Easter V Year B Sermon, The Da Vinci Code

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Acts 8:26-40; I John 3:14-24; Ps. 66: 1-8; John 14:15-21

It’s almost here. The most anticipated event of 2006. The media and the blogosphere have been nattering away about it for months. Tantalizing images from it are emblazoned on magazine covers at every grocery store checkout. Excitement has reached a crescendo. Tens of millions of Americans - poised like race horses in the box waiting for the starters bell and the gate to release them - will gallop to the nearest location and experience it for themselves - $3.00 a gallon gasoline notwithstanding.

Of course, I am speaking about the release of the film The Da Vinci Code this coming Friday, May 19th. Coming on the heels of the book’s amazing three years, (and counting) on the New York Times best-seller list - by the way that translates into over 40 million hardcover copies- can the movie be anything less than a blockbuster?

Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of The Da Vinci Code fever, friend and foe alike. An article I read this past week was titled, “Christian Foes of ‘Da Vinci Code’ Mull Tactics.” The writer Laurie Goodstein, reported that,

“ Many Christian leaders across the country are girding themselves for battle with The Da Vinci Code, the movie based on the blockbuster novel by Dan Brown that opens on May 19. Whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, Orthodox or evangelical, they agree that the book attacks the pillars of Christianity by raising doubts about the divinity of Jesus and the origins of the Bible.” 1

I will not be one of the those leaders waging battle with this film. . . although not because I concur with the premises that frame the plot. The Da Vinci Code makes challenging, even outrageous, claims about Jesus and the Bible. But my faith is not going to be shaken by this - or any other book or film - because my faith is built on a firmer foundation than these things, as I know yours is. And clearly Jesus can withstand any such challenges as well!

I admit I found The Da Vinci Code to be an engaging murder mystery novel: a real page turner and a fun read. And with Tom Hanks as the lead protagonist and Ron Howard as director, I suspect the film will be equally as entertaining. But we need to put The Da Vinci Code into perspective.

The Da Vinci Code is a novel - it is fiction - it is entertainment. It is not holy writ. Many people ask me, Is it theology? And my response is, only in so far as it speaks about God. But it’s not good theology. In fact it’s pretty bad. Not as bad as in the Left Behind book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, but bad none-the-less.

Remember, Dan Brown is a writer, not a theologian. And he wrote this book to make money. And he has achieved his goal: big time! Sony Pictures is making the film for the same reason, and I predict that they will be equally as successful. So when they read that Christians are, “girding themselves for battle” over this film, I suspect that Brown and Sony executives are laughing . . . all the way to the bank. You just can’t buy that kind of advertising!

Friday evening I caught a segment of a program on a cable network owned by one of America’s larger Christian denominations. The host and his guest were just having a field day knocking the The Da Vinci Code -film and book - and the blasphemies contained in them. At one point the guest asked, “What are Dan Brown’s origins?” Now in a partisan debate that’s a question that should always grab your attention. “Oh,” said the host, “Brown’s an Episcopalian and his wife’s a dissident Catholic.” “Ah,” replied the guest, nodding knowingly. And that was it. “Ah.” Evidently, how this marital combination birthed the errors of The Da Vinci Code was self-explanatory. Although it completely eluded me. What I did get was that the marriage of an Episcopalian and a dissident Catholic is understood, in some quarters of the Church, to be a dangerous liaison. I tend to thank God for them!

Anyway when I heard that Brown was an Episcopalian, my first question was “Is he tithing? And the second was, “Would he like to move to Sanbornville?”

Instead of railing against this book and film, Christians - especially Christian leaders - should be asking themselves a more fundamental question: Why is The Da Vinci Code such a successful cultural phenomena? Why have tens of millions of people read this book and asked probing questions about Jesus and the Bible? In fact why are bookstores filled with books on religion and spirituality that seem to fly off the shelves, while church pews seem to get emptier?

I think it’s hunger. Hunger for ways to talk about the truths of what it means to have religious faith. Hunger for an opportunity to explore the questions about the created order and what role we play in it. Hunger to ask and talk about God . . . Jesus . . . our Higher Power. Hunger to probe those eternal questions of, Why are we here? Who made us? Is there a purpose to our existence? What does it mean to saved and loved by God? Hunger to be allowed to posit answers that reflect where we are in our lives, and not some doctrine. Hunger to safely explore our spiritual selves. Hunger to authentically connect to a community of people who are asking the same questions.

It’s the hunger of the Ethiopian eunuch in today’s lesson from the book of Acts. This man was a high official in the court of the queen of Ethiopia, in charge of the state treasury. He was very powerful. Yet being a eunuch he was also an outsider: physically damaged and impure, and therefore dis-empowered. His life was a paradox: simultaneously honored and respected and shunned, even mocked. And so he is hungry to learn how he really fits into the scheme of things. He hungers to find authentic community, where he can connect and be made whole.

He finds sustenance to some degree in the worship of the Hebrew God and the scriptures. We encounter him in the text as he is returning to Ethiopia after worshiping in Jerusalem. He is reading the prophet Isaiah. And God sends him the disciple Philip.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks, as he runs alongside the Ethiopian’s chariot. “How can I, unless some one guides me” responds the Ethiopian. And he invites Philip into the chariot, where Philip guides him to understanding the good news of Jesus. Philip feeds the man. It had to be an awesome experience for him. Hungry for the opportunity to know God more fully, he learns how God loves him as he is. He discovers himself to be cared for as a seeker, and he finds authentic community through Philip. In gratitude he asks to be baptized - to be initiated into the community where he finds his spiritual home. He desires to be a part of the community that accepts him where and as he is.

Like the Ethiopian eunuch, people are hungry to encounter God. They desire an opportunity to explore relationship with God. They yearn to learn how God acts in their life - to authentically engage God. And they desire to do this just as they are and to do this in community, with other seekers. What they do not seek is what the Church often offers the hungry seeker: which are rigid doctrines, rules and regulations that predetermine the relationship between God and seeker. That is not authentic relationship. That is not only unsatisfactory, but it defies how Jesus encountered, engaged and embraced people in the Gospel.

And so people seek to be fed elsewhere. And what they encounter is the junk food offered by the purveyors of the popular culture. And because there is no Philip there to guide them, they think that they have actually found real sustenance, when in fact they are getting a lot of empty calories. Tasty, fun calories mind you, but empty none-the-less.

Among Christians we Episcopalians are rather uniquely positioned theologically to offer people the opportunities to ask the essential questions, and to explore authentic relationship with God. Seeking guidance from scripture, tradition and reason we engage the Anglican path of the via media, or the middle way. And as described by one person, in the new “Via Media” evangelism series, the Anglican via media is not some narrow path, but it’s a super highway that has room for all sorts of people, as it draws them toward deeper relationship with God.

We have the way to feed people real food: Bible study, the Inquirer’s Class, Adult Forums, retreats, challenging sermons, radical hospitality. We can always do more, but we have the tools. But, first we have to eat of this food ourselves. And then - to paraphrase Jesus - we need to ask this question, Will we let other people continue to just eat the junk food they find in the wilderness of pop culture? Or will we share the good news, guiding others to the life giving bread that comes down from heaven? Will we guide them to Jesus Christ?

So, go. See The Da Vinci Code. Have fun. Enjoy it. I’m going to. But use it as a unique opportunity. Bring a lost seeker with you, and afterwards sit and talk with them about their hunger. And guide them to the bread that gives real life.

     1 “Christian Foes of ‘Da Vinci Code’ Mull Tactics", Laurie Goodstein, the New York Times, May 11, 2006.

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