One Sunday last October, I made a strategic error in my preaching. I held my guitar the whole time, but never played more than the opening riff of “Blackbird” at the beginning. For the rest of the sermon, many of you expected me to, you know, actually play a song. But I didn’t. I just held the instrument. I’d like to correct that today, so I’m telling you right now: I plan to end this homily with a song.
The song I’m going to offer you is one I wrote many years ago during my last semester of seminary. I wrote it in response to the Gospel lesson I just read, a passage which takes places right before Jesus is arrested and brought to trial. The passage is the beginning of a long and complicated prayer, which Jesus offers on behalf of his friends, most of whom are about to deny and abandon him. The prayer is long because the Jesus of John’s Gospel is always verbose. And the prayer is complicated because Jesus seems to be praying it from the future. Continue reading “Don’t Wait for Death”→
(Sermon for Sunday, November 10, 2013 || Proper 27C || Luke 20:27-38)
Today, I’d like to speak with you on a topic I’m entirely unqualified to talk about. No, it’s neither mortgage-backed securities nor the sport of cricket, though I’m definitely unqualified to talk about each. Nor is the topic the mysterious reasons for why my wife’s apple pie is so much more delicious than the ones I used to make. I know that one has something to do with butter, but that’s as far my understanding takes me. No, today I’d like to speak with you on a topic that no one besides Jesus has ever been qualified to talk about. I’d like to speak with you today about God’s point of view.
Because I’m unqualified to talk about this topic, you’ll have to take everything I say with a grain of salt. In the next few minutes I might say something that is true, but if I do, it will have been by accident because what I’m really going to do is talk about Adam’s point of view about God’s point of view. But maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit will help us glimpse the corner of the edge of the majesty of how God sees things.
So with those caveats aside, let’s listen in to the end of Jesus’ conversation with those wily Sadducees in today’s Gospel reading. They thought they could embarrass Jesus with a trick question, but in characteristic fashion, Jesus answers the question he wishes they had asked, not the one they’d actually asked. He finishes with these words: “The fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Here Jesus references the third chapter of the book of Exodus, in which God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham…Isaac, and…Jacob.” Jesus notices that God doesn’t say, “I was the God of your father…” From our limited point of view, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are long dead – somewhere in the neighborhood of three thousand years ago, or about a thousand years in Jesus’ day. But God, says Jesus, sees things differently, as his emphatic end to the conversation demonstrates: “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
This is our first glimpse into God’s point of view: “to God all of them are alive.” Can you imagine what that must be like for God? All of creation from the moment that moments began alive all at once. Every star that died billions of years ago, but whose light is just reaching us now; every single-celled organism gliding through the primordial ooze; every person we have ever loved and every person we have never known; all of them alive to God, all of it happening now for God.
I don’t know about you, but I get a little dizzy just trying to comprehend this thought – the riot of color and sound, the collision of what we see as the past and future, the unmeasured light years of space and uncounted eons of time all seen now by God, all spoken into being now by God, all loved and cherished now by God.
We can’t ever hope to comprehend this thought because we live our lives in linear fashion, moving moment to moment. We have memories of the past, and we have hopes for the future. Yesterday happened yesterday. It’s not still happening today. This linear model is like flipping through the pages of a magazine. Once I’ve flipped from page 35 to 36, I’m no longer looking at page 35. But from God’s point of view, the magazine is a collage of all the pages, with each picture cut out and arranged just so, like an elementary school art project.
This thought comforts me. From God’s point of view, I’m not simply Adam as I stand here before you: two months until his 31st birthday, his mother visiting from North Carolina, his sermon moving along apace. No. From God’s point of view, I am the totality of myself: everything that has ever happened, everything that will ever happen, every joy, every regret, every skinned knee, every embrace, every relationship, every failure, every triumph – everything that makes me the person I am, God sees and God speaks into being. This totality of myself includes my death and whatever there is in what we would call “After,” but what God still sees as “Now.”
The apostle Paul understands the difficulty of speaking about God’s point of view, and he says what I’m trying to say much better than I ever could. He says these words to the church in Corinth: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
To be fully known. This is how God’s point of view works. God knows us fully. God knows the totality of each of us, just like God sees the entirety of creation happening now.
Speaking about God’s point of view has the unfortunate byproduct of making us feel so small, even insignificant. It’s only natural in the face of the idea that all of creation is always present to God to think that we don’t matter, that in the grand cosmic scale our lives are worthless.
But from God’s point of view, nothing could be farther from the truth. God couldn’t care less about the “grand cosmic scale” because the notion of a “scale” of any kind is meaningless to our eternal and infinite God. God speaks every subatomic particle into being and celebrates it as if it were the only speck in existence. Each speck has God’s full attention; if it didn’t, it would cease to be.
We may look up at the night sky and see ourselves as small, insignificant specks on a small, insignificant planet orbiting a small, insignificant star. But to do so is to deny the truth not just about ourselves, but about all of creation. All of creation is present to all of God. This includes you and me. If God weren’t constantly and continuously speaking each of us into existence, we would cease to be.
So if we are anywhere in the ballpark of the truth of God’s point of view, what does this all mean for us? Too many things, of course, to close this sermon with, so we’ll look at three – what we call past, present, and future, but each of which is always now to God.
First, the past and our grief over people dying: From our perspective, the sun sets below the horizon. But in reality, we are spinning away from the sun. Likewise, we grieve when someone dies because, from our perspective, that loved one is gone. But we know in a place deeper than normal knowing that, in reality, our loved one is still alive to God. Ultimately, grief is a way to express our frustration that we have a severely limited ability to perceive reality. But for anyone who has ever had a loved one die, you know that every now and again, you catch glimpses of true reality when you feel the presence of that loved one alive in a different way.
Second, the present: Since God is fully present to every particle of creation, which includes each of us, we have no business thinking of ourselves or anybody else as insignificant. Everyone matters, so we must affirm this in our actions.
Third, the future: Those we perceive as future generations are as alive to God as we are. Therefore, it is our duty to honor their significance in the same way we are called to honor those we meet today. This means making choices in our personal and communal lives that sustain our world, which, in the end, is another piece of creation fully present to God and therefore worthy of our honor.
So there you have it. I have now talked for more than ten minutes on a topic I’m entirely unqualified to speak about. However, being unqualified does not mean that we shouldn’t strive to see creation through the eyes of God. When we do this, we become better stewards, better servants, better followers. And we see deeper into the heart of what it means to be a child of God.
I first posted this Advent reflection on the site Day1.org, which is having a Advent/Christmas Blog tour.
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On Tuesday afternoon, I contracted a viral infection that systematically began evacuating the contents of my stomach, intestines, gall bladder, and liver as quickly as possible. Every half hour I scurried from my fetal position on the couch back to the restroom where I’m sure the neighbors and the folks in the next county could hear my wretched retching. After about four hours of agony, my fiancé finally convinced me to go to the Emergency Room. Severely dehydrated, I accomplished the weak-kneed feat of maneuvering down the stairwell and out to the car, all the while clutching a white, plastic wastebasket like a shipwreck survivor clinging to a life preserver.
With my fiancé supporting me, I stumbled into the ER at about eleven at night. The woman behind the counter took my information and fitted me with a bar-coded bracelet. Another woman took my vital signs and then told me to take a seat in the waiting area. I don’t know how long we waited. My sense of time was reduced to half-hourly dashes to the restroom followed by several, sweat-drenched minutes sitting on the tile floor heaving with exhaustion. Sometime after my fourth trip to the restroom, a nurse mercifully called me back. I sat in a wheelchair as an orderly navigated me to a bed in the hallway of the overcrowded emergency department.
The nurse poked an IV tube into the back of my right hand and fed into my bloodstream the same anti-nausea medicine they give to chemotherapy patients. Then she hooked up a bag of saline, and I watched through half-lidded eyes as the saline began dripping from its elevated place into the tube. My fiancé read the words on the machine to me: 500 milliliters per hour. The equipment was making the saline drip at a proscribed rate – the bag would be empty in two hours. With the anti-nausea medicine suppressing my urge, I now had a new way to measure the time.
One empty bag of saline later, I was showing marked improvement. A little color had returned to my cheeks, and I was thirstier than I had ever been. The nurse allowed me ice chips and promised a popsicle later on if I continued to feel better. I crunched down a Styrofoam cup’s worth of ice and then collapsed back on the bed in the hallway. While I sucked on the ice chips, the nurse hung another bag of saline, and sped up the distribution of the liquid into my body. Now I was receiving 1000 milliliters an hour, or one full bag.
A second empty bag of saline later, I received the promised popsicle, and my fiancé correctly guessed the punch line to the truly horrendous joke stamped on the popsicle stick (How does thread get to school? On a spool bus). After I finished the popsicle, the nurse propped me back in the wheelchair for a ride to the radiology department for a chest x-ray. The doctor wanted to make sure that my gastric pyrotechnics hadn’t torn my esophagus. The short trip wore me out, and I dozed off and on through my third bag of saline, also pushed into me at 1000 milliliters an hour.
By the end of bag three, I just wanted to go home and crawl into my own bed away from the bright fluorescence and constant beeps and blips of the ER. My doctor had other plans, however, and instructed the nurse to hang a fourth bag of saline. This time, she turned off the machine controlling the dispersal of the IV into my arm. The bag would finish not in one hour or two like the other bags, which were “pushed” into me, but at the undefined rate of gravity.
I knew that eventually the fourth bag of saline would empty. I knew that I would be allowed out of the ER for the blissful comfort of my own bed and sleep uninterrupted by illness or beeping monitors. I just didn’t know when. This is the same quandary that the season of Advent invites us to explore. We don’t know when Jesus will return, but we know that he will return. Now, we live in a culture dependent on the constant, steady, and unwavering march of time. We punch in time cards at work. The train leaves the station at 7:12 sharp. The firm expects so many billable hours. Time is money. So when Jesus himself says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,* but only the Father,” his words run smack into our conception of time. How could we not know when something will happen? How could we not know when to begin our preparation for the big day?
By not putting a date and time on his return, Jesus pushes us to celebrate the much more important fact that his return will happen. He understands human nature too well. By initiating the expectation of return without a time frame, he delivers us the perfect set of variables to make us practice constant vigilance. When I knew the saline bag would run out in one hour, I had no need to watch it. The 1000 milliliters ticked by one after another in predictable, rhythmic progression. But when the nurse turned off the machine during the fourth saline bag, I had to keep looking up at it to see how quickly gravity was doing its work.
I knew the bag would empty, but I wanted to be sure I knew exactly when those last drops would fall so that I could leave the hospital. In the same way, during the season of Advent, we practice our awareness of God’s presence in our lives so that we can more readily identify the signs of Christ’s reign breaking into the world. During the season of Advent, I invite you to turn off the machines that push the IV. Let gravity take over. Know that the “when” is less important than the “what.” Jesus is coming; indeed, Jesus is always here, as well. When we worry less about the when, we can begin to see the presence of God happening all around us. So turn off your clocks. Forget marking off days in your Advent calendar. And just live with the grace-filled knowledge that Christ is coming.
The following post appeared Saturday, September 19th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am now a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.
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‘Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” ’ (John 8:58)
You can always tell when Jesus says something truly sensational and scandalous because people respond by searching for rocks to fling at his head. The eighth chapter of the Gospel According to John contains four instances of Jesus saying, “I am,” which is one way Jesus imparts his divine identity to his listeners. Out of the four, only the final one elicits such a stony reaction, while the first three build to the climactic iteration. The escalation begins slowly when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). Next, Jesus says, “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am” (8:24). Then, a few verses later, he says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am” (8:28). Each of these statements of his divine identity flies right over the heads of his opponents. But then the conversation intensifies. Jesus says they are from their father the devil. They think he may have a demon. He says no one will see death if they keep his word. They are sure he has a demon. He says Abraham rejoiced to see his day. Now they know that he’s crazy—he’s not even fifty! How can he have seen Abraham?
Then Jesus knocks their socks off with his most dangerous statement in the whole Gospel: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” This time, no one mistakes his meaning. No one asks him to clarify his words. They understand the full significance of saying, “I AM.” They know God said the same thing to Moses when Moses was brash enough to ask God for God’s name (Exodus 3). But underneath the shocking nature of Jesus’ statement is a subtler point (ultimately missed in the search for stones) about how our eternal God interacts with a finite creation.
Jesus’ “I am” statements in the Gospel According to John are revelations of God’s very being. Because of the simplicity of the sentence (just a subject and a verb), “I am” is as close as language can get to universality and eternity. Since we live in a temporal world, eternity is an impossible concept for us to wrap our heads around. Eternity is not “endless” time; nor is it the framework in which time finds a snug fit. In eternity, before and after are undefined and the only when is now. (The previous sentence makes no sense, of course.)
When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he uses our language to express the eternal nature of God. He does not say, “I was before Abraham was,” which is the grammatically correct way to articulate the thought. Instead, his “I am” (while functioning in our world as a present tense construction) is really a representation of the eternal tense. In eternity, I AM is the only sentence that makes any sense at all. In other words, eternity happens. It didn’t start and it won’t stop because the notions of beginning and ending are thoroughly temporal. And eternity happens because God is.
We run into trouble when we expect God to exist in the same way we do. Our minutes tick by one after another. For every one of our actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. Objects fall at a rate of 9.8 m/s2. But those are our minutes, our reactions, our gravity, and they all rely on linear experience. When Jesus says, “I AM,” he reminds us that God created linear experience, and thus is not beholden to it.
When we stumble into God’s presence, we encounter eternity making utter nonsense of time. Time ceases to matter because eternity overrides the rules of linear experience. That’s why it’s so hard to say how long we feel the presence of God. We feel that presence in moments, not minutes. When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he pushes us to relinquish our need to order events when God is concerned. God exists in eternity, which just happens.
* If you read my last contribution to EpiscopalCafé in conjunction with this one, you might deduce two things: (1) I like to use Holy Scripture to discuss spirituality and (2) I seem partial to the Gospel According to John. These deductions are both entirely correct. As a member of the Millennial generation, I am attracted to the Fourth Gospel’s combination of mystery and revelation. If you have a group of Millennials in your church (right now, that would be your middle schoolers through your college students, give or take) who huff and sigh and roll their eyes every time you pull out the Bible, try some passages from the Gospel According to John. You might encounter fewer glazed looks and drool-flecked chins.
Remember how Christmas Eve was always the longest day of the year? Technically, it is one of the shortest, but it felt so long. I remember planning a full day’s worth of activities (mostly of the building-with-Legos variety) just so the day would go by faster. Now, the clock on the wall had no idea it was Christmas Eve. The minutes ticked by as they normally do. But the anticipation of Christmas morning made me think the clock was conspiring against me.
In Greek, there are two major words for time. The first is chronos, which tends to be the word used for the time of day, or clock time. The second is a special word. Kairos is the kind of time that starts an old Disney fairy tale movie, “Once upon a time.” This special sort of time is Christmas Eve time, expectant time, the kind of time in which promises exist. It is time mixed somehow with eternity, which still slips away but in no predictable way—time that will come when it needs to.
Put another way, chronos is soccer game time, which ticks away even when the ball is out of bounds or a player is injured. The referees add extra time to make up for that lost during the game, but it always continues to tick. Kairos, on the other hand, is baseball game time. There is no limit to how long a baseball game can last: innings take as long as they need to. Kairos is the kind of time the song from Rent talks about—it is measured in cups of coffee and report cards and sunsets and love.
When Jesus says to his brothers, “My time has not yet come,” he uses this special word. Within the Gospel, Jesus lives in kairos, which is understandable considering where he comes from. In my walk with Jesus, I find I have trouble living in this kind of time. Contemporary society jackhammers into me over and over again the supposed benefits of an instantaneous world. And there are definitely real benefits, don’t get me wrong. But 0.14 second Google searches and overnight FedEx and cholesterol reducing pills can blind me to the ultimate reality that most good things are worth waiting for, are worth working for, are worth anticipating.
Jesus’ statement, “My time has not yet come,” reminds me constantly that Jesus doesn’t work on my timetable. He doesn’t clock in and out, with hours well documented on a punch card. He doesn’t respond to my prayers like Google does to my searches. But he does call me to slow down and experience the kind of time measured by the sun’s slow movement across the sky. He does ask me to anticipate his movement in my life with all the fervor of my childhood Christmas Eves. And he does offer me the faith to know that all prayers are answered one way or another.
If you are like me and need help keeping in touch with kairos in our instantaneous world, then try this. Sit down and take several deep breaths. Close your eyes and turn your attention inward. Keep breathing slowly, deeply. Without using your hand, see if you can feel your heart beating against your chest. Feel it? Dull squeezes to the left of your sternum. Small thumps against your ribcage. TUB-thp, TUB-thp, TUB-thp. This is where the rhythm of Jesus’ time resides in us. This is kairos.