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Saturday, November 21, 2009

We're Not From Here

Have you ever been in a situation where you looked around and said something like What in the world am I doing here? These people are from another planet! If you are the parent of a teenager, you know what I'm talking about. If you're a teenager, listening to your parents, you know what I'm talking about. Vicki and I felt that way on a daily basis when we lived in Georgia. Perhaps you felt that way visiting a worship service in another denomination or another religion. You may feel that way on Thursday when you gather with some of your family -- you know which ones I'm talking about. Perhaps you felt that way when you went off to college, or the military, or started a new job. Or perhaps you've actually been to another country and experienced a radically different culture.

Summer a year ago Vicki and I spent three days in New York City. It was a wonderful trip -- far less scary than we had imagined. Three times during those three days strangers turned to me and asked me for directions. Amazingly, I knew just enough -- or thought I knew enough -- to point them in the right direction. The truth may be that those poor people are still wandering around New York because I told them the wrong way to go. But I wanted to say, We're not from here.

On the last day of his life, Jesus is asked for directions by Pilate, the Roman Governor of Jerusalem. Are you the king that the religious leaders say you claim to be? Are you actually guilty of treason? What have you done to raise such hatred? What's going on with you?

Jesus answers, My kingdom is not from this world. If I were king of an earthly kingdom, my followers would be fighting to defend me. But my kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. In essence, when Pilate asks for directions, Jesus tells him, I'm not from here.

There is a real sense in which we Christians are, if not from another planet, at least from another reality. I have come to love the 1997 movie Men In Black more and more over the years, because of its satire on the world as we know it. There is a whole other reality going on all around us, the movie proclaims, and most of us have absolutely no clue. That's also the message of almost every horror film: we are surrounded by maniacs and demons and monsters, and we're just not paying attention. My theory is that the prevalence of films about the paranormal is inversely proportional to the secularization of the culture: the less spiritual the culture is, the more the supernatural emerges as a theme in art. Human beings are made for mystery, and if we don't get it in the right ways, we'll invent it in all the wrong ways.

The most popular movie this week is 2012, yet another end of the world film. By the way, have you been following the commentary about the political correctness of the film? Among the icons shown destroyed in the film are the Vatican and the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro, but Roland Emmerich, the filmmaker, was afraid if he showed the destruction of Mecca he'd be the object of Muslim revenge. Why so many end of the world films? Because, I suspect, there's a deep feeling among many of us that the world we've known and found relatively comforting for most of our lives is ending: American world dominance is ending. White male majority power is ending. Cultural support for nominal Christianity -- not, mind you, deeply disciplined Christianity, but nominal, culturally conditioned Christianity -- is ending. Cheap energy is ending. Life in scorn of environmental consequences is ending. The fantasy that we're all going to get better and better and richer and richer is ending. The good life on the cheap is ending.

Today is the Festival of Christ the King: the Last Sunday of the Christian Year. This is the New Year's Eve of Christianity: next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, is New Year's Day for us. So, all week long, party, drink champagne, play Auld Lang Syne, and kiss each other at midnight. And this gospel lesson reminds us that Christ is King: not in the way that the world understands kingship, but in a whole different reality. And it reminds us that all life as the world understands it ends.

After Jesus tells Pilate that he has come to witness to the truth, Pilate cynically asks, What is truth? Jesus doesn't answer him, so philosophers and theologians have been trying to do Jesus' job for the last two thousand years. In our day, there are three great competing answers to the question What is truth? We don't have time this morning to unpack these three worldviews well, but let me try just for a minute to describe them. The classical worldview, which reigned from before Jesus to the sixteenth century, said there is one Truth with a capital T, and even though we can't understand it perfectly in this life, it surely exists. Philosophical, theological, political, and cultural conservatives tend to have a classical worldview: this is Truth. Take it or leave it.

The modern worldview, from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, says, yes, there is Truth with a capital T, but you and I see different sides of it from the different places we stand. My view can be just as valid as yours, so we work together to define Truth. This is the liberal philosophical tradition that founded this country and founded Protestantism: our understanding of truth is just as valid as that of kings and Popes.

Our children, however, swim in post-modernism, which says that what is true for you is true for you and what is true for me is true for me. There is no capital T truth. Words only mean what we say they mean. All you and I can really talk about is the difference between your truth and my truth, but neither of us is more right than the other. Now, all of us over thirty who are shaking our heads in disgust, how many of you have ever said to your children, because I said so!? How many of you have more than one TV in your house? How many have multiple cell phone accounts in your home? How many have bought music and video players with headphones for yourself or others so you wouldn't have to listen to someone else's music? Congratulations: you're a post-modernist!

So, when people with classical worldviews switch from Fox News to MSNBC, or modernists switch vice versa, they feel like they've changed planets. Both liberal and conservative parents listen to their children talk with complete moral relativity about the things going on among their friends, and the parents go nuts. And the post-modern kids can't figure out what their parents' problem is: after all, there's no law to lay down.

And so we battle out our truths with every-hardening lines: conservatives become fundamentalists, liberals insist there can be no diversity from diversity, and post-moderns absolutely insist there are no absolutes.

So, which of these is the Christian worldview? Classicists insist it must be theirs, modernists know there are more than one, and post-moderns know there's no such thing. And, in the midst of all our arrogance stands Jesus, who says My kingdom is not from this world. The conservatives, the liberals, and the post-moderns are all right, and they're all wrong. This world and all its worldviews are temporary. Anyone who misses that misses everything. My great teacher Julian Hartt used to tell us: Don't worry. Nobody gets out of this world alive. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday puts it more graphically: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Dust. Earth. Soil. We come from the earth, and we return to it. That's the root of the word humility: humus. The detritus of the world, decomposed into fertile soil. I am coming to believe that the fundamental Christian virtue is not love: it is humility. Love without the humility that serves the welfare of the other above oneself is can only be eros, never agape. The sin in the garden of Eden is the unwillingness to be a humble creature, and the desire to be something bigger than we are. Anyone who wants to follow me must take up his cross -- he who loses his life for my sake will find it, said Jesus. It's not about us. Keep your feet on the ground. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit -- the earth.

In a world of competing worldviews, in a world climbing to get ahead, in a world where kingdoms are built by power and manipulation and greed and lust, Jesus says My kingdom is not from this world. It's all temporary, brothers and sisters. It's all going to pass away, just like this Christian year is going to pass away.

That ought to make us humble, and help us remember that when we follow Jesus, like him, we're not from here.

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