Sunday, December 10, 2017

Beyond the Waiting

Isaiah 40:1-11


Many of you have shared the experience of sitting in a hospital waiting room. I know, because I have sat with you. Even with our advanced intellect, there are certain words such as cancer and heart disease that cause fear and trepidation. As we sit in that waiting room, those words silently lurk behind any conversation.  We make small talk, we try to read, we take walks, but most of all we worry that the message we will receive from the surgeon will not be good. The clock on the wall makes each moment seem like an eternity. Perceived deadlines are missed and our anxiety rises. Then, when it seems our emotions are beyond restraint, the phone rings and we are told the doctor will visit with us shortly. She arrives and despite the technical jargon, what we hear are the tender words, “Comfort, Comfort my people. Everything is going to be alright.”

My favorite biblical passage is Isaiah 40. You might know it through the brilliance of Handel. You certainly have recognized it’s presence in our Advent hymns. But before Christians adopted the text as synonymous with the birth of Christ, the poem had its own perplexing story to tell.

In the 39th chapter of Isaiah, the Judean king Hezekiah was in dialogue with the prophet. Jerusalem had dodged a bullet.  The nation of Assyria had swept across the middle-east destroying everything that stood in its way. Syria and Lebanon had capitulated. The ten tribes of Israel stood briefly against the Assyrian onslaught and were completely destroyed. Every man was slaughtered and every woman raped. The nation of Israel disappeared from the face of the earth.  The Assyrians surrounded Jerusalem and the siege began. Then something happened. The book of Isaiah records that the angel of death entered the Assyrian camp. The ancient Assyrian historical records say that there was a revolt in Nineveh. Regardless the reason, the Assyrians retreated, Jerusalem was saved, and the people rejoiced. 

Now the prophet and the king are having a conversation about the fate of the city. Hezekiah is certain Assyria will return. Isaiah encourages the king to first look inward, suggesting the sins of the people was the beginning of their downfall. But Hezekiah remarks, “We must contact the Babylonians and form an alliance.” Isaiah responds, “Days are coming when your ancestors shall be carried to Babylon and nothing will be left of Jerusalem.” Hezekiah responded, “At least there will be peace in my day.” This is the last verse of Isaiah 39. This conversation happened in the year 703 B.C. The next verse, “Comfort, Comfort, my people”, was written 150 years later. What happened between those two verses? Absolute chaos!

Assyria did come back and Jerusalem became a vassal state. The alliance with Babylon proved worthless. Eventually the power of the Assyrians diminished and Jerusalem found itself caught in the middle of an Egypt and Babylonian power struggle. Jerusalem chose Egypt, giving Babylon the excuse to destroy the city twice. The second time, in the year 586, the residents of Jerusalem were enslaved and forced to march across the desert to Babylon. There they resided for nearly 50 years until Babylon was overthrown by the Persian Empire. Cyrus the Great released the slaves of Babylon and gave them the option to return to their homes. Among these slaves were the remaining Hebrew people. The poet, wanting to assure these children that there would be a tomorrow, spoke these words, Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Cry to her she has paid her debt. 

I am sure you enjoyed that little dash down memory lane but you may be wondering, what does Isaiah 40 have to do with our observance of Advent?  After two generations the grandchildren had forgotten Jerusalem. To a certain extent they had been drugged by the gospel of Babylon and had no real desire to return to a home they never knew. The poetry of Isaiah served to refresh their imagination concerning a God who offered mercy and pardon. The poetry was an invitation to an alternative perception of reality. They had been born in captivity and had never experienced freedom. Now they are encouraged to forsake a culture of death and step into a promise of new life.

Over the past 20 years many leading theologians have suggested that the church is now living in a time of exile. We have hitched our wagons to a new world in which we have substituted numbers for names. I used to be Louie Andrews. Now I am simply known by the digits on my credit card. I fear folks with less than noble intent will acquire access to those numbers and my life will be destroyed.

We have hitched our wagons to pills which promise relief from pain. The cruel results are America is ravaged by an opium crisis. The third leading cause of death for folks between the ages of 15 to 25 is suicide. Recently suicide became the 10th leading cause of death overall.

We have hitched our wagons to consumerism.   This is the prime month. The success of many a company depends on you overloading the stockings and Christmas tree. And the only ones who will enjoy a consumer Christmas are the executives at Visa and Mastercard.

How many folks do you know who are enslaved by fear, or painkillers, or economic stress or all the other factors that accompany life in Babylon? Every day my phone rings with someone who can’t pay the rent, can’t keep the lights on, or can’t find food for their children. It rings so often I am starting to become a cynic who wonders how much money they are spending on beer, or meth, or both.

Are these folks so unlike us? Aren’t they waiting for a word of good news just like we do following the surgery of a loved one? Are these folks so unlike those slaves in Babylon who longed to hear a word of comfort or hope? We try our best here at Rockfish but how often do we leave a house after delivering wood and think, “How are they possibly going to make it?” Taking on the ills of the world will drive us insane. So where do we find a word of hope? 

Isaiah 40 reminds us in order to get from Babylon to Jerusalem a lot of mountains are going to have to be lowered and a lot of valleys lifted up. While I marveled at all the Head Start children who filled our fellowship hall Sunday afternoon I wanted to weep. How many of those children have two parents? How many of those children have parents who can read? How many of those children have parents who are not diabetic? How many of those children have a parent who works full time? There are so many hills and valleys in front of those children. But what are we suppose to do?

The poet in Isaiah promises that God will change the world. Do we really believe that? We substitute Santa Claus for God because Santa can offer joy for a moment. But where is Santa in January? The poet knows how wearisome this world can be. Yet this poet promises, “God does not grow weary. God gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not be faint.”

Those are powerful words but they fall on deaf ears if people of faith have already concluded that God is irrelevant in our culture. What can we do? The fate of so many children seems to already be set in stone.  I fear we have been persuaded by Babylon. We call our situation “reality” and know it cannot be changed.

So when did we stop believing in Christmas? Jesus never preached the world couldn’t be transformed. Jesus never found God to be obsolete. Jesus believed God would find a way to allow children the chance to fly and Jesus believed we would be the agents of that transformation.

Last year on one of our bike rides on the Skyline Drive Mary Dudley introduced me to a friend of hers who believed in Jesus in a very big way. I can’t remember his name so I will call him Fred. When Mary Dudley’s son Daniel was in kindergarten, this Fred decided to give one day a week to Daniel’s class.  When Daniel moved up to the first grade, so did Fred. He did this for 12 years. Fred had made such a huge impact on the lives of those kids they insisted Fred walk the stage with them as a graduate. Think how many lives Fred touched with one simple gesture.

This year was our second Head Start Christmas party. Next spring we will host the second children’s spring fling. Last year the children and parents hardly spoke to us. This year the crowd was larger and the conversations more pronounced. What would happen if each one of us unofficially adopted one of those kids? What would happen if once a week we could be involved in their reading and writing? Maybe in five years they would see us as their academic grandparents. Maybe, with our encouragement, when they enter middle school they would excel. Maybe in 12 years they would be the first person in their family to go to college.  This can happen if we become involved. This can happen if instead saying, “Santa Claus is coming to town”, we promise, “Comfort, comfort, my child. Let me help you step out of this valley. Let me make those hills a little less scary. Let me help you down a road that leads someplace else.”

In Isaiah, the poet asked the question, “How is the glory of the Lord revealed?”

Jesus responded, “One child at a time.”

So how will we respond? With a convenient, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” or a committed, “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my children.”

To God be the glory.  Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Nervously Waiting

Isaiah 64:1-9


        During this season of Advent I have chosen to preach from passages found in the Book of Isaiah.  While the first 39 chapters cover the life of the prophet Isaiah, the entire book spans a period of over 200 years. It is a combination of prose and poetry written as meditations on the destiny of Jerusalem as it resided within the shifting sands of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Empires. Writing about the destruction of Jerusalem, exile in Babylon, and finally restoration, these poets speak freely concerning the judgment and promises of God. From suffering to well-being, from displacement to homecoming, the writers of Isaiah understand history through the intentionality of God. Why invite Isaiah into our Christmas preparations? Because no other Old Testament book has had more influence on the NT’s understanding of the coming of Jesus.

        Isaiah 64 begins, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”

        When tragedy strikes often our response becomes, “Where is God?” Let’s face it, what good is God if God is non-responsive. Three weeks ago there was a community gathering to pray for the folks that had been murdered in a Baptist church outside of San Antonio. One minister stood in the pulpit and railed against the forces of evil that dared to challenge the sanctity of Sunday morning. Another prayed endlessly that God would step out of the heavens and place, “a protective shield over his beloved people.” More than one minister claimed Satan had taken over the land. Another vowed to arm himself so that this kind of tragedy would never happen in his congregation. I sat, listened, and eventually spoke, only adding more confusion to the mix.

        Imagine if God responded to all our prayers? Everyone who spoke did so with great conviction. Every person who spoke is someone I know as a person of faith. Yet none of us were anywhere close to agreeing on what we were asking God to do. Furthermore while each prayer was given approval by passionate “Amens” from the congregation, no one seemed to be bothered that each prayer represented a vastly different mindset to an impossible dilemma.

Sometimes prayer becomes an instrument to placate our frustration. We pray, and then turn the problem over to God. This does more than just relieve us from our responsibility. It arrogantly demands God be guided by our emotions and perhaps even our intolerance. Then when nothing happens, God becomes the target of our anger.

This poetic response in Isaiah 64 does not give us that satisfaction. The complaint I hear most often by folks who don’t spend much time in the Old Testament is the “Jewish” God is vengeful and filled with anger. I think a more correct observation would be that the God we discover in the Old Testament is painfully honest. God stands behind the claim if we don’t lie, if we don’t steal, if we don’t commit adultery, if we don’t murder, if we care for the downtrodden, and if we challenge those who individually or systemically work against the well being of the community, then there is a possibility we might live in peace.

That is a very high, perhaps impossible standard that is certainly not universally accepted. The folks of Isaiah’s day who would point their fingers toward the east and say, “They started all the trouble.” Claiming to be innocent they would call on God fix the crisis.  And the response of the Lord would come be, “The problem begins with you.” 2,500 years later that is still not the answer we want to hear.

This morning our bulletin was blessed, or cursed, depending on your perspective, with a call to confession written by Jill Duffield. You might remember Jill preached at Rockfish twice last June. She is an articulate person of faith who completely understands confession as the first step toward wholeness. Her prayer begins, “We hate violence,” and mimicking the poet of Isaiah her initial response is, “Come down here and fix this mess.” But then Jill makes the move that any Old Testament prophet would applaud. Instead of pointing the finger at others, Jill confesses, “We who trust Christ lay before you our failures.”  That is so hard to hear. We want Jill to condemn the young men chanting vile phrases. We want her to place equal blame on the young folks pushing back from the other political spectrum. But Jill speaks only to us. She writes, “Silence in us any voice but yours. Then give us the courage to respond.”

Jill echoes the words of the poet who writes, “O God, you are the potter. We are the clay.” Once we establish our less than equal relationship with God, once we admit that our actions or lack thereof might be part of the problem, once we admit confession might be good for the soul, like that lifeless clay sitting on the wheel we are asked to wait. There is a distinctive reason for this. Before anyone listens, a whole lot of stuff has got to be unloaded.

The poet knows there is trouble. The poet is willing to acknowledge his responsibility for the mess. But the poet also dares to hint that God is equally guilty because he believes God has neglected Israel. The poet needs to release these words, these accusations, and this anger. We who bring a “modern perspective” to this discussion not only accuse God, but often dare to deny God’s existence. But the poet either cannot or will not make that leap. The accusation is spoken. The cancer that clouds his faith is released and then the poet reclaims his relationship with God.  The poet cannot change the past. But now the clay can be molded to shape the future.

During this season of Advent we are called to sit in the juices of our own discontent and take a good long hard look at who we are.

We are called to look deep into our silent rage, perhaps even acknowledging our dissatisfaction with God.

Then, once our discontent and rage have been given the time and respect they deserve, we are asked to consider that we might not be the center of the universe.

Now the real waiting, and healing begins.   

Come Lord Jesus.    


Sunday, November 26, 2017

All the Nations Will Gather Before Him

Matthew 25:31-46; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24


        I am not ashamed to admit that Matthew 25:31-46 is one of my favorite scriptures.  I have preached numerous sermons on this text and have alluded to it regularly.  How many times have you been challenged by the words, “When you did it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”?    I remember encountering these words for the first time when I was a child in Sunday School.  In my early years of ministry I preached on this passage and a young woman, barely fifteen, wrote a powerful poem in response to the sermon.  I have kept the poem as a reminder of how influential God’s word can be.

        Now that the text is so familiar, I struggle to find new ways to present it.  What else can I say that has not already been said?  Monday morning, for what seems like the thousandth time, my bible opened to Matthew 25. But this time I actually noticed something I had always overlooked.  Listen once again to verses 31 &32, “When the Son of Man comes in all his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on the throne of glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats.”  For a lifetime I have read that text and somehow have skipped over the phrase, “all the nations”.  I have always seen this text as an examination of how each individual responds to the sick, the lame, the hungry, the imprisoned and the naked.  Certainly each of us should take this text to heart as an individual, but this scripture is much bigger than just me or you.  It is social commentary on our collective whole which passes judgment on the community, the nation, the world.  The text suggests we are all responsible for each other. That is a radical concept which is hardly unique to the overall Biblical message. And as I reviewed the Biblical story I realized Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew 25  was solely based on  his knowledge of the Torah.

Remember Cain and Abel.  Two brothers took their sibling rivalry just a little bit too far.  Both offered a sacrifice to God.  Abel spent a great deal of time thinking about his relationship and love for his Creator.  The gift reflected his thoughtfulness.  Cain just threw a couple dollars in the offering plate. God’s reaction was a natural response to the seriousness by which each gift was given.  Abel’s gift was praised.  Cain’s gift rejected.  That really made Cain mad.  Instead of begging for forgiveness, Cain took it out on his brother.  Soon after the murder, God arrived on the scene and asked Cain if he had seen Abel.  Remember Cain’s answer?  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The unspoken response was, “Yes, in my community, you are each responsible for each other.” 

        This was just the first of many examples of this consistent theme of the whole community being responsible for each other.   Remember the Exodus from Egypt.  If a family did not have a lamb to sacrifice for the Passover meal it was the neighbor’s responsibility to make sure blood was placed over the door protecting both families from the angel of death. Once in the wilderness, the fate of the individual remained tied to the fate of the community. If one sinned, all had sinned. This continued when they crossed the Jordan. Remember the story in Joshua when Achan takes silver and gold after the battle of Ai.  Punishment fell on all the tribes of Israel.   

Years later, as exiles in  Babylon, the prophet Isaiah  dared to suggest that corporately we are responsible for not just the neighbor who might be our brother or good friend but for anyone who is a stranger, an orphan, a widow, or even an enemy.  We are all residents of God’s Kingdom.

        So when Jesus tells the story of sheep and the goats, the implications of the story are grounded within the souls of his listeners.  The parable is not even original with Jesus. It was a retelling of a familiar story his listeners had probably heard as children.  Jesus draws from the 34th chapter of Ezekiel.   At the time of Ezekiel, shepherding was a well established metaphor for the one who governed.  Each king was seen as the shepherd of his flock.  One of the earliest documents in the Middle East is the law code of Hammurabi. It declares the king was appointed to “Promote the welfare of his sheep, cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and keep the strong from oppressing the weak.”  I am sure that is what every shepherd originally had in mind but it didn’t always work out that way. In times of peril, the prophets charged the shepherds with dereliction of duty.  Listen once again to the Ezekiel’s words.  “The lost I will seek. The strays I will bring back. The broken-limbed I will bind up.  The sick I will nourish back to health.”  It almost seems that God is more concerned with the care of the weak, the disadvantaged, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner and the stranger than with those who champion religious orthodoxy. 

        So what is going to happen when God gathers all the nations together?  Am I held accountable by your actions?  Or is it just the guys in charge that need to fear the wrath of God?  Trust me, I can complain all I want concerning the state of world affairs and it will fall on deaf ears because who in their right mind cares what I think. But can we ignore Ezekiel and Jesus when they are quick to insist, “The nations will be judged according to how the poor are treated?”

        Maybe the question we should be asking is who are the shepherds in our community?  Surely the churches would be counted among the shepherds in Nelson County.  So perhaps the questions become, “What is the role of the Church?  Who are we called to be?  To whom does the church answer?  Is the church responsible for folks outside its doors?” 

        Quoting from the Presbyterian Book of Order it seems we are called to do three things:

1.  Make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

2.  Demonstrate our love of Christ through worship, fellowship, a life of prayer, and service under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

3.  Participate in God’s activity in the world by healing, reconciling and binding wounds; ministering to the poor, the sick, the lonely and the powerless; engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice; giving itself in service to those who suffer; and sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable and loving rule in this world.”

Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great preachers, said that we define ourselves as a church through our acts of hospitality.  He then reminds us, “The Hebrew people were commanded to be hospitable to the stranger and the outcast because they were once strangers and outcast in Egypt. We who are Christians celebrate the hospitality of the innkeeper, who placed Mary and Joseph in the stable when there was no room for them in the Inn.  Jesus did not come to a palace but a stable. And through the centuries Christ has never despised the common, the vulgar, the soiled and the humble dwelling places.  Such are his specialty. What hut has Jesus not entered? At what dilapidated hovel has not Christ knocked?  And what is his word of hope?  ‘I bring good tidings of great joy to all people’.”  

There is a classic picture depicting Jesus standing and knocking on the door of the Church.   Most of us have no problem opening the door to Christ.  But when the person at the door is an undocumented immigrant, an ex-convict, or a stranger, are we still as quick to offer hospitality? 

Perhaps our answer lies in the holiday we just celebrated. History tells us the Pilgrims were political refugees from England by way of the Netherlands.  With no documentation they landed as strangers, desperately in need of hospitality.  And that is what they received from the Wom-pa-no-ag tribe.  Thursday we celebrated that “the least of these”, the Pilgrims, were strangers, welcomed with an act of hospitality. 

I truly believe that Rockfish Presbyterian Church is one the shepherds of our community. I believe we are committed to bringing good tidings of joy and acts of hospitality to our entire community. I believe we understand we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. But I also know it is hard to keep giving and giving and often feel like we never get back anything in return.

The Jewish scholar Martin Buber shares the story of a Rabbi who was imprisoned in Moscow during the 1950’s. The Rabbi’s jailer was determined to disprove the existence of God. He asked the Rabbi, “If God is all knowing why did God ask where Adam was after he ate from the forbidden fruit?”

The Rabbi responded, “It is a philosophical rather than a factual question.”

Then he asked his jailer, “Where are you?”

This is the question any shepherd must ask. Where are we when there is hunger? Where are we when children don’t have enough clothes? Where are we when folks are in prison? Where are we when folks are sick?

I hope we do our best to respond, “We are with Jesus.”

To God be the glory, Amen.



Sunday, November 19, 2017

The High Risk of Being a Disciple

Matthew 25:14-30


        This is Stewardship Sunday, a day when we celebrate our God given gifts and talents by making a financial commitment toward the ministry of this church and the church universal. So I know when the text was read this morning, the eyes of the Stewardship Ministry Team became as large as silver dollars and they slipped to the edge of their pews, silently screaming, “Preach, Louie, preach.”

And why shouldn’t they be excited? We’ve all experienced  a very literal reading of this text. The owner of a great farm, who we instantly identify as God, gave three slaves gifts of varying sizes. Each was encouraged to make the most of their financial windfall. The first two recipients researched the latest data in venture capitalism, took a giant leap, and their risk paid off. The third slave buried his money in the ground. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.

        The owner returns. He is delighted with the results of the first two recipients. But he is less than pleased with the choice made by the third. He calls the slave lazy and evil. Then the owner remarks, “For those who have much, more will be given. For those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” The preacher then ties up the parable with the promise that if you invest in the work of God, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

        I am certain you have heard that sermon. I am just as certain that I have preached it somewhere in my past. But along the way, I have developed a suspicion concerning texts that have always been taught and preached the same way. The more I read this text the more I have come to see that perhaps the parable we embrace might not have been the parable Jesus originally told. If we dig deeper, we might discover this is not only a great story concerning stewardship, it is an even greater story concerning faith.

        A few years ago I read a book by William Herzog, professor of New Testament Interpretation, at Colgate Divinity School which challenged me to look at parables in a completely different light. Herzog claims we analyze parables in so many different ways, we forget the reason Jesus originally told the story.   Herzog believes before parables became theologically sanitized, or as we like to say, earthly stories with a heavenly meaning, they were open-ended riddles aimed at starting a conversation. 2,000 years later we have made the parables definitive statements concerning God and heaven.  So let me begin with a question? Do you really believe that the land owner represents God? Do you place your faith in a God who instills fear or denounces those who don’t jump at his commands as evil?  I suspect most of us are put off by response of the land owner. I think Jesus told stories with heavy not heavily meanings which were meant to begin not end a conversation.

        What do we know about the audience hearing these stories? Most of the preaching done by Jesus was near the Sea of Galilee.   The people who came out to hear him were fisherman, farmers and shop keepers. They were regular folks interested in hearing from this new rabbi who had set up his tent just outside of their village. As he had done so often before Jesus began the conversation with a story. I’m not sure the listeners identified with the first two slaves entrusted with a large fortune. But then Jesus adds a third slave who is given one talent, or the equivalent of seven yeas wages. At this point Jesus may have asked, “What kind of risk would you take with the land owner’s money.”

        Some of the listeners were farmers. Every day was a risk for them. They never dreamed beyond putting enough food on the table. Each year they planted seeds and each day they fought heat, weeds, and insects. Every night they prayed for rain. Ironically, their neighbors the fisherman prayed no storm would sweep across the water. Each day they went out into the Sea of Galilee and hoped for clear weather. Deadly storms would come out of nowhere. Every fisherman knew a family that had lost a son or husband. These folks who worked the fields and fished the waters knew what it meant to take a risk. The livelihood of their families depended on the risk they were willing to take.  They heard Jesus’ story and might have concluded the slave acted wisely. If the man lost the money of the landowner, he would be indebted for life. So why not protect the money and make it through another year?

        Now the conversation begins. Imagine Jesus asking why the man hid the money. If he did, I promise you someone replied, “Because he was afraid of the boss.”

These were folks who fought the elements every day.  These were folks who superstitiously believed the winds and rains fell at the whims of the gods. They carefully protected every investment they made because they knew if they had one bad season they were ruined. 

So, in our imaginary conversation Jesus begins to preach. “Who said God was the landowner. God is not to be feared. God does not see you as a slave. God is the one who sustains you. God is the one who brings the gentle rain upon the land. God is the one who promises, “Fear not!  I am with you, ALWAYS.”

The consistent message of Jesus has always been, “My Father is gracious. My Father gives you the land to be harvested and the fish to be gathered. My Father expects you to share in your bounty but my Father will not condemn you if you lose faith or courage. My Father knows you and loves you and lifts you up even when you have lost hope.”

My friends, this is the good news of the gospel. The third slave was not a bad man, and neither are we. The third slave was a prudent, careful investor, and so are we. He was not about to take a chance with the owners money because as a slave he knew what the consequences could be. But we are not slaves in the eyes of God.

God loves us and wants us to love each other. God trust us and wants us to trust each other. God has invested in us and wants us to invest in each others. Then God wants to us to extend that love and trust to folks we don’t even know.

I am not telling you something you don’t already know.  Long before I was given the honor of serving this congregation you already believed we don’t work as slaves for the master.  We work for a God who empowers us.  We labor willingly for a God who calls us to look beyond ourselves. We toil effortlessly for a God who embraces acts of justice and peace.   We celebrate daily a God who gives us the opportunity to invest back into this community. Why do you do this with such joy and fervor? Because you worship a God who dispels hate and division with a single phrase, “Fear not! I am with you always.”

Thursday is Thanksgiving. Here at Rockfish, because we are not afraid, we not only give thanks every day, we celebrate our faith by generously and joyfully investing in God’s amazing vision of grace, mercy, and steadfast love.

Today is Stewardship Sunday. You just keep doing what you have always done and God will be delighted.  

To God be the glory.      Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

I Don't Really Know, But I do Believe

I Thessalonians 4:13-18


        This would be a great time to be an evangelical preacher. We’ve had hurricanes, earthquakes, and raging fires.  I could bend your ear and perhaps your patience delivering a sermon   predicting that the end is near. I could even put a bumper sticker on my car that reads, In case of the Rapture, this car will be unmanned. I normally don’t take any of this stuff too seriously but this morning both texts are about the rapture. 

My evangelical friends can quote every scripture about the Second Coming.  They seem obsessed about when, how, and under what conditions Christ will arrive. To further complicate matters they always promise it will happen soon. I’ve got to confess I don’t wake up every morning wondering if this will be The Day of the Lord. Of course my views are based on a different reading of their favorite scriptures.

        Take the text in Matthew 25. Jesus tells a story about the wise and foolish bridesmaids. I can relate to this.  More than once I have waited patiently for the bride to make her way down the aisle. I remember a wedding in Texas where we all waited an hour for the mother of the bride to show up. I later learned she was showing her displeasure for the young man her daughter had picked.

In the culture in which Jesus lived, it was a great honor to be chosen as a bridesmaid. Their job was to light the way for the guest and honored couple.  At this particular wedding the groom arrived late. Some of the bridegrooms anticipated this and brought extra oil. The others brought only what the lamp would hold. When their oil ran out they went into town to get more. While they were gone, the groom showed up. The wedding party entered and the doors were locked.

The moral of the story is, Keep awake because no one knows when the Son of God will arrive. The problem is we have been waiting 2,000 years and this has caused some folks to get a little anxious.  It seems like every few years some fool who can’t wait for God tries to convince the rest of us that the end is near. Remember the 1980’s? Some evangelicals swore the Russians were going to blow up the world. Then to comfort us they promised God would arrive once the world was toast. Remember December of 1999? Some folks knew we would never see January 1, 2000. Then we entered the 21st century. As you might imagine Pat Roberts and Jerry Falwell had a field day after 9/11. And yet somehow, sixteen years later, we are still here. Personally I thought the end was near two years ago when a professional sports team from Cleveland won a championship. Truth is, there will always be people who will predict the end of the world. Many use the book of I Thessalonians as their proof.

I Thessalonians is the earliest letter of Paul. This makes it the oldest book in the New Testament. It was written a generation before any of the Gospels and gives an accurate depiction of one of the critical concerns of the early church. After the ascension, folks were told that Jesus would be back soon. A mantra of the early Church was, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. We still chant this today but few of us utter those words and then pack our bags.

        Imagine living in the years just after the ascension of Jesus. Your belief in Jesus is based primarily on the resurrection. If Jesus could rise from the dead and ascend to heaven, anything was possible. Life was seen through a whole new lens. It was believed any day Jesus would return and the world would radically change. Why worry about tomorrow when today might usher in a whole new heaven and earth? So the people waited, and waited, and waited, and then they began to die.

        Huge questions emerged. Will the people who die before Jesus returns be included in this new heaven? What is taking Jesus so long? Do we all have to die before Jesus will return? Paul tried to deal with those questions. Ironically Paul later wrote II Thessalonians to correct what he had suggested in the first letter. 30 years later, responding to the same unanswered questions the writer of Matthew offered only one answer. Wait but be ready.

Today the end time presents a whole different set of questions. Today, we just want to know what heaven might be like. Note the difference, the early church was focused on a new beginning. We are more interested in a continuation of what we already know.

        These days I suspect many folks get their afterlife fix from reading material like the Left Behind   series. If you are not familiar with the books they tell the story of the world in crisis.  An obscure political figure rises to save the planet. This supposed hero is actual the anti-Christ setting in motion the destruction of the world. The real heroes of the story are those who work to bring people to Jesus before God reigns destruction down on the world. Nothing can be done to stop this destruction and only those who have been saved will escape the judgment of God.   

        The series came from the imagination of Time LaHaye, an evangelical minister who cherry picked scriptures from Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation.  He also relied heavily on the writings of John Nelson Darby, the father of Dispensationalism.  Amazingly none of the New Testament writers could figure God’s plans concerning the Second Coming, yet LaHaye and Darby claim to have all the answers. Perhaps that is why we are drawn to them. My problem is a careful reading of the New Testament convinces me the second coming is not so much about us as it is about God. Whatever happens, it will be a new experience because God is doing what God has always been doing. Jurgen Moltmann writes, “History cannot produce anything astonishingly new, it can only proceed and imagine from the past. In contrast the coming of Christ will not be based on what we know but what we never imagined possible.”  Moltmann is explicit in reminding us  we don’t know the time or the hour. We don’t even know what might happen. We are simply called to wait, and believe in the imagination of God.

        That can be difficult. Like the Thessalonians, we want to know and we want to know now. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately there are a lot of folks ready with answers. These days a quick way to sell a book is to write about an afterlife experience. It will instantly become a best seller if the first sentences are, “I did not believe in God before I went to the hospital. I was supposed to have a routine operation. But things went bad. For a moment the doctors thought they had lost me. When I woke up in recovery, what a story I had to tell.”

        So many people want to be assured  when we die everything is going to be all right. They want to spend eternity with their spouse and family. They want everything to be exactly as it is right now without the inclusion of global warming, rising interest rates and a not so affordable health care program. But the Paul only promises one thing, “We will be with the Lord forever.” What does that mean? I have no idea, yet I boldly ask you to believe in something we can’t comprehend yet somehow understand completely.

         Let me explain through a very personal story. As many of you know my father has decided to die. Don’t weep, he is 92 and been a diabetic for 50 years.  The next step in his treatment would have been dialysis but he has chosen not to participate. I spoke with my father a couple of weeks ago and he shared his view on death. “I have six months to a year. I believe one moment I will be here and the next I will be in heaven. I won’t even realize it happened. And if I am wrong and I just die, I guess I won’t know it.” Those are words coming from a man both inspired and obsessive about his faith. For him, the Second Coming of Christ, the Rapture, or whatever you want to call it has everything to do with the glory of God and very little to do with how it will affect him. If there is a heaven he is certain it will be great. If not, he won’t know what he missed. What matters is that he believes in God, regardless.

        This is the man taught me that Jesus comes when people have hope and never give up.

This is the man who preached to me that Jesus comes when faithful disciples work compassionately for justice.

Now we shares with me Jesus comes to people who are dying and tells them God never leaves anyone behind.

        Can I prove this? I hardly think so and honestly I don’t even care to try.

Do I believe it? Yes, and for me, that is all that matters.

To God be the glory.   Amen.