Sunday, April 28, 2013

Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings and Endings
Robert J. Elder
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Revelation 21:1-6
Fifth Sunday of Easter: April 28, 2013

I’ve spent a lot of time the last several days thinking on the events that took place at, during, and after the Boston Marathon, as I am sure many of us have: A vicious attack characterized by senseless, indifferent slaughter and injury to innocent people by people who were strangers to them. Why must the world be this way?
But we ought not stop with the events in Boston.
People: Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist – are despoiled, beaten, or killed in places ranging from Mexico to Syria to North Korea to East Africa. One beating does nothing to atone for another, and yet the beatings go on. Police beatings, gang beatings, racially or religiously motivated violence have all become part of the daily headlines. Why must the world be this way?
Owners of small businesses and shops go out of business in many cities around the world, their stores burned out, looted, closed forever. Innocent people living in desolate neighborhoods, folks who didn’t riot and steal, as well as those who did, find they have even fewer places to go and get the necessities of daily life. Innocent people running in the Boston Marathon come away with shrapnel wounds. Why must the world be this way?
For decades now, economists have reported that the gap between rich and poor in America has been growing at an alarming rate, that violence from Los Angeles to Michigan to Miami is a symptom of a despair that accompanies a sense of lost future, of hopelessness. Why must the world be this way?
In countries, some of whose names we can hardly pronounce, in some countries which didn’t even exist on world maps a decade or two ago, whole communities are torn apart by hatred: ethnic, tribal, religious. Sunni Muslims kill Shiite Muslims, South American rebel forces kill teenage army draftees. Why must the world be this way?
One German philosopher looked out on his nineteenth century world and saw the economic dislocation of common people that was brought on by the industrial revolution. He realized that the power to make economic decisions rested in the hands of small groups of people, that their control of financial institutions and even governments made substantial betterment of the lives of working people a virtual impossibility. He longed for a world in which economies were in the hands of the common people rather than a few powerful individuals. He asked “Why must the world be this way?” and answered by writing books and tracts that predicted a coming new world order in which all means of production would be held in community for all, rather than by a powerful few. His name was Karl Marx. Even though he seems to have asked the same sort of questions we find ourselves asking well over a hundred years later, his proposed solutions have so far proved to be a mixed blessing philosophically, socially, and economically to say the least. The twenty-first century communist world, founded on various versions of Marxist theory, has fallen to pieces, and is dying from the weight of the failure of its attempted solutions. Human beings are apparently incapable of bringing in a new, just world order under our own power.
One twentieth-century singer-song writer spent much of his life speaking out for peace. He wrote one song in which he asked us to “imagine” a world without countries, weapons, war. He also implored in one of his songs, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” He saw the self-defeating madness of the endless stockpiling of weaponry by the nations of the world and asked, “Why must the world be this way?” His name was John Lennon. He is long-since dead of course, another victim of senseless violence. And though the world may seem to us to be a bit less tense internationally, within the borders of the former superpowers as well as the second and third-rate powers, ethnic strife seems always on the verge of creating a world-wide implosion rather than a nuclear explosion.
Even my imaginary 7 year-old friend Clayton found that he was confused last week. His good friend, Jackson, stayed home from school nearly all week. When Clayton asked his mother why, she said that Jackson’s mother was afraid for his safety. Jackson is black. Some boys had been taunting him on the playground a week ago Monday. With all the racial violence on the television, Jackson’s mother thought it would be just as well to keep him home for a few days. Clayton wondered the child’s version of, “Why must the world be this way?”
He’s certainly not the first 7 year-old to wonder this. Nor, sadly, is it likely he will be the last. We all long for a better world. That dream is as old as humanity, and from some perspectives, futile. Once, when the people of Judah had been languishing in brutal exile in Babylon, enslaved and force-marched to a foreign land where they were made the servants of the Babylonians, Isaiah wondered, “Why must the world be this way?” Then he recorded a word from God which said,
            “Do not remember the former things,
                        or consider the things of old.
            I am about to do a new thing...”[1]
We long for the arrival of that new thing just as fully as the Jews longed for rescue from their exile. We are weary of the world as it is. We long for a new world. So when John announced in Revelation, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” it gets our attention. And he throws a “new Jerusalem” into the bargain. In response to our persistent question, “Why must the world be this way?” like the exiled Jews of Isaiah’s day we hear that something new is happening.
The people who first read and heard John’s words were living in a world hostile to their very faith. Many were called on to make the only witness to their faith available in their violent world: martyrdom. In fact, the Greek word “martureo” means “to bear witness.” The cry of those going to their death for their faith, the plea of those facing the same fate must have been something on the order of, “Why must the world be this way?” Something needs to be done.
John’s vision in Revelation assures us that something has been done, is being done, and will be done.[2] All that is accomplished is described as “new.” The thing that is new is also as old as the first covenant God made with people and as new as the mob of children who come weekdays to our preschool: relationship.
Whenever we ask, “Why must the world be this way?” chances are good that what has broken down in one way or another is relationship: the healthy relationship between people of different races, the desired relationship of friendship between Jackson and his playmates on the school play yard, the satisfying relationship between work and vocation or calling. To that persistent question uttered by humanity, “Why must the world be this way?” the Bible responds with stories, declarations, visions, prophecies of God’s desire for a new relationship with people.
What is new is that very thing which God has sought to establish with people since the beginning: relationship. The Old Testament describes it as a dwelling or tabernacle, but anyone who knows anything about life under a single roof knows that to live in the same house means to be in relationship. So what is new is also very old. Since the beginning, since the Alpha of Revelation, God has desired relationship with people, so that we might be in right relationship with each other. And if we ever want to know the end or goal or Omega toward which God is moving the world, we must keep in mind the same word. The beginning and ending of God’s purpose for us and for the world is just this vision: “See, the home of God is among mortals.”
God wants to be at home among us. The vision of John brings to mind the very things that happen in healthy homes. That is where tears are wiped away, where mourning and crying and pain are alleviated by the love that lives there. As we talked about this passage at a Bible study I once led, we kept falling into the temptation to speak of this vision as if it existed entirely in the future. But one person in the group reminded us that this is God’s declaration for today. God’s desire is to be at home with us today, not just in some distant future. If we fail to treat each other better than we do, it’s not because the new Jerusalem exists off in some distant future, but because even though new Jerusalem has already been subdivided and built, we choose to live in old town, to continue as slaves to sin rather than as people freed by the resurrection of Christ to live a life that is entirely new.
When John wrote that “the sea was no more,” he was writing from his imprisonment on the island of Patmos, separated from his fellow believers by a seemingly endless tract of ocean. Very likely, he would have preferred to be with them as they faced their ordeal and their persecution. But there was a great sea between them. No wonder part of his vision of heaven included the eradication of that barrier to human relationships. The beginning and ending of the life of a believer rests in relationship: relationship with God, and relationship with each other in Christ. It is the Alpha and the Omega, that which put in motion the very cosmos itself, and which is the goal or end toward which God is moving the world and its history.
This vision of beginnings and endings is priceless because of the assurance it contains, that no matter what, no matter how desperate our exile, how brutal our encounters on the streets of the city, how unjust our experiences with each other, that is not the direction in which God’s purpose is moving. Though our view of the hopefulness which God builds into his purpose for creation may be as limited as the Jews in exile, the Christian martyrs of the first century, and the beaten and suffering victims of modern violence, God’s work is even now providing a new world. It is a world in which God lives with us, eradicates death, suffering, even tears.
God does not bring on the end of the world. God is the end. And glorifying God is our chief end. Receive Christ, know the God who love you, and offer God your praise. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 43:18-19a.
[2] “Revelation 21:1-8”, by Rudolph Raber, in Interpretation, July 1986, p. 296.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Who Are They – Whose Are They?

Who Are They – Whose Are They?

John 10:22-30          
Revelation 7:9-17  
Robert J. Elder, Pastor       
Fourth Sunday of Easter: April 21, 2013

Suppose you are a great sports buff, one who follows every Mariner and Blazer game with the fierce intensity of a true and loyal fan. But imagine that you were to be called out of the country for the week of a final game, tending to business in, say, Thailand, where you couldn’t expect much coverage of American sports in the local newspapers even if you could read the local newspapers. But you are a real fan, so you had set your home TV system to record the upcoming game before you left.
And suppose, on your return, before you had a chance to watch the recorded game, one of your friends saw you in town and said to you, “Welcome home! Say, how about those Blazers!” in such a way that you thought maybe they had won the critical game. Now, as you watched the recorded game unfold, you would have a different level of anxiety after a bad call from a referee or when one of the front line players fouled out of the game, wouldn’t you? You could still get excited about the action, but in the end, you would think you knew who the final winner would be. It would be something like reading a detective novel backwards. Come tribulation and hardship, you would be secure in your knowledge. As they struggled to prevail on the screen, you would know that in reality, your team was already victorious.
That’s something like the purpose for reading Revelation in the church. If we take Revelation 7 seriously, we will know that come this or come that ordeal or setback, victory has already been declared in heaven, God’s salvation is already a fact, and the woes through which we go are the mopping-up operation of a battle that has already been won. So no matter what, from the testimony of John in Revelation we know that the salvation of God is victorious. Set in the middle of the strife that believers knew then, reminding us of the strife we may know today, John’s witness never lets up on the ultimate victory of God, the final security in which believers may rest.
And, like a pre-recorded Blazer game, John records a victory of God which is already accomplished, not just some reality that awaits us in the future. While many television preachers may be preoccupied with some calendar for God’s future intervention in the world, John gives us a vision of God’s triumph that has already broken in upon the human scene. In Revelation, the future is determining and creating the present.
But who are these saved ones in John’s vision? Who are those folks he saw gathered around the throne of God in heaven?
One thing is certain. John looked into heaven, and the people he saw surrounding the throne of God outnumbered his personal circle of acquaintance. Who are the people that Jesus – the Lamb – has in mind for his church, as members of his flock, his sheep who will know his voice and follow him? Our friends and neighbors, certainly. But more than that, just as certainly.
In Genesis 15, God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as countless as the stars in the heavens. In the new Israel, the Church, John’s vision in Revelation demonstrates that God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled. The multitude in the chorus in heaven — from every nation and language – is so large that no one could count them all!
So often, we are preoccupied with questions about who may and who may not be numbered among the elect, who may and who may not be the apple of Jesus’ eye just as much as we are. One of the worst tendencies of many church fellowships is this inclination to presume to know who belongs to the host of heaven. This scene from Revelation should startle us any time we are inclined toward that presumption. Apparently, the way to be numbered among the elect has little to do with knowing who else is saved, and everything to do with knowing the one doing the saving. The main thing is to know the Shepherd; we may never know the name and number of all his other sheep, all his other flocks.
This is hard news for those of us who can only find pleasure in having when others have not, in knowing when others are ignorant, in receiving love when we are certain others are loveless, in triumphing when others are defeated.
John’s admitted ignorance about the “ins and outs” of heaven ought to be a lesson for the community of faith. John, in looking upon the multitudes in heaven, when asked who they were, was struck not by their familiarity but their diversity. The fellowship of the saved is destined to be greater than we expect. Remember the final scene in John’s gospel, when Jesus told Peter that he would be imprisoned for his faith, and Peter saw John walking along behind and asked, “What about him?” Jesus said, “What is that to you? Follow me!”
This reminds me of a wonderful little poem I read once and which has stayed with me through the years:
        I dreamt death came the other night,
        And heaven’s gate swung wide.
                An angel with a halo bright ushered me inside.
        And there! to my astonishment
        stood folks I’d judged and labeled:
                As quite unfit, of little worth, and spiritually disabled.
        Indignant words rose to my lips
        but never were set free
        For every face showed stunned surprise – no one expected me![1]
Who will we find in heaven? The only way we will know is by following Jesus. The task of the disciple is not to sort the sheep from the goats but to obey and follow the Shepherd...
...which helps us know that the main issue in determining the population of heaven is not in finding out who they are, but whose they are. To whom do these folks belong?
When the day of the festival of Hanukkah came around and Jesus was in the temple, those who remembered the last big victory they had known – the victory still celebrated at Hanukkah, commemorating the time the Maccabee family drove the Syrians out of their homeland — they looked to Jesus and demanded a final answer from him. “Are you the Messiah?” Are you the one to whom we need to belong for a new victory?
If we’re honest about it, we all struggle with this “Who is Jesus?” question from time to time. Should I throw my lot in with him, or should I wait and get more information? Jesus seldom responds to his questioners just the way we wish, because he may not be just the Messiah for whom we wish. If we want to know who Jesus is, our best opportunity to know is in asking the ones who are following him. They are part of that uncountable multitude who have come out of great ordeals. To follow Jesus is to know him. “Those who stand back, arms folded, waiting to be convinced” will never receive the final proof concerning Jesus’ lordship. “Those who enter the flock are the ones who hear the Shepherd’s voice.”[2] They are the ones over whom the Shepherd will watch eternally.
When we were very little, if we were blessed with a good home, one of our parents — very likely it was our mothers — spent a good deal of time watching over us, literally.  As we lay sleeping in our cribs, we were observed 0and cherished. As we took our first steps, said our first words, celebrated our first birthdays, we were watched and treasured. I seldom hold an infant at the time of baptism when I don’t think of the eyes of the congregation as well as the eyes of God watching over, guiding that child. Young children don’t mind it when we watch over them. In fact, they often feel an immediate sense of panic and uncertainty if a familiar face is nowhere to be found in a crowded room.
But that comfort under the watchful gaze of others begins to give way, ultimately, to an adolescent desire for freedom from observation, for privacy. Children make a game of it initially, closing their eyes in an effort to make others disappear. As we mature, we want to control when we will be seen, and who will see us. And we want to hide many things from anyone’s observation. We may have come to believe that no one, not even God, watches over us any more. But it is not true. At the center of the very throne of heaven, the center of life itself is the Lamb, watching over us like a Shepherd, because we are his.
“Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” Some of these saints pictured in John’s vision have sacrificed everything, even their lives, for the sake of the gospel. Now, even acknowledging their sacrifice, they continue to recognize that salvation is a gift of God in every way. No amount of self-sacrificing will bring them their salvation, nor will any failure to measure up take it away. That is because of who we are and whose we are: We are the followers of the Shepherd and our lives mirror the salvation we have found in him. And we are his.
We are they who have come out of great ordeals;
we have washed our robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason we are before the throne of God
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne shelters us.
We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike us,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

[1] Written by Margie Gray Eugene, OR
[2] Preaching the New Common Lectionary:Year C, Lent, Holy Week, Easter
      Fred Craddock et. al., Abingdon, p.184.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Keeping in Touch

Keeping in Touch

© copyright 2013 Robert J. Elder

John 20:19-31                  
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Second Sunday of Easter: April 7, 2013

In 1899, Congressman William Vandiver coined a phrase when he said, “I come from a state that raises corn, cotton, cockleburs, and Democrats; and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me.” The bit about frothiness didn’t stick, but that “I’m from Missouri ... show me” business sure did. People who require evidence have been saying, “I’m from Missouri” ever since. Probably Thomas was the one disciple who could be said, in Congressman Vandiver’s sense of it, to have been “from Missouri.”
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Sermons are often based on this episode by focusing on the doubts which Thomas harbored. I have heard Thomas’ doubts compared to everything under the sun. Frederick Buechner once called doubts “the ants in the pants of faith,” because, he said, “they keep it alive and moving.” Talking of ants-in-the-pants leads me to think on the equally stimulating value of fleas. The chief character of Edward Noyes Westcott’s late 19th century novel, David Harum, declared, “A reasonable amount o’ fleas is good fer a dog – keeps him from broodin’ over being a dog.”[1] Which goes well with the observation of Sir Francis Galon, the nineteenth century English scientist who said, “Well-washed and well-combed dogs grow dull; they miss the stimulus of fleas.” All this has reminded many preachers of a similarity between the stimulating effect of fleas on a dog and doubts in a person.
Today, though, I have found my eye returning to a different aspect of the story from John’s gospel. It has to do with Jesus’ wounds and his invitation to Thomas – to all of us – to touch them.
Every so often, it seems almost on a daily basis, we hear reports about a roadside bomb going off somewhere in the world, sometimes right here at home, killing and maiming X number of innocent bystanders. A couple of decades ago, we would have been shocked reading such reports. Now they seem as common as a morning cup of coffee. We have become awfully calloused to the suffering that human beings visit on one another. To the weary world, these must seem to be just more wounds on an already much-wounded planet.
I don’t know about you, but every time I read the story of Thomas, I am shocked at his desire to touch Jesus in his wounded places. Yet I am equally undone by the fact that this does not seem to bother the risen Jesus all that much. He invites Thomas’ probing fingers into his wounds, into the places where he was injured, battered, killed for the sake of the gospel. The week before, when Thomas wasn’t with them, Jesus invited all of the other disciples to see his hands and side. Jesus invited Thomas, as he invited all of them, as he invites us, to touch his wounds.
“Unless I touch your wounds, I will not believe.” If finding wounds to touch is the problem, then the solution is as near at hand as the latest disaster, the nearby suffering of innocents. Pictures coming across our TV screens on a daily basis remind us that wounds are near at hand indeed. I believe that we can touch Jesus’ wounds today. Indeed, I believe we must.
Remember in John’s gospel how the disciples reacted to the news of Jesus’ resurrection? They heard the report from Mary Magdalene, that she had met the risen Jesus. Did they suddenly sing out for joy, begin praising God in the streets, challenge the authority of the Scribes and Pharisees? No, John reports what they did: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked out of fear...” The resurrection of Jesus did not embolden the disciples, nor did it grant them faith. It sent them scrambling to the safety of a retreat to the room where they had last eaten with him. Thomas is called the doubter, but looking around that chilly upper room, I don’t see anything passing for faith on the faces of those fear-filled disciples that Easter evening, do you? Thomas, when he found his voice, merely said what everyone else was thinking when they first heard that Jesus had risen. “How can I know Jesus is risen?” He sought some tangible assurance. Why is it that he thought of contact with Jesus’ wounds as the way to receive that assurance?
Thomas, always the practical one, thought he found the other disciples deep in the denial stage that some folks go through when they lose a loved-one to death. Practical Thomas, who tried to keep Jesus from traveling to Judea to be with the family of Lazarus – after all, the last time he was there they tried to stone him! – Thomas, who finally agreed to go along, but with his eyes open: “Let’s go, then, so we can all die with him,” he said.
When the end came, Thomas ducked for cover like the rest, but he was also the last to emerge from hiding. He was, as I said, the practical one. He found the others in denial. “We have seen the Lord!” they said. “Unless I ... put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The translators may be too tame, out of deference to our tender sensibilities. It’s a pity. The original word for “putting” his hand means to thrust or jab. “Unless I thrust (Gk.: Balo) my finger in the mark of the nails ... unless I jab my hand into his wounded side...” Ouch. Thomas seems to need to observe Jesus wince in pain to believe that what was human and very much dead had now become immortal. I am undone by this whole scene, but especially by the fact that Jesus responded to Thomas’ words by inviting his probing touch. It did not seem to bother the risen Jesus. He invited Thomas’ to jab at his wounds, the places of deadly injury, if that’s what he needed. Jesus invited Thomas, invites us, to touch him in his wounded places, just as for so many in Galilee Jesus had touched wounded places to make them well.
Somehow this moment, this knowing of Jesus’ wounds, transformed Thomas – and all of them – so that fear melted into joy. But this is more than an arrival at the condition we call faith. It is also a story about a commissioning:
“‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
Having invited them to participate in his own wounds, suffered for their sakes, Jesus commissioned them, the wounded, fear-filled disciples, to show their wounds to the world, to touch the world in its wounded places. The world says in reply to all our pontifications on faith and doctrine, about resurrection and the ministry of Christ, “Unless I thrust my hand into the church and find real wounds, no way I’ll ever believe.”[2]
I am often asked about the decline of members in the Presbyterian church nationally. I am afraid I have no really good answers to the question. The sum of what I know about the church as a denomination is that if its individual churches fail to be faithful, no amount of conversation about faithfulness as a denomination will suffice. Ask any group of gathered Presbyterians to raise their hand if they have grown children who are not active in any church. Dozens of hands will go up. It is our own people we have lost, more than people who have left in a rage over some obscure point of doctrine. We don’t lose members due to strife over big issues of dogma. We lose our own children when they are bored with what the church isn’t doing. The world is  broken and wants to touch our wounds to see if there can be healing. But when we dress up our wounds to hide them from the world, we do a disservice to the gospel.
I read once about a psychiatrist who said, “‘Good mothers tend to be a little bit messy. At least their grooming isn’t perfect.’ He knew that the touch of the small child, seeking assurance of safety and love, should not be hampered by warnings not to spoil makeup or displace carefully arranged hair. Jesus, our good Lord and our good friend, would pass [the] test for a loving, embracing presence.”[3]
I think Jesus always moved, and still moves, toward the wounded ones. Like fire fighters weeping over children they cannot save, or physicians and nurses pausing solemnly in the ER over a patient they can’t manage to resuscitate, Jesus moves toward the wounded places on the earth, touches the wounds of those who suffer, and brings healing where there had been despair. When we touch the wounds of others to bring healing, we are touching the very body of Christ.

[1] David Harum: A Story of American Life, by Edward N. Westcott, (Grossett & Dunlap: 1898), p. 284.
[2] “Fingering the Evidence,” by Richard B. Hays, Christian Century.
[3] “Mediated through Flesh,” by Margaret Guenther, Christian Century.