Monday, April 09, 2007

An Easter Sermon: Life in the Mean Time

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth…be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating.

In the life of ancient Israel there were people who kept the dream alive. They were the prophets. We heard from one of them this morning, Isaiah. People like Isaiah were prophets not because they could predict the future but because they were called by God to announce it. They were folks called by God to stand in the human present and speak about the divine future.

One of the most important proclamations of the Bible from beginning to end is that our human present is not all that there is. There is a future that belongs to God. It belongs to God just like the beginning belonged to God—In the beginning God…are the first words of the Bible. In the end God… are its last words.

The problem with being human is that we live in between the beginning that is God’s and the end that is God’s. We live “in the meantime,” and the time can, truth to tell, be pretty mean.

I do have to say, “Life is good.” Each one of us has much for which to be thankful, and I do not want to downplay that in the least. But there is other truth that must be spoken.

That truth is about the meantime that is the time that is mean.

The time is “mean” in our church, fighting about who is loving whom, with the constant drumbeat of wars and rumors of wars—enough to drive many of us to consider Buddhism as a reasonable alternative.

The time is “mean” in our city, for which we need no other evidence than the two young people murdered in 2006 and 2007 related to this congregation. Rodnell Hartzog and Joshua Lee were victims of the mean time.

The time is mean in our country when disagreement with those in power leads to the now predictable questioning of one’s patriotism, when countless thousands have died, including 3,271 of our own brave young people, as the result of an orchestrated lie. And 24,314 soldiers wounded, the forgotten ones, not only by us but by the very government they were defending.[1]

The time is mean when only 40% of the kids in our city schools graduate and although most of us are aware of this horrific number, no one is rioting on the streets because they are outraged by it.

The time is mean in our personal lives when despair and hopelessness, cynicism and greed, disease and death seem to rule our lives, including my own. The death of my cousin Jeff at 43 a couple weeks ago was a death in the mean time. So was the death of our friends Rudy McClenney and Dick Comegys and Jean Smith and Margaret Marcus in the last year. And I know of your personal tragedies and trials, too many to number.

Into the mean time of ancient Israel’s life, prophets like Isaiah were called to speak a different word, a word beyond the mean present to a different future. And whether or not that different future could be accepted as really possible, the primary purpose of its announcement was to say, “Do not absolutize the present! Do not freeze in this moment! Do not think this is all there is!”

The resurrection of Jesus announces this same message to us. It was and is a breaking into our mean time by the future that belongs to God where the rules are different and the purposes of God—life and love, faith and hope—are no longer thwarted, where weeping and distress no longer rule the day, and where children, as Isaiah says, are not born for calamity.

But is this all just a dream? Is it indeed so much of a dream that its very impossibility actually makes it a nightmare? Are the prophets—Jesus included—just dreamers whose dreams of new heavens and a new earth only mock the ones we are stuck with? Are we just stuck here in the mean time? Is there a way to get ourselves unstuck?

There is, but I can pretty much guarantee we will not like the answer. Few people ever have. I don’t most of the time.

The prophets of ancient Israel were not popular or honored people. Jesus got himself killed because he would not shut up. But followers of Jesus have always said that it is in his very death that we find this answer, and it is an answer on the same trajectory of the prophets before him.

The answer is, as Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann says, serious disarmament.[2] This answer is only implied in the dream from Isaiah 65—where do we think the sound of weeping and cries of distress come from? It is only made explicit in terms of our animal friends, who will no longer in this dreamed of world have to kill one another for food—the dog and cats in our household have yet, however, to hear this good news. But it is explicit in other versions of this dream. The prophet Micah’s version is the best known:

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.[3]

For the dream to be real we must be willing to dismantle our weapons. That includes, yes, our real weapons of killing or even, as we like to think, defense, but, probably more importantly, it includes those other things that keep us living in the mean time. Primarily today I am thinking about these dismantlings:

We must dismantle our weapons of cynicism that assumes the worst from everyone, especially those that are different from us.

We must dismantle our weapons of anxiety and fear that label others as threats until they are proven to be friends, and that seek to provide our own security no matter what the cost to the dignity, much less the livelihood, of others.

We must dismantle our aggression, the root of the violence that is epidemic among us, the aggression that believes that my success depends upon your defeat.

And, perhaps most odd sounding to us, and really terrifying if we are honest, we must dismantle our expectations for more, for luxurious and leisurely living. Such is not the vision of Isaiah’s dream, as it was never the vision of Jesus’ dream. Look at Isaiah’s dream closely—we are promised in the dream only life itself, a home, and food enough. That’s it, but for most of us and our appetites, that is not enough.

The weapons that most of us must beat into plowshares to have any chance at Isaiah’s or Jesus’ dream are just these things: cynicism, anxiety, aggression, and greed. These are the things that keep us from the dream, that keep us in “the meantime,” the times that are mean.

What we are being invited into on this Easter Day, by Jesus who shared our mean time and was himself destroyed by it, but now lives wholly within the dream of God, is to make choices that at least begin to take the “mean” out of the time of our lives. We do not have to wait until the next life to experience the dream of God—that is not the message of the resurrection.

We are created by God free women and men, with our own dignity in our own hands. We have the capacity to choose to live life as if the dream were real. As Brueggemann puts it,

We could be children of war and resentment and fear and anxiety and aggressiveness. We need not, however, live that way. There is another way that God intends among us…[4]

Can we name that way this morning?

It is the way of trust that the world has been made so that there is enough for everyone, and so we can beat our swords of competition into plowshares of generosity.

It is the way of peace that rejects life as just a game of “Survivor” writ large, and so we can beat our spears of aggressiveness into pruning hooks of cooperation.

It is the way of faith in a God who loves us in spite of everything, even our own inevitable death, and so that we can beat our swords of fear into plowshares of hope.

It is the way of grace in a world that values control, and so that we can beat the spears of our rules about who is in and who is out into pruning hooks of hospitality.

The good news of this day is that all the ways we think the world works in this mean time: aggression and greed and despair and cynicism and death have been ultimately defeated by the God of Jesus Christ, and we, ourselves, have been given a share of his spirit so that we too may be dreamers of impossible dreams, and, more importantly, doers of impossible things.

The story we carry from this place today is simple. It goes like this: God, who owns the beginning and who owns the end, has shared our in between, our meantime, and found it just as mean as we do. It ate him, literally, alive. But the dream did not die with him, nor must it die with us. And we must not only wait for this dream, we must, like the prophets before us, announce it and live in it, no matter what the cost. Not only our future, but our present, depends on our doing so.

So announce it church:

We’re not living in the meantime, the time that is mean—we’re already living in the future that belongs to God. Death is the last enemy—our brother Paul is right—but it has already been beaten.

Whether it looks like it or not, Christ is Risen and so, my sisters and brothers are you and I. There is no better news than that in this mean time.

[1] Deaths are as of April 6, 2007; wounded as of February 3, 2007, the last date for which the Pentagon has released figures.
[2] Inscribing the Text: Prayers and Sermons of Walter Brueggemann (Augsburg Fortress, 2004), p. 212. Many of the ideas that follow were inspired by the sermon from which this phrase comes, “A Resurrection Option,” using Micah 4:1-5 as the text.
[3] Micah 4:3.
[4] Ibid., p. 214.

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