What is the shape of love?
Love is shaped like a singularity, infinitely small, from which all of time and space was born in an expanding whirl of heat and light. Suddenly, there was hydrogen; suddenly, helium; protons fusing in violent birth. Love is shaped like stars, coalesced into points of light, igniting the first elements of the universe and fusing them until they burn out. Love is shaped like brilliant death, the glorious explosion of a star flinging the contents of the periodic table across the universe. Nearly fourteen billion years after hydrogen, after helium, these same protons and neutrons and electrons dance in our bodies: they sigh in our lungs, they spark in our brains, they pulse in our blood.
What is the shape of love?
Love is shaped like star-flung elements combined into molecules combined into amino acids combined into endless wreaths of DNA, the gritty spiraled bits of our humanity twining through our cells. The authors of the Bible knew nothing of DNA but they understood that human bodies are no different from the material that comprises the rest of creation, so they used words like dust and dirt and mud to describe our creation. They tell us that God reached into the dusty, dirty mud and shaped the first human being with God’s own hands and named them descriptively: Adam, which means nothing more than “mud person.” Mud Person was no different from the mud around them. Mud Person’s essential humanness was not in their gender; it was not in their race; it was not in their language or creed, for they were one, undifferentiated, full of the spectrum of human potential. Mud Person’s essential humanness was the way they reflected God’s own image.
Thousands of years later, we tell the story differently, but it is the same. Our DNA is a wonder, but there is nothing that makes our matter different from the matter in the stars, the sky, the trees, the ground. Our humanity is not defined by gender; it is not defined by our skin colors and cultures; it is not in our languages or religious practices. It is defined by something else. There was never an Adam, a Mud Person, but collectively, we humans are shaped like the same adam. Our many appearances, our many genders, our many cultures, our many arts, our many sciences hold a mirror to the face of God.
What is the shape of love?
Love is shaped like a promise, a covenant. Love looks like God’s rainbow promise that love always triumphs over vengeance and frustration as it hangs over God’s ark-shaped promise of salvation upon the flood.
Love looks like God’s starry promise of parenthood to elderly and childless Sarah and Abraham, their offspring to be as many and varied as the stars glittering in the sky.
Love looks like God’s oceanic promise of rescue as refugee slaves flee the dehumanizing conditions of captivity through a dangerous ocean held apart, then slammed together as they scramble onto the far shore.
Love looks like God’s tablet-shaped promise to accompany God’s people with the gift of the law, of Torah, from Mount Sinai: not just a list of thou shalt and thou shalt not, this promise tells God’s people, because I love you, because you are mine, this law shall mark you as my own.
Love looks like the words of the prophets inked carefully onto scroll after scroll, unrolling to display the voice of God promising the exiled people that no matter how far they go from home and no matter how many times they turn away from God, God will always turn back to them.
What is the shape of love?
Love is shaped like ash: gritty and harsh, caustic when mixed with water, so rich and dark a black that it confounds the eye, with just a tiny bit of sparkle. Love is shaped like last year’s palms blazing gloriously for seconds before subsiding into beautiful darkness to be collected into a tiny bright bowl. It is shaped like what remains when the spark of life is gone: a tiny pinch of dark dust, a chemical compound more than a living thing, so insignificant that the smallest gust of air could scatter it beyond retrieving. Yet no part of the original is lost: not one bit. The cells that once were lush and green return to their component elements; they combust and rise invisibly with the heat, or they crumble and fall: but always, matter is conserved, and energy. Not one atom winks out of existence. Nothing is ever lost in ash.
Ash is transformation. Ash is potential realized, and spent, and made potential again. Ash is carbon, the leftovers of death, the building blocks of life, the love of God that never leaves us, the assurance that we will never be lost to God.
What is the shape of love?
On Ash Wednesday, and every day, love is cruciform. Love is shaped like the cross. Love is shaped like death.
Love is shaped like Jesus beginning his final walk to Jerusalem. Love is shaped like Jesus’ final meal shared tenderly among friends. Love is shaped like Jesus’ consent to be betrayed by a companion and arrested unjustly. Love is shaped like a painful walk to Golgotha, dragging a heavy wooden cross. Love is shaped like a tree, once living, turned into an instrument of death. Love is shaped like Jesus’ own gift of life, emptied on the cross for the sake of the whole world.
Love is not heart-shaped. In the end, it does not look like bouquets of roses or boxes of chocolate. Love is cruciform, and it gives itself completely so that we too may receive its gifts: hope, joy, forgiveness, freedom, justice, abundant life.
Today, this is the love we receive: love made out of dark carbon ash, the stuff of the cosmos, the stuff of our very being; love a reminder of all God’s promises, made to our ancestors and renewed in us today; love in the shape of the cross, the instrument of death transformed into eternal life.
August 20, 2017
St. John’s Lutheran Church
Melrose Park, PA
Big Questions: How do we hold onto our beliefs as the world changes around us? How do we overcome our own unfaithfulness?
This is the last sermon in this summer’s Big Questions series. It combines two related questions: How do we hold onto our beliefs as the world changes around us? and How do we overcome our own unfaithfulness?
There is plenty in the world to challenge our religious faith today.
Let’s start with the big picture. As we all know, our culture is growing increasingly secular, and going to church is no longer a cultural norm. Lest we think this is a new development, church or synagogue attendance and Sunday School participation have steadily declined since the 1950s; the church has just been slow to realize it. From mainline Protestantism to Catholicism to evangelical megachurches to our neighborhood synagogues, everyone is feeling the pinch.
In our predominantly secular context, we are asked to grapple with challenges large and small in a world full of change and crisis. Our moral frameworks have shifted significantly in the past several decades, and for the better: the women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements have all showed us how much our prejudices injure the people around us, especially when we mistakenly believe that those prejudices are grounded in our religion. When religion hurts entire communities of people by ignoring their pain or by condemning them, from people of color to the LGBTQ community to women to the poor, it’s easy to lose faith in religion and even in God.
In the past nine days, the Christian faith we confess has been tested by the violent scenes of racism on the march in Charlottesville, VA. Members of the Klan marched openly. Neo-Nazis shouted the slogans of Nazi Germany right into the face of American diversity. Violence erupted around the protests.
The scenes in Charlottesville were shocking. To see neo-Nazis walking American streets barely seventy years after the Second World War was horrifying, and it made us ask if everything we know is falling apart. At the same time, people of color have reminded us that Charlottesville is only the open sore that indicates the deeper infection of racism and intolerance in our nation.
It’s not hard to say that hate is wrong. It is easy to be outraged by Nazis. Though important, it is no great effort to stand at a community candlelight vigil and sing This Land is Your Land. It is simple to look virtually anywhere in our scripture to see a God who is on the side of the poor and oppressed. It is even easy to declare that there is no moral equivalence between the violent words and actions of white supremacists and the counter-protesters standing against them.
What is difficult is looking beyond outrage to see the pervasiveness of the diseases of racism and intolerance. What is difficult is acknowledging that we might contribute to the problem, even when we try to be “nice” and “tolerant.” What is difficult is discerning what God is calling us to do at this moment, now that we’ve agreed that white supremacy is bad (a low moral bar to set).
Today’s gospel reading brings us a model of faith — an encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. Canaanites and Jews shared some common religious ancestors, but by Jesus’ time, they were quite different from one another. Their religions were different, their cultures were different, and Canaanites occupied a lower social class. For a Canaanite woman to break the rules of gender and class and perhaps even race to call out to Jesus is shocking.
At first, Jesus says nothing to her. But the Canaanite woman persists. She knows that women’s voices, Canaanite voices, are likely to be ignored.
The disciples are annoyed and embarrassed. They want to send her away, but Jesus does not permit them to do so, and she will not stop. Bit by bit, she begins to wear Jesus down. Still, he resists.
“I wasn’t sent for your people,” he says.
“Help me, Lord,” she says, desperate and savvy, using Jesus’ title of honor even as he refuses her.
Next comes the most challenging part of the story. Jesus uses a brief metaphor to call the Canaanite woman a dog, and he doesn’t mean a pet golden retriever. It’s thinly disguised profanity.
And the woman, desperate for her daughter’s healing and resourceful enough to work with what she’s got, takes Jesus’ words and turns them right back around: even dogs get to eat right alongside the family as they sit under the table. They don’t have to wait for leftovers.
“Great is your faith!” exclaims Jesus, and the healing is already complete.
It’s hard for us to say for sure what’s happening in this story, but some of the possibilities are uncomfortable. Perhaps the whole scene was an object lesson for the disciples, but it may be that Jesus actually intended to ignore the Canaanite woman. (Imagine how many times a day someone asks him for healing.) Does Jesus discriminate against the woman because she is a Canaanite? Does he call her a dog because she is a Canaanite? Maybe. And that’s a difficult side of Jesus.
Nevertheless, the Canaanite woman persists — and she becomes an unexpected model of faithfulness. She is annoying. She is breaking gender and culture rules left and right. She won’t be quiet. She is resourceful, and she wears Jesus down.
It’s interesting that the Canaanite woman models a faith that Jesus’ disciples do not. Lutheran pastor and author Heidi Neumark points out that in this story, we are Jesus’ disciples, and the Cananaanite woman is anyone who is poor, marginalized, and in need of help. The disciples are as close as the story gets to institutional religion. They hear the woman asking for mercy, and their response is irritation: Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us. Neumark expands on their words. She writes:
Send her away. We’ve got other things to work on now.
Send her away. How dare she raise her voice at us?
After all we do to help others!
We’ve built houses with Habitat.
We’ve given food to the food pantry….
so don’t try to make us feel guilty. We’re his disciples!
Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.
Does this sound familiar, like nice church people just trying to tick all the right boxes? It’s certainly tempting to act like the disciples instead of like Jesus. I wonder: what is the church saying to the Canaanite woman today, eight days after Charlottesville, one day after white supremacists walked in Boston?
Here’s what “nice” [white] Christians have been saying about her:
Send her away; we’re tired of talking about racism.
Send her away; we already rejected Nazis.
Send her away; race doesn’t matter.
Send her away; we’re north of the Mason-Dixon line,
and racism isn’t our fault.
Church, we can try to ignore her all we want, but the Canaanite woman is calling out from the streets of Charlottesville, of Boston, of Philadelphia. She is wearing Jesus down, and he is listening to her. She will not let him off the hook, and Jesus won’t let us off the hook, either. We want Jesus to tell us what nice allies we are; we want to hear that we are doing the right thing. We already addressed the problem and said discrimination is bad and then we sent the Canaanite woman away, because isn’t one sermon about racism enough, and haven’t we finished talking about this yet?
But Jesus is talking to her — not to us, to her! — and he is saying, “great is your faithfulness!” Not ours — hers.
It turns out that following Jesus is a lot more work than we expected. It pulls us farther outside our comfort zones than we want to venture. At this moment in history, following Jesus requires some serious reflection on what sustains racial bias in America besides Nazis and the Klan. We need to ask, how are we complicit? And then we need to get down to the work of reconciliation, peacemaking, and listening, because the Canaanite woman is crying for Jesus’ mercy all around us.
Let’s go back to our big questions about keeping our faith alive as our world changes around us. There are lessons about faith and faithfulness in this story. The Canaanite woman gives us a model of faith as an action, not a passive state of being. When we wonder how to keep our faith, we’re often tempted to stop going to church, to stop reading the Bible, or to stop engaging with religion. The Canaanite woman does the opposite. Maybe she doesn’t think Jesus will actually help her, but she also knows that her daughter is in need, so she petitions Jesus over and over. First, he is silent; then, he is insulting; but ultimately, he rewards her persistence as faith. If you are struggling with your faith, I encourage you to stay engaged. Ask hard questions; voice your doubts; worship with your siblings in Christ; talk about your struggles, because we’re all learning how to be church together.
Second, the Canaanite woman shows us an unexpected way that God is persistent with us. God helps us overcome what we call “unfaithfulness” by refusing to let us go. God uses the voices of people around us, even people we wouldn’t expect. “Have mercy!” says God. And if we keep ignoring God, God is willing to get downright annoying in order to get our attention. Even if we try to ignore God’s voice or hide from God’s call, God never gives up on us.
This week, if you get lost in the whirlwind of the 24-hour news cycle and it feels hard to find solid ground, try this exercise. Listen for the voice of the Canaanite woman. What does she look like? Is she African American? Latina? Gay? Gender-nonconforming? What is she saying? Is she hungry? Is she injured? Do her children need healing? Does her voice need amplifying? And finally, ask yourself: How can I join God’s work of healing and respond to her voice?
August 13, 2017
“How does God know our thoughts if we are just a collection of biological impulses?”
St. John’s Lutheran Church
Melrose Park, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I pray these words from Psalm 19 almost every time I preach. The prayer isn’t just for me. It’s for all of us. The prayer asks God to bless the words of the sermon and the thoughts, questions, reactions, and contemplations of the whole congregation as you engage with my words.
The sermon prayer about the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts makes a big assumption about God: that God knows what we are thinking. In an era of government surveillance, in a time when Google targets its advertising based on the text of our emails, the idea that God knows our thoughts sounds alarming at first. Is nothing private?!
Today’s big question asks how God can know our thoughts. After all, we are just collections of biological systems: circulatory, respiratory, digestive, neurological. How can God know our thoughts if “thinking” is no more than electrical impulses firing between our brain cells?
During last week’s sermon, I talked about the way we think about truth in science — as something we can test and verify — versus the more ancient way we think about truth in scripture — not necessarily verifiable, but consistent with people’s real experiences of God. Science and religion answer two different questions about the world. Science tells us where we come from, how we got here, and where we are going. Religion tells us about our place in the grand scheme of things and gives us insight into our purpose: God loves us, and we belong to God. This week’s big question holds science and religion together in the same breath, which is a great insight on the part of the questioner! However, it is impossible for us to answer the question with any certainty. We can hypothesize that God exists in the gaps between our neurons, for example, but neither the Bible nor science will allow us to say for certain.
Biologically speaking, thought is the domain of the nervous system, which consists of the brain, the spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. The nervous system controls the things we don’t need to think about, things like breathing, digesting, and circulating blood. It also controls the things we do think about: running a marathon, eating an elegant meal with the correct silverware, reading books, and interpreting what everything means. The nervous system communicates via beautiful cells called neurons, which exchange electrical impulses and neurotransmitters across tiny gaps called synapses.
For thousands of years, human beings in Jewish and Christian traditions have believed that God knows our thoughts. One of my favorite psalms is Psalm 139, in which the psalmist describes the experience of being known completely by God:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
The psalmist describes the feeling of being hemmed in because God is everywhere. But there is comfort and freedom in being known so completely by God. As the psalmist writes later, God knows us even before we are born, and no power that can remove us from God’s presence.
Although the Bible portrays God as all-knowing, God is not Big Brother. God may know our thoughts, but we can still choose whether to give them voice. Psalm 32 describes the painful experience of trying to conceal sin from God and finding relief in the act of confession:
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’,
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Relief comes when sin is spoken and God’s forgiveness is assured. The act of confession matters even though God knows our thoughts. This is why we confess our sins when we gather for worship on Sunday: we need the relief and healing that we receive when we name our sins and hear the good news of God’s forgiveness.
In the gospels, Jesus possesses uncanny knowledge of the people around him but is selective about how he reveals it. At the Last Supper, for example, Jesus knows that Judas has already betrayed him to the authorities. Jesus hints at the betrayal, but he chooses not to expose Judas; instead, he lets the meal of love unfold naturally, and even Judas is included.
When Jesus does disclose his knowledge of other people’s thoughts, it is for a purpose. In the gospel of John, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well and engages her in conversation. Jesus reveals his true self to her with a gentle reminder of her complicated personal history. The woman understands that Jesus really is the living water to quench all thirst.
The eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us one more bit of insight into God’s knowledge of our minds. Paul writes:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Most of us have known a time when it felt impossible to pray. Paul writes that the Holy Spirit still knows what is on our hearts and communicates our concerns to God, even when we cannot give voice to them ourselves. It is a relief and a gift that talking with God does not depend on our own ability to put the correct words together: God stays in conversation with us even when we have no vocabulary, only wordless need.
So what does it mean for us that somehow, by some mysterious means, God knows our thoughts?
First, since God knows our thoughts, none of our concerns or prayers are ever lost to God, even when we don’t know the right words to say. Moreover, communication with God is not limited to people who can speak verbally. People of all ages, abilities, and developmental stages can talk to God, from pre-verbal babies to non-verbal adults with autism to people enduring the gradual losses of ALS to people in the last stages of dementia. Thanks be to God for that.
Second, since God knows our thoughts, we are not off the hook when we hurt other people or think damaging and discriminatory thoughts, even if we never say them out loud. But God leaves space for us to confess our sin and to ask for God’s help in leading lives of wholeness and healing. God gives us the opportunity to reflect, to seek transformation, and to receive forgiveness.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be transformed in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.
 Psalm 139:1-6
 Psalm 32:3-5
 Romans 8:26-27
July 23, 2017
Big Questions Sermon Series: Last Judgment
St. John’s Lutheran Church
Melrose Park, PA
This summer, I’m preaching a series of sermons based on big questions about Christianity, faith, and life submitted by you, the people of St. John’s. The previous two sermons responded to questions about hell and about what happens after we die. Today, we’re talking about the Last Judgment, or Judgment Day. In American Christian culture, Judgment Day sounds like a threat: Jesus is coming back — will you be ready? We worry about being judged and sent to hell. So it makes sense to ask: what is the Last Judgment, and how do we understand it as Lutheran Christians in the year 2017?
We’ll start by exploring the idea of the Last Judgment in the Bible. Our journey begins in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, with a concept called the day of the Lord. The day of the Lord appears primarily in the prophetic parts of the Hebrew Bible — in books like Joel, Amos, and Isaiah. Because it’s part of the prophetic writings, the Day of the Lord is not intended to be literal, but it is dramatic and makes a strong statement.
In the Hebrew Bible, the day of the Lord is, in a word, terrifying. It comes with trumpets, darkened skies, earthquakes, and fires — just like an invading army. It is usually accompanied by a call to communal repentance and prayer. You might recognize the words we usually read on Ash Wednesday from the prophet Joel:
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
(Joel 2:1-2, 12-13)
For the Hebrew Bible prophets, the day of the Lord is a chance for Israel to remember its sins and to repent. It might seem terrifying, but God’s love and compassion is at its heart. More than fasting, more than public prayer, God desires Israel to practice justice, compassion, and humility. To people in the Babylonian exile, for example, the day of the Lord extends the promise that their exile will end.
The earliest followers of Jesus were primarily Jewish, and the authors of the New Testament were no exception. The day of the Lord in Jewish scriptures made its way into New Testament writings with a bit of a transformation. Acts, 1 Thessalonians, and the gospels — especially Matthew — reimagine the “day of the Lord” as a time of ultimate judgment and the return of Jesus. Today’s gospel reading is part of this tradition.
The Day of the Lord has parallels in apocalyptic literature, a small but important genre in the Bible. Apocalyptic literature is a kind of prophetic writing that imagines a far-off future in which justice finally arrives after a cosmic struggle. It was popular among post-exile Jews dealing with foreign invasions and with early Christians surviving persecution. Apocalyptic literature tends to develop wherever communities suffer: when people do not see justice arriving anytime soon, they dream of a future in which God restores the balance of good and evil. Examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible include chapters 7 through 12 of Daniel, in which the prophet Daniel sees strange beasts, speaks with the archangel Michael, and receives a promise that those whose names are in God’s “book of life” will be delivered; the Revelation of John, which is an extended vision of the end of the world concluding with a new heaven and a new earth; and scenes of the Last Judgment in the Gospels.
Apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic. Often, it was unsafe for its authors to write literally, so they used strange animals, regions, armies, numbers, and beasts to stand in for their oppressors. As a result, we cannot use apocalyptic literature like Revelation as a roadmap to the end of the world or the Last Judgment. But we continue to read the apocalyptic literature of the Bible because its message is hope: God loves the oppressed and cares about their suffering, and because God cares deeply, “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.”
The gospels — especially Matthew — give us a little extra insight into the Last Judgment, when God judges the living and the dead and restores the moral balance of the universe. Think of the weeds and wheat in today’s gospel, or Jesus talking about sheep and goats. It’s easy to take these images at face value: we like to think that Jesus sorting sheep from goats is all about deciding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. But the imagery of sorting one kind from another usually appears in the context of Jesus’ teachings about caring for our neighbors and the strangers all around us. “Just as you did something for your neighbor, you did it for me,” Jesus reminds us. The question at the Last Judgment, then, is not about whether you are good or bad. It is this: do you participate in building God’s reign by caring for others in Jesus’ name, or do you work against it?
Christian interpretation of the Last Judgment has evolved significantly. The earliest Christians took Jesus’ words simply and literally. In his teachings about the Last Judgment and in his words at his ascension, Jesus promised to return, so the first Christian communities assumed that Jesus would be back soon: maybe in a few years, maybe in a matter of months or weeks. You can hear the urgency of Jesus’ return in Paul’s letters to the Christians in Rome, in Corinth, and in Ephesus. Paul stresses the importance of living in accordance with Christ’s teachings because he believes that Christ himself will be back very soon.
As we know, the Second Coming didn’t happen immediately. Still, whenever people faced crisis in late antiquity and in the Middle Ages — invading armies, changing culture, disease, death — Christians returned to the apocalyptic literature of the Bible, looking for a way to make sense of the world around them. They correlated their experiences to events in Revelation and in Daniel and projected the imminent return of Christ. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the Last Judgment became a prominent part of church architecture: scenes of Christ sitting in judgment were often sculpted over the entrances to churches and cathedrals, facing west to the metaphoric end of time. Worshipers were reminded of the urgency of Judgment Day whenever they entered and left their churches.
Luther also believed that Jesus’ return was imminent. The Muslim Ottoman Turks were threatening central Europe. Corruption was rife in the church. Luther felt his reforms were deeply urgent not just because ordinary people were suffering from theological, economic, and social abuses perpetrated by the church, but also because Jesus was coming back soon, and this was the last chance for the church to live rightly.
In every time and place, humans have believed that surely we are living at the end of days. Today, for example, we look at the global refugee crisis, world hunger, terrorism, nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, political and social strife in our own country, and the crisis of global warming, and we think that the apocalypse is upon us, too. And yet the world hasn’t ended. So what do we do?
Christians have separated into two general camps regarding their interpretation of the Last Judgment. Millennialists believe that the return of Jesus is weeks, months, or a few years away. Fundamentalist Baptists, Church of God, Church of Christ, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are some contemporary millennialist denominations. Some of them issue predictions for the date of the Rapture (for which there is virtually no biblical evidence, for the record). On the other hand, the majority of Catholics, Orthodox, mainline Protestants, and many evangelical Protestants are not millennialists. Instead, we interpret the Last Judgment as something long-range and metaphoric. In the Bible, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and thus, we understand that God’s reign of justice and peace is always breaking into the world. Christ is always dying and rising; God is always judging and redeeming us. The Last Judgment is God’s promise that all creation will be restored to wholeness.
The Last Judgment is deep in our scripture and in our liturgy. In our creeds, we say that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that his kingdom will have no end. “Thy kingdom come,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” we sing in the midst of the communion prayer. Historically, the church has used the Last Judgment as a weapon and a threat of punishment for sinful behavior, but this is a misinterpretation. Instead, we sing and pray of the Last Judgment today because it is a source of hope for us as Christians. The Last Judgment is about the promise of a future in which peace and justice are restored — and the promise that that future is already coming true. Everywhere we catch a surprising glimpse of God’s kingdom, we perceive a little bit of the unending radiance of the new heaven and new earth that God promises after the Last Judgment, when all God’s people will be welcomed into God’s loving presence.
This morning, we are singing three hymns from the “end time” section of our hymnal. (I love that there’s an “end time” section.) As you sing, pay attention to the ways that the hymn writers embrace the hope and promise of the Last Judgment rather than dwelling on its threat or terror. Our hymn of the day has particular importance. “My Lord, what a morning” is an African American spiritual from the nineteenth century. There is a reason that the Last Judgment is a prominent theme in African American hymnody: from the time of slavery to the present, African Americans have looked to the promise of Christ’s return as a source of hope beyond the suffering and discrimination they have faced in everyday life. It is only one example of the way that lived human experience shapes theology into something deep, rich, and relevant.
Let us sing this testimony of hope, and then let us get down to work: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
July 9, 2017
Big Questions: Where do we go when we die (and how do we know)?
St. John’s Lutheran Church
Melrose Park, PA
Today we are jumping back into our sermon series on big questions submitted by the congregation. Today’s question asks where we go when we die, and how we can be sure of that answer.
As some of you might remember from the sermons in this series last year, my goal is not to give you a definitive answer or to tell you what you should think. Instead, I aim to offer some new information, provide a Lutheran theological perspective, and leave the rest up to you. By asking these big questions, you are already thinking like theologians do; by “trying on” the information in these sermons and wearing it in the context of your daily life, you are doing the same work that theologians do — trying to figure out what is true when our faith meets our daily lives.
So here is the short answer to the question about where we go when we die: we don’t know.
It’s certainly worthwhile to ask the question. Popular American Christian culture often seems quite certain about the answer. When I lived in Delaware, I occasionally had to drive past a large billboard in downtown Wilmington on I-95. In capital letters, it shouted, “HEAVEN OR HELL? YOU DECIDE!”
Around the time I was living in Delaware, the book Heaven is for Real became popular. The book told the story of a young child’s vision of heaven during a serious illness. It was a prime example of the human fascination with what lies beyond death. Religious and non-religious people alike gravitate toward these stories of near-death experiences, the visions sometimes experienced by people who lie on death’s doorstep.
Meanwhile, our culture gets better and better at avoiding death. Medical interventions keep our hearts beating, our lungs inflating, and our blood flowing when whole organ systems fail. Sometimes, they save lives, and it seems miraculous; sometimes, they simply prolong suffering and forestall the inevitable. We also avoid death when it has already happened. We use funeral homes to prepare the bodies of our loved ones instead of tending to them in our homes. We use euphemisms for dying like “passed away” and “moved on” and “transitioned.” We avoid talking to our families about our end-of-life wishes, and we dodge the subject when loved ones want to talk about their own plans. We have no idea what to say to grieving people, so we often say nothing at all. And we figure that a week off from work should be long enough for someone to “get over” a loss, even though we know from our own experiences that the work of grieving is never completed — it only changes.
Death avoidance is ironic for us, because we Christians have a religion that hinges upon resurrection. In order for there to be resurrection, death has to come first. Our whole faith is about dying and rising — and trusting that God is still at work even through the dying.
So where do we go when we die? Honestly, we don’t know. But we know that death is real, and we also know that resurrection has the final word.
The Bible gives us some perspective on life after death, but it does not provide us with a nice, neat explanation. In the Hebrew Bible — the Old Testament — ideas of the afterlife vary. Some parts talk about Sheol, the morality-neutral realm of the dead where everyone goes when they die. Other parts of the Hebrew Bible assume that we simply blink out of existence upon dying. The writer of Ecclesiastes is so convinced that there is no existence after death that he enjoys as many of life’s pleasures as possible… and still concludes that everything is meaningless vapor.
By the time of Jesus, Jewish thought was organized in two main sects: Pharisees and Sadducees. Sadducees believed that the soul blinked out of existence when life ended. Pharisees believed that the soul survived death, which opened the door to divine reward or punishment after dying. Pharisees also believed that all the dead would eventually be resurrected and judged by God. The ideas of the Pharisees should sound familiar; they influenced the development of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.
Across the gospels, we can see the fingerprints of Pharisaic thought in Jesus’ teachings. Most of the time, though, Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign of justice and peace breaking into the world, rather than heaven the afterlife. The gospels are not checklists for getting ready for life after death. Instead, they offer plentiful instruction on righteous, just, and merciful living. The gospels call human beings to join in God’s great work of redeeming all creation. However, they do contain a few hints of heaven. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the criminal crucified with him, “today, you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus also speaks about eternal life throughout the gospel of John. Finally, all of the gospels lead toward a message of resurrection.
To rise, to enter into the mystery of eternal life, we all have to die first. But death does not separate us from God’s creation. Biologically, our “eternal life” begins at the moment of our death. Our cells begin to break down almost immediately. Whether we are embalmed, buried directly in the ground, or cremated, our bodies reduce to their component molecules and elements. Sooner or later, the elements that once were us are recycled into the soil, the rainwater, even the air around us. Our atoms will forever enrich our corner of the universe.
To Christians, death is like the law of conservation of matter. Neither matter nor energy can be destroyed — they merely change form. Death has no power over us; it only transforms us. At death, the promises made at our baptisms are fulfilled. When we are baptized, God promises us that we die and rise with Jesus. Sin and death might cause suffering in our lives, but God’s love will always reach us wherever we are, no matter how repentant — or not — we might be.
Baptismal imagery and theology are rich at Lutheran funerals. The casket or the urn of ashes is covered with a white pall to evoke the white clothes often worn at baptisms. We light the tall paschal candle for funerals too, reminding ourselves of how it burns beside the font for every baptism as a visual symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf. We give thanks for the gift of baptism and we recite the Apostles’ Creed, the affirmation of faith made by our baptismal sponsors.
The promises of baptism are relational. They speak of forgiving sin and eternal life, of course, but they are also symbols of permanent adoption, of being incorporated into God’s family forever. “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places,” says Jesus in the gospel of John, speaking of what eternal life feels like more than what it looks like: eternal belonging, room at the table for everyone, inclusion for the hurting and broken, belovedness in the heart of God.
Whenever I saw that Wilmington billboard threatening HEAVEN OR HELL — YOU DECIDE!, I was able to drive right past with a smile. Because I don’t decide. None of us gets to decide. In our scripture and our understanding of baptism, eternal life is adoption into God’s family. It is a space of endless closeness to God, of welcome, love, and hospitality. We do not choose our salvation. With unending grace, God chooses for us, and Jesus gives us the gift of his own life.
There is so much we do not know about dying and about what waits for us after death. The mystery is deep and rich, and it can be hard to live with that. We want to know if, for example, we will be reunited with the people we love. If life in the resurrection is about closeness with the God who is Love, I find it hard to believe that God would separate us from the people and the creatures who showed us aspects of God’s loving kindness in our lifetimes. Call it a strong theological hunch. Just like you, I will be waiting for the answer when my life comes to an end.
This week, I walked through the woods of the Berkshire hills where I grew up. Whenever I walk the same trail, I notice the fallen trees. Some are freshly fallen, the wood raw and splintered, sunlight spilling through the gap they left. Some are older, their outlines softened by moss, fresh saplings already take their place and reaching for the light. In the woods, death and resurrection are always taking place, hand in hand. So it is with our faith.
I invite you to lean into the mystery of death and resurrection that is at the heart of our Christian belief and practice. Pay attention to what we sing at the center of the prayer before communion: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Be mindful of death and resurrection in your life, too: what needs to die so that something new can arise? What new life has appeared in the hard and broken corners of your heart? Practice noticing death and resurrection. They help us prepare for the final mystery, the ultimate death and resurrection at the end of our lives.
Meanwhile, trust God. Trust that divine Love is present at times of death and brokenness just as it is present at times of rejoicing. Trust that God is with us as we lean into uncertainty and mystery. Trust that Love is beside us even when death is at hand, for Love will never abandon us.