This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 2st Sunday in Lent, 7 March 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 15: 1 – 12, 17 – 18; Philippians 3: 17 – 4: 1; and Luke 13: 31 – 35.
Somewhere in my collection of things less memorable is an old Funky Winkerbean cartoon. This strip highlighted the adventures of a high school student, his buddies and the school faculty during the seventies and eighties. It was for me a humorous reminder of what it was like when I taught high school and sometimes what I wish it had been. This particular strip was copyrighted in 1986 and includes a dialogue between the science teacher in the high school and the building principal. (Note added in publishing this post; I posted this cartoon as “People Walking On The Moon?” on 30 December 2008.)
The science teacher is complaining about the inadequacy of the science textbook he is forced to use and the principal wants a specific example. The teacher, quoting from the book in question, replies "it’s entirely possible that men may one day actually set foot on the moon." The principal then promises to bring up the issue at the next school board meeting.
The humor of this cartoon then was the fact that man had already walked on the moon and the textbook was out of date. Today, the humor would be in the fact that we have forgotten what we have done. There is at least one generation of students today that has never known the experience of watching an astronaut walk on the moon. And though there are grandiose plans in the works to return to the moon and move beyond and on to Mars, the likelihood is that it will be some time before it actually occurs again.
The problem is not only that, as the historian and philosopher George Santayana once noted, that we repeat our history when we fail to remember but that when we do remember our history we fail to act upon what we know. It isn’t that we don’t try; we would much rather know what the future holds than spend time remembering the past. How many people would not want to know what the five numbers and power ball number are in the upcoming lottery?
The only person who really knew what His future held was Jesus. As noted in the Gospel reading for today, Jesus knew where his future lie and what must happen. If He did not follow where the path to His future took Him, then His mission would have failed.
But our hopes for determining what the future holds are not always so cut and dried. Our hopes more often lie in either a fanciful imagination or assuming that the future will be the same as the past. For we can only use what we know when trying to determine what will happen. The writings of Jules Verne were considered fanciful and imaginative. Nobody could go around the world in eighty days as he once wrote. It was impossible to travel in a ship under water and it was certainly beyond human capability to travel to the moon. So Jules Verne’s work was considered science fiction in the 1880’s. But in the 1960’s, as we prepared to go to the moon, his books were considered remarkably predictive in nature.
Now, we consider the works of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, to be imaginative and fanciful. It is highly unlikely that we will ever encounter life on other planets. But the discoveries last week by the robot explorers on Mars may cause us to rethink the thought that we are the only ones in the universe.
When General Billy Mitchell predicted that the United States would be attacked in Hawaii on a Sunday morning, his comments were considered inflammatory and ridiculous. But many military commanders regretted their derision of General Mitchell’s vision and insight about the role of air power in military combat on December 8, 1941.
The church, I feel, is in something of the same boat. It sees the future only in terms of its past. And it does not matter whether we speak of the church in general or in terms of a specific denomination. The visions of the future for the church are based on the past. But, as we struggle with the future of the church in this country and this world in the coming years, we have to be careful about relying on the past.
Many people see the church as an oppressor rather than as a liberator. The church of old used the Bible to justify the enslavement of a race. The church of old used the Bible to stifle scientific enlightenment, persecuting those who would argue that the Sun rather than Earth is the center of the solar system. The church of old has used the Bible and the words of God to justify killing in the name of God. The church of old has used the Bible to justify granting second class status to women.
And before we speak of these being new times with a new understanding, perhaps we should consider that it wasn’t until the late twentieth century that segregation was eliminated. There are people today would who stifle the scientific process in America’s classrooms because it conflicts with their view of the Bible. There are those today who claim that the role of women in this world should be determined by what the Old Testament says, despite the fact that women were a prominent part of the original Gospel story.
And what will happen if we do find life on other planets? How will we react? Will we accept these new civilizations with open hearts and open minds or shall we seek to repress them and enslave them in the name of God, as we have done so many times in our own history?
There are those who when they hear these words will get angry and defensive. They will do so because they are comfortable in what they believe and they are not always willing to accept new viewpoints. I cannot make you think new thoughts but I can and will challenge you to be open so that new thoughts have a chance to develop.
And while you are doing that, begin to consider thinking about how you will see the future. Is your image of the future based on your view of the past? See how Abram reacted when God told him that he would have descendants to numerous to count. Abram only saw the future in terms of Ishmael, his son by Haggai, his wife’s maid. He could not see the future as God laid it out before him, "for your descendants will outnumber the stars."
But Abram was a man of faith and through his faith he understood that what God said was entirely possible. So he packed his bags, gathered his materials moved from the high plains of Iraq to the new Promised Land, which had been promised to him in the vision given by God.
Our faith is built upon the same vision that God will provide that which He has promised. It is a hope expressed by Paul in his works to the Philippians. Those who opposed Christ lived in a world that was based on the past and one that could not advance. A future based on Christ looked to the future and offered hope and promise when life itself could not offer any. Just as Abram became Abraham and the father of Isaac, so too does a belief in Christ transform us.
We are challenged during Lent to repent and prepare for the coming of the Lord. This repentance means a renunciation of the old ways. We must give up seeing our future in terms of things past and more in what it could be.
We must hear the words that Jesus preached and not flinch from them. The future can be frightening and too many people today want the church to make them safe and comfortable and to hide them from the future. Jesus knew what his future held. Three times he tried to tell His disciples what that future was. But like so many people today, they didn’t get it. They didn’t want to hear words of betrayal, death, and destruction; theirs was a good life and such talk disrupted the good life. But Jesus continued to teach and heal and bring everyone to him.
Where does our future lie? We can be like the disciples before Good Friday, comfortable in our status, comfortable in being with the Great Teacher but unaware of the cost of being a follower of Jesus’. Or we can accept the challenge that comes with being such a follower, of working to bring people together. We can accept the challenge of being in a place where righteousness and justice are more than simple words but thoughts of action and belief. We can accept the challenge and bring the Word to a world in desperate need of hearing it through word and deed.
As the days of Lent pass by and the Resurrection comes close, we must look ahead just as Jesus did. Our future lies down the same road. Will we travel it?