Thursday, October 3, 2019

Digital Self Verses Body Self

I am a gadget guy. My attention is easily captured by news articles parading the newest technological developments. I feel rather shallow confessing this slight obsession and distraction. But it’s true I am impressed by innovation, especially new phones with fantastic battery life or extraordinary cameras superior to many SLR cameras. I’m drawn to simplicity and elegant design, maybe because I’m not so technologically savvy. You have to keep it simple for me.  

Just this week, the Apple credit card took over my thoughts until I applied for one. This seemed to be a no-brainer: no late fees, annual fees, or international fees, lower interest rates, a running account of spending color-coded with graphs, and payments made with a click of a button. I’m overlooking my concern that a massive corporation is attempting to suck up even more power and wealth.

I worry about that. I wonder if we will find a way to break up such power and make sure such companies attend to the common good, like paying a fair share of taxes, paying their people a just wage, and caring for the environment. But hey, I do not want to miss out, and this innovation is rather brilliant. Brilliance and convenience draw me in.

More concerning is how depersonalized we are becoming with new technology and social media. This past week, I read a New York Times commentary by Bianca Vivian Brooks. On her blog, she had amassed, for almost a decade, a large number of followers. She reached a point where she realized it had to end. Her private life was being sacrificed for her public one. Her digital self was minimizing her body self. She says, “Social media is no longer a mere public extension of our private socialization; it has become a replacement for it. What happens to our humanity when we relegate our real lives to props for the performance of our virtual ones?”

It’s a warning for us not to lose the essential self that is incarnated in a body that can be seen, known, and hugged. When someone laughs, I want to hear it and join the laughter, not type LOL. When someone cries, I want to hand them a tissue, not type a sad face meme on a computer. We are flesh and blood, and we do not fully encounter each other until we are present with our whole self.

John’s gospel begins with an amazing affirmation of our body self. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” We are not a spirit up in the sky or electronic data on a server. May our “word” not be disembodied and lost as electronic pulses in the never-lands of the web, but embodied in living and breathing, flesh and blood in relationship to each other.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Where Did We Come From? Genesis 1 A sermon

Where Did We Come From?
Genesis 1-2:4

“Where are you from?” It is a question we ask each other early on when we are just meeting someone new. “Where are you from?” It is a wonderful question to ask, especially if you are like me from the South, where we have a way of looking to the past to discover who we are. 

Asking the question may spark another connection we share with the person we met. I remember asking it of a waiter I once had in Chicago, whose accent had hints of a Southern origin. He said, “Oh, you would not know the little town I am from.” I said, “Try me.” He said, I am from a little town in the Mississippi Delta called Shelby, Mississippi.” I said, “Really, you are from Shelby?”  He said, “You are not about to tell me you know where Shelby is!” I said, “Know where it is? I lived there for three years and served as the pastor of the United Methodist church there!” Next thing you know, we opened up a whole world of things to share with each other. People we knew. Places we shopped. What we’ve heard had happened there since we both left.

Now there is a more profound and important question to ask: “Where are we from?” How did we get here? Why are we here? What’s our story of origin as a human race, a creation? Is there a shared story that we can find together that will orientate our lives and help us to see what we have in common?  

To answer those questions, we Christians and also Jews have always turned to the story of Creation from Genesis 1 and the story of Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit from Genesis 2. We orientate ourselves and find out why we are the way we are by finding ourselves in these larger stories.  
How is there such beauty, wonder, and order in this world? Where did it all come from? There is a God who spoke creation into being out of chaos and called it good. Why is it we have this longing within ourselves to hear the voice of God and to know God? Well, because there was a time when we walked together with God in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. Why do we keep doing things that are not good for us? Well, because we still have a seed of that “forbidden fruit caught in our teeth somewhere, a fruit so delicious and ruin all at once that we cannot get the taste out of our mouths” as Barbara Brown Taylor says it (see reference below). 

We do not have the only creation story. There are creation stories from all parts of the world and in most religious traditions. The Potawatomi Nations of the Great Lake region of North American has a creation story. One version of that story which I found on the web says that the Great Creator (who had created everything) told Anishinaabe to go throughout the world and to name everything. During his wanderings, he realized that he was the only species that did not have a mate, and he was lonely. His travels took him to the Great Lakes, where he heard a song coming across the lake. A woman was singing about making a home for him. He fell in love with the song and the woman. He learned how to cross the river and married the woman, The Fire-keeper’s Daughter. They had four sons who went out in the four directions on the earth and populate the world.  

One native American story-teller told his creation story and when he had finished he said, “Now I do not know whether this really happened…but it is true.” I like that. Our story of creation is not meant to tell us the scientific how of creation but the who and the why. We waste so much energy in our faith when we feel a need to defend our creation story from scientific understandings of our origin. Our creation stories offer us a comprehensive way to understand our relationship to God, each other, and ourselves.  They offer us something that science cannot offer.  

Today as more people are inclined to reject religion, many are finding a need for something that will replace religious belief and practice.  They would like a way that is consistent with science and does not require a belief in God. They value the lessons we are learning from science. They understand the importance of knowing that we live in a universe which is inseparably connected, a sort of dynamic luminous web, in which all the creation moves in an ongoing dance with everything else. They value the idea that we can no longer act as we please and not have what we do reverberate throughout creation in harmful ways. 

As helpful as this new freedom is proving for many, there are limits to what a scientific view can offer. As one thoughtful advocate of a secular approach to life confessed on a TED talk, people are only beginning to attempt to construct a system of thought that can replace all that religion provides for us. He acknowledges that religious faith offers a comprehensive story with rituals and practices and a community joined in a moral purpose that is not easily replicated by those wanting a secular religion.  

This morning we have read poetry together in our Old Testament reading about the creation of the world by God our Creator. The writer, probably a priest or a group of priests around 500 B.C., tells us that God is a master worker, an artist.  
  • God separates the waters on the earth from the waters in the dome of the earth.  
  • God separates the waters of the seas from the dry land of the earth. 
  • God creates all sort of vegetation, trees, fruit and seeds. 
  • God creates the light of the sun for the day and the light of the moon for the night and the seasons of the year.   
  • God then creates swarms of living things from the water in the oceans and the flying birds of the air who populate the dome of the earth.  
  • And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’
  • Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; male and female, God created them.'  
According to this story of creation, God created order out of chaos. God speaks into the preexistent chaos and the formless void, like an artist working with a messy lump of clay. God shapes and forms and breathes life into it, and something beautiful and magnificent is created. Each day God finishes the work and takes a look at what has been created and declares, “It is good.” God does this until the seventh day and we are told that God says “this is very good, very good indeed!” And then God takes a well deserved rest and appreciates what has been achieved.  

We’ve grown so accustomed to hearing the beauty of this poetry that we may not fully understand its purpose and power for those who lived some 2500 years ago. It was likely written in a time when the Jewish people were being held in captivity by the Babylonians who had enslaved them. They were living in a chaotic time. There was enough disorder and loss of control that the people of God were grasping for something they could believe in and hold on to. Politically and socially, everything was up in the air for them. Maybe there is no Lord; only the gods of Babylonia are the real gods (John Buchanan - see below)

In that circumstance, a priest, some group of priests, had a clear revelation of truth from God. It was a breathtaking affirmation, one almost too wonderful to be believed. The creation is fundamentally good in its essence. The creation is good because the one who created everything was good. Not only is the creator good, the creator is powerful enough bring order out of chaos, to shape and form life from lifelessness. This creation has purpose and its purpose is love and relationship. We are placed on this earth to take care of one another as God cared for Adam and Eve, and as Adam and Eve cared for the creation.  

This has profound implication for how we understand ourselves and how we choose to live. If we believe this story, life at its core is good and everything has great value. Physical reality is good, our bodies are good, our desires and pleasures are good, life is good. Our problem is NOT that we are “bad to the bone.” There is no doctrine of original sin in the Bible. Yes, we have a problem with sin, but it is not that we are fundamentally flawed. It has to do that we have forgotten our original blessing. We have forgotten that we have come from love, and for love we were created.  We forget that we are in the hands of a loving God who brings order and life out of chaos and we are God’s partners in this world to the same.  
I doubt we understand what an outrageous affirmation this is. Other people did not believe this. No one believed creation is good. "Life is mean and short, full of injustice, suffering and death. No one believed that human beings were responsible agents, GodΚΌs partners in the management of creation. Everybody knew human beings were insignificant, unimportant, living and dying at the whim of the gods.”

I believe if we are honest, we still find it difficult to dare to believe the truth of such a hopeful affirmation. We have a way of seeing the bad in ourselves and the bad, especially, in others. The good is hard to see and affirm so much of the time. It takes a real leap of faith to believe otherwise. We are more acquainted with the chaos in ourselves, others, and the world. We see the fragility of life. We know something about a hurricane in paradise; that a virus can get loose; that bees in the world are dying; that extinction is accelerating at a break-neck speed; that a meteorite can be hurling towards the earth; that mushroom clouds could one day been seen around the world.

On a personal level we know what can go wrong. Just hearing the word “cancer” is a reminder of how fragile we are. We experience the goodness of life and love the order that we have, but we know out on the edges lives chaos.  

What can we do? We can meditate. In our faith, we can take a stroll in the garden with God and be reminded of the paradise that has been given to us and the goodness of our lives and the One who has created life for us.  

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and the darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the earth. And God said, Let there be light…Let there be land…Let there be plants…Let there be animals. Let us make humankind in our own image, male and female, and give them responsibility, and God said, "It is good. It is very good!”  

“Love dispels all fear,” the little book of 1st John says at the other end of our Bible. I’ve got those words etched into my wedding rings. I keep them with me all the time. It’s a sort of mantra, a repetitive phrase or song that reminds me of what I believe. I don’t want to forget. There is so much in this world that can take me away from what I dare to believe is true.  

Then sometimes, when I feel like a little boy walking in the dark where the shadows are growing large, I start to sing.

“He’s got the whole world in his hands, He’s got the whole world in his hands, He’s got the whole world in his hands, he’s got the whole world in his hands.”

“He’s got you and me sister in his hands, He’s got you and me sister in his hands. He’s got you and me sister in his hand. He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Amen. 

Barbara Brown Taylor, “This Way Home,” November 4, 2012, National Cathedral Archives.
John Buchanan, “Can I Trust God and Science,”  September 19, 1999, Fourth Presbyterian Church Archives. 

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Clearing the Smoke of Sodom and Gomorra: Genesis 18:20 to 32

I suppose most of us had our moments when we were in school when we were less than proud of our work. One of my moments like that was when I was in theology school. I attended Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, in part because it had a distinguished faculty. In fact, the premier professor of New Testament and preaching had recently joined the faculty. There were students from all over the country who were attending Candler because Fred Craddock was on the faculty. In his generation, he was the one person who, more than any other, changed the way we pastors preach, and he was a masterful teacher.   

As you might understand, it was just a tiny bit intimidating to preach one of your first sermons in front of him. Because I thought it an interesting story, for my first sermon I chose to preach on the story in Genesis where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. It did not go so well. When I got into the room to look at the video tape of my sermon with Dr. Craddock, he began mercifully by saying, “I think we both know that your sermon did not work. But let us look at what you did well first.” He mentioned how I had a nice delivery for someone new to preaching. He went on to say that my problem with the sermon began with the fact that I had chosen one of the most difficult scriptures in all the Bible on which to preach. In fact, seasoned preachers and professors have failed miserably in the attempt to preach on that passage. In other words, you might try climbing Stone Mountain, before you attempt to ascend Mount Everest. I am still moved by his kindness, and I learned more than I knew then from that failure. 

Today we have a story that I would place in the same class as the story of Abraham and Isaac: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is the sort of story that causes so many good Christians to hightail it from the Old Testament to the New Testament in search of more reassuring and graceful words more reflective of the God we know and trust.

I understand. I found myself thinking much of this week, “What was I thinking when I decided to do a sermon on this story?” I suspect some of you might also wonder, “What is he thinking, doing a sermon on Sodom and Gomorrah?”  
  • "Why doesn’t he stay in the New Testament where there is Good News?"  
  • "Why this story of fire and brimstone raining down from the hands of an angry God?"  
  • "Why this story that has been used as a clobber story to beat up on people of different sexual orientations?"
I wondered that myself. If I am going to attempt to climb Mount Everest, I would like to know what best paths have been taken before me, so I do not stumble and fall flat on my face. But they are few and far between. I looked online to see what other preachers, whom I respect, have done with a story like this? I did not find sermons from other preachers I respect on this story. What you will find are plenty of sermons using this story as a weapon to condemn people they deem as immoral and deserving of the wrath of God, like gays and lesbians. What you will find are plenty of sermons by people who have a rather one-dimensional theology of God: violent, vengeful, and condemning.  

So, there are plenty of reasons why we just might not preach about this story. However, the problem is not so much with the story as it is with a couple of preconceived assumptions people bring to this story. The first is that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is homosexuality. So let me start by clearing something up. This story has nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with homosexuality. It is about a city so lost in its violence and hatred of anyone different to them, as all the men, young and old, in the city seek to humiliate and sexually assault two men who are angels from God. It is a story about gross obscenity, violence, and dehumanization that is unimaginable. It has zero relationship to homosexuality as we know it in our time.

The other parameter important to understand when approaching this story is to be honest about the historic value of this story. This is not a story that is primarily historic. It is a very old story that may have some historical antecedent - perhaps there were cities like Sodom and Gomorrah that were destroyed by an earthquake or volcano and people attributed the tragedy as a punishment for the evils of these cities. People concluded that “Surely, it was their evil that brought God’s destruction upon them!” The truth is that these stories are a narrative way for ancient people to make sense of tragedies that occur, and the reality of God. They were told and then reinterpreted many times before they found their final form in our Bible.  

What a magnificent reflection these scriptures are for us to ponder in our time. It dares to ask questions we still wonder about:  
  • How can there be such gross evil in this world that goes unpunished?  
  • How can there be a just and powerful God who would tolerate this level of evil?  
  • How do we have a God who is both a God of justice and a merciful God?  
  • What are our responsibilities in dealing with the evil we find in this world?  
  • Are there ways we can partner with God?  
  • Can we influence what God does through our prayers?
One scholar, Walter Brueggemann, suggests that we look at the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a reflection of two primary differing ways of understanding the acts of God in the world. The first way is to read chapter 19 in isolation from the other chapters which come before and after it. Chapter 19 is the chapter we did not read from. It tells about the angels who were sent by God to investigate the city of Sodom, to see if the cries of those who have prayed to God about the evil that has been committed is true.  The men are greeted by Lot, the brother of Abraham, and show an extravagant welcome, while we are told that all the men of Sodom venture horribly in the opposite direction. We are told that all of the men of the city, young and old, come to Lot's house and demand that they be given these two strangers so that grave violence can be committed against them. Lot refuses, and the angels blind the men. God now has the answer that was sought. Lot and his family are instructed to leave the city and not look back, and God rains down destruction upon the city and its sister cities, utterly destroying them.

What we have in chapter 19 of Genesis is a depiction of God that would have been a more traditional and widely held conviction of God, and all the gods, when these stories were told.  
  • Sin has been committed and must be punished.  
  • Evil in this world must be met with violence and destruction.  
  • A righteous God, like a righteous king, will execute that punishment and bring justice.  
This is a familiar theology that still reigns supreme in our world. It is preached from many Christian pulpits, some Imams, and some Rabbis. Most of us like to disassociate ourselves from such ideas, and wish we could condemn them to the past.  Such puzzle pieces do not fit neatly with the picture we have on the box about God. We wonder if these pieces ought to be just thrown out and the world would be a better place for it.  
  • For we know that if God can use violence as a remedy for injustice, then, we too, can use it as a remedy for injustice. Bosnia, Uganda, Syria, Cambodia, Nazi Germany are the names of places where violence is seen as the final solution to perceived wrongs and evils. And even those who abhor such atrocities, we find ourselves wondering if maybe the only way to deal with such injustice is, in fact, to commit righteous violence to stop it and to punish it.  
  • We do well to acknowledge how tempting it is to want God to deal with evil in this way. It is not right that the evil prosper and the righteous suffer. Should not God be actively punishing bad behavior and rewarding the good? Or is there another way?
The chapter we have read from this morning offers another vantage point. You will not find in this chapter a complete repudiation of the idea of “sinners in the hands of an angry God” in chapter 19. But you will find that chapter 18 challenges some of the assumptions about God, and our place in this saga. Where chapter 19 is often read in isolation of the larger story of Abrahamic faith, Chapter 18 places the story of Sodom and Gomorrah into the larger context of the relationship between God and Abraham.  

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is enfolded into the larger story of Abraham and God. God called Abraham to be the father of faith. It is through Abraham that God seeks to restore the world to a place of justice and goodness and peace. God calls Abraham and promises to bless those who bless him and to curse those who curse him.  God will enrich Abraham and from him will create a nation of people who will know God’s blessing, and will, in turn, bless all the other nations. From the moral and ethical ways of the people of God, the rest of the world will become a more just and peaceful place. Therefore the relationship between God and Abraham was never meant to be an end unto itself, but a way for God to restore the creation. God and Abraham are in a partnership with each other, one that has been initiated and guided by God but also very dependent on Abraham as a full partner in this venture.  

In our story, God deliberates about whether or not He should tell Abraham about the plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps it would be best to protect Abraham from what is about to happen, you know keep it a secret. But that does not sit well with God. The more God considers it, the more God thinks, "No, Abraham is my partner and we are a team.  I need to tell Abraham my plan."  

This is where our story picks up. God tells Abraham that an investigative team of angels are being sent to look into the reports of unimaginable evil being committed in Sodom and Gomorrah. Apparently, many people have been greatly harmed by the people of Sodom and have been desperately praying that God would do something about this. What sort of sovereign would allow atrocities to go unchecked? Not a very good one. It is the job of a sovereign to be the arbiter of justice in the land.  

But Abraham is uneasy with what is about to happen. For one, his brother and his brother’s family live in Sodom. What will happen to his kin? For another, what if all the people are not evil, but some are in fact good who live in the city. Will God just wipe them away with the evil? Abraham is, in this story, already attempting to fulfill his role to bless the people of other nations in addition to his own people.

Then there is a strange little sentence that you might miss. We are told in our Bibles that Abraham stood before God, suggesting that God is in the dominant position and being address by an underling. But if you look in your Bible, you will discover there is a footnote. Older texts of the Bible have this the other way around. Abraham stands in the commanding position and God is being address by him. That would suggest that the bond between God and Abraham is quite close, so close that Abraham is allowed to challenge and question God.  

If true, this suggest something remarkable. We really are in partnership with God when it comes to dealing with the evil in this world. We are not the final arbiters of justice, but we can dare to speak boldly to God, telling our truth, challenging God when we sense something is not right or good. We do not have to speak timidly, but frankly.  

Abraham ask his questions of God. “Now God, if it so happens that there are 50 good people in Sodom, will you then just destroy them all?" God answers, “No, if there are 50, God will not proceed to destroy, but will restrain God’s self.”  Abraham is on a roll and he continues. “How about 45? Then how about 40? 30? 20?10?”  Each time God says that He will refrain if there are righteous people who will be destroyed by God’s judgment.  

This is remarkable scripture. Just unexpected. In the midst of this horrific story of despicable human violence and unspeakable horror of judgment, we have an alternative narrative that challenges some of the assumptions of the conventional view of God as angry and judgmental.  

First, it suggests that we are really partners with God in this world. We are, in fact, co-creators with God in bringing justice and peace to this world. Our prayers can, in fact, effect God and make a difference. Our sense of morality and what is good matters. It is not a one-sided relationship.

Second, the story suggests that God’s mercy for those who are good far exceeds God’s concern to bring justice to those who have done wrong. It is a false choice when we think we must choose between believing in a God of Justice and a God of Love. The two are tied together. We may not understand fully the ways of God.  But this text suggests when we say God is a God of love also means God, in some way, is a God of justice.

Perhaps a few of you have read an older book by holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, about the Holocaust called “Night.” There is, in that book, a story about three Jewish Rabbis at Auschwitz, who, one night, put God on trial for what was happening to them and the Jewish people. It had been long thought to be apocryphal, but in 2008, Elie Wiesel startled an audience by saying the story was true. “I was there when God was put on trial,” he told the audience. They had just witnessed the execution of a young boy for stealing a bit of food in order to survive. And they made an accusation and a case against God for allowing such atrocities to happen to God’s people. If God did not commit such atrocities, then God stood silent as they were carried out. They concluded that God was guilty of breaking covenant with them. And then, almost as if a postscript, we are told they went away to worship God, for it was evening and they were good Jews. 

There are no simple answers for the problem of evil and the role of God in our world. In another sermon we might look at how Jesus and Christianity struggle with these questions and offer yet another way. But best to stay for now with what the Old Testament story tells us. We have climbed a little ways up this mountain of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and maybe we have found a different view, both of God and ourselves. Like those rabbis who put God on trial, we struggle to understand the injustice of this world, God’s role, and our own role in confronting it. Like those rabbis, we are given the freedom to dare and confront God, to speak our truth, but also the freedom to still turn around in this mystery of life and worship the One we do not yet fully know or understand. Amen.

Jesus and a Foreign Woman

When you read scripture, sooner or later, you are going to come across a scripture that will leave you baffled and disturbed. Jesus and the Canaanite woman is one of those stories (Matthew 15:21-28). This woman was from a despised origin, a non-Jew, and she is desperate to have Jesus heal her daughter, who is possessed by a destructive spirit and who is suffering greatly.  She runs after Jesus, and the disciples do their best to tell her to scram. Frustrated, they tell Jesus that He is going to have to deal with this. So Jesus tells her clearly that His mission is not to help people of her race, but to the lost sheep of Israel, His own people. But she will not take no for an answer, and she continues to beg. Then He says words that I find difficult to believe came from Jesus’ lips: “It is not right to give the bread made for the children to the dogs.” Did I hear that right? Did my Jesus just call that poor, needful, foreign woman a dog? That is something I might expect to hear at an anti-immigration protest rally.

Any interpretation of this difficult story will be ambiguous, but our understanding of the setting of Jesus’ time will help. The truth is that sharp distinctions between people were not unheard of in some circles in Jesus’ time. Parts of the Jewish tradition (like the Old Testament book of Ezra) sought separation between Jews and other people who might corrupt the faith. It is possible that Jesus was raised in a culture and a way of reading scripture that justified distinctions between His people and other cultures as a way of protecting their identity as a people. We find this in our own faith, in some Amish communities, and with some conservative evangelicals who fear corrupting cultural influences on their children.

The conversation continues between Jesus and the woman. She is not yet done with Jesus. Remarkably, she surprises Jesus by saying, “Yes, my Lord, but even the dogs get the crumbs underneath the table.” Jesus is awed and transformed by this woman’s faith. He grants her wish, and her daughter is healed. Clearly, Jesus changes his mind. The most likely explanation of the story is that Matthew told it to signify Jesus’ reception of non-Jews into the faith (something that had happened in His own churches). But it might also be heard as a story of Jesus’ own faith transformed by an experience with a
foreign woman. What we learn about Jesus is that He had humility, an openness to allow others to challenge Him and change Him. Then the story becomes an example of humility, an openness to change the way we see those different from ourselves. Like Jesus, we best reflect God when we are open to doing what is right, even if it means letting go of what we have always believed.

I find the way we talk about racism in our country most unhelpful. We are busy attempting to place the racist label on other people, and point away from ourselves. We talk about racism as if there is a deep, moral flaw that is woven into a person. “There is not a racist bone in my body,” some politicians (both Republican and Democratic) insist. We seek to avoid the label of racist, and in so doing, we find ourselves unable to admit that each of us has our own prejudices and attitudes towards those different from us.
As most of you know, I was raised in Mississippi. I have become conscious of my own racial attitudes and commitments, and have relinquished many of them and have worked for social justice. But I am still aware I must be open to what I do not recognize in myself that is racist and hurtful. We need the openness of Jesus and the will to be freed from any attitude that divides and causes harm to others different from ourselves. We are right to speak out against those who fan the fires of racism. However, the place to begin is by taking out the plank in our own eye, so we might help another take out the splinter from their eye. We need to have honest conversations about racism, and our labeling each other as fundamentally flawed will not get us there.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The End

The End
Revelation 21:1-6

Many of you love to read, especially novels. As you probably know, we have a group called “Novel Approaches” that gathers most months for dinner and to discuss that month’s current novel. It is a fun way to spend an evening with some great folks in our church. My problem with making it more frequently is that I am not a particularly quick reader of novels. If I manage to read three novels a year, it’s an unusually good year. Adding to my problem is the fact that if I start to read a novel and do not soon find myself engrossed by the plot, characters, and themes, I am likely to leave it unfinished.  I’ve got a nice collection of unfinished books if some of you are looking for something to read and you can help me free up space for other novels I may never finish reading as well.

Marla, my wife, is not this way at all. She saves us money and checks out her novels from the library. She breezes through her novels and is a bit at a loss when she finds herself without a new novel. I’ll be next to her while she is reading and she is excited to tell me every detail and how this might just be a novel I will find worth reading. More than once she has had me convinced that I have to read one of her beloved novels. But sometimes shehas me excited about a novel, and she will get to the end of the novel and slip up. She will say, “Oh, that’s horrible. I cannot believe that character died. Such a tragic ending!” I will say, “You shouldn’t have told me how things end. I was going to read that novel.” It is not good to jump to the end of the story when it is the power of anticipation that causes the pages in a book to keep turning from one chapter to the next.  

This morning we come to the end of a little book we have been reading together for most of our lives, the Bible. We come to the climax of the last book of the Bible in one of its last chapters. If you have not made it this far in this book, let me assure you that it ends rather well. Hope you don’t mind if I spoil it for you and tell you now how it ends:
• There is no rogue meteorite that has destroyed most of the planet.   
• Nuclear holocaust has not wiped the earth clean.  
• Global warming has not completely eliminated most of life on planet earth.  
• People do not need to leave mother earth and float up to heaven as bodiless spirits to escape a bad creation that God declared “very good” and for whom Jesus died. 

Heaven has come down to earth to where we are. The creation has been made new. John Lennon imagined some of it right in his song, “Imagine.” There is no religion and there is no church because something far better has replace our divisive belief systems and our imperfect worshiping bodies. God and the Lamb of God now dwell within us and we see them face-to-face anytime we want to. 

The streets are paved in gold, and all sorts of people get to walk on those streets. This includes those filthy ragged people who survive in cardboard boxes in gutters in our cities as indifferent people walk by them. Also, there are the desperate men, women, and children so many of whom our nation have tried to hold back at our borders, as well as those disposable lives we red-lined into the ghettos and then proceeded to fill our jail cells with. If you are racist or bigoted, you would be too uncomfortable to be in this city of God.

Best of all, the suffering is over. Hostility of all sorts has ended. There is ever- flowing fresh, cool water for everyone to drink. There is an abundance of fruit trees for anyone to partake from any time they like and as much as they want. No one has claim to anything - because all now understand that it belongs to God and is freely shared.  

All the empires who demanded our total allegiance and the oppression they have wrought have been replaced by the One who truly can be trusted to bring justice and peace. We are together and unified in one voice of our praise of God in a new creation. This is the end of the story. It is a mythical portrait of a real reality of what the world is like when all worship only the one God who created heaven and earth.

I have to confess, in all honesty, that Revelation is not my favorite book of the Bible. In fact, I sometimes wonder if our world would have been better off if this book of the Bible was never included. It was the last book allowed in the Bible and it darn near did not make the cut. It is violent, vindictive, confusing, and subjective. It lends itself to abuse and misuse. At times it seems like a revenge fantasy. It is polemical. There are no gray areas. You are either in or you are out. And if you are out, hell awaits you. It was almost left out of the Bible in the fourth century because it was seen as betraying other parts of the New Testament's message of love and mercy.

Various groups have used this book to justify hatred of whatever group of people they deem unworthy. It has been used to justify condemnation and torture of non-Christians, communists, and Jews. Every generation has a new identity for who the Anti-Christ must be. Barak Obama was a popular choice in the past few years. People have done this throughout history because they have misunderstood the book being about their own current political and social world, when in reality this book has always been about the political and social reality of those believers for whom this book was originally written back in the second century.  

But it found its way into our holy scriptures, despite these objections. Like all other scripture, it has Good News to announce to us, if only we understand it in the context in which it was written. There is a time when we need to know how the story ends. There are situations when our world is so shaken up that we need a vision of hope thatwe can hold on to, because it may be the only word that keeps our head above turbulent seas. Sometimes the plot of our lives is so mired in pain and struggle that hopelessness and despair can destroy us. We need reassurance that can come from reading ahead of how things are going to end and that there will be justice in the end.

This is the situation of those early Christian churches in Asia Minor for whom John told of his apocalyptic vision of Revelation. Christians were having a hard time holding on to their faith because they were under threat from fellow citizens and political authorities. Their refusal to bow down to the emperor as a god and to participate in the many holiday festivals which no one else regarded as a problem led to their persecution and sometimes executionIf these Christians did not act like every other religious group and pay homage to the emperor and the many gods in addition to their own god, then they would bring down the wrath of the gods on Rome itself. So some political rulers came up with all sorts of creative ways to kill Christians or socially and economically isolate them. Believers wondered if maybe they had made a tragic mistake by believing in an alternative value system and not simply falling in line with what everybody else was doing. If God loved them, why were they facing so much hardship?

We are not immune to wondering about our faith as these Christians did. When the earth shakes beneath our feet, when the world we have constructed begins to crumble around us, we too might wonder, have I made a mistake? Have I made my bet on the wrong God and way of life?  

When the doctor sits you down and hesitantly and painfully delivers the news to you or someone you love, “There is nothing more we can do for you,”  is this how it is going to all end or is there another way?

When you feel like you have lost your adult child, and pleading and begging and reaching out have led only to closed doors and greater distance, you wonder, is this how it is going to end or is there another way?

When we see all the political institutions we have depended upon, and values we thought sacred are now in question and we have no idea where our nation is headed;we wonder how is this going to end, will there be another way?

When times like these come, and we find ourselves in the middle of the plot of our lives caught in despair and overwhelmed by fear, then it is time to turn to the end of the story and hear again the promises of God we find there. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…Look! Gods dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them…And He will wipe away every tear from every eye.”   

Go ahead. You can do it. Turn the pages to the end of the story. This book we are reading together has a good ending. It made even save you. Amen.