The following is a sermon delivered by Daniel McCarley while working an archaeological dig of an ancient church in Jordan.
Daniel McCarley is an MDiv student at Beeson Divinity School. He serves as the Assistant for Liturgy and Communications at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, and is a card-carrying sacramental fundamentalist.
Out of the depths I call to You, Yahweh! Lord, listen to my voice;
let Your ears be attentive to my cry for help.
Yahweh, if You considered sins, Lord, who could stand?
But with You there is forgiveness, so that You may be revered.
I wait for Yahweh; I wait
and put my hope in His word.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning—
more than watchmen for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord.
For there is faithful love with the Lord,
and with Him is redemption in abundance.
And He will redeem Israel from all its sins.
Right now I’m reading a book by the Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann titled For the Life of the World. In it he asks, what do we mean by life when we say that Jesus Christ died for the life of the world?
He says that for many, life means “religious life”—a kind of island of sustenance that exists separately from “the secular world and its life.” In this context, the mission of the church is to “convert people to this ‘spiritual’ life, in making them ‘religious.’” Spirituality is real life, and the world and the food we eat and drink from it are really just a shell of it. So even when the world is dying around us we can “keep smiling in a deep religious way.”
These spiritual self-helps are scattered throughout the world and its religions, a diaspora of truth that almost baptizes the world in grace. Maybe even in Islam you’ve seen some of God’s grace sprinkled throughout their life of prayer and devotion. Maybe at times you’ve even felt the strange pull to join in and be ‘caught up’ into the call to prayer, to be raptured into a religious life. What we hear so often is true: All truth is God’s truth, no matter where you find it.
I like what Schmemann says: “In the great religions of the world, God plays on an orchestra which is far out of tune, yet there has often been a marvelous rich music made.” But he quickly stings you with the next sentence: “Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion.”
What we see in today’s psalm is the absence of religion. Spiritual self-helps have gotten this psalmist nowhere—he can’t even help himself. “Out of the depths I cry out,” he says. And these are the depths of death, even hell. Crying out as if from the dead, his words offer him no hope—his only hope is in God’s Word. But God’s Word isn’t a religious word, because when the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us, its glory wasn’t manifested in a temple or cathedral. It came on a cross.
Fleming Rutledge’s words on this are potent: “Religion is a set of beliefs projected out of humanity’s needs, wishes, longings, and fears. The religious imagination seeks uplift, not torture, humiliation, and death. [...] So much American Christianity today comes packaged as inspirational uplift—sunlit, backlit, or candlelit. We are so accustomed to seeing the cross functioning as a decoration that we can scarcely imagine it as an object of shame and scandal unless it is burned on someone’s lawn.”
Religion can’t make sense of suffering. Pain and death is an absurd thing, and religion’s only response is to detach from it or transcend it. It’s what makes the cross profoundly irreligious. When people pained by death and heartbreak ask, “How can God be good and when there is suffering in the world?” religion gives philosophies and theodicies to mend the hurt.
But the cross gives a different answer. How can God still be good when there is suffering and death in the world? Because God suffered and died. He wedded goodness and pain on the cross. It’s an answer world religions can never give, because religion can never make sense of it. But again and again the world will choose religion, until the world collapses into Jesus.
The religious world would rather gaze at cathedrals. And that’s how we so often prefer to look at God—as the sublime force of beauty behind mountain sunrises and Victoria waterfalls. Instead of feeling God in our own skin, a romantic Being distracts our gaze, and the feelings of being absolutely dependent on the Almighty become the measure of spirituality. But our attempts to keep God religious and clean fall short, and we find blood in our cathedrals.
If you’ve ever seen the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table, there’s a Brazilian chef featured in the second season, Alex Atala. There’s a scene that stands out in my memory as he prepares a meal on a jungled hillside. He’s given a chicken by one of his assistants, and with a chert blade the chef cuts the throat of the hen, blood sputtering from its neck. Chef Atala deconstructs the bird, separating meat from bones, ligaments from its skin. And he narrates: “Behind every meal is death.”
During my first year living in Birmingham I worked at one of Frank Stitt’s reputable restaurants assisting tables. I often found myself reflecting on the distance between the guests and the food they eat. Amidst the dim lighting, tranquil music, and white tablecloths, the plants and animals consumed were somehow less present. The guests never have to scrub dirt from their fingernails or hear the cow’s moan when the butcher shocked its skull. It’s a bloodless meal.
The kitchen takes raw ingredients and re-presents them, ornately arranged, in an effort to make them into something else. Plants become pastries, and an abdomen becomes a flank steak. The desecrated is consecrated, and death is reshaped as a sacrifice. Even the words guests use to describe the experience become religious: “The carpaccio was heavenly,” or “God, that was an incredible steak.”
Maybe to help forget the death underlying their meal, guests never enter through the kitchen but through a front door. Death is shameful, and a good service (whether in a restaurant or a church) does a good job hiding it. Tablecloths and candles somehow distance us from the cross. And sometimes I wonder if, at the altar table, we try to make the crucified Christ less present there, because when we face the cross we face our sin and ourselves.
At the cross and its table, we meet ourselves for the first time. Only on the cross are we someone—in every other place we’re just grasping at the next. Apart from the cross, every other thing we do is an escape from ourselves—even when we think we are finding ourselves. Our journeys of self-discovery lead only to dust, but at the cross we finally and only are.
But the irony is that in order to see ourselves crucified on that cross, we have to first see that we were the ones who crucified him.
Like many black men and women who walk through civil rights museums and see the image of a black ancestor hanging from the lynching tree, and seeing it, say “that is me”—in the same way we, with the white man pictured beside the swinging black body, have to also say, “I hung him on that tree.”
Until then, we will be no better than the many white folks that look distantly at lynching scenes, denying like Peter, “I’ve nothing to do with that man. I’ve never met him.”
But in the most mysterious way, as Fleming Rutledge says, sin is good news. Because sin was revealed on the cross. We can’t know our sin apart from knowing Jesus. That is when we hear the word of hope our psalmist so desperately desires. In that Word is faithful love and redemption.
Apart from that Word, as Schmemann says, we are only “having communion with the dying world.” He says we even store our food in refrigerators like corpses, but at this table for the first time we feast on life.
So, for when words are too hard to hear, as Augustine says, these are a Word that you can see.
And like Johann Gerhard says, these are a Word of absolution for sin that you can taste for when words are too hard to believe.
So come, in the words of our psalmist, and “put your hope in the Lord.” Come, because when you’ve seen your sin, you’ve seen Jesus. Again, with our psalmist I invite you:
Put your hope in the Lord.
For there is faithful love with the Lord, and with Him is redemption in abundance.
And He will redeem you from all your sins.