Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 4, 2015: Fourth Sunday in Creation — Mountain Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25  +  Psalm 48:1-11  +  Romans 8:28-39  +  Mark 16:14-18

IMG_0018I turned 42 on Friday, so I posted on my Facebook page, “I am the answer to life, the universe, and everything.” I thought the reference to Douglas Adams’ seminal classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy was self-explanatory, though many did not. My father, trying to be accommodating and corrective at the same time opined, “what you said is probably true — if it is also true for everyone.” Our brother, Bob Goldstein, expressed his concern that I’d gone off my meds. You could hear his eyes rolling as John Carlisle weighed in, “Oh, you Gen Xers and your sci-fi”; though Sara Spoonheim attributed my nerdiness to another cause, declaring, “that’s a boy book.”

Say what you will.  Whether it’s the fact that I was born in the 70s or identify as male, I do love sci-fi and fantasy and comic books, and I never grew out of it. I think it all started with the illustrated children’s bibles I read as a very young child, or maybe the Sunday School classroom that rendered Noah’s Ark, filled with two of every kind of animal, large enough to fill an entire wall. If we’re going to read these stories to children, we can’t be surprised if they grow up to believe that anything is possible.

So we get a vision of God’s future from the prophet Isaiah in which there is a new heaven and a new earth, where the wolf and the lamb dine together, and the lions have all become vegetarians; where the city no longer remembers the sound of weeping, because all its children live long and prosperous lives and no one is gentrified out of their homes or pushed off of the land (“they shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat” Isa. 65:22). Do you still think science fiction is just for boys?

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Walter Brueggemann, captured by paparazzi.

In a lecture he gave here in Chicago two weeks ago on the prophetic imagination, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann suggested that the reason prophets speak in poetry and Jesus taught in parables is because both of these forms of speech activate the imaginations of the listener.  You can already see how that is true in my rendering of Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable reign of God. The prophet says nothing about gentrification, just that “they shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” (65:21) I made the leap to our present situation here in the city, I filled in the blanks in Isaiah’s poetic rendering of God’s future with the facts of our present. Poetry and parables, fantasy and sci-fi, cinema and comic books. All trying to wake our sleeping minds and our numbed souls with their message of hope: the world as it is is not the world as it was meant to be. Anything might yet happen. Wake up and dream!

tumblr_nmssnazawh1rom810o4_500One of my favorite comic books of all time is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.”  The series centers on a character named Dream, one of the seven Endless, anthropomorphized personifications of aspects of being. Dream, also known as the Sandman or Morpheus, is usually (though not always) represented as a pale, slender man who moves in and between the dreams of all sentient beings. His siblings are Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium (who was once Delight), and Destruction (who abdicated his duties, explaining why destruction runs rampant throughout creation).

In the most recent storyline, Dream is called to witness the end of the universe — all of creation being snuffed out of existence. Gathered with a remnant of the living things that once filled every corner of the cosmos, Dream has a conversation with a version of himself that is also a cat (it makes sense in the ways that dreams make sense). Staring at the end of everything, the cat says, “We have only the slightest chance, but that is enough … because it is the nature of Dreams, and ONLY of Dreams to define reality. Destiny is bound to existence. Death is limited by what she will or will not accept.” So, at the precipice of universal extinction, dream reaches out to the last remaining souls and appeals to them, “don’t dream this universe, sad and over too soon. Dream the real world. A place in which a star died long, long ago, so that all of us could live. Make it different.” (“The Sandman: Overture”; iss. 6, Nov. 2015)

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Why am I talking about comic books and dreamscapes on the final Sunday in the Season of Creation, on Mountain Sunday, at a moment in time when mountain tops are being scraped off and blown away to mine for natural gas? Why am I allowing myself to escape into flights of fancy when all of creation is crying out in labor pains that we fear may lead to a still birth? How do the voices of prophets from thousands of years ago matter when we hear the voices of scientists telling us we have less than a decade to change course or we risk runaway climate change, changes to the Earth’s environment, melting of the planet’s polar ice caps, that will flood the shores, alter the oceans, destroy marine ecosystems, and devastate the food chain that supports life as we know it. The situation is that dire, the threat is that real.

But you don’t need me to tell you that, because you’ve already heard it. You don’t need me to recite the laundry list of environmental degradations, you’ve read all about them. You don’t need me to rail against the horror of this most recent campus massacre, you’ve seen the footage. You don’t need me to reconstruct the final moments of Kelly Gissendaner’s life before the state of Georgia executed her. You don’t need me to tell you how many lives have been lost to the interconnected matrix of racism, poverty, misogyny, and environmental collapse.

Missy, The Doctor and ClaraSo let me tell you instead about this episode of Doctor Who I saw last week. The opening scene of the season premiere begins on a battlefield. Soldiers in mid-20th century uniforms carrying bows and arrows are being chased across an open field by bi-planes firing laser beams, suggesting a timeless, unending war. Stranded in a field of land mines (hand mines, actually, but it would take too long to explain) is a young boy, a victim of the relentless conflict. He is stuck, he cannot take a step without risking death.

Standing at the brink of death he hears a voice calling to him through the mists. It is The Doctor. “Now you’ve got to make a choice … you’ve got to decide that you’re going to live. Survival is just a choice, so choose — now! You have one chance in a thousand, but one is all you ever need. What’s your name? Come on! Faith in the future! Introduce yourself, tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today.”

The Gospel of Mark would make an excellent comic book. We don’t often read these final verses from the longer ending, because they’re weird. Plenty of people who know more about scripture than I ever will feel pretty sure that these verses were added later, that they’re not part of the original story. In this longer ending Jesus appears after the crucifixion and resurrection to scold the disciples for their lack of faith and their stubbornness because they would not believe the testimony of those who’d seen him after he’d risen. He says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)

It’s the kind of verse progressives avoid because it talks about salvation, and we’re so afraid that someone will think that we think that they’re not saved, even though we’re not sure what salvation is, and heaven, and all that, and yeah, whatever.

But listen again with the ears of someone living under the heel of a violent empire, someone who’s been pushed off the land, someone longing to belong to a future with hope. Then, make just one more tiny adjustment. Change the word “believe” to “dream.”

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who dreams and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not dream will be condemned.”

5777536803_aea18034a7_bThe season of creation ends with hope, not because it is warranted, but because it is necessary. The season of creation ends with mountains, because in the biblical imagination, the mountain is the place where earth’s immanent suffering touches God’s transcendent healing. The mountain is the new heaven reaching the new earth. The mountain is the new Jerusalem, it is Zion, the city of God. The mountain is Moses bringing the law that saves. The mountain is Jesus preaching the sermon that reverses the relations of power. The mountain is the bizarre, surreal, dreamscape of the book of Revelation in which all the people of the world are finally gathered together in peace and creation is set right.

“Because it is the nature of Dreams, and ONLY of Dreams, to define reality.”

I’ve found a new respect for the longer ending of Mark, even if it is a later addition by entirely human beings who needed to say something else about what it means to live by faith in God in the face of annihilation by the powers and principalities of this world. Whoever that later author was, she was not afraid to dream a new ending to a story that gave her hope to keep fighting for the real world, a place in which a star died long, long ago, so that all of us could live. In her dream, Jesus said:

“And these signs will accompany those who [dream]: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)

Now let your imaginations rise up in you and take these words and dream with them. What demons will be cast out of your mind, out of our neighborhood, out of this world? What snakes, what ancient enemies, what fears, will you hold gently, tenderly, lovingly in your hands? Which waters will be purified, which seas will be cleansed? What bodies of land, bodies of water, bodies of the sick and dying, will you bless with your touch in the name of Jesus, the ancient light, the star that died so that we might live?

We have one chance in a thousand, but one is all we have ever needed. What is the name? Come on, faith in the future! Tell me the name of the planet that isn’t going to die today!

Make it different.

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Sermons

Sermon: Monday, December 24, 2012: Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Texts:  Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20

 

Our worlds begin and end when a child is born.

314585_10200222683877889_1546527754_nIt seems dangerous to say anything about the end of the world after the Mayan apocalypse, scheduled for last Friday, failed to produce anything too spectacular.  I saw an editorial comic on Saturday that read, “Same job. Same friends. Same everything. Um… this afterlife really sucks.  Stupid Mayans!”  That about summed it up as far as I was concerned.  Lots of hype, but no real change.

Do you suppose that’s the reason doomsday predictions get so much attention?  That, deep down, people are longing for the world to end, or at least to change?

These days the predictions seem to spring up every other year or so.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the end of the world in 1975, then again in 1984.  Back in the 70’s, Pat Robertson predicted the world would end in 1982.  In the early 1990’s, Louis Farrakhan saw the first Gulf War as the beginning of a final war of ArmageddonHarold Camping has raked in millions of dollars over the years with doomsday predictions falling three times in 1994, then again in 1995, and yet again twice last year in 2011.  There were plenty of predictions of chaos and destruction in the year 1999, with everyone from Nostradamus to the Nuwaubian Nation weighing in — though pop/funk musician Prince seemed sure it was all going to be a big party.  

Looking ahead, there are already people who’ve gone on record saying that 2013 will be the year of Christ’s return. But most Christians will do that one better and say that today, this very night, God’s future breaks into the present once again as God takes on flesh in Jesus Christ, and that because of this eternal birth, the world as we know it has come to an end.

As much as Hollywood may prefer a fiery, explosive apocalypse, the rest of the world understands that there is no better sign or symbol for the end of one way of life and the beginning of a new one than the arrival of a baby.  Gone are the days of sleeping through the night, or spontaneous late nights with friends, or disposable income.  Everything is re-evaluated with reference to this new reality.  There is a baby in the house.

The birth we celebrate this night is the arrival of the baby of Bethlehem, who will be given many titles throughout his life.  

“He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace…” (Isaiah 9:6b-7a)

The prophet Isaiah imagined a child who would come and signal an end to the world as he’d known it, a world defined by wars and conquests and occupations.  A world defined by violence.  The child Isaiah imagined would bring an end to war and usher in a new age of peace.

As we sit among children and grandchildren this Christmas Eve, we are all too aware of how fragile life is and how dangerous the world around us can be.  We are shocked by the increasingly frequent violence that has invaded our homes, schools and neighborhoods.  We grieve with those whose Christmases this year will be defined by their losses and we pray that this world, this one we’ve too quickly grown accustomed to, would end.

Some have proposed that our world will only become safer when each of us is as armed as the most dangerous among us.  That is not a new solution.  In times of fear, people have always been tempted to look for their security in the power of arms, armor and armies.  We look to kings and presidents and generals for assurances that we will be safe, that we will be saved.

The Christmas story gives us just the opposite.  During a time no less dangerous than our own, when families were torn apart by the violence of war and torn down by the economics of empire, God ended the world as we’d known it by setting aside power and wrapping God’s own self in flesh, to live a life like ours.  At a time when emperors and kings held all the power and called all the shots, God chose to be born into the world among the poor, far from home, surrounded by strangers.

Tonight each one of us is invited to see by the glow of our tiny candles that the world is not the same.  The future is not defined by the past.  The end of the world doesn’t take place all at once, but in each new moment as God takes on flesh in you, in me, in our church, throughout our neighborhoods, across the world.  In the birth of the baby of Bethlehem, and in each new life that enters this world, God chooses creation instead of destruction as God’s preferred method of ending the world as we’ve known it.

My prayer for each of us is that we might leave this sanctuary tonight, filled with the light and the life of this new world; that we would approach the new creation outside these doors with all the love we normally reserve for a newborn child.  Touch its wintery woods, smell its snowy air, pay attention to its firsts, encourage its faltering steps toward motion, snap photos of its growth, surround it with our love and protect it from all harm.

Our worlds begin and end when a child is born. 

Tonight the world is born again. 

O come, let us adore it.

Merry Christmas, and Amen.

 

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