Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Editorial: Nothing That We Have Is Ours

My third sermon, given this past Sunday:

Nothing That We Have is Ours

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen
Please be seated.

You don’t have to be afraid. You don’t need to be alone. Those are the words I put up on the sign outside, last week. I thought that in the midst of these economic difficulties, people might need to hear that. Freshly unemployed, I knew I needed to say it. I can tell you I’ve been feeling both of those things, afraid and alone. It’s kept me up nights, to be honest. I believed that I had built relationships. I thought I had found a place where I was respected and trusted, where my work was valued. I thought, in short, that I would get to keep my job. I thought that job was mine.

Now this was not the first time I thought that something was mine. Five years ago, six years ago this May, I graduated from college. My closest friends and I stayed up till dawn the night before the ceremony, planning how we all could stay together. None of us were married. None of us had definite paths. Why not live together? We were the best things all of us had going. Pool our money, buy a run- down farmhouse, fix it up. People did that all the time. Get some goats, garden, take random jobs to pay taxes and utilities. Why not? Let’s commit to that, right here, right now.

We didn’t do it, of course, in spite of our commitments. I can’t even remember exactly why. And, all hindsight and a little scoffing aside, I’m still a little sad we didn’t. I used to imagine how things could have turned out differently. If we had lived together, I would not have lost, to distance, the best friends that I had ever had. I would already have been living in community. I probably wouldn’t have been fired three times in as many years. I probably wouldn’t have had half a dozen jobs since graduation. I wouldn’t be living a thousand miles away from all of my family. My lonely soul would have lived, for a charmed while longer, a less supremely isolated life.

There was no evil in that vision, of living with my friends. It was a good idea. It would probably have been good for me. It might even have been good for all my friends. But it would have been a limited good. It wouldn’t have been good for everyone else. It wouldn’t have been good for France and China and New Jersey and Connecticut and D.C, all the places we eventually went. And it wouldn’t have been good for Minnesota.

It wouldn’t have been good for Gethsemane, right? Whatever I’ve done here, and I really have no idea, it wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I would certainly never have gotten into a pulpit. I would never have met any of you. But I was afraid that night in May. I didn’t want to be alone. And there’s no sin in that, just as there’s none in sadness, right? After Elijah gets taken up into heaven in that chariot and Elisha knows that his promise has been fulfilled, he tears his clothes in two. Good doesn’t cancel out the grief.

It just means that we can’t hold on. My friends were not and are not my possessions. My job was nothing that I owned. Store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. And what’s not heaven? Everything we see. I am God’s; I am not my own. Joy isn’t mine, neither is sorrow. Not even solace is my own. My peace of mind can be stolen right out from beneath my feet. We are grass, chaff thrown into the wind. All of this will pass away. Nothing that we have is ours.

Now, when I moved out of my parent’s house a year after graduation- and this is, I swear, the last anecdote about me- the first thing I did was run afoul of the law. Right? I let my insurance lapse. Nationwide neglected to tell me about this, and informed the State of Pennsylvania instead. I got a notice that I couldn’t drive for the next 90 days. I panicked, stayed awake that night. What about my job? What about food? What about visiting my friends? Would I make rent? Starve? Have to move back in with my parents?

Then I realized that I was fat, hated my job, and lived a twenty-minute bike ride away from everything anyway. I didn’t need the truck. I didn’t need to drive. And I absolutely never had. The good means we can’t hold on. That’s the other side of it, right? Nothing that we have is ours. Not because God or the universe is out to inconvenience us or deprive us of our entitlements, but because we don’t need them, and never have. If you looked around with “need glasses,” right now, just looked around you, what would you see? Those windows? The overhead lights, do we need those? The pews, the organ? Each other?

Alright, probably you’d see the coffee. But we want to build these tents, we want to hold on. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” Now you’ve got understand who he was saying this to. The only Son of Man standing on this mountain, transfigured, transformed, clothes dazzling, white like nothing you’ve ever seen! Now, nothing wrong with wanting a tent. They were terrified. But we don’t need the tent. We are the tents! We are the dwelling places of God. Not us, but Christ in us. As I look at you, your faces are on fire, you are burning like suns!

Nothing that we have is ours. But we are promised so much more. We are ourselves so much more. So Elisha follows his mentor Elijah out of Gigal. “Do you know he will be taken from you?” everyone asks Elisha. “Yes, I know,” he says. “Be silent.” Good does not cancel out our grief, right? Don’t bother me, he said. But he will not be parted beforehand, he does not turn away. When they had crossed the Jordan, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken away from you.” And Elisha says this: “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” Now we still don’t know what this means, exactly. Possibly Elisha himself didn’t know what he meant. But you’ve got to admire the audacity of the request.

This very May, in just a few months, we’re all going to come together and vote on the future of this church. We’re all going to decide exactly what we’re going to do. I know we won’t decide alone. And I hope we won’t decide in fear. We will be ready. We’re going to do a lot of things before then. We’re going to put on those “need glasses” that I mentioned before, and we’re going to talk about what we see inside this church.

And we’re going to talk about Emergence, a word for which I have no great affection. The idea’s alright, I think, the church is changing, this church is changing, but it’s terrible language. I’m a writer, right, I want everyone to use bold words, and this? It’s not an Elisha word. It’s one of those scientific words. You want a microscope. The moth emerges from its chrysalis. Nothing wrong with that, but we’re talking about the future of the Bride of Christ. Maybe it’s not quite asking enough. Maybe we ought to talk about the Transfigured Church instead, right? That which is barely recognizable. Maybe we ought to demand a double portion of our spiritual inheritance.

From the cloud came a voice, “This is my Son, listen to Him!” Jesus stands atop the mountain not in opposition to Moses and Elijah, but as their fulfillment. Elisha may or may not have received a double share of Elijah’s spirit. But we certainly did. Nothing that we have is ours- not because God is here to punish us but because we will be given so much more and will see so many greater things: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also: and greater works than these will he do because I go to my Father.” After that day in May, let it not be said that we chose too timidly.

The future can be a frightening, isolating thing. It seems to come just at us, far too swiftly. It is, by definition, what we do not know. It can seem strange to rearrange the furniture in a place you might be gone from in six months or twelve, as I might be, as any of you might be. But I have lived more or less perpetually uncertain about my future for the last five years! And I can tell you this: we’re already standing in it. The future started yesterday.

The future was there when Elisha asked his mentor for a double share, it was there when Jesus stood transfigured on the mountain. The future was there when Reverend Knickerbacker gathered the people “who had a mind to work.” The future was calling when Gethsemane established the first hospital in Minneapolis, and the first orphanage. The future was insisting when my college friends and I went our separate ways, and even when I got my oversized rear up on that bicycle.

We don’t have to be afraid. We don’t need to be alone. We go with those who have gone before us. Elisha gets a vote, and I hope Jesus does too. Knickerbacker, Coykendal, all those who worked to make Gethsemane what it is have left their voices ringing in our heads. We’ve all come exactly where we need to be. What we decide will be the right decision, because no one else can make it. Let’s just be sure we don’t stint ourselves or those on whose shoulders we so gratefully stand. Change is coming, and soon. Let’s look it right in the eye, and demand a double share.


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