While It is Still Not Too Late

My sermon from Sunday, September 29th, 2019 at Southminster Presbyterian Church. Listen to audio here.

How late is it?

For me personally, at the age of 58, it is likely too late to fulfill that dream of playing second base for the New York Mets. That dream should be put on the shelf. My seven-year-old nephew, Cooper, can dream that dream, but for me, it is too late.

The journey of life requires that of us. That is to evaluate what there is still time to do and what must be considered realistically, too late. We may harbor old dreams long past their expiration date. It is healthy to let those dreams go with appropriate mourning and ritual so we can look with clear eyes at what is still yet possible and what dreams fit reality.

It is not easy to let go of dreams. Those dreams can be so much a part of us that we hold on to them even when evidence of their demise is easy to see. We call that denial.

Poor Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before its capture by the Babylonians in the 6th century before Christ. He has had a long relationship with Jeremiah. Almost friends I wonder? Their dance goes like this: Zedekiah asks Jeremiah for a word from the Lord. Jeremiah gives it to him. Zedekiah refuses to heed it. Again and again they repeat that pattern.

When it is too late for anything else, Jeremiah tells him, “Surrender. It is over. Spare your life and your family’s life.” Zedekiah won’t believe it.

And according to the text we heard this morning, even as the Babylonian army is besieging the city, Zedekiah asks Jeremiah why he is prophesying the end for Judah. It would be almost comical if it weren’t so tragic. Denial to the last. Zedekiah is captured. His family is killed before his eyes. Then his eyes are gouged out and he is taken to Babylon in chains. The last king of Judah.

Jeremiah does give one more prophecy. But if Zedekiah heard it, we can’t know if it ever held meaning for him. Jeremiah tells the story of the field he bought, complete with a lot of detail regarding the purchase. The prophecy is that land will be purchased in Judah again. Yes, it is hopeful. A hopeful prophecy. But it will not be fulfilled in the lifetime of anyone listening, including Jeremiah. This hope will be realized on the other side of the devastation. That is hope in the midst of reality. A real hope. It is not fake hope, the hope to which Zedekiah clung.

Some have been showing us that the hour is late for America. I won’t tell you that. I am not as clear of vision as they are nor as brave as Jeremiah. I will just point out that there are those people who say things like that. There is hope for us. Real hope, they say. But it is long past the fake hope of endless happy motoring. That era, they say, will end soon, as the hour is late.

So what do we do?

Well, there is a parable for that.

It is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. But Lazarus doesn’t have much of a part. The real story is about the rich man. Many people don’t like this parable as it conjures up images of hellfire which many of us traumatized in our childhood religion are glad to have left behind.

In my mind the best interpretation of this parable is by Charles Dickens in his story “A Christmas Carol.” One Christmas Eve awhile back, Ebeneezer Scrooge, the old miser, is visited by three spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, respectively. Scrooge is given a gift that he didn’t deserve. He was able to see his life, past, present, and future.

The Ghost of Christmas Future, unlike the other two spirits, does not speak. He only shows. The death of the crippled boy, Tim. The celebration of the city over what? The death of Scrooge as he realizes seeing his own tombstone.

“Are these things that will happen or may happen?” Scrooge asks desperately to the Ghost who doesn’t answer.

Mercifully, Scrooge awakens, scared witless, but transformed. Much is too late for Scrooge. Too late for the love of his life he traded for greed. Too late for Christmas dinners that he missed with his loved ones. Most of his life is water under the bridge. But he has a little time left. It is not too late for everything. It is not too late for one more Christmas Day spent with joy and generosity.

Through the lens of Charles Dickens is how I see the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
We might ask,
“Is this what really happens when we die?”
“Is there really a hell?”
“Is there really divine judgment?”
“Or is it just a story?”

Jesus, like the ghost of Christmas future does not answer. He just points to it.

The parable is not for the dead, of course. It is not for Lazarus or the rich man. The parable is for the living.

We can dismiss it as the rich man fears his brothers will dismiss what is written by Moses and the Prophets.

“Send Lazarus back to warn my brothers!” he cries.

“Even a resurrected dead man won’t convince them,” says Abraham. “What you get is what you get.”

Here we are today, September 29th, 2019, confronted by two Bible stories, one from Jeremiah and one from Luke. Bible stories that have been in Bibles long before any of us were around. Bible stories translated into hundreds of different languages, commented upon, reflected upon, debated, heard, dismissed, and received.

What do we do?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a powerful sermon on this text in 1955. The rich man in Latin is Dives (Dahy-vees) and the King James used Dives as proper name for the rich man. King in his sermon, said Dives’ sin, the rich man’s sin, was not that he was rich, but it was that he refused to bridge the gulf between Lazarus and himself, the gulf now permanent in the afterlife. This is from King:

“Dives is the white man who refuses to cross the gulf of segregation and lift his Negro brother to the position of first class citizenship, because he thinks segregation is a part of the fixed structure of the universe. Dives is the India Brahman who refuses to bridge the gulf between himself and his brother, because he feels that the gulf which is set forth by the caste system is a final principle of the universe. Dives is the American capitalist who never seeks to bridge the economic gulf between himself and the laborer, because he feels that it is the natural for some to live in inordinate luxury while others live in abject poverty.

Dives sin was not that he was cruel to Lazarus, but that he refused to bridge the gap of misfortune that existed between them. Dives sin was not his wealth; his wealth was his opportunity. His sin was his refusal to use his wealth to bridge the gulf between the extremes of superfluous, inordinate wealth and abject, deadening poverty.

So when Dives cries to Abraham to send him one drop of water at Lazarus’ hands, Abraham replies: “There is a fixed gulf between you now.” There was a time that Dives could have bridged the gulf. He could have used the engineering power of love to build a bridge of compassion between him and Lazarus. But he refused. Now the gulf is fixed. The gulf is now an impassable gulf. Time has run out. The tragic words, too late, must now be, marked across the history of Dives’ life.

King finished his sermon by saying that all of us are Dives in one way or another.

“Each of us is a potential Dives, maybe not rich in material goods, but rich in education, rich in social prestige, rich in influence, rich in charm. At our gate stands some poor Lazarus who has been deprived of all of these. There is a gulf. But the gulf can be bridged by a little love and compassion. Bridge the gulf before it becomes too late. It is now passable. But it can become impassable.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached that sermon October 2nd, 1955 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, 64 years ago this week.

Nearly 12 years later on April 4th, 1967, in Riverside Church in New York, he preached the sermon that defined his last days, “Beyond Vietnam.” Exactly one year later, April 4th, 1968, he was assassinated. You can tell me whether or not his assassination had anything to do with his Vietnam sermon. The King family thinks it does.

The point is that it was a good sermon King preached in 1955 in Montgomery. Everyone liked it. It was scholarly, contemporary, and inspirational. Take a lesson from Dives before it is too late and bridge the gulf between yourself and those less fortunate than you.

The sermon he preached in 1967 was not well received. There King preached against the Vietnam War, saying at one point what had happened to the Vietnamese people:

“They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.

So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.”

King called for the end of the war and for young men and women to become conscientious objectors. Near the end of his sermon he said:

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

King was vilified, of course, by representatives of the war machine and by the many enemies he had already made over the years in his battle for civil rights. More than that. He lost virtually all support from his friends, colleagues, and supporters in the civil rights movement itself. His last year of life was a lonely year. It was also a year that he felt most alive.

“I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the promised land,” he said in his last sermon in Memphis before he was shot and killed.

King knew his Vietnam sermon would change the course of his life. He knew the risk he was taking speaking against the war machine. He knew what people would say, that he would lose all that he had worked for, lose his support, lose virtually everything. Lose his own life.

King knew something else. He knew that it was late. He knew that America had not much time, (even less today) to save its soul before it destroys the world. He knew that the hour was late for him. Even at the age of 48, he knew his days were not indefinite. He knew that he had to make a choice. He had to decide what his life was, what his life was worth. He knew that he couldn’t retire on the victories of the Civil Rights Act when the elites were leading the country to hell in Vietnam and beyond.

He made his choice in his time.

He took a lesson from the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Bible stories. That is all they are. Ancient history and parables. Jeremiah and Zedekiah, the rich man and Lazarus. Just Bible stories. For some people that is all they are and ever will be. For others, Like Martin Luther King, they are the summons from Spirit.

Spirit calling those who would hear that the hour is late.
There is not much time.
But there is time.
Time to end denial and to put on the shelf unrealistic dreams.
Time to act on a realistic hope.
Time to take inventory of your life and what you value.
Time to ask yourself what the rest of your life is for.

Amen.

Loving the Hell out of Us

Here is the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, February 10th for Evolution Sunday.

“…we can…think of the end of our present life not as the end of our journey with God but simply as the beginning of its next phase. If so, we can conceive that divine grace, working entirely through the attractive power of love, might sanctify us all. There would be no need for the divine violence of casting sinners into hell. God would, instead, love the hell out of us.”
–David Ray Griffin, Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith

Loving the Hell out of Us

I am the product of my parents. My father has a mind for science. My mother had a heart for faith. That isn’t to say that my father doesn’t have a heart nor my mother a mind. It is merely my perception of them to make a story about my life. My parents are far more complicated and interesting than the categories I create for them.

Nevertheless, it is with love and respect that I draw from the two of them an ongoing love for science and for faith, a lovers’ dance, two very different ways of knowing and of loving the world into which we are thrust.

Each day as I break a new personal record of consecutive days alive and breathing, I find myself negotiating my parents’ legacy in my own life. Science and faith. A love for facts and discovery. A desire to follow the will of God.

At times the lovers get snippy with each other, insisting that each’s own way is superior. True enough, one way is better at another in some things. Each way is also blind to its own shadow. Each way can also be blind to outside forces that manipulate each toward more sinister agenda.

Science is almost always used for the material of war.
Faith is almost always used for the emotion of war.

Each glimpses how the other is manipulated but that clarity often vanishes in the mirror.

The challenge to me and to us is how science and faith can contribute to the good. If science and faith are both ways of seeking what is true, is it too much to ask of both disciplines to seek also what is good? One of the historic principles of Presbyterian Church Order emphasizes both truth and goodness. You find this paragraph from the 18th century in our Book of Order:

F-3.0104 Truth and Goodness
That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a [person’s] opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.

These old Presbyterians were talking about truth that comes from faith, but that did not exclude truth that comes from reason. Both ways of knowing truth are in order to goodness. Of course, determining what is good as is determining what is true requires work, conversation, public debate, research, failure, humility, perseverance, and the ability and willingness to respond to change with corresponding change of mind and heart.

When I arrived at Southminster four years ago, a frequent question was asked of me: “What is your vision? What do you think Southminster should do?” My response then was that I didn’t know. I am new. We will have to see what Spirit presents to us.

Many times these types of questions are asked in terms of strategy and marketing. How do we brand ourselves and so forth? I am not against strategy, marketing, and branding, I suppose. But it must take a distant second to content. Who are you? What is real? What is God calling us to be and do? Truth and Goodness first. Strategy, Marketing and Branding, second.

I like this quote  [mis] attributed to Charles Darwin, whose birthday, we celebrate on the Sunday closest to his birthday as Evolution Sunday.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

No one likes change, of course. Especially, churches. We all know the old jokes, such as the seven last words of the church:

“We’ve never done it that way before.”

I am going to mention this morning two types of changes that would behoove us to be responsive.

First, some religion. Jesus preaches a sermon. The boys are washing their fishing nets. Jesus tells the boys to drop the nets in the deep water. Simon, who later Jesus calls Peter, the rock upon whom I will build my church, is resistant to this new idea. It sounds like something that has been tried and has failed in the past. Those are the other seven last words of the church:

“We tried it that way once already.”

Simon goes with that one and says to Jesus:

“Master, we’ve been hard at it all night and haven’t caught a thing. But if you insist, I’ll lower the nets.”

Of course, the story concludes with a huge catch of fish and a moral from Jesus:

“Remember this lesson friends, when we go to catch the big fish.”

Here is the question:

“Does Peter, the Rock, represent the church in his resistance to change or in his responsiveness to Jesus?”

I will let that question hang there. You answer it yourself.

One more piece of religion. That is the quote from David Ray Griffin from his book, Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith. The question is how does the world end? Not just the world, the galaxy, the universe, the cosmos? Does it end with divine violence, sending sheep and goats to their separate areas? Or does it end through the lure of love? Griffin says, and I agree with him, that the end is the process. God’s work is not complete by sending sinners to hell. God’s work is complete by loving the hell out of us.

In the end, no matter how many lifetimes it takes,

“All will be well.”

With all of that hope, let’s tackle some change.

The first change is that many churches in America are closing.

A friend sent me this article this morning in Baptist News. The article by Pastor Elizabeth Mangham Lott is entitled, “My seminary has closed. But churches are closing too, and it’s time to face some hard questions.”

This is true for Presbyterians as well as Baptists. Our denomination, or its antecedents in 1965 numbered four million. Today about 1.5 million. I am sure that Craig Butler, Southminster member, and treasurer of our presbytery, would be happy to educate us on trends within our own presbytery.

Rather than blame each other, we can ask some hard questions. How do we respond to this change? The article concludes with excellent advice:

“How will we know which path is ours to take? Well, that’s something I did learn in seminary. We sit in holy quiet together, embracing ancient practices of contemplation and discernment. We follow the threads across ancient texts and look for the ways God has always been finding new and wildly imaginative avenues to know and be known by a people. We foster honest, brave, healthy, truth-telling communities that step even more fully and boldly into their calling as followers on the Way of Jesus. We ask really good questions and listen to each other in hopes of getting to even better ones.”

The second change is a far bigger change. It dwarfs the first change in magnitude almost making the first seem irrelevant. But actually, how we respond to the first change will enable us to be better equipped at responding to this second change.

I have spoken of this second change often and from different angles for over twenty years. I haven’t talked about it every Sunday, but I think you know it. And you mostly don’t like it.

Here it is: Americans make up 5% of the world’s population and consume 25% of the world’s resources. Another way to put it is this: If the rest of the world consumed as much as Americans consumed we would need four planets of resources. We have one planet. This is the case when I first started talking about it 20 years ago. It is an inequity that is unsustainable and can only be sustained temporarily through violence.

This change will likely be good for the rest of the world when America stops consuming a quarter of the world’s resources and instead consumes what is proportional to its population. This change will be uncomfortable for Americans when this standard of living changes.

Whether one thinks that inequity is justifiable or not, inequities always result in change. There is always a re-ordering eventually. Evolution happens when species outstrip their environments or when environments change. Whether we come about this question by studying Peak OilClimate Change, or militarization and its accompanying propaganda, there are hundreds of ways to show that these inequities exist and are not going to last. Those inequities are the inequity of human population vs. planetary limits and the inequity of the elites of the world vs. the rest.

This change can come abruptly or gradually or in a combination. As humans in general and Americans in particular, collectively reach the end of our credit limit, and nothing has been done in the past twenty years that I have been talking about it in regards to changing our course, major changes likely will come sooner than later.

Now remember. It is all good.

Simon Peter, the rock of the church, was in the end, responsive to change and Jesus will love the hell out of us.

If my parents taught me anything it is that life ends. My mother lived to be 91. My father is 100 currently. Even long lives end. Given that something will kill us someday, how do we live now?

Do we live to make ourselves as comfortable as possible for as long as possible? That is one way. But there is another way: the way of Jesus. The way of Mohammad. The way of Moses. The way of Buddha. These spiritual leaders knew that life was bigger than themselves and they were all responsive to change.

How might we be responsive to change? I think the fire drill is a great start about being responsive and prepared.

What about snowstorms? Are we as a church responsive enough to that in regards to care for the building but also care for members?

Let’s go bigger.

You have heard that we are due for an earthquake (New YorkerAtlantic). I have not talked about that at all with the congregation in any organized way. Dick Burnham and I were talking about it the other day. A very small percentage has done any awareness or preparation for this.

For me the physical preparation is important, but more than that, the internal preparation is equally as important as is the social preparation.

Change is coming. It comes in many ways. Practicing responsiveness through education, internal spiritual preparedness, and social connection can put Southminster in a place where it can be a helper rather than irrelevant, or worse, a burden. This goes for the congregation as a whole as well as individuals within it.

This is what I do. I am not some slick marketer who can come in and tell you how to get young people in the church, or sing and dance to soft hits of the 80s. I find most of that stuff to be a bunch of bull. I can however tell you what I think is going on and help open discussions on how we might respond, theologically, ethically, and practically to changes that are coming.

Truth and Goodness.

March 10th after church we start with some conversations about what it means to be the church on Denney and Hall in Beaverton.

You can talk to me over pie for breakfast on Wednesdays at Sharis on Allen and Murray or coffee Tuesday mornings. Or whenever. I will leave you today with Charles Darwin (although likely a misquotation):

It is not the strongest of the species that survives,
Nor the most intelligent,
But the one most responsive to change.

Amen.