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?


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)


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.


Sermon: June 14, 2015: Third Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Samuel 15:34–16:13  +  Psalm 20  +  2 Corinthians 5:6-10,14-17  +  Mark 4:26-34

97793In his book Disciplines of the Spirit, Howard Thurman tells a story about life’s persistence. He writes,

Many years ago when I lived in Oberlin, Ohio, I noticed workmen digging a large hole in the street in front of my house. When I went out to watch what was going on, I saw that a large section of sewer pipe had been exposed; around it and encircling it was a thick network of roots that had found their way inside the pipe by penetrating the joints in many places. The tree was more than four hundred yards to the other side of the house, but this did not matter to the roots. They were on the hunt — for life.

As he reflects on this image of tree roots spreading subterraneously out far beyond the reach of the upper limbs, he makes an analogy to the nature of life itself. He says, “the initiative is not planned, or borrowed from outside, but rather seems to be a part of life itself. Indeed, the most fundamental characteristic of life is its search for nourishment.” (14)

This observation about the automatic quality of life is sown into the first parable of the reign of God that Jesus shares with his followers in today’s gospel.

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.

wheat-whitebackground-iStockHow is this image of a seed growing into a staff of wheat which is then harvested like the reign of God? What are the constitutive elements of the metaphor? Someone — is it God, is it us … can we tell? Seed — again, is that us, or is it an image of the gospel?  The ground on which the seed is cast (is that us?). What does it mean to say that the earth produces of itself, since the earth would not have produced the stalk without the seed? What about the sickle and the harvest? If I’m the wheat, that’s a scary image. If I’m the soil, then the thing growing out of me has been harvested for good and I’m ready to grow again. And, how was this all like the reign of God?

So many ways to read this story, and none of them fit perfectly, so that we have to keep going back and reading, and thinking, and discussing, and trying to fit the elements of the story to their corresponding real-life analogs. I’m drawn to the idea that the reign of God is as if someone (that someone being God) scatters seed (that seed being the gospel, the Word of God, the good news of life’s inevitable liberation from death, which is made most fully visible to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus), and then sleeps and rises, night and day (which sounds like the first few chapters of Genesis, when the Creator makes something new with each morning and evening and calls it good).

When I imagine the parable’s meaning in this way, I can see my own life as good soil in which the word of God has been planted, and I can imagine that the word of God is Christ Jesus planted in me. So I am in Christ and he is in me, and now I am a new creation, out of which something good and necessary for the world is growing, a stalk of grain which will be harvested to produce the flour that will be baked into the bread that will feed the world. And when we sing, “as the grains of wheat once scattered on the hills were gathered into one to become our bread, so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you” I will remember this parable and I will imagine myself and all of you as the soil out of which this world-feeding bread of life has grown.

Except, in the parable, the sower scatters seed on the ground, and sleeps and rises, and the seed sprouts, and the sower doesn’t know how.  If God is the sower, and the seed is the Word, and we are the ground, then does it make sense to say that God doesn’t understand how the kingdom of God works?

I’m back to square one, and while I’m standing here scratching my head Jesus tells another parable of the reign of God. Now he says it’s like a mustard seed

“which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:31-32)

Bangladeshi children playing in a field of mustard shrubs.

Bangladeshi children playing in a field of mustard shrubs.

Here the reign of God seems explicitly connected to the seed, which grows from the tiniest of seeds to the largest of garden plants — though nothing at all like a majestic sequoias of the Pacific northwest, or even the grand cypress trees native to the Middle East. So, why does Jesus compare the reign of God to something so small which grows into something so modest? No really, I want to know what you think. So, I’m going to give you a few minutes to talk amongst yourselves about how the reign of God is like a mustard seed and Kerry and I will have a similar conversation and then we’ll report back on what we heard.

[Congregation is given a few minutes to talk amongst themselves about how the reign of God is like a mustard seed. Observations are solicited from the assembly about not only the analogies they made, but about the process of deciphering the parable.]

I know some of you hate it when you’re asked to “turn and face your neighbor.” That’s not what you come to church for. The problem is, the parables seem to expect you to have a conversation with someone else.  Jesus introduces the parable of the mustard seed like this:

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? (Mark 4:30)

It seems that Jesus expects those who are listening to him and following him to not only listen to and receive his word, but also to take it, shape it, contextualize it and share it with others. And in order to do that, they will need to have a firm grasp on what the reign of God is like, and how it is different from the present world order, and where in our natural and constructed world we might find helpful images that allow us to us engage the hearts and minds of others who are longing for a different kind of existence, for a new creation, but don’t know where to find it.

Kingdom-of-GodJesus says that new creation, that coming world order, is not like the systems that dominate this world through economic and military might, but more like a seed. Something small, whose growth is inevitable, and whose product nourishes and sustains the world — like grain from wheat, or like shade from a mustard shrub. Something small, like a child whose gifts and talents seem to spring from some inner place, which can be nourished and nurtured but not manufactured. Something small, like the decision to include those who have been left out for too long, never knowing what might grow out of that action. Something small, like the choice to buy local, or to recycle bottles and cans, or to support companies that pay a living wage — which do nothing on their own, but change the world when done together.

Anytime we treat our own small lives like they have the power to change the course of history; anytime we act as though the small and overlooked peoples of the earth have as much worth as the rest of humanity; anytime we move children from the margin to the middle; anytime we insist that the pace of change slow down enough to consider the impact on the most negatively affected minority; anytime we remember and act on the reality that each of us is carrying the seed of the God of creation in the soil of ourselves, then the reign of God has drawn near.

And with what will you compare the reign of God when you tell others about it?