If Someone Wrote a Play

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A friend called this week to let me know how much he had appreciated my Easter sermon, and how much–under the present circumstances of his life–he needed it.  And so, with his encouragement, I’m posting it here: a sermon preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on March 27, 2016 under the title, “Author of Life.”

For nearly three years, from the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2013, I got into my car at 12:30 on Friday afternoons and drove to Clark Springs Elementary School to spend some time with my “lunch buddy,” Jaylen.  It started with a clergy conference I attended at Richmond Hill, where I learned that the Commonwealth of Virginia estimates the number of prison cells it will build on the number of children who are not reading by fourth grade.  I thought I should do something about that, and so I called Raylene Harton, a member of this church who was working with the Micah Initiative, a partnership with Richmond Public Schools.  I said, “Can you help me find a third grade boy who needs some help with his reading?  If you can, I’ll go and sit with him for an hour each week and see if I can make a difference.”  So, she did; she found Jaylen.  And for nearly three years I did what I could to help.

Jaylen could already read, but I tried to help him read better.  He was kind of a mumbler, so I asked him to read aloud as if he were reading the news on television, and worked with him on his e-nun-ci-a-tion.  I asked him what he was interested in, and when he said “football” I went to a neighborhood bookstore to see if I could find an age-appropriate book.  While I was there the owner told me that what the kids were reading those days was a series called the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”  So I bought one of those and took it to Jaylen, and that day we hardly talked at all; he couldn’t stop reading.  The next time I went to see him we talked about writing, and how wonderful it was that someone could dream up all those things and put them in a book.  I said, “Here’s the magical thing about writing: you can write anything you want.  You can put yourself in the story; you can be captain of the football team; you can score the winning touchdown.  “If you want to, you can fly.”   And I wish you could have seen his face in that moment.  That boy—who had been held down by so many things in life—picturing himself flying like a bird, realizing, perhaps for the first time ever, that he was limited only by his imagination.

It’s a secret I’ve known for years.

When I was in elementary school I sometimes got bored, and when I did I would look out the window and daydream.  I dreamed about all sorts of things.  I dreamed about flying, usually with a red cape flapping behind me like Superman.  I dreamed about having a magic wand that really worked.  I dreamed about holding hands with my fourth-grade crush, Bamma Donohue.  As I got older I daydreamed less and less, but I didn’t give it up completely.  One day when I was stuck in traffic in DC I imagined pulling back on the steering wheel and feeling my car rise up into the air, and then stepping on the gas and going wherever I wanted to.

Some of you could write a book about that.

The best writers know that with words you can move not only cars, but people.  Shakespeare (who was considered a pretty fair writer) wrote both comedies and tragedies.  He knew that with words you can move people to tears or make them laugh out loud.  In one of his best known plays, Romeo and Juliet, he tells the heartbreaking story of a young couple who couldn’t live without each other.  When Juliet is told that she will have to marry someone else she drinks a potion that will make her appear to be dead so that Romeo can steal her body out of the tomb and take her away to live with him forever.  But Romeo doesn’t know about that plan; the person who was supposed to tell him is detained.  So, when he learns that Juliet has died he goes to her tomb, weeps over her body, and drinks a vial of poison so he can die by her side.  When she wakes up and finds him dead she kisses him, hoping there will be enough poison left on his lips to kill her, but when that doesn’t work she stabs herself with his dagger, and falls dead on top of his body.  I hope I’m not spoiling the ending for anyone; this play has been around more than 400 years.  But when it’s done well it still makes people gasp, it makes them weep.  They get up from their seats brokenhearted, but believing in true love as never before.

Which brings me to a song I’ve wanted to share with you for years.

It’s a song by David Wilcox, who is not a “Christian musician,” but maybe a musician who is a Christian.  I don’t know.  It’s not something he talks about much.  But when he talks about music he says, “Music is about all the different kinds of feelings we can have—we can be scared, we can be angry, we can be hopeful, we can be sad. We can be all these things and have company in it. Music is sacred ground.”  And so he wrote this song called “Show the Way,” which he once introduced by saying, “It’s a song to help us live in a world like this one.”  I remembered those words last Tuesday, when I heard about the bombing in Brussels, and felt that old sense of hopelessness wash over me.  I thought, “When will this madness ever end?  How many more lives must be lost?” and then I thought of this song.  Listen to the lyrics.

You say you see no hope
You say you see no reason we should dream
That the world would ever change
You’re saying love is foolish to believe

‘Cause there’ll always be some crazy
With an army or a knife
To wake you from your day dream
Put the fear back in your life.

And then Wilcox eases into the next verse:

Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

And I want to pause there for a moment, because I think that’s what was going on in those last few days before that first Easter.  “If someone wrote a play just to glorify what’s stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage to look as if the hero came too late?”  If William Shakespeare wrote Jesus’ story, for example, would he not have him arrested and tried before Pontius Pilate?  Would he not have him nailed to a cross and left there to die?  Would he not let his enemies mock him and deride him?  Would he not go ahead and let it happen—let him die?  Would he not have his dead body taken down from the cross and placed in a borrowed tomb?  Would he not have a heavy stone rolled in front of the opening so that everyone in the audience would say, “It’s over!  Whatever hopes we had have been crushed.  If we thought Jesus was the Messiah we think so no longer.  It’s obvious that he’s dead, he’s gone, Evil has won!”

But the song goes on:

If someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

He’s almost in defeat
It’s looking like the evil side will win
So on the edge of every seat
From the moment that the whole thing begins, it is

Love who mixed the mortar
And it’s Love who stacked these stones
And it’s Love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s Love that wrote the play

For in this darkness Love can show the way.

And there it is, the surprising reversal that leaves you gasping and actually does glorify what’s stronger than hate.  Just when you thought Evil was going to win Love intervenes, rolls back the stone, and raises Jesus from the dead.  Wilcox never comes right out and says so but for those who believe it’s hard not to hear the Easter message in this song.  We know, that even in that moment when it looked as if Evil had won, even as those women were on the way to the tomb, it was Love who mixed the mortar, and it was Love who stacked those stones, and it was Love who made the stage there, though it looked like they were alone.  In that scene set in shadows, like the night was there to stay, there was Evil cast around them, but it was Love who wrote that play, and in that darkness Love showed them the way.”

There is a difference, however, in the author of this play and someone like William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare could write whatever he wanted.  He could have written a play in which Romeo and Juliet lived happily ever after.  He was limited only by his imagination.  God, on the other hand—the Love who wrote this play—is limited by human freedom.  From the earliest chapters of Genesis we learn that he loved us enough to make us free, and sometimes we have used that freedom to do terrible things, to write scenes of unspeakable horror.  Some human being dreamed up that nightmare scenario in Brussels, where dozens of people would die at the moment a suicide bomber worked up the nerve to push a button.  As much as God hates such moments, as much as he turns his eyes away from such carnage, he does not stop it.  He has made us free—free to live and love and laugh, free to hate and hurt and kill.  Free to nail his son to a cross.  Free to toss his body in a borrowed tomb.

But after we have done our worst God is free to do his best, and early on that first Easter Sunday he did.  Think about those women who got up to go to the tomb.  They went like people called in to identify the remains of bomb victims.  They were expecting to see only the worst: the lifeless body of their beloved Lord, stretched out on a cold slab of stone.  Nothing could have prepared them for what they actually saw: the tomb open, two men in dazzling clothes asking them why they were seeking the living among the dead, and then telling them that the one they sought, Jesus of Nazareth, was not there, that he had risen.  Think of how they must have gasped.  Think of how they must have felt the cold, dead body of hope at the center of their chests come to life again.  Shakespeare himself could not have written a play with a more joyful ending, but Shakespeare would know that joy depends upon its opposite: that until you have experienced sorrow you hardly know what joy is.

In an article published late last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was asked if he planned to change his Easter sermon in light of the Brussels bombings.  He said, “You bet I am.  I’m going to say that it’s Easter Sunday morning but it looks like Good Friday afternoon.   The world seems to be filled with a lot of death, a lot of lies, a lot of evil, a lot of violence. We’re tempted to think that the powers of darkness have the upper hand. We find ourselves stuck on Good Friday afternoon, when the sun was eclipsed, and the world went dark, and the earth trembled out of sorrow.  We don’t have to look outside to the world to think we’re stuck on Good Friday afternoon,” he said.  “We look within our own hearts and we find sin there, we find darkness there, we find evil there; we find reasons to feel discouraged, lonely, isolated. But Easter Sunday is God the father saying life has the last word, goodness trumps evil, truth is victorious over lies and mercy triumphs over violence. We need to hear that.  In light of what happened in Belgium this week that message seems to have a special poignancy.”[i]

Joy looks brighter against the backdrop of sorrow.

All the best writers know this.  David Wilcox knows this.  At one of his live concerts he introduced this song by saying, “So, this is about this perfect world.”  And then he smiled, because everyone knows that it isn’t perfect, but he went on to say, “You couldn’t find a place better to care or to love.  But that’s certainly not the logical decision.  The logical decision would be to bunker down in the fear and just not be very alive at all.”  And then he began to sing: “You say you see no hope, you say you see no reason we should dream, that the world could ever change, you’re saying love is foolish to believe, ‘cause there’ll always be some crazy, with an army or a knife, to wake you from your daydream, and put the fear back in your life.  But look, if someone wrote a play, just to glorify what’s stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage, to look as if the hero came too late?  He’s almost in defeat, it’s looking like the evil side will win, so on the edge of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins, ‘It is Love who mixed the mortar, and it’s Love who stacked these stones, and it’s Love who made the stage here, although it looks like we’re alone.  In this scene set in shadows, like the night is here to stay, there is Evil cast around us, but it’s Love that wrote the play, and in this darkness Love will show the way.'”

I think he is right: I think this song can help us live in a world like this one.  As Shakespeare said, we can see the world as a kind of stage, on which good and evil are acting out their parts.  And when we hear about an act of terrorism in a place like Brussels we can imagine that Evil has just had its moment.  But as soon as Evil walks off the stage Good walks on.  You begin to see people using their human freedom to help and heal.  And in a world like this one we are called to be those people.  It could be something as simple as helping a third grade boy with his reading.  It could be something much more grand.  But we have to do something.  We have to follow the way of Love.  We are Easter people.  We cannot allow ourselves to be entombed by fear.  At the end of his song Wilcox says:

And now the stage is set,
You feel your own heart beating in your chest
This life’s not over yet,
So we get up on our feet and do your best.

We play against the fear,
We play against the reasons not to try
Playing for the tears,
Burning in the happy angel’s eyes

For it’s Love who mixed the mortar
And it’s Love who stacked these stones
And it’s Love who made the stage here
Though it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s Love that wrote the play

For in this darkness Love will show the way.[ii]

Jim Somerville © 2016

 

 

 

______________________

[i] http://www.lohud.com/story/news/religion/2016/03/25/lohud-easter-messages/82158990/
[ii]
David Wilcox, “Show the Way,” on the Big Horizon album, 1994.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

phrasal-verbs-cut-downFor the past few months I’ve been teaching a Sunday morning class called “Talkback,” which I describe as, “a candid conversation between the pulpit and the pews.” It started as “Sermon Talkback” when I was doing a series called “Christianity 101” and thought people might have some follow-up questions about God, the Bible, Sin and Salvation, Heaven and Hell, but it turned out those were only some of the questions they had. Since then we’ve talked about almost everything you can imagine, and it’s been life-giving. But every time I’ve hosted something like this, where people are free to ask anything they want, someone will eventually ask, in one way or another: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It is the most perplexing theological problem or our time.

But not of Jesus’ time.

In Jesus’ time people didn’t ask why bad things happened to good people. They didn’t believe bad things happened to good people. They believed bad things happened to bad people, and if something bad happened to you it was because you had done something that deserved God’s punishment. I can still remember the Sunday school class where a woman shrugged her shoulders and said, “I just always thought that God did all the good things and the Devil did all the bad things.” That’s a simple solution, but not a good one. It makes God and the Devil equals, and they are not. But the solution in Jesus’ time was not much better. People in those days assumed that God did everything—good and bad—and what you got depended on who you were. Was God rewarding you for being good, or punishing you for being bad?

So, in Luke 13:1-9, when some people ask Jesus if he has heard about this incident in Jerusalem—where some Galileans were apparently cut down and killed by Pilate’s soldiers while they were in the very act of offering their sacrifices in the temple —they are not asking him why this terrible thing happened to these faithful and observant Jews, they are asking him what these people did to deserve such punishment. You can tell by the answer Jesus gives. He says, “Do you think because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” “Well, yes,” they might have said. “That’s exactly what we think. I mean, God is responsible for everything that happens, good and bad, right? Didn’t he use Pilate’s soldiers to punish these sinners?” And Jesus must have looked at them for the longest time before saying, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”

And if this were “Talkback” someone would already be raising her hand and asking, “What does Jesus mean repent? Repent from what? And what does he mean by the word perish? Does he mean that if we don’t repent from our sins we’re going to be killed?” But before anyone can ask those questions Jesus offers another example: “Those eighteen on whom the Tower of Siloam fell,” he says (and we really don’t know what happened. The Pool of Siloam was in the southern part of Jerusalem. Presumably a tower in the city wall had collapsed, killing eighteen people ). “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” “Well, yes,” someone says. “They must have been. Otherwise why would God punish them in this way?” “No,” Jesus says. “I tell you; but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.”

And with these two examples Jesus brilliantly addresses every bad thing that will ever happen to us. He addresses moral evil, which is what happens when people shoot, and stab, and kill each other, and he addresses natural evil, which is what happens when earthquake, fire, and flood kill us. Those Galileans? They suffered from moral evil. Pilate ordered his soldiers to kill them. Those eighteen? They suffered from natural evil. That tower simply fell.

According to Jesus, bad things don’t happen to good people and bad things don’t happen to bad people, bad things happen to all people. It’s not that God does it to them, it’s not that the Devil does it to them, it’s simply that we live in a world like this one. I think what Jesus is trying to tell us is that in this world life is short and uncertain, that we never know when it will end. And I think that’s what he means when he says that we will perish “just as these people did.” We won’t be killed by foreign soliders, necessarily. We won’t be crushed by falling towers, necessarily. But we will, necessarily, perish, and the word Jesus uses means that we will be “lost, ruined, destroyed.”

Unless.

And isn’t that a hopeful word? Just when you think Jesus is telling us that we’re all going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it he says, “Unless. Unless you repent.” And we have to ask:

“What does that mean?”

I’ve told before that there are two Greek words for repentance. One is epistrephein, which means “to turn around,” and the other is metanoia, which means “to change one’s mind.” And I probably don’t need to tell you which one Jesus uses here. He’s already said, “Do you think, because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” and, “Do you think, because these eighteen perished in this way they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusualem?” “No,” he says. “If that’s what you’re thinking you’d better think again. You’d better change your mind about why people suffer. You’d better repent.”

Could it be this simple? Could Jesus be saying, “Unless you change your mind about why people suffer you will die thinking that God is punishing you, and that’s just not true!” Death is not God’s punishment. Death is simply what happens when someone cuts you down with a sword, or a huge stone tower falls on you. As Jesus himself would find out soon enough, death is what happens when they nail you to a cross. But it is not God’s punishment. If that’s what you’ve been thinking you need to think again. You need to change your mind. You need to repent. God is not against us; God is for us. “Then why,” someone will ask, “does he let us die?” as if that were the worst thing that could happen.
Ah, that’s where I wish we could see things from God’s perspective! I believe that if we could we would see that death is as natural as sleep. It’s not always as peaceful, but it’s as natural. I think I’ve told you before that my older daughter didn’t like going to bed at night. I’ve always assumed it was because she thought she might miss the party, but there may have been some deeper reason. Whatever it was, she did not “go gentle into that good night,” as Dylan Thomas might say. She raged, raged, against the dying of the light. Her little sister, on the other hand, loved a good nap, and when she got sleepy she would sometimes toddle into the nursery and climb into her own crib. She knew there was nothing to be afraid of.

I believe that from God’s perspective death is as natural as that: as natural as sleep, but as I said it is rarely as peaceful. Most people don’t go to bed after celebrating their one hundredth birthday and then just not wake up the next morning. Some of them suffer terribly, and that’s when we ask why. Jesus himself asked that question while he was suffering on the cross. Death is rarely as peaceful as sleep, but it is just as natural. On Ash Wednesday the minister makes the sign of the cross on your forehead and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a way of reminding us that we are mortal and that we will die someday. These earthen vessels will return to their former state, and there is no guarantee that they won’t be smashed to pieces in the process.

“This is just how it is in the world,” Jesus might say. “People die.” It’s not the way it was supposed to be, but it’s the way it is. If someone cuts you down with a sword, you’re going to die. If a tower falls on you, you’re going to die. But here’s the truth: you’re going to die eventually, even if you live to be 110! There is no way around it. The question is not whether you are going to die, but how, and even though that may be a fascinating question it doesn’t really lead to fruitful conversation. Which may be why Jesus stops talking about death, and starts talking about fig trees.

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard,” Jesus said; “and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. And so he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.’ Which would have been remarkable, because fig trees are abundantly fruitful. In that part of the world they can produce as many as three crops a year. This little tree has missed nine opportunities to bear fruit! So the man says with good reason, “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” But then the Gardener speaks up and says, “Not so fast. Give me one more year. I will dig around the roots and put on manure. Then if it bears fruit, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” And again, this is remarkable if only because fig trees thrive on neglect. You don’t have to dig around the roots. You don’t have to put on manure. You just leave them alone and they will bear up to three crops a year. A fig tree is, almost by definition, fruitful. But not this one. And if it were not for the intervention of this hopeful gardener it might already be cut down and tossed on the fire.

It’s as if Jesus is holding up two pictures in this passage: one is a picture of how things are in the world and the other is a picture of how things are in the Kingdom. In the world people are cut down in the act of worship, they are crushed by falling towers, fruitless figs are tossed onto the fire. But in the Kingdom someone holds up a hand and says, “Wait! I believe this fig tree might do something yet, and I will give it every possible chance to bear fruit.” In the Kingdom someone holds up a hand and says, “Wait. I know this person hasn’t shown much promise, but I believe there might be some good in there yet.” In the Kingdom there is this Gardener, this Savior, who sees our value and wants to spare us, who believes in us even when we can no longer believe in ourselves. And he not only offers us eternal life (which should set us free from our paralyzing fear of death), he offers us abundant life (which should make us willing to take some risks).

In the first part of this passage the question is not whether you are going to die, but how. In the second part of this passage the question is not whether you are going to die, but whether you are going to live. Are you ever going to become what God made you to be? Are you ever going to drive your roots down into the rich soil of his love? Are you ever going to spread your leaves toward his light and his life? Are you ever going to relax, and let the sap flow, and let the fruit grow? The good news of this passage is that it’s not too late—for any of us. The bad news of this passage is that someday it will be, and before that day comes we need to do something.

We need to repent.

If you listen closely you can almost hear that hopeful Gardener saying, “Wait. Give her another chance. Give him a little more time. There’s some good fruit in there, I know there is.” And for the moment at least—it’s true. The ax hasn’t fallen, not yet. The death blow hasn’t come. What will we do with the life we’ve been given? Because in this passage the worst that can happen is not that we will someday die,

But that we might never live.

Can Anything Bring Us Together?

politicsExcerpts from a sermon preached on January 31, 2016, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

The title of today’s sermon is: “Can Anything Bring Us Together?” And let me be clear that when I use the word us I’m not talking about us as a church: I’m talking about us as a nation.

Honestly!

Other than the recent unpleasantness some people call the Civil War has there ever been a time in history when we, as a nation, were so divided? I think I could understand division between Democrats and Republicans, but watch the debates and you’ll see that there is division within the parties. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen so much finger-pointing and name-calling. And when it comes to the issues themselves—things like immigration, gun control, and same-sex marriage—everybody in America has an opinion, and instead of listening to each other to see what we can learn we seem to spend our time shouting at each other, trying to drown out the voices on the other side.

Before I say another word let me assure you that this is not going to be a “political” sermon. When I interviewed with First Baptist, Washington, years ago someone asked, “How do you feel about politics?” It was a good question, especially for a church in that city, where politics is in the very air you breathe. But I said, “I am about the least political person I know. I’m almost apolitical.” And they said, “Good! That’s just what we’re looking for!” Because they had made it a rule years before to check all partisan politics at the door.

It was a good rule for them and I think it’s a good rule for any church. Politics can divide us in ways we don’t need to be divided. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). He taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). And so, as his followers, our job is to do whatever we can to bring heaven to earth, which is more about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work than standing around debating politics. And when it comes to that maybe we could lay aside our own interests and discern the will of God, and then vote for those people and policies that line up most closely with His will, not that any of them will do it perfectly.

My friend Don Flowers is a pastor in Charleston, South Carolina, and this morning he’s preaching on one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not murder.” It seems clear to him that it is not God’s will that we should murder each other, and so he’s putting five white crosses on the church lawn to represent the five people who have been murdered in Charleston so far this year. He wants his congregation to think about those people. He wants them to hear their names. He believes those people were precious to God and that God didn’t want them to be murdered. But I don’t have to think about it very long to imagine what kind of backlash will come, about how many people will assume Don is talking about gun control and trying to take away their Second Amendment rights. If I know Don he doesn’t want to take away anyone’s rights; he just wants the murders to stop. The gun owners I’ve talked to want the same thing. On either side of most issues are people who love their country and want the best for it. They simply have different ideas about what the best is and how it might be accomplished.

We forget that sometimes, and instead of treating each other like fellow Americans we treat each other like enemies. Back in 2009 I wrote a blog post in which I tried, unsuccessfully, to blame it all on talk radio. Someone who commented on that post said: “I think it is too simplistic to blame it on talk radio. Surf the internet for a while and read comments people leave after various articles and talk radio begins to sound like a Sunday school class. It goes beyond those as well. Newspapers, magazines and television all contribute. We have become a deeply divided nation and it only appears to be getting worse. Why? Could it be that in our modern age when we can find out about events happening on the other side of the world faster than what is happening down the street that we are on “information overload?” Are human beings really wired to handle the constant barrage of information that comes our way? Could it be fear that causes us to recoil and back into our safety zones, simply because we can’t process everything fast enough? Safety zones are useful. They are the places where we know and are known, touchstone places where we can process and understand without feeling threatened. Might not the church be a good place to begin the healing of the division?”

Well, it might. But then again it might not.

Not all of you made it to church last week but I talked about that time Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue and said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” I talked about how it’s easier to preach that passage in some places than in others: easier in the homeless shelter, for instance, than the country club. But I said, “Here at First Baptist Church we seem to be such a close-knit family that good news for any of us is good news for all of us. When Jesus says he has good news for the poor, our wealthy members rejoice, because they know and love our poor members. They are part of the family. They want them to hear good news.” But it wasn’t like that in Nazareth. After Jesus preached that sermon the people carried him out to the edge of town and tried to throw him off a cliff, because what they heard him saying was that he had good news—but not for them.

I went on to talk about Paul’s metaphor of the body from 1 Corinthians 12, where he says that we Christians are the body of Christ and individually members of it, that the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” any more than the head can say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” We all need each other in the body, and when any member of the body is suffering we all suffer together, whereas if any member of the body is rejoicing we all rejoice together.

It’s a beautiful picture of the church and I think it applies to this one, but Paul used it with the Corinthians because they were divided; deeply divided. They were like the disunited states of America. And apparently it came down to this: that some of them spoke in tongues and others didn’t. And the ones who spoke in tongues began to think of themselves as special and different from the rest. “You only speak in the tongues of men,” they would say: “I speak in the tongues of angels.”

That’s why Paul spends all that time talking about the body in chapter 12: he’s trying to convince these Corinthians that just as the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” the one who speaks in tongues can’t say to the one who doesn’t, “I don’t need you.” He wants them to love and care for one another just as the whole body bends down to minister to a stubbed toe. “All of you make up the body of Christ,” he says, “and all of you are members of it.” He’s not just painting a pretty picture in this chapter; he’s trying to put the dismembered body of Christ back together again. And believe it or not that’s what he’s doing in 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love” chapter.

We often read this text at weddings, mostly because it has the world love in it. “Love is patient, love is kind,” we say, and then smile at the blushing bride and the handsome groom and hope they will have that kind of love for each other. But this text might be better suited for a session of marriage counseling than for a wedding ceremony. It was written for people who were going around thinking they were better than others in the church simply because they had the more obvious spiritual gift. God forbid! Paul writes (with enough force to break off a pencil point): “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but do not have love? I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal! And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love? I am nothing! If I give away all my possessions, or even offer my own body as a sacrifice, but do not have love? I gain nothing!”

Can you begin to hear what Paul is getting at? He’s talking directly to those people in the Corinthian church who think they are better than everyone else simply because they have certain spiritual gifts. In another one of his letters he talks about the fruit of the Spirit and says, “The fruit of the spirit is love” (Gal. 5:22). And I might add it’s not only the first of the fruits, but the one by which the entire tree is known. “Love is patient,” Paul says (in full admonishment mode): “it doesn’t push and shove its way to the front of the communion line like some of you. Love is kind, it doesn’t step on other people’s backs to get to the top. Love is not envious (as you are) or boastful (as you are) or arrogant (as you are) or rude (as you are). It does not insist on its own way, as some of you do; it is not irritable or resentful, as some of you are; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, Love rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

“But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. [All these spiritual gifts you’re so proud of; they’re not forever, they’re for building up the body of Christ! So stop going around acting like you’ve achieved perfection.] For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child [just as some of you are now doing]; but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. [I want you to do the same!] For now we see in a mirror, dimly, [we don’t have the full picture], but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part [I’m only human, after all]; but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. So, what will be left to us, when tongues and knowledge and prophecy come to an end? Faith, hope, and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

That’s a good word, and the more I’ve thought about Paul’s closing argument the more I’ve thought that these may be the three necessary virtues of the church in our time as well as his.

  • Faith, Paul says, and that’s what I find myself wanting to say to people who get so exercised about politics, as if this or that election were going to make us or break us. “Have a little faith,” I want to say; “not in politics, and certainly not in politicians, but in God—the One who made heaven and earth, and who has watched over the rise and fall of empires for millennia now!”
  • Hope, Paul says, and I want us to have a little of that, too; not hope in the future, but hope for the future. Things don’t have to get worse and worse, necessarily; they can get better and better. We can help them get better and better. But not if we’ve lost our hope. I look at this church, at this country, and wonder why our very best days can’t be ahead of us. We’ve got to hope for that, we’ve got to pray for that! But most of all, we’ve got to…
  • Love, Paul says. And this is not only the greatest of these three virtues, it is the real test, because Paul makes it clear that he is not asking us to love people who are just like us, or people who are members of our chosen political party; he is asking us to love those who are not like us; he seems to believe that this is the only thing that can bring us together.

And it’s worth a try, because whatever else we’re doing doesn’t seem to be working. America is more divided than that church in Corinth, with the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you,” and the head saying to the foot, “I don’t need you.” There has to be a better way. Maybe that’s why, after Paul has exhausted the metaphor of the body, he says, “There is a better way”: it is the way of love, and it looks like this:

It is patient; it is kind; it is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never ends.

There’s not a political candidate out there who could get elected on that platform, but don’t you wish there were? Don’t you wish someone would stand up and say, “Enough of this. We’ve tried every other way; let’s try the way of love!” Well, someone did, and they crucified him, and yet—2,000 years later—we are still talking about him. His way was the way of love, and something in us still knows it is the only thing…

That can bring us all together.

–Jim Somerville, 2016

What Comes Next?

The Last JudgmentI’ve had a number of requests for this sermon on Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.  Apparently one of the things that drives people away from the Christian faith is the idea of God’s judgment and the notion that God could or would send people to Hell.  But is that what God does?  Read on.

This is the last sermon in a series called “Christianity 101,” and, appropriately enough, it is about “last things.” The technical term is eschatology, from a Greek word that means “last” or “end.” Eschatology is the study of what comes at the end of human life and the end of human history. It seeks to answer the question that is the title of today’s sermon:

“What comes next?”

Back in 2011 I did a Wednesday night series called “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife,” and I began by talking about bodies and souls. There seems to be a common assumption that while bodies die, souls do not; that our bodies are buried in the ground while our souls fly off to heaven. Maybe that’s what you’ve always believed, but it is not the biblical view. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. When God made Adam he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul. Thus the body and soul which make up human beings are as inextricably part of parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire. When you kick the bucket, you kick it one hundred percent.”

I realize this may come as a shock to some of you. You may have taken it for granted that when your mortal body dies your immortal soul will float off to heaven. You may be wondering, “If I am an inseparable combination of body and soul, then what’s going to happen to me when that combination no longer exists?” Let me be blunt: someday (unless Jesus comes back first) you’re going to die. As Tony Campolo’s old pastor used to say to young people, “One of these days they’re going to take you out to the cemetery, drop your body in a hole, and go back to the church and eat fried chicken.” All the more reason then to put your life into God’s hands now and trust him—not with the immortality of your soul (an idea that comes from Greek philosophy), but with the resurrection of your body (a truth that comes from Holy Scripture).

Think about it: the only person who has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it’s like is Jesus, and he came back because God raised him up. He had a resurrection body that was enough like his old body for people to recognize him. In the garden Mary says, “Rabbouni!” In the boat John says, “It is the Lord!” At first his disciples thought he was a ghost, but he wasn’t. In Luke 24 he invites them, “touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bone as you see that I have.” He ate a piece of broiled fish in their presence. His resurrection body was physical, tangible, and yet he was able to enter a room through locked doors (John 20) and to disappear from his disciples’ sight (Luke 24). Whatever a resurrection body is like, it isn’t exactly like this earthly body. Paul says it’s as different as a flower is from the dry, brown seed you plant in the ground (1 Cor. 15). The Bible tells us that Jesus was raised from the dead and it promises us that someday, “on that great gettin’ up morning,” we will be raised from the dead, too.

Sometimes, when I talk like this, someone will get a troubled look on his face. He’ll say, “But if our souls don’t go to heaven right away then what becomes of us in the meantime? I mean…where’s my saintly grandmother right now? Is she in a hole in the ground, or in heaven with Jesus?” That’s a fair question, and here’s what I usually say in response: “Because she put her life in God’s hands, because she put her faith and trust in Christ, I believe that God has already raised her from the dead, and that she is with him now, looking as young and beautiful as she did on her wedding day.” “But she was cremated,” he adds. “How can God raise up a pile of ashes?” “Listen,” I say, “God made the first man from a handful of dust. Ashes are not a problem!” And you can see the relief on his face. “So, tell me,” he asks, “what does her mansion look like? Are the streets really gold? Is there a crystal sea? Is heaven ‘up there’ somewhere? What about the ‘other place’? Did Grandpa make it? Are there any dogs there?” And that’s when I laugh and say, “Whoa! Easy there, big fellah! Let’s talk about how to ask the right questions.” First of all:

1. We must not want to know too much. Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” The biblical writers do not and cannot tell us everything we would like to know. On most things, our best response is to say, “We don’t know and we don’t need to know.”

2. Biblical language about the future is metaphorical or symbolic. Over and over again, Jesus said “the Kingdom of Heaven is like so and so.” He was trying to help his hearers imagine something they had never seen or experienced. It’s the same with all talk about heaven and hell in the Bible. In Revelation John says, “The one seated on the throne looked like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald” (Rev. 4:3). The biblical writers didn’t have enough words or enough of the right kind of words to describe such things. The best they could do is point and stammer.

3. Scripture offers us not one but several hopes for the future. In the Old Testament, it is the hope of a perfect earthly kingdom, like the Golden Age of King David. Near the end of the OT, it is a cosmic battle that will end in resurrection of the dead—some to eternal life, others to eternal shame. In the New Testament it is the good news that “the Kingdom of the world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” So, which one of these is right? Shirley Guthrie says, “The many different biblical visions of the future agree that God stands at the end of history in general and at the end of the life of every individual person. The New Testament insists that he does all this in and through Christ Jesus. In the final analysis, that is all we know and all we need to know.”

4. The best insight we have into what God will do is found by looking into what God has done. If that’s true, then the future-oriented book of Revelation may not be our best source. When we look back through the acts of God in the past we find that he has been working constantly to redeem us and the world he loves so much. I believe that’s what he will do in the future (these four principles are derived from Shirley Guthrie’s theology textbook: Christian Doctrine).

Having said all that, let’s turn our attention away from ourselves and toward others, and the world, and especially on a day when the world is still reeling from the attacks in Paris. Will it always be like it is now, with every day’s newspaper full of bad news? Will we human beings continue to disobey God, hate one another, and destroy the planet? No! We Christians believe that one day God in Christ will “judge the living and the dead,” and “create a new heaven and a new earth.” What does that mean? Let’s look at both of those things, beginning with God’s judgment:

When I did that Wednesday night series back in 2011 I showed a slide of a 15th century painting where Jesus is sitting on a rainbow, separating the righteous from the unrighteous like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The righteous were being ushered into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, while the unrighteous were being dragged into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. It was a frightening picture, and it was meant to be. There were demons with leathery wings flying around, snatching up victims in their claws, while others with pitchforks prodded naked sinners closer and closer to the fire. It asked in the most vivid way imaginable, “Where will you spend eternity?” But is that really the way it’s going to be? The great theologian Karl Barth once said, “In the biblical world of thought the judge is not primarily the one who rewards some and punishes others; [but the one] who creates order and restores what has been destroyed.”

Let’s pause right there for a moment. If order could be created in this crazy world, if what has been destroyed could be restored, wouldn’t that be good news? Friends, it is good news! Shirley Guthrie (one of my favorite theologians) reminds us that, in the end, the biblical view of judgment is this: “Evil will be condemned and rooted out of God’s good creation once and for all!” That’s good news, but there’s more: the judge is Jesus! He is the only one who can be trusted with the job of judging the world, the only one who knows what it truly means to “make things right.” He is the one who was sent because God loved the sinful world so much, and who died for us while we were yet sinners. He judges us not out of anger, but out of love, and if there is any penalty to be paid, he willingly offers to take it on himself. This is good news, not bad, and if this is what God’s judgment looks like then I say bring it on!

But when will it happen? When will the Judgment Day come? Aristotle said that every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. God’s good story had a beginning, it has a middle, and some day it will have an end. We don’t know when that day will come, but we do know that someday our own story will come to an end. It came to an end for some people in Paris on Friday night. There they were, sitting in a concert hall when terrorists opened fire and killed them. They died—body and soul. But, here’s what I believe: I believe that we live our earthly lives on the time line, with one second ticking into the next relentlessly. We can’t stop time, hard as we try. We can’t go back and correct our mistakes. We are bound by time until…the moment of our death. Then we are set free. We step off the time line into eternity, into the realm of God, because God is bigger than time. If the only thing separating the day of our death from the day of our resurrection is time, then when time drops out of the equation those two come together—our last breath on earth is followed by our next breath in heaven—and there we stand, shaking the dirt off our grave clothes, wondering what comes next.

What does come next?

The New Testament teaches there are two kinds of future life: life in heaven and life in hell. But remember: 1) We must not want to know too much, and 2) The clearest clue to what is going to happen in the future is what God has been doing in the past. So, what is heaven? According to Shirley Guthrie it is “Not a place located somewhere in outer space where we will escape from our humanity to become angels or disembodied spirits. Heaven is an eternal life of genuine, completely free realization of our humanity in a new heaven and a new earth. It is the life we were made for.” And what is hell? Dr. Guthrie says, “It is not a fiery or dark place of eternal torment located somewhere underground between the United States and China. It is living apart from or in hostility toward God and other people, and therefore denying one’s own true humanity—forever. It is not eternal life, but eternal death.”

Now, you are free to accept or reject Dr. Guthrie’s definitions. Maybe you think of heaven and hell in a different way, and if you do, that’s OK. There is only so much we can know; most of this is speculation. So, can I tell you what I’ve been thinking lately? This is not the word of God; these are just the words of Jim. But I love that biblical vision of a new heaven and a new earth. I love it because it suggests that the world is not going to be destroyed, but made new again. Can you imagine? This beautiful blue-green planet as pure and pristine as it was on the day of creation, so you could scoop up a bucket of water from the East River in New York and drink out of it? I love that, because I love the world God made the first time.

And I love that vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. Imagine it settling down somewhere on that new earth, maybe where the Garden of Eden was. And then imagine everybody who has ever lived standing there, watching it come down, and hearing a voice that says, “Now the dwelling of God is with people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more,” and watching as those pearly gates swing open and we are invited in.

But then imagine this: that some people don’t want to go in, that if that’s where God is then it’s the last place on this new earth they want to be. So instead of streaming forward toward the New Jerusalem they skulk off in the other direction, away from it, as far away from it and the presence of God as they can get. So, there’s heaven, which is wanting to stand in the presence of God and feel him wipe the tears from your eyes, and there’s hell, which is wanting to be as far away from God as possible. The difference between the two may have much more to do with how things stand with you and God than where the two are located.

So, how do things stand with you and God? Where will you spend eternity? And where would you want to spend it: with God, or without him? Your answer to that question may be the best indication of whether or not you are headed in the right direction, and if you are not this may be your best opportunity to change your course, to step out of your pew, to walk down the aisle, as if you were walking toward the wide-open gates of the New Jerusalem.

—Jim Somerville ©2015

Learning to Float

learn-to-floatJesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).

If I were making a list of all the things I wish Jesus had never said, this saying would certainly be on the list. Not because it’s so bad, or so hard, but because it makes people think of faith as a quantity, as something you can have more or less of.  Usually people assume they have less and wish they had more. If they had more they could move mountains, right?

And sometimes there are mountains to be moved.

In Luke 17 the disciples beg Jesus, “Increase our faith!” but he says to them there essentially what he says to them here: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” And I don’t know that I’ve heard it this way before but when I read that passage this time around it almost sounded as if Jesus were saying, “Increase your faith? You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

In a book called The Heart of Christianity New Testament scholar Marcus Borg devotes an entire chapter to faith. He claims that in Western Christianity faith has come to mean holding a certain set of “beliefs,” or “believing” a set of statements to be true. For most people, being a Christian means believing that there is a God, believing that the Bible is the revelation of God, and believing that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died for our sins.

Borg (who grew up Lutheran in North Dakota) acknowledges that “for some Christians the list would be longer: believing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God; believing in Genesis rather than evolution; believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, that he raised the dead, that he himself was raised from the dead in a physical bodily form, and that he will come again someday. Sometimes the beliefs become very specific, Borg writes: believing in infant baptism instead of adult baptism (or vice versa); believing in “the Rapture”; believing (or not believing) in Purgatory. The list goes on and on, but as you have probably experienced for yourself believing “the right things” is very important to Christians.

But here’s the problem:

All this emphasis on belief can quickly turn faith into a matter of the head rather than the heart. And Marcus Borg would insist that it has happened rather quickly.

Back in the Middle Ages the word orthodoxy meant “right worship” (in fact, that is the literal meaning of the word). But during the Protestant Reformation it came to mean “right belief,” partly because all those Baptists, and Methodists, and Presbyterians were still figuring out what they believed. Should we baptize infants or adults? Is communion a sacrament or an ordinance?

And then there was this other thing, the Enlightenment, that changed the way we understood truth. In the Middle Ages no one questioned the story of Jonah and the Whale. It was in the Bible: of course it was true! But during the Enlightenment people began to ask: Could there really be a fish big enough to swallow a man? And could a man really live after three days in its belly? The only truth that counted was that which could be verified scientifically; in other words, truth was replaced with fact (which is a much smaller word).

And so, after being run through the wringer of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, faith has come to mean believing the right things, and believing them no matter what, even if they are not scientifically verifiable.  But it was not always so.  Marcus Borg helps us by looking back to the Middle Ages, and four different Latin words for faith:

1. The first is assensus, from which we get the English word assent, and it means pretty much what you would expect it to mean: giving one’s intellectual assent to a claim or proposition, that is, believing that it is true. The opposite of this kind of faith is “doubt” in its milder form and “disbelief” in its stronger form. For example: you might go from doubting that a fish could swallow a man to disbelieving it altogether. Marcus Borg says that when he was a teenager he had those kinds of doubts and prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” Since then he has wondered, “Is this really what God wants from us: our intellectual assent to a long list of theological propositions? Our heads rather than our hearts?” He also notes that you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage, still be miserable, still be unchanged—that faith as assensus doesn’t have much transformative power. And yet there are some things we can and should affirm. At the bare minimum being Christian means a) affirming the reality of God, b) the utter centrality of Jesus, and c) the centrality of the Bible.

2. The second Latin word for faith is fiducia, and the closest English equivalent is fiduciary, which may mean something to the bankers and lawyers in the room, but doesn’t mean much to me. A better word would be trust, or the phrase “radical trust.” As Soren Kierkegaard might have said, “Fiducia is like floating in an ocean of God’s grace.” Borg says that once, when his wife was teaching an adult Sunday school class, she asked if anyone had ever tried to teach a child to swim. Several hands went up. She asked, “What was the hardest thing about it?” And they all agreed: getting the child to relax and float, to trust the buoyancy of the water. Fiducia is learning to trust the buoyancy of God, and the opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt but anxiety, or worry. In the middle of that storm on the Sea of Galilee, when they were afraid their boat was going to sink, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Where is your faith?” A few chapters later he says, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not clothe you, you of little faith?” In both cases he is talking about faith as fiducia: radical trust.

3. The third Latin word is fidelitas, which can be translated as fidelity, or faithfulness, specifically, faithfulness in our relationship to God. It means what faithfulness does in a marriage—being faithful to God in the same way you might be faithful to a spouse. The opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt or disbelief, but unfaithfulness or adultery. Another biblical word for this kind of unfaithfulness is idolatry—giving one’s ultimate loyalty and allegiance to something other than God. Borg says, “As the opposite of idolatry, [this kind of] faith means being loyal to God and not to the many would-be gods that present themselves to us. Christian faith means loyalty to Jesus as Lord, and not to the seductive would-be lords of our lives, whether the nation, or affluence, or achievement, or family, or desire.”

4. The fourth Latin word for faith is visio, and this one is fascinating. As you might guess, visio is a way of seeing “the whole,” a way of seeing “what is.” And there are three ways of seeing it.

a. One is to see reality as essentially hostile, as if everyone and everything really were out to get you. It may not surprise you to learn that there have been some forms of popular Christianity through the centuries that have viewed reality this way, as if God himself were out to get us, and that—unless we offered the right sacrifices, or said the right prayers, or did the right things—he would.

b. In the second way of looking at reality it is essentially indifferent. Someone with this view might say, “The universe is made up of swirling force fields of matter and energy, but is neither hostile to nor supportive of our lives and dreams.” And if God is the one who brought it all into being, he has long since stopped intervening or even caring. If you look at reality this way, you might not be as defensive as in that other view, but you might become rather selfish, looking out only for yourself and those you love, since obviously no one else is.

c. In the third way of looking at reality it is essentially nourishing and life-giving. It has brought us and everything else into existence. It is filled with wonder and beauty. It loves us and cares about us. This is the reality Jesus was talking about when he said, “Look at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field.” God feeds them. God clothes them. God sends his life-giving rain on the just and the unjust.

Can you see what a difference faith as visio could make in your life? What a difference there would be in seeing reality as essentially hostile, essentially indifferent, or essentially nourishing and life-giving? This last way of looking at reality can lead to the radical trust we talked about earlier. As Borg says, “It leads to the kind of life we see in Jesus and the saints, known and unknown. Or, to use words from Paul, it leads to a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.”

There they are: four Latin words for faith—assensus, fiducia, fidelitas, and visio—and you may have noticed that all but the first are relational words. Fiducia describes a relationship of radical trust. Fidelitas describes a relationship of love and loyalty. Visio describes a relationship of life-giving nurture. Assensus is the only one that means giving our intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions and, as I said, that’s important.

But it may not be the most important thing.

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” And so we try to increase our faith. We try to believe more and doubt less. We try to believe things that are, frankly, unbelievable. And we do it because there are mountains that need to be moved.

But what if that’s not what Jesus meant?

What if he meant, “You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”  Because here is the truth: that little “mustard seed” is found only five times in the Gospels. It’s mentioned twice in reference to faith, as in, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” But the other three times Jesus uses it he talks about how, if it’s planted in the ground, this tiny seed can become a huge bush, even a tree, in which the birds of the air can build their nests. A mustard seed, in other words, is something small that can grow big—if you put it in the ground. But if you put it in a Ziploc bag, and bury it in the bottom of your sock drawer?

That mustard seed will always stay the same size.

What if Jesus is trying to tell us this: that we don’t need a lot of faith, we only need the tiniest little speck. But we need to put our faith in the right place—not in ourselves and our ability to believe—but in God, the One who gives us life and nurtures it, the One who loves us like a faithful spouse, the One we can trust completely, and, yes, the One who can and does move mountains. Let us put our mustard seed of faith in him; let us tend it and nourish it; let us water it with worship, study, service, and prayer;

And then watch it grow.

I keep thinking about Marcus Borg’s wife trying to teach her son to swim, helping him as he struggles and thrashes in the water, telling him over and over again to relax. And then I picture him finally listening to her, hearing her, and obeying her—stretching himself out on the surface of the water like you would stretch yourself out on a king size bed, feeling it beneath him lifting him up, holding him, even as his mother’s arms are beneath him, supporting him. I can almost hear him gasp with wonder as he realizes that he can float, and almost see the smile on his face as he lies there on the water with his eyes closed, rocking gently back and forth as his mother chides,

“O, ye of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

—Jim Somerville ©2015

In Light of Recent Events

gay marriageThis is the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 28, setting aside my summer sermon series to address a number of recent events in our nation.  I publish it here by request:

On Thursday Christy and I drove from Richmond, Virginia, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, which means that we waited in line to cross the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of the border. I don’t know why. You can see the falls from the American side. But we love international travel, and it only cost $3.50 to cross the bridge, so we did it. And, besides, we had reservations at a bed and breakfast on the Canadian side. To avoid roaming charges we switched our phones to “airplane mode” and spent a blissful sixteen hours ignoring the news. When we crossed back over the next day it seemed that everything had changed. Christy sat in the passenger seat looking at her Facebook feed and telling me that the Governor of Alabama had taken down the Confederate flag. And then she told me the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act and made gay marriage legal everywhere in America. A little later in the day she told me that President Obama had started singing “Amazing Grace” near the end of his eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and that someone here in our own town had spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the Jefferson Davis Monument just down the street.

Honestly, you leave the country for one day!

But now I’m back, and like most of you I’m trying to discern what these events will mean for America, for the Commonwealth of Virginia, for Metropolitan Richmond, and for First Baptist Church. It’s a complicated question, and I went for a run yesterday morning to sort things out. During that run I stopped at the Jefferson Davis Monument and looked for evidence of the words “Black Lives Matter.” I couldn’t find them anywhere. But I thought about the person whose job it was to remove those words from the monument—James Robertson, a private contractor, a white man. I had seen his picture in the paper before I went for my run. And I wondered: what was he thinking as he scrubbed those words from the stone? Because I wouldn’t be surprised if, even as he was doing it, he was thinking, “But black lives DO matter!”

Every life matters.

I preached in Dallas, Texas, on June 19, at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and I reminded the audience that exactly 150 years earlier Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to spread the word that slavery had been abolished. The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect some two-and-a-half years earlier, but most Confederate states ignored it until they were forced to free their slaves by advancing Union troops. From the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, General Gordon Granger read the contents of General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…

Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets after that announcement, but you might imagine that former slave owners did not rejoice. In a single moment they had gone from owning slaves, who worked for free, to having hired hands, who would expect to be paid.

I also reminded the audience that on June 19, 1964, exactly 51 years earlier, the Civil Rights Act had been passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. On that day I’m sure there was rejoicing in the streets, but again, not everyone was rejoicing. And so it was on Friday, when the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. I saw a picture of a woman holding a sign that read: “I’m not just gay; I’m ecstatic!” Everywhere on Facebook people were putting rainbow stripes over their profile pictures and celebrating this momentous day in our nation’s history, but again…not everyone.

Does it always have to come to this? Big decisions by the government that split the country into two groups: those who are rejoicing and those who are not? Does it always have to divide us as a people? Will this latest decision divide us as a church? I hope and pray that it will not, and to that end I thought it might be helpful to spend a few minutes talking about just what is at stake here.

First of all: marriage.

In the Bible, as far as I can tell, marriage is the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and raised. It is the logical outcome of the first commandment ever given in the Bible, Genesis 1:28, in which God says to the people he has just created, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” In the very next chapter the Bible says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” This is how humans multiply. A man and a woman “cleave” to each other. Biologists call it sexual reproduction.

This appears to be the primary purpose of marriage in the Bible, and for that reason it is necessarily between a man and a woman. But not only one woman. Early in the Bible we have the story of Jacob who married first Leah and then Rachel and then had children by their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. Ultimately he produced twelve sons and who knows how many daughters. He was fruitful. He multiplied. He fulfilled the first commandment. But I don’t know many people these days who argue for that kind of biblical marriage. Instead they talk about a lifetime of love and commitment and I agree. That’s a better model than pure procreation. But I’m not sure where we get that. Not from the Bible, certainly, where Jacob may be the only example of someone who wanted to get married because he was in love. Most of those marriages were arranged by parents who made the best matches they could for their children and then waited for the grandchildren to come. It wasn’t about love; it was about multiplication.

But these days we talk about love and commitment. A woman gets married because she falls in love with a man and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. A man gets married for the same reason. And while he may want a family at some point it’s hardly ever the main point. That became clear to me on the day I did a wedding for a couple in their eighties. They were so precious! And each had survived the loss of a spouse after more than fifty years of marriage. When I asked the groom, “Do you take this woman in sickness and in health?” I saw the tears come to his eyes, because he had nursed his wife through a lengthy illness. And when I asked the bride the same question she did the same thing. She had sat by her husband’s bed until he drew his last breath. These two knew what they were getting into! But they weren’t getting into it to start a family. They were lonely, and they had come to love each other, and they longed for human companionship. How could I deny them that?

So, our understanding of marriage has changed since biblical times. It’s not just about multiplication anymore. It’s about love and commitment. And our understanding of human beings has changed since biblical times. We know now that while most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, some people are attracted to members of the same sex. What we don’t know is why. Is it genetic? Is it something determined at an early age? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be a choice. I can still remember the day I discovered that I was attracted to the opposite sex: it was in fourth grade, and her name was Bamma Donohue. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. But I didn’t choose to be attracted to her; it just happened. People who are attracted to members of the same sex report precisely that kind of experience.

And so the Supreme Court has decided that, since marriage is no longer strictly about multiplication, but rather a matter of love and commitment, and since people don’t seem to choose whom they are attracted to, but rather discover those attractions at an early age, then who are they to tell two adults that they can’t share their lives with each other? That they can’t have joint ownership of property and joint custody of children? The Supreme Court has decided that marriage is a civil right, and that withholding that right on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is unconstitutional. But what about us? We are not the Supreme Court. We are, most of us, members of First Baptist Church, and when it comes to marriage the separation of church and state prevails. No one can force me to do a same-sex wedding: all they can do is ask.

And so far, no one has.

But surely, someday, someone will, and so, when same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia a few months ago, I asked our deacons where we stand on the issue of homosexuality. I passed out little slips of paper and put four points on the spectrum: 1) we condemn homosexuality and exclude homosexuals from our church, 2) we tolerate homosexuals under an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, 3) we welcome homosexuals as members but we do not ordain or marry them, or 4) we extend to our homosexual members the same rights, privileges, and blessings as any other member. I asked the deacons to write down the number that best described First Baptist Church and the average was 2.5—somewhere between tolerance and welcome. And then I passed out more slips of paper and asked them to write down where we should be and this time the average was 3—welcome. We weren’t drafting policy. We weren’t making decisions. We were just finding out where we were on this issue and not everyone was in the same place. There was at least one 1 on those little slips of paper and a few 4’s. As I’ve said before, this church is a big tent. It has all kinds of people in it. The only common denominator is our shared faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Which brings me back to my first thoughts on this topic.

When I was still wondering whether I should address these recent events in today’s sermon I thought I might just say something during the welcome. I might say, “There have been a lot of changes in our country in the last few days, but as the author of Hebrews says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’ (13:8). So, maybe we should spend some time sitting at his feet in the next few weeks, listening to what he has to say about all this.” But then I gave it some more thought. What does Jesus say about gay marriage? Nothing at all. What does he say about the Affordable Care Act? Nothing. What does he say about the Confederate flag? Nothing. What does he say about black lives? Nothing that I can recall. But he does say something that could be extended to all lives. He tells us to love our neighbors, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan he makes it clear that the people or groups of people we have the hardest time loving are also our neighbors. Samaritans were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ time, but the Samaritan in his story stopped and helped a Jew who had been beaten and left for dead.

“If you want to inherit eternal life,” Jesus said, “then go and do likewise.”

What would he say to us in these days when some people have been shot because their skin was black and others have been allowed to marry even though they are gay? I’m fairly sure he would say, “Love your neighbor.” And I think he might add (although I don’t want to put words in his mouth) that the commandment to love applies to everyone with no exceptions, that those of us who follow Jesus must love our black neighbors, our white neighbors, our gay neighbors, our straight neighbors, our Christian neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and even the neighbors who borrow our tools and forget to return them. Leave the work of judgment up to God and the Supreme Court. Our job is not to judge; it is to love. And it is to love everyone.

Because every life matters.

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The Church and Mr. Coffee

Mr. CoffeeUsually, before I go to bed at night, I make coffee.

Which is to say I get the coffeemaker ready to make coffee first thing in the morning, and set the automatic timer for 4:55 a.m., so that the aroma of brewing coffee will rise to my nostrils on the second floor just before the alarm goes off at 5:00.

And that really helps.

Once I’ve had coffee, I can actually think about how it got here, and it occurs to me that somewhere out there is a factory that makes coffeemakers. Two things seem clear:

1. If there wasn’t a factory to make coffeemakers, I probably wouldn’t have one.
2. If coffeemakers didn’t make coffee, there probably wouldn’t be a factory.

Stay with me.

I heard someone refer to the church as a “disciple-making factory” recently, and I sat up a little straighter because I’ve had that thought myself.

When I came to Richmond seven years ago our mission statement read: “First Baptist Church exists to make disciples…” and, almost immediately, I pictured fully formed, fully functioning disciples rolling off the assembly line.

My question, however, was, “What does a disciple do?”

If coffeemakers didn’t make coffee the factory would go out of business. Is there a corollary in church life? Could it be said, “If disciples don’t ______________ the church will go out of business”? And how would you fill in that blank?

The answer to that question could make all the difference.

Some people answer it by saying that disciples make disciples, and if they don’t the church will go out of business. That seems logical, until I apply that same logic to coffeemakers: coffeemakers aren’t supposed to make coffeemakers; they’re supposed to make coffee. If they do it and do it well people will continue to buy coffeemakers and the factory will stay in business.

So, what are disciples supposed to “make,” if not more disciples?

Here’s one answer:

In Matthew 10 Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the good news of the coming Kingdom and to give people a glimpse of what the world will look like when God, at last, has his way: “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons,” he says, and off they go to do it.

That’s Kingdom coffee, friends, and I believe that if we made more of that the church would have all the business it could handle. That’s what Jesus did, after all, and everywhere he went he drew such crowds that he could hardly breathe. But along the way he was teaching his disciples to do the same things he did, to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons, and to do it as a sign of the coming Kingdom.  Is it too much to think that we, in our own way, could do the same?

Maybe if we stopped worrying so much about making coffeemakers, maybe if we put more energy into making coffee, God’s kingdom would come and his will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.