Sermon: How can I...?

The Rev. Todd Brewer, guest celebrant & preacher

There is an unmistakable tendency in our everyday life in the world that, when we are confronted with a problem or an issue, we immediately turn to the resources available to us at the time. When catastrophe strikes or when you find yourself in uncertain terrain, you look to what is readily available to you as you try to solve the problem.

Whenever something breaks in my house, whether it be my car, or my computer, or my dishwasher I do just like everyone else on the earth does in their hour of need– I Google it. And when I turn to Google for help I find that a million other people have had the exact same problem I have. Google is very helpful on this front. When you type in the simple words “How can I” they give a custom tailored list of suggested search items which they believe you might need. When I typed this in recently on my computer, what came back to me were the following suggestions. “How can I... make money?”, “How can I lose weight?”, “How can I lose weight fast.” Google apparently thinks I’ve been searching for restaurants a little too often! “How can I be sure,” “How can I get a loan," “How can I make money fast,” “How can I fix my credit.” Google seems to think I am spending too much money, perhaps on restaurants. Whenever you need help or advice all you need is to do is go to Google and your solution is waiting to be discovered.

This tendency to look around us for the solution to our problems is quite understandable. If I am having trouble with my boss, I think back to how I handled a similar issue in the past. If I forget where I have put my keys, after accusing my wife or two dogs for having intentionally hidden them from me, I retrace my steps and look to the usual places where I leave them. This may not work for you, but I find that the best way to deal with strange noises in my car is to turn the radio up just a little bit louder and pretend it was never there.

If something has worked in the past, it’s bound to work in the future. The same methods and strategies that got you through life thus far have, to varying degrees of success, proven themselves to be helpful. And with more experience comes greater wisdom and therefore greater ability to discern new issues with clear insight. By contrast, we all know someone who seems genetically unable to learn from their mistakes. You see a major disaster coming from a mile away, but they don’t. You jump up and down and wave your hands trying to get them to see it and they yet again do the exact opposite of what they should have learned by now. As the saying goes, “Those who do not learn from the past are always doomed to repeat it.” In this way, we are always interpreting our present in light of our past. The pre-existing categories I already have inform how I live and decide what to do.

But as reasonable as this might sound to be, there is a certain blindness to this enterprise, is there not? If all of the solutions I find are conditioned, or even determined, by the categories and experiences I have accumulated am I not trying to fix things by blindly reading the same book that got me in the mess in the first place? Everyone has some mistake that you repeatedly make despite knowing you should do otherwise. How many diets have you tried and failed? How many times have you tried and failed to win your parents’ approval? Or maybe you keep telling yourself that this vacation will be the one where you can finally unwind and relax from the stresses of work.

I recently re-watched the original Jurassic Park movie and watching it this time I was struck at how the owner, John Hammond, so persistently believes that every problem can be solved so long as you have enough money. Hammond’s favorite phrase is “spared at no expense.” When he’s debating the merits of the park with his experts it’s only the “blood sucking lawyer” who agrees with him, who not incidentally is the first one to die in spectacular fashion. If all you have is money, when things go wrong it is the only think you think can save you.

Because even more fundamentally, does not the tendency to always interpret and resolve your present in light of the past leave you in an endlessly closed loop – entirely blind to new and unforeseen possibilities? After years of struggle you finally show up to a therapists’ office and what they say offends you so much that you never go back. The solution they offer is one you cannot and will not hear because it is beyond what you think will work for you.

Our gospel reading from this morning vividly illustrates this blindness and its problems. Jesus tells the crowd that he is the bread of life, come down from heaven - that amid a world of death and food that does not satisfy, he is the one place where true life is to be found, if only we believe in him. But how does the crowd respond? They are told that real and everlasting life is there – standing before them – and what does the crowd say? They say “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’.” Jesus says that, being sent from heaven, he can give them eternal life. The solution to the problem of death has come into their midst and the crowd can only think of Jesus in terms of his natural, or historical, origins.

Do you see what’s happening here? The best the crowd can do is understand Jesus and the solution he offers according to their pre-existing categories for what does and does not work. In their mind Jesus is, at best, a good teacher, or a prophet and that’s all he can be. He cannot be from heaven because “he is Joseph’s son and we know who he is. He’s that carpenter down the road.” Nor can Jesus offer eternal life, because everyone who they’ve ever known has died. Their mother and fathers have died. The prophets all died. And even Moses, who was thought to have been assumed into heaven like the claw-game in an arcade, even he did not provide eternal life to the nation.

The preexisting categories for how one is to attain life in this world and the next cannot and will not allow for life to be found by belief in this man Jesus. For them, it simply cannot be true.

And the same goes for us. The solution that Jesus offers to the problem of the death is so foreign to our common wisdom and how we think that we are left asking the same questions as the crowd. Wasn’t Jesus just a human like everyone else? I’ve read a few historical Jesus books. How can this regular human being back up his extravagant promise of eternal life? Who does he think he is?

The solution to this otherwise unsolvable quandary must come by way of revelation. That within our blindness and inability to grasp at life something from outside of ourselves must come and liberate us from our blindness. Left to ourselves we are left grasping at whatever is readily available to us and in this closed-loop we will inevitably not find the answer we seek. Something or someone must come from “the beyond” to give sight to our blindness.

The Pixar movie “Wall-e” tells the story of a lonely robot left alone on a desolate and abandoned planet. Everyday Wall-e goes out to clean up the mess of the world that he has been left on. Day in and day out he goes out and cleans up the trash. And day in and day out he longs for companionship, though he does not know why. He longs to hold someone’s hand, but there is no other hand out there to hold. Wall-e does not need another self-help book or a new guide for how he can provide what he needs. As hard as he might try, there is no way for Wall-e to engineer for himself the companionship he desires. Instead, what Wall-e needs – what we need – is for someone to come from the beyond to give us more than we can either ask or imagine, to provide genuine life and light amid our darkness and death.

Quite radically, Jesus claims to do and be all of this. He is the one from the beyond – from heaven – who has come to give us abundant life. We do not need empowerment, or a measure of incremental change – we need resurrection! We who walk in darkness have seen a great light. Jesus presents here a stark either/or. He simultaneously exposes the inadequacy of our Google searches and their inevitable failure and promises to give us the food of eternal life. And by clinging to him alone, we might put down our smart phones and abandon all the false securities we so readily cling to. Having found the gift that never stops giving, we might, for once, lay down the heavy burdens of our past. Having found the one place where we can have life, we might stop endlessly exploiting the other people and things we previously thought were all we had.

The poet W.H. Auden describes this closed-loop of blindness in his Christmas Oratorio:

“Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.”

But Auden does not stop there. He goes on to say:

“Nothing that is possible can save us
We who must die demand a miracle”

We who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. May we cling to him in our time of need. Amen.