Telling Stories

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian, Kalamazoo.

Click here to read the biblical text

Sermon text

One of the funnest (and funniest) parts of Thanksgiving dinner is when family and friends start sharing stories around the table. They often start with something like, “Remember that time Uncle Harvey…”

In our family, my wife and I have one that we never get tired of telling the kids. It’s the classic story of “How I met your mother… twice.”

I first met Sarah at a student conference in western North Carolina in the summer of 1999. We had a nice chat on a group hike, established that we had a mutual friend, shook hands, and parted ways. Four years later, I was getting onto a bus in Vancouver, Canada, having just moved there to begin seminary. The woman across the row from me struck up a conversation. We had a nice chat, established a mutual friend, and… suddenly both of us had a major case of déjà vu.

As it turns out, she was the very same person I had talked to four years prior. When life gives you a second chance like that, you take it. We began dating less than a month later and married before the end of graduate school.

People love to tell family stories like this, especially during the holidays, because they help to give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. In a world that often seems so random and out-of-control, these stories give us a hunch that there is some other Will working itself out through our existence. They remind us that we are not alone in this universe and that life itself is meaningful and good. We never get tired of telling or hearing them.

Of course, these stories don’t just exist in our families. They are a major reason why we come to church. The Bible itself, even though it is a collection of many different stories, tells one Big Story that continues to shape and change our lives today.

The biblical story is that the infinitely loving God of the universe created the world and called it Good. When we humans, in our selfishness, turned away from God and each other and fell into slavery to sin, God did not abandon us. After centuries of reaching out to us through prophets and sages, God took on flesh and came to dwell among us in the person Jesus Christ. When we refused to listen to Jesus and tried to silence him by the violence of crucifixion and death, God summarily rejected our rejection by raising Jesus from the grave. Now, we who are baptized into Christ share the healing power of his resurrection and function with the world as his Body, his hands and feet, on earth until he comes again in glory. On that day, the dead will rise and the whole creation will be made new, as God originally intended, and governed with divine justice and mercy.

This is the story we Christians tell ourselves each Sunday in church. We hear it in the Scriptures and see it in the Sacraments. We leave the liturgy each week, fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, and are sent out into the world to be the Body of Christ. It cannot be understated just how important that mission is in this world, where life often seems so empty and meaningless.

Jesus talks about this Christian story in today’s gospel reading. Like any good story, this one has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Today, Jesus is talking to us about the ending.

He starts by undermining two thousand years of Christian speculation about the end of the world. Look in the Religion section of any bookstore, and you will find multiple books claiming to have figured out the scoop on when and how the end times will take place. But Jesus says in this passage, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

St. John Chrysostom, a bishop in the early Church, agrees with Jesus on this. He wrote that human beings “should not seek to learn what angels do not know.” Jesus does not give his followers any “insider information” on the end of the world. What he asks of them is far more difficult.

What Jesus asks of Christians is that we “stay awake” and “be ready” for history to reach its conclusion. This is important. Life on this planet often feels chaotic, empty, and meaningless. To the eyes of a person without faith, it seems like a random series of events that are just happening. Without a sense of purpose in life, we are wont to slip into a mindless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of fear.

In Jesus’ mind, this state of existence is not unlike the condition of the world immediately before the great flood of Noah. He says, “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.”

Another way of saying this is that it was “business as usual” for everyone until the moment when the rain began to fall. They were so caught up in their little plans and schemes, they didn’t realize that God’s great story was in the process of unfolding all around them. When the moment of truth came, they were not ready.

Jesus reminds us that the world does not revolve around us. The universe will not stop its ordinary operation to accommodate our plans, however great we think they may be.

The good news is that God has an even greater plan, and we are invited to play a part in it. Jesus invites us today to reorient our lives around God’s vision for the world. God’s dream is to renew the face of the earth so that it reflects the harmonious beauty that God intended for it to have at the beginning. God dreams of a world where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, strangers are welcome, and sinners are forgiven. Jesus often referred to God’s dream as “the kingdom of heaven”. It is the one thing around which he oriented his entire life and ministry.

The work of the kingdom of heaven has been going on since the dawn of time. It began in earnest with the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It continues today through Christ’s Body on earth, the Church, and will draw to a conclusion at some unknown point in the future. It is God’s dream and Jesus is inviting us to be a part of it. We come to church each week and tell each other these stories in order to be reminded that this universe is no accident, and our lives are no random series of events.

This week, we begin the liturgical season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate that beloved moment in God’s story when Jesus Christ, the Word of God, “took on flesh and dwelled among us.” But it is also a time when we look forward to Christ’s second coming at the conclusion of history. It is a time when we are invited to reorient our lives around the divine vision of a renewed creation, the vision for which Jesus lived, died, and lives again in us.

In this coming holiday season, let us not get caught up in our cultural patterns of materialism and greed. Let us also avoid the backward-looking nostalgia for the “good old days” of Christmases past. Let us instead look within and around us for the work that Christ is giving us to do in this world today. Finally, let us look forward to the day when God’s story finishes with a happy ending and all of creation joins in the song of unending praise to its Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Let us pray.

“O Come, Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife, and discord cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.” Amen.

Raise Your Head

There is no sermon text, since I preached from an outline this week.

Click here to listen to a recording of the sermon at

Here is the scripture text:

Luke 21:25-36

[Jesus said,] “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

"What, Me Worry?"

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is John 14:1-14.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

These are good words to hear from Jesus on the morning after the end of the world.  According to Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, the Final Judgment of humanity was scheduled to begin last night (May 21, 2011) at 6pm.  Mr. Camping came up with this conclusion using a combination of literal and symbolic interpretations of certain biblical texts and then combining those interpretations with some fancy mathematics.  Judging from the fact that so many of us are still here today, I think we can safely say that Mr. Camping’s calculations were (at least) slightly off.

This is not the first time someone has made such precise predictions about the Apocalypse.  In fact, Mr. Camping himself previously insisted that the end of days would arrive promptly on September 6, 1994.  Before him, there was the very famous case of the Millerites.  This sect of believers followed the teachings of one William Miller, who predicted that Christ would return and the world would end before March 21, 1844.  After this day came and went without incident, the deadline was extended to April 18 and then October 22.  After his third failed prediction, Miller’s followers gave up on him.  However, several of them went on to found the Seventh Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness churches in subsequent years.

So yes, apocalyptic enthusiasts are nothing new to Christian history.  In fact, Jesus even warned us to watch out for folks like this.  When the disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world, he told them in Matthew 24,

…if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’ —do not believe it. 24For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

Instead, Jesus comforts his followers with these words from today’s gospel reading:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

When it comes to this “end of the world” business, Jesus is essentially saying, “Don’t worry about it” and “Trust me.”  Nevertheless, there always seems to be someone out there who claims to have the inside scoop on when and how the world is going to end.  They claim to know “the way” to secure one’s eternal destiny in light of the coming devastation.  Well, Jesus had a thing or two to say about that as well.  He reminded his followers they already knew “the way” to God.

“Wait a minute,” one of them said, “what ‘way’ are you talking about, Jesus?  I don’t remember you saying anything about a ‘way’!”

“Sure you do,” Jesus said, “It’s me.  I am the way.”

Now, if you’re still feeling confused as you read this, don’t worry.  It’s supposed to be confusing.  This is another classic example of Jesus talking right over the heads of his disciples.  He uses these cryptic images in order to shake people out of their normal way of thinking.  Jesus wants to expand their (and our) minds to operate on a spiritual level, far above that of ordinary reasoning.

With this famous phrase, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”, we are venturing into territory that makes Christianity unique among the religions of the world.  In many world religions, there is usually founder or other figurehead who acts a messenger for the Divine.  That person is given a message that will guide the world toward salvation or enlightenment.  Moses received the Torah, Muhammad received the Qur’an, and the Buddha received the Eightfold Path.  In each of these cases, it’s the message, not the messenger, that’s most important.  The unique thing about Christianity is that the messenger is the message.  God is not revealed through a book or a teaching, but through a person, namely, Jesus of Nazareth.  To know Jesus is to know God.  If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

This makes people uncomfortable.  A personal God is too unpredictable and too intimate for most people.  The only way to be in a relationship with a personal God is to come to know, love, and trust that person.  Most people (including Christians) feel much more at ease with a God who can be contained within a body of teaching (like the Bible) or an institution (like the Church).  Protestants do it just as much as Catholics.  So-called “liberal” Christians do it just as much as so-called “conservatives”.

Let me give an example:

Many people in our society are quite familiar with the traditional evangelical presentation of the Christian message: Jesus Christ was born, so they say, in order to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of humankind so that people can go to heaven when they die.  The way to God is through the cross of Christ.

On the other hand, many people are also quite familiar with the progressive and “liberal” presentation of Christianity: Jesus Christ was an inspirational activist and philosopher whose teachings offer humankind a system of ethics that will lead us toward a more spiritually enlightened society.  The way to God is through the teachings of Jesus.

I think both of these perspectives fall short of Jesus’ intention.  Both the cross and the teachings of Christ are of paramount importance in the larger scheme of things, but they are only parts of the whole.  It’s the person of Jesus Christ who is the final revelation of God to humankind.  Jesus is the way.  If we want to get to know God, we must get to know Jesus.

How do we do that?  I don’t have an answer to that question.  Sure, I could hand you a list of activities (like reading the Bible or going to church) that are supposed to help you get to know Jesus, but that would be just another way of putting God into a manageable box that can be unlocked with the right formula.  The fact is that there are as many ways of getting to know Jesus as there are ways of getting to know any other person.

Think about the last time you were really in love or had a crush on someone.  What did you do?  You spent a lot of time thinking about that person.  You hung on his or her every word.  You gazed longingly over your shoulder whenever that person walked by.  You studied every feature on his or her face.  You spent as much time as possible with that person.  Your friends probably got sick and tired of hearing you talk about it.

In the same way, getting to know Jesus is more like falling in love than signing a contract.  The only difference between us and his earliest followers is that we don’t get the luxury of his physical presence with us.  We have to get to know Jesus in other ways.  I can’t tell you how it’s going to happen for you, because it’s different for everybody.  However, I can offer you some ideas about how it might happen.

For some people, getting to know Jesus happens dramatically and suddenly, like falling head-over-heels in love.  For others, it happens gradually over a long period of time, like sharing a cup of coffee with an old friend.  For some people, it happens through conventional channels, like going to church or reading the Bible.  For others, it happens in very surprising and unconventional ways.

My favorite story of an unconventional encounter with Jesus comes from the autobiographical work Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott.  (I should warn you that this vignette will be edited for content, as Anne is known for being a somewhat foul-mouthed saint.)  This scene opens with Anne living on a houseboat at the end of a dock, deep in the throes of her addiction to alcohol and drugs.  One week prior, she’d had an abortion and was still bleeding profusely.  During this time, she would occasionally visit a Presbyterian church near her house, but would always sneak out before the sermon.  Anne continues:

Several hours later, the blood stopped flowing, and I got in bed, shaky and sad and too wild to have another drink or take a sleeping pill.  I had a cigarette and turned out the light.  After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my [late] father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone.  The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there—of course, there wasn’t.  But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.  I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

And I was appalled.  I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen.  I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.

Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.

This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood.  But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.  But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever.  So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.

And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape.  It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.

I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “F**k it: I quit.”  I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right.  You can come in.”

So this was the beautiful moment of my conversion.