Monday, October 27, 2014

present tense--a reflection for November 2 (All Saints/All Souls)

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

1 John 3.1-3, Matthew 5.1-12

Our culture seems to have a strange fascination with the afterlife. We make every effort to avoid death, yet the images of heaven and hell are too intriguing to turn away our eyes. Sometimes the church has played into that fascination by offering the carrot/stick method of evangelism, in which we entice people with promises of eternal bliss or threats of eternal torture. In this worldview, how we live in the now is sort of irrelevant—as long as we ask Jesus to love us and we’re basically good people, we’re through the pearly gates, and we can get even better seats by coming to church and volunteering sometimes.

Unfortunately, Scripture is lamentably vague on this topic. None of the handful of people raised from the dead offer any description or insight. All Jesus will say on the matter is that we don’t know anything and that our expectations are woefully inadequate. Yet still we wonder. What happens? How do we ensure the best outcome for ourselves and those we love, and a lesser outcome for those we don’t love?

1 John 3:2 reminds us “we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed” (NRSV). Even now, we are already chosen, already loved, already called. What we will be…well, no one knows about that yet, and it isn’t the point anyway. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “some people are so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.” 1 John reminds us to live as God’s children now, and wait (not obsess about!) for whatever will be revealed later.

Most of the Bible seems more intent on the here and now, on learning to love those we don’t love naturally, on facing those issues of hunger, injustice, heartache, mourning. When Jesus says “blessed are those” and follows that up with words like “weep” and “hunger,” we can’t just push that blessing off to the afterlife and let the suffering continue now. This is present-tense blessing, present-tense honor to go along with the present-tense suffering. How would the children of God respond to these situations? How would the children of God live as though love is just as present as weeping?

On All Saints/Souls, we have a tendency to focus only on the great cloud of witnesses, to remember those who have gone before and to wonder where they are now. We tend to think that they have entered the kingdom of God, while we wait to join them. Yet John writes to us that we are God’s children now. Can we adjust our perspective, so we too live in the kingdom of God now, and don’t worry about what is yet to be revealed? Can we participate in the blessing of the world, rather than waiting to escape it?

Monday, October 06, 2014

instant gratification--a reflection for October 12

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

Exodus 32

 It’s comforting to be reminded that our instant-gratification culture is not a byproduct of the digital age, nor a particular failing of “young people these days.” Unwillingness to wait, desire for immediate tangible results, and impatience with the mysterious slowness of spiritual life seem to go back millennia, rather than being a hallmark of the Millennial generation.

Couple that inability to wait with a leader willing to give in to the anxiety, and you have the perfect storm. How many congregations have also faced this problem? The people are anxious and uncertain, so demand a solution. The leader, even while knowing better, gives in to the demands, and soon we are worshipping something that is decidedly not God.

Part of the difficulty is that at least initially, the idea seems to make sense. People desire a deeper relationship with God—how can we resist giving it to them?

Resist we must, because no preacher, teacher, pastor, or parent has ever been able to simply hand spiritual depth over on a golden platter.

Building a relationship with our God takes time. Even face to face, it took many days for Moses and God to get to know each other well enough to reach the point where the commandments could be delivered, let alone the point where they spoke to one another “like a friend” (Ex. 33:11, NRSV). Desire for relationship is the first step, and the Israelites certainly had that. But a spiritual life, whether that of an individual or a community, also requires effort, energy, honesty, perseverance, endurance. We have to be willing to wait, to “trust in the slow work of God” (as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said), to sit in silence, to put in the same amount of time both listening and speaking as we would with a human friend.

But it is so much easier to work with something we can see and touch. As a leader it is so much easier to offer the cheap facsimile than to nurture true spiritual relationship. We know how this story ends: Moses ends up in the strange position of convincing God to reclaim the people as God insists they belong to Moses (God having apparently forgotten how much work it was to convince Moses to go back to Egypt in the first place!). Yet even knowing this story, the temptation is great. It takes a long time, and we “don’t have a clue” (v. 1, CEB) what is happening during the time when nothing appears to be happening, and suddenly we are sacrificing and dancing and giving our hearts to something hard, cold, and unforgiving.

As preachers we may tire of wondering what the golden calf looks like in our community. It is important that our own spiritual lives are strong so we don’t fall into Aaron’s trap of believing we can provide people with anything more than tools and space to seek, no matter how uncomfortable or anxious they (or we) might be.