Thursday, November 24, 2022

Nobody Knows...


Matthew 24:36-44
24:36 "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,

24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

24:43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.

24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.


I was in seminary before I learned that Advent was the beginning of the liturgical year, and that its focus was on the “second coming” of Christ. The two United Methodist Churches I attended as I was growing up--and later served on part-time lay staff in one of them--didn’t really follow the lectionary, nor did they observe the liturgical year very closely. We celebrated Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost (sort of), but that was pretty much it, in terms of the church year. Hence, my initiation to the liturgical year in seminary was a real education! I was most interested in the “second coming” emphasis of Advent. As a kid, Advent was nothing but a ramp-up to Christmas, and adulthood didn’t do much to add to this, on my part. I must admit, it still seems strange that in the traditions of the Christian faith, celebrating the idea of Christ’s return before we herald his birth, is the ”appropriate” order of things. I also must admit that the further I got from my seminary years, the more I tended to revert to the ramp-up-to-Christmas Advent motif, over the second-coming stuff. Why? Wanting to please the “customers,” I guess. And I have never gotten over the excitement of the Christmas season, personally. I love all of the atmosphere of Christmas—lights, sounds, treats, presents--and so why deprive my people of it by delaying the “Joy to the World” until December 25? I know, I know, liturgical purists go absolutely gorilla-ape over singing Christmas hymns “prematurely,” and even judge us for mentioning Christ’s birth until “December Five and Twenty, Fum, Fum, Fum…” Still, I kept letting “Christmas Creep” become a bigger and bigger thing. And the “customers” were much happier, as were the children, and my spirit, that was vexed by the occasional liturgical police. Fum, Fum, Fum…


However, if one preaches from the lectionary—as I have purposed to do for these retirement sermons—Advent texts are about the second coming of Jesus, such as today’s passage from Matthew 24. The good news is that all believers should be excited about the prospects of Jesus returning, because that’s a good thing, right? The bad news is that some of these texts make it sound like he’s coming back in a bad mood, and some poor souls get “Left Behind,” (alluding to a popular but theologically lame book and movie series that scared the pants off people a number of years ago). Oh, and no one knows when this “second coming” is going to happen—not us, not angels, not Jesus himself. Today’s text says only “the Father” knows. What? If Jesus IS God, how is this possible? The “persons” of the Holy Trinity keep secrets from each other? Is Jesus kept in the dark as a kind of incentive to do better work saving the world? What about the Holy Spirit? Does SHE know when Jesus is returning? About these things, it appears nobody knows, except “the Father,” which seems to indicate a hierarchy in something in which we don’t believe one exists. Can we make any sense of this?


Let’s take a stab at it, shall we? You have probably heard the allegory used occasionally to explain the Trinity by saying something like this: 


I’m Jeff, but I’m also a son, a husband, a father, and now a grandfather. I’m still just one person, but I have several ‘roles’ or identities within my personhood. And each has its own rules and boundaries. 


Might the godhead be like this? While all three “persons” of the Trinity are really one “person,” each has a unique role to play in fully actualizing God and God’s work in the world. And within these roles, different “rules” may apply, such as the rule that only “the Father” knows the date of the endgame for Christ’s final reconciling of the world, as empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit in that world. If there is to BE an endgame, some “part” of God must know when that is, however the other “parts” that are integral to redemption and reconciliation of the creation to God aren’t privy to that day or hour, as it might severely affect their efforts to accomplish this goal, and may add a note of unfairness to it. For example, many years ago, a “B-grade” science fiction movie (“When Worlds Collide”) hypothesized that if scientists knew that a cataclysmic end is close on the horizon for Planet Earth, they might steer resources toward rescuing a human remnant. And, knowing they could only transport a fraction of the human population off world, they might exclusively choose the brightest and best to preserve, leading to a monumental unfairness on the part of those left behind. Likewise, if Jesus knew the schedule for the Parousia, might he, too, seek to rescue only the most “holy” or most “obedient” disciples? Or might the Holy Spirit kick in a heavy dose of power (“signs and wonders”?) to quickly convince people to get their act together? These are difficult questions, aren’t they? And I’m pretty sure some of my allegorical “explanations” are heresy. The truth is, in terms of what the real answers are to these questions, nobody knows (again, except “the Father”).


Of course, all of this is highly theoretical, which is something I like to dabble in, but you, as my “listeners” this week may have no interest in. So, what practical spiritual guidance can we glean from this Matthew text? 


The text says that the days leading up to the return of Christ will be “like the days of Noah.” I think that means that many will be clueless, eating, drinking, marrying—basically just going on with life—without knowing the flood is coming. My first reaction to that is, “Of COURSE they will be doing that!” If not even Jesus “knows” when this will happen, why should John or Jane Q. Public? While the Bible says that the “days were evil,” and that God was choosing to “punish the earth” for it by sending the great flood, we should remember that history is written by the winners—in this case, the “deserving” remnant that was rescued. What if God knew a flood was coming, and just chose Noah as an example and spokesperson to show the world how to keep from being swept away by it? Is this just another colorful story we find in the Bible designed to tell of God’s continuing desire to save the world, even if only an alert remnant makes it each epoch? If so, the Matthew 24 text is another in these cautionary tales about how to be part of “the remnant.” None of us wants to be the “one left” in the story, presuming the ones who are “taken” are the ones being rescued by God. 


Here we have another paradox, however. If people are being snatched away in God’s rescue effort, then why is Jesus returning to the earth? Is he coming back merely to judge those left behind? This interpretation presupposes an angry, judgmental God, a much broader “clueless” human residual, and a precious few who find redemption. This does not sound like the loving, forgiving, accepting Jesus we find elsewhere in the Gospels, and looks a lot more like something predicted by those who believe they are inseparably part of the redeemed (the “winners”). If this sounds needlessly complicated, then you are beginning to be enlightened. Which “voices” in these apocalyptic texts to give credence to is a key “filtering” question one must ask in interpreting them. Where is the good news here?


The good news is that God in Christ desires to save and reconcile. That some may not choose to receive this free offer is an unfortunate side effect of God’s creation gift of free will, but the will of God is to redeem and reconcile. Who are we to question the power of this will and the breadth of God’s grace in making this happen on a very large scale? There may be significance to the Matthew “left behind” story only talking about a handful of “left behinds.” That one “is taken” and another “left behind” should not be viewed as a poll indicating that only half of the world shall be saved! The purpose of the story is to encourage people to “stay awake,” akin to the parable of the ten virgins and their lamps awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. Both stories are about preparedness for the “journey.” Be ready; stay awake. Doing so may say more about our role as believers to guide and encourage others who don’t yet “get it,” than it does about our own salvation.


We should not be anxious about our redemption, if we have come to believe in the saving efficacy of Jesus Christ, and our stage of “readiness” is evidenced by our lifestyle as a Christian disciple. Remember what they tell you on the airplane—in case of a depressurization emergency, put on your oxygen mask first and THEN help others with theirs. As believers, we should see today’s text as saying we should be moving toward the “helping others with theirs” phase of the coming emergency. 


I’m intrigued by the twist at the end of the text about “not letting your house be broken into.” Is this a metaphor for maintaining and nurturing your most significant relationships? How many times have I seen Christians—especially those called by God to service or ministry-related occupations—feel they are doing something “good for God” by sacrificing their marriage or their family to their work? As a pastor, the hardest and most hurtful thing I have witnessed is when I see spouses or children of missionaries, clergy, or Christian academics move themselves into the “unbeliever” category for reasons of neglect. Friends, whether you are a lay believer or a called servant of God, “don’t let your house be broken into.”


Books have been written, movies made, and countless sermons preached that aim to “figure out” the schedule for the return of the Son of God into the world. A whole “cult” has grown up around a fictional event usually labeled “the rapture.” It has spawned a fatalistic philosophy that basically concludes, “Oh well, we can’t fix it, and Jesus is going to come back, anyway, and make it all right.” This idea is wholly counter to what we read in Matthew 24! We are called to “fix it,” to “put our oxygen mask on first and then help others with theirs,” and to offer the grace of God to everyone we see who is struggling. We are urged to “stay awake” and “live prepared” for Christ’s coming again, fully aware that nobody but “the Father” knows when it will happen. I once heard a suggestion that we should “live as though each day were our last, but plan our lives like we know we will be around for a hundred more years.” That is good counsel, at least according to this text. 


As we enter the 2022 Advent season, may you resolve anew to grow your discipleship lifestyle so it becomes increasingly more seamless with “who you are” as others see you. If you want to hasten the return of Jesus, live more like him and encourage others to do so, as well. Keep alert to opportunities to help others don their “oxygen mask.” And together, may we work to fix the world so when Jesus returns, he won’t find a hovel of a planet inhabited by a self-absorbed people. Amen. Oh, and for this First Sunday of Advent, I’m singing “Joy to the World.”


P.S. Since I don’t like the depressing Advent hymns in the U.M. Hymnal, this year I wrote my own, sung to the “Hymn to Joy” by Beethoven (“Joyful, Joyful…”, No. 89 in the U.M. Hymnal). You are free to use it, with appropriate attribution to the author! 


Advent Song [Tune: “Hymn to Joy” by Ludwig von Beethoven]

1. Joy-filled Advent candle's burning, church folk singing joyfully,
People, come and join the chorus, share our great redemption song!
Children smiling, parents watching, all anticipate the day,
When the Savior's second coming brings God's kin-dom to this place.

2. Hope is why this candle's shining, light that warms the hurting soul,
In Christ Jesus we find comfort, and the will to carry on.
In a world where darkness hovers, Hope gives courage to us all,
To confront the evil powers that oppress and spread a pall.

3. Love is in this candle's brightness, fueling flames of God's embrace,
No one can escape the wideness of God's ever-present Grace!
Hate is vanquished, biases cast down, by a love that will prevail,
Jesus' love is always with us, in our hearts and in the world.

4. In this candle peace burns brightly, promising Gods healing hand,
Jesus, as its Prince, announces peace for all across the land.
War will end and swords and sharp spears all become the farmers' tools,
When Christ comes again in glory, claiming earth for his just rule.

5. One White candle's left unburning, 'til the birth of Christ the Lord,
Even though it's not yet lighted, still its light is shining through.
Joy and Hope point to Christ's Love, which will usher in God's Peace, 
Knowing Christ will come once more, encourages us to live in peace!


CopyrightÓ2022, J.D. Sterling



Saturday, November 19, 2022




Colossians 1:11-20
1:11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully

1:12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

1:13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,

1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;

1:16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him.

1:17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

1:18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

1:19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

1:20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.



What does your “Nirvana” look like? Your “Shangri La?” For some people, it is a real place, such as a beautiful Caribbean beach or a wooded campground. I have friends for whom a trip to Disneyworld is like a vacation in heaven. Others find peace at a concert by their favorite band, or on a shopping trip to their “bestie” stores. Still others take a trip to a fantasy world, the product of reading a book or watching a film. Have you ever taken time to ponder this question? Where do YOU find peace? What brings you some version of transcendental joy? [Note here that we’re talking about some “ultimate” place of escape, one that is beyond the incredible, yet real sources of joy in life, such as those intimate times with our most precious partner, the joys of parenting and watching our children—or grandchildren—grow up, or time spent with a best friend.] 


Another way to ask the question is, “Where is your happy place? It may have a geography, or it may exist solely in your imagination. 


I must confess, that as one who has an over-active imagination, and the gift of being able to visit many “happy places,” I have quite a list. In fact, the line between the “real” experiences of joy and the ones I can meditate on in my mind is very thin. Maybe that would be interesting to a psychologist; I might even have some anomaly or pathology that explains this, but frankly, I like it, and really find great joy in these many “places.” I’m not bragging here, just stating a reality that, at least in my mind, is a gift. I suppose this ability to “escape” without using drugs or smoking “funny cigarettes” is why I enjoyed growing up in the 70s, when many others were experimenting with those things. I could “go there” without going there. Also, I was a product of the space age, growing up through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, before graduating on to the Space Shuttle era. I have been a rabid “fan” of space exploration, as it sets off my “exploring” imagination. I own an official SpaceX “staff” polo shirt, and set my alarm for 1:00AM this past Wednesday to watch the launch of Artemis I. The opportunity a few years ago to spend two full days at the Kennedy Space Center was a personal trip to Nirvana. And It was just one more way for Dara to demonstrate her love for me, in that she indulged it, reminding me during the Canaveral trip that “You’re the spaceyone!” 


So, in retirement, I’ve indulged most of these “ethereal” happy places. I have returned to reading some of the classics such as Moby Dick. I’ve been watching the many DVDs I’ve acquired that cover the space program, from “Eight Days to Moon,” a PBS special, to “From the Earth to the Moon,” a documentary on the entire Apollo program by Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. And, I’ve gone back to watch two SyFy series that sounded SO interesting when they aired on that cable channel, but which my church schedule kept me from seeing when they were in their original run: Warehouse 13 and Eureka


Eureka is the one that most “transports” me to a happy place. For the uninitiated, this series is about a mythical town founded by Albert Einstein after World War II ends, named “Eureka.” A statue of Archimedes adorns the town square. (If you don’t know your science, the popular myth told about Archimedes (circa 287-212 BCE) is that as he was pondering how to measure the volume of an irregular shaped object, he climbed into a hot bath, and notice that the level of water in the bath went up as he lowered himself into the tub. He had his “ah-ha” moment, and ran excitedly down a public street shouting “Eureka!” while still dripping naked.) The town of Eureka is populated by the brightest minds in the country. If you don’t have a Ph.D., you ain’t nothin’ here. Even the restauranteur who runs the popular “Café Diem” has a Ph.D. in “molecular gastronomy.” The storyline is basically narrated by “Jack Carter,” the town Sheriff, who happens on the novel hamlet quite by accident, but as a U.S. Marshall, he ends up being the right man in the wrong place, and is “hired” as Eureka’s lawman. In the center of Eureka is its largest employer, a Department of Defense-sponsored thinktank called “Global Dynamics.” If you like to put theological labels on such interesting stories, Jack Carter (JC, get it?) is the Christ figure in the story, pretty much being the savior of the town in each episode.


Two things really make Eureka a stimulating happy place for me: The idea of so many brilliant minds being brought together to dream, hypothesize, experiment, and discover; and the cutting edge science and quantum theory that pepper the show, most of which—while exaggerated and fictionalized—the creators of the series made sure has some basis in fact. (I know, I’m really a geek, as I read a lot about that stuff.) It all gives the program a spiritual base, as the secrets of the universe are both uncovered and usually tampered with to such a degree it precipitates a crisis in each episode. The cast of “disciples” on Eureka include the brilliant African American Ph.D., Dr. Henry Deacon; the young but impetuous genius, Douglas Fargo, the beautiful Director of Global Dynamics, a dual Ph.D. and M.D. African American, Dr. Allison Blake, and a young, male felon who also happens to be an M.I.T. educated and master of particle physics, Zane Donovan. Eureka has a resemblance to another fictional town, Lake Wobegon, but in Eureka, it really IS true that it is a place “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” In spades.


Now, I know you think I’ve taken you down a rabbit trail, but here is where we get to this weekend’s lectionary passage from Colossians. In this text, the author (allegedly the Apostle Paul) kind of “goes nuts” with ethereal and highly theoretical God language about the creation. Like in Eureka, no postulate is too highfalutin as to be unbelievable. The idea of a divine creator both crafting the universe and holding it together somewhat Zeus-like is quite real to this author. His narrative would have certainly charmed the intellectuals in the Greco-Roman world of his day. Let’s look at some of those postulates spelled out in Colossians 1:


*the [Heavenly] Father…has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.


*[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness


*[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.


*for in [Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible


*in [Christ] all things hold together


*[Christ] is the firstborn of the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything


*in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell


*through him God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.


Not only are these highly philosophical ideas, but they border on the “science” of matter and creation. In invoking images of “light and darkness,” the author is going beyond symbolism to suggest that these basic elements of the creation story from genesis are more than just poetic in nature. Light is a force, we know now, and darkness, or what science calls “dark matter” is a force as well. Whether one is talking about the dark matter that permeates the universe and separates star from star, galaxy from galaxy, or the utter blackness of “Black Holes,” the author says that Christ “has rescued us” from the “power of darkness.” The light in which we live—indeed the light that makes all life possible and separates us from the darkness—has its source in the divine. When Jesus proclaims that HE is the light of the world, he is alluding to the same cosmic connection that the Colossians author is invoking in this mystical narrative. And in “rescuing” us from the smothering forces of darkness, we are deemed “children of the light.” 


Not only is there something sacred about light, there is something—actually many somethings—quite fascinating about it as well. Light may be the very “fabric” of creation. Even modern science doesn’t fully understand what light IS. On one hand, It behaves like a particle, and yet on the other, like a wave. It is made up of photons, which somehow are able to “communicate” with one another, and they exert a force on everything they “hit,” albeit quite miniscule. We can capture evidence of these photons on photographic film or on an electronic sensor, which is what makes photography possible. 


Einstein (and a million physicists since) have said that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, which is about 186,272 miles per second—much faster than a Tesla on Ludicrous Speed. This celestial speed limit is derived from Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2, where “E” is “energy,” “M” is “mass,” and “C” is the speed of light, which is “squared,” in the equation. From what I’ve read, the closer one gets to the speed of light, the more of one’s mass is converted to energy, until that’s all that is left. Talk about “burning rubber!” All that said, this is just another illustration of the “magic” of light, and how it is at the very center of the created order. No wonder Jesus, who embodied the fullness of God, called himself the “light of the world.” And no wonder a first century thinker like the author of Colossians made it such an important part of his effort to explain how the universe works to us.


Speaking of which, one of the most unusual parts of this narrative, and the one that has fascinated me ever since my faith “grew up” beyond the little painted chairs of the Sunday School, is in verse 17, where it says that “in him, all things hold together.” Science tells us that we, and all the matter that makes up the universe, is actually a coordinated series of “energy events” held together by some mysterious force, often dubbed the “strong nuclear force.” We know it’s an awesome force, for splitting an atom yields a whole lot of energy, as witnessed to by nuclear power reactors and hydrogen bombs. Could it be that this force is actually the hand of God? Or even more specifically, the incarnate Jesus Christ? Ponder that one for a while. It’s truly mystical to think that we are a miraculous bundle of energy given life and held together by the very hand of God. 


This sermon is already getting too long, but it could be worth exploring what the text means when it says in verse 20 that God is “pleased to reconcile all things to [Godself]…by the blood of [Christ’s] cross.” Blood is pretty much as miraculous and impossible to understand as light. We know that it is an iron-based fluid that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body, but we can’t replicate it, despite numerous attempts to do so. [A number of years ago, medical science came up with a blood substitute called “fluosol” that may be a temporary substitute for some percentage of the body’s blood, but it IS temporary, used only in the case of blood emergencies.] Blood, light, and the “cohesive force” of the hand of God—makes us possible, reconciles us to the Creator, and gives life vector and meaning. Who said scripture was “boring?”


Back to Eureka. Most good drama borrows from the immensely pregnant narratives in the Bible. It just does, if the story is to be good. The SyFy series Eureka did an entertaining job of blending science with spiritual subject matter and good old storytelling. You had your Christ figure, the inquisitive human mind (how many times were the words of the prophets, the teachings of Jesus, or the letters of Paul precipitated by good questions from inquiring minds, or crises that popped up, due to human failings? So many times in this TV show, the crisis began with a brilliant mind unlocking some deep secret of the creation, turning something loose into the world that we weren’t ready to manage. Sound familiar? While I don’t like to “go negative” very often, isn’t much of what we (and the Bible) calls “sin,” just this? Us, unlocking something that the Creator didn’t want let out, or at least not YET? Yes, we are often guilty of premature speculation. 50 years ago, it would have been considered a heinous sin against God’s created order to play around with human ovum and sperm outside of the “normal” way of human procreation. Now, there are countless individuals walking around in our midst who were the product of a petri dish and a prodding scientist.


The author of Colossians is giving us good stuff to ponder, and I believe she/he is giving us permission to wonder, as well. God is so much more, this writer is saying, than a “religious” overlord who demands obedience to a list of rules and precepts. This is an interactive Creator who wishes her people well in their own investigations about the nature of the universe, and ourselves. And Jesus Christ is the fulcrum or the center of the Creator/human creation link, first to reconcile us from the error that separated us, and then to provide the necessary light and energy for our life as Children of God. Eureka! Believe, love, live, and explore! These are the things that God offers to us, and these are the things that make God happy when we do them, with passion, purpose, and power. Amen!


P.S. If you have access to Eureka on Prime Video, or wherever, and you love Christmas as much as I do, view Season 4, Episode 10. You’ll love it!


Friday, November 11, 2022

Future Shock...

 “Future Shock” 

Isaiah 65:17-25
65:17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

65:18 But 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.

65:19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

65:20 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, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

65:21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

65:22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

65:23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-- and their descendants as well.

65:24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

65:25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent--its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.


From Wikipedia:


Future Shock is a 1970 book by American futurist Alvin Toffler written together with his spouse Adelaide Farrell, in which the authors define the term "future shock" as a certain psychological state of individuals and entire societies. The shortest definition for the term in the book is a personal perception of "too much change in too short a period of time". The book, which became an international bestseller, has sold over 6 million copies and has been widely translated.


Alvin Toffler argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a "super-industrial society". This change overwhelms people. He argues that the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaves people disconnected and suffering from "shattering stress and disorientation"—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock he popularized the term "information overload."


Can any of you argue that this 1970s-era thesis hasn’t come true, and mostly in our time? If Toffler and Farrell were writing today, they might exchange the term, “super-industrial society” with “technology-based society,” but other than that, the husband and wife team certainly hit the nail on the head, didn’t they? 


The polarization we see in our society is fed by “tribalism,” fear, and a perceived need to “circle the wagons” in defense of our faction, be it political, religious, or patriotic. “Groupthink,” a William Whyte derivation of George Orwell’s “doublethink,” binds us together in our tribes, and is energized by media products custom-designed to energize each “group” or tribe, and greased by our selective and dangerously synergistic “friends” on Twitter or Facebook. Toffler’s “information overload” might not be such a bad thing, if the information we were being overloaded with was accurate and contextualized. After all, we could then just “turn off the spigot,” when the overload set in. Unfortunately, the evolved need to flood the audience with content to keep it tuned in, and to satisfy advertisers and sponsors, has made it near impossible to turn it off. And worse yet, this demand for constant flow means fact-checking, good reporting, and responsible journalism are often jettisoned in favor of maintaining the information deluge. 


A case can be made that we are living in the “future” of the Toffler/Farrell “future shock.” Are we shocked yet? As one with an undergraduate degree in journalism, and with a passion for it, done well, I know I am. I find it unsettling that even in gold standard newspapers such as the Washington Post or the New York Times, I can hardly read an issue without witnessing poorly-written sentences that hint at “doublethink,” on the part of the writer, or paragraphs of the reporter’s “commentary” salted within a news story. When I was in journalism school, this was anathema. Get beyond these two stellar national papers, and the quality of reporting—and even the intentional op-ed content—degrades measurably. Even more troubling is the epidemic of closure of local dailies or weeklies. Just this past week, I read of the end of the Titusville Herald, a 157-year-old journal that ceased publication last Saturday (I’m from nearby Oil City, PA). Many in the field of news reporting have, for years, decried the popular shift to television news, a medium that reduces complicated stories to 35-second soundbites, stacked in order of shock and awe in the nightly newscast, and completely overshadowed by the weather report.


It gets worse, for us journalists. Now we have the Internet and social media. Not only does this emerging medium lend itself to even further condensation of complex issues, but it allows instant “commentary” on the part of content consumers. While I respect the First Amendment, and everyone’s “right” to speaking their piece about what they read, Jeff Goldblum’s character in the movie Jurassic Park said it so eloquently, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” And regarding the “stories” one may find on the Internet, or may even have received as a link from a friend, let me suggest a tactic I use: Check the source, Google the author, and run any accounts that seem preposterous through a fact-checker. They used to say that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Let’s update that to say, “If something sounds too preposterous to be true, it probably ISN’T true.” Just witness the plague of television and social media ads this past political campaign season infected us with. I’ll be darned if I could find even one responsible assertion or provable fact in the lot. However, it is one thing for political campaign ads to yank the heart strings in an effort to land a vote, but it is quite another thing for good newspapers or responsible journalism to do so. 


The Tofflers define “future shock” as social change that leaves people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation.” Anyone feel that? Anyone NOT feel that? Unless you have retreated so fully into one of the tribal cabals and shut yourself off from any information source that your particular cult endorses, you feel it, too. What are we to do?


Today’s passage from Isaiah should give us hope that a better world is available to us, and is even in the broader vision of our Creator God. Our Jewish siblings believe that God gave the law to lead us toward this better place where all may find happiness and blessed individual freedom, as well as a beloved community. The Jews believe God has called them, as a people, to engage in something called tikkun olam, or “fixing the world.” We Christians believe Jesus Christ was God’s down payment on that goal, erasing sin, making forgiveness and reconciliation not only a possibility for us all, but setting it as a lifestyle for us, and assuring us that there WILL be a “new world coming.” Jesus continued teaching God’s law, but in a form we can both more easily understand and assimilate, thanks to the power of love, and the balm of grace. What might this “new world” look like?

If we look to Isaiah, who seems to predict some of what we read in later apocalyptic literature such as Revelation, we find that God will bring about a “new heavens and a new earth.” While this may certainly be interpreted to refer to a post-historical, even “heavenly” period, there is another possibility. What if “new heavens and new earth” refers to a renewed planet and ecosystem brought about by human “repairing,” enhanced by divine wisdom and collaboration with the miraculous systems God created when God made the earth, in the first place? This would certainly be in keeping with the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam.


We know that the prophets’ invoking of “Jerusalem” may be understood as the “code” for good and just government on earth, one that works in accord with God’s desire and plan for justice for all humanity. Even as every ancient Jew longed for the day when “Zion” or Jerusalem would be the center of the world, so modern people would experience God’s joy if justice became a reality for all of the people of the earth, coupled with equity of resources and a universal appreciation of our home world, provoking us to become better stewards of it.


Let’s dream a bit with Isaiah:


*Imagine a world where there is no more weeping or distress, apart from that which accompanies the regular rhythms of life and death.


*Imagine a world where disease is conquered such that this emerging, joyful life lasts a long, long time, and without the typical ravages of age.


*Imagine a world where there is no more homelessness, and where farming and agriculture will again flourish to feed the world.


*Imagine a world where corn and grains no longer have to be grown to supplement waning fossil fuels to fill gas tanks, but where the sun, wind, and new technologies power our transportation, our exploration, and our infrastructure.


*Imagine a world where this magnitude of justice and peace brings us so close to the God who conceived it that we no longer feel so distant and separated from our God. Prayer becomes less of a plea than a joyful praise to God for the resulting goodness we see all around us.


*Imagine a world where the other creatures live in balance with humanity and each other to such a degree that the natural equilibrium with which God created them all is restored. Literally, the lion lying down with the lamb, and the wolf and the lamb feeding together. Maybe even Republicans and Democrats sharing a sandwich together without a food fight ensuing!


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian theologian, imagined the emerging of what he called a “religionless Christianity.” His vision was a world where our relationship with Jesus Christ became so integrated that we no longer needed to “practice” a religion based on rituals, rubrics, and rules, and riddled with disputes and schisms. The incarnational Jesus would inhabit not only the souls of believers, but would permeate our whole way of life. Laws would be replaced by love, judgment by grace, and harsh, harmful words by the Word of God. Hope would edge out fear and joy would cleanse our hearts of distress and anxiety. Imagine THAT world!


In the words of the late John Lennon:


Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky

Imagine all the people
Livin' for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin' life in peace

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one


Sounds like he read Isaiah 65, with a side order of Bonhoeffer. Does this sound too good to be true to you?


It will, unless you understand vision. A vision is a far-off goal that guides our close-up planning. Often, vision sounds improbable, if not impossible. The wide-eyed administrators and scientists of NASA must have felt that way when President Kennedy surprised them with the “Man on the Moon by the end of the decade” vision. But Kennedy’s death added resolve to the fulfilment of that vision, and we all know what happened. What if we looked to Jesus’ death on the cross as giving the church and believers that same boost in resolve? Jesus even kick-started his vision of the “new world,” by sending the Holy Spirit as our guide, teacher, and power source to make it happen. 


May the great biblical vision of such a wonderful world give us ALL hope, and inspire us to pray and act like it really can be brought about. Let’s start with a commitment to the truth—real facts, not “alternative facts.” May we believe that, with God’s help, we can turn Alvin Toffler’s prediction of “Future Shock” into Isaiah’s vision of “Future Joy!” Amen.

Friday, November 4, 2022

How the Hell did this Happen?


“How the Hell did this Happen?”


Haggai 1:15b-2:9
2:1 In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying:

2:2 Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say,

2:3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?

2:4 Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts,

2:5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.

2:6 For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land;

2:7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts.

2:8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts.

2:9 The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.



The irreverent title of this weekend’s sermon is actually the title of a book by noted conservative satirist, P.J. O’Rourke. The author was addressing the Presidential election of 2016, and wondering, from the perspective of a classic Republican conservative, how an unpredictable, former-Democrat-turned-ultra-right-wing rich guy got elected to the nation’s top office. Even if you were a supporter of Donald Trump, you must admit that his election caught even him off guard, and his lack of advanced preparation for the office nearly paralyzed the federal government for almost two years. Even after his defeat for re-election in 2020, the U.S. State Department, and a host of other such departments, were understaffed and short on top leaders. The Biden administration has had to play a massive game of catch-up, in order to put much of the “service” sector of the government back on line. The inconsistencies of the Trump administration, likewise, were not surprising to a critic with long-standing conservative credentials like O’Rourke, who predicted the kind of disarray he brought to the office of President of the United States. On one hand, he could be “tough” on China over trade policies, while on the other, offering “solace” and heaping praise on totalitarian regimes such as Russia and Putin, and North Korea and Kim. When the global pandemic “came home” to the U.S., Trump launched “Operation Warp Speed” to create and perfect a vaccine, which succeeded admirably, while later attacking its leaders and undermining his own historic efforts to beat the virus. President Trump wrote executive orders aimed at reducing the jailing of African Americans for petty crimes (which has been labeled “mass incarceration”), and yet pushed law enforcement policies that many saw as racist over-reactions, especially when protests occurred over the shooting of unarmed African Americans, and the killing of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin. The inconsistencies and undisciplined governance of President Donald Trump, while not surprising to the How the Hell did this Happen? author, P.J. O’Rourke, continued to amaze him and others when Trump refused to accept that he lost his re-election campaign in 2020, and has succeeded in sowing the seeds of doubt into the fabric of the American electoral process. O’Rourke died in February of 2022. Donald Trump lives to fight another day.


I relate this saga, because when I read this weekend’s lectionary passage from Haggai, and especially verse three--Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?—all I could think of was O’Rourke’s book, How the Hell did this Happen? Haggai addresses a people that has had the blessing of God from their very beginning, has had the presence of God all along their journey, and now is hearing a fresh promise of God through the prophet. With all of this going for them, how could they possible putt things up so badly as to have even forgotten their “former glory”? Israel had a way of doing that. In a nutshell, when things were going poorly for them, or when they were threatened by a new enemy, they would cry out to God. But when things turned around for them—usually because God stepped in—they patted themselves on the back, took all the credit, and followed up by selecting dysfunctional leaders who offered little direction and let the wicked and power-hungry ones thrive, while the poor, the immigrants, and the “commoners” suffer. Sound familiar? Oh, and Israel never learns! Here we are in November of 2022, and the modern State of Israel, just recently fresh off the corrupt administration of Benjamin Netanyahu, having begun to rebuild at least some of their tarnished national image, has just held another election and guess who they are going to restore to power? Yep. The same scoundrel whose corruption manufactured the tarnish! Welcome back, Bibi. Where is another Haggai when you need him? Or Jeremiah? Or Elijah? 


Our own country is in the midst of one of those moments when the ending of a pandemic—a GOOD thing—has left us with high inflation and growing crime, due to the new “freedom” granted by public activity coming to life again. So, it’s time to start blaming someone for these, and with elections coming, the incumbents are in the crosshairs. Chances are, next Tuesday’s mid-term elections will swing the balance of power yet again. And chances are, the remedies that will be proposed will make matters worse, because that regime tends toward strengthening the position of the power-brokers, rather than the poor and downtrodden. The cycle goes back and forth, back and forth here, but the overarching results are not good for those who suffer and seem always to bolster those holding the massive purse-strings, be they the larder of government or the king’s ransom riches of the billionaire businessmen. The United States fits very well into the critique of government, corruption, and lust for power that cyclically infested God’s people Israel. If we—or Israel—would ever listen, God has something that would save us from this national crisis cycle. But will we?


What God offers us is a promise—a promise of prosperity. In the Haggai text, God offers the “gold and silver,” which are God’s, and promises to “restore the splendor” of our “house,” making it even greater than the “former splendor.” What will it take to receive this promise of the Most High? Well, first of all, the prophet says we must speak to the leaders. They are in charge, and unless we can convince them there is a “better way” to run the country, we’re dead in the water. Secondly, God says that the very foundations must be shaken. We can take that to mean that we must break the “cycles” of attack, blame, and electing new leaders with the same empty promises. As long as “liberals” and “conservatives” in the United States or “Labor” and “Likud” in Israel, see this as a political duel to the death, we are doomed. “Shaking the foundations” of leadership means finding common ground and working together, something that sounds like an impossibility now, but remember, nothing is impossible with God. It will require a change in focus, away from power and dominion to the needs of the people and paying attention to fixing the problems that affect “the least of these,” as Jesus would say. If we continue to pat ourselves on the back while in power—and I’m aiming this at both parties—then we will never find the prosperity the promise of God entails. 


One of my pastors used to say, “God’s work, done God’s way, gets God’s provision.” I think that is exactly what Haggai is trying to tell Israel, and we Americans should be listening, too. And American Christians are not in the right “camp” either, right now, as we seem bent on telling others what they cannot do, rather than having the compassion to see that what so many can’t do is survive. Homelessness is rampant, immigrants—long the lifeblood of our democracy, as well as much of its hardcore workforce—are being persecuted at best and deported, at worst, and gun violence is paralyzing our communities. The fact that you are spending an extra $25 to fill your Land Rover is not the central problem facing our nation right now. We have eschewed the presence and promise of God, which necessarily require us to love our neighbor as ourselves and find solutions for those who suffer. Remember, God’s work done God’s way gets God’s provision. People of faith can’t even come to an agreement on what God’s WORK is, let alone how we do it in God’s WAY. The prophets are trying to remind us that God’s WAY is an holistic way—one that addresses the needs, desires, and talents of ALL of God’s people, not just a select few who happen to agree with our little evangelical clique. At a national level, Republicans, if left to their own devices, will pull back the positive forces of government in order to offer bigger tax cuts to those who fund their efforts, and Democrats, if they get their way, will spread resources thin trying to placate the needy factions that put them in power, without addressing the root cause of poverty, and the ignorance that creates it, feeds the national sin of racism, and causes people to turn away from participatory governance. In all cases, the proverbial both/and that could legitimately help us adopt more compassionate and “Godly” policies for all, is being drowned out by the eternal either/or of fighting political factions. This is why Haggai begins his prophecy by saying we must speak to the leaders.


We should note here that Jesus actually tried to do all of these things when he walked the earth. He “spoke to the leaders,” religious and political. He “shook the foundations” by aligning himself with the powerless, the sick, and the marginalized. He told us how to do “God’s WORK, God’s WAY.” And he got killed for it. This is not easy business, friends, as power and money do NOT go quietly into submission to the legitimate needs of the common folk, nor do they easily “agree” that fixing the broader problems of society will be in their best interests. Somehow, we must convince “the leaders”—political and holders of the purse-strings—that it WILL be in their best interests, and in those of their children and grandchildren, if we make the world better and safer for all. And that if we do, the third “leg” of God’s promise will kick in—God’s PROVISION!


From a Christian perspective, we must come to realize that Jesus wasn’t a Republican, Jesus was not a Democrat, Jesus wasn’t a Socialist, and he certainly wasn’t a Libertarian or a Totalitarian. Jesus was what God decided to put God’s best foot forward in—Jesus was human. (Please note that I’m not discounting the divine element of Christ here, and am not arguing against the doctrine of the Extra-Calvinisticum, or the continued presence of the divine in the human Jesus, but am making an important point.) Unless God decides God made a mistake in creating humanity, God believes we are still the best hope at bringing the promises of God to fruition on earth. God could have sent Jesus as a divine emissary to supernaturally “fix” us, but chose instead to invest in our very humanity with God’s own Son. That’s saying something. AND it speaks to those who tend to eschew the concept of the divine and see themselves merely as “humanists.” Christians should work quite nicely with humanists, as our aims should be the same, at least in terms of God’s work. We may disagree in some of God’s ways, but if we succeed together in bringing about God’s provision, no one will be unhappy about it, and it might even make a powerful witness to all.


If we don’t get serious about some of this business, it well may be God who looks at the world and asks, “How the hell did THIS happen?”


And finally, Jesus told us to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” This was his universal plea to pray for all of the people of God and those who govern them. As yet another American election is afoot, and one In Israel has just ended, it sure sounds like a good first step to me! Shalom, Dear Ones! Amen.

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...