Asbury First United
Text: Isaiah 11: 1-10
1. The Basis of Life
A particularly happy enjoyment of preaching here in Rochester has come with the regular greeting offered by one of our fine physicians. He invariably comes through the line to say: "How is your protoplasm, Dr. Hill?" His greeting stands out as one of the most memorable in my ministry, and also one of the few regular moments when the two cultures of science and theology, truth and transcendence are jovially intertwined. For a moment, the despair in C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures is dissipated.
From general science class, in the awkwardness of adolescence, you recall, I know, that protoplasm is the chemical basis of life. All plants and animals have protoplasm. Even preachers, an uncertain species to be sure, have protoplasm (hence my medical friend's inclusive, magnanimous greeting). Cells are protoplasm and membrane. Protoplasm is nucleus and membrane, laden with protein and a few other things. Chemists can analyze protoplasm but they do not know why it lives. The same elements that are found in protein are found in non-living things too. But protoplasm lives, and breathes, and reproduces. Protoplasm is the physical basis of life.
Now I have a similar greeting for you. I raise with you the primary question for faith, and do so with reference, not to the chemical but to the spiritual basis of life. "How is your eschatology, Asbury First?" What is your hope? What is your dream? Toward what are you moving, with every step, day, breath, production, and reproduction? What is your last word, your eschatos logos? It is truly the most important question of this Christmas, after this autumn, as you move on to complete your life. Do not leave this sanctuary, I implore you, without making a further decision about your dream, today. Some say, "where there is life there is hope". I say: "Where there is hope there is life." Some say, "you see things that are and ask why?" I dream of things that never were and ask, "why not?"
2. The Far Horizon
One current popular perspective upon the terrorism of September, which hurled innocent civilians 100 stories to their death on the concrete of lower Manhattan, some of them flapping their arms in gruesome attempts, as they fell, to fly out of the clutch of this hideous, sinful, insult to humanity, is that the treachery of these murderous men should not be understand in religious terms, nor analyzed in theological categories, nor approached in a spiritual sense.
In my view, only a religious, theological, spiritual and, finally, eschatological perspective upon this mutilation of meaning can bring anything like light, salt, healing, and truth. As Elie Wiesel said, after he decided to speak and write about Auschwitz, "in each of these deaths, a little part of us dies too."
To begin, we are people awash in anger.
We did not do this. The young mothers of New Jersey and Rockaway Beach, who were incinerated in the World Trade Centers did not cause their own horrific murders. The young fathers, whose daughters were attending their first day of kindergarten, did not die due to some fault of their own, or some fault of their nation, or some fault of their race. Nor did we, in this sanctuary or in others across the land, somehow cause this monstrosity to occur. We are guilty of much, and culpable of much sin (I refer you to the several sermons of autumn, based on the prophets and delivered from this pulpit). But not of this.
This was done to us, skillfully, imaginatively, willfully, with malice of forethought, and with a clear eye as to the potential ongoing consequence of the action. It was done with a clear desire to take innocent life, and much innocent life, thousands of lives and more. It was done with a clear longing to provoke waves of anger, fear, bitterness and resentment, across a largely apolitical land. It was done with the hope that it would provoke, as it has, large scale military response, to further harm and hamper our already testy relations with Islamic nations. It was done with the fervent prayer that all the world would see these sights televised, as has happened. It was done with intention to mark indelibly in the memories of American children, the sights and sounds and smells of frightful, unexpected death. Whatever sin we are, as a people, to confess, and whatever guilt we are, as a nation, to bear, none of it, none of it, deserved the crucifixion of 3000 innocent human beings on September 11, 2001.
So, of course, we are angry, and angry beyond the capacity of language fully to convey the mood. Can we at least name our condition? For if so, we may be able to move forward mastering, not mastered by, our anger.
Our Scripture admonishes us "not to let the sun go down on our anger". Our tradition cautions us about seven deadly sins, of which anger is one. Our experience shows us that anger, often expressed in hatred, is always misdirected to some degree. It is more than kicking the dog after a bad day, or disrupting the school board after a bad year. Anger seizes us and controls us, if we are not careful. We begin to look for and to use scapegoats, if we are not careful.
We would not be human with no anger or resentment to confess. It is our condition. In the mean time, we need to take stock of our own stuff, too.
Maybe a somewhat lighter hearted illustration will help. A few weeks ago, two nameless friends asked after the first service whether I was "grumpy". They asked because during the children's moment I had told one of the children that I needed back a book I had shown her and others. "Give me that back, I need it for 11:00" is how I was quoted as speaking. So, these two, whose names I cannot divulge, did ask if I was "grumpy". I responded to them (I can give their initials if pressed), as I know you would have, too. I said: "NO I AM NOT GRUMPY!"
Looking back, though, after a couple of weeks, I must admit that their accusation (ok, their initials are Margie and Susan), while not exactly accurate or true (because of course I am of an unflinchingly irenic disposition, at all times), did have, shall we say, some small basis in fact.
Some of our December dyspepsia is just advent. You remember my advent carol, sung to a familiar tune:
Have an anxious, edgy, advent
It's the worst time of the year
The cold wind blows, with heavy snows
The nights are laced with fear
O by golly have an anxious, edgy advent, this year!
But most of our anger is a very human response to terror, hijacking, anthrax, and war. Anger is a great challenge for religion.
4. A Challenge to Islam
These assassinations were executed by religiously trained men. I was born in Syracuse, and I know the beautiful book of the Syracusan Huston Smith (the little elfin saint stood next to me for my deacon's interview), The Religions of Man, and I know the glories of Islam, and I lived for a decade five doors from a Mosque, and I am glad for our President's careful tolerance of religious difference which I also want to salute, and I can enjoy and affirm much about our sister religions. But the brand of Islam from 9/11 is about domination. Jesus is about empowerment. "You've got to be carefully taught to hate, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, you have to be carefully taught." The 9/11 religion, however odd a form of Islam it may be, makes great space for domination. Domination of women by men. Domination of younger by older. Domination of poor by rich. Domination of man by God. You may assert, rightly, that Christianity has done the same. But there is a world of difference.
This religion is the result of a certain theology, a picture of God. In this Islam God is high not low, heavenly not earthly, powerful not weak, majestic not rude, orderly not human, dominant not servile. Reverence for this God produces the Alhambra but not Santa Teresa of Avila in her mud cart, the Taj Mahal but not Mother Teresa with her untouchables, disciplined prayer but not with women and men together. In short, this kind of Islam is God without Jesus. That is fair enough. But for some, on this view, the end justifies all means. Period. There is one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. Before we simply turn over and allow all our great grandchildren to be sprung from the loins of Middle Eastern kings, let us reflect a moment. We take much for granted about Christmas, and the advent of the birth of Jesus. This year let us be crystal clear. It is the manger that makes 9/11 such a grotesquerie. It is the tiny frail God child of the manger, Emmanuel, who writes the "F" at the top of the term paper from 9/11. It is theology, and within it the Christology of advent alone, that can account 9/11 as the antithesis of a Kodak moment.
5. But What of God's Preferential Option for the Poor?
One (perhaps a seminarian) will object: Did not these pirates speak and act for the wretched of the earth? Were they not some blend of Robin Hood, Cesar Chavez and Jane Fonda?
No, they acted religiously, and out of a theological perspective, depending upon a certain spiritual sense. This is the point about domination. Nice guys finish last. He who laughs last wins. Here is the truly radical belief of Christians at Christmas in what Barth famously termed "The Humanity of God".
As Thomas Friedman wrote last week, "Although there is a deep moral impulse in Islam for justice, charity and compassion, Islam has not developed a dominant religious philosophy that allows equal recognition of alternative faith communities. Bin Laden reflects the most extreme version of that exclusivity...An internal struggle within Islam to re-examine its texts and articulate a path for how one can accept pluralism and modernity and still be a passionate, devout Muslim has not surface in any serious way. One hopes (my emphasis) that now that the world spotlight has been put on the issue, mainstream Muslims too will realize that their future in this integrated, globalized world depends on their ability to reinterpret their past." But I would add that this reinterpretation would require a new eschatology, a new hope, not a hope for earthly pleasure in a heavenly paradise, but the hope of Christmas, the hope of heaven on earth, thy kingdom come on earth.
But, you further suggest, aren't the inequalities of wealth and power, around the world, the source of this action?
Come on. Compare the Muslim murderers of 9/11 to the poor folks of Honduras whom you met on 10/11. Of the two, the Tegucigalpans have the greater complaint. These particular Moslems were wealthy, healthy, little demi-gods bestriding the American scene with freedom, unrestricted travel, wallets bulging with cash, luxury to stay in hotels and rent cars and buy plane tickets. There is an easily identified spirituality at work in this group. It has cousins in any ideologically laden philosophy of religion, including those most prevalent in Christianity on the far left and far right. Very simply, it is the spirituality of domination and ideology.
6. Eschatology 101
Which brings us straight to eschatology. Eschatology is the term in our tradition used to refer to the last things, to the ultimate horizons, to death, judgment, heaven and hell. Advent, for centuries, was the four Sunday period during which sermons were given on the four horsefolk of eschatology-death, judgment, heaven and hell. Coming toward the manger, the ancient church scoured its life with the scalding and smarting tonic water of eschatology. Dust you are and to dust you return. He shall separate the sheep from the goats. Depart from me you evildoers - I never knew you. Death, judgment, hell. And...Thy kingdom come...on earth as it is in heaven. Oddly, and with no apparent point of interest expressed from the slavering news media, it is this liturgical tradition, advent teaching upon eschatology, which explains the autumn horror.
The murderers of 9/11 lived with a certain hope. There is no life apart from hope, of some kind. They had theirs, and you have yours, and the two are as different as a fish and a bicycle. They had a religious, theological, and spiritual eschatology. They had a dream. More than anything else, we are identified, named, defined by our dreams.
As I understand it, they dreamed of death and instant translation to a paradise of sensual wonders. Beautiful women would minister to their every need. Their heroic deeds in the flesh would be rewarded with sumptuous feasts and eternal honors. The brutal sacrifice of life, theirs and others, would be a passkey into heavenly bliss. Their eschatological dream, as they murdered thousands on 9/11, was not for heaven on earth, but for some earthly delight in heaven. They looked forward to a kind of Valhalla according to Hugh Hefner.
They dreamed of destruction on earth as a means of attaining pleasure in heaven. Friends, this is a well known and well worn form of eschatology. Read the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Paraphrase of Shem. We find shadows of it even in the New Testament, both on the apocalyptic and on the gnostic fringes. Read through the Revelation to St. John. To some degree, both are related to ancient Zoroastrian, Persian dualisms, which viewed the created order with pessimism and disdain. Earth is simply a forecourt, at best of heaven and at worst of hell. Even my beloved Paul of Tarsus sometimes slips into this mode, though it is contrary to his own primary teaching: "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain...If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me...Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell...I am hard pressed between the two...My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better...But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account." (Phil. 1:21) Of course we share Paul's trust in heaven, but not his prison gloom despond in which he forgets the main point which he himself more regularly makes: "ONE LIFE AT A TIME!!!"
Look what happens when the rudimentary Christian teaching on eschatology is replaced by a pre and post Christian vertical eschatology, which takes no thought for earth. Life becomes very cheap, very fast. This fundamentalist eschatology (I assume not the norm for Islam) has counterparts in some forms of Christianity too. One has only to think of Jim Jones, and cyanide in Kool-Aid in 1978. Or of the neo-gnostics from Los Angeles who all took their own lives two years ago.
7. On Earth as it is in Heaven
As our doctor greets me on Sunday, "How is your protoplasm Dr. Hill?!!".
Today I ask you, "How is your eschatology?"
Let us, quietly, remember our baptism. In faith, though, we affirm our basic allegiance to God Almighty who gives us life, to Jesus Christ who calls us disciples, to the Holy Spirit who gathers the church. We worship God first, and love country second. We honor the Lord Jesus first, and our own land second. Our mission as a church is first to develop disciples, with citizenship and many other things second.
What is your dream? What is your hope? What is your picture of heaven? Assuming that you live every day as if it were your last, which it may be, what is your final desire? If it is not that of the suicide hijackers, and I trust it is not, then what exactly is it? We need to be able to say. 1 Peter 3: "be ready to give an account of your hope."
I remember Bishop Hapgood staring down a group of dreamy World Council youth and saying, "Yes, you have your dreams, but remember that there are in this world people who dream of forced labor camps, and the domination of the many by the few."
Our hope is affirmed every Sunday, from the time of our youth. Our eschatology could not be clearer. Our dream - simple but not easy. You heard the children acclaim it earlier..."on earth as it is in heaven."
Whatever else we must do and say in the aftermath of this autumn, let it be done and said, with the dream that Jesus gave us, with the hope that Jesus taught us, with the desire that Jesus shared with us- thy kingdom come...on earth, as it is in heaven.
In other words, your eschatology is the exact opposite, the converse of 9/11. You cannot take earthly life expecting some heavenly reward, because the expected landing place of heaven is precisely in the midst of earthly life. You cannot wantonly take human life expecting some heavenly honor, because human life is precisely the target of the impending reign of God. You cannot somehow trade a few measly earthly bodies for an expected heavenly glory, because you pray in the opposite direction: thy will be done ON EARTH.
On earth as it is in HEAVEN!
On EARTH as it is in heaven!
On earth AS IT IS in heaven!
We live one life at a time in this religion, this theology, this spirituality, this eschatology. We live on earth, hoping on earth to experience the reign of God as it is in heaven. The point of life is earth, and the point of earth is heaven on earth, and the Lord of earth and heaven came from heaven to earth to make of earth a form of heaven: you have nothing to do but saves souls, spend and be spent in the work.
8. Isaiah Once Foretold It
We long for the fulfillment of a multi-lingual dream. A Spaniard would say, "Dime como suenas, y te dire quien eres" (Tell me how you dream and I will tell you who you are)
A 16th century Spaniard did say:
Que es la vida
Que es the la vida
Y el major bien es pequeno
Porque toda la vida es sueno
Y los suenos, suenos son
And a modern Spaniard said, "Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, it is the frost." We can endure and survive the night of uncertainty. It is the frost of fear that kills.
In the 8th century before Christ, there arose a great prophet in Judah. Isaiah heard, and spoke, the word of God. Isaiah insisted that the maintenance of justice is the chief obligation of the people of God. Isaiah foresaw unmitigated, ongoing difficulty for his people. Isaiah believed that the new obedience of God's people would come only after the experience of radical purgation - a sappling from a burnt out stump. Isaiah held out a high hope, connected with a future King, a hope of heaven on earth, where contradiction is swallowed in kindness, where difference is drowned in dignity, where violence is vanquished, where the innocent survive, where children lead, where the covering of the earth itself is green with God.
Today, again or at last, you will choose: is this your hope, on earth as it is in heaven? How is your eschatology, Asbury First?
The wolf shall live with the lamb
The leopard shall lie down with the kid
The calf and the lion and the fatling together
And a little child shall lead them
The cow and the bear will graze
Their young shall lie down together
The lion shall eat straw like the ox
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp
And the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.