In the Fullness of Time

Excerpt from God Has A Dream:

There is a lovely phrase which St. Paul uses in his letter to the new Christian converts in Galatia.  And that phrase is “in the fullness of time.”  Paul speaks about how when Jesus was born it was at just the right time, all the pieces had fallen into place, the antecedents were just right, and it all happened at exactly the right moment.  A little earlier would have been too soon and a little later would have been too late.  When it happened it could not have been at any other moment.

Last year, many of us had a good laugh at the hype created by a fringe religious group who claimed to have exclusive knowledge that the end of the world was coming on May 21, 2011.  As you may (or may not) recall, the day itself came and went without event.  This was by no means the first time someone tried to cash in on apocalyptic hype.  At the turn of the Millennium, there was “much ado about nothing” regarding the Y2K computer bug.  In the 19th century, a man named William Miller made three unsuccessful attempts to predict the end of the world before his followers lost faith in him.  Even before that, at the turn of the previous millennium, Pope Sylvester II trembled in prayer in his church, convinced that the world would come to an end that very night.  Later this year, so we’re told, the Mayan calendar is supposed to run out, leading some people to speculate that this ancient civilization knew something we don’t about the apocalypse.

Predicting the what, where, and when of the end of the world has never failed to be a sensationalistic, money-making pastime for would-be prophets and their paranoid followers.  We Christians have proved to be especially vulnerable to these scam artists, mainly because of the presence of the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament.  Many claim that this document, when read and interpreted properly, provides a detailed road map for the end of the world.  It’s bizarre and cryptic imagery are said to contain secret messages about the Apocalypse that are meant to be decoded by those with the proper biblical study tools.  The downside of this approach is that every single prediction supposedly “decoded” from the book of Revelation has turned out to be wrong.  God’s plan, it seems, is not so readily available for human review and approval, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to figure it out anyway.

Many of us might find it easy to laugh at them for their misguided pursuit.  However, I’d like to take a moment to sympathize with them.  My theory is that folks who tend to obsess over this kind of thing are looking for something.  I think they’re looking for a sense of meaning and purpose in life.  They want to believe that God has a plan for the world and that we’re not all just wandering aimlessly through history.  I can relate to that.

The next step that most of these folks take is to apply this concept of God’s plan to their personal lives.  They might say, “Not only does the universe have a destiny, but so do I.  I’m an important part of God’s plan.  Therefore, my life has meaning.”  Like I said before, I can respect that need.  I feel it too.  I think we all do.  But we have to watch out and make sure that we don’t carry this idea too far.

Our ancestors in the Calvinist tradition were famous for believing that God predestines the fate of every single human being.  They believed that some people were destined for eternal bliss in heaven while others were doomed to endless suffering in hell.  What makes the difference, they said, is “unconditional election” by God.  God chose who would be “saved” or “damned” from the beginning of time, and there is nothing that anyone can do or say to change their fate.  What’s more is that there was no way to know with any absolute certainty about which category you were in.  This theological belief, called “double predestination”, caused people a lot of anxiety.

I’ve also seen people take the idea of God’s plan to unhealthy extremes in rather mundane matters.  When I was in high school, I worked in a bookstore that had a section where we sold religiously themed posters.  One day, I was walking through the stacks when I came across a woman who was kneeling on the floor, weeping.  She had two posters laid out on the floor in front of her.  The problem, it turned out, was that she couldn’t figure out which poster God wanted her to buy.  Just like those folks who are obsessed with predicting the end of the world and the early Calvinist belief in double predestination, this person in the bookstore had taken the idea of God’s plan too far.

When I think about the idea of a divine plan for my life or history, I try not to get too hung up on the details of what, when, and where certain things are supposed to happen.  If we occupy our time with those kinds of questions, I think we’re more likely to end up in an unhealthy state of mind.  Rather, when I think about God’s plan, I prefer to ask questions of who, how, and why.

God is far less interested in what you’re doing and more interested in who you’re becoming, how you’re living, and why you do what you do.  These are questions of the heart.  Answering these questions goes a long way in helping us forge a sense of meaning and significance in our lives.  For example, let’s take a young person in school who is trying to decide on a career path.  I don’t think God tends to care very much whether someone decides to become a lawyer, a doctor, or a minister.  Those are questions of what, where, and when.  Of greater concern to God is whether that person wants to become a lawyer in order to just make money or to serve the greater cause of justice.  In God’s eyes, a waitress in a diner with a heart for hospitality is more holy, more in step with God’s plan, than a minister who just likes to hear the sound of his own voice.  Who we are is much more important than what we do.

That’s why I tend to avoid the phrase “God’s plan” when it comes to the events of history.  I much prefer to think of “God’s vision” or “God’s dream” as Desmond Tutu calls it.  God’s dream is a dynamic thing.  It’s always changing and in motion.  God is the ultimate creator of this dream, but has invited each one of us to become co-creators with God and each other.  Archbishop Tutu says it like this:

It has often been said, “What we are is God’s gift to us.  What we become is our gift to God.”  What we become is not about status, it is about love.  Do we love like God, as God so deeply desires?  Do we become like God, as God so deeply desires us to be?

As for the substance of the plan itself, the shape it takes is up to us, and God works with and around what we bring to the table.  Again, in the words of Archbishop Tutu:

There is a wonderful Portuguese saying that God writes straight with crooked lines.  God works through history to realize God’s dream.  God makes a proposal to each of us and hopes our response will move His dream forward.  But if we don’t, God does not abandon the goal, He does not abandon the dream.  God adjusts God’s methods to accommodate the detour, but we are going to come back onto the main road and eventually arrive at the destination.

I love that phrase: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”  To me, it describes so well my experience of life in this world where things don’t always go according to plan.  Accidents happen.  Things don’t always go your way.  Life goes on.  It doesn’t mean that God isn’t present or working in this world and in our lives.  It means that, if we’re going to look for God, we have to look deeper than the level of surface appearances and random events.

When someone gets sick, or an accident happens, or a terrible tragedy overtakes us, people are prone to ask, “Why is God doing this?” or “Why did God allow this to happen?”  I have to be honest with you, I don’t think God had anything to do with it.  The God of love that I believe in is not in the business of causing cancer and car accidents.  I think these things just happen.  The God I believe in is the one who meets us in the middle of these disasters and leads us to respond in a certain way.

One of my favorite examples that I use to illustrate this point is the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Some people said that God allowed those airplanes to crash because God was judging the United States for one reason or another.  I don’t think that’s true.  I don’t see God in that at all.  I see God in those volunteers who climbed the smoldering piles of rubble with buckets in their hands to get the trapped survivors out.  I see God in the police and fire fighters who risked or gave their lives to save others.  That’s where God is.  That’s God’s plan, God’s dream, in action.

I don’t know if there will one day be an apocalyptic end to the world.  I don’t know if there will be a once & for all victory of goodness over evil “in the fullness of time”.  I don’t know if we, or our children, or our grandchildren will ever live in a perfect world.

I don’t know much, but this is what I believe:

When I look out at the stars in the heavens, I see a harmony that human selfishness cannot touch.  We might destroy ourselves and each other someday.  We might even take our whole planet into extinction with us.  But the beauty of nebulae, quasars, and galaxies will still be there.  The impulse toward order and equilibrium will never be gone from our universe.  That same impulse exists in each one of us.  We call it life, we call it justice, and we call it compassion.  I call it God.  As long as there is a universe to exist, God will never stop working within it to shape darkness, death, and chaos into light, life, and love.  As long as we are alive in this world, God will never stop inviting us to join God in this continuing mission.  I close this sermon and end this series by going back to the words of Desmond Tutu himself:

All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom of shalom—peace and wholeness—of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation.  God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us.  What can separate us from the love of God?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  And as we share God’s love with our brothers and sisters, God’s other children, there is no tyrant who can resist us, no oppression that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned to love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled.

The Truth That Turns The World Upside Down

This morning’s sermon for Hilltop United Methodist Church in Ava, NY.  The text is Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.

In 2003, I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia to start my seminary studies at Regent College.  I thought I knew exactly what God wanted me to do.  I was going to get my Master’s degree, then a PhD, and then I would teach religion in a secular university while I used my summers to take college students on short-term mission trips.

It wasn’t a bad plan.  In fact, my deepest aspirations were quite holy.  I thought I was following the will of God as best as I understood it.  However, I quickly discovered that knowing God’s path and walking God’s path were two different things.

The academic world is quite cutthroat.  Not only do you have to be the best, you also have to impress the right professors, who will write letters of recommendation, which will get you into the best PhD program, which will land you a good job with tenure, which will make or break your academic career.  I tried with all my might to play this game: I made sure my professors knew who I was, I wrote impressive and insightful articles, and I was brutal in classroom debates.  I would do just about anything to make myself appear smarter than the person next to me, even if it meant putting that person down in front of other people.

When I looked in the mirror in those days, I had to admit that I didn’t like the person I was becoming.  My name, “Barrett”, means “bear” and that’s exactly what I felt like: a big, hungry animal that would tear you to shreds if you got in his way.  I never wanted to be that kind of guy, but I kept telling myself, “This is what I have to do in order to follow God’s plan for my life.”

In my pursuit of academic success, I forgot the first (and most important) truth about following God’s plan: In God’s eyes, “who you are” is way more important than “what you do”. I think this truth is what Jesus was getting at in today’s passage from Luke’s gospel.

We enter into Luke’s story at moment when things are really starting to heat up.  Jesus has recently begun his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, where he will face suffering, death, and eventually resurrection.  As he travels, he commissions seventy disciples to go ahead of him into the villages.  The number seventy would have been important to Jesus’ Jewish listeners because, according to chapter ten of Genesis, Jewish people believed that the people of the world were divided into seventy nations.  So, by Jesus sending out a group of seventy disciples, Jesus was symbolically commissioning the whole world to participate in the work of the kingdom of God.

As the seventy disciples are sent out, Jesus gives them three tasks:

  1. To Proclaim peace
  2. To Promote hospitality
  3. To Pray for healing

First, the disciples are told proclaim peace.  To be clear, the word peace, as it appears in the Scriptures, does not refer to feelings of happiness that you get from standing around a campfire and singing Kum Ba Yah.  The disciples were not a bunch of flower-children dancing around drum circles in tie-dyed t-shirts.  The Jewish word for peace is shalom. Translated literally, it means “wholeness”.  It was used as a greeting and a farewell.  It was also used to describe the kind of relationship that God wants to have with people (and the kind of relationship that God wants people to have with one another).

I think it’s significant that Jesus told the seventy disciples to begin with this message of peace.  He makes his intentions clear from the get-go.  Jesus has come to restore wholeness and harmony between creation and Creator.  It’s also significant that Jesus gives the seventy strict instructions about what to do when their proclamation is rejected.  Rather than resorting to violence, Jesus tells his followers to “let your peace return to you” and then wipe the dust of that town off their feet and leave.  This nonviolent response would have been bizarre behavior in a culture that demanded revenge for every insult rendered against another’s honor.

Second, Jesus commissions the seventy to promote hospitality.  As itinerant preachers and healers, they were at the mercy of anyone who was kind enough to take them in.  It was not uncommon in those days for popular healers to shop around for the best meal and bed in town.  They would take advantage of the hospitality of the locals.  Jesus told his disciples not to do that.  He told them to “eat what is set before you” and “Do not move about from house to house.”  Jesus wanted his followers to encourage the practice of hospitality among all people by honoring the welcome of poorer and simpler folk.  Jesus wanted these people to know that there was a place for the kingdom of God in their houses too.

Finally, Jesus commissioned the seventy to pray for healing.  Healing was central to the ministry of Jesus.  He didn’t just have a lot of good ideas; he put those ideas into action.  The kingdom of God, for Jesus, is not just a nice place to go when you die; it is a present reality that is coming “on earth as it is in heaven”.  That shalom-wholeness that we talked about earlier was made real by the healing ministry of Jesus and the disciples.  Jesus wanted people to know that his message has the power to change their lives here and now.

So, these are the marching orders that Jesus gave the seventy disciples as they went ahead of him through the towns on their way to Jerusalem: they were to proclaim peace, promote hospitality, and pray for healing.  When they returned from these mission trips, they were shocked and delighted to see what an effect their efforts were having.  By all accounts, they had a highly successful ministry.  They said, “Lord, in your name, even the demons submit to us!”  In other words, they perceived that some kind of massive shift was happening in the cosmic scheme of things.  You might say that they were turning the world upside down.  Who wouldn’t be excited to be part of that?

At this point, Jesus steps in and throws a curve-ball.  He reframes their discussion, so that they might understand their experiences from another perspective.  Jesus says, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  In other words, the fact that you have a successful ministry and are turning the world upside down is not what’s really important.  What’s most important is the truth that your name is known in the throne-room of the Master of the universe; you are known and loved beyond your wildest imaginations.  You are a child of God; that’s who you are!  All the rest (proclaiming peace, promoting hospitality, praying for healing) is stuff that you do because you are already known and loved by God.  The world is not turning upside down because you are so successful and important; the world is turning upside down because God is busy, drawing us closer to the place where we belong.  God is allowing you to play a part in that process, and that’s why you can do the things you do.

This world is a harsh place.  Our society measures us by all kinds of standards: money, property, power, etc.  Most Christians agree that these are not the be-all, end-all of life.  But many of us still fall into the trap of identifying ourselves with our activities.  What’s the first question people usually ask one another at parties?  “What do you do?”  As if that could ever define who we are as human beings!  I once heard of a person who came up with a good response to that question.  He said, “I am a child of God, cleverly disguised as a AAA insurance salesman.”

In seminary (of all places), I fell into that trap of mistaking “what I do” for “who I am”.  I thought I was following the will of God, but it turns out that God was more interested in me than in my job.  Sure, I had big plans for my life, but as they say, “If you want to give God a good laugh, talk about your plans.”

I almost lost sight of God’s will for my life because I was so focused on what I was doing that I forgot all about who I was becoming.  You and I are God’s precious and beloved children.  More than all our successes in life, that is the truth that will turn our world upside down.  Amen.