This was the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, 15 August 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 5: 1 – 7, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2, and Luke 12: 49 – 56
How shall we view the future? Will it be a rosy and cheerful vision or will it be full of gloom overshadowed by a foreboding sense of doom? Or will it be somewhere between these two extremes?
The problem is that any vision of the future is based on what we know and experience today. If we see things rosy, then the future will be likewise. If we see a world of gloom in our future, then it is likely to be so. And whatever our vision might be, it often blinds us to other visions.
We want the church to be the answer; we want church to give us that rosy and cheerful vision. Churches are seen as havens of optimism and good tidings. They are places where the troubles of the world can be left on the doorstep and forgotten for a few brief moments in time. People come to church today because they know they will hear nothing about the secular world and its problems. And if people do hear about these problems, they are told that other people’s sins and the evil that lurks in the world cause such problems.
Churches today offer a rosy view of the future. They give people a place to hide; they preach a gospel message centered on blame and division. To the public, the church in America today is pro-war, pro-rich, and most definitely pro-American. (This and other comments were adapted from Jim Wallis’ commentary in SoJoMail from August 11, 2004.) We have leaders, both political and theological, who preach to the majority, fearful of speaking the truth because it will make people uncomfortable. To preach the Gospel message that Jesus brought us is no longer politically, socially, or theologically expedient. (This and other comments were adapted from Rev. Frederick Boyle’s "Have We No Shame?" in the July/August (2004) issue of Christian Social Action.)
We like to think that being Christian gives us comfort and insulates us from the outside world. It enables us to be for war because war combats evil. It enables us to ignore the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed because those individuals are the victims of their own actions and sins.
Churches today are not places where people want to be reminded about the troubles of the world. People do not want to know that the Gospel message calls for them to work against war and hunger, oppression and inequality. If a child dies somewhere, that child must have done something wrong. Or perhaps God was punishing the parents for some unimaginable sin they committed once in their lives. Whatever the reason, it is of no concern to today’s church.
If someone is poor or homeless, it is his or her problem. There is nothing the church can do that will help such individuals. Besides, such people are lazy, shiftless and sinners; sin is not to be rewarded by the actions of the church. And besides, it is of no concern to today’s church.
And Christians who oppose the war and feel that the true message of the Gospel is to fight oppression do not speak out for fear of ridicule and opposition.
Somewhere along the line, we forgot that this rationale that our sins dictate the direction of our life comes from the Old Testament. We have forgotten that this idea was left behind at the foot of a cross on a hill far away.
As I was writing this it occurred to me and maybe it occurred to you as well that the world of today is a lot like it was some two hundred and fifty years ago. John Wesley started the Methodist revival because he saw a church that preached a prosperity gospel and was oblivious to the needs and wants of the poor. It was a strikingly uncompassionate church and it needed reviving. I wonder what John Wesley might think of the church today. I also wonder what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might say to churches of today who ignore the poor and whose leaders tow the party line. What would either of these two say to those whose view of the future does not keep the cross in plain sight?
I first encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I was in college. His name kept coming up in situations related to the ant-war movement of the sixties. But I didn’t know who he was or why his thoughts were so important to that moment in time.
When he was in his mid-twenties, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was recognized as one of the brightest theological minds of all times. Yet, with his great understanding of the Bible and theology, he wrestled with the idea of what being a Christian was all about. In part, this dissonance between his mental life and his daily life came because of what was happening in Germany at that time, the early 1930’s. He saw a church where many leaders welcomed with open arms Adolf Hitler and many others simply acquiesced to the rise of Nazism, hoping that it would all go away.
Bonhoeffer was living in America and could have stayed here, safe from the troubles in Germany. But God called him to go home. In Germany, he worked to overthrow the Third Reich and help smuggle Jews out of Germany. He was arrested and imprisoned for two years. He was executed for his part in the attempted assassination of Hitler four days before Allied troops liberated the prison camp where he was imprisoned.
During those two years he thought and wrote about faith, God, life, and the church. He already knew that grace without discipleship was meaningless. In prison, I think that he began to see why. He wrote of missing worship services though he could not explain why. He wrote of a deeper sense of God’s involvement in our lives. He began to see how we are able to bring good out of evil, much in the manner that Joseph saw through the injustices of his brothers and the plans of a vindictive and rejected wife to the uniqueness of God’s own plan. (This adapted from comments about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.)
Most importantly, Bonhoeffer saw that crisis becomes that edge where change is possible. But such change requires something greater than human nature. That something is our faith in God.
Faith is the one common factor in all those mentioned in the letter to the Hebrews. It was their faith that sustained them through all their troubling times. It was the faith of those who came before us and it was faith that built this church.
So too will it be our faith that leads to the riches of tomorrow. We may not know who will reap those riches; certainly it will not be us. The words of Isaiah make it clear that we will not be here to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We plant the vineyard today so that others may enjoy the fruits tomorrow.
So, just as Isaiah offered a vision of the future, perhaps it is time for us to offer a new vision of the future, a vision based on the Gospel and one that does truly offer hope and promise for the future. We need to begin reminding people that faith hates violence and tries to reduce it. We need to be reminding people that faith challenges us to do justice for the poor instead of preaching a "prosperity" gospel. We need to be reminding people that faith creates a community from class, racial, and gender divisions. And it is that our faith upon which the values of family and life are based.
How did you feel when the Gospel message from Luke was read this morning? Many people feel uncomfortable hearing Jesus proclaim that He came to create division, not eliminate it. The thing is that people see God in the rosiest of all scenarios and God doesn’t do confrontation anymore. Did not Jesus come to heal and join us all together? So how is it that he preaches division and confrontation?
But what does God expect of us? He expects us to confront the status quo and say that holding on to the same old things don’t work. He expects us to confront poverty and help people out of poverty by working for equality, not simply blaming one’s economic status on the sins they have committed.
Confrontation has and will be a major part of God’s presence in our lives. Did not God direct Moses to confront the Pharaoh and in no uncertain terms say, "Let my people go"? Were the prophets not told by God to confront the people and challenge them to change their ways? Will Jesus not confront the status quo and drive out the moneychangers in the temple? Will Jesus not confront the status quo when He gets to Jerusalem? If this is what the Bible has been telling us, how then shall we see life?
If our world were nothing but a place of created goodness and beauty, a space of flourishing for all, just and life giving for all in God’s creation, then there would be no need to be challenged by the Gospel message. In fact, the Gospel message would not be needed. (This and other comments were adapted from Teresa Burger’s "Living by the Word" in the August 10, 2004 issue of Christian Century)
But our world is in fact deeply marred and scared by countless conflicts; it brings death and destruction in many forms. Ours is a world that exploits all of its inhabitants and it is hardly sustainable. We seek to use our limited resources without thought for those who follow us. We leave the future with the debts and burdens of today. We may wish for a rosy future but the one that that comes appears to be otherwise.
If the future is to be otherwise, we must then prepare the ground and work the soil now, so that what we do does ensure a bountiful harvest. We need to reclaim our faith and say to others that here is a place where the Holy Spirit is alive and growing again. I propose that on September 11th, a date chosen as much for convenience as for its irony, we hold an old-fashion, on-the-lawn revival. Let us say to others that it is our faith, which has given us the strength to move forward and let us call on others to renew and reclaim their faith as well.
Invite those you know; invite those you don’t know. Challenge your friends, your neighbors but take this moment to see the future in hopeful terms, in terms of being able to help others enjoy the fruits of our labors, just as we are able to enjoy the fruits of the labors of those who came before us.
What does the future hold? It is hard to say. But we can say that we can, with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, make it a future worthy of those who sought to make their future worthy enough for us.