Sunday, May 22, 2011

One house, many rooms

John 14:1-7

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?* And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know* my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

John 3:16-17

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The Last Time

This could be the last time I awake

This could be the last breath that I take

This could be the last time that I pray

This could be the day I fly away

This could be the last time I sing a song

This could be the day I say so long

This could be the last meal that I eat

This could be the last beat my heart beats

But I can't place such a bet

So I won't just sit and fret

Until I'm gone

This could be the last day my eyes see

This could be the last day you see me

This could be the last night in my bed

This could be the last thought in my head

I won't cast my life to the wind

I'll treasure as much as I can

While I can, I can

Though I may be gone before too long

As long as I am here I'll sing this song

This could be the last time

This could be the last time

This could be the last time...

Well, here we are. Did you have any doubts? Did you wonder at any time in the past few days or weeks if Harold Camping of Family Ministries radio just might know something you didn’t? If you lived close enough to the Hayward Fault and felt yesterday evening’s minor shaking, would you have had momentary second thoughts?

So, the end of the world as we know it did not happen ... as far as we know, everyone who started the morning on this earth ended the day on this earth. The Rapture, which some understand to be the pre-judgment sparing of the faithful, if it is ever to occur, did not happen yesterday.

It was, however, quite the truly weird day outside of the Family Ministry headquarters. Joining some of the faithful who gathered to be raptured were Christians who called Camping a false prophet ... there was a woman dressed as an angel passing out free tickets to the other side ... Santa Claus was there pouring free koolaid ... I believe everyone who drank it survived ... there was a man from Minnesota passing out free cans of beer ... and a young man from Sacramento who would pass for Jesus nearly anywhere in the world was there to add a certain note of authenticity to day that almost ran away with weirdness.

“Of that day and of that hour” it says in the gospel of Mark, “no one knows—not the angels, not Jesus, but God alone. So be alert ... stay awake.”

For as long as I can remember ... possibly even going back as far as the early 80’s, I have been bumping into Harold Camping on the television and radio ... as I scrolled through the channels or turned the knob through the stations, I encountered his droll face and low monotone voice so often that they became familiar to me. I never lingered long ... our understanding of God and the Universe and reality was so profoundly different that there didn’t seem to be any point in having a silent, one-sided argument that he couldn’t win and I couldn’t lose. But the little I did hear made it clear that he was among those who was absolutely certain that the Bible was a riddle to be deciphered and if it could be deciphered properly, then God’s hidden timeline for the universe could be teased out.

17 years ago his study and calculations indicated that the earth would end then ... and then ... well, then, as yesterday, the sun came up ... the world went about its business ... the sun set ... and another day. Sort of like the ancient story of creation ... evening and morning ... morning and evening ... and God saw that it was good. And God rested.

When I was a pastor in Vermont, I learned that our little corner of the world had been the epicenter of another failed prediction of the world’s end. William Miller was a Baptist minister who had actually grown up in my little village of East Poultney. As an adult, he moved a few miles west to New York State where he served as a pastor. In the 1830’s he became convinced that the time of Jesus’ 2nd Coming or “2nd Advent” was approaching. He began to spread his word and a world-wide movement of anticipation came into being. The movement took on Miller’s name and were known as “Millerites”. William Miller started spreading his message in the rural areas of New York and New England, but by the end of the decade in the major cities of the East, he proved to steadily increasing audiences of Protestants from many denominations that the end of the world was almost at hand. By 1843, probably over one million people had attended the Millerites various camp meetings, and between 50,000 and 100,000 of these were persuaded to bring their earthly affairs to an end by October 22, 1844 -- the date ultimately announced as the day the saints would be translated to the New Jerusalem while the world perished in fire beneath them.

October 22, 1844 was a day very much like May 21, 2011 ... the sun rose ... the sun set ... as it did the next day and the next.

The failure in Miller’s time was known as “the Great Disappointment” ... it was a shattering failure for tens ... maybe even hundreds of thousands of believers. Three groups emerged from the ruins of Millers failed predictions, one of those being the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

And so it goes.

The hope and belief in the end of the world and the return of Jesus in judgment and glory is as old as the faith. The early Christians, with plenty of encouragement from Paul, believed they were living in the last days ... they utterly believed that Jesus would return in their generation. In Paul’s early letters, you can sense the immediacy of that belief.

In 1st Thessalonians 4, Paul tells the Christians there: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

But in 2nd Thessalonians, as the faithful begin to die without seeing the second coming, Paul—or someone writing in the spirit of Paul—writes now to counter some of the confusion and disappointment regarding the delay of Jesus’ return. This letter, as well as other writings of Paul, addresses the tendency to “put off life” ... because if Jesus is coming soon, why bother with the mundane details of life? Already in Paul’s time amidst the first generation of Christians, adjustments to expectations and reassessments of how to live while waiting were going on. Some people in Paul’s time quit working and gave up their responsibilities in the confidence that trivialities like that didn’t matter.

I find myself wondering what all of those un-raptured folk in their RV’s are doing who’ve been driving around for months spreading the word. They gave up their jobs and sold their homes and put it all on the line. I suppose you’ve got to at least admire that they gave it their all ... but I wonder what they’re doing this morning? Camped in a Walmart parking lot somewhere, I suppose, wondering if their friends and family and former employers will welcome them back.

I think it’s worth naming the implications of a “second coming” as both Paul and Harold Camping seemed to understand it. There is a savageness and a disregard for much of God’s human family that I think we should find extraordinarily disturbing. Paul’s writings speak of “punishment of eternal destruction” for those who do not confess Jesus or live by his commands. In a recent interview, Harold Camping was asked to estimate the number of people who would be spared the mayhem and destruction of God’s judgment and he guessed around 200 million. Now that’s not a small number and it’s certainly a good deal larger than the 144,000 hinted at in Revelations and claimed by some, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking at our doors.

But doing the math on either scenario leaves about 7 billion souls heading for, in Paul’s and Camping’s words—but not mine, to eternal destruction. Endless suffering and punishment.

Now I don’t believe that ... and I don’t think it’s hard to understand that those who do believe and espouse words and ideas like that are dangerous to life on this planet. It is to say, these folk, that in God’s economy, nearly the entirety of God’s human family is unworthy and expendable ... even loathsome.

These loathsome and expendable souls would include those whose loyalty was offered to someone other than Jesus as well as those who lived and died in ignorance of Jesus. People of other faiths and people of insufficient faith and people of no faith ... all consignable to fires of everlasting damnation.

Wow ... I didn’t think I’d ever say those words in a sermon. One of my favorite religious cartoons is of a pastor standing in front of a long dressing mirror with a giant Bible perched in his hand and he’s practicing the word “Brimstone!”.

Until I breathe my last breath, whenever that is, I will bet my life and faith on a different understanding of God and God’s love.

I have a startlingly clear memory, as I’ve noted a time or two, from my childhood that has shaped my life profoundly since. I was 10 or 11 ... I was riding my bike with a friend near my home ... and I guess as we flew along we were engaged in some pretty hot and heavy theological discussions because it suddenly occurred to me as we rode and talked that I absolutely, flatly rejected any understanding that people were “going to hell” just because they didn’t believe in Jesus as we did. It was as clear to me as a bolt of lightning and as startling as a thunderclap. And every subsequent occasion in my life when I have been faced with choosing an understanding of God based on a punishing judgment or embracing grace, I have chosen ... claimed ... grace. That moment of clarity has informed my understanding of people of other faiths and people of no faith ... it has informed my understanding of race ... and gender ... and sexual orientation ... and any other area where we are tempted to draw lines of division and exclusion and judgment.

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy ...” claims the hymn that I grew up singing, “like the wideness of the sea.” And what is likely the first verse of the Bible I ever heard and learned declares that God so loved the world that God gave dearly of God’s self so that the world might not end in punishment and destruction, but in mercy and salvation.

It is absolutely true that if you want to squeeze the blood of judgment and condemnation out of the Bible, you absolutely can. Hate-mongering preachers have been doing it for nearly two thousand years. As with many other written works, the Bible can be easily shaped to serve the needs of a whole host of pre-existing biases. Let’s understand, in this “Bible as Literature” moment, that the Bible was created by the contributions of an uncountable number of people over thousands of years, and edited by scores more over still great periods of time. The thoughts and understandings of the writers and editors varied as times and needs and circumstances varied. And what we have ended up with is not a scientific textbook, or a magical book of hidden riddles, but a sacred work of extraordinary variety and depth and range of experience and understanding. And in that sacred work, our Bible of Jewish and Christian writings, we can discern a long arc understanding of the being and desires of God ... and it may be an arc that begins with God as a savage and jealous God who destroys Israel’s enemies, but it is an arc that even before we enter the Christian scriptures, as with the hopeful prophecies of Isaiah, is already showing bold evidence of God’s great dream of Shalom ... peace with justice for all people and all creation. And these prophecies and the great bold hope of the ancient prophets comes to fullness and fruition in the person and work and great Spirit of Jesus. And the arc of God’s movement from judgment to grace that is made manifest in Jesus is an arc that cannot turn back, but can only go forward seeking to make ever more manifest the saving and grace laden goodness of God’s love for all.

Dear friends, this world of God’s imagining and God’s embracing is, as we know, also a world full of pain. I believe in a God who yearns to embrace this world in hope and mercy and grace ... I believe in a God who hopes for the healing of body and spirit of all persons ... I believe in a God who will never give up on any one soul any more than God will give up on creation.

So ... back to yesterday for a final moment. I wonder how many babies were born yesterday ... I wonder how many babies were born on the so-called “day of judgment”. Here’s my take on it ... I hold to that statement that says: “Babies are God’s way of saying “The world should go on.” I trust that a normal number of babies were born yesterday. Therefore I believe, and I believe God believes ... our world should go on.

Jesus said: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms” ... it’s a BIG house ... and there’s a LOT of rooms ... about 7.2 billion rooms by current estimations.

Yes, I believe the world should go on.

So be it.


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