(A sermon preached at St. James Anglican [Episcopal] Church, Kingston, Ontario, on July 20, 1980. Subsequently printed in Canadian Holmes, 5.1, autumn 1981, pp. 15-16).
We are glad to welcome members of the Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle study weekend to our church this morning. They wanted to come in period costumes and share in a communion service similar to those attended by the clients of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in Victorian London.
It is interesting that detective stories often appeal to Christians. G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers were both theologians and detective story writers, and I am sure they were indebted to Conan Doyle for this particular literary form. So I ask myself, why should the detective story be so appealing?
There is a mystery. Something has to be ferreted out, brought to light, and the crime solved. There is the challenge of the "why" and the "who." I suppose that is the connection with theology. Christian faith begins when we are gripped by the mystery of our world. Who did it, and why? How can humans be so good and so evil? And if there is a God, what could be his motives? At first the mystery seems maddeningly insoluble, and then you find some clues. Finally, when you grasp the Christian faith it seems too obvious: "Elementary, my dear Watson."
Secondly, we all have the sense that crime should not pay. The criminal must be brought to book. Our universe is moral, or the whole thing would be absurd. Even if the local police and the great Scotland Yard detectives fail to apprehend the guilty, a master investigator will surely unearth the villain. In that sense, the detective story and Sherlock Holmes, in particular, are totally different from much nihilistic writing. Modern novels have no connection between crime and retribution. Even worse is the fact that crimes are portrayed as without motive or meaning. There is no clear distinction between good and evil, just dismal shades of grey with no plot and therefore no possible solution.
That is why the detective story relates to our moral sense that crime is not overlooked. God is the ultimate detective. He knows the secrets and motives of the human heart. In the Epistle of Paul which we have just read there is the solemn and yet satisfying statement that "the wages of sin is death." And of course the same idea underlies the dedicated concern of Holmes to bring his criminal to the gallows. But then the story ends abruptly and incomplete. You never hear of Sherlock Holmes attending the hanging, or Dr. Watson prescribing sedatives to the bereaved wife or mother of the murderer.
Christian faith goes beyond "the wages of sin is death." Yes, the mystery must be solved, the criminal apprehended, the handcuffs put on, and the gallows prepared by the hangman. In that sense all of us are criminals. We know the deep motives and the unsolved crimes of our lives, and we know that God has unearthed them. But, unlike the detective story, there is a second half to the verse: "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." We are apprehended, and the gallows seem inevitable, but in God's mystery we can be "ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven."
And that is why I invite you all, sleuths and cads, bumbling police
and ladies of easy virtue, the outwardly good and the inwardly bad, sinners
who deserve to die. Take the bread and the wine as your acceptance of the
free gift of God, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life through Jesus Christ
our Lord. The mystery of God and humanity is solved.
Watson replied, "I see millions of stars."
"What does that tell you?"
Watson pondered for a moment and replied, "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?"
Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke.
"Watson, you idiot. It tells me that someone has stolen our tent."
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