In That Land

(sermon 11/10/19)

 

Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

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I was online the other day and I saw a guy who was trying to stir the pot in some conversation. That isn’t all that uncommon; if you’re online finding someone like that takes maybe all of about fifteen seconds. This particular guy was commenting on something another person had written – but he wasn’t really all that interested in addressing the first person’s actual point; instead, he was trying to twist that comment into something different, something almost completely unrelated, just so that he could talk about one of his own pet issues. And even if he were successful at turning the topic in that direction, it was pretty clear that he didn’t even really want to have a real discussion, an actual dialogue about that issue; he just wanted a soapbox to stand on while he spouted his own favorite talking points for probably the umpteenth time.

Something very similar is going on in today’s gospel text. In this case, it’s the Sadducees who are playing the part of the internet troll, setting up a hypothetical situation for Jesus to wrestle with – a situation that they didn’t really care about per se, but that they wanted to use as a springboard to one of their own pet issues. As the text says, the Sadducees were a group who didn’t believe in resurrection and an afterlife. Their attitude was basically YOLO – you only live once, so make the best of it. Now, just as is the case with people who believe the same way today, that attitude can go in one of two directions. The first option is to live your life grabbing all you can get for yourself, and without regard for or caring about the needs of others. The second is to live your life being kind and compassionate to others, because that’s actually the definition of living this life well – it’s just the right thing to do, not because you’re trying to score points to get into heaven down the road.

So the Sadducees tried to set Jesus up with this weird, elaborate hypothetical. But rather than get mired down in all the potential rabbit holes in that hypothetical, Jesus just swats the whole thing away and pretty much says OK, you want to talk about an afterlife? Fine, let’s get into it. And then he makes an argument to them about the existence of an afterlife, using an argument based on logic and language that admittedly was probably more compelling to the Sadducees’ ears than it is to our own. But at the end of it all, Jesus’ position was undeniable – he was telling them that there is indeed a resurrection and an afterlife.

To be honest, the church hasn’t always done a good job with that teaching. We’ve either come up with bizarre, limited ideas of what the afterlife will be like – you know, robes, harps, angels’ wings, sitting around on clouds, a musical background that’s all Bach, all the time. St. Augustine writing that in heaven, we’ll all have the body and appearance we had when we were thirty years old; which would seem to trigger a whole new set of questions about people who died when they were ten. At the same time, we’d messed people up by trying to literally scare them to death, and setting up a burdensome set of checklists that they’d have to comply with in order to stay out of hell and get into heaven. We’ve messed things up when trying to understand the afterlife, probably most of all because we’re just finite, flawed human beings, and the very concept of life after this life is something far larger and more transcendent, more infinite, than our finite brains can really get around.

But none of those mistakes take away from the fact that the existence of an eternal afterlife is something that Jesus taught about unambiguously, and repeatedly. Yes, we can still mangle understanding that teaching with Fundamentalist four-step programs to guarantee that we’re part of the in-crowd, and to look down our noses at others who aren’t. And yes, it’s true that there’s a whole sub-genre of Christian literature written by people who have had near-death experiences and returned to write a book about their experiences. Heaven is for Real. Ninety Minutes in Heaven. Twenty-Three Minutes in Hell. My Half -Hour Stuck on the On-Ramp to Purgatory. Well, no, I made that last one  up, but the others are real books. And it isn’t my point here to demean these people’s stories, because I really do believe that there’s something real, and meaningful, and important in their experiences – but it does seem strange that each of them ended up experiencing a heaven, or hell, that was pretty much the kind of place they’d been taught about as a child, whether they continued to hold those beliefs or not as an adult.

One of the outcomes of these stories has been to continue to reinforce an overemphasis on the future eternal life in the sweet by-and-by, over against the current eternal life to live in the here-and-now. And honestly, a lot of people have come to feel awkward, a little squeamish, to think about resurrection and afterlife. I mean, we’re all intelligent, educated, enlightened people. We understand at least the basics of the laws of physics and how the natural world works, and doesn’t work. So we can get a little nervous thinking about miracles, and let’s face it, the idea of resurrection and life after death are really the mother of all miracles. I’ve talked with a lot of people who feel that awkwardness, who ultimately throw their hands up and say “I don’t know if heaven is real or not; I just care about being the best person I can be right now, and honestly, that’s all the reward I really need.” And you know, on one level, I absolutely agree with them. As a follower of Jesus Christ, my focus is completely on living in this life, and being in relationship with God and with people in ways that would please Christ. Pleasing him pleases me. I don’t need anything else. I’m not doing acts of kindness or compassion to earn any future reward or to get some golden ticket into eternity.

But the reality is that we worship a God of extravagant overkill. We don’t need any more reward for a life well-lived in Christ, but according to Jesus, God chooses to give us one anyway.

And whatever the actual details of that life to come really might be, we know, based on Jesus’ teaching, that it’s going to be amazing. When we reach that existence, when we arrive in that eternal land, it’s going to exceed our wildest, most extreme, unreal imaginings. Every wild, crazy, irrational thing that we could imagine as being the ultimate of happiness, contentment, shalom, reconciliation, reunion, peace, justice – that’s what it’s going to be like.

So yes, keep living and loving, and working in this world because you’ve been called to do that. Work to bring compassion, and justice, and peace, and truth, and healing to people in this life, wherever there’s hatred, and fear, and ignorance and injustice, and lies, and brokenness, because we know that the world certainly needs that kind of help. Yes, live this life well in the ways that Christ teaches us, because it’s sufficient as its own reward. Go ahead and live your life as if there’s nothing more to come, as if there’s no afterlife – but still enjoy the assurance of knowing that there really is.

Thanks be to God.

Where the Wind Blows

(sermon 3/12/17)

glowing embers

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.  – Genesis 12:1-4

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Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”  – John 3:1-17

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He drove past the house as slowly as he could without drawing attention to himself, paying close attention to where the door was, but not just that, also taking in the other buildings around the house – where their doors were, and especially their windows, where people might glance out and see him. At the next corner he turned, then turned again, doubling back toward the house and finally parking his car two blocks away. If anyone saw his car where it was parked, and recognized it as his, there would be plausible deniability – they’d assume that he was in one of the nearby restaurants enjoying dinner. He got out of the car and started to walk toward the house, nervously paying attention to the cars and people on the sidewalk, watching for anyone he might recognize, or more importantly, who might recognize him in the glow of the streetlights. As he got closer to the house, he adjusted his pace, a little slower, a little faster, trying to time his arrival so there wouldn’t be anyone walking or driving by when he got there. As it happened, he timed it right, but still, as he reached the house, he kept his pace until it almost looked like he was going to pass it by, and at the last second, and looking over his shoulder, he quickly darted inside the door. He had to be careful. He had a reputation to keep. A lot of people knew who he was – a well-known religious mucky muck, and it wouldn’t look good at all, it wouldn’t go well for him, if people saw him in a place like this, talking to a person like this.

Still, there was just something inside him that drew him here. He’d seen Jesus around town in recent days, and he’d heard about him for a good while longer. Almost in spite of himself and his religious position and education, Jesus’ words stirred something deep inside him; so much that he took this personal risk to meet him and talk with him personally on this particular night.

He sat there with Jesus in the back room of the house, far from the noise from the street, as the cool of the evening gradually settled in. He was caught in that uncomfortable place where he wasn’t sure which of the two of them was going to have the upper hand, if he were the teacher or the student in their discussion. It didn’t take long for him to realize which was the case, as Jesus told him that no one can see, no one can comprehend the kingdom of God unless they’ve been born from above. Nicodemus’ brain went into overdrive at this point, so he started asking questions: what does that even mean? We’ve all come into this world the same way; how can a person be born in some new, different way? And just what do you base that claim on, anyway? Where in the scriptures do you find that?

In imagining this scene in his own way, Frederick Buechner wrote that at this point, a strong breeze blew down the chimney, fanning all the embers in the fireplace into a hot, bright red, and they burst into flame again. Being born from above was just like that, Jesus said. It wasn’t anything you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something done by God, and for God, and where, and when, and why, and to whomever God wants. And just as the wind doesn’t stop at the city limits, or the synagogue door; God’s Spirit trespasses across all artificially set human boundaries and limits.

Nicodemus battled sensory and intellectual overload at this idea; it was more than he could process all at once. But bit by bit, he started to tease out the implications of what Jesus had said. And the more he thought about it, the more he recognized how radical, how heretical – how dangerous – Jesus’ words were to the established order of things; certainly the religious order but also the political order. He kept asking questions: So… the kingdom of God is for any and all people that the wind, God’s Spirit, blows on? Yep. But… the Spirit doesn’t blow on everyone, surely. Surely there are some limits to this, right? Well, I don’t know; what do you think? The Spirit is like the wind; are there people out there who have never felt the wind on their face? Personally, I don’t think so, but if there are, I can’t imagine there are very many of them. So… God is stirring up the lives, birthing them from above, all over the place? All over the place. Even the Samaritans; even the Romans? Even them. Even people from other religions, or from nor religion, people who have never heard of the God of the Israelites, or the Law and the Prophets, or frankly, who have never heard of *you*? What am I supposed to make of what you’re saying?

Jesus smiled and got up from where they were sitting, and put a compassionate hand on Nicodemus’ shoulder as he walked over and put another log on the dying fire, because they’d been talking or some time now, and the coolness of the night was settling in more deeply. And as Nicodemus sat there trying to sort out the implications of their conversation, Jesus added fuel to both the fire in the fireplace and the one in Nicodemus’ mind, as he told him that he’d come into the world so that everyone who believes in him, in what he was saying, would be part of that kingdom of God – that that it was God’s intention that Jesus’ message, his mission, his purpose, wasn’t to condemn, wasn’t to keep people out of that kingdom, but instead, to bring the whole world – the cosmos, the whole chaotic, good-bad-and-in-between, sometimes God-denying, sometimes even God-hating world – everyone – into that kingdom of God. Nicodemus wondered to himself, if that’s God’s intention, is there anything or anyone who could thwart God’s plan?

He started to ask more questions. But… but… what does that mean? You’re talking in mysteries. How can anyone save the whole world? How would you save the whole world? How do you do that, specifically?

As his mind was racing, though, Nicodemus noticed the time on his watch. It was much later than he’d thought, and he knew he had to go. He’d told his wife that he was going to a committee meeting at the synagogue, and if he got home too late, she’d know he must have been somewhere else. So with all those unanswered questions – or maybe they really had been answered – still bouncing around in his head, he quickly said his goodbyes, peeked out the side of the curtain in the front window, and when the coast was clear he quickly slipped back out in to the night, and down the street, and into history by virtue of his story becoming part of John’s gospel.

“For God so loved the world as to give the Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Indeed, god did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

During this season of Lent, while we take time to refocus on just what exactly God’s good news for the world really is, on just what it is that we believe, we can listen to these familiar words again, and maybe wrestle with them as much as Nicodemus did. Hearing them as if we’d only now heard them for the first time, without all the historical and cultural baggage that’s gotten attached to them over time like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. From the earliest days of the faith, people have debated exactly what Jesus was saying in this conversation. And everyone from the early church father Origen, to St. Augustine, to John Calvin, to the great 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, to Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, to John Shelby Spong, have all offered up their opinions of what Jesus meant – how Jesus reconciles human beings and God; and determining who’s supposedly in, and who’s out, of that eternal club. In other words, is the kingdom of God for a select number of people, or in some mysterious way, just as the wind eventually brushes across everyone’s face, will everyone eventually become part of God’s kingdom? Has that been God’s plan all along?

For my own part, I believe somewhere along the lines of Karl Barth. When someone asked him if he were a universalist – if he believed that everyone would ultimately be part of the kingdom of God, and no one would end up in hell, Barth famously answered that he couldn’t categorically say that everyone was going to be saved and be part of God’s eternal kingdom, but that if hell existed, he suspected it was very sparsely populated. And to be honest, the older I get, the more I see, and the more I think about whether God’s will could ever be thwarted; the more I think about the nature of God’s grace and mercy and love, I’ve started to wonder if hell is actually less populated than even Barth thought.

Jesus’ words stuck with Nicodemus. The scriptures tell us that after Jesus had died and was pried off the cross – at a time when it would have been the most potentially dangerous to identify as a follower or even friend of Jesus, Nicodemus came out of the closet, as it were, with his trust and faith and love for Jesus. Along with Joseph of Arimathea, the scriptures say, he laid Jesus in his tomb, affording him all the dignity that he was denied in his death. In the end, what conclusions did Nicodemus reach regarding Jesus’ words that night? We don’t know. But hearing these words again today, and given all that people have written and said since then, and adding considering current events as an underlay to the question, what conclusions about Jesus’ words do you reach? Who’s in, who’s out? I anyone out? Is Hitler in heaven? Is Ghandi in hell? And what effect do your beliefs have on how you live your life? On how you view the world? On how you view the full spectrum of humanity, whether it’s someone you encounter in this congregation, or this city, or on the other side of the planet? What do Jesus’ words mean to you?

Thanks be to God.