(SERMON Easter 7C 2019)
If you will forgive me, I’d like to use a $2 word to talk about our scripture lessons this morning; (this is what you get for calling a pastor with an expensive education). The word is denouement. Your ear will probably suggest that denouement is a French word; it comes from the verb meaning to unknot. Denouement refers to the end of something – an era, a play, a story, a game, an election cycle – in which the various conflicts are disentangled and the final outcome emerges. The final movement of the Ninth Symphony is its denouement. The ninth inning of a Mets game is a denouement (though with our Mets sometimes the actual outcome is clear long before the ninth inning). My favorite denouement on film is the last scene of MOONSTRUCK with Cher and Nicolas Cage. (If you haven’t seen it, find it, order Netflix; you won’t be sorry!)
My point is that, taken together, our scriptures today are a kind of denouement; the last scenes in the story of salvation. In the gospel, Jesus speaks to the Father of our final saturation in Divine Love, “… so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them.” In Acts, the power of God destroys the prison where Paul and Silas are singing in their chains; in that eruption of divine power even their jailer is converted to Christ. And then the lesson from Revelation takes us right to the edge of space and time: we shout into our future with the very last words in the Bible: Come Lord Jesus.
What makes this denouement different from Beethoven’s Ninth, or the Mets, or Cher and Nicholas Cage, is that these bible stories are our stories: they are about us and for us. As a wise woman has put it, they “disentangle the interlaced ambiguities of being” (there’s that expensive education again … ) All it means is that it shows us the end of our story, clearly and cleanly. Again, the Bible is about us and for us, and shows us – with great passion and majesty and joy – where we are going and how we will end up: free from our chains, filled with the love of God in Christ forever. That’s just awesome. As Paul writes, (Romans 8:18) “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”. That, dear ones, is us as we certainly shall be.
Many people come to religion because they are looking for certainty in an uncertain world. And certainty is what many religions and sects exist to provide. As my parish secretary in Pennsylvania would say, “I want a road map.” Abraham is looking for certainty in Genesis 15 when he makes God sign his covenant promises on the dotted line in that weird ceremony with the dead animals and the smoking fire pot. Among the later Israelites, certainty of God’s favor rested in meticulous observance of the law. In our Lutheran church we look down on indulgences, but their spiritual purpose was to provide certainty to the soul anxious about its future: if one has a valid indulgence, blessed and paid for, one could be certain of safety from hell. Many Muslims today, and especially coverts, believe in their faith with such certainty that they are willing to kill for it, and to kill themselves in what they call martyrdom, they are so certain of God’s will and favor. Since the dawn of time, religions have been marketplaces of certainties. As I say, certainty is what many people seek from religion.
Perhaps you’ve already figured out where I’m going with this: here at Trinity Lutheran Church we have much to offer, but certainty is not in stock. We do not live by certainty, we live by faith. At its heart, faith is trust: we trust God with our lives and our future, in trouble we trust God’s mercy, in suffering we trust God’s love, in perplexity we trust God’s guidance. As for death, we await it with a “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Committal Service, p. 284, ELW pew edition). That hope is as far as we go with certainty, but trusting in God, hope is enough.
Trust, in the absence of certainty, is very much on display among God’s people in our lessons today. In the denouement of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see an explosion of trust in Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his crucifixion. We hear Paul and Silas in their chains singing out their trust in God from the deepest dungeon in the prison, and John, dazzled by his vision of heaven, cries out for the Lord to come, come now, come soon.
The trust, the love, the certain hope that floods the earth on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes to us like a tornado, this is God at work among us, and in us, and with us, and for us. Trust and love and hope are not just spiritual gifts, they are the tools of faith. We bring them to every problem, every ambiguity, every conflict. Whether we are speaking of personal sin or despair or danger, or of social issues such as abortion (now so much in the news) or gay marriage, or gun violence, or addictions, or climate change, if we are wise, if we know God, it is not our own pet certainties that we bring to these challenges, but rather a living trust in God, the love of God, a sure and certain hope for God.
Jesus earthly ministry is complete. Paul and Silas have finished their witness. John, if you believe the old Negro spiritual, is walking now in the new Jerusalem. In this denouement, almost all the knots have been unknotted, all the threads of the story pulled together, all the conflicts resolved. Almost. God seems to like to play a long game with us, and we can have no certainty about the finale. This denouement is taking a long time, and we’re ready to move on. No such luck: God is still enthroned in the Director’s Chair. So, until God is ready, we play out the scene, trusting God, loving God, hoping is God.
I can’t be certain of course, but perhaps God delays the finale, precisely because God enjoys seeing us play out our trust, our love, and our hope.