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Can I just say that preaching
isn’t as easy as it looks.
I know it is not really a job for a grown man or woman,
but it’s all I know.
And once in awhile I just need to vent.
You see, we have hit a rough patch
along the Lectionary Road.
The Lectionary, as you know,
is a three-year cycle of readings
Episcopal, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic
congregations read on Sunday morning.
They are similar to one another
though not exactly the same.
I pick and choose to be honest,
but sometimes the choices are narrow.
You may have forgotten
that there are actually four readings appointed
for each Sunday
because we only read two.
Then we add a contemporary liturgical reading.
And before I disrespect the current cache of readings,
let me acknowledge
that it is a good thing to have a lectionary.
The Lectionary is a practice
rooted in our Jewish ancestry, and it extends far into our past.
It is also a good discipline to keep the preacher
from hopping like a crow, to pick over
his or her own favorite topics
again and again.
But having said all that,
I feel like we are hydroplaning on a nasty slick
of crude proclamations.
The readings since Easter
have been repetitious first century claims
about Jesus and the young Christian movement
that are either irrelevant in our world
or simply not very credible.
Now maybe it is just me,
but it is hard to find a fist in these readings
that reaches up
and grabs my shirt
and yells into my face:
“Listen up you, there is something
you need to hear!”
I confess to liking it
when Scripture is rough with me like that.
But there IS something here
in most of these Easter Lectionary readings.
It is a nag.
It isn’t a fist grabbing us by the shirt,
it is a little nagging nit
that is poking through them.
In all these excerpts from the Bible —
the ones we’ve read on Sundays
and even the ones we didn’t use —
there is an echoing complaint
behind the veil of words:
I have heard, and read
and in many places,
that the spark that ignited the flame
that became Christianity,
was its promise of life after death.
Apparently the culture of Roman society
in the first century
was rotting away like a fallen sequoia:
solid and immovable
but eaten alive by the parasites of cynicism,
and near total corruption.
Huh…sounds like another culture I know.
Anyway, Roman society
for a good religion,
and like hollow Hollywood celebrities
in their frantic search for perpetual youth and beauty,
snapped up nearly every exotic idea
that came along.
They weren’t much interested in Jesus,
at least not the one
who left footprints with parables
and his ideas of an egalitarian community
gathered around an open table.
Those spiritually and intellectually starved Romans
were more enamored with the Jesus
who escaped like a canary from the cold, dark tomb.
That turned out to be
a delectable idea
of first century traction.
The idea of life after death
and a sure and certain path to it,
was an idea whose time had come
and it caused a seismic shift
in all subsequent human history.
It is understandable: we hate death.
Death is like a raspberry seed stuck in our teeth.
It doesn’t matter how magnificent
and beautiful the day,
the life…just the idea that death is inevitable
has the potential to make us miserable.
So it’s not just those old Roman’s
in search of life beyond empire.
And it is not just you and me
who long for meaning
in a life of too much affluence.
It goes way back — way, way back.
We could go as far back
to those iconic cave paintings
from prehistoric France,
and talk about how they rage against the machine,
and how they express hope
for something more from life.
That was long before the advent of words.
But I am not a student of that extended tribe
of our elongated human community.
So instead of 10,000 years back
I’ll point to a mere two-thousand,
six-hundred years backward…
to that poem
from which the Book of Revelation
its poetic imagery.
Almost six-hundred years
before Jesus was born,
the poet Isaiah
envisioned a new heaven and a new earth.
But it was on a mountaintop
rather than a city where Revelation put it.
In Isaiah 25:6 Isaiah wrote:
“On this mountain
the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of fat things,
a feast of wine on the lees,
of fat things full of marrow,
of wine on the lees well refined.
And God will destroy on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples…
the veil that is spread over all nations.
God will swallow up death for ever,
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of God’s people
will be taken away from all the earth…”
Seven hundred years later, someone named John —
not the same John as the one who wrote the Gospel —
from a Roman prison island on Patmos:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
…And I saw the holy city of Jerusalem coming down…
…(and there) God will dwell with (God’s) people,
and God will be with them,
(and) wipe away every tear from their eyes,
and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning nor crying
nor pain any more,
for the former things have passed away.”
When we humans
get enough cushion
between ourselves and starvation,
and then a little hint of stability and security,
we start asking questions about life and death.
No matter how fat and sassy we get
as a society,
it never feels like enough
when it comes to the reality of death.
We want some assurance that this is not all there is
and that, in fact,
what lies ahead is good.
all the ideas
about what happens after we die
reflect what the culture they derive from
believe would be an improvement
on what is now.
In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition
a very human sounding
system of distributive justice
is exacted upon the good guys and the bad guys alike,
with rewards and punishments
at the end of life,
all to even out the scales of justice.
Likewise, in Hinduism, the scales of justice
measured somewhat differently,
are balanced through reincarnation.
Hinduism explodes the mind
with an openness to a withering array of gods
and levels of the universes,
and succession of lives
that make possible
any and all conceptions of fairness.
of which there are as many brand names
as there are Christian denominations,
reckons that all lives, good and bad,
are spokes stuck on a wheel of suffering.
The only hope hinges,
not upon balancing a scale,
but upon release into nothingness;
in the absolute going out of existence
instead of the relentless cycles of lives.
But modern science has also given us a new vision:
an odd kind of afterlife
knit within the confines of molecules and atoms.
Science has declared
that no energy is ever lost
but simply changes form.
we become part of the soil
and that in turn feeds
and becomes a part of the on-going
cosmic cycle of energy.
Even the dust of once distant stars
resides in us,
a kind of resurrection beyond our imagination.
But is that all there is?
Are those our only choices?
Heaven, Reincarnation, Nirvana, Thermodynamics?
I think there is another choice: Trust.
Put our hand in the hand of God
and simply trust.
Trust that, because God loves us,
that whatever happens
it will be okay.
To me, that is what Jesus demonstrated
and we do not need to say more.
If in fact, we trust the love of God,
we do not need any theories
about what happens next.
Rather, we need good and better methodologies
for preparing and expanding
our open table.
good and better methodologies
for creating and nurturing
the kingdom on earth
as it is in heaven.
Trust God about what happens next
and get on with the kingdom.
I think that’s a gospel that will preach, as they say.
Trust God about what happens next
and get on with the kingdom.
Tim Long, Just Up the Hill from Lock 15 says
Dear Fr. Cam,
As it happens, I’m near to setting words to paper, in condolences for an in-law whose mother just passed, my niece-in-law, who I’ve met twice; for her mother passed away suddenly and untimely at home in S. America. And, I’d already picked up Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter, looking for some of that shared insight on life, and death being just part of a continuum, but then;
There you were, last week with Mary Oliver (who I’d picked up from the bookstore shelf, once, and found myself reaching, too late, for that big, blue paisley handkerchief I keep in my hip pocket) on the inter-woven-ness of life both in this realm and beyond the pale, and then;
Here you were this week, adding sustenance to the point already well-made. So, thanks. I can write to my nephew and niece-in-law now. Something to further validate the worth of the Lectionary, I think.
PS: In addition, “…hopping like a crow, to pick over his or her favorite topics”; and, “…eaten alive by the parasites of cynicism, seductive fantasy and near total corruption”: small caliber munitions, easily carried into the dialectic of discussion with the anti-communitarians that are everywhere ascendant, and deftly plinking the rotted limb upon which they perch from underneath them. And there is my squirrel hunting parable for the year.
Cam Miller says
Those are the hardest notes to write and I never feel as though I wrote what I wanted, or anything that can make a difference. Good luck with your hard but important task.