Sermon: “Future Tense”

Table of Content

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 17, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Genesis and Philippians.


I'd like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit this morning, and to you for welcoming me again.

I want to continue the theme of journey that he started last week and so keeping with the season of Lent. Let's not lose momentum.

In today's first lesson, the journey is both literal movement and spiritual development, even if the direct verbal communication with God and the animal sacrifice makes it seem very strange and very remote. Literal movement in the sense that Abram and his family were migrants. Figurative, in the sense that his relationship with God was tested and changed over time. That should feel familiar and very close to many, if not all of us.

In the second lesson, the apostle Paul writes to a young church about overcoming evil, and the effects of evil, though imitating him; this leads to a reward which he expresses in both cosmic and personal terms.

So we have two interesting lessons to consider this morning.

First, I'll talk about how we should interpret scripture. Next, I'll talk about the themes that these two lessons present us. Lastly, I'll talk about what these themes have to do with us today and our lives in general.

I want to be as plain and straightforward as possible, because whenever we deal with a text as complicated and rich in meaning as the one from Genesis, difficulty is bound to follow. It is distant in time and culture; we have to go deep in order to find those human bonds — us to him — and those bonds that we share with God.

Now, about interpretation. Some basic principles. I think it goes without saying that we should know something about the passages that surround the ones we read, for context. We should know something about the writer (if we can) and something about the subjects of the passage. We should know something of the political context, geography and language. But it's also important not to get so hung up on the facts around a reading that we miss the meaning, which isn't always, or even often the literal reading.

We meet Abram, his wife Sarai and her handmaid Hagar in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Later, they would take on the more familiar names of Abraham and Sarah, but that's for another sermon.

Abraham is also the common root to the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam because at least these three religions have analogous relationships with the same God, with a personal relationship with the figure of Abraham, and connected in analogous ways in prayer, congregational life and revealed scripture.

Genesis is the first of five books collectively known in Jewish worship as the Torah, and so is foundational both in Jewish religious life and Christian religious life. Culturally, even if you don't know anything else about the Torah, you will have probably heard about the creation of the world ("In the beginning"), Noah and his ark and perhaps the tower of Babel. Around Easter and Passover, you can watch that Technicolor interpretation of the Exodus, The Ten Commandments, on your televisions. But that story comes much later than the one about Abraham and Sarah.

Seen as a work of literature, the Torah is a library of myths, histories, stories, genealogies and censuses that speak of God's relationship with the world and particularly with a group of people which became the nation Israel. But as a work of faith, its depths cannot be exhausted in a lifetime. And that doesn't even include the other works of history, wisdom, poetry, songs and prophecies that make up the rest of the Hebrew Bible, which we commonly call the Old Testament. Collectively, these works were gathered, written and edited over centuries, millennia ago. On the one hand, it's not a simple handbook with answers that correspond to our daily lives on a one-to-one basis. On the other, it's not a work of magic, no matter what others say. It is meant to be read and understood. Again, it's about the relationship between God and human beings, written in a human language if at times in an obscure way. The Bible is for human beings, not angel, and understanding takes work.

But that's more than getting a good translation or an academic commentary. What we need is an interpretive system.

Reading the Bible as a faithful person asking, "where is God in that moment?" "how did the people respond?" "Where might I find myself in a similar situation?" "How can I adapt my life in a similar way." You may come up with new and different questions. Interpretive systems matter. Just as people see the world in different ways, people see the Bible and its role in different ways.

I'm guessing that some of you have heard the news about the United Methodist Church. A few weeks ago, in a special session of their General Conference, the global body of the United Methodist Church, passed a conservative reading and harsher implementation of their code of conduct, the Book of Discipline. This means that GLBT persons who have have been ordained, including at least one bishop, risk expulsion, while their ministers who perform weddings for same sex couples face a year's suspension without pay. The winning, traditionalist side declared their loyalty to scripture, implying that the opposition was only following the whims of culture and politics. Of course, conveniently not applying their same standard to divorce.

So when the liberal wing says they're being faithful to scripture, it's not a slogan or an evasion, but rather they're using an interesting model and through it have seen God's action in the world move in the direction of more inclusion. We can better identify truth from the general thrust of scripture, and not from counting this number of passages which suggest one thing as opposed to that number of passages that suggest another. We're looking for bigger arcs in the story. That's why I believe that God will save all, even though there are verses that talk about wrath and punishment. These are rocks and eddies in a river of God's lovingkindess and compassion.

So when I hear that God accounted God's faith as righteousness, I hear that in the wider context that God's blessing is not earned by deeds; that we are not defined by our usefulness; and that dedication is a source of strength, and its own reward. It encourages me to be more faithful.

One thing that stands out for me is that he seems more like a historical person than the people before him. Before the section of Genesis about Abram, we had a genealogy that reaches back nine generations to story of the tower of Babel. Before that we had Noah and his ark, and of course all the way back to Adam and Eve. These seem more like mythological understandings of how certain realities of the world came to be. Perhaps pre-existing stories — certainly with Noah — with a special spin to make them fit with these people's understanding of how God related to them.

But Abram was different; he seems more like a real person with a past; he was from Ur of the Chaldees, probably a site now in southern Iraq, along the River Euphrates, settled about twenty-nine centuries ago.

He had his own ideas and ways and volition. Abram was faithful, but not God's puppet. He made some big mistakes and you can wince at his action and reasons. Abram is faithful, but flawed and that makes him believable.

What about his life can we appreciate for ourselves?

To me, one thing about the Abram/Abraham story stands out as obvious, but is so plain that we're bound to miss. Something so basic that we're prone to take it for granted, but shouldn't.

Abram is conscious of his future. The future is where we human beings plot out our lives, make plans for change, plans for redemption, plans for future generations. The eternal God needs no future. God is eternal: the past and present and future are the same; with all possibilities. So God comes to us as a god of history — within time, and working though history — for we mortal people cannot leap into eternity ourselves.

And through the promises God made to Abram, he had a future in three senses.

  • A personal future that pulled him out of an ordinary life and threw him into an unknown world;
  • a family future, where he had children with Hagar and Sarai
  • a human future, where his acts wrap you and me with this blessing

As Universalists, we naturally care about the human future. God promised Abram that through his descendants all the world would be blessed, and our forebears used that as evidence of the final harmony of all souls with God.

But our own personal and family stories are also important. The future is important, but nothing is more fragile and tentative. In it, all things are possible, which can either be a relief or a threat. A relief if the present isn't so good: the future might be better. Or it could be worse, and so frightening and threatening. Think about the 2020 elections and whether they bring promise or dread.

The hope of the future is not the same as watching one day pass into the next. My grandmother said "don't wish your life away" but some people today are doing just that. The future — the active, changing, living future — can be so much of a threat that the past can look better in comparison. And so much of a threat that it might be more appealing to live perpetually in the past.

Timothy Snyder, writing in The Road to Unfreedom and elsewhere has defined a double process where our ideas of the past, present and future can be manipulated to shut down democratic norms and create perpetual authoritarian states. Russian leadership being the force behind the manipulation in the United States and the United Kingdom, following the success they had at home. Snyder's point is that Russia seems better comparatively if the US, the UK and other western powers and institutions, like the European Union and NATO, are weakened.

He writes at length about "the politics of eternity" — the situation following the end of the Cold War — where (to make the matter brief of the sake of this sermon) the United States remained the sole superpower and assumption that the hard crises of the past were over. This is sometimes also called "the end of history." Which is news to me, and perhaps to you, having lived through it. But lacking obvious alternative futures, it's easy enough for the powers that be to focus our attention on the past. There can be no change and thus no future; just old victories and old grudges and no progress.

Little wonder that the proponents of Brexit use Word War Two imagery, as if the UK were still at war with Germany, and that there's still an Empire with which to do business. It's a way to escape from the future and recall a rose-colored version of the nation overcoming an existential threat. The President does the same thing; when exactly was America great? Since he says "again" it has to be in the past. Snyder points out that the President's "again" like more like the 1930s than anything else. And for the racist, terroristic murders in Christchurch, the message: turn back the clock to when people knew their place, silent, elsewhere or nowhere.

We cannot live like that and need not. We, too can have a future; must have a future.

St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, offers a way to be brave for our own futures. That is, to be set apart from those whose "god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things." In other words, living for themselves, turned inwards, and unattuned to what life with God is like.

The faithful, on writes:

He [that is, Jesus Christ] will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

This is a promise of life with God. We must choose who we live for: the one who cares for us, or the many who care only what they can get from us.

The "body of humiliation" Paul talks about is one that diminishes itself by only caring for its own needs. This is the opposite of humility, which is a gift we can give to others by being present but not dominating. It's certainly not the same thing as loving the world and those who live in it. If we care about what we have so much that we can't get over ourselves, can't look past ourselves, then we will not have that same kind of integration that Jesus had.

And if we cannot care, we cannot hope and if we do not hope, there will be no future.

Because the approach I suggested towards scripture applies equally well when interpreting our own lives: not to focus on particular episodes of failure; not to let them veto the good that you do or attempt; and not to draw your focus away from examining your whole lives, and rejoicing in who you are. You are set on heavenly things, and those are first seen here among the living.

So love, care, think, use good judgment. Be not afraid. Extend kindness and understanding. Pray energetically. Live within the deep story that God has set among us; that story will lead you far.

May the eternal God bless our lives and bless our homes. And may God continue to bless the peoples of the earth, to every corner, and until the close of days. Amen.

 

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