What’s Wrong With Us? We Have Hope.

Star Wars Rebels is a wonderful animated television series bridging the gap between Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (where Anakin Skywalker completes his transformation into the evil Darth Vader), and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (where Luke Skywalker rises up as a Jedi and leader of the Rebellion against the Empire). Star Wars Rebels tells the stories of a small band of rebels from the planet Lothal who resist the Empire with small scale vandalism and interference with imperial activity, but who at this point have not (yet) inspired or led a wider movement against the Empire.

Nonetheless, for their careful attacks and the presence of a Jedi among them, this band of rebels has garnered the attention of the Empire. Targeted several times for capture, they have skillfully eluded the Empire, but have also failed in their attempts to strike a bigger blow against the Empire.

In Vision of Hope, Ezra – a young boy among the rebels who is a padawan, or Jedi apprentice – rides a roller coaster of feelings. Early in the episode he has a vision that ignites in him hope that they can strike a significant blow against the Empire. Yet, the mission that forms from his vision – involving a senator the rebels thought was sympathetic to their cause, but who turned out to be working for the Empire all along – turned out to be a failure.

Screenshot from Vision of Hope: Ezra speaking with Hera

Screenshot from Star Wars Rebels episode, Vision of Hope. Ezra speaking with Hera on boarding platform of their ship, The Ghost.

At the end of the episode Ezra sits down with Hera, the pilot of the rebels’ ship. Reflecting not only the sense of failure from this mission, but from their several failed attempts to thwart the Empire, Ezra is dejected.

“What’s wrong with us?” Ezra asks.

“We have hope,” Hera responds. “Hope that things can get better. And they will.”

I love that Hera’s response to Ezra’s gloomy question – “What’s wrong with us?” – is not an answer about tactics, or manpower, or funding for their mission. And more, Hera doesn’t deny that something is wrong with them.

But instead, when asked, “What’s wrong with us?” Hera responds with a straightforward answer – “We have hope.” That’s what’s wrong with us. We have hope.

We have hope. That word hope looms large in the Star Wars canon, with echoes of Princess Leia calling out to Ben Kenobi in a holographic message in the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope. “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

Hope. Hope looms large in the Christian faith. Christians have a hope that all will be made right in God’s promised future. Isaiah 25 looks forward in hope to when all will gather at the Lord’s holy mountain and feast on rich foods and drink well-aged wine. Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul writes of Christians being made into new creations. Mary proclaims of her yet-in-utero son that he will lift the lowly up and fill the hungry with good things, while knocking the mighty off their thrones and sending the rich away empty. And Jesus himself gives a glimpse of his power by healing the sick and raising the dead, offering a hope that what they done in his miracles will be commonplace in the coming Kingdom of God.

Yet, having hope can feel like a liability. “What’s wrong with us?” “We have hope.” Yes, in a world saturated in cynicism and self-reliance, having hope in a God who promises a future where death is no more and tears are wiped from our eyes is a bit strange. Belief in a God who forgives sin, raises the dead, and grants grace freely and even recklessly – well, that’s just plain bizarre. Most of what we see around us could cause us to lose hope, yet as people of faith we are also people of hope.

What’s wrong with us? We have hope. We have hope because we refuse to believe that what we see is all that there is to see … and to know, and to believe. We have hope because we know that what we see is not all there is. We have hope because we know that sin and death and brokenness are not the end of the story, but that there is a resurrection on the other side of the grave. We have hope because we know that weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30).

We have hope. That’s what’s wrong with us. We have hope, in a world filled with despair.

Putting Everything on the Table, In Faith – Acts 15

I haven’t been posting sermons here recently … but this one on Acts 15, and the bold faith of those first believers to trust in and be moved by the Spirit to do a new thing, is one I wanted to share. I believe that the church today is in an Acts 15 moment.

Preached on Sunday, April 28

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

“If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

This is sometimes true.
Leaders often take a pulse, barometer of people,
read what the people are already doing, and only then make decisions.

In the Early Church, the leaders of those first Church Councils decided
upon the Books of the Bible in large part simply by seeing and accepting
what the local churches, what the people, were already reading.
In American history, the constitutional amendment repealing prohibition
was less a bold act of leadership than it was an acknowledgement
of what people were already doing.

Sometimes, often, the people lead, and the leaders simply follow.

In today’s reading from Acts 15, the leaders made a profound decision.
Huge decision. Paradigm-shifting decision.
But, they were merely following what the people – and God’s Spirit – were already doing.
What the people were doing, what God’s Spirit was doing, was profound,
huge, paradigm-shifting.
The Council only recognized it and went along with it.

So what, exactly, were some of those first Christians doing?
They were doing a new thing in faith, in stark contrast to the tradition they received,
in stark contrast to the familiar ways of doing things,
and indeed, in stark contrast to God’s Word itself.
Indeed, on the surface, what they were doing was heresy – Spirit-filled, Spirit-led heresy.

You see, Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the first followers of his were Jews, too,
as were the broader group of Jews who followed his work closely,
including the Pharisees.
Devout Jews observed the Law as a sign of the promises God made to them.
Following the Law – including circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath laws,
and other such laws – was a way to live faithfully as God’s people,
to follow God’s command, to be a sign and a witness to the world of who you are
and whose you are.
These laws were a big deal. BIG deal. HUGE deal.
Even re-interpreted, so much of Jesus’ work has to do with the law,
and how it is to be followed.
Let’s think of groups today and their distinctive practices.
The Amish reject most forms of modern technology.
Devout Muslims stop everything and pray five times a day, and fast during Ramadan.
Vegetarians do not eat meat.
Vegans do not eat anything derived from animals.
These are distinctive practices that define a group.
Take away these distinctive practice, and the group might not exist,
or at least, might not have as strong an identity and be recognizable.

First century Jews had their distinctive practices. To be a Jew meant to follow the law.
Circumcision. Dietary laws. Sabbath. And more. That is what Jews did.
There was no other way to be a Jew, to be part of God’s chosen people.

And yet, the early Christians – who were Jewish –
had this crazy experience of God’s Spirit moving among them.
Jews from all over the world were coming to faith in Christ,
and Peter and the early Christians were proclaiming the Good News faithfully.
Last week we heard about an Ethiopian – a non-Jew, perhaps – who came to faith.
Philip baptized him.
Then, a few chapters later in Acts, Cornelius, a God-believing Gentile, a Roman Centurion,
is brought to faith and is baptized.
Two non-Jews, brought to faith.
Then, just a little later in Acts, a large number of people were brought to faith in Antioch,
and also these were non-Jews.
And these are only the ones we know about. Surely there were more.

God’s Spirit was moving in ways that were unknown, that were unsettling to the faithful,
ways that were considered heretical because God’s Spirit hadn’t done this before,
moving among the Gentiles in such a way.
God’s law clearly seemed to outline a different experience and life of faith.
Indeed, what was happening was contrary
to much of what they had learned and known about God.
Unsettling, disturbing, baffling … indeed!

But of course, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus
was also contrary to much of what they had learned and known
about faith and life and death and the way God works.
Indeed, a new thing was underfoot,
and it was unsettling and baffling to those committed
to the established ways of doing things, the God-given ways.
Yet, this new thing was an exciting, uncontainable opening to a whole new population,
a whole new segment of believers previously not considered part of God’s people.
Seeing this new thing at work,
the Council at Jerusalem decided to welcome the Gentiles into the church
without burdening them first with the requirements of the law.
No circumcision. No dietary laws. Just faith and baptism.
And in doing so, the leaders were simply affirming what had already happened,
what the people and the Spirit had already done,
with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and the Gentiles in Antioch.
No circumcision. No detailed commitment to the distinctive laws of the covenant.
Just faith and baptism, and the life that flows from that.

I wonder what the Spirit might be up to in the church today,
nearly 2000 years after these events.
What is God doing among Lutherans, nearly 500 years after Luther
nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, starting the Reformation?
What is God up to here on the East Side, and here at Grace,
96 years after starting a new thing through those first saints
who established Grace English Evangelical Lutheran Church,
leaving behind the language and customs of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith?

What is that experience of the Spirit here that we,
established in our patterns and practices of faith for many years –
decades, and centuries –
patterns and practices that are legitimate and wonderful and life-giving,
as were the laws of Moses that fed those first Jewish Christians …
What is the experience of the Spirit
that we might need to work hard to grasp, see, and comprehend?
How might God’s Spirit be moving, how might God be at work in ways earth-shatteringly new,
unsettling, and perhaps even heretical and yet, simultaneously, powerful?

I ask a lot of questions here. I’m not entirely sure how to answer them.
But, let me say this. We have to ask the questions.
We have to put everything on the table.
Sacraments. Sunday worship. Music styles. Worship times.
How we spend our money.
What we expect of our members.
How we speak of God.
What and how we teach and live the faith – among children, and adults.
How we serve our community.
How we act toward one another, how we act toward others,
and how we respond to the real hurts and challenges in our world.
Even, what we eat and drink at Coffee Hour.
Everything on the table and up for negotiation with the movement of God’s Spirit.
Hold nothing back. Put everything on the table. Crazy, huh?

Those first Jewish Christians did just that –
they put their valued and beloved traditions – traditions and laws given by God! –
on the table for the sake of sharing the Gospel with those different from them.
These people were willing to mess with the very Word of God, the command of God,
for the sake of sharing this God with others.
Do you see that? Do you see what they did?
They took something they cherished, something they believed given by God Himself,
and they were able to set it aside for the sake of the outsider.
Rather than make the Gentiles become Jews, that is,
rather than make the outsiders become one of them,
they said “let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.”
Let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.

And you know how they did this, how they could make such a huge leap?
They knew the love and power and comfort of our Lord.
They knew that they could let go of something they cherished and enter into a bold –
and frightening – new future because Jesus was with them,
the one who died and rose again would not abandon them.
And so they let something go, they let something die,
knowing that a new life would blow through them in a new way.

They did this not out of any strategy for survival, self-preservation, or institutional renewal.
They did this in faith in the One who promised to always be with them, unto the end of the age,
the One who comes among them, and us, as an outsider.

Dear friends, our Lord is with us, here and now.
Our traditions and practices, handed down to us over 96 years in this place,
500 years in the Lutheran tradition, and 2000 years of Christianity,
our traditions and distinctive practices of faith have told us this –
God is with us. God is faithful to us. God is not going to leave us. God is with us.
With this comforting knowledge, now what?
Are we at another Acts 15 time in history, at least of some degree?
I think we are.
Where is the Spirit of our God blowing now? Let’s look outside and see.
And, wherever the Spirit is blowing, whoever is caught up in that Spirit,
however the church looks kicked up and remade in the Spirit’s movement,
we know this – Christ is with us.
Christ has been faithful to his church since Day One,
and He promises to be faithful until the Time to Come.
And that, dear friends, is good news.

Amen.

Now is the Time

Lectionary 33 (25th Sunday after Pentecost), Year C
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

Growing up with the last name of Duckworth,
    and having all sort of nicknames based on the root “Duck” –
    Ducky, Duckman, Duckhead, Duckface, Ducker, Duckaramma, Ducker Doodles –
    I take special interest in all things Duck.
And so at the end of certain political cycles my Duck feathers get ruffled, so to speak,
    as we hear about the fate of “lame duck” politicians.   
There is nothing “lame” about ducks, that you very much.

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All Saints Confusion

(The following is a heavily edited and updated version of a similiar post from three years ago, All Saints, All Souls, and the Return of Christ.)

I find myself a bit confused by the festival of All Saints in our Lutheran practice.  On this day we remember our loved ones who have died in the past year – "saints" – who have gone before us.  Yet we hear a Gospel text of blessings and woes that reminds us of our callings to live as "saints" today.  And in the proper preface for the day we recall the "witness of the saints," who with the choirs of angels and the hosts of heaven praise God's name.  It seems to me that our Lutheran practice of All Saints refers, even if in muddled fashion, to three kinds of saints – the exemplars of faith who have gone before us, other departed souls, and living saints today.

This sounds a lot like the three expressions of the Church my friend Derek outlined several years ago in a wonderful post, Musings on All Souls.  He writes (bullet formating my emphasis):

Traditionally we spoke of the

  • Church Militant (all of us living folks here on earth still slogging away),
  • the Church Expectant (those who have died and are generally hanging around waiting for the resurrection), and   
  • the Church Triumphant (those souls who are already participating in the fullness of God and who are – even as you read this – interceding before the throne of God on behalf of us poor slobs).

This way of describing the church corresponds to the Church's traditional manner of honoring and remembering the departed over a span of two consecutive holy days.  On All Saints Day (Nov 1) the Church traditionally honored the Church Triumphant, the capital 'S' Saints, those faithful models of the Christian life who have departed and are interceding on our behalf (ie, St Francis, St Anthony, St Catherine, etc. – all those Saints that, for better or for worse, were thrown out with the Reformation's bathwater).  On All Souls Day (Nov 2), the Church commemorated the Church Expectant, the faithfully departed, ie, our friends and family who have gone before us. 

This distinction is all but absent in the Lutheran Church, and I'm not sure that All Souls was ever really practiced among Lutherans.  Rather, we remember both the Church Triumphant and the Church Expectant on one day, All Saints Sunday.

But we don't use the language of Church Expectant or Church Triumphant these days, and indeed making a distinction between the two riles our protestant and modern insistence that we're all saints.  Arguing for the recovery of All Souls Day, Derek supports maintaining the language (and distinction) of Church Expectant and Church Triumphant:

I think that the current protestant attempt to recover the saints in general and All Saints in particular has really wrecked the church’s sense of All Souls. As you probably know, the standard early 21st century protestant take is that everybody gets to be a saint. Yeah, I know there’s *some* theological basis for that…but where does it leave All Souls? If we’ve already celebrated all the baptized yesterday [on All Saints], who were we celebrating today [on All Souls]? All the non-Christian dead? I mean–in one sense, yes, since we are celebrating literally all souls but… The way to recover it, as far as I can see, is to draw the line and say–look, yes, we’re all saints in one sense but in another sense some people really did do an exemplary job of showing forth the love of Christ in their lives. These people really should be held up as exemplars and as intercessors.

Now, I don't share Derek's concern with recovering the practice of All Souls Day (the subject of his post), but I am concerned with about how the church looks at the dead and the promise of their resurrection.  As we bring all the blessed dead together into one pool and celebrate on All Saints their presence among the heavenly hosts and with God himself, we lose something.

First, we lose an emphasis on the life and witness of those who were truly exemplars in the faith.  Too often All Saints Sunday becomes a sort of shared funeral service to remember loved ones who have died.  Whereas such a remembrance is a blessed and holy and wonderful thing, I think we Lutherans can benefit from focusing on the capital 'S' Saints  every now and then – modern and ancient, those canonized by Rome and those recognized in a more ecumenical context – as models of the Godly life and exemplars of faith.  We Lutherans could benefit from a further exploration of our understanding of the Church Triumphant, those Saints who praise God's name in eternity and – perhaps even – intercede on our behalf.  (If they're not interceding on our behalf, what exactly are they doing in paradise anyway?  I teeter on believing in the intercession of the Saints.  See my post, The Company of Saints, written several years ago during my 9-month residency as a hospital chaplain.)

Most sigifnciantly, however, our confused practice of All Saints helps to perpetuate an unfortunate yet commonly held view of heaven – that upon death, one's disembodied soul shoots up into  paradise like a rocketship heading toward the moon.  Rather, I understand the afterlife in a "Church Expectant" way.  I see in Scripture an understanding that while some exemplars in the faith indeed do ascend to our Father in heaven – Elijah and Stephen, for example – most of us will die and rot in the ground, waiting for the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.  Not the sweetest sounding thing, but that's what I see. 

A strong belief in the soul's eternal dwelling in heavenly paradise weakens our church's expectant hope for Christ's return.  If we all just go to heaven upon death, why bother believing in a second coming or a resurrection of the dead?  What need is there for any other work of God?  Indeed, such a view of heaven – that our life's goal is to have our souls transported to a disembodied spiritual realm – leads us to care less for our bodies and for the created world, and to shrug our shoulders at our Lord's promise to come again and remake the world, to join heaven and earth in a new creation. "Thy Kingdom come," we pray, and in the creed we confess, "We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."  But these commitments are largely disregarded by the belief in heaven as a disembodied spiritual realm and final destination for souls.

Holy Scripture and the church's tradition teaches that death initiates a period of waiting, a season of Advent, for the return of Christ.  In death we are not separate from Christ – for Paul in Romans teaches us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – but we are not automatically whisked away into heaven, either.  There is a waiting.  That is why old tombstones used to read, "Rest in Peace," for it was beleived that death was a rest until our Lord's final wake-up call.  What exactly that waiting looks like, what level of consciousness we may or may not have in that period of waiting, I have no idea.  But it is a waiting in the love and embrace of our Lord, so I figure it's got to be pretty good.

Lutherans will likely never celebrate All Saints and All Souls as distinct celebrations, and that's fine with me.  However, perhaps we could celebrate All Saints by recalling those Saints who are exemplars of faith and join with them in praise of God, while also remembering and praying for those beloved souls who have gone before us and who are waiting – indeed, as we here on earth are waiting – for Christ to come again and bring us to eternal life.  In so doing, we will preserve the fundamental hope we have in Christ, that he will come again to bring his kingdom on earth.