Deuterononmy 10:8-18 and Acts 3:12-19
Our outdoor services have become popular. People ask when we’re going to have the next one. One of the kids asked me a few weeks ago, “Couldn’t we worship outside all summer?”!
I like it when we are outside too. I particularly like when we sing hymns outdoors. And I always find it curious when how things we say routinely in the sanctuary take on a different tone or even meaning when we same them “out in the world.”
Though the set up and clean up, creating and breaking down the seating for a congregation is more work. And I fret about the sound. We don’t really have a sound system to use out here… But that makes me realize that Jesus’ whole ministry, mostly teaching crowds out of doors, was done without amplification. Ok, he didn’t need to complete with auto noise, the Duck Bus, ambulances screeching by, and the # 57 banging and rattling down 4th street.
But if Jesus spent 3 years, his whole ministry without a microphone, I can handle it 3 times a year. Or even when the handheld decides of its own accord to take a sabbath. But when that happens, we can’t just do things as usual. We all need to make accommodations.
Outdoor worship also reminds us: there are other ways to conduct our worship. We can worship without any of our usual outward trappings. Today, outside, we have orders of worship; we brought out the hymnals and the bibles.
But on the two Sundays last winter that were Christmas and New Year’s Day, we worshipped in the Sanctuary without worship bulletins. And it was still worship!
Outdoor worship, particularly in the newness of life that is Spring, also brings our minds to wonder of creation. Someone asked me this morning, “Are we going to take the candles outside?” I laughed, and said, “Why, when we have the sun?”
Today, all the wonder of the world around us calls to give thanks for the blessings God means for us with creation.
Yes, we’ve finally gotten to Earth Day worship. Originally scheduled for April 22, that Sunday was a wet and cool washout. And either the weather or our own church calendar haven’t cooperated since. But I kind of like that we are finally getting to Earth Sunday the week before Pentecost. My sermon title today is “Whose Power Is It Anyway?” and next week it’s a celebration of the first fruits. It’s all good, and when we let go, beloved, things work out…
You might be surprised, however, that I’m going to begin today with heaven.
How many of you saw the Time magazine cover story that ran Easter week? It was called, “Heaven Can’t Wait: Why Rethinking the Hereafter Could Make the World a Better Place.”
The Time story is essentially of a rivalry between differing definitions of heaven. 85% percent of Americans report they believe in heaven. But after that, our agreement evaporates.
There is the popular image of heaven– one that almost every child could relate to us. The place you go after you die. We all know this one: fluffy white clouds with angels in white robes, crowned with halos and equipped with majestic wings. Oh, and the sun always shines.
Heaven as the reward that takes us away from all the sufferings of this earth. In it’s family metaphor: where we are all back together again AND GET ALONG. Or in the more poignant African American song-pictures: release from all the chains of our earthly lives. Who can fault slaves longing for a sweet chariot to swing low and carry them home?
In the more prosperous 20th century, many’s images of heaven became a sort of celestial Disney World. Or depending on your idiom, perhaps a transfigured Tiffany’s.
Billy Graham’s formulation is the promise of superlatives: heaven is “far more glorious than anything we can imagine. Heaven is like the most perfect and beautiful place we can conceive — only more so.”
On a morning like this, that’s saying alot.
But the Time article is reporting a generational trend, the resurfacing, strengthening of an alternative vision. One that’s often been heard alongside it’s more popular blockbuster version of heaven. There are usually at least few voices suggesting that heaven isn’t just a place you go. Rather it is how you live your life now. AND how life here on earth will become.
The article reports that this position on things heavenly is gaining ground with a generation that is increasingly motivated by causes and activist. Angels choirs and harps are all well and good, but ending hunger and the fight against HIV/AIDS feels more pressing, particularly to younger people today. My own version of this is sort of pragmatic: heaven, however it turns out to be is really all God’s decision, not mine. But I can choose to use my time in this life to make a difference in the world.
Of course this alternative vision of what heaven might mean has an ancient footing. It’s grounded in the New Testament, most likely it’s was the terra firma of faith that Jesus and Paul and the apostles were walking on.
The former Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, N.T. Wright and one of my professors at Union Seminary, Christopher Morse are leading a scholarly defense of this redefinition of heaven. Or more to the point, to redeem a more biblical vision of heaven. That picture from before the time when our imaginations got all mixed up with Platonic put downs of our embodied existence, misled by the option of other-worldliness.
What if, church, our lives aren’t about remaining righteous in the face of a fallen world? What if we’re not called to endure sin and temptation, and remain righteous in order to escape this lesser existence for the reward of heaven?
What if, instead, we picture heaven like the authors of the New Testament? …An actual bodily resurrection in which God finally brings together a new heaven and a new earth in a totally redeemed creation?
What if heaven is, at least for now, in this life, the REALITY we can create in serving the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the enslaved and those whose lives are increasingly impoverished by environmental degradation?
N.T. Wright is articulating a radically different view of heaven than the one most Americans, religious or not, carry in their heads. Heaven in the Bible, he insists, in not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary lives– God’s dimension. God made heaven and earth, and at the end of time, God will not only remake both, but more importantly join them forever together.
What if, beloved, earth and our lives here are inextricably bound up with the eternal.
This is a bit too simple, but what if heaven is understood is the space in our lives we give over to God’s control, and earth as we experience it now is the space which we insist clutching in our own control?
Then Jesus really did usher in a new age, where we are to alleviate the evident suffering and injustice of the world. In fact, in this view, using the time of our lives so doing becomes the means of bringing into being what the New Testament calls heaven…
Beloved, when heaven is an other-worldly paradise, then, well, ultimately, this world destined for destruction… well, maybe how we treat it– or each other– doesn’t really matter all that much?
When we’re destined for heaven as disembodied souls, then bodies, and material earth and creation ultimately aren’t that important.
But if earth is our ultimate hope, albeit not in its current form… If earth is eternal, and any life we ever know, now or in eternity, will also involve it? …ewll then all of a sudden caring for creation, tree-hugging environmentalism, along with all kinds of other physical care for real people, might move up the religious priority ladder, somewhere nearer to the top, to what we often think of saving souls?
Which is the long way around to Earth Sunday! Getting to here and now by going through eternity and heaven.
The right accuses more liberal Christians of paganism, earth-worship, when we begin to speak of reverence for creation. The World Council of Churches has made the stewardship and care of creation one of its program emphasis for over 20 years. But some evangelicals have complained as if that commitment was suggesting that Gaia, the earth goddess was supplanting one of the persons of the Trinity.
Beloved, we are of the side of the church aisle that believes that stewardship of our earth is sacred duty. We believe its the church’s duty to preach that God cares about creation, and expects us to care for it well, rather than desecrating it. It’s all tied up in our understanding of faith… that people’s lives and the world they are to live them in matter surely as much as heaven…
This year the National Council of Church’s Earth Sunday lifted up the conservation of energy as among Christian care for creation.
Could something as physical, apparently non-spiritual, as our understanding, finding, harvesting, using, misusing energy be intimately tied into how much of heaven we can know — now and ultimately?
For us North Americans, energy is often so taken for granted we aren’t even conscious of it. It gets dark, we switch on our lights. It gets hot, we turn on the a/c. When it’s cold, we have heat. We’re hungry, we switch on the stove or pop something in the microwave. We turn the key in our ignition without even considering it. We can’t really even imagine not having hot water.
But, beloved, for about 20% our neighbors on this planet, particularly people in Africa and India living in extreme poverty, there’s no access to reliable energy resources. None. No reliable light. No reliable cook fires. No relief from the heat. No transportation but their two feet. No hot water.
Those of us headed to Nicaragua next month– we will experience that first hand in the second poorest nation in our hemisphere. And we will see how that lack of power resources can make life, surviving, a challenge.
About 40% of the world’s population relies on traditional biomass — wood and animal dung — for what energy they have access to, mostly daily food preparation and basic heat. That often leads to deforestation and unhealthy emissions. We will witness that in wide swathes of a country left treeless and eroding, blowing away in the dry heat, after the trees were all cleared. We will be in villages where individuals health is impinged on by home cook fires. And where that wood burning is contributes to climate change right along automobile usage.
And all our conveniences in the developed world, well, what with oil spills, fracking, nuclear meltdowns, climate change in the news constantly, is there any doubt that our current energy policies and practices are unsustainable as well?
In the reading from the book of Acts, Peter addresses a crowd at the temple in Jerusalem. These people have just seen him heal a crippled beggar, who a man the scripture says was “lame from birth,” and, not surprisingly, they are amazed at Peter.
Peter is amused that they are staring at him so… at what they mistakenly think of as his power. He calls their attention to the true source of healing, and of all power.
He asks them “Why do you wonder at this, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” (Acts 3:12)
Whose power is it anyway?
This question is as relevant to us as it was to that crowd in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago. Surrounded by an amazing array of technology and inventions, it is tempting to credit humans producing those products with the incredible comfort, power, and healing that they can provide.
We forget that all of the power we have, all of the energy we use, all of the wealth we can create, and all of the healing we can offer are originally and ultimately gifts from God.
May I ask you, as Christians, to keep the questions of energy ever before us. We should consider them in our hearts! Remembering Peter’s question. And that powerful reminder we heard in the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy:
“Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power . . .”
Because God is our source and supply of all our energy and power. Jesus invites us to use that energy and power in a way that is pleasing to God, a way that is truly just for all, and a way that will work with God to bring heaven evermore to earth. Amen.