Sunday, November 15, 2009

What I Preached for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost, 2009

Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), November 15, 2009
Preached at St. John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington

The readings for today are
Daniel 12:1-13 // Hebrews 10:11-25 // Mark 13:1-8


This month Sesame Street celebrated its 40th anniversary. I know this because for several days last week anytime I used Google – which is a lot – colorful characters would show up against Google’s white-as-snow backdrop. First it was the orange, vertically striped legs of an 8-foot-tall yellow-feathered creature. Then it was a furry, grumpy little green monster poking its head out of a garbage can. And then, finally, the entire word Google was transformed into a collection of chocolate chip cookies and eaten by a furry blue mouth with googly eyes (no pun intended).

Now if you clicked on any of these fantastical images, you would be taken to a list of news stories about Sesame Street. And as I began to read these articles, I not only remembered all the times I spent watching Sesame Street with my dad, but I began to realize just how visionary Sesame Street has been.

Forty years ago, when the show was developed, the television landscape was still radically segregated, and featured overwhelmingly white characters, largely preferring not to address the difficult issues of the day. Ok, so not a whole lot has changed in that regard. But in 1969, the world was changing. Dr. King had been assassinated, but his dream had captured imaginations.

Sesame Street decided to take the dream and put it on television. The basic intent of the show was to bring a preschool education into the homes of poor children in urban neighborhoods who didn’t have access to good schools.

But in addition to teaching the alphabet and numbers and colors, the world presented on Sesame Street sought to instill tolerance, racial pride, and equality. Sure, it did so with fantastical creatures – I’m looking at you, Mr. Snuffleupagus – but that didn’t change the deeper truths contained in its vision. Sesame Street took the dream of racial harmony, economic equality, and religious tolerance, and sought to make it real, even if only on the television set, and even if the world around that television set still had a lot of catching up to do.

It’s a little bit like our Scripture readings for today. Today’s Gospel reading is from the 13th chapter of Mark, a passage sometimes referred to by Biblical scholars as “the Little Apocalypse.” Now, when we hear the word “apocalypse” we probably think of things like the ads for that new John Cusack movie, where the world is coming to an end through a variety of earthquakes, explosions and floods. And it’s true, when we hear today’s Gospel reading we do hear Jesus speak of wars, earthquakes, and famines. But this kind of disaster movie shtick is not really at the heart of what the word apocalypse means. The Greek word apocalypses is often translated as “revelation,” which is where we get the title for that “colorful” book at the end of our Bible. What the word apocalypse literally means is “a lifting of the veil.” A lifting of the veil. A pulling back of the curtain, to reveal some deeper truth about the world and where it’s going.

And if we think of the Little Apocalypse, the Little Revelation, in that way, then we might see something a little different in Jesus’ words. Jesus speaks of wars and earthquakes and famines, yes, but we know about these already. That part is no revelation. All we need to do is read the newspaper to learn about that; we don’t need a revelation from God to learn about the famines and the wars and the earthquakes. What we want to know is what they mean. Will they ever end? Is there anything beyond them? Or is life just one long tumult of earthquakes and wars and famine?

And Jesus, thanks be to God, gives us an answer. Jesus is, in fact, an answer to the question in his very incarnation, in his very existence on this earth. God made human, made vulnerable, sent to rescue us from a neverending cycle of famine, earthquake, and war, a neverending cycle of death. Jesus is God’s answer.

But we live in the meantime. We still live amid the famine, earthquakes, and war, and that seems odd, if Jesus was sent to end those things.

And so I wonder whether this is why Jesus gives us these words today. I wonder if he anticipates that confusion. I wonder if that is why Jesus tells his disciples the following Little Revelation:

This is only the beginning of the birth pangs.

This – by which Jesus means not the famine, earthquakes, and war, but his own life, death, and resurrection – is only the beginning of the birth pangs, is only the beginning of a much larger process. There is so much more to come. God’s great healing of the entire universe has had its beginning in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, truly. But those events are just that – a beginning.

And in order to remind us that this is only the beginning, and that the end is much, much greater, and definitely much, much greater than any large stones and large buildings, much greater than anything we could accomplish on our own, in order to remind us of this, God gives us a Little Revelation from time to time, a little hint of the end of the story, lest we mistake the present for the end. God gives us a little vision of the world as it could be, as it will be.

Now these visions – like the one in the Book of Daniel – are sometimes full of strange shapes and colors and even, yes, fantastical creatures, but underneath them all is God’s holy dream of a world of compassion and curiosity and creativity and, most of all, love, a world as it could be, a world as it will be. The visions show us where we are going, where God is taking us. They are a little like Sesame Street, actually. The biggest difference between Sesame Street and Shalom Street, though is that no one has to tell us how to get to Shalom, because God’s giving us a lift.

And so what do we do while we ride in the backseat of God’s cosmic cab, as we surf God’s teleological timeline with the rest of creation? Well, we might take a cue from the author of the letter to the Hebrews in our epistle lesson for today. The author proposes that we not only lift the veil but walk right through the curtain to begin living the vision today, just like Sesame Street did 40 years ago. Eugene Peterson’s translation of our reading from Hebrews goes like this:

So, friends, we can now – without hesitation – walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” …So let’s do it – full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. God always keeps God’s word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.

Let’s do it. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out and worshipping together and spurring each other on. Let’s see how inventive we can be.

I know the Sunday School kids are already being inventive. They’re starting a campaign to buy a cow for their brothers and sisters in Kenya, and I think they’re going to tell us more about it next week.

I know Meridee is helping our Social Ministry Committee be inventive and think up new ways to live out our calling as an Advocating Congregation.

I know that several congregations, including our own, are being inventive as we prepare to join with other Seattle churches and synagogues and mosques to share an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, a witness to that future day when all of God’s creation gathers around the eternal feast and gives thanks to one God, Father and Mother of us all. (Eat your heart out, Sesame Street.)

So let’s keep doing it. Let’s keep encouraging love and helping out and worshipping together and spurring each other on. Let’s keep dreaming out loud, let’s keep living the vision in the month of November, the month of All Saints, as the church year nears its end and God gathers us up and walks us right to the cliff of the kingdom and we peer over the edge into a vision of the holy communion of all people under their cosmic creator, a vision, as Daniel imagines it, of a sleeping dust awakened and transformed into a sky of shining stars, a vision that is the very Reign of Christ.

And so let us approach the table with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Amen.

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