Sunday, November 27, 2016

Are you ready? (Romans 13:11-14; Matt. 24:36-44) Sermon for first Sunday of Advent

This text in Matthew is a text I remember from the days I clutched a Scofield reference Bible. Along with Scofield’s infallible notes I carried around a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, you know, the premier text on the future of the world. He called it the late great planet earth because he believed that the earth was headed toward Armageddon, which would culminate in the Second Coming of Christ. He also believed, as was taught in the notes of the Scofield reference Bible, that the church would be raptured (not ruptured, the church has been continuously ruptured, but raptured) – that is, snatched away, evacuated into heaven before the tribulation and suffering that would engulf the earth. This view originated in Europe by a man named John Nelson Darby who later brought it to America, where it was spread through the preaching of popular American evangelists. It offered the kind of sensationalism many evangelists crave. It should come as no surprise that this was an invention of the Western world, where it found a home in Western, and especially American exceptionalism. We tend to gravitate toward a theology of comfort and privilege. How convenient that God would snatch us out of the world before all the tribulation and suffering starts right?   

This text in Matthew is part of Jesus’ end-times discourse. Actually, it may be more of the early church’s end-times discourse than it is Jesus’ discourse. As I said a couple of weeks ago, scholars are divided on how much of this actually originated with Jesus and how much of this originated with Jesus’ first followers. I read texts like this symbolically and metaphorically, which, I would argue, is the way religious texts should be read. The question I ask and the question many spiritual seekers ask is: What is the deeper truth, behind the end-times speculation? Here I think it is simply: Be ready!

The same theme is echoed by Paul in his words to the Roman church. I love the story about the little boy who learned to tell time by listening for the chimes of their grandfather clock. One afternoon he was playing in the house while his mother was out working in the yard. The clock began to chime; he expected three chimes. It chimed once, twice, three times, then four times, five, six, seven, eight, it just kept going – the clock had obviously malfunctioned. Totally disconcerted the little boy raced outside to find his mother, “Mommy, mommy, listen to the clock,” he screamed. His mother said calmly, “Billy, what time is it?” He exclaimed, “I don’t know, but it’s later than it has ever been before.”

It’s true, you know. It is later than it has ever been before. Paul says to his readers, “You know what time it is, it’s time for you to wake from your sleep. It’s time to be ready. For your salvation, your healing and the earth’s healing (this goes together; Paul tied our fate together with the earth’s fate in Romans 8), your liberation and the liberation of the planet, is nearer today than it was yesterday.” Of course, Paul, in his particular historical time and place, did not have the benefit of knowing what we know in our time and place. There’s no way he could have known that the earth has been around for billions of years and life emerged ever so slowly in stages. He couldn’t have known that. But what he says is still true, sisters and brothers. The deeper spiritual truths of sacred texts always transcend historical context, which is why our ancient scriptures still speak to us today. (Actually it is the Spirit speaking to us through our understanding and modern day application of the scriptures).

Rev. King said that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but it bends slowly right? And there are always forces trying to push it back. And sometimes they do push it  back. But they cannot permanently stifle the force for good in the world. Because that force, that energy is inspired by and empowered by Spirit (capital S). Sometime it is three steps back before we move forward again. One of the great perennial truths these ancient apocalyptic texts teaches us is that deconstruction precedes reconstruction, that the line of progress is never constant, that sometimes the powers that be – the religious, social, or political powers – have to come unhinged like stars falling from the sky (as the text in Matthew says) in order for a new creation to emerge.

The prophets prophesied of a day of justice and peace, when the light of the Lord would shine brightly, but they also spoke of times of injustice and violence that would precede the new age. If you will remember the Gospel text from a few weeks back, Jesus warned that before the day of peace and justice arrives, there will be deception, calamity, persecution, conflict, and violence. (Do you remember that text?) In Matt 24:29 the text says, “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken.” This occurs before the coming of the Son of Man. All of this is symbolic language. The coming of the Son of Man is a symbolical way of talking about the coming of a new day for humanity, when humanity more clearly reflects the image of the divine, when the law of love becomes written on all our hearts and minds. And though that day may be a long time yet in coming, we are closer to that day  today than we were yesterday, even though there are days, months, and even years when that doesn’t seem to be true. We view progress from within our own limited, boxed in view of time. But if we are open to a larger vision, we can see that as a species we are slowly making progress.  And what Paul says is true, though in a deeper way than he intended I’m sure. Salvation is nearer. The darkness will give way to the dawn of a new day. That is our hope, which is rooted in the very narrative, the very story that is at the heart of our faith – the death and resurrection of Jesus.

If we judge Jesus by the visible outcome of his work we would have to say he was a failure. His anti-establishment critique and his positive vision of the kingdom of God landed him where? On a Roman cross. He was executed by the powers that be. When he died, according to the passion story in all three of the Synoptics, darkness descended over the earth. Now, whether that historically happened is irrelevant. The symbolism here is what matters. Darkness seemed to have engulfed the world. Hate had done its deed. It seemed as if injustice and evil would prevail. But then the tomb turned up empty. And Jesus appeared to his disciples. Then it became clear to Jesus’ followers that the darkness would not last forever. God raised Jesus giving hope to all who would dare to believe that love and justice would one day prevail, showing us that somehow, someway, when death seems to be the strongest, life springs forth. You can’t keep love down. Love springs up! Hope springs up! Faith springs up! And so the praying and preaching for a just world will not be silenced. The dreaming goes on. The work goes on. The teaching goes on. Hope springs eternal, because love is eternal.

And so our discipleship to Jesus compels us to be ready. To be ready to speak when the occasion calls for speech, and to be silent when the occasion calls for silence. Our duty is to be ready – ready to pray, ready to serve, ready to love, ready to work, ready to confront, ready to comfort, ready to do whatever it is that will further the cause of justice and peace and the common good that God wills for all of us. We must never give in to the darkness. We must resist the urge to respond to hate with hate, or to respond to violence with violence. Our calling is to embody the peaceful, nonviolent, compassionate but courageous way of Jesus.  

One aspect of being ready is that is that we must be ready to risk and suffer if necessary for God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Once there was a general who was infamous for his viciousness. He was brutal and without mercy. He went to attack a small village that lay in the path of his army. Everyone in the village, knowing the general’s reputation, ran away – everyone, except one man. When the general entered the village, he found this one man sitting calmly under a tree. So the general went up to the man and said, “Do you know who I am? Do you know what I am capable of? I can run my sword right through you without batting an eye.” The man said calmly, “Yes, I know.” Then looking at the general he said, “But do you know who I am and what I am capable of? I’ll let you do it . . . without batting an eye.” What are we willing to risk and suffer for the cause of justice and peace in the world?

Another aspect of being ready is that we must be ready at all times to be a channel of blessing to others.  John Philip Newell in his book The Rebirthing of God says that in the last months of his father’s life, as dementia was consuming his mind and memory, he witnessed a river of feeling flowing strong in his father. Throughout his father’s life, his father loved to extend what is sometimes called the Priestly Blessing that is found in Numbers 6:24-25, which begins: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you.” As the current of feeling began to well up in his father, his father wanted to extend that blessing to everyone, everywhere, repeatedly.

During John’s last visit to his father in Canada before his father entered a nursing home, his sister asked him if he would help sell the family car, which his father was still trying to drive, illegally. So John called the local car salesman and set up an appointment for the next day. He made a point of saying to the car salesman, “When you meet my father tomorrow you will notice that he seems confused about all sorts of things. But please honor him by speaking to him, not me. This is his car. And I’ll be there with him.”

The young salesman totally got the point. There was a playful banter between them. Even in his dementia John’s father had not lost his sense of humor. There were, of course, absurd moments in the conversation. John’s father said to him one time, “Now, how much money do I owe you for this car?” The salesman responded, “No, no Dr. Newell. We want to give you money for the car.” John’s father looked at John and said, “This is very generous of them.” (And those of you with parents or other loved ones suffering from dementia you know how that can be).

At the end of the transaction, as the check was being handed over to John’s father, John said to the young salesman, “Whenever I part from my father or whenever we finish a telephone conversation, he gives me a blessing. And I think he would like to bless you now.” So, with the three of them standing in the middle of the car showroom, John’s father took the salesman’s hand, looked straight into his eyes and said, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

When John looked up at the young salesman there were tears streaming down his face. He would never forget that moment. You know, sisters and brothers, everyone of us carries with us every day the potential to be such a blessing to one another. There is a well-spring of potential grace and blessing within each of us that can flow out to others at any moment if we are ready to carry that blessing, if we are ready to be a conduit for the blessing of God to flow to another. Are we ready?

Now, for this blessing to flow freely we may have to get rid of some things. We may have to relinquish some things. It is not likely we will be much of a blessing to anyone if we keep carrying around old wounds and grudges. We will have to let go of our grievance stories that we keep playing over and over in our minds, like a video set on constant repeat. We will have to let go of our bitterness and resentment. And no matter how much we may dislike the actions and attitudes of another person or group, we can’t allow our dislike to become hate or be expressed through harmful actions. Are we ready to move beyond our own little stories, our personal agendas, our own self-interests to embrace the hurt, pain, grief, and suffering that another may be going through? 

In her little book titled, Earthly Good: Reflections on Life and God, Rev. Martha Stern tells about one time when she had taken her car to a body shop after her son drove it through the house. This unfortunately wasn’t the first time she had been to that shop. She says to the owner, “Roy, you see a lot come through here, don’t you?” He nods and says, “I see them come and go. And come back. And people get upset, you know. It really don’t matter if the wreck’s your fault, if the wreck ain’t your fault. Wrecks are upsetting business.” And by the way, that’s true whether you are talking about your car, or your marriage, or your family or an election, or a business deal, or your job, or your health, or whatever right?  Wrecks are upsetting business.

Roy pauses here, then he says, “I still remember one lady, must have been twenty years ago. She did what I believe y’all want to do. She laid right down, right out there on the asphalt. And she hollered.” Martha asks, “What did you do?” He says, “Well, we picked her up.”

Sisters and brothers are we ready to pick one another up? Are we ready to bless one another? Are we ready to encourage someone who may be very down? Are we ready to extend hospitality and grace to someone others may be ready to disregard or discard?  Are we ready to risk or even suffer with those who are marginalized and treated unfairly? Are we ready to dream, pray, speak, and work for the common good – for a just and fair world. Are you ready?

Our good God, help us ready ourselves for the opportunities that open up to us each day to be a blessing to others and to participate in your good will. Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Having a Big Vision (Luke 21:5-19; Isa. 65:17-25)

We have two different end time visions here – one in Isaiah and the other in Luke. Before I preach these texts, before I draw spiritual truths from them, I need to say a word about them, particularly the text in Luke 21. First, when the biblical writers talk about the last days of the end-time, the end they are talking about is not the end of everything; they are not talking about the end of the earth. They are talking about the end of the present age, which they believed would usher in a new age, an age of healing and renewal, an age of peace and justice, not somewhere else, but on this earth. So the end is not the end of the earth, but the end of this present age, and the beginning of a new age on this earth. Thus the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer: Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

Second, the text in Luke 21 is extremely difficult to interpret from a historical perspective, and biblical scholarship is divided on it. As I have said many times before, Gospel stories are not historical reports, they are proclamations, and in many passages we don’t know what actually goes back to Jesus, or what originated with his disciples who read their interpretations and understandings back into the stories. This is literature of faith, not history.

So here is the problem with Luke 21. There is one group of scholars who argue that the historical Jesus believed the end of the present age and the beginning of the new age was upon them. So most of the sayings here in Luke 21 (and in the parallel texts of Mark 13 and Matt. 24) they argue go back to Jesus. Jesus, they say, was simply wrong about the timing of the new age. Another group of scholars argue that most of these sayings in Luke 21 and the parallel texts do not go back to Jesus at all. They argue that these teachings were the teachings of Jesus’ early followers, who believed, in light of God raising Jesus from the dead, that the end time was upon them. These scholars present the case that Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet, but a prophet more like the classical Hebrew prophets.

Now, why do I point this out? I point this out simply bbecause I think it is important for you understand what the scholars are saying and to understand a little something about the difficulties historical scholars face in determining in the Gospels what actually goes back to Jesus and what was read back into the stories and teachings of Jesus by his early followers. It’s a real challenge for Jesus historians.

Okay, having said that, in my opinion, none of what the historical scholars say about this text actually makes a whole lot of difference when we read this text for spiritual truth. And the spiritual truth that I glean from Luke 21 is this: Tribulation naturally precedes renewal and that seems to be universal. It’s like what I talked about last week. Spiritual growth, the path we follow to moral and spiritual transformation always involves some necessary suffering and regression. It’s always three steps forward and two steps back. Sometime four steps back.

This text in Luke 21 tells us what we can expect in route to real transformation and renewal. There will be lots of false promises and deceptions and we don’t have to do any fact checking to know that. Hence the warning: “Beware that you not be led astray.” There will be wars and insurrections. There will be conflicts and violence as kingdoms rise against kingdoms. This is true of nations, it is true of political, social, and religious groups, and it is true of individuals. There will be natural calamities and disasters, because our earth is evolving too. And we inflict some of this on ourselves. We now know that our manipulation of our earth’s resources is having long term affects on the planet. Scientists tell us that humans are the primary cause of climate change. This text warns that people of faith can expect opposition and persecution. People of faith become an easy scapegoat for people’s angst and anger. But you know, sisters and brothers, the really sad thing is that so often, at least in American culture, it is one people of faith persecuting another people of faith. Which is religion gone bad. I have personally found many secular, nonreligious people more accepting and welcoming to me, than many Christian people who want to impose their brand of Christianity on me and the rest of us. Now, all of these things – deception, conflict and violence, natural calamities, persecution – none of this should come as a surprise. They are the birth pangs that lead to the arrival of a new era of justice and peace.

What this text teaches us, I believe, is this: Tribulation precedes jubilation. Suffering goes part and parcel along with our moral and spiritual development. We move from stages of immaturity to maturity, often through periods of great challenge and trial. This is true for individuals and it is true for larger communities. What this says to us is: Don’t lose hope. Don’t give in to despair. Deception, opposition, suffering, disaster, conflict and violence are realities we have to live through to get to a new and better place. The text says that those who endure will gain their souls. That is, those who maintain integrity, those who go not give in to despair, those who fight the good fight against cynicism and egotism and negativism will find healing and hope and become better rather than bitter. They will become grace-filled and grateful persons and communities.

And that brings us to Isaiah 65 where the prophet envisions a new earth and a new heaven. It’s beautiful and powerful poetry. The vision of course emerges out of Hebrew religious thought and faith so naturally there would be reference to Jerusalem as the symbol for all the great cities or kingdoms of the earth. It’s a vision of stability and peace. All premature loss of life though sickness or violence is banished. There is health and longevity of life. All inhabitants have not just enough to survive, but enough to thrive. Hate and harm and injustice are wiped away. And these blessings extend to all creation, because all life is sacred: “The wolf and lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . and they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” The mountain on which Jerusalem stands is the symbol here for all mountains, all cities, all kingdoms, and all peoples.

This is the vision we must claim and lean into and not give up on no matter how bad things get. We have been warned. Bad things will happen. There will be many setbacks along the path to a new heaven and new earth. But it is promised. It is the goal for which we seek. And so we pray and work to that end. We work for peace. We work for justice. And we never give up.

I believe this is an inclusive vision. It includes everyone. It’s not restricted to just those who believe certain things and are members of a certain group. It’s a vision that includes all God’s children – me, you, your friends, your enemies, everyone. This is what Richard Rohr is referencing in the quote I included in your worship bulletin. Rohr goes on to say, “If your notion of heaven is based on exclusion of anybody else, then it is by definition not heaven. The more you exclude, the more hellish and lonely your existence always is. How could anyone enjoy the “perfect happiness” of any heaven if she knew her loved ones were not there, or were being tortured for all eternity! It would be impossible.” Rohr says, “If you accept a punitive notion of God, who punishes or even eternally tortures those who do not love him, then you have an absurd universe where most people on this earth end up being more loving than God.”

Of course, no one will be in heaven (that is, where God is) who doesn’t want to be. We do have to choose to be there. And that means we have to choose to love, because love is the one and certain law in God’s kingdom that everyone abides by. In fact, as one prophet envisions, it will be so embedded in us that it will be written on our hearts and minds. My belief is, my hope is, that in time, all persons will eventually choose to be part of a new heaven and new earth. My hope is that in time everyone will repent of their egotism and injustice, and choose to love their neighbor as themselves. My hope is that there will be no holdouts. That’s what I believe. You don’t have to believe that if you don’t want to. But I believe it. And that gives me hope. And it challenges me to find ways to love my enemies, to love the people I dislike very much, because they are my sisters and brothers in God’s family.

In the Lord of the Rings, Gollum, you will remember, is a scheming, pitiful, deformed little creature obsessed with possessing the ring. He wasn’t always like that. It was his possession of the ring that led to his life diminishment. And still he wants it back. The ring of power ends up possessing those who possess it. It eventually destroys them. Isn’t this how all destructive addictions work? We think we can’t live without them and they consume and destroy us.

Sam and Frodo find themselves traveling in circles lost in the Misty Mountains as they make their way to the Mountain of Doom where Frodo intends on destroying the ring. Here they encounter Gollum, who agrees to help them. All the while Gollum secretly plots to steal the ring back. Gollum might well represent the person you most despise, the person you most dislike. Sam despises Gollum and is harsh and demeaning towards him. Finally Frodo confronts Sam. “Why do you do that—call him names and run him down all the time?” Sam responds, “Because that’s what he is, Mr. Frodo. There’s naught left in him but lies and deceit. It’s the ring he wants. It’s all he cares about.” Gollum is the ultimate narcissist. Looking sadly at Gollum, Frodo says, “You have no idea what it did to him. I have to help him, Sam.” Frodo understands the destructive power and influence of the ring. Sam asks, “Why?” Frodo replies, “Because I have to believe he can come back.”

That’s powerful stuff, friends. I have to believe he can come back. I have to believe that no one is so lost, that no one is so gone, so evil, that he or she cannot be healed and liberated. I have already talked about necessary suffering. Everyone has their own purgatory to live through. It’s different for all of us. But we all have to live through the labor pangs to get to the new person, the new reality, the new vision. However, it is one’s decision to love that ultimately makes all the difference. The whole point of the birth pangs is to get us to the place where we choose to love, we choose to forgive and pursue life. When I invite people to choose Christ what am I really inviting them to do is choose love. That’s what all healthy religion leads to.

There is a wonderful scene in the movie The Hurricane, which is the story of professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, played by Denzel Washington. At the height of his boxing career in the 1960’s Carter is falsely accused of murder by a racist police force and sentenced to prison for the remainder of his natural life. 

While Carter is in prison, Lesra, a young black boy who has read Carter’s autobiography befriends him. As the friendship deepens the boy introduces Carter to some of his adult friends who become convinced of Carter’s innocence and who make a substantial commitment to helping him as his amateur lawyers and detectives. After twenty years in prison he is granted a new trial. As they await the verdict Carter and Lesra share their thoughts. Carter says, “We’ve come a long way, huh, little brother?” Lesra nods and says, “Rubin, I just want you to know that if this doesn’t work, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” “You are?” says Carter. Lesra retorts, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” 
After a moment of silence Carter suggests that they were not brought together by chance. He says, “Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.” Lesra says, “Just in case love doesn’t, I’m gonna bust you outta here.” Carter laughs. He reaches out to touch Lesra’s face and wipe away a tear. Clenching Lexra’s hand he says, “You already have, Lesra.” That is the gospel. It is the power of love to heal and liberate and transform. As Christians we discover that through Jesus. Others may discover it through other ways. But anyone who finds authentic salvation, anyone who discovers real healing and liberation and transformation chooses to love. That’s the key.

The only thing that frees us of hell, the only thing that liberates us from the hate and prejudice and selfishness that keeps us in our private little hells is love. Love embodied in human touch, love embodied in human kindness, acceptance, and welcome, love incarnated in self-giving and sacrifice is what sets us free.

And as we join together eating this bread and drinking the cup we remember and celebrate and commit ourselves to love of neighbor, which love Jesus modeled and exemplified time and time again, a love that led to his cruel death by the forces of hate and religious and political injustice. So let us remember Jesus and commit ourselves once again to live by his teachings and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.