Preached at Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia, SC on Jan. 28, 2007 Scripture Lessons: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Revelation 21: 1-4
Sometime last year I arrived at the salon where I get my hair cut and sat down right in the middle of a sticky theological predicament. That's not something you expect when you go to get a hair cut. You expect to hear all the latest gossip – who's dating who, who's no longer dating who, who got divorced, who's pregnant, who got married after finding out they were pregnant, who got in trouble with the law – y'know, you get caught up on all the important stuff. One of the things you don't expect to talk about is God – especially not deep theological discussions about God. But, one of the hazards of being an ordained minister is that people think you know everything about God, so when they have questions or want to bounce an idea about God around and you happen to be in their line of view – or their barber chair – you get both barrels. This particular theological conundrum had arisen because the woman who cuts my hair – her name is Sherrie – had been reading a book, and she wanted my opinion about some things. Now, you all have heard of this book. In fact, I dare say that there's not one person in this room who has not heard of – if not read some parts of – this particular book. It's a very popular book – a best seller, as a matter of fact. More than 60 million copies have been sold and it has been translated into more than 30 different languages. It's a book that many people read over and over again, plumbing the book for new truths about God, reading between the lines, discussing, debating and dissecting the text and then molding their lives around what they find in the pages of this book. If you're thinking that this life changing book is the Bible – you'd be wrong. Instead, Sherrie had been reading Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins “Left Behind” the series of books that depicts a terrifying account of the Earth's last days as millions of faithful Christians are taken up to heaven in the Rapture. This book had the authors' desired effect on Sherrie. She was, indeed, terrified that Jesus would soon be returning – worrying that her vehicle might still be attended when the Rapture finally happened. I rolled my eyes and said, “Sherrie, all that Rapture theology was invented in the 1800s. It's not biblical.” She fell silent and I watched in the mirror as she went wide-eyed. Finally she spoke and said, “Are you telling me that you don't believe Jesus is coming back?” I sighed and said, “Sherrie, I believe Jesus comes back every day and every day we torture and kill him all over again.” Sherrie didn't say another word about God – and I walked out of the salon with a really bad haircut.
I'm not making fun of Sherrie, though, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I completely understand where she's coming from because being raised a Southern Baptist, I grew up steeped in Rapture theology where people were there one minute and gone the next. We sang songs about it in fact. Here's one Wanda remembered when I told her about this sermon:
A man and a wife asleep in bedShe hears a noise and turns her head he's goneI wish we'd all been readyTwo men walking up a hillOne disappears and one's left standing stillI wish we'd all been readyThere's no time to change your mindThe Son has come and you've been left behind. (from: I Wish We'd All Been Ready by Larry Norman)
There's a good old Baptist song Mike (Hughes, our music director) and I remembered called “Jesus is Coming Soon.” Here's a bit of that song:
Jesus is coming soon, morning or night or noon, Many will meet their doom, trumpets will sound. All of the dead shall rise, righteous meet in the sky, Going where no one dies, Heavenward bound! (from Jesus is Coming Soon by: R.E. Winsett)
We sang that song for Andy (Sidden, our senior pastor) and he remarked, “How cheerful!” and it is. As any good Southern Baptist can tell you, the bloodier the theology, the snappier the tune. “Many will meet their doom” – it makes you want to smile while you sing it – in fact, if you ever see a southern gospel quartet sing it, they are smiling! Why do we smile when we sing these songs – because we have someone in mind – “Many will meet their doom!” Ah, yes, I can't wait for that person to meet their doom! In fact, there's a Left Behind video game where you can help people meet their doom by becoming a Christian soldier slaying the infidels! I recall a movie we were shown as kids in the Southern Baptist church that featured people going about their daily business and suddenly disappearing. One scene that stuck in my mind was a reporter doing a live shot about all these people disappearing when suddenly the camera fell to the ground because the camera man had been Raptured. Now, as a veteran of television news, I can certainly understand why the reporter was not raptured. They're usually pretty slimy, soulless creatures. But that one scene proves Rapture theology erroneous because I know of no camera men who would qualify for the Rapture either. In fact, every single member of the media – and probably all former members of the media – would be left to battle the evil that envelopes the earth after the rapture because one of the requirements of the business is that you to sell your soul to the devil. But, I digress. What, in fact, proves Rapture theology to be erroneous is that it is not biblical. It was invented by a man named John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren in Massachusetts in 1827 and was popularized by the Scofield Bible in 1909. The idea has been discredited by serious biblical scholars, but the shock value – the ability of this end time scenario to literally scare the hell out of God-fearing people – has led it to thrive within the pages of LaHaye's Left Behind series. LaHaye's bank account is the only thing that has been enriched by this preposterous theology. But, wait, you might say, “What about Revelation? That's certainly biblical, being in the Bible and all.” Well, yes, Revelation is in the Bible, but despite LaHaye, Darby and all the other end time prophets, the book of Revelation is not a book of prophecies, but instead is a book written for a certain audience in a certain time – namely Christians living under imperial Roman rule around 96 CE. Paul Alan Laughlin writes in his book Remedial Christianity: What Every Believer Should Know About the Faith, but Probably Doesn’t that the beast is “the Roman Empire that was threatening to devour the young and vulnerable Church. The seven heads of the dragon in Revelation 12 refer to the famous seven hills of the capital city, and the ten crowned horns in Revelation 13 to the ten emperors that had ruled her since the death of Jesus. As for 666: the name of Nero Caesar, when converted to Hebrew letters (which were also Hebrew numerals) adds up o that very number; and he had been one of the most vicious of all Roman emperors in his persecution of Christians.” (p. 223) So, yes, Revelation is in the Bible, but theologies that say it's a book of predictions about our space and time – specifically the United States of America – seriously misread this fascinating book. Instead, writer and theologian Marcus Borg puts Revelation in its proper perspective reminding us of the central theme of the book: “the conflict between the lordship of Christ and the lordship of empire, a conflict that continues to this day. Its central message is that the lords of this world do not have the final answer: therefore, take heart, have courage, be faithful.” (The Meaning of Jesus, p. 195) In the end, Revelation is not a book about end time despair, but a book about hope. God comes to dwell with humanity – wiping away our tears, ending all of our pain. In my mind, Jesus' return isn't something splashy or newsworthy. It doesn't involve a beast, a seven-headed dragon, people disappearing or vehicles being unmanned – instead it has everything to do with God coming to dwell with humanity – God coming to live in every heart. Mother Teresa was once asked how she could continue, day in and day out, to visit the ill and dying – how she could continue to feed them, touch them, wipe their brows and comfort them. She replied, “It's not hard, because in each one I see the face of Christ in one of his more distressing disguises.” Mother Teresa understood that Jesus comes to us everyday – and every day we do not recognize him because of his distressing disguise. Instead of recognizing and embracing Christ, we shun him, torture him and kill him all over again because our hearts are not ready – like Mother Teresa's was – to see him in everyone around us. Imagine it: One day, Christ came back as a poor black woman living in the projects who died in a drive-by shooting. One day, Christ came back as a suburban housewife, who was killed by her abusive husband. One day, Christ came back as a homeless man and died of exposure after being shut out of the shelter on a cold night. One day, Christ came back as a rich white man, living in comfort, enjoying his life, only to die one night when his car was demolished by a drunk driver. One day, Christ came back as an Iraqi citizen – only to be killed by a U.S. soldier. One day, Christ came back as a U.S. soldier – only to be killed by a roadside bomb planted by an Iraqi. One day, Christ came back as an itty, bitty baby – but his mother Mary had smoked crack throughout her pregnancy and the baby survived only a few days. One day, Christ came back as a Muslim, and was killed by a Christian.> One day, Christ came back as a Christian, and was killed by a Muslim. One day, Christ came back as a Buddhist, and it was the first moment of peace he'd had in a long, long time. “Ommmmmmmmmmmmm ….” And then the Hindus showed up.
All those distressing, and not so distressing disguises, and we still miss Christ when he's right there in front of us. Jesus comes back every day – and every day we shun, torture and kill him – just like we always have because we're too busy forsaking this life for the next. We're too busy condemning others to hell while waiting on God to pick us up and Rapture us into heaven because we're just sure we're among the chosen. We're too busy getting ours to worry about whose getting left behind in this lifetime. It reminds me of the bumper sticker that reads, “Jesus is coming, look busy.” We're so concerned to look busy – to look like we're about God's business in the world, that we forget what it means to truly be about God's business in the world. Jesus isn't some micro-managing boss who demands that we look busy or we'll be in trouble. What God demands is that we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. What God demands is that we love our neighbor just as much as we love ourselves and that we love God with all our heart, mind and strength. The truth of the matter is that no one really knows what it will look like when Jesus returns. Everything, including Rapture theology, is just a theory. But, I like Mother Teresa's view the best – that Christ is already here among us – often in distressing disguises – as someone ill, dying, homeless – anyone who makes us uncomfortable. Lawyer Clarence Darrow, made famous by his defense of John Scopes in the so-called “Monkey Trial” in 1925 once quipped, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” I imagine we all can identify with that quote on many a day. Pay close attention to the people in your life who produce feelings of disgust or whose obituary we would read with pleasure – they are most likely Christ coming to us – because those are the feelings Jesus engendered in society when he walked the earth. Jesus wasn't popular. He wasn't the captain of the football team. He wasn't voted most likely to succeed. He wasn't socially acceptable. He wasn't politically powerful. He was a nobody – a low-life – considered the scum of the earth by people who mattered in the world. As long as we shun, torture or kill any other human being on the face of this earth, we will never recognize Christ's return. As long as we discount another human being, look down on another human being or devalue the life of another human being, we will never recognize Christ's return. As long as we close our hearts to any living creature, we will not recognize Christ's return. Anyone who knows me knows that my least favorite church Father in the whole world is Augustine. It was Augustine who gave the Christian tradition the shame it teaches about the body and human sexuality and I fully believe Christianity would be better off without most of his theology. But, on the idea of Christ's second coming I wholeheartedly agree with Augustine. He believed that the founding of the church was Christ's second coming. So, instead of waiting for Christ to come in the clouds or a Rapture to take us up to heaven, we should be busy being Christ in the world – that way we become Christ's second coming in the world. Think for a minute what the world would look like if we all embraced that vision of Jesus' second coming. Instead of forsaking this world for the next, we'd be actively engaged in making this world better. Instead of waiting for some rapture to take us up into heaven, we'd be enraptured with the notion of helping our brothers and sisters. Instead of singing songs about how those we can't stand will meet their doom or be left behind, we'd be seeking the common ground that we all share in God's love and grace. What if we took our role seriously as Christ's second coming into the world? How would that change your life? How would it change the life of those around you? Every day Christ comes back and every day we torture and kill him all over again. Perhaps there are days you feel like the Christ in you has been tortured and killed – perhaps there are days when you torture and kill the Christ in others. But, I challenge you now – live as though you are Christ's second coming in the world, and that everyone around you is as well. See Christ in all his distressing disguises in this world – and extend grace and love to everyone you meet, because they are Christ in the world, too. Perhaps I was too abrupt with Sherrie. Perhaps, if in the midst of my discomfort over talking about God with the woman who cuts my hair, I had taken a moment to see Christ in her – or to think about my role as Christ in the world – I would have given her a more gentle answer. I know I would have gotten a better haircut.
Brothers and sisters this is the mystery of our faith, Jesus came, Jesus arose, Jesus has come again. Look around the room – the Christ is here – let's get busy.
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.