Who Gets the Last Word? A sermon on Revelation 22:12-21

Who gets the last word? Well, one answer to that question is that since this is the final sermon in this series on Revelation – I do! Not really.

You’ve probably heard that “Men should always have the last words in an argument with their wife.” Those words are “Yes, Dear.”

And here are some really last words uttered on a death bed:
Actor W.C Fields, when asked why he was reading the Bible said, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

A pastor was visiting an elderly man in the hospital when the man suddenly gasped for air and couldn’t breathe; so he grabbed a pen and paper to write his last words. He handed it to the pastor and died. The pastor took the note, put it into his pocket and ran to get the nurse. A week later at the man’s funeral the pastor is reading from the Bible and remembers the note in his pocket; so he opens it up and reads it to the congregation, it said: “You’re standing on my oxygen tube!”

Those bad jokes were inspired by a couple of verses in the text for today from the final chapter of Revelation. As soon as I began studying this chapter there were two verses that grabbed my attention, not because they inspired me but because they were very challenging.

Here they are, verses 18 and 19: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” John seems to be saying he gets the last word.

Interestingly, at least to me, is the fact that these two verses are omitted when this chapter appears in year C of the Lectionary. When the lectionary omits verses from the middle of a text I always wonder why and have to go look to see what was left out. In this case my guess is that like me, the authors of the lectionary would rather not deal with these difficult verses. But I left them in because these verses point to a central issue that has divided Christians over the years and is especially relevant in our time. These verses have to do with how we choose to interpret Scripture.

Some Christians take this warning to mean we are not to change any part of the Bible because it is the infallible, literal word of God dictated to a human author. Another approach which I subscribe to is that the Bible is a collection of books written over several centuries by different authors in particular times and places who did their best to describe their own experience of the mystery of God.
So, let’s review the history of this particular book. Revelation was written in the late first century during a time of terrible persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. The author, John, did not think he was writing the last chapter of the New Testament, and that’s a critical point. The New Testament as we know it did not exist until 200 or 300 years later when the church reached a consensus that the 27 books now in the New Testament should be included in our Bible.

Why is that important? Because it means that these two verses that say no one should change a word of this “book” are talking about the prophesy in the book of Revelation, not about the entire Bible. John wrote those words as the final word of his prophesy, not as the final words of the Bible.

Does that mean that we have carte blanche to rewrite other books of the Bible? Of course not. My point is simply that God did not stop speaking to us in the first century. The Bible is our primary source of inspiration, but that doesn’t mean it is the only one. Do we really want to limit God’s revelation to biblical authors who believed the earth was flat?

I think not. John Wesley, our Methodist founder recognized in his famous quadrilateral that in addition to the Scriptures we need to draw upon other gifts like Reason, Experience, and Tradition. Even though John closes this prophesy with a period, God’s word to us always ends with a comma because God is forever speaking to those who have ears to hear.

All of that is important because it helps us understand the other mystery in Revelation that is emphasized in this closing chapter. Our text for today begins and ends with the words, “I am coming soon.” Really? That’s like saying the Browns are going to win the Super Bowl “soon.” How do we reconcile “soon” with the fact that it’s been 2000 years since John wrote those words? Some people write off Christianity because the second coming hasn’t happened yet. Others use these words to try and scare people into believing. Neither of those works.

You can’t scare people into faith. Think about a time when you’ve really messed up and made a huge mistake. Do you want judgment or compassion? The fear-based approach says, “I made a mistake, my dad will kill me!” The Gospel of Christ says, “I made a mistake, I need to call my dad.” My understanding is that “I am coming soon” means it is very urgent to be living as if we are in God’s Kingdom now and every day because Christ is trying to break into our lives all the time if we invite him in.

Much of Revelation relies on the fear-based approach to evangelism, but notice what happens here in the last chapter. Right before those dire warnings about not changing the text are these two verses:
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Warning has turned to invitation. Jesus says, “Come to the wedding, come to my party. Everyone who hears, come; everyone who is thirsty, come; ANYONE who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Eternal life is a gift, and gifts come with no strings attached. They are freely given, and that’s good news.

But when, Lord? When are you coming to quench our thirst for justice and righteousness? This verse reminds me of Isaiah saying, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles…” But Isaiah doesn’t say how long we have to wait. We’re tired, Lord. We’re tired of strife and bitterness and divisions. We’re tired of cancer ravaging healthy bodies. We’re tired of making our children go through active shooter drills in pre-school. We’re tired of endless wars and political squabbles that prevent any real work on all the problems facing our nation and world.

How long do we have to wait? What do you mean when you say, “I am coming soon?” Let us know so we can put that date on our calendar and be ready; so we know how long we have to hang on.

Our theme for this sermon series is “Victory in Sight.” But we’re like squirrely kids who can’t wait for Christmas. We don’t want to see victory off in the distance, we want to celebrate and sing the Alma Mater with the band now. We want to hoist the championship trophy and hang the victory banner in the rafters now!

But we have to remember that our time is not God’s time. What was only 6 days of creation in God’s time took billions of years in our time. It may help to be reminded that the original Greek language of the New Testament has two words for time, chronos and Kairos. Chronos is clock time, time that we can measure and count. Chronos is the timer you set to tell you when the cake is ready to come out of the oven. It’s the tardy bell at school or the time clock you punch at work; it’s what keeps trains and planes sort of running on schedule; and tells us how many candles to put on our birthday cake.

It’s baseball playoff season so for sports fans maybe this illustration helps – most sports are played on chronos time -there’s a big clock on the scoreboard that tells everyone exactly how much time is left in the game. But baseball is played on Kairos time, or as Yogi Berra put it, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” That’s good news for a team that’s losing. There’s no game clock and they can keep the game alive as long it takes to win as they don’t make the last out.

But Kairos is God’s time. Galatians 4 says, “In the fullness of time God sent forth his son.” Kairos means when the time is right; it means when God, who knows so much better than we do, says it’s time it is; and we run grave risks if when we think we know better than God what time it is.

So let’s think one last time about the theme for this series: “Victory in Sight.” What does God’s victory look like when it comes to pass? Diana and I recently took two of our grandkids to see the new “Lion King” movie, and I was struck by how dark and violent it was, I guess because it’s more realistic than the original animated version. It got me thinking about how many of the stories we tell our kids and ourselves picture victory of good over evil in a violent way? Simba kills Scar; super heroes rely on violence to win, Hansel and Gretel push the witch into an oven, a lumberjack rescues Little Red Riding Hood by killing the big bad wolf – all those stories define victory in terms of a violent outcome.

Is that the victory people of God have in sight? Earlier chapters of Revelation describe the ultimate battle at Armageddon where God conquers evil once and for all. Too often that vision of victory has been used by Christians as an excuse for not doing justice and mercy here and now in Chronos time. If God is going to take care of things at Armageddon then we don’t have to be bothered. It’s not our problem; so we can relax and enjoy our lives.

But that’s not what victory in sight means. God’s peaceable kingdom is better described by those verses of invitation in Revelation. The invitation is to all, not just to some predetermined few. It is an invitation to a time like the vision in Isaiah where “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.”

We live in a time of great fear. Some of us fear gun violence and some want guns because they are afraid of bad guys. Some of us fear immigrants taking over our rights and others fear what it means to refuse help to those who need refuge. Some of us fear unbearable pain but also fear opioid addiction. We have different fears, all legitimate, but we dare to believe this – faith and trust are the only cure for fear in whatever shape it comes.

Diana and I recently did a major renewal of landscaping around our pond and gardens by moving many tons of rock from where the delivery truck dumped it to where we wanted it. Thanks to a generous neighbor who loaned us his tractor with a front-loader the job was doable; and I got the easy job driving the tractor. In many places Diana stood bravely in front of the tractor right at the edge of the pond so she could direct me on where to drop the stone. One small slip of my foot on the brake and she would have been remembering her baptism in the chilly waters of our pond – and I would have been in the dog house for a very long time.

But she stood there dozens of times, as I marveled at how she trusted me more than I trusted myself. But here’s the other thing I noticed – her trust in me made me more careful because I wanted to be worthy of her trust.

It’s the same with God. When we trust God we become more trustworthy in our human relationships. When we trust that victory ultimately belongs to God and that we have no control over when or how then we no longer need to live in fear or guilt. Our God says, “Come, drink, live!” The invitation to live in the Kingdom of God is always there waiting for our reply. There’s no expiration date.

A God we fear won’t inspire faith – but a God of love will. No words, pictures, or stories can capture the infinite reality of God, but Revelation is one vision that helps us see some of the facets of God’s nature. We are all at different points in our life journeys, and none of us can rewrite our personal history. But we can start a new chapter today with the assurance that victory over our fear, our guilt, over hate; even over death itself is guaranteed because God is all in all, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end.

Genesis tells us that in the beginning all was chaos until God spoke the first word into the chaos. There was also terrible chaos in John’s time when Christians were fed to the lions as entertainment for the Romans. And we certainly have plenty of chaos today. But through it all we know who holds the future, and God’s victory is always in sight.

So, who gets the last word? All week long I thought I knew how this sermon would end, namely that God who spoke the first word gets the last word, in the fullness of time. But I realized yesterday that’s not true.

God’s last word in Revelation is an invitation to come, drink of the river of life and live in God’s new heaven and earth. But an invitation requires a response, an RSVP. So the last word is really up to us, and Revelation even tells us what our response should be—right there in verse 20, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”
Amen

Deja Vu Storm Prayer

Note: I just came across this prayer I wrote two years ago when another monster storm was wreaking devastation. Harvey becomes Dorian, other details change names and locations; but the human condition is Deja vu in every generation–and so is God’s grace. So I’m just going to repost this as is, and you can fill in the blanks.

O Gracious and loving God we pray today for everyone dealing with the damage from hurricane Harvey. Be with those experiencing life-threatening floods of biblical proportions and with all the responders risking their own lives to save those of others. The news cycle will end soon and move on to some other crisis, but the recovery in Texas and Louisiana will continue for years.

So many natural disasters, Lord–wild fires, draughts causing climate refugees, the devastating mudslide in Sierra Leone that killed hundreds. We want to ask why Lord. We want to understand why there seem to be so many such calamities causing unbelievable suffering.

Our doubts and fears cause inner storms that shake the foundations of our faith at times. With the Psalmist and Christ on the cross we wonder if you have forsaken us.

So here and now Lord in the sacredness of this sanctuary we lay our most ardent prayers for everyone who is suffering. We surrender our fears and doubts because we know you are with us. You have walked among us in human form and suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous human misfortune and pain. And in Jesus the living Christ you showed us that evil and suffering will never have the final word.

When the storms of life are threatening to overwhelm us Lord, draw us to the life-saving power of your holy word. Whatever imagery works for us – be it a good shepherd, a mighty fortress, a rock of ages or that still small voice that we hear when we pause long enough to listen. Remind us again, gracious God, that you are our rock and redeemer, you are the one who speaks to the raging storms in nature, or in conflicted relationships, or within our own hearts and says, “peace be still.” Remind us again what ultimate trust and faith looks like in the form of our Lord sleeping in the boat on the stormy Sea of Galilee.

When the storms of life are raging, stand by us Lord. Empower us to face each day of life, each new challenge not because we know the future but because we know you hold the future now as you always have and always will.
We offer our prayers and our lives to you, O God, in the name of Christ Jesus. Amen

Doubt and Faith

“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

The quote above has always been one of my favorites from Frederick Buechner. (It’s from his book, “Wishful Thinking.”) But of late I’m wondering if like most things one can have too much doubt. I know I’m way too old for a mid-life crisis, but the ants in my pants are feeling more like fire ants in recent days.

My preacher mentality means I usually feel that I need to offer a word of hope when I write about the stuff of life, but for today I just need to vent. I’m depressed about the whole state of the world. The fires in the Amazon, senseless gun violence, divisions in the fabric of society that are deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon—it all feels so hopeless to me. When we desperately need to come together to solve these huge problems we just choose up sides and fire salvos across a partisan chasm that is no more real than the imaginary lines we draw on our maps.

So maybe it’s an old age crisis? And I’m not talking about dying. I’m ok with whatever death means. But the crisis for me is about what kind of world are we leaving for our kids and grandkids? I’m not an end of the age, Second Coming guy. In fact I think Christians who are rooting for the Apocalypse and even encouraging it with conflict-producing radical pro-Israel Middle East policies are not only copping out of our stewardship of the earth responsibilities, they are making matters much worse.

When I reflect on my life and what I’ve done to leave the world a better place than I found it, I don’t like the picture I see. There was a time not too long ago when I felt differently. I thought we were making progress on huge social issues like racism, nuclear weapons, and climate change, but no more. Maybe this is just a pendulum swing and a temporary setback. I truly hope so. I know my time is not God’s time, and I do believe that the life force we call God is bigger than this little planet we occupy. On my worst days I wonder if given our human history of evil and destruction of each other and our world that maybe humankind has outlived its usefulness. What if the universe would be better off without us?

That’s not hopeful or “wishful thinking,” to use Buechner’s phrase. But maybe the key to his quote is the part that says doubt “keeps faith awake and moving.” It certainly does keep me awake at night, but does it keep me moving or does too much doubt paralyze me? Only if I surrender to it! Just moving for the sake of moving is exhausting and useless. But if doubt and big existential questions keep me moving deeper and force me to surrender to God instead of to my feeble human fears, then the ants are doing their job.

I feel like the father in Mark 9 who brought his son to Jesus for healing of a life-long affliction with seizures that threated to destroy him. So it is with the problems threatening to destroy our world. Like the father I lay our broken world at Jesus’ feet and say, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” And like the father. at least today, my best response is, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Vita Interruptus

One of my favorite metaphors for ministry is that it’s like being in a tank of piranhas—no one wants much of you, but everyone wants a little piece. Perhaps the best example of that is in Luke 8. There in the space of just 9 verses Jesus is interrupted three times by people who need something from him.

“Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.” (vss. 40-42)

Jesus goes with him, and “As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” (vss. 42-45)
Jesus blesses the woman and commends her faith, and “While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” (vs. 49)

These were all very urgent and legitimate requests for Jesus’ time and special power: a man with a sick and then dying daughter and a woman suffering for 12 years with a hemorrhage. Pastors today have similar emergency requests for pastoral care from parishioners or community members when there is a death, accident, life threatening illness, financial crisis, or any number of things that are perceived as a crisis. And that perception is what matters. Yes the woman in Luke had been bleeding for 12 years and we might think, “Couldn’t she have waited another few hours till after Jesus’ could go heal Jairus’ daughter?” After all, while she delayed Jesus with her crisis the little girl died!

Maybe she didn’t mean to delay Jesus. Luke tells us she believed that if she could just touch his robe she would be healed. But Jesus stops and says, “Who touched me?” He felt power go out from him, and that’s important for pastors and parishioners to notice. Each time we make a genuine connection with someone in need it takes emotional and psychic energy to do so. Too many pastors and church workers fail to make time and space for self-care because there is always someone or something that needs our attention.

In Mark’s Gospel we don’t even get through the first chapter before “the whole city was gathered around the door” where Jesus was because he had healed the sick and cast out demons. (Mark 1:33). And in the very next verse Mark says, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” If Jesus needed spiritual renewal and self-care you can bet the rest of us do too. But the respite is short-lived. Next verse—“And Simon and his companions search for him. When they found him they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”

Most of my ministry was done before the advent of cell phones; so I can’t imagine how much harder it is for pastors and church staff members to get away from it all in our hyper-connected world today. In the good old days one could actually “get away from the phone,” but now we are all not only available 24/7 but we are also constantly in touch with the mind-numbing, depression inducing stream of bad new and injustices around the globe. Everything is “Breaking News!” Never has the need to unplug and get away to a quiet place been more necessary.

And I know it‘s not just a clergy problem. Being able to work from home can be a blessing at times, but that convenience is a two-edged sword that can cut deeply into family time, recreation and vitally important rest and relaxation.

I have learned the hard way retirement doesn’t solve the problem either. Self-care still requires intentional and disciplined attention. For example, I have been meaning to write this post for over a week now and other things keep interrupting. Those things run the gamut from broken-down lawn mower to chronically stopped up toilet, not to mention the eight health related appointments I’ve had in the last two weeks.

I don’t practice this well, but what I’ve learned over the years is that resenting the interruptions does no good whatsoever, in fact it just makes things worse. If instead we can learn to see the interruptions as the stuff of life itself, the very opportunities to be most alive in service to others, what a difference it makes. Look at one more example from Jesus in Mark 6:
“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” Their much-needed R & R is ruined, and what does Jesus do? Does he say, “Oh crap, look at all those people! I can’t take it anymore! Let’s go somewhere else.”

Not at all. Listen to what Mark says next: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” Jesus embraces the interruption because his compassion was stronger than his weariness.

Where does he get that strength and compassion? Read the rest of that story. After he asks the disciples for what little bit of food they have and feeds the multitude with it, this is how the story ends: “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.”

Self-care for our own physical, emotional and spiritual needs is the secret to living abundantly in the reality of Vita Interruptus.

As Tempus Fugits

I started writing this piece on May 29, and the fact that it took me a week to get back to it is exactly what it’s about. Each month when the calendar says we are near the end of another month my sense of urgency/panic about where time goes and how fast the circle of life is spinning comes around again like Haley’s Comet, only much more frequently. Aging certainly changes one’s perspective on time. I remember clearly being impatient with the plodding of the clock when I couldn’t wait to be 16 and able to drive. The summer I was 15 I was only a few months away from that magical age of freedom and responsibility that comes with a driver’s license.

That summer of 1962 was worse because I was one of the youngest in my class at school. My birthday is in October, but way back then one could start kindergarten at age 4 if your 5th birthday came by the end of the calendar year. That age difference didn’t matter for me at age 4 or even 14, but when all my classmates and friends were driving months before I could the age discrepancy seemed like an unbridgeable chasm.

I also had my first serious romance that summer. That was exciting. But the fact that Marcia lived 5 miles out in the country not so much. I was in great physical shape that summer because I rode my one-speed Schwinn out to see her about once a week; but that was the extent of the advantage of my long-distance romance. While my friends were dating and cruising through town on a Friday night I was dependent on my dad to drive me and Marcia to and from the local movie theater.

I do remember one of my very best one-liners from that summer. One night after I had walked her to the door I returned to the car and on the way home my father asked if I had kissed her. When I proudly said “yes” he, perhaps reliving his youth vicariously through me, asked “where.” And without missing a beat I replied, “On the front porch.” I don’t think he ever pried into my love life again!

I took two years of Latin in high school, and one of the few things I remember from that dead language is “Tempus Fugit” which means “time flies.” I know the earth has been rotating at the same speed for millions of years, and each day contains the same 24 hours give or take a few milliseconds. In more poetic form that means “525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year in a life?” according to the lyrics of “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent.”

But no matter what kind of arbitrary numbers we create to mark the passing of time we all know that sometimes tempus does fugit at supersonic speeds and other times it flat out crawls. When a four year-old is waiting out the last few days before Christmas it is not the same time for the child or parents as it is for two lovers away from all other responsibilities luxuriating in the mystery of real intimacy, even though by clock time they are the same.

I used to love amusement park rides that spin at high g-force speeds. There was one called the “Tilt-a-Whirl” and another where the floor dropped away when the ride got up enough speed that centrifugal force plastered the riders to the wall. I don’t remember the name but it was essentially a human centrifuge. I don’t do thrill rides anymore, partly because real life is scary enough, but also because I am feeling like my life is spinning too fast already for me to keep up with it.

Just for fun I took the number above from “Rent” and multiplied it by my age. I didn’t add in extra minutes for leap years, but the number is plenty big enough already. I have lived or at least existed in this life for something over 1,314,000 minutes! I’m sorry I did that calculation. (Note: a friend just checked my math and corrected this number. It’s really 38,106,000!). No wonder my body feels like its warranty has long since expired! But that important question from “Rent” seems more important each day. How do you measure a year in a life or 40 years or 72.5? We humans seem to have a propensity for wanting numerical values on such things.

In Academia there’s a constant tension between quantitative and qualitative research. That distinction shows up currently in the overemphasis on test scores in primary and secondary education and in the priority given to STEM schools (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Those skills are obviously important in our postmodern world where employment and most of life depends on technology. Case in point: the friend who corrected my math above is an engineer. But if the STEM curriculum is overemphasized at the expense of education in the humanities where critical life skills are learned about social sciences, human history, interpersonal skills, the arts, and cross-cultural competencies just to name a few, we do so at our own peril.

Human beings are more than human doings. We are more than complex human computers that can be upgraded solely through a mechanistic and quantitative approach to the relationships between minds, bodies, individuals, societies and eco-systems. We are spiritual beings made for each other, to be in community, and there are no mathematical formulas for how to do that.

The answer “Rent” gives to how to measure a life may be simplistic but is nevertheless true on a fully human and spiritual level. The “Seasons of Love” song concludes as the title suggests by asking “how about love?” and concludes with the refrain “Remember the love, give love, spray love, measure your life in love.”

At 38,000,000 plus minutes and counting I am still trying to more fully and abundantly learn how to “give love, spray love. Measure your life in love.” Sounds a lot like Jesus doesn’t it? The only quantitative thing about Jesus’ teaching is that he summed up the whole Judeo-Christian philosophy in three short phrases: “Love God, love your neighbor and love yourself.”

Mental Meaderings

Sometimes memory is a curse. I’m fast approaching some milestone memories, the kind that end in zero or five. My 55th high school reunion is next month and the 50th anniversary of my ordination is also. Such milestones give me pause to remember the highs and lows of my 70 plus years of life experience.

For example, for some reason I decided to add up how many U.S. Presidents there have been in office during my lifetime. From Truman to Trump adds up to 13 occupants of the White House since I was born. What shocked me about that number is that it means that I have been alive for almost one-third (13/45) of all U.S. Presidents ever. I wish I hadn’t done the math.

One of the most interesting courses I took in seminary back in the Nixon administration was a course called “Theology in the Modern Novel” taught by Professor Don Webb. In that class I began to learn the power of fiction to reveal a truth deeper than fact. That experience was the beginning of my life-long appreciation for the power of narrative to touch people at an emotional level that rational-logical discourse can never reach. I had not realized till I started writing this piece that my whole appreciation and dedication to narrative rhetoric began in that class and shaped my preaching and teaching ever since. Thanks, Don.

Remembering today the work of the author I studied in that class on narrative theology I found this quote that resonates with my own intellectual and theological journey and may explain how I was drawn to his writing. “Having seen that I was not capable of using all my resources in political action, I returned to my literary activity. There lay the battlefield suited to my temperament. I wanted to make my novels the extension of my own father’s struggle for liberty. But gradually, as I kept deepening my responsibility as a writer, the human problem came to overshadow political and social questions. All the political, social, and economic improvements, all the technical progress cannot have any regenerating significance, so long as our inner life remains as it is at present. The more the intelligence unveils and violates the secrets of Nature, the more the danger increases and the heart shrinks.” (As quoted in Nikos Kazantzakis (1968) by Helen Kazantzakis, p. 529)

As an aside let me throw in here an observation about the mystery of memory and how it leads to different and I hope deeper reflection than expected. By the way, that only happens if we take the time to explore our inner journey—and more importantly to learn from the insights we uncover there. It is a rare journey we don’t usually take time for in our hectic 5G world, and that may be an excuse, at least it is for me, because I may not like what I find if I go spelunking down memory lane. As Barbra Streisand sings in “The Way We Were:” Mem’ries, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget.”

This all started because I’ve been feeling my age more than usual this week as a head cold has been added to my “normal” aches and pains. The memory I thought was going to result in a light-hearted blog post about the joys of aging was the lyrics to a song in the musical “Zorba,” called “Grandpapa.” The setting for the song is one where the elderly Zorba is being ridiculed for his age by some younger men in a bar. The banter back and forth between Zorba and his tormentors goes like this:

“A young man with no money is better than an old man with no money. Goodbye, Grandpapa!

Grandpapa? Grandpapa? I’ll show you who’s Grandpapa! Zorba! Zorba! Listen! There are two Zorbas. The inner Zorba is as slender as a reed!

Look at that, look at that, poor old man is weak and fat!

He has thirty-two teeth!

Look at that, there’s no doubt, every tooth is falling out!

He wears a red carnation behind his ear!

Look at that, over there, golden beard but long white hair.

This is the outside Zorba!

Look at that, old and feeble Grandpapa”

Trust me, I know the many joys of being a grandfather; I just wish it could come at an earlier age when I could play ball and shoot hoops and get down on the floor to rough house or play like I used to. But all that aside, that “Grandpapa” song led me down a memory trail that resulted in this much longer rambling about the influence on my life of the creator of Zorba, Nikos Kazantzakis.
I don’t remember how I chose Kazantzakis to focus on for that seminary class, but I’ve always been glad I did. My life and thinking have been and continue to be enriched by that decision. Yes, Kazantzakis died in 1953; so many today would not consider his work “modern,” but remember this class was in 1971, just 18 years after Kazantzakis’ prolific writing stopped. I only scratched the surface of Kazantzakis’ work in that class, reading “Zorba the Greek,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Greek Passion,” and “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises.” The latter is described this way by Simon Friar, the English translator of many of Kazantzakis’ writings, “Saviors of God” occupies a central role in the work of the Greek author….where in a passionate and poetic style, yet in systematic fashion, he set down the philosophy embedded … in everything he has written.”

One of the thoughts that has stayed with me all these years from “Saviors of God” is this one about prayer: “My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the petty reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I encountered, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.”

I have often turned to that passage for inspiration when I am weary of the struggle for social justice, even though I don’t like the military metaphors. Too often human struggles to comprehend the mysteries of existence have led to violent conflict because in order to manage our discomfort with ambiguity religious and political get hardened into concrete symbol systems that must be defended at all costs. But the struggle Kazantzakis is talking about is not for one ideology or belief structure about God and the universe. Kazantzakis says in that same work: “We do not struggle for ourselves, nor for our race, not even for humanity. We do not struggle for Earth, nor for ideas. All these are the precious yet provisional stairs of our ascending God, and they crumble away as soon as he steps upon them in his ascent.

In the smallest lightning flash of our lives, we feel all of God treading upon us, and suddenly we understand: if we all desire it intensely, if we organize all the visible and invisible powers of earth and fling them upward, if we all battle together like fellow combatants eternally vigilant — then the Universe might possibly be saved.

It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”

One of the things that keeps attracting me to such abstract thoughts and images is how my finite little mind is stretched by Kazantzakis’ spiritual language. And like my muscles I often resist such stretching. Even as I write this I kick myself for starting down this path. I am feeling cornered by the impossible notion that I need to somehow wrap this post up with some neat summary of what this all means. But of course I can’t. Any God I could “explain” or capture in human language would be woefully inadequate.

So I will leave you here with one of Kazantzakis’ most mysterious quotes that has tugged at my soul for all these 50 years. This one is also from “Saviors of God.”

“Blessed be all those who hear and rush to free you, lord, and who say: “Only you and I exist.”

Blessed be all those who free you and become united with you, lord, and who say: “You and I are one.

And thrice blessed be those who bear on their shoulders and do not buckle under this great, sublime, and terrifying secret:
That even this one does not exist!”

I can’t explain why that image appeals to me, but I recently found another quote from “Saviors” where Kazantzakis at least hints at what it meant to him:

“Nothing exists! Neither life nor death. I watch mind and matter hunting each other like two nonexistent erotic phantasms — merging, begetting, disappearing — and I say: “This is what I want! I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free. This is what I want. I want nothing more. I have been seeking freedom.”

Most appropriately that passage was used for Kazantzakis’ epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Hide and Seek, Sermon on John 20:19-31

A young boy was out walking with his mother and out of the blue asked, “Mom, how big is God?” The mother thought a moment and noticed a plane flying overhead high in the sky. She pointed to it and asked her son, “How big does that plane look, Ryan?” He said, “It looks really small.” “Remember that when we go out to the store later today,” was the mother’s reply.

I’ve been thinking this week about a question Pastor Mebane asked in her Easter sermon last week. The text for last week’s sermon told how two of the disciples run to the empty tomb and find only Jesus’ grave clothes there. John tells us, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” Mebane’s question was about how long it took between when the disciple “saw” and when he “believed.”

It wasn’t a total transformation at the grave because just a few verses later we are told “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week … the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” They are playing hide and seek with the wrong guy. Even locked doors can’t stop Jesus from finding them.

And Jesus’ command to the disciples and to us is that it’s our turn. Believing in the resurrected Christ is just step one. We need to be sent, to shed our grave clothes and go be the church in the world that is dying for Good News.
That does not diminish the fact that our fears are real. Doubting Thomas usually gets most of the attention in this story. I like Thomas. I identify with his honest doubt. Frederick Beuchner says, “Doubt is the ants in pants of faith.” Honest doubt keeps us alive and growing.

There is no faith without doubt; they are two sides of same coin. Beucnher goes on to say that is not the presence of God that keeps us coming back to church – but the absence, the seeking of true peace in the midst of our broken world.

We don’t know where Thomas was. John just tells us he wasn’t there the first time Jesus appears to the other 10 disciples. Maybe Thomas was the most scared. The disciples are hiding – but Thomas is even afraid to hide in the same place with them. That’s ironic because Thomas earlier in the story where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead is the disciple who says, “Let’s go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus!” What happened? Maybe Thomas realized it’s easier to die with Jesus than to live with or for him? After all, the Jews or other oppressors can only kill the body. Jesus wants our souls too.

But see what happens when we give into fear and hide from God? God breaks down the barriers anyway – even thru locked doors. And when Thomas is not there Jesus doesn’t give up on him; he comes back a week later specifically to address Thomas’ doubt and fear. Faith is not a one-time deal like a polio vaccine. It’s a lifelong journey. One of my favorite biblical characters is the man in Mark’s Gospel who asks Jesus to heal his son of an evil spirit. When Jesus inquires of the man’s faith his honest response is, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Both Thomas and this father remind us that faith and doubt dwell in creative tension in all of us.

But I don’t want to focus on Thomas today. Instead I want us to look carefully at what Jesus says and does in these first post-resurrection encounters with his disciples.

John says the doors are locked in that upper room and Jesus comes right into the room anyway. How he did that is an interesting question we could explore, but that’s not really the point. Jesus coming into that locked room means that God breaks through whatever barriers we try to put up – whatever excuses we offer: I’m too old, too young, too poor, too busy, not good enough, too scared. “Sorry,” Jesus says, “it’s your turn now.”

One of the best Easter sermons I ever heard was by Bishop Dwight Loder, and the phrase I remember from that sermon is this. Bishop Loder said, “Jesus was not resurrected by the church. He was not resurrected for the church. He was resurrected AS the church.” We are the body of Christ, and as such God sends us in mission and service to the least and the lost. We are transformed by the salvation of Christ, but the story doesn’t end there. We are transformed so we can go out and change the world into the Kingdom of God.

How in God’s name can we do that? Exactly – we can only do it if we do it in God’s name and with God’s power. And here’s the good news – that power is ready and available for anyone who is willing to accept it and surrender to it.
Do you want peace in your life? Don’t we all? We long for real peace that only God can give, the peace that passes all human understanding. And the secret to finding that peace is right here in John 20. The first thing Jesus says to the disciples is “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t send them out looking for peace on E-bay or Craig’s list; he imparts it into their hearts and then sends them out. We don’t find or create that kind of peace; it finds us, in the midst of our doubts, not after all our doubts are resolved.

How does that work? Notice what happens right after Jesus says “As God has sent me, so I send you.” “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’” He breathed life into them just as God breathed life into humankind in the creation story. God’s Holy Spirit empowers before it sends us out to serve.

But here’s the catch – that powerful spirit only comes in surrender. True peace only happens when we are vulnerable enough to get up close and personal with God. You have to get very close to let someone breathe on you. The question is do we want Jesus getting that close? Invading our personal space, meddling with our priorities? That’s scary. But, if we let down our barriers and allow Christ into our hearts we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to humbly and obediently do justice and act mercifully – outside our comfort zones in the world God sends us into. To say with all the saints that have gone before us, “Here I am, Lord, send me!”

Now I want to circle back to young Ryan’s question about how big God is. That afternoon Ryan’s mom took him with her to go grocery shopping, but on the way she took a slight detour to drive by the city’s airport. She parked near a fence where the planes on the tarmac were visible and said to Ryan, “Do you remember how small that plane looked when we saw it today way up in the sky? Ryan nodded. “And how big do these planes on the ground look?” “They’re really big!” her son replied. And Ryan’s mom said, “That’s how God is. The closer we are to God, the bigger God is.”

Peace comes only when we get close enough to Jesus that he can breathe on us. I’m not sure I want Jesus or anyone to get that close. We have to really trust someone to let them invade our personal space. If we let Jesus get that close we might have a have heartwarming experience like John Wesley. We might get called out of our comfort zone to put our faith into action!

I don’t know what Jesus is calling you to do. That’s between you and God, but I do know that we will only find the peace and power to fulfill our calling if we let the risen Christ get close enough to breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into us.

Benediction – God is big enough to help our unbelief if we allow God to get close enough. Jesus finds us when we foolishly try to play hide and seek, and he says, “You’re it. I send you out, but only after I breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into your hearts.” Go in Peace. Amen