World-Ending Hope

It is the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent is a strange season. On the one hand, we’re looking forward to Christmas. In the church, we decorate the building, we make cookies for people who can’t be with us regularly, we prepare for the children’s Christmas program, we sing a handful of carols, and we give to the Referral Center. We are getting ready for the birth of our savior… in a stable… two thousand years ago.

And, of course, outside of the church, we’re really looking forward to Christmas. People put up decorations everywhere: wreaths on city lampposts, lights on roofs, trees in homes, and window displays in stores. We wish each other a Merry Christmas, or—if we’re respectful of the many other holidays at this time of year—Happy Holidays. A Christmas Story plays on the TV. All I Want for Christmas is You and Last Christmas play on a loop on the radio.

On the other hand, though, we’re looking forward to Christ’s return. Not as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem, but as a king… and a judge… and a redeemer. For the days are surely coming when God will keep her promise to the world, when a righteous branch will spring up, and when there will be justice and righteousness in the land.

And we look to the past and to the future… in hope.

We are good mainline Protestants. And one of the things about good mainline Protestants is our relationship with time.

On the one hand, we remember the past. We remember the days when everything was better. When the sanctuary was full. When the Sunday School rooms were bursting at the seams. When the committees were fully staffed and the money was rolling in and no one had anything to do but go to church on Sunday morning and participate in activities on Wednesday nights.

And, to be fair, we probably misremember the past. But we misremember it fondly.

On the other hand, we work in the present. We do the work of justice and righteousness and mercy by giving to charity, and going on mission trips, and leaving non-perishable food items under the coatrack in the narthex, and putting gloves and hats under the little Christmas tree, and calling our congress-critters on a host of issues.

We even think about the future in concrete terms, in terms of budgets and committee assignments and maybe a program or two. We talk about a future that is a lot like today.

We don’t usually talk about the end of things.

There are churches that do. There are churches that talk about the last days and how we are living in them. There are churches that talk about raptures and antichrists and tribulations. There are churches who will tell you that Jesus is coming back this year, or next year, or by the end of the decade for sure.

But we usually don’t.

So today’s reading from Luke can be a little uncomfortable for us. God knows it’s a little uncomfortable for me.

In today’s reading, we get a little slice of an extended monologue… where Jesus is very definitely talking about the end of things.

He talks about the people who will come and claim to be the Messiah, and how they we lead people astray, and how we shouldn’t follow them.

He talks about wars and insurrections and nation rising against nation. He talks about earthquakes and famines and plagues; and dreadful portents and great signs; and persecutions and armies and the destruction of Jerusalem.

And he doesn’t say this, but still: dogs and cats… living together… mass hysteria!

This kind of talk can be uncomfortable for us. But if we’re going to talk about hope, we have to talk about it. We have to talk about the end of things.

Because hope for me—a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America—is one thing.

And hope for some other people… is different.

Earlier in the story—before he started talking about the end of things—Jesus was teaching near the Temple.

And he said, “Beware of the scribes. They like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect when they’re out and about, and to have the best seats in synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. But they devour widows’ houses, and they say long prayers just to show off how religious they are. They will have the greater condemnation.”

And then he saw rich people putting their offerings in the plate. And he saw a widow drop in her two copper coins. And he said, “She’s put in more than all of them. They gave a little bit of their abundance. She gave her whole life.”

And then he heard some people talking about the beauty of the Temple, and he started talking about the end of things.

Because Jesus knows his world. He knows that widow has no power. He knows that she cannot hope that the next Emperor will propose a set of policies that are better for poor widows, because Emperors don’t do that sort of thing. He knows that she cannot hope for a slightly better job, because widows don’t get good paying jobs.

He knows that all she can hope for is for the way that the world works to change. All she can hope for is the end of the world as she—and as those scribes—know it. For the coming of the Son of Man. For her redemption to draw near.

There are people in this world who are that widow, whose homes are being devoured, who have nothing more than two copper coins. There are people who live in countries and neighborhoods where violence is rampant. There are people who do not have enough food, or adequate housing, or access to clean water.

There are people who will walk twenty-six hundred miles from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to Tijuana, Mexico, in the hope—in the HOPE—of coming to the United States and no longer living in one of the poorest and deadliest cities in the world.

I cannot imagine what that hope is like. I cannot imagine what it means to walk twenty-six hundred miles, through dangerous terrain, with nothing more than hope.

But I can tell you that that hope is a world-ending hope. Because someone who is hoping with that hope is hoping for such a radical change in their life, for such a tremendous alteration to their circumstances, that it can only be described as the END. OF. THEIR. WORLD.

And there are people who are still living in San Pedro Sula—or somewhere else—in fear and hunger and poverty and worry.

And some of them hoping for change. And not just for change, but for change that can only be described as the end of the world.

But, of course… there’s the other side to that. When the widow’s world ends, so does the scribes’. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

I get it.

I’ve only been with you for… not quite a year. So you don’t know this about me yet, but there are a lot of parts of my life where I don’t really do change. I’m trying to get better at that. But…

Before this November, I had the same goatee since my sophomore year in college.

Before last year, I had bought the same brand and design of tennis shoes three or four times. And it was only that few because they discontinued the design I was buying before that.

Mariah and I were talking recently, and she said that she didn’t realize, when she suggested a short hair cut, that I would just have this hair cut for the rest of my life.

I’m trying to get better. But there are a lot of parts of my life where I don’t really do change.

So you can imagine what it’s like when I think about big changes; about world-ending changes.

I am a firm believer that we need radical change in this world. I believe that we could make sure that everyone on this planet had enough to eat and to drink, and a safe place to live, and a good education, and a fulfilling life. And I believe that we could do all of that while protecting our forests and our waterways and our glaciers; and our red pandas and our black rhinos, and the little creepy crawly things. And I believe all of that with a burning belief.

And I know that all of that would require huge changes in my life. And I do not want to change.

So I get it. A little bit.

I get wanting to keep things the way they have been And I get wanting to react to change—and, especially to world-ending change—with yelling and screaming and hateful invective. I get wanting to react to change—and, especially to world-ending change—with armies and tear gas and rubber bullets.

I might not get it completely. But I get it… a little bit.

I am a scribe. I’ve got my long robe. I like being greeted with honor. I like the good seats. I have been known to say long prayers. I do not want my world to end. Even if the world to come would be better.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle in the hope that my world will change, and that I will change with it.

I light a candle in the hope that redemption will come for the widows of the world, and that, somehow, it will come for me, too.

I light a candle in the hope that I will not be afraid; that I will not faint.

I light a candle in the hope that I will have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

I light a candle… in hope.

Will You Be Transformed?

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 18, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33.

Some of you may know that, before I came to serve as your pastor, I worked for Back Bay Mission. The Mission is a community ministry of the United Church of Christ in Biloxi, Mississippi. And it has a variety of programs centered on helping people who live in poverty. There’s a day center, a housing rehabilitation program, a community garden, and supportive housing… among other things.

And one of the most powerful programs there is the mission trip program. Every year, hundreds of people from dozens of congregations go to the Mission to work in its ministries. They repair houses, serve people in the food pantry, clean showers in the day center, and meet people living in poverty or homelessness on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

One of the groups that comes every year is a huge youth group from one of Chicago’s affluent western suburbs. There are always young people in this group who have never really encountered someone who is experiencing homelessness. Sure, they’ve seen people on the streets asking for money, and they’ve almost certainly known a classmate who was staying with relatives, but they’ve never talked to a homeless person about being homeless.

Well, one year this group was sitting in the common room listening to one of the people who the Mission had been serving. Mr. Jesse is a 70-something-year-old veteran who had been on the streets for years before the Mission got him in an apartment. And he told his story.

And when he was done, this young woman raised her hand. Mr. Jesse called on her, and she cocked her head to one side – you could see the wheels turning – and she asked, “You mean we don’t just house veterans? That’s not something we just do?”
And that’s a good question. It cuts to the heart of who we are as a society. We don’t just house vets. We don’t just house anyone. We don’t just feed people. We don’t just provide healthcare for people. We don’t just welcome people.

We don’t just do these things. We just don’t do these things.

In today’s gospel reading, we’re given a frightening image.

“Very truly,” says Jesus, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

And that’s scary because, not to spoil the story, I think something bad is going to happen to Jesus. ‘Those who love their life must lose it’ and ‘whoever serves me must follow me’ sound a lot like Jesus is asking us, “Would you die for this?”

That’s a good question. It might even be an important question.

You might know about RuPaul Charles. He’s an actor, model, singer, author, and, yes, drag queen. He’s probably the most commercially successful drag queen in history. And he has this great quote: we’re born naked, the rest is drag. Not just the clothes, hairstyles, and makeup, but the respectability, civility, politeness, and propriety. All of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit.

And ‘what would you die for?’ is a good question to strip away the drag and figure out who we are underneath. Not ‘what do you fantasize about dying for?’ This isn’t about being an action hero. What would you die for? What would you run into a burning building to save? Who would you take a bullet for? Really. Like, really really.

‘What would you die for?’ is a good question. It might even be an important question. But it’s not the question Jesus is asking.

There’s another question that goes along with ‘What would you die for?’ And that question is ‘What would you live for?’ It’s a good question. It might even be an important question. It is certainly a hard question.

All of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit. And it’s easy to slide into the performance and start living for other people’s expectations. It’s easy to slide into the performance and live the lives that other people have planned for us. It’s easy to slide into the performance and live a life that isn’t our own.

And ‘what would you live for’ is a good question to strip away the drag and figure out who we are underneath. What would you spend every day doing? Who would you spend every hour with?

‘What would you live for?’ is a good question. It might even be an important question. But it’s still not the question Jesus is asking.

Jesus is asking a much scarier question.

And it’s scary because, not to spoil the story, something amazing is going to happen to Jesus. He is like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies… and bears much fruit. He is the judgement of the world, who drives out the ruler of this world, and draws all people to himself. He strips away the drag and shows us who we are underneath.

The question Jesus is asking is, ‘Will you be transformed?’

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that the day is coming when God will make a new covenant with his people. It won’t be a covenant that’s written on paper or carved in stone. It won’t be a set of rules that we try — and fail — to follow. It will be inside of us. It will be written on our hearts. It will be part of who we are.

Jesus is calling us into that life. Jesus is calling us into knowing God. Jesus is calling us into being the people of God.

And that’s scary.

It’s scary because all of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit. And following Jesus — going where Jesus is — means giving up those performances. It means not living the lives that other people expect. It means not living the lives that other people have planned for us. It means not living the lives that aren’t our own. It means taking off the drag and standing naked before world, as who God means for us to be: servants of Christ and servants to each other.

It means housing people and feeding people and caring for people and welcoming people. No matter who they are. No matter where they are on life’s journey. No matter what.

I don’t know what happened to the young woman who asked Mr. Jesse that question — “You mean we don’t just house veterans? That’s not something we just do?” — on a mission trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. But I have faith that somewhere on that trip — sometime while she was rebuilding a house or cleaning showers or handing out food or talking to someone she was serving — she met Jesus. And I have faith that she was changed. Maybe not all at once, but a little. I have faith that a word of God’s law was written on her heart. I have faith that Christ drew her a little closer to himself.

And I have faith that the same thing can happen to us. Whether in Jamaica or Haiti, whether in Kentucky or Colorado, whether in Biloxi or right here in DeWitt, when we serve, we give ourselves the opportunity to meet Jesus. And when we meet Jesus, we are transformed. Maybe not all at once, but a little. A word of God’s law is written on our hearts. Christ draws us a little closer.

When we serve, we meet Jesus. When we meet Jesus, we are transformed. A word of God’s law is written on our hearts. Christ draws us a little closer. Click To Tweet

And as we continue to serve day by day, our heart become cleaner and our spirits become more willing.

Because it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying to the ways of the world — to the lives that the rulers of this world demand from us — that we are born to eternal life.

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