Editor's Note: This post was originally a sermon in our monthly Sojourners chapel.
Friends, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Around the time I started middle school, my church acquired a series of books called The Left Behind Series. These books chronicle the final days of earth as outlined in the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic biblical texts. I won’t offer any commentary on the theology of these books, or even their literary value, but, as a middle-schooler, they were fairly impressionable.
The entire series begins with a dramatic reinterpretation of the rapture. People are going about their daily lives — driving to work, flying airplanes, making breakfast — when all of a sudden, people who had been there just seconds before are gone. Simply vanished into thin air. Of course, chaos ensues, because who is driving the car? Flying the airplane? Tending the stove? The world they leave behind is shattered, broken, and chaotic! This seminal event — the rapture — shapes the rest of the series as those who have been “left behind” work to win the ultimate prize — a place in heaven where they are no longer left behind.
Two weeks ago in Soma, Turkey, a coal mine explosion left 301 people dead. It was the country’s worst mining disaster, but it wasn’t the first — and it wasn’t the last, as multiple fatal accidents have happened in the two weeks since. The last time a mining disaster caught the world’s attention, we watched and waited and prayed during the rescue operation for the miners in Chile.
In Turkey, people protested in the streets of Soma — protested against Soma Mining for letting this happen, against their government for loopholes in safety rules. In response, the police issued a ban on protests and locked the city down. The ruling political party proudly announces that it has inspected that mine 11 times in the past 5 years; Soma Mining denies negligence. And the families of 301 persons mourn their losses.
This isn’t a faraway problem. In the United States, we don’t do as much traditional mining as we used to — instead, we do mountaintop removal. This has a human cost, too, in more insidious ways. The people living in Appalachia have higher rates of respiratory illness, cancer, kidney diseases, skin ailments, and more. And the landscape, which has the fingerprints of God in it, is being blown apart.
Psalm 95:4-5 says:
“In [God’s] hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are [God’s] also. The sea is [God’s], for [God] made it, and the dry land, which [God’s] hands have formed.”
Anyone who thinks much on theology will tell you that you go through patterns of thought. For a long time, I was intrigued — and still am in many ways — by the notion of Jesus as a “third way” prophet, offering something different than both church and secular culture most of the time. As I learned of different interpretations of the crucifixion, I became obsessed with nonviolent activism, and the idea of responding to force or bloodshed with something else entirely.
Now, my latest mental track is sacrament. I am interested in what makes something a sacrament, yes, but also in the power connected to sacraments and what human beings do with that power.
I am part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination that has Alexander Campbell as part of its roots. Campell was notorious for supposedly causing a stir in his local church around the sacrament of communion. At that time, the Church handed out tokens to those it deemed worthy to participate in communion. No token? No communion. So this one particular day, Campbell entered the church with his token in hand, but when they offered the elements to him, he refused, tossing the token on the ground and walking out. He went on to help start the Disciples based, in large part, on the concept of the open communion table.
Every time I go to restock my face cream at the cosmetics vendor, inevitably the sales ladies point out the fact my skin is particularly dry. Oh wait, not just dry, they say, they are also seeing signs of crow’s feet and — gasp! — some dark circles under my eyes. They masquerade as skincare health professionals with fancy dermatology equipment to properly diagnose the ills of my skin. All this, of course, so they can sell me the magic anti-wrinkle cream. And do I buy it? I do. (Dang it, you weak-willed creature.)
I recently read a book titled, Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, who pinpoints this trend over the last hundred years of advertising coined “inadequacy marketing.” He summarizes this form of storytelling as follows:
“Inadequacy stories encourage immature emotions like greed, vanity, and insecurity by telling us that we are somehow incomplete. These stories then offer to remove the discomfort of those emotions with a simple purchase or association with a brand.”
The first step in adequacy marketing is to create anxiety.
There is a line in the famous movie Ben Hur in which one of his relatives goes to hear Jesus speak. She comes back enthralled. The way she describes Jesus is by saying that he is like no one she has ever met before, that he speaks words of life. And so he did. The Gospel writers add that he spoke as one who had authority. The Message version interprets this as meaning he lived out what he spoke.
Our lives have the most impact when we live what we speak. Jesus of course is the perfect example of this. For 2,000 years he has captivated people of all races and colors. There is something about this man that is like no other. He speaks words of life and he lived those same words. He loved his enemies, he walked the extra mile, he denied himself, took up his cross and lived a life of obedience to the Father.
Our lives speak, whether we like it or not, and whether we think so or not. We are either speaking life or we are speaking death. We all have a worldview.
If you have to reassure people that you’re not abandoning them, it may be because they feel you slipping away. In John 14, Jesus is responding to the anxiety of those he loves. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he says, but it is not clear how he will keep that promise. In a few hours, his arrest, trial, crucifixion and death will all have been accomplished. It will feel as if he has, in fact, abandoned them or been torn away from them.
Jesus loses his life, and he is not the only one to suffer loss. Those he leaves behind lose him, and without him, they lose whatever security they might have felt in the world. After his death, they take refuge by hiding. They are isolated from each other and afraid of everything on the other side of locked doors.
We rarely think of what happened to Jesus as an experience of combat, but the story of his arrest includes soldiers, weapons, and at least momentary hand-to-hand combat as Peter draws a sword to slice off the ear of one of those sent to arrest Jesus. Twenty-four hours later, those who could not watch with Jesus in the garden or save him from the enemy will themselves be lost without him.
My Dear Friend,
It breaks my heart to be the one to tell you this, but I figured you might be more receptive hearing this from me. I think you already know what I'm about to tell you — it's nearly impossible you couldn't know with how loud everyone's whispers have become.
Something is terribly wrong! You are sick.
I know this isn't the news you were hoping for, but it's the truth. With this in mind, I feel now, it is more important than ever that I lay things out for you — no matter how much it pains me.
Christianity is full of labels.
Does caring about the environment make me a Liberal Christian?
Does opposing to the death penalty make me a Leftist Christian?
Does believing that women can preach make me a Christian Feminist?
Does believing in anti-violence make me a Christian Pacifist?
Does taking an anti-war stance make me an Anabaptist Christian?
To the dying church,
Sometimes you have to get worse before you get better. You are dying because you’ve been applying band aids for a far deeper problem. You are consistently doling out superficial remedies for surface wounds when the source of pain lays untreated.
Church, you have confused biblical hope for optimism. When hurting people walk through your doors, you play the positive thinking guru and dispense quick fixes with inspirational quotes. You provide cheap grace and empty promises that are driving people out your doors.
You have mistaken confidence with certitude. When people come with authentic questions, you forsake healthy dialogue in exchange for a veneer of harmony. You post your doctrinal statements at your gates and demand unsure people to come in or stay out. The resulting homogenous bubbles you’ve created are sure to burst.
When I was a child, my vision of heaven was riddled with roller coasters and populated by Disney characters. Let me explain.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, the American “mainland” to our north was for me a dreamland of sorts. You could catch a glimpse of it on television show depicting Main Streets lined with impressive trees. And of course, there was Disney World. As a five-year old visiting Florida for the first time, I imagined that the rest of the country was just like that particular corner of Orlando that we tourists saw.
That was heaven on earth for the five-year-old version of me. Heaven was earthly and joyful and fun and sweet. But as we all know Disney is no paradise. I don’t expect long lines, lots of sweat, and expensive but mediocre food in heaven.
When I was five, Disney was my vision of heaven. As I grew up in the church, my vision turned upward. Heaven was an eternal destination deferred until the moment after you die. Heaven was a place of reward and eternity. Heaven was an ethereal experience, something so otherworldly that the best we could do was speak in metaphors and images about it. Heaven, in short, had very little to do with the world as we knew it.
Neither vision gets it quite right.
Let me start off this letter by expressing my deep love and appreciation for you. I have been an active participant in the community of faith for about 10 years now, and I have been profoundly blessed, cared for, loved, and inspired to be a better human being through you. I have also seen — and even participated in — some of your ugliest and most unfaithful moments in recent history. But through all of these experiences, nothing but utter appreciation and love remains for you. I believe, in the words of Bill Hybels, that the church is the hope of the world. I believe in your great power and potential to renew and reconcile our broken world through the way of Jesus. I believe that you can do it. That we can do it, together.
With that said, there has been a lot of talk recently about your impending death. For a long time, I believed the hype. I saw the numbers of millennials who were walking away from the churches and both mainline and evangelical churches closing their doors. I was convinced that maybe the church had truly seen the end.
But I was recently reminded that what we have been witnessing in the West is not, in fact, the death of the church at all.
In my Santa Barbara, California neighborhood, which we sometimes call “Leave it to Beaver Land” for its seeming serenity and peace, a new practice has become evident: Children no longer walk alone to our neighborhood elementary school. Every morning, a parade of mothers and fathers accompany their children the short distance to school, dogs in tow and cellphones in hand. It looks like the practice of safety, but it’s also the practice of fear. You just never know. It could happen anywhere. It could happen here.
These parents know about something we call “school incidents.” They know the statistics about the number of American children that are shot, stabbed, and killed in our schools each year. Like the rest of us, they know about the big ones, from Columbine to Newtown to Chicago to Pittsburgh, and they know there are so many more stories that never make it to CNN.
The soundtrack for the story of childhood in America reverberates with gunfire and the sobs of stunned classmates and grieving parents. It’s the soundtrack of fear.
Fear is our newest neighbor, even in sunny “Leave it to Beaver Land.”
At 6:23 p.m. yesterday, the state of Oklahoma initiated its effort to kill Clayton D. Lockett. Twenty minutes later, after being declared unconscious by a physician, Lockett cried out, "Oh, man," writhing in pain. Addled by this unexpected display of pain, one of the executioners said, "Something’s wrong." Soon after, the window to the observation room was covered and media were escorted out of the room.
A state official later reported that Mr. Lockett died of a heart attack at 7:06pm.
The fact that this unexpected scene was preceded by months of arguments by lawyers about the constitutionality of resuming executions in Oklahoma guarantees that a debate about the death penalty will ensue. Those who have argued that this ultimate form of punishment is "cruel and unusual" will make last nights scene their case in point. The Governor of Oklahoma has already declared that a thorough investigation of what went wrong will take place before any other executions go forward. Privately, in conversations at home and on their computers, many will say, "Did he suffer? Sure. But why shouldn’t he after what he did." Most national polls show that support for vs. opposition to the death penalty is about 50/50. Both sides will have plenty of people to argue.
But I think it would be the greatest of tragedies if we did not notice that what happened in Oklahoma last night reveals perhaps our deepest national self-deception — that, no matter what goes wrong, we will fix it because we are in control.
Society has an affinity for death. There is a pervasive fascination with (im)mortality. We appreciate life, but we are seduced at the intricacies and unknowns of death. While there is much enjoyment and celebration over health, personal accomplishments, births, and birthdays, women and men around the world ponder the “what ifs” concerning the end of life. The thought of death grips us with a “thanatopsis” like inquisitiveness — no fear just sheer curiosity.
Look at the ubiquitous commentary on demise and dying. The Walking Dead has become one of the most highly watched shows. Along with True Blood, Cold Case, and Resurrection television is replete with musings over death and what happens when the “dead” come back to life. Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven and the book-turned-film Heaven is for Real challenge us to discard any sense of reason or rationale when it comes to what many of us living have not experienced personally — that is dying. Yes, we have gone to funerals, but dare I say we were not in the casket.
Like many people, I was troubled when I heard about the recent shooting outside of a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas. According to several news accounts, the perpetrator — Frazier Glenn Cross — yelled, “Heil Hitler” at onlookers as he was being carried away in a police car. Cross also has a long history of anti-Semitic behavior and has publically declared a hatred of all Jews.
In addition to being troubled by this act of hatred and violence, I was also troubled by the quick response of CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor, Daniel Burke, who made it a point to emphasize that Frazier was not a Christian but rather allegedly an adherent of Odinism, a “neo-pagan” religion which, according to Burke, “has emerged as one the most vicious strains in the white supremacist movement.”
While the annals of Christian history — ancient and modern — are full of accounts of violence perpetrated in the name of Christianity, my objective here is neither to defend Odinism nor to criticize Christianity. Instead, I want to highlight the socially constructed nature of beliefs and beliefs systems and emphasize how these socially constructed beliefs say far more about us than they do about the “gods” we claim to accept or reject.
The seasonal items aisle in the grocery store is a work in progress. Stuffed bunnies are being replaced by garden gnomes. Cans of sunscreen will soon inhabit the shelves that displayed egg-coloring kits a few days ago.
Easter is over.
Well, not completely. Boxes of purple and yellow Peeps are stacked on clearance tables in the middle of the aisle. Chocolate rabbits are available for half-price.
And tombs are being emptied.
“On the third day, he rose again.”
But how that statement is interpreted is the source of some of the deepest rifts in Christianity — and a stumbling block for some Christians and more than a few skeptics.
Did Jesus literally rise from the dead in a bodily resurrection, as many traditionalist and conservative Christians believe? Or was his rising a symbolic one, a restoration of his spirit of love and compassion to the world, as members of some more liberal brands of Christianity hold?
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus utters his agonizing prayer, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
Who among us hasn’t found ourselves in a situation where the inevitable seems impossible? Where the unavoidable seems unimaginable?
Who hasn’t said to God, in so many words, “Remove this cup”?
The most difficult thing in such a situation may be its crushing inevitability. You want to escape from your life, which suddenly feels like an oncoming train about to run you down. It is the shock you feel when you receive a frightening diagnosis from your physician. When you are laid off from a job. When a friend dies. When a relationship ends. You say to yourself, “This cannot be happening.”
Easter Sunday marks the holiest, most exalted moment of the Christian year. In Easter services all over the world, trumpets and organs blast. Flowers transform churches with their brightness. Worship leaders boldly proclaim: “Christ is risen!” Congregations echo back: “Christ is risen indeed!” The cycle of celebration and repetition begins as it should — a festive proclamation of good news. In Christ God has overcome the powers of sin and death, freeing us to live with hope and promising us life. Not just life after death, but full life, divinely inspired life — life in the here and now.
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
Even in these festive moments, many people express insecurity regarding the quality of their own believing.
Feeling anxious about your tax liability as April 15 nears? The Bible has many references to taxes that will sound strangely relevant at this time of year — beginning with the story of David and Goliath.
Many remember a teenage boy offended by insults thrown by a giant foe against his nation and God himself, who volunteers to go into battle with a slingshot. But did you know that a tax incentive was part of his prize?
Visiting the battlefield, David learns: “The king will give great wealth to the man who kills (Goliath) and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel,” (1 Samuel 17:25).
Throughout Scripture, tax discussions mark many passages, as ancient men and women worried about how they would pay.