Monday, August 17, 2015

Sermon: "Vampires, Zombies, and Cannibals...Oh My!"

The Reverend Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 16, 2015 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Job 19:19-27; John 6:51-69

“Vampires, Zombies, and Cannibals…Oh My!”

What does it mean to have eternal life?
Why would we want to live forever?
And why should the promise that we will one day live forever in some heavenly existence have any bearing on how we live this life –
this life in this real world – that is guaranteed to bring us pain just as much as it brings us joy.

Why would we want to live forever?
Because we fear death – with all its pain and uncertainty?
Because we fear losing everything we have and everyone we love?
Because we fear not doing and experiencing all that this life has to offer?

As mortal beings we are easily enticed by the possibility of living indefinitely.
Our fascination with immortality is evident throughout our world religions, our mythologies, and our cultural attraction to stories about human beings who become immortal beings.

From the human-like gods of ancient Greece and Rome, to the tales of 20th century superheroes who defy injury and death.
Even the monsters we create to scare us reveal our fascination with immortality.
These days stories about zombies – the walking dead – are all the rage.
Zombies both repulse and attract us with their ability to live on after death and their ability to create more zombies by consuming living flesh.

A few years ago there was a flood of books and movies about vampires, including an entire young adult romance series where the vampires are the trendsetting cool kids in town.
Gone are the days of Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi.
Today’s vampires are young, attractive, and dangerously mysterious. 

It’s interesting to note that in these stories both zombies and vampires pass on their immortality by biting into their victims -
mingling flesh and blood and making the ability to cheat death a communal experience meant to be shared by all.

And then we have Jesus -
who said we must eat of his flesh and drink of his blood in order to live eternally.

I can just feel some of you cringing at the very thought of lumping Jesus in with zombies and vampires.
And I suspect many of us are cringing at the thought that Jesus was being literal when he talked about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
I understand.
I was raised Catholic and all this talk of blood and flesh is making me cringe, as well.

As every Catholic knows, the dry communion wafer given out during Mass becomes the literal body of Christ when the Priest consecrates the host.
And after receiving communion, every Catholic knows what it’s like to spend the rest of the service resisting the urge to use your tongue to pry Jesus off the roof of your mouth.

It is interesting to note that while many of us in the church tend to downplay or distance ourselves from this language in our sacred texts about blood and flesh and living eternally –the culture outside the church seems to crave the very real immortality and communal sustenance that Jesus is offering.

While we talk about the symbolic coming to Christ we experience in the Eucharist meal, and the metaphorical eternal life we experience by living on through the legacy of our actions….the wider culture engrosses itself in stories of human beings who consume literal flesh and blood and defy death, resist pain, and gain the strength to overcome all obstacles that befall them.

I suspect that people gravitate towards these stories about zombies and vampires not because they’re ghoulish or secretly cannibalistic, but because they’re looking for what they hope to gain through immortality.
They’re looking for hope – they’re looking for strength -
they’re looking for something to lift them up out their pain and give them peace, purpose, and joy.

Like poor unsuspecting Job, we all are befuddled by the suffering that goes on in our world and in our lives.
We long for the day of redemption.
When our weary and broken flesh will be restored and we’ll feel whole once again.

Which is why we crave stories that help us to imagine that wholeness – that healing.
We want to imagine what life would be like without pain, without suffering, without loss, without death.

And this story that Jesus has to tell has all of that.   
Imagine a Kingdom – a reign of God – where all of us will live peacefully and equally.
Where death will be no more and eternal life in the loving presence of God is offered to all.
Now imagine that you can experience this kingdom right here and right now, in the midst of the very real suffering and pain of this world.

Jesus lifted himself up as the gateway into this experience of eternal life.
He offered himself as the living bread – the life giving sustenance that we take into ourselves, in a very real and visceral way.
Not just intellectually, not just spiritually – but physically.
So that we might feel that he is a part of us and we are a part of him.
So we might feel his comforting presence in our hearts and in our minds.
So that we might see through his eyes and act more compassionately and more justly towards others.
So that we might become extensions of his hands and feet in a world that is in desperate need of his service.

If we crave immortality, if we crave meaning and purpose,
if we crave peace, joy, justice, and love…
We’ll find it all in Jesus.

Perhaps this Christian story we tell has become so familiar it has lost its ability to shock, entice, and attract those of us who need to hear it most.

It wasn’t always that way.
As we heard in our intro to the scripture from John’s gospel, Jesus’ talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood was designed to get people’s attention.  
It’s likely that Jesus knew such language would shock his Jewish followers. Taken literally it violated Torah teachings that prohibited the consumption of blood, and even more shockingly it suggested that his followers must resort to cannibalism.
Taken figuratively, Jesus’ words set him up as the source of eternal life – a gateway to God.
Many of Jesus’ followers walked away in disgust when they heard these words that they considered to be blasphemous,
but others stayed because they were intrigued and curious as to where Jesus was going with this.
They trusted that what Jesus was saying was meant to be heard at a much deeper level than what the others were hearing.

Those who stayed,
those who stuck around long enough to learn more about this teaching,
those who experienced the sacrifice that Jesus made of his flesh in his death, those who continued to come together and experience Jesus’ presence in the sharing of the bread and wine of communion,
they’re the ones who came to understand what Jesus meant when he said he is the living bread that gives us life and strength.
And they’re the ones who discovered that Jesus gave them the ability to tap into this life giving strength in the most trying times of their lives, and experience a glimpse of what it will be like to live eternally in peace.

Jesus’ disciples said to him,
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
Those of us inside the church and outside the church continue to struggle with what it means to have eternal life.

If God has the ability to create a world where we will live in peace, where suffering and death will be no more, why not do it now?
Why must we wait for some future Kingdom or own death to experience what it means to live eternally in the presence of God?
Why must we rely on our faith, strength, and intermittent moments of joy and hope to sustain us in this life?

In the summer of 2014, The Rev. Dr. Steven Haynor was serving as the president of Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia when he learned that he had pancreatic cancer.
Rather than pursue aggressive treatment he chose to spend his last months enjoying his grandchildren. 
As Haynor’s body began to whither away to a shell of what he used to be, his five-year-old granddaughter, Anna, asked her mom and dad when she might get her regular grandfather back. 
This led to a conversation about her grandpa’s prognosis and the new body Jesus would give him when he died. 
To which young Anna replied,
“I wish I knew if Jesus was going to heal him here or in heaven.
But I know that Jesus keeps his promises. We can trust him.”

While we wrestle with questions of faith and immerse ourselves in stories that make us long for immortality, it helps to hold onto the childlike trust we once had.

The trust that Jesus really meant it when he promised us that we would find new life and eternal life through him.

The trust that God is doing something in our world through us,
that will come to fruition in God’s time.
The trust that the meaning, purpose, and growth that we experience and name after we pass through a struggle in life is not just us grasping at straws or our delusional attempt to paint a silver lining around a dark cloud.

Jesus didn’t die on a cross for the sake of maintaining a delusion.

He didn’t spice up his teachings with hot button phrases like “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” simply to shock the traditionalists or stir up trouble.

And he didn’t say things like “I am the living bread. Take me in and I will sustain you” because he knew how much we love comforting and meaningful metaphors.

He did and said these things to wake us up.
To shift our perspective.
To remove the blinders from our eyes that keep us from seeing the potential for joy and goodness in this world…and in ourselves.

Why would we want to live forever in THIS world?
This imperfect, violent, and broken world?
Because God is doing something GOOD in the midst of it all.
Through our individual and collective acts of love, compassion, mercy, and generosity
God is creating something through us that we don’t yet have the ability to comprehend.

We might say that eternal life is not a state of unending spiritual bliss…
Rather it is found in the cycle of birthing, living, and dying that we all experience throughout our lives.
As we allow old beliefs, old habits, old perspectives to die, and nurture new ones to grow in their place.
As we let go of the things that cause us harm or pain and seek to cultivate that which brings us joy and love.

In this cycle, death is an end but it also a beginning.

And it is the eternal expression of God’s love in our world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.