The Unanxious Fig

The text for this week’s sermon is Luke 21:25-36

Do you ever feel anxious about the future?

That’s a silly question, I know. Everybody does.

What do you tend to get anxious about?

For some people, it’s the state of the country or the world-at-large. They wonder, “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?” For others, it’s particular circumstances that may or may not be arising in their future. Younger folks tend to ask questions like, “Will I get the job I want? Will I find true love? Will I have kids?” People at the middle of life’s journey ask, “Will I keep this job? Will my kids turn out okay? Will my marriage last?” Sometimes, they even have to jump back to the first set of questions as life, jobs, and relationships don’t turn out exactly as expected. Finally, people in the latter part of life’s journey ask, “What will happen to my spouse/kids/home after I’m gone? Will there be anyone left to care about the things I care about?”

I’m currently at the stage where I worry most about all the many things that need to get done at work or at home. It seems sometimes like there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to keep on top of every task that needs to be completed.

Whatever the object of our anxiety, the process remains the same. Furthermore, there will never come a time when all of our excessive worrying turns out to be the key that unlocks the solution to all of life’s problem. There will never be a day when the headlines on our newspapers read, “Local hero cures anxiety by thinking about it real hard.”

Thankfully for us, the problem of anxiety is nothing new for the human race. Ancient writings reveal that the battle with fear has been waged for thousands, if not millions, of years. In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus describes a time when “dismay,” “confusion,” and chaos come upon the earth. He says that people will “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like every age of human history to me.

It should be no surprise that doomsday prophets keep popping up in the media, year after year. Because every period of history has felt like the “end times” to those who lived in it.

In response to this “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus does something very interesting. If you remember, he has just described the shaking of entire planets and “the roaring of the sea and surging waves.” So, what symbol then does he use to conjure up hope in the midst of chaos and anxiety?

Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.”

He goes back to one of those small, simple images from nature. This seems to be a favorite teaching strategy of Jesus. He draws his teaching illustrations, not from huge, dramatic happenings, but from the little things of this world. When people asked him to describe the kingdom of heaven, he pointed to flowers and birds, farmers planting crops and workers harvesting them, bakers kneading bread dough and merchants trading in the marketplace. When Jesus points out the fig tree in today’s reading, he’s giving people the smallest glimmer of hope in the midst of big anxiety. I can imagine scared people shouting back at Jesus, “Hey man, what gives? The whole world is coming apart and you want us to look at some little tree?! That’s ridiculous! You’ve got to give us a better sign of hope than that.”

The images Jesus uses are all very ordinary images from everyday life. There’s nothing particularly dramatic or profound about them, yet these little things, according to Jesus, are the things that reflect the glory of God’s kingdom on earth.

Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.”

Jesus points out the sprouting of the fig leaves, not because they are a powerful sign of hope in themselves, but because they indicate a deeper, natural rhythm that pulses at the heart of the universe, like a heartbeat. This rhythm was put there by God. We can even see it with our own eyes if we stop to look… really look.

Day and night, summer and winter, new moon and full moon, childhood and old age, work and rest, breathe in and breathe out. These signs of hope are there. They tells us, in their own quiet way, that this universe is not just some random explosion of chaos into which we humans have accidentally stumbled for a few odd years of existence. The pulse of nature whispers to us that there is a divine plan unfolding within us and around us. The psalmist tells us, in Psalm 19:

Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork. One day gushes the news to the next, and one night informs another what needs to be known. Of course, there’s no speech, no words—their voices can’t be heard—but their sound extends throughout the world; their words reach the ends of the earth.

Both Jesus and the psalmist are urging us to listen for nature’s silent voice. We can’t hear it with our ears, so we have to listen with our hearts. Unlike some other religious traditions, Christians don’t believe that nature itself is God, but we do believe that the created universe has the capacity to reveal something of God to us, provided that we have the ears to hear.

If we do listen to nature’s message, Jesus promises, we will “know that God’s kingdom is near.” Now, here’s something we’ve done together before. I’m returning to it again (and will continue to do so in the future) as a helpful reminder. The old King James Version of the Bible translates “God’s kingdom is near” as “the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.”

Hold out your hand in front of you. Think about that phrase, “the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.” Heaven is not far away. God is not far away. The place where God lives and reigns is “at hand.” God really is this close to us, “closer to us than our own hearts,” as St. Augustine would say.

Our lives in this universe are not some random accident, they are part of the divine purpose that is unfolding from the heart of all things. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.” In other words, the individual, little parts of this universe (i“heaven and earth”) are certainly finite and temporary (“will pass away”), but God’s plan: the purposeful, underlying rhythm of the cosmos (Jesus called it “my words”), is eternal (“will not pass away”).

The image of the fig tree is meant to remind us of God’s plan, so that we might draw hope from it.

This hope we discover when we listen to creation’s heartbeat, according to Jesus, is not simply for our comfort; it asks something of us as well. In response to the nearness of God’s kingdom (manifested in the sprouting fig tree), Jesus gives us a Don’t and a Do.

The Don’t is this: “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.”

Now, we could easily take this command of Jesus as a simple condemnation of all alcohol (many Christians have done so), but I think that narrow interpretation misses the point that Jesus is trying to make. Jesus is not trying to say that alcohol itself is evil. It’s simply another substance on this earth. What concerns Jesus is our relationship with all the substances of this earth. Jesus is warning us against our very human tendency to want to numb ourselves against all the painful things that can happen in life. And we don’t just do this with alcohol either: we numb ourselves with drinks, food, sex, entertainment, work, even religion. None of these things are bad in themselves, but all of them can act like a drug to keep us from experiencing the true depths of life.

The problem is this: the anesthesia we use to numb ourselves from the pain of life also numbs us against the experience of deep joy and hope. If we refuse to feel the bad, we will not be able to feel the good either. Jesus said in John 10:10, “I came so that [you] could have life—indeed, so that [you] could live life to the fullest.” Staggering through existence in a numbed state until we die is less than the kind of full, rich life that Jesus intends for us.

The Do Jesus gives us is this: “Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”

Jesus tells us, his followers, to “stand up straight” when the rest of the world is “faint[ing] from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” When we see the disturbing reports on the news, when we hear the end-time fanatics prophesying doom and gloom, the believer’s job is to remain still and calm, like the eye of a hurricane. The storm may rage around us, but we remain at peace in the center. We may not be able to do anything to change our circumstances, but we can remind ourselves that there is a divine purpose at work in the unfolding of this universe. Our spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and meditation, help us to stay in touch with that calm center.

When the rest of the world sees this difference in us, it will wonder why we do not fear what it fears. The people around us will ask, “Why aren’t you panicking with us? Don’t you realize the world is coming to an end?” And we can answer in the words of the old hymn:

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name…

When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace;
in every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.

Hope After Hope

I found out something very important this week.

Scientists and philosophers have been researching this theory for years and it has finally been proven as fact. There is universal consensus on this matter. I guarantee that this fact will change your life:

Life doesn’t always turn out like you planned.

I know that’s a lot to think about, so I’ll give you a second to let it sink in.

It’s true: life doesn’t always turn out like you planned.

This fact is a big problem for us modern folks, who are so attached to getting concrete ‘results’ from their plans and endeavors. When things don’t go our way, we have a tendency to get frustrated and cynical about life in general. We say things like:

It’s a dog eat dog world!”

Nobody cares.”

You’ve got to look out for number one.”

You’ve gotta get it while the gettin’s good.”

Do you know people who talk like this? Any really honest folks out there want to admit to thinking like this sometimes? I know I do (usually when I watch the news… especially this week). I admit that I get really cynical like this sometimes. I lose hope.

And that’s really the crux of bitterness and cynicism: the loss of hope. We lose hope when things don’t turn out the way we’d planned, when that business deal falls through, when that relationship doesn’t work out, when we don’t get the acceptance letter we’d been waiting for, etc. We lose hope because we don’t get the results we were looking for. And that’s where our main problem lies: Our definition of hope is too attached to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Any hope that is primarily based on results and circumstances is, in my opinion, false hope (because we never really know how our circumstances are going to work out).

But there is another kind of hope. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “In the struggle for existence, it is only on those who hang on for ten minutes after all is hopeless, that hope begins to dawn.” This is the other kind of hope. This is what I’m calling hope after hope.

Our Old Testament reading this morning comes from the book of Lamentations. That book gets its title from the word lament, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” The book of Lamentations was written by Jewish people during a very dark and hopeless period of their history called the Babylonian Exile.

Here’s what happened: in 587 BCE the Babylonian Empire invaded and conquered the kingdom of Judah in southern Israel. The Jewish people were carried off to Babylon where they were expected to work as slaves and assimilate into the culture of their captors. Their beautiful capital city, with its walls, palace, and temple built by King Solomon, was burned to the ground. Those people who survived the battle lost their land, culture, and religion.

Up to that point, Jewish religion had been centered on priests performing animal sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. Without that building, those rituals, and the priests to perform them, the people didn’t even know how to practice their faith or worship God. This became a particularly problematic issue because their Babylonian overlords were doing everything in their power to erase Jewish culture, religious freedom, and sense of human dignity. Talk about hopeless…

When we listen to the words Lamentations in the scriptures this morning, we can hear the sorrow and the pain of the Jewish people:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!

She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks

she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place…

her lot is bitter…

My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

If we look over at the Psalm we read this morning, which was written during the same period of time, we can hear the sorrow turning to anger:

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

I think most people would agree that these passages were written by people living in a situation that looked pretty hopeless. But the amazing thing is that the people were not hopeless. Even in these bleak circumstances, the Jewish people found something to hold onto, something worth hoping in. The author of Lamentations says:

this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

This is a different kind of hope. It is the hope that comes alive after hope has died. The thing about this kind of hope is that, if you haven’t lived through it, you can’t understand it. If you haven’t been through the experience of poverty or failure, if you don’t what it’s like to lose everything (even your sense of control over your mind and body), then this idea of hope after hope doesn’t make any sense.

Hoping in God” is not some meaningless, trite religious slogan that belongs on a bumper sticker. In the theological language of our Christian tradition, it means this: Wherever the creative energies of life are concerned, there is always a Plan B. To elaborate using Christian language: there is no situation so bad, messed up, or complicated that God cannot bring good out of it. In other words, God can work with whatever we bring to the table. When things don’t go according to plan, God always has a Plan B (or C, D, E, F, G… and God’s alphabet never runs out of letters). You can’t mess your life up (and life can’t mess you up) so bad that God says, “I give up. You’re on your own.”

This kind of hope is not based on circumstances. This the hope that comes alive after all those other false hopes have died. This is hope after hope. This kind of hope, which is superior to simple optimism and more than just “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by”, keeps holding on when things don’t go according to plan. This kind of hope looks for the opportunity in the crisis and seeks out the creativity in the chaos of life. The hope that comes after hope says, in the words of civil rights activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”

Hope in God transcends optimism over our circumstances.

This is the kind of hope that the author of Lamentations was talking about when he or she said, “the Lord is my portion… therefore I will hope in him.” Indeed, this is the hope that sustained the Jewish people during their time of struggle and slavery under the oppression of the Babylonian Empire. Their circumstances didn’t work out like they planned, but their hope stayed strong.

During their half century in exile, the faith of the Jewish people grew, changed, and adapted. It was during this time that they first became monotheists. Until then, they had believed in many gods, but reserved special loyalty for YHWH as their tribal patron deity. During the Babylonian Exile, they came to believe that there is really only one God who created and sustains the whole earth. This belief in one God helped sustain their faith while the Babylonians claimed that their god Marduk had beaten YHWH in battle. Likewise, their religious tradition adapted to its new situation in exile. Instead of priests making sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple, the people gathered weekly in houses of prayer, called synagogues, to study the Torah under the guidance of teachers called rabbis. This is the basic form of Judaism that continues to exist in the world today. Their suffering during the Babylonian Exile gave the Jewish people the spiritual tools that would go on to shape their faith (and ours) for thousands of years to come.

As it is with our Jewish neighbors, so it is with us. Our hope in God is a hope that begins to dawn “ten minutes after all is hopeless”. It is a hope that is not dependent on our circumstances. It is a hope that continually says, “Where God is concerned, there is always a Plan B.” It is a hope that says, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”

That kind of hope has the power to strengthen us for the journey and sustain us through whatever life brings our way.

Juarez Priest Finds ‘Hand Of God In The Midst Of Mayhem’

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Reblogged from NPR

Article by John Burnett

Beautiful post tells the story of a faith community struggling to survive and live their values in battle-torn Juarez, Mexico.

“I see the results of darkness. But I also see the goodness and the courage and the bravery of people,” Mullins says. “I would see the hand of God in the midst of mayhem by people who were able to support each other, show great solidarity and kindness, love, hug [and] pray together.”

Click here to read the full article at NPR.org

God Believes In Us

This week, we begin our 8 week journey through Desmond Tutu’s book, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time.

Archbishop Tutu talks to us this week about what he calls “the principle of transfiguration”.  He says that, while we live in a “moral universe” where God is in charge and good is ultimately destined to prevail over evil, this truth is not always readily apparent.  Sometimes, darkness, evil, and the powers that be seem to be winning.

He talks to us about one such time when:

Apartheid was in full swing as I and other church leaders were preparing for a meeting with the prime minister to discuss one of the many controversies that erupted in those days.  We met at a theological college that had closed down because of the government’s racist policies.  During our discussions I went into the priory garden for some quiet.  There was a huge Calvary—a large wooden cross without corpus, but with protruding nails and a crown of thorns.  It was a stark symbol of the Christian faith.  It was winter: the grass was pale and dry and nobody would have believed that in a few weeks’ time it would be lush and green and beautiful again.  It would be transfigured.

As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration—of God’s transformation—in our world.  The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again.  Or when the tree with gnarled leafless branches bursts forth with the sap flowing so that the birds sit chirping in the leafy branches.  Or when the once dry streams gurgle with swift-flowing water.  When winter gives way to spring and nature seems to experience its own resurrection.

A transfiguration is a kind of miracle.  The word literally means “transformation” or “metamorphosis”.  It refers initially to that story in the New Testament where Jesus, normally a rather plain-looking carpenter from Nazareth, is momentarily seen by his disciples to be glowing with the light of eternity.  They saw him for who he truly was: the one they came to call “the Son of God”.

There are other kinds of transfiguration miracles in the Bible.  There is the Apostle Paul, who went from being a vicious hunter and killer of Christians to becoming the first great theologian of the faith he once persecuted.  Then there is Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus, but later became an outspoken leader in the early church.  Finally, there is the example of the Cross itself, which hangs at the front of our church.  It was a symbol of shame and death, but has become for us a symbol of eternal life.  Paul, Peter, and the Cross: all of these are examples of the principle of transfiguration at work in the Bible.

Desmond Tutu has also seen the principle of transfiguration working miracles in his own life and that of his country.  He tells the story of the 1994 presidential elections in South Africa.  Tension was in the air as the day of the election drew near.  There were massacres, conspiracies, and boycotts all around.  This first free and fair election in decades seemed to be doomed to failure.  However, they decided to go ahead with it anyway.  On the day of the election, despite long lines and technical difficulties, there was no violence.  Tutu says, “It would have taken just two or three people with AK-47s to sow the most awful mayhem.  It did not happen.”  He describes the act of casting his first vote at age 62 as “a deeply spiritual event.”  After voting, he toured the other polling sites, where he saw a transfiguration miracle in progress.  He writes:

People entered the booth one person and emerged on the other side a totally different person.  The black person went in burdened with all the anguish of having had his or her dignity trampled underfoot and being treated as a nonperson—and then voted.  And said, “Hey, I’m free—my dignity has been restored, my humanity has been acknowledged.  I’m free!”  She emerged as a changed person, a transformed, a transfigured person.

The white person entered the booth one person, burdened by the weight of guilt for having enjoyed many privileges unjustly, voted, and emerged on the other side a new person.  “Hey, I’m free.  The burden has been lifted.  I’m free!”  She emerged as a new, a different, a transformed, a transfigured person.  Many white people confessed that they too were voting for the first time—for the first time as really free people.  Now they realized what we had been trying to tell them for so long, that freedom was indivisible, that they would never be free until we were free.

The president they elected that day, Nelson Mandela, is himself a story of transfiguration.  He was jailed for 27 years as a violent saboteur against the Apartheid regime.  After his release, Mandela went on to become a living symbol of freedom and “one of the moral leaders of the world.”

Archbishop Tutu fervently believes that “nothing, no one, and no situation is ‘untransfigurable’”.  No one is so bad that he or she is beyond hope or the love of God.  This was one of the central features of Jesus’ life.  He willingly associated with the most despicable members of society.  He welcomed outcasts and pariahs.  Jesus was not afraid to be labeled as “a friend of sinners” by the religious establishment of his day.  Tutu declares, in the spirit of Jesus, that, “Societal outcasts remain God’s children, despite their desperate deeds”.  He continues:

However diabolical the act, it does not turn the perpetrator into a demon.  When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove for them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility.

There is no such thing as an irredeemable person.  No matter how far we’ve fallen, God’s love never gives up on us.  Do you remember that story in the Bible about the “thief” who was crucified next to Jesus?  That word, “thief”, is not very accurate.  This person was not a heroic Jean Valjean or Robin Hood type of character.  In fact, centuries of church tradition have called him a “thief” in order to hide what he really was: a terrorist.  Crucifixion was a punishment so brutal and so shameful that it was reserved only for those who tried to overthrow the Roman government by force.  The so-called “thief” next to Jesus on the cross, if he was alive today, would probably be a member of Al-Qaida.

I tell you this so that you will realize the extreme lengths to which Jesus was willing to go in order to show God’s love for all people.  The terrorist called out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And how did Jesus respond to this dying Al-Qaida terrorist?  “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  Jesus says this, not because terrorism is justified, but because this person is just that precious to God.  No one is irredeemable.  God’s love never gives up (even at the bitter end for the most despicable people).

“This is all well and good,” you might say, “and it makes for wonderful Bible stories and spiritual principles, but what about real life?  In the real world, people can be downright intolerant and intolerable!”

Archbishop Tutu realizes this.  In fact, it’s fair to say that he knows this fact more intimately than you or I ever could.  As chairperson of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he was charged with the task of rebuilding his country after Apartheid.  It was up to the members of this group to decide how they were going to deal with the horrible atrocities and hate-crimes committed in the name of racism.  Should they hold something like the Nuremberg Trials, which were used to prosecute and execute Nazi officials after World War II?  There were certainly those in South Africa who deserved it.

There was one white officer in the South African security forces who “shot and killed a fellow human being, burned his body on a pyre, and while this cremation was going on actually enjoyed a barbecue on the side.”  Outside of South Africa, Tutu was one of the few who visited Rwanda after the brutal genocide that was committed there in the 1990s.  He saw piles of skulls with machetes and knives still stuck in them.  He said of the experience, “I couldn’t pray.  I could only weep.”

How can there be any hope for us, as the human race, when we are capable of so much evil?

Desmond Tutu believes we can begin to devise an answer to that question by first looking at the horrified shock we experience when we witness or even hear about acts of human brutality.  He says that the reason why we experience this shock is because we normally expect people to be good and decent.  Goodness, rather than evil, is what we tend to think of as “normal” for human beings.  People tend to instinctively believe that our lives were meant for something better than selfishness and cruelty.  And, even though each of us is a mixed bag, neither perfectly good nor totally evil all the time, we tend to be good and do right more often than not.  If this were not the case, says Tutu, we would not be so shocked when people behave badly.  It would just feel normal to us.  The horror we feel is a sign that goodness still lives and reigns in our hearts and in the world at large.

The next logical question that a rational person might ask then is this: If goodness reigns and God is still in charge of this world, why then is it necessary for any evil to exist at all?

In order to answer this question, Archbishop Tutu points us in the direction of freedom.  Freedom is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world.  We were made for it.  Yes, God wants us to be good and do what is right, but God wants most of all for us to freely choose to do what is good and right.  God wants to have a real relationship with us but, as we all know, a relationship can’t happen unless both parties are willing to participate.  So great is God’s respect for freedom that God was willing to take the risk that we would not choose good.

As the gift of God, freedom is “an inalienable right.”  Archbishop Tutu says that, “an unfree human being is… a contradiction in terms.”  This, he argues is the primary reason why all injustice, inequality, tyranny, and oppression is destined to ultimately fail: “they seek to deny something that cannot be denied.”  “The tyrant is on a road to nowhere,” Tutu says, “Freedom will break out.  People are made for it just as plants tend toward the light and toward water.”

God has reverence for freedom.  God could have made human beings like robots that always do what we’re told, but instead chose to make us as free partners and co-creators with God.  The ancient saint and theologian, Augustine of Hippo, once said, “God without us will not as we without God cannot.”

Have you ever read the story of Exodus in the Bible?  When the Hebrew people were suffering under the oppression of Egypt’s Pharaoh, subject to slavery and genocide, God decided that it was time for them to get back the freedom that had been taken from them.  And what did God do?  Instantly whisk the Hebrews away to the Promised Land with a snap of the fingers?  No.  God invited Moses to work as a partner.  God worked through Moses to liberate the people from tyranny.  But that’s not all…

Not only does God work through us, God also works with us.  We are not given a task and left alone to complete it.  Archbishop Tutu, tells a story from the Holocaust where a Nazi guard taunted a Jewish prisoner who was cleaning the toilets in a concentration camp.  The guard asked, “Where is your God now?”  The Jewish man replied, “Right here with me in the muck.”

There is a story in the Old Testament book of Daniel where three young Jewish men were forced into labor in the Babylonian Empire.  The king of Babylon tried to force them to bow down in worship to the gods of Babylon.  When the three young men refused, the king had them thrown into the fire, but they didn’t burn up.  And when the king looked into the fire, he saw them walking around, unharmed.  He also saw a fourth person in the fire with them, who had “the appearance of a god.”

When it comes to dealing with the evil in this world, God does not prevent us from facing it, but promises to walk through the fire with us and gives us strength to bear the pain.

God took an incredible risk in giving us freedom and calling us to work together as partners with God and each other in the task of creating a better world.  But God has decided that the risk was worth it.  Regardless of whether or not we decide to believe in God, God believes in us.  God never gives up on us.  God loves us with a love that will not let us go.

New Day, New Song, New Hope

Photo taken by Bogdan in Neptun, Romania. Sunrise over the Black Sea.

In keeping with the musical prayers I’ve been posting in connection with the voting on Amendment One, here is one that I offer on this, the morning after. I believe it captures the defiant hope that has not yet been strangled out of us. If you want to pray, then pray with me and belt this song out at the top of your lungs from the bottom of your heart!

A Tale of Two Strangers

Happy Earth Day!

This week’s sermon from Boonville Pres.

Click here to listen at fpcboonville.org

Luke 24:13-35

“We had hoped.”

Those were the stinging words that reverberated within the hearts and minds of the disciples in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion.

When John the Baptist first pointed to Jesus and said, “He’s the one we’ve been waiting for, the one whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie: the Lamb of God,” they had hoped.

When Jesus preached his first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth, he read those inspirational words from the book of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” they had hoped.

When he then started his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” they had hoped.

When they saw him make good on that promise, bringing sight to the blind, food to the hungry, and good news to those who had never heard anything other than bad news, they had hoped.

When Jesus told them to get ready, because the new reign of heaven-on-earth was at hand, they had hoped.

When he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem and kicked those corrupt money changers out of God’s house, the sacred temple, they had hoped.

But then, the pounding force of a Roman hammer driving twisted spikes of iron through flesh and wood put a sudden and bloody end to their hoping.  They heard Jesus recite lines of ancient poetry about being forsaken by God.  At the bitter end, he had pathetically muttered, “It is finished,” just before giving up his fight for life.  And he was right: it was finished.  It was over.  Three years of their lives wasted on this cult leader who died in disgrace.  Perhaps he would be remembered as the David Koresh or Jim Jones of his day.  They would be lucky to escape with their lives and slink back to their families in shame.  They had hoped.  Look what it got them.

Such was the state of mind of the two disciples who shambled slowly down the road on that Sunday afternoon.  They probably hadn’t eaten or slept much in the few days prior.  What’s the point of eating when all food has lost its taste?  One might as well be eating ashes.  Getting out of bed probably felt like working out with lead weights strapped to your arms, legs, and head.

Emotionally, they probably oscillated between feeling nothing at all and that sickening sensation of a knot in the gut that makes its way up to your throat and finally threatens to burst out through your eyeballs.  These folks were heartbroken.

Most of us will experience real heartbreak at some point in our lives.  It might come with the loss of a relationship or a job.  It might stem from the regret of a missed opportunity.  It might come from a serious diagnosis with a poor prognosis, the death of a parent, spouse, or child, or with what Howie Cosell used to call “the agony of defeat.”  Whenever and however it comes, real heartbreak is undeniable and unforgettable.

For these two disciples of the late Jesus, walking down a lonely road on a hot Sunday afternoon, heartbreak had come with the dashing of their highest aspirations against the concrete of imperial power and religious corruption.  They were probably just beginning to formulate a plan of what to do next when, suddenly, they realized that they were not alone on the road.

A stranger met them as they walked along the road between Jerusalem and a town called Emmaus.  In an attempt to join the conversation, the stranger politely asks about the topic.  The question literally stops the disciples in their tracks.  It’s like they can’t even bring themselves to answer the question directly.  The subject is just too painful.  Finally, one of them answers the original question with another question: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  I take that to be another way of saying, “Well, y’know…” in hopes that the stranger won’t ask them to finish the sentence.

Unfortunately for them, the stranger keeps pressing.  He asks them, “What things?”  Eventually, they open up to this stranger about the grief in their broken hearts.  “We had hoped,” they tell him, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  The stranger listens, talks back, and engages them in conversation as they walk along.  They talk about Jesus, they talk about faith, and they talk about the Bible.  It seems like this stranger became a real pastor to them in their moment of deepest heartbreak.  He was there for them.  They didn’t know him from Adam’s housecat, but they felt safe (or at least desperate) enough to allow him to take part in their pain and shame.  Later on, those disciples would talk about how their hearts were “burning within [them]” as the stranger walked and talked with them.

Before they knew it, the group had arrived at Emmaus.  The two disciples had reached the place where they were going, but the stranger kept walking.  They looked at the sun going down in the distance.  It would be dark and cold soon.  Traveling at night could be dangerous.  They saw an opportunity to give back to this stranger a little bit of what he had given to them: hospitality.  Maybe they even thought about what Jesus had once taught them: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”  They called out to their new friend as he walked away, “Hey!  It’s getting dark outside.  Stay with us tonight.  It’s the least we can do.”  The stranger agrees.

Later that night, at dinner, this mysterious stranger “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”  And just then, in that moment, something happened.  They couldn’t explain it.  Maybe one of them caught a glimpse of a scar on the stranger’s wrist as he reached for the loaf of bread.  Maybe it was the sound of the stranger’s voice as he blessed and broke the bread, just like their dead friend had done only a few days prior.  Maybe it was something deeper than that.  Whatever it was, something happened.  In that moment, the text of Luke’s gospel tells us that “their eyes were opened.”  They squinted across the table at the stranger in the dim and flickering lamplight and then, just for a split second, they saw something that almost made their broken and burning hearts jump right out of their chests because, in that moment, they could have sworn (as impossible as it sounds) that they were looking into the eyes of Jesus!  And then, just as quickly as it came, it was gone.  The moment was over, but the experience had shaken them to their core.

This startling and disturbing encounter led them to go back to Jerusalem and their fellowship of broken-hearted disciples.  Much to their surprise, others among the group reported having similar experiences.  They didn’t know what to make of it all.  They just shared their stories with one another.  And then, in the while they were doing that, it happened again: that sense of peace and the experience of the presence of Christ in their midst.  He wasn’t dead and gone.  He was alive and with them.  They had seen him in the eyes of a stranger who had walked with them on the road and broken bread with them at home.  With eyes wide open and hearts on fire with passion, they realized that the brutality of the centurion’s hammer had not beaten the hope out of them permanently.  They had hoped.  They were still hoping.  In some way that defies explanation, hope was alive in them: opening their tear-filled eyes and setting their broken hearts on fire.

I believe the power of Christ’s resurrection is available to each of us in this Easter season.  In the midst of our heartbreak, whatever its cause, hope still has the power to open our eyes and set our hearts on fire.  There are many ways in which this can happen.  Taking a hint from today’s New Testament lesson, I want to focus on one way in particular that this might happen: Resurrected hope has the power to reach us through the presence of the stranger.

We meet all kinds of strangers in life: the random strangers we meet on the street or at the store, the strangers we think we know but don’t really (do any of us really understand our spouses, parents, or children?), then there are those strangers we don’t physically meet but whose lives are connected to ours in some way (think about the people who grow our food, make our clothes, or construct our cars), and then there are those strangers who aren’t even human: the plants and animals who share this planet with us.

There are two ways of recognizing the risen Christ in the many strangers who live around us.  First, there are those strangers who help us in some large or small way.  We saw this happening in today’s New Testament lesson as the stranger walks alongside the two disciples and gets them to open up about their broken hearts.  He was there for them in a time when they were at the end of their rope, dangling over a deep, dark chasm of despair.  He brought them back from the brink and set their broken hearts on fire with his words of hope.  The text of Luke’s gospel tells us that this stranger was the risen Christ, coming to meet them on the road.  How many times have you been blessed by a kind word, a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on?  Have you ever been in a situation where a simple visit, a card, or a casserole, given as a symbol of love, meant the whole world to you?  In such moments, the risen Christ is present with us, igniting a fire in our broken hearts and rekindling hope.

Second, we recognize the risen Christ in those strangers who we get to help.  We saw this happening as well in today’s reading.  As the stranger in the story prepares to wander into the night, the disciples seize their opportunity to offer Christ-like hospitality.  Their eyes were later opened to the truth that it was actually Christ that they were welcoming into their home.  This is eerily similar to what Jesus told them would happen:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Today is the third Sunday in the season of Easter.  We are celebrating today as Compassion Sunday.  We give thanks for the particular ministry of a group in our church: the In His Name Women’s Mission Society.  Among the many other ministries that they support locally and globally, In His Name sponsors a little girl named Gladys, who lives in Guatemala, through an organization called Compassion International.  Compassion International is a faith-based group that provides food, water, medical care, and education to over 1.2 million kids in 26 countries.  In His Name’s sponsorship of Gladys is part of the mission of this church.  In a small but very important way, we get to demonstrate to her the compassion of Christ in our hearts.  But, in an even bigger way, Gladys is Christ to us.  Through Gladys and so many other children in need, Christ calls us to make a difference in this world.  Whatever we do for them, we do for Christ.

Finally, today also happens to be Earth Day, where we give thanks for the abundance of creation and pledge ourselves to work for its healing.  I believe we can celebrate the presence of the risen Christ in these our fellow creatures in the natural world.  In this age of mass pollution and global warming, we can no longer afford to limit our religious and spiritual vision to the well-being of human beings alone.  We are part of an interdependent web of life that connects us to all forms of life on this planet.  We must respect this life and care for it.  But we must also remember to celebrate and enjoy it.  As this spring speeds quickly into summer, get yourself outdoors into God’s green earth.  Let the presence of the risen Christ in nature ignite your heart and open your eyes again.  Relearn what it says in the book of Isaiah: that “heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory.”  Let this celebration of resurrected glory inspire us to care for our planet and its creatures.  As the preacher Tony Campolo once said, “Every time a species goes extinct, a hymn of praise to God is silenced.”  These strangers (the animals, plants, and the Earth itself) are also members of Christ’s family.  Whatever we do for them, we do for Christ.

Christ is alive and comes to meet us in the guise of strangers: those we help and those who help us.  All of these strangers are connected to us and I believe we have the capacity to see and serve the risen Christ living in each of them.  They are Christ to us and we are Christ to each other.  Whatever we do for each other, we do for Christ.  This Easter, may the risen Christ rekindle hope in you by setting your broken heart on fire and opening your eyes once again.

Hoping Against Hope

“World history is a cemetery of broken hopes”

Paul Tillich

I made it three minutes into Tyra’s interview with folks from Westboro Baptist this morning before I had to turn over to something a little more uplifting.

Paul Tillich usually helps.

Here is a link to one of his sermons that I read at http://www.religion-online.org

The Right to Hope – Paul Tillich

Tillich a was a person of his time, therefore we’ll have to forgive him his use of gender-specific language.  With that in mind, here are a few inspiring quips:

But there are many things and events in which we can see a reason for genuine hope, namely, the seed-like presence of that which is hoped for. In the seed of a tree, stem and leaves are already present, and this gives us the right to sow the seed in hope for the fruit. We have no assurance that it will develop. But our hope is genuine. There is a presence, a beginning of what is hoped for. And so it is with the child and our hope for his maturing; we hope, because maturing has already begun, but we don’t know how far it will go. We hope for the fulfillment of our work, often against hope, because it is already in us as vision and driving force. We hope for a lasting love, because we feel the power of this love present. But it is hope, not certainty…

Is there a right to hope for mankind as a whole? There is one idea which has grasped the imagination of Western man, but which has already lost its power because of the horrors which have happened in our century; it is the idea of progress toward the fulfillment of the age-old hopes of man. This is still a half-conscious, half-unconscious belief of many people today. It is often the only hope they have, and its breakdown is a profound shock for them. Is progress a justified hope for man? In some respects it is, because man has received the power to control nature almost without limits and there is daily progress in science and in technical production. But the question is: Does this progress justify the hope for a stage of fulfillment? Certainly. Progress is a justified hope in all moments in which we work for a task and hope that something better and new will replace old goods and old evils. But whenever one evil is conquered, another appears, using the new which is good to support a new evil. The goal of mankind is not progress toward a final stage of perfection; it is the creation of what is possible for man in each particular state of history; and it is the struggle against the forces of evil, old ones and new ones, which arise in each period in a different way…

The hope of mankind lies in the here and now, whenever the eternal appears in time and history. This hope is justified; for there is always a presence and a beginning of what is seriously hoped for.

Singing Up the Sun: A Prayer for the Church

Christians in the Reformed tradition have long recognized the dual nature of our life together as a faith community.  On the one hand, you have churches that exist as religious institutions.  On the other hand, you have the Church that lives as the Body of Christ, the spiritual fellowship of God’s covenant people.

Heinrich Bullinger, writing in 1561, observed:

Again, not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church. For there are many hypocrites, who outwardly hear the Word of God, and publicly receive the sacraments, and seem to pray to God through Christ alone, to confess Christ to be their only righteousness, and to worship God, and to exercise the duties of charity, and for a time to endure with patience in misfortune. And yet they are inwardly destitute of true illumination of the Spirit, of faith and sincerity of heart, and of perseverance to the end… And therefore the Church of God is rightly compared to a net which catches fish of all kinds, and to a field, in which both wheat and tares are found (Matt. 13:24 ff., 47 ff.).

The Westminster divines identified this duality by referring to the visible church, which is “a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children” and the invisible church, which is “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.”

Writing over three centuries later, the authors of the Confession of 1967 noted,

The church in its mission encounters other religions and in that encounter becomes conscious of its own human character as a religion… The Christian religion, as distinct from God’s self-revelation, has been shaped throughout its history by the cultural forms of its environment… But the reconciling word of the gospel is God’s judgment upon all forms of religion, including the Christian.

Earlier today, as I was praying for my church, the image of an egg came to mind.  When people glance at an egg, they tend to notice the hard and plain exterior shell.  Most people don’t think about the baby chick inside.  They just see an egg.  But if they could somehow get inside, they would immediately notice the disparate chick-to-shell ratio.  There’s a lot more bird than egg in there!

As cracks start to appear, many throw up their hands in mourning (or celebration) that the egg is now broken, ruined, and not long for this world.  In one sense, they may be right.  However, I wonder whether those who focus exclusively on this fact might be forgetting about the amazing new life that lurks just beneath the surface.  The cracks signify, not the failure, but the success of life that has grown too big for its shell.  The cracks mean that the shell has done its job and life is now ready to burst forth into the world.

I think the church is like that egg.  It looks rather rigid, plain, and fragile from the outside.  The cracks in our institutional shell are obvious and appear at both congregational and denominational levels.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Lackluster theology
  • Biblical illiteracy
  • Indifference to social justice
  • Cliques
  • Power-plays
  • Denominational schisms
  • Liberal/conservative conspiracy theories (take your pick)
  • Not enough/too much inclusivity (take your pick)
  • Worship is too traditional/contemporary (take your pick)
  • Obsession with church property
  • Dwindling financial resources
  • Declining membership
  • I could keep going…

With all these cracks, it looks like our egg is falling apart.  That’s because it is falling apart.  It’s supposed to fall apart.  Ecclesia reforma, semper reformanda.  Our ancestors gave us this shell in order to safeguard the precious treasure of life within it.  Just as they hatched from their own institutional shells (think Calvin during the Reformation), life dictates that we must hatch from ours.  What’s more is that we will most likely hand our spiritual progeny another shell from which they too will one day break.  The shell’s job is to protect and nurture life.  Its breakage during times of change is a sign of success not failure.

There’s a lot more bird than egg in our church.  There is new life waiting to be born.  The future will not look like the past.  The decline of mainline Protestant churches doesn’t bother me.  I think God is coaxing our churches out of their collective shell so that we can take up the prophetic mantle once again.  We are not dying; we are being born.

For some this will mean questioning “the way we’ve always done it” and reforming our denominational or congregational structures from within.  For others it will mean abandoning traditional denominations or congregations altogether.  Whatever new thing they come up with will not be the end-all/be-all perfect solution forever.  It will one day be broken and discarded by their descendants.  As Jesus warned his disciples, “Not one stone will be left on top of another.”

Whatever path we feel called to follow, let’s let our focus be on the new life that God is bringing to birth from within the cracking shell of our churches.  Let’s be open to the vibrant and prophetic future into which we are being led.  Let’s move forward in faith, not fear.  For some of us, the chicks hatching from our eggs will be hens who produce new eggs with shells that will nurture and protect the next generation until those chicks are ready to break out.  For others of us, the chicks hatching from our eggs will be roosters who climb to the rooftops and sing up sun, announcing the arrival of a new dawn.

Thanks be to God!