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Sermon for June 23, 2019

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

Sermon Title: “God Wants Out’

      Curiosity is a great gift, but what happens when vanity takes over and we assume that we know more than we actually know, or will ever know? We will meet a man this morning who succumbed to that very human failing. But more about him later.

There is so much we don’t know. So much that we will never know. That, of course, has only encouraged us to allow our imaginations to roam.

We will never know how close what we picture in the mind approximates reality itself, and that is certainly true when we ponder the holy. The Apostle Paul might have been onto something when he 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.”

      So what does that dim mirror obscure? Paul didn’t know, instead he maintained confidence that what was unknown would be revealed. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly…” Paul, of course, was writing as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and his faith his interpretive lens.

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.

We don’t know a lot about heaven, do we? In fact, is it really a place, or, as some have said, a condition. Though the Bible refers to heaven frequently it fails to elaborate very much on what it means. What does the place look like? What can we expect if we get there? Speculation cuts a wide swath. Is St. Peter really heaven’s admitting officer and gatekeeper? 

Now there are many jokes and vignettes featuring St. Peter at heaven’s 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 has evolved on the subject of heaven. But we have been exposed to much more. Heaven is depicted having “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 low humidity degrees.  Heaven is the “National Geographic” perfect community only a hundred times better.    

Heaven for many of us is that “better place,” to which we commend our loved ones who have passed on. 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” awaiting us when this life is over. 

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 when we attempt to make sense of a world blighted by such events as the murders carried out in El Paso and Dayton, a world where millions are consigned to poverty, a world where cancer and other diseases devastate. Whether we happen to be persons of faith or not, we would like to think that in the end, when the final accounting is made, peace and justice will reign.

Though our projections about what life with God could very easily be off the mark, your faith and mine is built on the conviction that a more fulfilling life is to come when this this life ends, 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 Jesus 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. He would have been wise to stop there, but pride urged him on, in the process exposing his motivations for asking the question. 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 turns out, however, that his neighborliness was qualified.

One gets the sense that he didn’t want to define neighborliness too broadly. “Who is my neighbor?”  Could Jesus point him?

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

How much? How far? How long? He wanted specifics. “Who is my neighbor?” Point her out and I’ll take it from there.”

The man wanted to meet his obligation, but first he wanted to know precisely what those obligations entailed. You see, 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, for he earned it.               

  If only Jesus would be more specific. The man was sure that he would pass the test. “Look at me, I’ve met every obligation.  Review the list, O Lord, and you will see.” 

“Who is my neighbor? 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 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, or the value we place on them. 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.

We cannot “do” our way into eternal life. Grace is not a reward for doing, it is a gift that precedes all our doing, a gift God confers on God’s own terms and by his own methods. Jesus, of course, embodied grace, and more frequently he took it to the last places you would expect to see it. Grace showed up where Jesus showed up, and that was most often among the sinners, tax collectors, and societies marginalized and ostracized. Jesus redefined the term “neighbor” to mean everyone.      

We look forward to that dim mirror to clear and to have the ultimate questions answers. For now you and are free to ponder heaven and the afterlife as much as we like, 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 through such neighborly acts as feeding and clothing the poor, and offering refuge to the stranger who has come to us seeking our help even without the means to support himself.

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. The disciples were slow to build momentum. They had flaws just like ours, and on top of that they were hounded and persecuted by the powers that be.       Grace sustained them in their trials, even as grace opened minds and hearts to the message Jesus placed in their keeping. While this was happening the neighborhood their efforts was building kept on expanding until it reached around the world, to the next generation, and even down to us. 

“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 referring to the afterlife at all, but challenging his audience to let their actions give birth to the wondrous things God had prepared for them.

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. Again, 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.

So what will we do with that blessing? Will we hold it close to our chest as a personal benefit, or will we follow the example of those who enriched this world with their neighborliness.

I for one know that there is a great deal more I could do to be neighborly. There certainly is no shortage of opportunities given me to display it. The question is will I embrace those opportunities, or will I allow fear of the neighbor turn me away? What do you think Jesus would have me do?

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…