You may not know that long-time actor Martin Sheen is a Christian and an activist. (He did a great interview with Krista Tippett for her “On Being” podcast, if you’re interested.) Sheen was recently in Washington, D.C. to take part in Fire Drill Fridays, a weekly climate action protest organized by Jane Fonda. When asked to speak, Sheen stepped up to the podium and began with this Irish story:
After a long life here on earth, a man breathes his last and arrives at the Pearly Gates. He asks St. Peter to be let into heaven. “Of course,” says the saint. “Just show us your scars.” “I have no scars,” replies the man. “What a pity,” St. Peter responds. “Was there nothing worth fighting for?”
“Was there nothing worth fighting for?”
Last week , we spent time thinking together about the first of our Five Smooth Stones: Love Wins. God’s love, that is. Although hate, indifference, fear, cynicism, violence, and all the rest so often appear to have the upper hand, God simply will not rest until God’s love prevails. Easter is potent, convincing evidence of this.
This morning, we are considering what we mean when as a church we say “This World Matters.” This is the second of our Five Smooth Stones, tenets that both undergird our faith here at Community Spirit and inform our actions as our area’s most progressive Christian church.
Some of you know that for many years I welcomed travelers into my home as an Airbnb host. These visitors often commented on the abundance of churches in Montrose. Yes, I would nod, there are a lot of faith communities here and nearly all of them are conservative in theology and practice. We are an outlier, I would tell them.
For instance, while most churches in Montrose insist the Bible must be taken literally, our commitment is to take it seriously. I’ll say more about this next week with our third stone, Bring Your Brain.
As a church, we are also an outlier when it comes to Jesus and his mission.
Our conservative friends regard Jesus’ mission as coming to save us from our sins, offer salvation, and plant within those who call him Lord and Savior the assurance of eternal life. This world matters but what matters even more is the next life.
While I understand the sentiment, surely this world matters far more to God than merely being the place where we come to know Jesus, accept him, and live virtuous, charitable lives while we await our reward in gloryland, in heaven.
This world—its beauty as well as its brokenness—matters to God. This world—everything and everyone in it—matters to God. Not because this world is a springboard into the next but because, as Genesis reminds us, all of creation is God’s love song to us. Every stone, every speck, every soul is a delight to God. Every atom, every ounce of creation matters to God.
And because of this, wherever there is hurt or harm, injustice or indifference, God’s heart aches. God’s heart aches not simply for this but with this reality.
Why? Because God is not Santa discerning from a distance who is naughty and who is nice. God is present to, alive in, experiencing every aspect of God’s creation.
Our lesson from Luke speaks to this, the second of our five assertions. We are not here simply to secure a place in the next life. This World Matters.
Jesus’ reading from the scroll bearing the prophet Isaiah’s words is Jesus’ first public act in the third gospel. Jesus had just come from spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness, prayerfully unpacking what the heavens declared about him at the Jordan the day his cousin John baptized him. “This is my son. The beloved. In him I am well pleased.”
Having plumbed the depths of this pronouncement, having investigated its implications, Jesus comes out of the wilderness and heads for Galilee. And now we find him in Nazareth in his hometown synagogue.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus turns the scroll to this particular passage from Isaiah, then lifts his head as he reads: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And then, just to connect the dots, just to make everything clearer than clear, Jesus rolls the scroll back up and returns it to its keeper and says “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today. Not tomorrow but today. Here and now, not in the great by and by. Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
As we contemplate Jesus’ opening act in Nazareth, and all the other acts that follow, Christian writer and thinker Dallas Willard offers this vital insight: “The gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.”
Filled with the Spirit that day in the synagogue, filled with the same passions and purposes as his heavenly father, Jesus reminds me of his mother. Remember Mary’s song earlier in Luke, back when Jesus was tucked away in her womb?
Mary sings—in the present tense—of what God is doing in and through her. That God, here and now, is turning the world’s tables upside down. Here and now, through her and the holy child she carries, God is undoing what the powerful and the proud have arranged for themselves. Here and now, through Mary and the holy child she carries, God is filling the hungry with good things.
When I hear Jesus read from the scroll in the synagogue, I can’t help but think how steeped he was from the very beginning in God’s sweeping vision here and now. And how, as he prayed in the wilderness and listened deeply, echoing in his heart and mind were the words to the song his mother sang that day long before he was born.
When I hear Jesus read from the scroll, I hear his purpose, his mission, his manifesto, if you will. I hear him saying to all of us: with all its pain as well as all its promise, this world matters.
Many years ago, a foodie friend invited me to dinner at one of our city’s finest, most exclusive restaurants. There were many courses, each of them more delicious than the next. Each one a work of art, a labor of love on the part of the unseen chef laboring in the kitchen in the back.
We sampled and savored. We oohed and we ahhed. Partway through the meal, something amazing happened: the table transformed itself into an altar. Every morsel became a prayer. Every bite a sacrament.
Had the chef come out to meet us partway through our dining experience, what would have been his response if instead of thanking him for the sumptuous feast and the mastery and commitment it required, I had said instead, “Well, this was good but what I really came for was dessert.”
This world matters.
I once overheard someone whose faith is important say that because she had resented the favor someone had asked that she would not receive a blessing in heaven for having done it.
Suddenly my mind was flooded with the sad realization that she saw her life as a tally sheet, sort of like a spiritual 401K. Racking up blessings for the afterlife seems such an affront to a God who has created this world, this life, to be sampled and savored—and, when necessary, set right.
Set right not as a quid pro quo—you do this for me, mortal, and I will do that for you later. But set right because the broken places in this world, the fissures and the fractures, grieve us in the same way they grieved Jesus, grieve us in the same way they grieve God, the one who designed and delivered all this out of sheer love.
One of my best Airbnb guests is the daughter of parents who escaped the holocaust as children.
Now in their 90s, they are largely too old to busy themselves with speaking publicly, telling their harrowing stories of rescue and drawing attention to the many heroic efforts that saved the lives of countless other Jews. They are too frail to take up the hard, daily work of fighting anti-Semitism and insisting, as must be insisted, #NeverAgain.
So their daughter Deborah has taken up this work on their behalf. Recently she was invited to speak as part of an ongoing series at her public library in Pittsburg.
Pittsburg, you will recall, is where a mass shooter targeted the Tree of Life synagogue during Shabbat morning services; he killed eleven people and wounded six more in October of 2018.
In the days leading up to her talk, Deborah posted stories about acts of heroism during WWII on behalf of the Jews, including a story about an American military commander whose brigade of 100 men was captured by the Germans.
When ordered to identify which of his soldiers were Jewish so that they might be shot, the commander simply said “We are all Jews here.” As a result, every single one of those men lived to tell the tale of the officer who loved every one of their lives equally.
In Facebook posts prior to her library talk, Deborah caused me to remember that the Jewish people do not look ahead, as Christians so regularly do, to the rewards of heaven. The Jews are much like the Navajo in this regard. The life that is real life is here and now.
And when the life that is real life is tattered and torn, whenever and wherever its fabric has been rent, that is ripped and even seemingly ruined, the Jewish people know there is work to do. Tikkun olam, they call it. The repair of the world.
Acts of kindness and charity help. But what heals and helps, what repairs and restores is justice. Justice is love when it walks around in public, to borrow from Cornel West.
Sadly, justice is not a self-driving car. It does not happen on its own. It requires our active, ongoing participation. Not so as to gain a reward in the next life but to see this world put back the way God, in love, intends it.
“On earth, as it is in heaven,” we pray as Jesus taught. This world matters to God. And whatever matters to God must matter to us.