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Sermon for June 23, 2019

Texts: Amos 7:7-17/Luke 10:25-37

Sermon Title: “God Wants Out’

      Let’s begin this morning with perhaps some of the best known words the apostle Paul ever wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.”

      “For now we see in a mirror, dimly…” You can place that statement among the category indisputable. In the second half of the statement—I will know fully, even as I am fully known—Paul invites us to consider possibilities that mortal life does not offer.

      We see dimly, but then sight will be perfected. Paul, writing to a Christian community facing serious challenges to establish itself, wants to assure that community that a final revelation awaits that will fully disclose the truth about which he has been writing them. Paul, of course, was writing as a disciple of Jesus Christ, his faith his interpretive lens.

Others, among them the writer of fiction, the Bible scholar, the philosopher, the theologian have taken their turn in conceptualizing what the dim mirror now obscures, religious faith motivating some, but not all of those efforts.

Paul does not say so here, but in other of his writing he is quite clear that the eternal truths would be revealed to him when he was united with the Lord. We have been taught that that place of reunion has a name, heaven. Heaven, thoughm having been given comparatively limited treatment in Scripture, has created a void which human speculation has been all too ready to fill.

      The notion that heaven, if not eternal life, exists is widely accepted even among many non-believers. But what does the place look like, what can expect if we get there? Speculation cuts a wide swath, with some of it depicting St. Peter to be heaven’s admitting officer and gatekeeper. 

Now there are many jokes and vignettes featuring St. Peter at the gate that I would reject for being inappropriate content for a sermon. However, if you will indulge me, this one was just too good to pass up.

Three men, two physicians and an HMO [health maintenance organization] case manager appeared before St. Peter.  The first physician submitted his application to enter by saying, “I was a pediatric spinal specialist.  I dedicated my career to helping children achieve a better quality of life.”  St. Peter readily invited him in. The second physician stated, “I was a psychiatrist in life, dedicating my career to helping people cope with mental illness.”  St. Peter invited him in.  The HMO case manager introduced himself by saying, “I managed the health care needs of hundreds of subscribers to our plan.”  Peter invited him, “Come in, you are entitled to a three day stay, and then you must go to hell.”  

I excuse the joke simply to illustrate the kind of content that finds its way into the popular culture on the subject of heaven. But there is more. Heaven in the popular mind has “pearly gates,’’ and streets paved with gold, and mansions on every corner.  Heaven is a place where a cloud would be a curiosity, a place with temperatures never exceeding 75 degrees with low humidity.  Heaven is the “National Geographic” perfect community only a hundred times better. In heaven beautiful gardens occupy the real estate we currently dedicate to jails, fire halls, hospitals, banks, and shopping malls.     

Heaven for many of us is that “better place,” to which we commend our deceased loved ones. In my own experience officiating at funerals and memorial services I was struck by the number of people who hadn’t darkened the door of the church in years, or have never even been part of a faith community, yet embraced the notion that there is some “better place” available to us in the afterlife. 

Whether a member of the world’s many faith traditions or not, it is safe to say that the afterlife provides a source of consolation and comfort to those of us who attempt, and often fail, to make sense of this confounding world in which we live. Whether a person of faith or not, we would like to think that there is something positive to which we can aspire when this earthly journey has ended.   

For now we see dimly.  We are, however, given liberty to speculate on what lies on the other side of the mirror, frankly much of that speculation emerging from sources other than the Bible.  So what are those sources?  Those sources are mortals like you and me who have allowed their imaginations to roam.   

The faith teaches that Jesus alone, among all those who have shared our mortal condition, has experienced the life in its perfected form. While the Gospel of John reports that Jesus told his disciples that he would prepare a place for them in this Father’s house, he did not go into specifics. Likewise, when the resurrected Jesus returned to his disciples after the resurrection he made no effort to describe what he experienced while he was away, instead he commissioned them to continue his work here on earth.

Though our projections about what life with God could very easily be fanciful, our faith is built on the conviction that the end of our days on earth is but the inauguration of another more fulfilling life than the one we are currently living, a life devoid of the pain and anxiety we experience on this side of the dim glass.

The dim glass was a barrier for the lawyer in this morning’s lesson, and he wanted to do something about it. There must be something he could do to insure that when the dim glass became transparent, he would like what he saw, and so we hear him ask the following question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Jesus, of course, had a knack for deducing the motivations behind the questions he was asked. Penetrating his questioner’s motivations he returned the man’s question with a question of his own, “What is written in the law?”  Quick with a response, the man responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jackpot, the man offered the best possible answer that could be given. Yet he ventured further, in the process exposing his motivations for asking the question concerning eternal life. Our lesson tells us that “wanting to justify himself,” [that’s important, “wanting to justify himself”] he asked the follow up question, “And who is my neighbor?” 

The law instructed him to love his neighbor, but in good conscience he wasn’t prepared for what that might entail. Did he fear his neighbor? Resent him? Pity him? Our lesson doesn’t offer details. We just know that his neighborliness was qualified.

One gets the sense that he didn’t want to define neighborliness too broadly. “Who is my neighbor?”  “Point him out and I will see if my love stretches that far.  There are certain conditions that must be met before I go further.”

Underlying the man’s question in our lesson was a desire to know how many points were needed in loving the neighbor to earn eternal standing before God.

How much? How far? How long? We seek to quantify.  How much do I need to do?  How far do I need to go to earn the reward I am seeking?   

“Tell me specifically what I must do, and I will do it?  Who is my neighbor?  Point her out and I’ll take it from there.”

The man wanted to meet his obligation, and no more. As long as he could check off his obligations under the law one by one it gave him the sense of control. It empowered him. He did away with all uncertainty. His reward could not be withheld. “I am righteous. Hid good deeds secured eternal life, heaven.               

  We define by subtraction.  “I’ve met every obligation.  Review the list, O Lord, and you will see.”  “Who is my neighbor?  How far do my obligations extend?” With that question lingering in the air Jesus resorted to a parable. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…. Sound familiar?  Accosted by robbers he was left half dead.  A priest and a Levite passed by the man, two men one might have expected to help the imperiled victim.  Didn’t happen.  Who shows up to help the man?  The Samaritan, the very person an upstanding Jew was taught to hate. 

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “How do I punch my ticket to heaven?” The great temptation is to fence God in, to presume that the unconditional love God shows me is not also available to my neighbor.

“What must we do to inherit eternal life?”  The man wanted a list with items he could check off. He saw heaven as a just reward for his good works. So what was wrong with that? Many of us hold that attitude. Good outcomes result from good works. There is undeniable logic in that thinking, only that is not the logic to which God subscribes.

The grace God dispenses has nothing to do with our deeds. God is not some divine paymaster who maintains a ledger, an account book, for each of us. God is bigger, his grace more far-reaching, than the mortal mind can fathom. God preserves the freedom to show up in the most unexpected places, and in the most unexpected people. It is not for us to “do” our way into eternal life but to preserve an openness to the lessons God is prepared to teach in the immediacy of the moment. Like the Samaritan in the parable, God shatters the divisions that we so carefully maintain.

The kingdom of God isn’t being built in Silicon Valley, or the world’s great research laboratories. That is not to say that humanity doesn’t benefit from the great creative strides being made in technology, medicine and science.

The kingdom of God is being built through the efforts of those who working on the city streets to provide housing for the homeless, by those who are working to insure that every child has enough to eat. The kingdom of God is being built where lives are being saved from addiction. You will never hear the good souls who are working on the frontlines to address basic human needs and promote social justice ask the question “who is my neighbor?” As God’s grace is dispensed liberally, so they, of themselves, dispense liberally.    

You and are free to allow our minds to ponder heaven and the afterlife, there is nothing wrong with that. But God is not waiting in heaven waiting for us to come him, he is in our midst challenging us to create heaven right here, right now.

Remember what Jesus did upon returning to his disciples after the resurrection. He didn’t spend time describing the wonders of the afterlife, instead he commissioned them to continue his work here on earth.  Thank God it was a commission they were willing to fulfill, for this world would look a lot different were it not for their efforts, and the efforts of those over the course of generations, who followed in their footsteps.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly,” but then we shall see face to face.” It just might be that when Paul wrote about [seeing] face to face he wasn’t referencing the afterlife at all but challenging his audience let their actions give birth to the wondrous things God had prepared for them. Carrying that idea further, the argument could be made that Jesus directed his conversation with the lawyer away from speculation concerning what lay beyond the dim mirror, to what he might do in the present to help give birth to God’s kingdom in their midst.

We have absorbed the notion that God is “out there” or “up there” in heaven, and that when our race on earth is run everything will be revealed. The reality is that God is not waiting to reveal eternal truths at some divinely appointed hour, the divinely appointed hour is this hour, and you and I are privileged to bare testimony to the one who as blessed us to live this hour. AMEN.

PRAYER

We gather here today, O Lord, as people of faith seeking understanding. Created in your very image, O God, we have been endowed with reason and creativity allowing us to accomplish amazing feats. We have left an indelible mark on this earth. Grant us wisdom equal to the challenges we face now that we recognize that lifestyle choices we have make, and are making, effect this world in adverse ways. We pray that the earth’s warning signs will be heeded, that in mobilizing for action the nations of the world may work to prevent catastrophe.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. The answer is not the one we are always prepared to hear, not when the skin color or customs of our neighbor are different than our own. We recognize the different and none conforming very easily, but your gospel, O Lord, calls us to acknowledge our common humanity as a first priority. Lord, forgive us when we allow prejudices to diminish us and distort our judgment. You have taught us, O Christ, that love casts out fear. Grant us wisdom sufficient to embrace that proposition.   

Awaken your people, O God, to the voice of reason and rationality in these fateful times. You come to us, Lord Jesus, as the Prince of Peace, but the world stubbornly insists on wasting its resources on armament.  O Christ, forgive our folly, the irrationality of thinking that weaponry can save us. May the leaders of nations adopt a global vision where peace becomes the central option.

 

Lord, you are ever more ready to hear then we are to pray, yet it is in and through our praying that our relationship with you is built and maintained. Even as your disciples asked you to teach them to pray, so we ask you to teach us to pray.  Be our counsel and guide, O God, in a domain that is unfamiliar to so many of us.  Renew our confidence in prayer, a confidence that we assert itself with more frequent and more authentic prayer.

Living God, embrace all who have gathered here for worship, support the wavering, strengthen the burdened, and may the troubled in spirit experience your peace and calm. Guided by your light may we go forth into the coming week with renewed assurance that you are near at hand in all contingencies we might face.

In the name of Christ we are bold to pray…