Sunday, September 15, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Recasting Eternity"

James 1:12-16

12 Those who stand firm during testing are blessed. They are tried and true. They will receive the life God has promised to those who love him as their reward. 13 No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. 14 Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. 15 Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death. 16 Don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. (CEB)

“Seeking God Anew: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” Week Two

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-Jewish theologian who eventually immigrated to—and taught in—the United States, tells this story (in Elie Wiesel’s The Sunflower) of a rabbi he once knew:

(This) rabbi, a scholar of extraordinary renown, revered also for his gentleness of character, entered a train…the rabbi, a man of slight stature, and of no distinct appearance, found a seat in a compartment.  There he was surrounded by traveling salesmen, who…started to play cards…one of those present said to him: “Either you join us, or leave the compartment,” took the rabbi by his collar, and pushed him out of the compartment.  For several hours, the rabbi had to stand on his feet until he reached his destination.

But this was also the destination of the salesman.  The rabbi left the train where he was immediately surrounded by admirers welcoming him and shaking his hands.  “Who is this man?” asked the salesman.  “You don’t know him?  He’s the rabbi!”  The salesman’s heart sank.  He had not realized who he had offended.  He quickly ran over to the rabbi to ask for forgiveness.  The rabbi declined to forgive him…he then went to the rabbi’s house and said, “Rabbi, I am not a rich man.  I have, however, savings of three hundred rubles.  I will give them to you for charity if you will forgive me.”  The rabbi’s answer was brief:  “No.”

The salesman’s anxiety was unbearable…when he shared his anxiety with some people in the synagogue, they were deeply surprised.  How could their rabbi, so gentle a person, be so unforgiving?  Eventually the rabbi was asked why he had not forgiven the salesman.  He said, “I cannot forgive him.  He did not know who I was.  He offended a common man.  Let him go to a common man and ask for forgiveness.”

What forgiveness really means to us—and how we ask for it—says a great deal about our presence in heaven or in hell—not just in any afterlife, but in the here and now.  And it matters.

This is a new sermon series that revolves around a new book, by a fairly new(ish) pastor, with a very un-new name: Jay Bakker, the son of the (in?)famous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, first pinged my radar when he came to speak at my seminary’s annual Earl Lectures series in 2010.  I have followed bits and pieces of his work ever since, and after beginning the Revolution church movement in Phoenix, he has gone on to plant Revolution churches in Atlanta and New York City, and he is now planting a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the meanwhile, he has also taken to writing, and his latest book, entitled, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed” spoke strongly enough for me make a sermon series!  The chapter I am borrowing from this week is “Recasting Eternity.”  Jay writes in it:

When Jesus was asked if he wanted to bring down hellfire (Luke 9:54), He said, “You don’t know what you’re asking for.”  Perhaps when Christians talk about hell today, Jesus’ response would be the same…

(But) if I was saved from something, I was saved from myself.  We all have obsessions; we have dark places and secret desires.  That’s hell.  And when we give in to those things—and they take different forms for different people—we discover hell.

And then there are the things that happen to us that cause us hell.  Death, disease, loss, divorce—I’ve been through them, and the people who got me out of those dark places are the ones who bore the fruit of the kingdom of God: patience, kindness, self-control.  They taught me to find joy even in my sorrow.  To be patient with my grief.

And so I hope for life after death, but I believe in life before death.

Last week, we talked about how the Sadducees, one of the two main temple factions (the Pharisees being the other) in New Testament Jerusalem—had essentially stopped believing in an afterlife because their current life—the one they were living—was as good as it would ever be.

But Jay follows up in this chapter by explaining to us the dangers of concern only for the afterlife, and not for the here-and-now-life.  Because to him, heaven and hell are not so much abstractions, or distant worlds to be theorized over, but they are, in a sense, what we live in today.  Even in our lives today, we can catch glimpses of heaven and of hell.

Crucial to this worldview, I believe, is one key perspective: that it is not God who brings hell upon us.  We do it to one another, and we are capable of doing it to ourselves.  And that is why I was led to this passage from James—not the apostle James, but the James who was the brother of Jesus and the first archbishop of Jerusalem.  James puts it starkly: God tempts no person.  We instead tempt ourselves.  And we make available for ourselves a wide array of things to tempt one another with: power, money, sex, substances, you name it.  James says we are tempted by our desire for these things, that they lure and entice us in, sometimes without us even knowing it.  It’s the old frog-being-boiled-alive analogy: if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, he’ll hop out, but if you stick him in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually raise the temperature…well, you can guess the rest.

But here’s the curveball that life throws at us: we can become so concerned with our fate in the afterlife, of whether we go to heaven or to hell, that we forget all about the circumstances around us.  We neglect to see that the temperature of the water around us is rising, so focused are we on the horizon that we cannot see that the world we live in has begun to boil over.

And I have to think that this is in part why God—through Jesus—made the path to heaven so simple.  Notice I did not say “easy,” or “straightforward,” or anything like that.  I said simple.  And it is.  Which is the most important law, the scribes and temple authorities ask Jesus.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  On these hang the entirety of the law and the prophets.”  When Jesus says this in Matthew 22, He is not making our religion easier, or more straightforward, but He is making it simpler.

And I have begun to wonder if He did not do that precisely so that we could free our minds from the concern of heaven so that we could once again focus on the heavens and hells we live in now.

Because ultimately, those heavens and those hells that we live in now, in this life, all come from the same place: within.  Whether it is what we do to one another, or what we do to ourselves, we are responsible for what happens to us today, not just tomorrow.  But when all we see is tomorrow, we lose sight of how bad today really can be for people.  We say, “We just saved your soul!  You’re going to heaven now,” and the person we are talking to says, “Yes, but what about the today where I live in poverty, or where I am homeless, or where I am starving?”

In other words, just as religion that does not care about tomorrow—the belief of the Sadducees that there is not, cannot, will not, be anything to look forward to after death—is a dangerous religion, so too is a religion that does not care about today also dangerous.

Think again about the salesman in the story I told you, who offended the traveling rabbi and could not receive forgiveness.  He swings this pendulum from not caring at all about the present moment, because who does when they are physically assaulting someone, to caring only about the moment in the here and now when he can be forgiven for what he did to this holy man.  And the rabbi, in turn, is trying to teach him that he is looking for forgiveness in all the wrong places, because he is not finding it at either extreme of this pendulum.

We sometimes search for heaven and for hell, for forgiveness and grace and salvation and justice, in all the wrong places, and in so doing, we sometimes begin to focus on only one, rather than all of the above.  We focus on a god of judgment, rather than a god of both judgment AND mercy.  We focus on a god of wrath, rather than a god of both wrath AND love.

And, amazingly enough, in all of this theologizing mess, we are apt to lose sight of ourselves, of the roles that we play in all of this, of our own accountability and culpability in creating the heaven or the hell that another person might be living in right now.

Ultimately, I think we are apt to do that because it is an incredibly easy way to let ourselves off the hook, to turn our eyes from a great and terrible reality: this God who steps forward to offer us grace and salvation and mercy and all of these things, well…one of those things this God does not offer us is temptation.  And it might be easy enough to say, well, He doesn’t need to!  We do such a good job of tempting ourselves!  And we would not be wrong for thinking that.

But such an answer is ultimately incomplete.  We tempt ourselves not only with the things I listed earlier: power, money, sex, and so on, but also with the belief that we are made better than what we really are, that we deserve whatever heaven or hell we are living in because, hey, it means God likes me more than some other poor schlub who has it worse off than me.

But James—and Jay—says that God does not work that way.  And instead, when God sees such a perspective from us…well, it becomes yet another thing that we have to be saved from.  Fortunately, God has something to say about that, too.  And like with all these other temptations, He shows us a way out.  He shows us the way of Jesus Christ.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 15, 2013

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