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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Matthew 24:36-44: Get Ready!

‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

During my third year in college I met a young married couple – Mike and Jetty – who used to stop by the campus ministry building on a regular basis to read, to chat, or just to relax. Mike had dropped out of Law School because he and Jetty became convinced, after deep Biblical research, that Jesus was going to return and end the world one Tuesday in October of that year. Mike had dropped out of school to preach this bad news and try to get people saved. Jetty was the daughter of a prominent Baptist minister in Charlottesville, and she had also dropped out of school to join her young husband in his mission. They were very sincere, very likeable, and very intense.

The Tuesday of Mike and Jetty’s prediction came. I was living in an apartment with three other guys, and, over breakfast one of them exclaimed, “Hey! According to Mike and Jetty, the world ends today!” The general response around the table was, “Well, guys, if I don’t see you again, it’s been fun.” We went off to class and to work, came home and had dinner together that night, and we never saw Mike and Jetty again. I’ve always wondered how they dealt with that day: were they relieved, or disappointed?

Last summer I preached a sermon on a text similar to this one, and said that all Christians should be ready at all times to act upon their faith. Jesus language about those in Noah’s time swept away by the flood recalls the Tsunami in Indonesia a month ago, as well as the one the day after Christmas, 2004. Language about one man being left in the field and one taken, one woman grinding meal taken and the other left is reinforced by yesterday’s story about seven people killed by lightning at a nursery school party in South Africa. Accident, illness, violence – all can snuff out or lives randomly and capriciously.

This morning, I’d like us to consider less the need to be prepared than how we can be prepared. On this first Sunday of Advent, in the wake of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, as we face three weeks of commercial tsunami urging us to buy, as well as calendars already full with parties, rehearsals, cantatas, pageants, concerts, and commitments, I want to make my annual case for making room. You see, I am more and more convinced every year that you and I have surrendered to a brilliant plot engineered by the forces of darkness and executed with the cooperation of church, school, and commerce, to cram the month of December so full of activity and greed that when the Holy Family finally comes to the door of our hearts on Christmas Eve, not only is there no room left in the inn, but we have collapsed from exhaustion and never hear them knock.

How many of you hosted your Thanksgiving dinners this year for other friends and family? Now, I’m sure you didn’t have to do what we did – that is, what Vicki mostly did. I’m sure that your homes are always completely clean and orderly and ready to receive a multitude of company for a meal or an overnight without any preparation at all. Now, Vicki is a good housekeeper, and she gets some help from me. But we do like to do some preparation to make room for company. Now that all of our children are out of the house, Vicki has been working hard the last couple of months to sort through a great deal of stuff we have been keeping, ostensibly for their sake. She’s been going through closets and storage spaces, bringing things to the Fall Festival yard sale, farming things out to the kids, and throwing things away. I’ve been cleaning out the tool shed, my library, and my closet. We’re making room.

Anticipating the influx of food from the dinner guests on Thursday, we cleared out the refrigerator and panty, and added items needed for the meal. That’s how you prepare – you get rid of what isn’t needed, and carefully add what you lack.

In the Christian calendar, the two great feasts of Christmas and Easter are preceded by penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, respectively. Advent is meant to be a kind of “Winter Lent,” in which we clean out our emotional and spiritual houses to make room for Jesus to be born in new ways in us this Christmas. That’s not how we practice the four weeks before Christmas, is it? In fact, what we’ve done – and yes, I helped set up decorations yesterday morning, until my cold drove me back home to recuperate – is to turn Advent into Christmas, and the twelve days of Christmastide that last until January 6 into – well, I don’t know what it is, except that we stop celebrating Jesus’ birth pretty much at midnight Christmas Eve. From then on it’s football, New Year’s Eve, and figuring out what to do with that hideous thing Aunt Ethel got you this year.

So, how can we make room in our lives, so we’re ready for God to do something new in us, not just at Christmas, but at any time?

1. Create some space in your schedule. The great jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie said, late in life, “I’ve spent most of my life learning what notes not to play.” More is not more. Less is more. In this hectic season, carve out some time every day to do nothing except to be. Put down the book, turn off the cell phone, turn off the TV, unplug the iPod. Find a quiet room, sit in your car alone, go out on the porch, but just make some daily sabbath for yourself. Make a date with yourself. Leave your troubles and your business at the door. Let the quiet and the stillness of that space leak out into the rest of your busyness. Jesus regularly separated himself from disciples and crowds just to be alone. Making space in our time helps us hear the holy family knock at the door.

2. Create some space in your space. More is not more. Cluttered space clutters the soul. If everything is important, then nothing is important. Give your stuff away, even if it’s to the dump. It’s no accident that all the great spiritual giants in history had very few things. Do not store up treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume, but store up treasure in heaven. Remember that when people ask you what you want for Christmas. And remember that when you are thinking about what you will give people. Give people memories – a concert, a trip to a museum or a play, a special activity with them – instead of more stuff.

3. Create some room with God. Anne Lamott, in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, says the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Forty years ago I was absolutely certain about who God is, how God thinks, and what God wants. The more time I spend with God, the less sure I am about any of that, but the more amazing I find God to be and the more I love God’s deep mystery. I used to have a whole list of questions I wanted God to answer in the next world, if not in this one. Now I really don’t care. I’ve given up on the answers: I’m just trying to learn how to love. All the people who were certain about how the Messiah would come missed him; the only people who found him were the ones open to surprise.

The Messiah will come, Jesus says, not when preachers who have made fortunes predicting it say, but when we least expect it. Clear your time, clear your space, and clear your expectations. If you don’t, love will come, and you’ll be left behind.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving, 2010: Thanks for Less

Judges 18:14-26

Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, I was a fan of magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, not for their stories on how to repair the car or the washing machine, but because of the amazing future they declared we would all be living just around the corner. We would be living in expansive and inexpensive houses, powered by solar rays. Meals would be cooked, beds made, and the whole house cleaned by robots. To get to school, work, or play, we would choose whether to take our private helicopter, flying car, or personal jet pack. The workweek would only be about twenty hours long, and vacation time would be abundant. Cancer, heart disease, and bad breath would be eradicated, and we would live long and healthy lives. War would be banished, poverty eliminated. It was guaranteed: things would just keep getting better and better, forever.

So, when families gathered for sacred festivals like Thanksgiving, no matter what tragedies had occurred over the past year – the death of a loved one, a major accident or illness, the loss of a job, a bad year at school – we could always give thanks knowing that things would get better. The children would live in a better world than the parents, and the grandchildren would live in a safer, cleaner, richer, more wonderful world yet. Progress, said General Electric for us all, was our most important product. Thank you, Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t feel that way to me anymore. And as I listen to you and to other people much smarter and more insightful than I, that unshakeable faith in the unlimited progress of the human species, or of this particular corner of it, doesn’t seem to be very secure. Will we have secure retirements? Will the air be breathable and the water drinkable? Will we be able to afford to be sick? Will there be work? Will there be a place for us to live in safety and comfort? Will our children be well educated? Fifty years ago, those were rhetorical questions. Today they are frighteningly real. Tomorrow, when we gather around the Thanksgiving table with our loved ones, we may be giving thanks not for more, but for less than we had a year or more ago. In a culture which defined the American Dream as a better and brighter future for all those who worked hard and kept the faith, how do we give thanks when things may be worse?

In the seventeenth and eighteenth chapter of the Book of Judges, there is a largely unknown story about a man named Micah. He stole eleven hundred pieces of silver from his mother, but then, repentant, returned them to her. Mom was so delighted that she had some of the silver made into an idol, which she gave to Micah. Micah built a shrine in his house for the idol and hired his own personal priest to live in the house and offer daily sacrifice to the idol. “Now I know the Lord will prosper me,” exclaimed Micah, “because the Levite has become my priest.” Micah’s future was so bright he needed to wear sunglasses (which he probably bought with some of the leftover stolen money).

Well, the tribe of Dan had not been given its own territory when Canaan was being divided up, so they sent out a scouting party, followed by an army of six hundred men to look for some real estate. The scouting party came to Micah’s house, and returned to the army to report:
Then the five men who had gone to spy out the land (that is, Laish) said to their comrades, ‘Do you know that in these buildings there are an ephod, teraphim, and an idol of cast metal? Now therefore consider what you will do.’ So they turned in that direction and came to the house of the young Levite, at the home of Micah, and greeted him. While the six hundred men of the Danites, armed with their weapons of war, stood by the entrance of the gate, the five men who had gone to spy out the land proceeded to enter and take the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim. The priest was standing by the entrance of the gate with the six hundred men armed with weapons of war. When the men went into Micah’s house and took the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim, the priest said to them, ‘What are you doing?’ They said to him, ‘Keep quiet! Put your hand over your mouth, and come with us, and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one person, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?’ Then the priest accepted the offer. He took the ephod, the teraphim, and the idol, and went along with the people.
So they resumed their journey, putting the little ones, the livestock, and the goods in front of them. When they were some distance from the home of Micah, the men who were in the houses near Micah’s house were called out, and they overtook the Danites. They shouted to the Danites, who turned around and said to Micah, ‘What is the matter that you come with such a company?’ He replied, ‘You take my gods that I made, and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? How then can you ask me, “What is the matter?” ’ And the Danites said to him, ‘You had better not let your voice be heard among us or else hot-tempered fellows will attack you, and you will lose your life and the lives of your household.’ Then the Danites went on their way. When Micah saw that they were too strong for him, he turned and went back to his home.[1]

The Danites took Micah’s god, his priest, and the sacred vestments for the priest. His life, which had seemed to be on a path to unlimited prosperity and bliss, had been destroyed. When the Danites asked him what his problem was, he wailed You take my gods that I made, and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? David Baily Harned writes

It is unfortunate that Micah is robbed of all that matters to him. But it is more unfortunate that nothing matters to Micah except the things of which he is robbed.[2] 

 All the men of Micah’s village formed a posse to chase down six hundred Danite warriors and help Micah recover the idol, the sacred vestments, and the chaplain he was keeping stashed for private use in his house. Surrounded by friends and family members, neighbors and strangers who have offered their very lives for Micah’s sake, Micah can only whine that without his personal idol and priest, his life is ruined and he has nothing left.

The tragedy, Harned continues, is not that Micah has lost his gods but that he has forgotten his neighbors, not that he has been robbed of his religion but that his religion has robbed him of (people).[3]

Perhaps we, like Micah, have been robbed by the Danites of Wall Street and Washington and Richmond, seeking to enlarge their territory at our expense. Perhaps we have been looted by the tribes of cancer and aging and ignorance, by fears concocted and fanned by smirking buffoons clothed as media pundits. But Micah’s real enemy is not the Danites: all they can take is what was never real to begin with. Micah’s nemesis is his own misplaced faith, which allows him to worship a private deity through a priest at his command, without any obligation or responsibility to anyone other than himself. Micah’s religion is about Micah and his personal prosperity, regardless of whatever happens around him.

If anyone is less thankful this Thanksgiving than before, then they, like Micah, have been robbed by a false idol. But you and I are here tonight because we have not sworn allegiance to a private idol made of precious metal, but to a Savior who calls us out of our isolation and into sacred community. We worship a Messiah who calls us to a cross, not to prosperity. We follow a Master who surrendered his own life for the salvation even of those who crucified him.

Yes, these are hard times, and they may not get easier. Yes, pain and illness and unemployment are absolutely real. But look around: tonight the whole village has turned out to fight the Danites with us. No tribe, no angel or principality, nor life nor death nor things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all Creation can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord. And not only has Jesus given himself to us, he has given us each other. No raiding party from Dan or from Wall Street or from the depths of hell can change that.

So when your idols have been stolen, or when they turn to the dust they always are, look around you and see what can never be taken away. And when your friend, your neighbor, or even your enemy stands in the dust, wailing that all that gave them life and hope and meaning has been taken away, do not you leave them. Stand with them and call them home, like the neighbors of Laish, like the father of the prodigal son, and like Jesus.

[1] Judges 18:14-26, New Revised Standard Version
[2] Harned, David Baily, The Ambiguity of Religion, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1968, p. 10
[3] Ibid., p. 10

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Grace at the End

Christ the King, 2010
Luke 23:33-43 11/21/2010

I chanced to see on the internet this week a video clip from a Chicago morning news program. The two good-looking and perky anchors were telling the TV audience that they had live footage of a bridge that was going to be demolished at exactly seven o’clock. They cut to a helicopter shot of the bridge, and the count down began. Three, two, one . . . nothing. Nothing happened. The anchors waited for about thirty seconds, and then, desperate to fill the empty air with something besides and empty bridge still standing, cut away to their weatherman. As they chatted aimlessly with him, suddenly the camera cut back to the bridge, now lying in the river. They had missed the explosion completely. The anchors pounded their desk, tore up and wadded up pieces of paper, and the man began eating his script. So much for eyewitness news.

How many times has it happened to you? You get up to get a drink, and miss the touchdown. You go in another room and miss the baby’s first steps. One of the thousand times it has happened to me was in the spring of 1974, in Atlanta. A seminary buddy of mine stopped by my dorm room to tell me he had gotten two left field tickets for the Braves home opener that night. Hank Aaron had tied Babe Ruth’s home run record earlier in the week – maybe he would break it that night. “Aww, he won’t hit it in their first game back,” I said, turning down the ticket. Guess what? Left field!

Throughout Jesus’ life, pretty much everyone misses what’s happening. The owner of the inn in Bethlehem misses it. Hundreds of pilgrims to Bethlehem miss it. Herod misses it. Pilate misses it. The rich young ruler misses it. The three would-be disciples miss it. The disciples nearly miss it. Judas missed it. The soldiers who crucify miss it. Jesus comes into the midst of God’s covenant people, people who have been praying for a savior for hundreds of years, and they miss it.

But here and there, somebody, usually an outsider, sees it. Eastern astrologers follow a star, shepherds on a hillside see angels and follow the instructions. An old man and old woman in the temple see something different in the baby brought for circumcision. A crazy prophet down at the River sees a dove over Jesus’ head. A Roman centurion, a tax collector, a prostitute, and a pagan adulteress understand there’s something different about this carpenter’s son.

Messiah. The anointed. Usually reserved for kings, performed by priests and prophets. But the only person to anoint Jesus is a woman who enters the dining room and pours expensive perfume on him, to the outrage of the disciples. His disciples not only will not anoint him, they won’t even wash his feet – he has to wash theirs.

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year – the Feast of Christ the King. We remember that when all the Presidents, Kings and Queens, Prime Ministers and Sultans, Princes and Popes have turned to dust, Jesus alone will reign. The church has outlasted every economic and political system on the face of the planet, every party and ideology and denomination. The day is coming, said St. Paul, when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. It puts all our frantic economic and political posturing in perspective: in the end, as in the last Sunday of the year, Jesus reigns.

So, on this last Sunday of the Christian year, the gospel lesson is of the last moments of Jesus’ mortal life. Once again, almost everyone misses who Jesus is: the disciples betray and flee, the soldiers arrest and flog, the government equivocates and kills, the people who had waved palm branches on Sunday yell “crucify him” on Friday.

Of course, it’s not hard to understand why the people around Jesus don’t recognize the king in their midst. He is beaten and bleeding, he refuses to call down legions of angels, he tells his followers to throw away their swords. And, as he is nailed to a cross and the soldiers gamble for his clothing, instead of calling down judgment upon them, Jesus asks God to forgive them. Any king, any governor, any President worth his salt knows that you can only rule through strength, not from weakness and mercy. Evil doers must be punished, we all know. But this false king exercises mercy rather than judgment. No wonder no one believes him.

Yet, in the midst of this scene of horror, there are two proclamations of Jesus’ kingship, from the most unlikely sources. The first is from the soldiers, who nail above Jesus’ head the charge of treason against him, shortened to “King of the Jews.” It is meant to be a cruel joke on their part: look at this king, naked, bleeding, dying on this cross. Does this look like a king? We don’t think so. And, you meddlesome Jews, get the message – this is what lies ahead for any of you who challenge Caesar’s authority.

Sometimes it’s the jokers who speak the truth. That was the role of the jester in medieval courts: he spoke truth to power by mocking the authority and self-seriousness of the king and nobles. Two of my childhood heroes were the Smothers Brothers, who paved the way on television for the political satire we find today in people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who are sometimes more insightful sources of news than are the news networks. The soldiers thought they were being hilarious, but God was working, again, in mischievous ways.

Two men were being crucified with Jesus. They are often called thieves, but the gospel uses more generic language for them: criminals. One of them, probably having heard the gossip about Jesus earlier in the week, as well as having listened, in his agony, to the abuse being hurled at Jesus, joins in the mockery. Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself, and us!” It’s hard to know how much this is a last, desperate hope, and how much this is anger driven by the unbearable pain of this execution.

The second criminal rebukes the first: You’re dying – have you no fear of God, even now? You and I are getting what we deserve. But this man hasn’t done anything to deserve this. And then, the second criminal becomes the one person in the entire gospel story to label Jesus as a king without mockery: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Last week we talked about the witness we make when we are suffering and when things aren’t going our way. People are watching us, I said, to see whether we turn into the Incredible Hulk and explode with rage and blame, or whether we show something else when all our polite veneer has been stripped away. What do we see when Jesus is out of life and out of hope? Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.

What do we see from the first criminal? Save yourself and us!

But from the second? Compassion towards Jesus. The last act of kindness Jesus will know in his life is from a criminal being executed for his crimes. The last act of grace in Jesus’ life will be from a dying stranger who defends him. At the excruciating end of his life, Jesus is recognized as a king not by disciples or family or priests, but by a condemned man hoping to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom to come. At the end, the criminal gives Jesus grace.

And Jesus returns the grace: Today, you will be with me in Paradise. You will not be alone. This is not the end. Love will win.

That’s the good news, on this Sunday when we remember everything ends, except for love. Grace wins, and Jesus reigns.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Opportunity to Testify: Luke 21:5-19

Annalena Tonelli was an Italian Roman Catholic volunteer working for 33 years in the Horn of Africa focusing on tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and special schools for hearing-impaired, blind and disabled children. In October 2003, Annalena Tonelli was killed in her hospital by Islamic Somali gunmen. (Wikipedia)

Jean Donovan was an American lay missionary, and graduate of Mary Washington College, who volunteered to do charity work during the civil war in El Salvador. Jean and three nuns were kidnapped and murdered in December 1980 by a National Guard death squad. Their deaths helped expose involvement by the U.S. government in El Salvadoran atrocities. (Wikipedia)

Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian who answered Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for seminarians and clergy to work for civil rights for African Americans. On August 13, 1965, Daniels, in a group of 29 protesters, went to picket whites-only stores in the small town of Fort Deposit, Alabama. All of the protesters were arrested and taken to jail in the nearby town of Hayneville. On August 20, the prisoners were released without transport back to Fort Deposit. After release, the group waited by a road near the jail. Daniels with three others—a white Catholic priest and two black protesters—went down the street to get a cold soft drink at Varner's Grocery Store, one of the few local stores that would serve nonwhites. They were met at the front by Tom Coleman, an engineer for the state highway department and unpaid special deputy, who wielded a shotgun. The man threatened the group, and finally leveled his gun at sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Sales down to the ground and caught the full blast of the gun. He was killed instantly. (Wikipedia)

Christians didn’t stop dying for their faith in the first century – they are at risk all around the world every day. You and I are blessed to live in a place where the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of our faith – as well as that of other faiths as well. It was shocking to hear candidates in the last election who did not understand the First Amendment. To say that we are guaranteed free exercise of our faith, however, is not the same thing as saying that we will never suffer for our faith. Try telling a soccer or swim coach that you’re not going to play or practice on Sunday. Tell your boss that you’re not going to work on Sunday, or on Christmas, or Easter. Call down your friends when they use racist, sexist, xenophobic, or other hateful language or actions. Stop buying meat that comes from factory farms, or produce that isn’t organic or local. Tell your government you’re not going to pay taxes to subsidize torture. From soccer team to federal government, you’ll discover there’s a price for keeping the faith.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus overhears his disciples and others marveling at the beauty of the temple in Jerusalem. “The time is coming," Jesus says, “when not one stone of this temple will be left standing on another.” In the words of the modern prophet Bob Dylan, the times, they are a-changin’.

When the disciples ask Jesus when the revolution is coming, Jesus refuses to give them a calendar. There will be false messiahs and wars, earthquakes and plagues and signs from heaven, but those are not signs of the end, Jesus says. Somehow, all the Christian and other prophets who have become rich predicting the end of the world have missed this little point. (Well, maybe it’s all the gullible people who gave them money who missed the point.) But, Jesus says, before all this occurs, they will arrest and persecute you.

That’s the bad news. What’s the good news? Jesus continues: This will give you an opportunity to testify.

One of the few really good District Superintendents I’ve ever had was Joe Carson. For Joe, everything was divided into three classes of opportunity. The lowest on the list was a real opportunity. Real opportunities were usually something like cleaning out a septic tank. Brother Brooke, got a real opportunity for you . . . Understand, these were in the days before we had caller ID on our phones.

Second were great opportunities. Great opportunities usually had to do with accepting an appointment to a church no one else wanted: Brother Brooke, jes’ got a great opportunity for you to go to the Armpit Circuit: eight churches and a parsonage with no indoor plumbing.

The highest level were golden opportunities. These usually had to do with money: Brother Brooke, need to raise five thousand dollars for the district camp. Gonna give ten people the golden opportunity to give five hundred dollars each. Now, I know you want to give more, but if you do, gonna take away that opportunity from somebody else. Joe was so good that by the end of the call, you’d be begging him to let you give more money.

Thanks Joe – I mean, Jesus. We’re going to be arrested and persecuted and probably tortured and killed, but it’s a great opportunity to testify. Don’t do me any favors, Lord.

But Jesus goes on to say something even more remarkable: don’t prepare your defense in advance – I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to contradict. Now, Jesus goes on to say that this divine wisdom won’t save our lives – they’ll still kill us. But saving our skins is not the most important thing: what’s important is that we will testify to the glory of God and be faithful to the end. This is the only place in the gospels that Jesus directly promises us the intervention of the Holy Spirit – not to heal us or to save our lives, but to help us glorify God when we are in the greatest danger.

Now, most of us are not going to be stood up against a wall and threatened with being killed unless we renounce Jesus. We might lose some friends, or lose a promotion, or lose some popularity because of our faith. But every day you and I are threatened with crises great and small, and we are being watched to see whether we are fair-weather Christians or people who hold on when the storms are raging all around us.

How, for example, do you witness to your faith when you are sick or in pain? My wife will tell you that I am a really terrible patient: go away and don’t bother me. She has earned her halo many times over for tolerating me when I am in physical, mental, or emotional pain. I need God to help me learn how to glorify God in the midst of illness and discomfort.

What is your testimony when things don’t go your way? Are you a bad loser? When you don’t get that job, that grade, that place, that award, that raise, that whatever – how do you use that as an opportunity to glorify God? Do you work out your own little script, or do you trust God to speak through your mouth and your life?

What happens when you lose, or when you fail – when it’s your fault, and you’re wrong? Do you sulk, do you rage? Do you deny, and blame everyone and everything else? Or do you confess your fault, ask for mercy, and for help to do things differently? Not long ago I told a church member that perhaps the most important thing I do as a pastor is show the congregation how to be wrong right – to openly admit my mistake, ask for forgiveness, and not hold any grudges. I have a great deal of experience being wrong, and a little bit in being wrong right.

And, at the end of your world – at your death, the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship, hope, or dream -- what is your testimony? One of the most amazing things about being a pastor is that I get to be with people who teach others how to live and how to die: with courage, with hope, with humor, and with uncompromised trust in the love of God to triumph over death. Revelation 14:13 reads, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. Yes, says the Spirit, they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them. You’ve known those people.

The end is coming for all of us, Jesus says -- the end of a dream, the end of a relationship, the end of a work, the end of a life. What will your testimony be? It’s a great opportunity.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

All Saint’s Year C: The God of the Living


Matthew 22: 23-33

The great professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale and at UVa., Julian Hartt, was also a third-generation Methodist preacher who served country churches in the Midwest during the Depression. Julian told the story of one cold night on the plains when he was called to the house of a dying farmer. As he rode through the darkness to the man’s house, Julian was filled with dread. “What will I say to him? This man’s eternity may hang on what I say to him in his last moments on earth.” When Julian got to the house, he was ushered into the bedroom, and the dying man motioned for him to come to the bedside. “Preacher, there’s something I need to ask you,” the man gasped. “Yes, what is it?” Julian replied. “When I get to heaven, will my favorite hunting dog be there with me?” After the class had finished laughing, one of us asked, “What did you say to him?” Julian, who had the quickest mind and sharpest sense of humor I’ve ever known, answered, “I said the first thing that came into my mind. I said, ‘What makes you so sure that’s where you’re going?’”

The Bible has relatively little to say about the afterlife. In the Hebrew Bible, there is almost nothing. When people die, the Bible says “they died.” David “slept with his ancestors.” Abraham “was gathered to his people.” Hebrews generally did not believe in an afterlife: the Psalms refer to Sheol as the dwelling place of the dead – a shadowy place where the dead do not seem to have consciousness. In some contexts, Sheol is synonymous with “the grave.” Many modern Jews do not find belief in an afterlife a necessary component of their faith.

In the gospels, there is a raging debate between two religious factions over the existence of an afterlife. The Sadducees, who were the wealthy, politically connected party, rejected any belief in the afterlife because it was not mentioned in the first five books of the Bible. The Pharisees, who were more liberal and accepted as authoritative the writings of the prophets, believed in the resurrection of the dead at the coming of the Messiah and the end of the world. The gospel lesson this morning is an attempt by the Sadducees to trap Jesus by exposing the absurdity of belief in the resurrection: Deuteronomy 25 commanded a man to marry his brother’s widow if she had no children, so she would be cared for in her old age. What if seven brothers married a woman in succession, and there were no children? Whose wife would this poor woman be in the resurrection, the Sadducees ask, smirking?

In the resurrection: in the Bible, all human life is in a body. God created humans in bodies, and declared it good. Greeks, and other cultures, separated human existence into physical bodies and non-physical soul or mind or spirit. For Hebrews, there could be no life apart from having a body. So, in the books of Daniel and Ezekiel, when there begin to be glimmers of belief in life after death, the vision is not of disembodied ghosts floating on clouds, but of bodies that have come to life again. This is an enormously important concept, which, sadly, most Western Christians get utterly wrong: Biblical Christianity does not believe in the immortality of the soul – that human souls have an inherent right to live forever, somewhere. That is a Greek idea. Biblical Christianity has always proclaimed the inseparability of spiritual and physical life. Therefore, any life after death must be both physical and spiritual. Jesus can be touched after Easter, and he cooks and eats fish with the disciples on the lakeshore. Look at the words of the Apostles’ Creed (881 in The United Methodist Hymnal): “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

The New Testament understanding of life after death is best found in Paul’s first letters to the Corinthians and Thessalonians. At the end of the world, the dead will be raised – by God’s power, not by right. Life in the resurrection is in a body like that of the resurrected Jesus, who not only can be hugged and who eats, but who also passes through walls and appears and disappears.

Life in the resurrection, Jesus tells the Sadducees, is not life in this age cleaned up. In the Kingdom come in fullness and power, for example, women will not be property to be passed from one family member to another. The poor will no longer be at the bottom of the pile – in fact, Jesus says again and again, the poor will be exalted and the rich laid low. In the words of the slave spiritual,

I’ve got shoes, you’ve got shoes,

All God’s children got shoes,

When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes

Gonna walk all over God’s heaven.

Poor black slaves who had no shoes and could not roam wherever they wished understood that heaven would not repeat the earthly divisions people had created. On the other hand, the song continues to say,

Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t going there.

I don’t know about the hunting dog in Julian’s story, but Michael Vick’s dogs may be in heaven before him.

So, if the resurrection comes when Jesus returns, where are our dead loved ones right now? It helps me to understand what the word eternal means. Eternal doesn’t mean forever and ever. Eternal means outside of time. Time is a construct of Creation, and, as Einstein proved, is not constant. It speeds up, slows down, and sometimes, like during math class or a sermon, stops altogether. Sometimes it loops back upon itself – like when you smell Thanksgiving dinner and suddenly you are back at Thanksgiving at your grandparents’ when you were a child, or when you experience déjà vu. God is eternal – God stands outside of time, which is how God can be at the Creation and the end of the world and right here all at the same time. When we celebrate Holy Communion, listen for the point in the Eucharistic prayer when I say, and so, with all your people now on earth and with all the company of heaven, we praise your name and joint their unending hymn, Holy, holy, holy . . . When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we do so at the same eternal moment as Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room and St. Augustine and Luther and John Wesley and your great grandparents and all Christians on earth and with your great, great grandchildren. We step outside of time. At death, you and I step outside of time into eternity and we are at the resurrection and the Creation in the same moment.

At the end of the film Places in the Heart, the camera pans down a church pew as the characters of the film are sharing communion. A widow and her children, their blind boarder and black field hand pass the elements to each other. Then the camera pans to the widow’s dead husband, who passes the elements to the lynched young black boy who accidentally killed him. That’s a vision of the eternity we share at the Lord’s Table.

This morning, who else is in the pew with you? Who is kneeling with you at the rail today? You are sharing at the same table as your great-grandparents and your great grandchildren, with the apostles and saints and martyrs, and, most wonderfully, with Jesus. When you come forward this morning, name the saint you’re breaking bread with, and give thanks.