Unshakeable

Hebrews 12:18-29
© Stacey Steck

In your mental gallery of images of immoveable objects, is there any firmer, more permanent picture in your mind than of a mountain? When you think of ancient and enduring, not to mention majestic, is there anything that can compare to a mountain? Is there anywhere we feel more overwhelmed by sheer size and strength then in the face of a mountain? Is it any wonder that in ancient culture after ancient culture, the mountains in their midst were seen as the contact point between heaven and earth, between what was sacred and what was mundane? That place in their landscape, rising up in their midst, became their axis mundi, the center of their world, the place around which their religious life revolved. No, the mountain wasn’t going anywhere because it was God’s foot come down to rest on earth.

I always got some of that same sense driving through the mountains of Costa Rica. They are not the Andes, nor the Rockies, but they will do. And we purchased our little piece of them in a place called San Cristobal Norte, about an hour south of the capital, and our few acres are steep enough to be daunting and sometimes exhausting to climb. On one side of our property is a small river, and on the other side a road, and between them is a drop of what must be a hundred meters, but that is nothing compared to the other side of the road which rises yet higher and looms above us reminding us that we do indeed live in the shadow of the mountain. That higher mountainside is still covered with trees and I like to think that they will always be there, even though someone else gets to decide that. But it will certainly be only the trees that may one day disappear, for surely the mountain itself is not going to go anywhere, as immoveable and permanent as it is. Right?

Well, I thought so until one Friday morning when I went out there to enjoy some solitude on our little piece of sacred space and found not one, not two, not even three, but four landslides on our property as a result of a very intense rain the night before. One was just an annoying inconvenience on the driveway. Another created a new beach by the side of the river. The third I only saw from a distance, but the fourth made me question just how long the mountain would stand. You see, this particular landslide had taken out all the vegetation in its path, including the biggest trees, carving out a nice new swath of brown and washing it all downstream toward the unlucky neighbor whose property lies at the lowest point in the valley. How permanent can the mountain be when it can disappear in the wink of God’s eye in the middle of the night?

DSC00080
Although it goes unnamed, the mountain referred to in the first part of our passage tonight is Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Law and where he spent time in God’s presence, the only one of his people to be able to do so. In precisely that sense of the mountain being the conduit to the divine, that place was revered and feared by the people of Israel. It was a place so holy, so full of God’s presence, that even proximity to it could harm you. Listen again to the description of Mount Sinai: “You have not come to something that can be touched, [to] a blazing fire, and darkness and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” As holy as it was, Sinai was a place which provoked great fear because of the power of God that resided there. God was so powerful there that human beings could not even come close to the divine presence for fear of being consumed, Moses being the exception, and even he trembled with fear. But as important and holy as this mountain was to God’s people, it too shall be shaken and removed. You see, it’s just a mountain after all.

For those who have chosen to follow Jesus, another mountain is described, Mount Zion, the fulfillment of all the hopes of the generations of God’s people. “You have not come” to Mount Sinai, they are told, but rather, “you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood.” And that mountain’s not going anywhere. Ever. That description is in stark contrast to the description of that other mountain. Which would you choose? Fear or festival? The distance of stoning, or the closeness of Christ. The images of the two mountains couldn’t be more different, but what exactly makes them so different?

The easy difference to spot between the two mountains is that one is earthly, and the other spiritual, that they are made of different stuff, stuff that lasts and stuff that doesn’t; God, heaven, angels, the spirits of the righteous made perfect, all these things last, while the earth simply washes away in a torrential rainstorm. And while that is in some senses technically true, I think the more important difference is that the place to which we have come, the kingdom we are receiving, is relationship rather than residence, connectedness rather than country. The description of Mount Sinai gives us a clue when it begins, “You have not come to something that can be touched,” and goes on to list the sights and sounds that surrounded that mountain. The description of Mount Zion, on the other hand, is short on physical details but long on who is there, and what they are doing, and how they are celebrating. “You have come to Mount Zion,” and to all the rest. You have come into relationship with the angels, the assembly of the firstborn, the spirits of the righteous, and most importantly Jesus and his blood. This is the kingdom that is unshakeable, not because it is not material, but because what holds it together doesn’t appear like carbon or plutonium in the periodic table of the elements, but is made of even more divinely elemental stuff like love and forgiveness and mercy and justice and grace. That is the uncreated stuff, the stuff of God’s character, the unshakeable stuff on which we can depend, in response to which we must celebrate and worship, and care for one another.

“Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also heaven,” we are told, and it goes on to clear things up by saying, “This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of what is shaken – that is, created things – so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” Yes, the mountains will disappear, and so will the highways, your home and car, this church building, even the chair you are seated in. It’s all going away, announces the author of Hebrews, all that has been created, to reveal what will not go away, what will not be shaken, what will remain after all we perceive with our senses has disappeared in the blink of God’s eye in the middle of our night. It’s hard to believe, I know, and maybe that’s precisely why earlier, in the beginning of chapter eleven, we are given that great definition of faith, that faith “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It must be by faith that we hold our conviction of the unshakeable kingdom, that it is there, indeed that we are already receiving it. At times, it is harder to believe that God’s kingdom is unshakeable than in the strength of the mountains we see around us. It is hard to believe that God’s kingdom is unshakeable when young lives are snuffed out by a punk with a gun who wants to join a gang, when communities are poisoned by the toxins produced by the factories built alongside them with the promise of jobs, when a world lives in fear of terrorism and devotes all its resources to preventing it. Yes, sometimes, the mountains do seem a safer bet than God’s kingdom, and it takes a landslide to remind us that there really is something more permanent than what we can perceive with our senses. It takes a landslide like the story we heard from Luke where one woman’s mountain was washed away by a word from God and then we remember just what unshakeable is all about. After eighteen years, that woman’s ailment, the spirit that occupied her, kept her bent over, unable to stand up, must have seemed like a mountain that would never fall. It was her constant companion, a burden which suggested to her that perhaps God couldn’t move mountains after all, that while her faith might be unshakeable, maybe God’s power wasn’t. And then one day it happened: it all fell away, carried downstream to Satan’s doorstep, her life as clean a slate as that part of our property that fell away one Friday. A promise kept. A future fulfilled.

If you need some other images for your mental gallery of immoveable objects in the unshakeable kingdom, picture the hospital bed of the saint with terminal cancer, for whom nothing more than morphine is left to be prescribed. And by the bedside of that saint sits another, hour after hour, day after day, hands clasped in prayer, or tenderly stroking thinning hair, until that moment comes when the assembly of the firstborn in heaven grows by one. Picture, if you will, the newborn child in whom are placed the hopes of her family for a more humane and just kingdom, and whom they raise to the best of their ability to love and serve God. Picture the moments throughout your life in which you have captured glimpses of what is truly eternal and unshakeable as you have been loved or remembered or fed and clothed, or shown something of beauty, or simply smiled at during a time in your life when you needed nothing more. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe,” the worship offered the woman Jesus helped to stand up again, a worship not limited to Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m., but one lived out in every relationship God has given us, with those we know, with those we will one day meet, and with those whom we will never have the privilege of knowing. You see, as Mother Teresa said so well, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” God gave us Jesus Christ to help us remember that the strength of the unshakeable kingdom is visible in our care of God’s already perishing creation, humans and mountains alike, lest we forget that we have already come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and all that worships and celebrates therein. May God help us to see the kingdom for the mountain. Amen.

Jesus' Alter Call

Luke 12:49-56
(c) Stacey Steck

Well, weren’t those inspiring words of Jesus for this Homecoming Sunday when all of our extended families are together? I didn’t come to bring peace! I came to bring division! I came to drop a weapon of mass destruction on your families, not plant wildflowers by the roadside. So much for Jesus meek and mild. This is Jesus terrible and truthful. This is a Jesus we may not like very much but he is a Jesus we cannot ignore. Yes, this Jesus may never have spoken truer words, because following him does precisely what he says it does: it sets people against each other no matter how much we like to think it should draw us together.

It’s as simple as this: the life to which Jesus calls us is not the life we live, not the world we live in, not by a long shot. And as long as we are trying to live as Jesus taught us, we will come into conflict with powers, principalities, institutions, individuals, and yes, even members of our own families. It is inevitable, this conflict, as inevitable as the response Moses got when he went to Pharaoh saying “Let me people go.” As inevitable as the reply the prophet Amos got from the King’s priest Amaziah who told him, “Go flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophecy there; but never again prophecy at Bethel.” As inevitable as the beheading John the Baptist received when he criticized King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. As inevitable as the arrest record Rosa Parks earned on a Birmingham bus, or the hanging Dietrich Bonhoeffer merited on Hitler’s gallows. When you go from preachin’ to messin’ with the powers that be, the powers that be start messing with you. And sometimes the powers that be are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sons-in-law, or daughter-in-law, or anybody who by virtue of their relationship with you, or the love you have for one another, has some power over what you do with your life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not always received as good news.

Even though it comes straight out of his own mouth, I think it’s a little deceiving to say that Jesus came to “bring division.” It’s probably more helpful, and closer to the truth to say that Jesus came to bring decision, and that decision brings division. Karl Barth, the great twentieth century Swiss theologian used to say that the coming of Christ was the world’s “krisis,” a Greek word from which we get our English word crisis. Krisis is a sort of legal term about judgment, but what it really comes down to, as it does in a court case, is making a decision for one side against another side. So Barth saw Jesus as a crisis, as God deciding for humankind, but requiring a decision from humankind as well. Barth even liked to use the image of the crater caused by a bombshell. The crater, the gaping hole in the middle of the earth, was the evidence of the coming of Christ, exploding in our midst like a weapon of mass destruction, an event which each individual, and the church must reckon with. That crisis, that reckoning, that deciding for or against, is what causes division.

At this point in the story according to Luke, Jesus is starting to assemble his bomb. He knows what’s coming, and he knows what it is going to mean. He’s preparing the disciples for life without him, when they will have to fend for themselves with only the Holy Spirit’s whispers in their ears. He’s pushing them to go all in, and at the same time, he’s not soft peddling the matter. You want to follow me? This is what it is going to mean. You want to live in the Kingdom of God? This is what it’s going to require. It will cost you something. There is a cost to discipleship, as Bonhoeffer well knew. Come to think of it, the side of Jesus that we like the best, is the one that demands less of us. That gentle, healing, peaceful side of Jesus more easily lets us be the innocent bystanders we’d rather be. But the side that calls us to give away all our possessions, and the side that tells us we must wash the feet of others, and the side that says we must turn the other cheek, that is the side that puts our faith to the test, and challenges us to decide if following this Jesus is really worth the cost. That’s where we are in this story, at a moment of decision.

Now, there are some Christian traditions that make a big deal about the moment of decision in a believer’s life. What matters every Sunday in those traditions is the “drive to decision.” The point of any sermon, any service of worship is to present the participants with an opportunity to turn their lives over to Jesus, to make that decision for God which will ensure their eternal destination. You’ve probably seen this, at least in the movies, if not in person. These moments usually take the form of an altar call, whereby the hearers are invited to come forward to the front of the forward to the front of the church, to the altar, what we call the communion table, to profess their faith in Christ, to decide for him. And sometimes, this kind of decision brings division. If you grew up a Roman Catholic, and you suddenly decide you’re a Baptist, well, I’ll just bet there is someone back home who won’t be too thrilled about that. I heard a lot of those kind of stories in Costa Rica, where the relationship between Protestants and Catholics is only about, what, fifty years behind where it is the United States? I heard stories of people who converted who were completely cut off by their families, never allowed to come home again. I heard stories of people who were fired from jobs and had to start their careers all over again. I heard stories of dead cats being thrown into Protestant churches during worship, and of cars that would surround the building and turn their radios up as loud as they would go, and of showers of stones thrown up on the metal roof of the church making it impossible to hear anything inside. Yes, the introduction of Protestantism in Latin America, the decision people made to relate differently to their God, was something like an altar call, and not very different from what Jesus was asking his followers to do with respect to the Judaism of their upbringing. And that decision brought division.

Now, in churches that do them, the altar call is usually a pretty a dramatic moment, the highlight of the service, and it happens every week, whether or not there is anyone present who has not already made the commitment, a fact about which I do admit I am puzzled. But my ignorance aside, the tone and the point of these altar calls does match a little more closely this side of Jesus that we’d rather keep in the closet, and so maybe we’d better pay attention. So here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know. We Presbyterians have the tradition of the altar call too. We just spell it differently. You see, we don’t want you to come down to the A-L-T-A-R so much as we want you to A-L-T-E-R your life. That one-time decision is great, important, momentous, but it’s just the first of countless decisions you have to make that will alter your life, and probably bring more division into your life than on the day of your decision. That’s why Presbyterian services tend to focus on how to change yourself every day, how to deal with the decisions that face you every day. Maybe that’s why I am puzzled by the “drive to decision” of altar call churches, at least the ones I’ve been in, because they never seem to get around to helping people alter their lives. And that’s the alter call Jesus is offering his disciples, the one that brings just as much division as the other kind.

I think you know what I’m talking about, but let me share a couple of examples from my own life. I don’t share them to pat myself on the back in any way, but just to expand a little on the kind of divisions that came with my decisions and to say that not all decisions bring a reaction of Biblical or Costa Rican proportions. The first took place during my last year in college when I decided to visit Nicaragua with Habitat for Humanity. This was back in the days when the Sandinistas were still considered the communist menace of Central America, and the Contra War hadn’t been over too long. College campuses, including mine, were deeply divided over these issues. And for me to go there was a decision of faith. I had become involved with Habitat because I believed it was the way God was calling me to pursue my faith, and it was a time that altered me significantly. And so I was excited to go, and I came home and told my family, and let’s just say that my father, bless his heart, was more than a little dismayed by my plans, and he tried for weeks to dissuade me and convince me otherwise with appeals of all kinds. It wasn’t the tensest division of my life, but it wasn’t very comfortable either, and it came because I had made a decision on faith.

The other took place years later when the United Methodist Church agency I was working for had the opportunity to opt its employees into the denomination’s Pension Program. Seems like a no-brainer, right? To set aside some money for retirement? My employer was even going to make the entire contribution on my behalf; I wouldn’t have to put in any of my own money. But that opportunity came at a time when I had altered my way of spending money to try to be more consistent about the faith I proclaimed and practiced. And so I was regularly researching the products I bought to see if they were made by companies I wanted to support. And when I did some looking into Mass Mutual and found a few too many of their holdings were in companies I didn’t want to support, I told my boss that I didn’t want to participate in the plan, and that they could take what they would have contributed for me and consider it my charitable donation to the agency. Now you wouldn’t think that a decision like that would be met with much opposition, but in fact it was, and no fewer than three of my superiors insisted that I participate, and at one point, they even suggested that they would go ahead and sign me up against my wishes. In the end, I persuaded them otherwise, or at least I think I did. I do still wonder if one day I will suddenly start receiving checks from Mass Mutual.

Of course, not all the decisions we face have to do with social issues like my examples. Think about when you’ve had to alter your life to meet a challenge. Maybe that time when someone needed your help and you had to decide whether you could give it. Or when you had to unlearn or relearn something about yourself so that you could move forward. Or when your very independent self needed to start depending on someone else for a change. Those are faith decisions too, responses to the call to alter ourselves, to change ourselves into someone more Christ-like, more Kingdom-directed, even if it means entering into some of that inevitable conflict that Jesus is describing. If you think about it, it’s inevitable either way. If we live only as our egos or our families, or institutions, or societies want us to live, we’ll come into conflict with God, or at least our consciences, and those conflicts can make the ones with our families seem tame.

I hope that the divisions you face because of the decisions you make will never be any more challenging than those I’ve just described from my own life, but they could be. They could be more like the scenario Jesus paints of homes divided, or more like the conflict his disciples faced that led some to scatter, and some to martyrdom. They could be ones that stress you and test you and even get the best of you. But know this: that every generation of the faithful before you, from that great cloud of witnesses listed in Hebrews to all those who have gathered here at Thyatira for homecomings past, every generation has persevered, and “run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross,” that greatest division, that greatest conflict. And because he did, because they did, the world is a better place, the church is still going strong, and Jesus Christ still offers us the daily decision to follow our hearts’ desire, no matter the cost. May we take up the baton passed to us and alter our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ and the next generation of those who decide to follow him. Amen.