I don’t know that I’ve ever told you this, but in my high school yearbook, I was voted Class Optimist. It was the peak of Generation X, we were all born during Watergate and at the end of the Vietnam War, smallish high school too – so the competition was low. But still, I’ve on the whole had a sunny enough disposition and I’ve tended to have a hopeful, trusting, optimistic read on life.
Some days, though…
Preachers sometimes have a little Sunday night/Monday morning let down. The come down after an intense experience. And last Sunday’s Speak Out Sunday was good, really good – I’m proud of you all, Reservoir, for what we can do together. But it was intense too.
And so Sunday night in the Watson household, there wasn’t much more going on than playing video games and watching the Superbowl. Which was kind of a downer. Now I know you all who aren’t from around here are probably sick of the Patriots, and I care about football a lot less than I used to, but still, it was a pretty disappointing finish to a great run around here.
And then Monday morning, I woke up to the day’s news cycle, which was pretty much the usual chaos and rage and awfulness – I mean really awful – and Monday morning is Monday morning after all, and getting my kids’ school weeks and our work weeks going had some drain and complexity to it.
So as I drove in to the ministry center Monday morning, my high school “class optimist” self wasn’t shining yet. Really the opposite. I was in a funk.
So I pulled over at Danehy park for a few minutes to take a walk, stretch my legs, maybe pray a little before starting my work for the day.
And at one point, I’m walking along, and I look up, and I see this incredible striated cloud formation – like ripple of cloud, blue sky, cloud, sky, patterned again and again. And the flat morning light is cutting across the whole thing, lighting it up. And I stopped in my tracks and just stood there and for a minute, I knew deep in my bones, that God was there.
I thought, I feel like I’m standing still, even though this park and these clouds and me, we’re spinning at almost a thousand miles an hour. And there’s all kinds of trouble in my heart and out in the world, and who knows how long all this will last, but my God, you made this all, and you are here and you are real.
And as I stood there, arms out, eyes open, I felt, Oh, it’s all going to be OK. We are not alone here. There is nothing to fear.
And then I realized I was probably humanly not alone in this park, and I turned my head a little, and there was someone coming up behind me walking their dog, and I was like, “Hey”, and I went on with my day.
Now, what happened there? One possibility is that my susceptible brain, soaked in spiritual ideas and language, saw something arresting and made up a story, invented a transcendent experience. Who knows? It’s possible.
But another possibility is that I caught a window into something else going on in the universe. A deeper sense, a greater clarity, of God with us. Our age, our natural world as we know it functioning alongside something we might call God’s world. This has been called a lot of things – heaven, God’s kingdom within us or among us or near at hand.
And it’s this possibility that our hard times are not all that is going on around us that I want to explore today in this last talk in our series, Ways We Destroy the World, and how God Brings Good Out of That.
This winter, we’ve been looking at personal problems and also at systemic problems that people create – human choices and patterns and culture that miss the mark (what religious tradition calls sin). And we’ve found many of these present-day problems anchored in the ancient narratives of the Bible’s first book, where we’ve found direction as well for experiences of redemption – of good turns coming out of bad.
And I want to wrap up today not talking about one missing the mark issue in particular, but more our sense that the whole show has gone off script. Our feeling that many people have had before that we live in hard times, in a fractured world. Where so much micro and macro human culture seems irretrievably broken.
We’ll look at this experience people have again and again of sensing that in the middle of that, God is still here. And that God has magnetism – that the hope and presence and love and purpose and voice of God can shape its own good reality and direction right in the middle of the world as we know it.
One night, that happens for Jacob in a dream.
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
Genesis 28:10-22 (NRSV)
A few weeks back, our pastor Ivy gave a talk about Jacob the scheming hustler learning to find peace with himself and with God. Jacob’s story has also meant a lot to me, so this is a Jacob, part II talk – really a prequel. Because when Ivy picked up his story for us, Jacob was a middle aged man of success. Even though he was still haunted by his past, he was living large. But when we meet him in this story, he’s a young and scrappy loaner. He’s sleeping outdoors alone with nothing but a rock for a pillow because he’s looking for a life partner – and you all know how rough the dating scene can be – true then in its own way. And Jacob is also running away from home.
Because at home, Jacob was part of this jacked up family system where his mom favored him and his dad favored his twin brother, and his parents themselves didn’t have much of a marriage most likely… and so Jacob and his mom conspired to steal his big brother’s larger inheritance, something that Jacob had been gunning for, in a way, his whole life.
And last we see him before this dream, Jacob was nestled in the embrace of his dad, being told that he’s loved and blessed and favored… only because his dad thinks he’s his brother. Can you imagine what it would be like to finally have the affection and approval you want from your dad, but knowing you’re only getting it because he thinks you’re one of your sibling? Like if you were on the phone with your dad and he was going on about how much he loves you and is proud of you but then realizes, wait a second, I thought you were your sister… nevermind…
Well, after that whole sad drama, Jacob’s brawnier brother with a temper wants to kill him, and now he’s on the run…
Jacob’s times are pretty hard. Things are not right in his world – when he goes to bed, and then God appears to him. This is the most awesome of dreams – and it gave both Jesus and Led Zeppelin some sweet lines to work with as they both talked about ladders or stairways to heaven. And for Jacob, this ladder, covered with angels, is a portal to another world. The show Stranger Things had portals to another world, what they call the flip side, or the upsidedown world. There, it’s a portal to something like hell.
Jacob’s other world, though, is a good one, he calls this spot “a gate to heaven.” And names the place Beth-el, House of God, because he says, My God, who knew? You are here.
Scattered around the Bible, here and there, are these portal moments when God shows up and talks with people. Bible scholars call these moments theophanies – appearances of God. And in these theophanies, a few things tend to happen, things that aren’t to be different to be honest, from what I sensed on Monday in the park down the street.
In these moments, people get a vivid sense God is here. Along with that, they hear or feel that God has promises, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. And then usually before the moment ends, people get a sense of direction, like there’s something to do. In Jacob’s case, he isn’t even directly told something to do, but he has this impulse of gratitude, and to be connected with and loyal to this God, with his life and his possessions too.
Genesis again is littered with these portals into God’s world being open to us, there being this gateway to heaven, not just in the future, but right now. Well, in Genesis, they stop at one point, we’ll talk about that in a minute, but up until late in the book, they are relatively common.
And again, these are experiences that many people have still, that we are not alone, that God is with us.
Why is this interesting and hopeful and relevant to me today, not just something I write off as crazy or superstitious?
Well, I’ll start by saying that I think that in 2018, we’re keenly aware we are living in hard times.
I was watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics on Friday night, which was gorgeous, if you didn’t see it. I mean there were odd parts – like the ring of women in the pink snow-pants that did those non-stop dance cheers for an hour straight while all the athletes walked in… that was kind of really cheery and impressive and really strange all at once. But mostly it was beautiful. Large animals with symbolism in Korean culture, cute children, magnificently choreographed drumming and dancing, fireworks, gestures of peace between long-divided South and North Korea. It was really wonderful.
But at some point, NBC brought a non-sports commentator into the act and asked him to talk about what this all means for today’s geopolitics. And the guy was like, well, this is really significant. Because this could be the beginning of a new era of peace, or it could be the last calm before the storm, as war breaks out and engulfs us all.
Well, he might not have said something quite so bleak, but I think it was close. And you can’t help but think about the fragile state of our globe while watching this incredible show of culture and athleticism just forty miles from the border of North Korea, which has been isolated from the South and most of the rest of the world for the past sixty-five years.
Last winter our Board member Connie Chung preached in our series on the stories Jesus told, and she talked about a phrase she’s learned about the world we live in, in the context of her work in international education. She says people call it a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. That description of our world has somewhat haunted me this year.
I mean it’s hard to be class-optimist-me sitting watching the Olympics when our president and the dictator of this isolated totalitarian regime are dickering about who’s got the bigger nuclear weapons launch button. Talk about volatile and uncertain!
The trust in our leadership and institutions that was deteriorating when I was born in the early 70s has just fallen off a cliff as so many of our so-called leaders in government and religion and industry disappoint.
And if we’re kids or students, or if we’re raising kids, it feels like a scary world to future to step into sometimes.
There’s a very old, and in some circles, very famous theologian named Jurgen Moltmann. And Moltmann posted something on twitter last week… or given that he’s 92 years old, maybe his people put on twitter, but either way, it was this:
“Anxiety is the reason why many young people are not just afraid of death, but are already afraid of life.”
I read that line and it stopped me in my feet. How sad and how true, that in our VUCA, hard times world, there’s so much to be afraid of.
But what does all this hard times talk have to do with theophanies and portals to an experience of God is with us?
To be clear, as I always say, it’s not that God-with-us removes every anxiety and solves every problem. No. It’s that keeping one foot in our hardscrabble world and planting another where we most experience God to be good and real and present births hope for us. And hope is a powerful thing.
Back to that 92-year-old tweeter Jurgen Moltmann for a moment.
Moltmann is one of the most significant thinkers and writers about God in the late twentieth century. But his life began in hard times, and without any awareness of God with him.
Moltmann was raised in Nazi Germany, and when he was sixteen years old, just after he took his entrance exams for university, he was instead drafted into the German army to help defend his country, just as the war had turned against them.
So at 16, he left home and began life as a soldier. It was a short life, because as the Allies advanced on Germany, Moltmann surrendered to the first British soldier he met. And he was promptly sent to a prisoner of war camp, where he spent the next few years.
In that camp, he was utterly in despair. He had lost his home, his family, and his childhood. He had seen the death and destruction and futility of war. And then as he moved about from prison camp to prison camp, the people in charge would post photographs in their huts, photographs of Germany’s concentration camps. And each day Moltmann had to look at the horrible, horrible things his culture and leaders had done at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Moltmann says he lost all hope in his culture and that he often wished he could have died along with friends who had been killed in war than live to face what their nation had done.
In the middle of his despair in such hard times, Moltmann was given a copy of the Bible’s New Testament and Psalms, most of which he had never read or heard.
And he remembers reading the gospel of Mark, and getting to the point near the end, where Jesus, as he is dying on the cross, cries out, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
In that moment, Moltmann says, he felt, There is a divine brother, who feels the same feelings that I do. He felt: this is a God I can believe in. And that saved him from his desperation and self-destruction. In a time and place where he had no cause for hope, he found it. Actually, Moltmann talks about that experience more as a theophany, as God appearing to him through that thin Bible. He says, I didn’t find Christ, Christ found me.
Jurgen Moltmann’s experience reminds me that there are so many portals around, so many different ways God can capture our attention with awareness that God is with us. It can be a dream like Jacob’s, a moment in prayer or in the natural world like I described at the top, or the Spirit of God catching as we read the Bible. Or lots of other ways.
Each time, though, as with me, as with Jacob, as with Moltmann here, fear decreases, a sense of promise and direction increase.
We call this hope. Restlessness with the world as it is, discontent with our hard times. But hope for the future grounded in God being with us. Which for Moltmann and for me, is tied to our experience of feeling this is so, but also to our hope and belief that Jesus is risen from the dead, and so alive with us still by his Spirit.
This is the hope that moved Jurgen Moltmann out of his nearly suicidal despair in a post-World War II prison camp and led him to become one of the most famous thinkers and writers of his age about God and specifically about hope. Hope called him not just to live, but to become a messenger of hope in his scholarship.
This hope that we are not alone, that God is with us, kept Jacob moving in the wilderness when he had the promise of some future success, but had lost his brother, and lost his father who he never really had. Hope called Jacob to start to trust God, and to commit to generosity, to devote his wealth to a higher good.
This hope I cultivate with one foot in the up and down circumstances of my life, and one foot planted in the presence and promise of God, gives me courage to try to do hard things that I want to do, that I feel my job and my life call me to do.
This is what hope does. It calls us to things. Sometimes hope calls us to courage – to do the hard thing we wouldn’t otherwise do. Sometimes, hope calls u to surrender – to trust God with the things we can’t do anything about, and to find joy and peace in the present.
Sometimes, though, hope can be hard to find. Or the sense of God with us that will birth hope can be hard to find. In fact historically, the more advanced and compelling our world is, the harder it can be to see God’s world, the smaller the portals seem to be. Had Germany won the war, perhaps Moltmann doesn’t get found by Christ who shared his sense of abandonment. If Jacob doesn’t have to go on the run, perhaps he just stays a hustler and a schemer.
In Genesis, the theophanies stop when they get to Egypt… and don’t start again until Moses leaves and is out of empire, off in the desert wilderness…
And now here we are in 21st century America, where the prosperity and peace and comforts our empire offers would embarrass ancient Egypt. And in times and places that aren’t just volatile and uncertain and fractured, but also promise so much, it can be harder to see and stay oriented in God’s world.
So next Sunday, we’re going to look together. We’ll start our annual season we call 40 Days of Faith. It’s our church’s spin on the ancient season of Lent leading up to Easter, when churches have encouraged people to break the regular rhythms of life and together look to God in some deeper way.
Our church first celebrated this season in 2003. Back then, our church needed a building to meet in and then when a building came on the market, needed an impossibly large sum of money to be able to purchase it. During the forty days leading to Easter, people were invited to pray that God would do something extraordinary to make the impossible possible, in the life of the church community and in the big dreams and concerns of individual people’s lives as well. People were also invited to embrace the historic tone of this season, and to interrupt the usual fabric of their life and practice spiritual formation disciplines to go deeper in faith and move closer to God.
Well, it worked – by the end of that season, millions of dollars were raised, a gorgeous church campus was ours, and dozens of other miracles were reported by members of the community. And in addition to all those things that felt like results, people really enjoyed the ride.
Ever since then, we’ve continued the practice of breaking our ordinary rhythms, entering into some spiritually formative practices, and asking God to do some big things on our behalf. The results of the big prayers have been mixed, but it’s been consistently rewarding and often pretty fun too. So next Sunday, Ivy will kick off our season inviting us to wonder whether we’re sitting on a big prayer we’d like to ask of God, or whether we’d rather sit out that part of the season this year.
Additionally, we’re calling this year’s 40 days “Children of God in a Fractured World”. And I’ve written a daily Bible guide in the Bible’s last book, called Revelation, which not a lot of people read these days, and when they do, they tend to read it pretty badly. Because it’s basically poetry, and it’s in this old symbolic genre called apocalypse that not many people understand very well. But when you let it grab your imagination and settle in with a trusty guide – which I hope to be for you – it can actually be a great place to try to peel back the curtain to another world, one of these portals to discover that God might be with us still and up to some beautiful things.
Revelation was written to first century communities of faith to help them find God with them in their own hard times under the Roman empire. And I think we can still find it helpful as part of finding God with us in our own age of American empire.
So on this year’s 40 Days of Faith, we’ll invite you into to step further into a counter-cultural and courageous journey to follow Jesus as God’s child and to find hope and courage to resist the worst of our times, letting Jesus – and not our crazy-making world – center us, and give us hope.
In that spirit, let me close out today with a few things you might consider trying.
Program Notes – Try This:
Go all in on this year’s 40 Days of Faith.
Look for the portals – watch for how God might be getting your attention.
Is there a time when God seemed vividly real to you? If so, remember it again and again – dare to believe it was real.
Give yourself to how hope calls you to live.
(The above is a close, but not exact text version of the sermon from 2/11/2018)