Friday, December 5, 2014

Back to the Future

Sermon preached November 30, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

            Late last week I received a mailing from the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits of The United Methodist Church.  This is not surprising as this is the group with which I have my pension.  I expected it to be general information about the Board or about my account.  So imagine my surprise when I began reading.  Dear David Bard:  According to our records, you are eligible to retire in 2015.
            Yikes!  I need to let you know that I don’t have any plans to retire in 2015.  I am not near ready to do that.  The Board of Pension is doing its job, though, in letting me know that I need to be preparing for that time when I do retire.  I need to be thinking about the future, and that will have an impact on the present.
            The theme we are working with in worship during the Advent season, those four Sunday prior to Christmas, which begins today, the theme we are working with in Advent is “Now and When.”  Today, I want to explore with you the “when” of the future and how it touches us in the present.  We are going back to the future today.
            We are going back to the future because our texts for today are about the future, and about the present.  The Gospel of Mark reading begins, “in those days.”  It is a reference to a future “when.”  It is a bit of a frightening future.  After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  In the midst of these calamitous events, then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory.  Some translations are now using the term “the Human One.”  The Human One is a wonderfully deep and rich image that Jesus appropriated as a term of self-identification.  In Jesus, true humanity, which is linked somehow to the image of God inside of us, in Jesus that true humanity comes into the world powerfully and decisively, but the Gospel of Mark acknowledges that all is not made immediately well.  There is something yet to come.
            Because of this future, our lives in the present need to be different.  Learn the lesson of the fig tree.  Look for the signs of the Human One and know that “heaven and earth will pass away, but the words of the Human One will certainly not pass away.”  So “watch out” and “stay alert.”
            Earlier than Mark, Isaiah also imagined a difficult time, a time in which we would want to cry out “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  The prophet looks around and sees only people straying, people spending their efforts on things which “fade like a leaf” or blow away with the wind.  We cannot read this passage in isolation from others in Isaiah, which, while not negating the difficulty of the present, imagine that future where indeed God does tear open the heavens and comes down.  For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth….  Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight….  No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth….  For like the days of the tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands….  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like and ox; but the serpent, its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17ff, selected)
            These texts take us back to the future.  They provide glimpses of a horizon of hope even when the present is difficult.  This future hope rebounds into the present.  In the words of theologian Lewis Ford, “Future influence is different.  It is the still small voice that calls the world into being out of practically nothing” (Transforming Process Theism, 18).  God is that voice in the future calling us forward (Ford, 234 – God as future creativity).  It is a call from the future to the present.  Theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts this idea of the influence of the future this way.  The God of hope is himself the coming God.  When God comes in glory, God will fill the universe with God’s radiance, everyone will see God, and God will swallow up death forever.   This future is God’s mode of being in history.  The power of the future is God’s power in time….  By virtue of the hope for the coming God, the expected future acquires an inexhaustible ‘added value’ over and against present and past in the experience of time.  Moltmann, The Coming God, 24).
            We live in a horizon of hope, even when we know the full difficulty of the present, and the present is difficult.
            No matter our particular opinion on the justice of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, the fact remains that an eighteen year-old young man is dead, and a young police office has to live with the fact that he shot and killed this young man, no matter how justified he believes his actions to be.  The world is not yet right.
            In Cleveland this week, a twelve year-old is dead, shot by police who thought the toy gun he was carrying was real.  The world is not yet right.
            Heroin is making a comeback, draining the life out of some, ending the lives of others.  The world is not yet right.
            Last week, two Palestinian militants armed with guns, knives, and axes hacked and shot worshippers in a Jerusalem synagogue as they prayed.  Five people died in the attack.  The world is not yet right.
            A self-declared Islamic State engages in brutal beheadings.  It is encouraging children to witness killings - what happens when someone thinks differently from the Islamic State or defies it in some way.  The world is not yet right.
            After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.  The Bible is not pollyanish.  This kind of literature, which is called “apocalyptic” is frightening, yet it has a purpose.  Scholar Walter Wink, The positive power of apocalyptic lies in its capacity to force humanity to face threats of unimaginable proportions in order to galvanize efforts at self- and social transcendence (The Human Being, 159).  Into a world that is not yet right, a voice speaks to us from the future, inviting us to something new.  The Human One will come.  Here is a reflection from Walter Wink about that.  To be in the image of God is to be of the same stuff, the same essence, the same being, masculine and feminine.  But we humans are clearly not “like” God in our mundane existence.  We are selfish, contentious, brutal, indifferent, vicious, and vindictive.  If we are like God, then, we are so only potentially.  Perhaps someday we might become more fully human.  For now, we are only promissory notes, hints, intimations. (Just Jesus, 105).  Yet the promise is that the Human One will come.
The world is not yet right, but still we live in a horizon of hope, for God is a God who continues to appear, calling to us from the future and present with us now.  Our lives are not yet right.  We still struggle to be more fully human, yet we live in a horizon of hope, for God is a God who continues to appear, calling to us from the future and present with us now.  In words written by Walter Wink, “the Human Being wants to happen in and among us” (The Human Being, 170).
We are a people who live in a horizon of hope.  Nurture that hope.  In this season of Advent, nurture hope.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

            This week, I have nurtured hope in a couple of ways.  On Wednesday afternoon, we opened the chapel, then the sanctuary up for prayer for anyone who wanted to come and pray or meditate or reflect on the events in Ferguson.  Not many came.  I wanted to do something during that time.  Once an hour, beginning at noon, I went either into the chapel or the sanctuary and rang my prayer bowl.  Earlier in the day, I had decided that I would offer a brief prayer service at 4 p.m. if anyone was present.  No one was, but I offered the prayer service anyway.  I rang the bowl.  I used the United Methodist morning prayer, slightly revised.  I read “The Magnificat” from Luke 1, Mary’s powerful words about the horizon of hope in which we live.  I prayed a body prayer.  Then I sang.  I was a little self-conscious about this, but I did it.  I sang “We Shall Overcome” and the last first of “We Are Called” – Sing, sing a new song.  Sing of that great day when all will be one.  God will reign, and we’ll walk with each other and sisters and brothers united in love.  We are called to act with justice.  We are called to love tenderly.  We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God.  All this was an act of hope, a living in a horizon of hope.
            This week I also celebrated an acquaintance of mine.  Lowell Gess is a United Methodist pastor, who is also an eye doctor.  Lowell and his late wife Ruth established the Kissy Eye UM Clinic in Sierra Leone.  It has had its ups and downs over the years, but it has been a labor of love and compassion.  This week the story broke that Lowell, age 93, is going to return to Sierra Leone on January 3 to do what he can for the Ebola crisis.  He is taking $100,000 worth of medical supplies with him.  Lowell has been quoted as saying, “When you’re at a certain age, you just keep your fingers crossed you won’t have a stroke or heart attack before January 3.”  He has also said that if he contracts Ebola, he will not return to the United States for treatment.  This week I have shared Lowell’s story and I have meditated on him as a sign of hope, a life lived in a horizon of hope.

            The world is not yet right, but we are people who live in a horizon of hope, people with a future that speaks to us, people with a God, who, as the Human One, continues to find ways into our lives and into our histories.  We are a people who hold fast to dreams.  Amen.

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