With Alternative Advent we explored different visions of the Kingdom of God through alternative worship. See the sermon archive below.
Sunday, December 18, 2016
Sermon by Sarah Kammerdiener
Alternative Advent Week 4: Love
“Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.” A full house… A full dinner table… Full of the people you love most. What a lovely image. Makes me homesick just thinking about it. Sitting around the dinner table has always been one of my fondest childhood memories—it’s where my family has always had the most fun. Yes we love eating… I mean, when the Wildt’s get together, we can eat. But it’s more than that for us. It’s a time when we’re all together, sitting, laughing, catching up, making important family decisions. But the most important part is that we’re together, sharing our lives with each other through the love we have for one another.
In our scripture lesson for today, the host of the party is let down by those he cares about because suddenly no one can come to his party that he diligently planned and implemented. The ones he loves most weren’t coming to the party. I can only imagine the disappointment I would feel if my loved ones stood me up for a party I’d been planning. If no one came? I would be devastated. But oh, not this host. Yes he was angry, but he took that anger and put it into action. Instead of moping by himself and binge watching Netflix, which is what I’d do, he sent his slave out into his city and declared that his party was now open to everyone! Everyone? Really? Yes! Everyone! He opened his table to the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. In the Parable, Jesus tells us that the man had invited specific people to come to his party, and they all made excuses as to why they couldn’t come. So he broke out of his normal circle of friends and spread the invitation to people he would normally have nothing to do with.
That is how all our parties should be, especially as Christians. As this man opened his party to all, so does Christ. And as Christ does, so shall we. There is room for everyone, everyone, at Christ’s table. Not just the people we invite, not just our closest friends and family. We must open our table to all. And we need to do even better than the party host—he only opened his party after everyone else had canceled. We, as Christians, must open our party to all people up front and first thing. Today we celebrate communion, the ultimate party of Jesus that we celebrate over and over again. As this table of bread and wine of not ours, but Christ’s, this table to open to all, to everyone, even to our worst enemy. Table is where we find our sustenance. Food sustains us. The bread of life sustains us. Love sustains us. Community sustains us. God sustains us. God is the true sustenance of life.
This is the sacred table of communion. Many people, and even more churches, reject certain people from their tables. They tell them they’re too different to be worthy of this great meal. But Christ wasn’t sharing a meal with an exclusive group on the night he was arrested. He was sharing it with his closest friends. And throughout his whole life, He shared meals with the outcasts, the poor, the oppressed, and the unwanted. We too are called to share meals together, amongst friends and loved ones, as well as to include and invite the “other” into our space. There are days we feel like holing up, ignoring those around us, keeping to ourselves. It can be offensive and hurtful when people turn us away. So instead of rejection, we hide. It is often easier to turn others away too—those that hurt us so personally, that don’t believe the way we do, that don’t believe I am deserving of standing here in this pulpit with you because I married a woman. So. Many. Christians. Stay in their own corners with people who are just like them. Even we, as the “progressive liberals” do this, all the time. We hide from things and people we don’t understand and are afraid of, and we hide from those who are different. We push out, ignore, and completely reject those that don’t “fit” into their way of life.
Activists are often good at this; in fact it is their job to demonize the “other.” After the Trump election, I needed to do something, I wasn’t sure what but I needed to do something. So I went to an event about next steps, what we can do in this divisive climate. I was so disappointed by the event… The language they were using was so offensive to me and so ridiculously divisive. They were “othering” Trump supporters left and right. Don’t get me wrong… I’m devastated that Trump is our President-elect, but I still believe we can make change through love, instead of creating more hate. As our scripture talks about today, we are called to break out in love. Break away from our comfort zones. Explore new places, people, ideas. We are called to invite the poor, the needy, the oppressed, and the “lepers” to our tables. To ALL of our tables. No exceptions. We are called to comfort each other in love, and to confront each other through love.
In this breaking out, this breaking down of barriers and comfort zones; in the comforting and confronting is where we meet God. We meet God at the table of grace. God came to earth through Jesus to invite us to the all-inclusive table; the table of forgiveness, relationship, dialogue, and love. This is where we find God. In the community we find gathered around the table—the sustenance of life—being together as one body in Christ. We are called as Christians to bring this kindom of God, this good and love-filled sustenance, here to earth, just like it says in the Lord’s prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven.” There are many terms for the “kindom of God”—“reign of God, kingdom of God”—but my personal favorite is simply, the Love of God. The great love that we share with everyone, that we are called to share each and everyday. We are called to open our parties, open our hearts, to all people, everywhere. This kindom of God is a giant feast, a celebration, a party, where all are invited, included, and loved. Invited, up front, not second, not afterthoughts, but first thing—even those who make us frustrated and angry—they too are welcome at the great feast. There are always more than enough seats at this table, and it’s our sacred call to reach out and invite those who are broken to trust God’s retelling of our story as a people loved and redeemed.
In this place we are forgiven. We are in true dialogical relationship with each other. We are comforting and confronting. We are loved. We are taken into those loving arms of God. Here we find each other, in our true and full humanness, with failures and successes, hopes and dreams, sadness and joys. We find all of these and more at table together, where we eat together in the love of God. Let us now join in the table of forgiveness together. Let us break down barriers of invitation-only parties, and welcome all to this space. Let us grow in communion with God and with each other.
Let us now share in this sacred feast together.
Words of Institution
This is what we proclaim: that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, broken for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.’
In the same way also he took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Sermon by Katy Kammerdiener
For those of you who don’t know, I work at the National Domestic Violence Hotline. I take chats from people that are in situations that make Law & Order SVU look like a joke. It is hard work. At first glance, you would think that there is not a lot of joy in my work. And some days, you would be absolutely right. Yesterday was a particularly brutal day, I had people who were stuck in impossible situations, with no local shelters to take them in, or shelter not even being a remote option for them. There is very often no room at the inn, and it is illegal to stay in the stable with children.
For the people I chat with, hope often seems like a far off fever dream. Without hope, where could there possibly be joy? Often we as Christians see hope as leading to joy, that joy is the next level of hope. We hope for greater joy, we hope for the joy that comes from justice, from everyone having a safe place to stay, free from abuse. But we can’t wait for hope. For many people, there is no realistic hope, especially for the change needed for a happy, healthy life. But joy is still possible, even without great hope.
If there is one thing I have learned from my job, it is that we can’t wait for the great joy that is Heaven fully actualized on earth. In order to keep going, there has to be some sort of joy here, now. At the end of every chat I take at my job, I try to include some element of self care. We all need moments of joy in our life to keep living. Despite all of the stress that comes from the job, I do find joy in my work. I find joy in promoting God’s kindom, for safety and security. I find joy when I am able to give a sliver of hope to those that have none. The office I work in has more joy than you would think. I can’t tell you how upbeat the group chat is, or the voices in the room are, or how many pictures of fluffy animals we go through every day. We promote real joy in our work, and surround ourselves with joy in order to keep doing that.
In the song of Mary that you heard from the scripture reading, there is a reason they call it the song of Mary. “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” We often sing songs when we are happy. Music lifts our spirits. This is a song of celebration, of power, of joy! For some context, Mary is staying far away from her home with her cousin Elizabeth. She is an unwed woman who is pregnant out of wedlock, in a patriarchal society that would be more than happy to police her body and kill her for breaking the code. Yet even in this dark hour, she finds joy, knowing she has a greater purpose in her life than you might see on the surface.
There is a reason that the first recorded miracle is of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding. This miracle sets a powerful precedent in promoting joy. We have GOT to find some sort of joy in life, or we will be unable to fulfill God’s purpose in our lives. It isn’t wasteful to spend time on ourselves, whether that means to go to the wedding feast and celebrating, or taking a few breaths so we can handle what is coming next.
We too face uncertain times. Those of us in the social services fields are staring down the barrel of a potential for massive cuts, for less hope than before. The margin for error just grew smaller, especially for those already living on the margins. For those that still had hope, it seems to be quickly fading. But even in the midst of that, there is still joy. Even when there is no hope of fully overcoming seemingly insurmountable evil, joy is not a luxury. Joy is a necessity.
So You, facing discrimination for who you love: it is okay to let loose in the club or in the woods or at home with your fluffy fur babies. You, living in poverty: it is okay to buy cake with food stamps for a birthday party, and no one should tell you differently. You, who have a target on your back for the way you look: it is okay to celebrate who you are while you try to navigate staying safe. You, with the guilt of privilege: it is still okay to celebrate while you work towards justice for all.
Joy is a gift from our Creator, because even when hope is lost, there can still be joy. Joy is a radical act, so go be radical and love yourself, your friends, your enemies, and your Creator.
Sunday, December 4, 2016
Sermon by Anna Strickland
Growing up, I was blessedly sheltered from hate. I knew it was a thing in the same way we know violence in Syria is a thing, but it was always elsewhere. People somewhere else were hating others for their race or sexuality or gender expression or religion, but not here. Not in my church. Not in my house. And so I grew up believing this crazy idea that people are people and the only thing God wants me to do is love them ferociously. I believed that… and I believed it was normal to believe that.
Even at the private Church of Christ school I attended as a 5-year-old, I felt like the one normal person in a nuthouse. I knew I was different from them, and I knew they excluded me because of it. I also knew that soon I would be in public school. That knowledge kept me thinking like I was in some brief social experiment, and soon I would be among normal people who knew that God loved everyone, even if they didn’t know the books of the Bible in order or they said “lucky” sometimes instead of “blessed”.
And soon enough I was in public school. The talk there was about OJ Simpson and Whitney Houston’s newest song and Animorphs, not God or sin or the Devil. And while I was still unpopular, it wasn’t because of my beliefs. I was just the shy, sensitive new kid with bangs and a thick braid. I may not have been the cool kid like I dreamed about, but at least I had friends who didn’t think I was crazy.
I remember the day my mother burst my bubble and awakened me to the fact that I was actually still in the minority. I brought her my school project, an “All About Me” magazine, proud of my design and creativity. She read it over. She came to the back cover where I had placed an “ad” for UBC. In it, I (in true UBC fashion) declared proudly that everyone was welcome, even gay people. “Sweetie,” Mama said. “It’s very good. But I want you to know that some of your classmates might get angry.” I couldn’t comprehend. I mean, I knew my church had been pissing off the Baptists for awhile, but I couldn’t believe that my classmates, my friends, the people with whom I spent most of my days, could be like that. “You were very blessed to grow up at UBC,” Mama said. “There are not many other churches like us. And so some of your classmates might go to churches that don’t believe it’s okay to welcome everybody like your ad says. I just want to prepare you in case someone tells you you’re wrong for what you believe.”
I have to say, I was pretty devastated. I had always been out of place. I had never been exclusionary or shallow enough to be a popular kid. But I always believed that I could move up in the ranks slowly but surely, wear them down. If I was friends with them long enough, one day I would be accepted. In that moment, I knew I never would be. I knew that if I wanted to be popular, I would have to hide my crazy belief that Jesus loves all the little children of the world. And I decided (I must say, I’m quite proud of 6th grade me for this) that God’s kindom was more important than popularity.
I don’t remember the aftermath of that assignment. I can’t even remember if we presented them in front of the class or not. But I know that bit by bit, I grew entrenched. I was a minority voice. That was my identity. I became more political, more radically accepting, more deeply rooted in church. I expressed my lonely liberal views in an overwhelmingly conservative school. I clung to the small band of Christians called University Baptist Church. I lived for youth camp every summer. I eventually found other outcast friends, adopting their style, their taste in music, their language, their hobbies. I did what I could to keep my tiny flame alive, lest it be extinguished by the tempest of the world.
And so, despite being a straight, cisgender, white, middle class Christian, I have always felt like a minority. This has become a label that, like all labels, limits the way I live my life. I am shy, afraid to express my opinions, afraid to offer trust too quickly or open up to strangers. I believe that although I am on the right side, I am on the weak side. I have developed learned helplessness: the belief that it is useless to fight, because I will only lose. I get angry, I rant, I write, but I feel helpless to do anything to exact real change.
It is this learned helplessness in me that deletes a beautifully prophetic Facebook status, because it will only anger my family and invite an argument. It was this learned helplessness in me that sat in heartbroken paralysis on November 9th. It is this learned helplessness in me that whispers over and over, “It’s not worth the fight.” It is this learned helplessness in me that threatens my tiny flame, not the tempest of the world. It is this learned helplessness in me that is my greatest threat, my biggest hurdle, my primary sin.
Today’s scripture reading from Isaiah about preparing the way of the Lord, which Sarah read earlier, is familiar to anyone who has experienced advent before – or seen Godspell. (Anyone else have “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord” stuck in their head all season?) Godspell is based almost entirely on the gospel of Matthew, where, in chapter 3, we find John the Baptist:
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John the Baptist makes it very clear in this passage that we are expected to bear good fruit, to clear the path, to do the work. We are called to the hard labor. Not because Christ is incapable of forging His own path, but because we are called to take ownership as co-creators of the Kindom. We are called to invest in the age to come. We are called to an all-in faith.
We are called to go where others have not dared go, because it’s where Christ is going. We are called to be trail blazers. Pioneers. Visionaries. But the truth about being a pioneer? It’s a hard, lonely life. Dangerous, even. It’s not the path to becoming popular. The saying “It’s lonely at the top” applies to the wilderness, too. It’s lonely blazing a trail, going where others have yet to follow.
At this point in history, there are precious few areas that have zero footprints. Our spiritual ancestors have already been there. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mohandas Ghandi. Nelson Mandela. Cesar Chavez. Marsha P. Johnson. Where there is a wilderness, there is likely a voice crying out. Many have gone before us to blaze trails we continue to walk. But the thing about trails is, they have to be maintained so they don’t become overgrown. Just because someone has gone before doesn’t mean we aren’t in the wild, pulling weeds and moving boulders.
And so we look to our fellow hikers, other visionaries and pioneers, for comradery and strength. We join in solidarity, but when we find a like-minded group, we often end up digging a deeper trench, not a wider path. “Every valley shall be lifted,” Isaiah says. Every valley. Every trench. Every safe place we create for ourselves will disappear in the Kindom. “Every mountain shall be made low.” Every mountain. Every pedestal we build for ourselves to assure ourselves we’re right will be demolished. All that will be left is a level field where we have to look each other in the eye as we argue, rather than retreating to our trenches and holier-than-thou thrones to comfort us.
And how much easier is it to join a group on the trail than forge our own way? Just as I found a group in high school to fit in with, we too look for others who align with us, who are already doing the good work, and support their mission. After all, it’s a smart use of resources. Why double the work?
But John warns the religious folks, people like us, that their faith has earned them nothing because it has cost them nothing. They rest on their heritage, proclaiming salvation through their ancestry. They have followed the crowds, ventured into the wilderness only after the trail has been trampled by those who actively sought prophetic teaching, a new way of living. And John calls them out on it. John speaks to their complacent, half-living faith. He warns them. Preparing the way requires sacrifice. It requires speaking truth to power. It requires an all-in, living on the fringes, never getting comfortable kind of living, the kind of living our wild namesake embodied.
In our world, this kind of living seems at odds with peace because we tend to think of peace as being the absence of conflict. I mean, what is the Prince of Peace doing baptizing with “unquenchable fire”? Because it’s not about our “inner peace”, our comfort and our fragile egos. It’s about a Kindom of peace where there is simply no room for complacency. Peace is not comfortable.
That’s hard for us to hear as Americans. Our society is based on making life more comfortable, more convenient. The media constantly markets us new tools to make life easier for us, to coddle us, lulling us unto a sense of security. And while I’m not advocating for the Puritanical philosophy of intentional physical discomfort, there is something profoundly counter-cultural to seeking discomfort.
It is so much easier to wait until the trail is forged. It is so much easier to rest on our laurels. It is so much easier to say “I support the work you’re doing” rather than pick up a shovel and join in. It is so much easier to be a Pharisee.
But. There’s another scripture in another musical.
“As the scripture says,
everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree,
and no one shall make them afraid. They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made.
I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree,
a moment alone in the shade,
at home in the nation we’ve made.”
Yes, Hamilton makes an appearance in this sermon. Surprise, surprise. In this particular piece of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical genius, George Washington is referencing Micah, chapter four, which is surprisingly similar to Isaiah, chapter 2. You’ll recognize the words:
“…they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;”
“But,” Micah adds.
“but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid…”
Their OWN vines. Their OWN fig trees. George Washington gets to retire to enjoy the fruits of his labor because he’s led the revolution and led the country. This brood of vipers in Matthew 3 have done nothing, created nothing, planted nothing, led nothing, earned nothing. So while it’s easier to be a Pharisee, it’s worth nothing.
The discomfort and loneliness we feel in the wilderness makes for a more difficult existence. Like I’ve heard many parents say about having children, it is so much harder than we could ever imagine, but so much more rewarding than we could ever dream. Trusting Christ’s message means trusting that the fire with which He baptizes us is as cleansing as it is painful.
For the last month, I’ve been in a state of mourning. Not because my own life will be radically changed by the outcome of the election. I could shut out the world, become a hermit, live under a rock, grow all my own food, hoe my own row and raise my own babies as Kacey Musgraves sings. And doesn’t that sound wonderful? Isn’t it tempting, this agrarian utopia where everyone minds their own business and takes care of themselves and their neighbors? But that life requires that I consciously give up the call of Christ to prepare a way in the wilderness. And it will inevitably lead to a gnawing in my heart that will eat at me until I answer the sacred call and return to the wild.
So I am mourning the loss of my imaginary utopia. I’m mourning the fact that I will never be at peace, because I must do the work of the Prince of Peace. I’m mourning that the paths in the wilderness need much more upkeep than I thought. But then the light shines through the grass, and I am renewed. The wilderness is terrifying. But it is also beautiful.
Here’s to the holy discomfort of walking with Jesus through the wilderness. Here’s to stoking the fire through the storm. Here’s to the loneliness of pioneer life. Here’s to our spiritual ancestors who paved a way through the wilderness. And here’s to continuing their work. Amen.
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers and easy paths.
May God bless you with anger at injustice and oppression to fuel you through the hard work.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world by forging a path in the wilderness for the Prince of Peace.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Matthew 19, verses 16 through 26
16 Then someone came to [Jesus] and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Sermon by David Strickland
What are we waiting for during advent?
Seriously, I’m asking you, what are we waiting for over these next four Sundays?
Certainly. Although, isn’t that a bit of a waste of time? Didn’t Jesus already come to Earth? After all, it’s what our entire religion is based upon.
Clearly, during Christmas we celebrate the birth of the infant Jesus. We re-enact the nativity scene, sing carols telling the story of God’s child born to a virgin mother, and exchange gifts to commemorate the whole event. So what else are we waiting for this season, if not Jesus’ birthday? If it’s that simple, shouldn’t we just go ahead and start singing those Christmas carols now?
During this season, while we do remember the preparation that took place for Jesus Christ to be made flesh on Earth some 2,000 years ago, there’s another event for which we are preparing: the Second Coming of Christ.
We don’t discuss the Second Coming very much in our church. In the book of Revelation, it’s depicted as an apocalyptic event, full of death and destruction. In no unclear terms, the author of Revelation predicts that an army of angels will kill a third of the global population with fire and brimstone, and countless more will be tortured for months on end.
Do we want these things to happen? Is it something we hope for? This all sounds like something those other Baptists preach about. But why shouldn’t we preach about hellfire and brimstone? After all, this terrifying book of Revelation describes the Kingdom of God brought to Earth, just as Jesus told us to pray for “…God’s will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
It’s not just in Revelation that we read of these vivid depictions of God’s judgment, either. Jesus’ parables describe two types of people: those who follow God’s commandments enter “eternal life,” while those who don’t are left to suffer. Before Jesus, the Old Testament describes entire cities razed by God’s judgment. After Jesus’ life, the Epistles warn of suffering for those who don’t abide by Jesus’ message. These images are indeed central to our religion: if God’s Kingdom is what we seek, then we must also accept God’s judgment.
After all, we don’t need to fear God’s judgment anyway, do we? There’s an easy way out for us, right? We just need to be part of group (a) in Jesus’ parables, rather than group (b), right? For God so loved us “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Sermon over and we can start singing Christmas Carols now, right?
Well, no. It’s not that simple.
The reason we don’t talk much about God dispensing judgment in our church is because it distracts us from Jesus’ true message. Yes, the Bible discusses heaven and hell, but they were different concepts in Biblical times than what they have become in our culture. To Jesus, heaven and hell were literal, tangible places on Earth.
I’ll start with hell. The Greek word that gets translated to “hell” in the New Testament is “Gehenna.” Gehenna was the local landfill. Clearly, Jerusalem’s dump, although certainly unpleasant, was not the same thing as our modern image of hell as a place of perpetual suffering. Regarding other descriptions of God’s judgment in the bible, they refer to literal destruction and suffering here, on Earth.
So what is hell, then? Is it a metaphor? Not quite. Hell is a natural consequence of what happens when we put our will ahead of God’s will. Hell is a world where nearly one in seven people don’t have access to clean drinking water while the rest stand idly by. Hell is a place where one in four women are victims of sexual assault, and our politicians and religious leaders spend their time condemning consensual relations between same-sex individuals. Hell is the crowded stretch of Guadalupe where I avoid eye-contact with the homeless man who asks me for change every day.
Hell is here and now. Hell is what we do to each other every day. And that is much scarier than some story about a boogey-man in a cave.
Let’s talk about heaven. It’s a bit harder to pin down exactly what Jesus meant when he was talking about heaven. But, just as our image of hell as a red man brandishing a trident falls short, Jesus’ idea of heaven has been horribly misinterpreted over the years.
In Love Wins, Rob Bell makes a strong argument that Jesus’ teachings were not intended to preserve our souls perpetually in some other place, but to give us a depth of life here and now. Two of the terms that Jesus used to describe this life were, “eternal life,” and “life in the new age,” which really meant the same thing in the cultural context. Sometimes Jesus referred to this idea simply as “entering life” or “entering the kingdom of God.”
The Greek word which translates to “eternal” doesn’t exactly mean the same thing as “forever” in English. A more precise translation would be “age-long” or “an eon.” So “eternal life,” then, doesn’t mean a life that literally lasts forever, but it’s definitely more significant than the short life we have in these bodies. Jesus calls us to build an “eternal” life, which doesn’t refer to some reward in the clouds for responding all the right ways to pastors, or going through all the right Christian rituals. Eternal life is a life that matters here and now. A person with an “eternal” life has seen beyond his or her own desires, and contributes to the local and global community.
In terms of heaven and hell: if hell is where our will comes before God’s, heaven is where our will aligns with God’s. Heaven is the time and place where we reach beyond ourselves to build something lasting with God. It is literally in the present time and place, but its impact (great or small) transcends both time and space.
Heaven is in the trees, as long as we look up and see them.
Heaven is in our political system, as long as it focuses on our people’s well-being, rather than our corporation’s profits.
Heaven is in this church, as long as we are active participants.
Heaven is happening somewhere every day, and Jesus calls us to build heaven, right here, right now.
That heaven is much more beautiful than a fairytale land where everyone wears halos and sings psalms all day.
In the heaven that Jesus describes, we are called to be active participants, rather than passive observers. The scripture that Rob Bell uses to describe Jesus’ vision for us is from Matthew 19. It’s the story of the rich man that you heard just awhile ago. To recap, a rich man asks Jesus what good deed he must do to have an “eternal” life. Jesus responds, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
Let’s pause here already. First, from Jesus’ response, it seems he already knows of this man, which is feasible because the man is rich. The man’s social status is likely why he got to talk to Jesus in person in the first place. Second, Jesus’ answer is nothing short of dismissive. He sees right through the man’s bargaining. In other words, Jesus is saying “One good deed for an eternal life? You’ve missed the point.”
The rich man then asks Jesus which commandments he should keep. Of course the answer is “the ten commandments, have you heard of them?” What’s really interesting here, though, is that Jesus only lists off five of the ten commandments. Here, I will lean on Rob Bell’s interpretation of the scripture. Quoting from Love Wins,
“The first four of the commandments were understood as dealing with our relationship with God—Jesus doesn’t list any of those. The remaining six deal with our relationships with each other. Jesus mentions five of them, leaving one out. The man hears Jesus’ list of five and insists he’s kept them all.”
It’s clear to me from this exchange, then, that Jesus was much more interested in what people were doing, rather than what they believed, or whether they had a personal relationship with God. From this one passage, it should be obvious that there’s no shortcut to enter heaven. Jesus gave this man every opportunity to come to the realization himself that the crucial commandment he was breaking was “do not covet.” When the Socratic Method didn’t punch through to the man, Jesus made it as explicit as possible: “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.”
So, what do we hope for this Advent season? We hope that we can build an eternal life by being active participants in heaven. Great! Let’s do it and we can start singing those Christmas Carols!
Well, not so fast. You see, next, Jesus goes on to deliver the “eye of the needle” analogy. He says, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Pretty bleak, right? The disciples thought so too. When they heard this, “they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’”
Learning this story as a kid in Sunday School, I never quite understood the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ teaching here. After Jesus said “it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven,” by my thinking, it seemed obvious that someone with fewer material attachments would be more up to the task. So why are they so surprised?
It all makes a bit more sense to me now that I understand what the rich man and Jesus were really talking about when they discussed “eternal” life. They were talking about a life that had real meaning; a life that impacted others for the better. Indeed, it’s a fair question: who better to build the kingdom of God than the person in the community with the most social and economic resources?
Clearly this man was doing something right. From their conversation, we can tell that he conducted honest business to make his fortune. He treated his family well, and even loved his neighbor as himself. He was a pillar of the community in his time. He would be a pillar of the community in our time—a good man. Yet still, he would not bring about the kingdom of God.
You see, the man was not evil because he was rich. What Jesus immediately spotted before even meeting the man, and what the man saw in himself (whether he realized it or not), was that he could be doing so much more to build heaven. That’s what’s so damaging about greed. We see it in this country as income inequality. The top 1% richest people in our country control a third of the nation’s wealth. In the end, the only purpose for each vast stockpile of money is to make more money. Think of what impact that money would have if just a tenth of it was donated to charity. It would be world-changing. Eternal.
How does this apply to us, though? Most of us are not in that top 1%. Well, like all of Jesus’ teachings, the many layers come full circle right back to us. Jesus says that “for mortals it is impossible [to enter the kingdom].” Jesus does not shame the rich man for being greedy. His precise wording is “…if you wish to be perfect.” This exact teaching applies to us too. None of us are perfect.
So here’s the really hard truth that we grapple with as Christians: we are destined to fall short. “There is only one who is good.” We must all try our best to build heaven on Earth, but we never get to see it completed. Just like the rich man, we all have underutilized gifts. We all have missed opportunities; precious minutes, hours, days, and years squandered on distractions; on things that are not eternal.
So why must we try anyway? What is there to hope for?
There’s a term from Zen Buddhism called wabi-sabi. Like many Japanese terms, it doesn’t translate exactly into English. One way to convey the idea of wabi-sabi in English is to say that “nothing is finished.” It’s an acknowledgement that the world is living and changing around us, and nothing is perfect or permanent.
The old, broken dining room chair from your grandparents’ estate is wabi-sabi, as is the old car that you can’t seem to sell, so you just keep fixing it up. Wabi-sabi has spilled over from Buddhism into Japanese design. One of the best examples of wabi-sabi design is a certain style of Japanese tea sets. Wabi-sabi tea sets have a rustic look to them. The craftsmanship is intentionally crude and asymmetrical. The sets convey a style of hyper-functionality, free of ornamentation and distractions. The Zen approach to a wabi-sabi tea set is that the pieces derive their beauty from their use. The finest wabi-sabi teacups are cured in such a way that they are very slightly discolored by tea after each use. After years of use, they will take on a gorgeous honey color from the tea. This tint can only be created by real use of the tea sets.
So it should be with the gifts that God has given us. We don’t put them on a shelf to be admired. We don’t brag about them to our friends. We use our gifts to build heaven on earth. Our work is not perfect, and the kingdom that we create will not be perfect either. Still though, we must try, because that’s how we become the best version of ourselves.
An idea related to wabi-sabi is a technique called “kintsugi.” Kintsugi is used to repair a broken piece of pottery. The kintsugi craftsman will glue the broken pieces of pottery together with a lacquer mixed with a valuable metal, like gold, silver, or platinum to reassemble the whole. The end result is a piece of pottery put back together with its imperfections not only repaired, but emphasized. At the end of the process, the work looks better than it did before it was broken. The method is so successful that some pottery owners have been accused of intentionally breaking valuable pieces just to have them repaired via kintsugi.
It’s a beautiful idea: imperfections made eternal. This is what we need to have faith in as Christians—that God can elevate our imperfect work. We are flawed, but God can use us anyway. Just as the scripture says, “for God, all things are possible.”
So, to sum up, here’s what we hope for this Advent season:
- God is building heaven on Earth.
- We can help God build heaven on Earth.
- While our efforts will fall massively short, one day God will make them complete.
- Even though we will not see God’s finished kingdom, we can find satisfaction in glimpses of heaven on Earth every day.
That’s a lot to soak in. Maybe we should hold off on those Christmas carols.