easier to make yourself feel better by tearing someone else down than by building yourself up.  Destruction is easier and quicker than construction not just in the physical realm, but in the emotional and spiritual realms as well.

C.S. Lewis wrote “The Screwtape Letters” in 1942, when his native Great Britain was still taking it on the chin from Germany in World War II—keep in mind that at this point, we are still two years away from D-Day in France—and so it would have been easy to see someone who had a different opinion on war strategy as an idiot or worse, as a traitor.  As Lewis conveys, pacifists and patriots alike viewed each other with suspicion, and to Lewis, that was one of the kinds of temptation that evil regularly uses to achieve its destructive ends.  After all, not only is it far easier to tear someone down than to build them up, it is also far easier to do if that person you are tearing down is seen by you as an enemy rather than a friend.

Which just goes to show how ridiculously inane and radical it was for Jesus to tell us to bless our enemies.  But there are genuine enemies—enemies who are truly opposed to our being alive, people like terrorists—and then there are enemies who are more bogeymen than actual enemies: people we prop up in the recesses of our imagination as caricatures, far worse than they really are.   This is what Lewis was talking about here, and it is the trap that the Philippians fall into.  Twice in the eight verses of this passage, Paul exhorts the Philippians to achieve unity, and the way to do that, Paul writes, is to not be terrified of your adversaries.  Do not build them up into something they are not!  Instead, leave them up to God, and God will attend to them.

We have been presented with a potentially divisive question as a church, as we discern what we should say to same-sex couples who want to be married.  But they are not our enemy.  They never have been.  And look around this sanctuary: I guarantee you that your enemy does not sit in this room, even if they disagree with you on this.  Using this to divide a growing, loving congregation is, in the end, another temptation, one that we are emphatically told to resist.

Think about that young girl, singing her heart out in the final weeks of her life.  If you did not know the person behind the voice—that is, if all you heard was the audio, knowing nothing else about her—she would be easy to criticize.  A little girl, choosing to cover a frankly pretty lame pop song?  That’s low-hanging fruit.  But once you realize who this girl is—not who you tell yourself she might be—criticizing her becomes a luxury, a temptation we can do without.  And so instead, we focus on her courage and her energy for recording music all the way to the end.  As Paul says, we esteem her better than ourselves, for it is right and holy that we should do so.

That is the difference, in a nutshell, between succumbing to temptation and standing up to it.  We esteem others better than ourselves, even when we think they might be wrong.  Because it is better, in the end, to look towards their interests than ours, in the hope and faith that they will return the favor.  They well may not.  But that does not mean that we should.  It means we go right back to being the type of church Paul calls us to be: a unified, loving, humble church, calling the world to Christ bit by bit, piece by piece, soul by soul.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 3, 2013

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