Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon: "To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
November 17. 2013
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

“To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before”

Last weekend, twenty nine teenagers and five adult advisors from of our Senior High Youth Group spent Friday night through Sunday morning on retreat at the Barbara Harris Center in Greenfield NH.
The theme of our retreat was “Breathing Space.”
When you hear the word retreat you may conjure up images of people spending hours in contemplative silence and prayer, taking meditative walks and participating in spiritual workshops.
This was not that kind of retreat.

We did make art collages and we spent time discussing how we might grow into the person that God is calling us to be….but most of our time was spent creating breathing space - space that our teens - and adults - rarely have in this era of over scheduling and over achieving.
Instead of doing schoolwork, attending practices, or earning money at their jobs, the teens spent the weekend hiking through the woods, playing soccer with a giant ball, navigating a high ropes course, building campfires, and staying up late dancing to loud music accompanied by iPhone strobe lights.  (Thankfully, I was not one of the chaperones trying to sleep in that cabin).

This was just the sort of unstructured fun time that many of our teens are lacking in their lives. But the teens also used this time to do some pretty amazing things. 
They spent over an hour sitting in the dark lighting prayer candles and sharing their fears, concerns, and celebrations. They sat down to eat with teens they didn’t know and took the time to learn each others names and what makes each of them special. Sophomores invited freshmen to hang out in the “cool” cabin, and freshmen pushed themselves outside their comfort zones again and again by accepting invitations to be a part of the group.
We gave the teens some breathing space and they filled it with friendship, fun, and a willingness to let God create something new in their hearts.
But to do that, they had to be willing to let go of something else.

If you spend any time outside during November in New England it’s easy to see how God makes space for something new by letting go of something else. The radical changes in our natural landscape are testament to that.
We may curse the hours we spend raking leaves and pulling dead pine needles out of our plant beds, and we may lament the shortened hours of daylight and the chilling wind that whistles through bare branches….but we know this withering landscape is inevitable and temporary.

Whether we dread or welcome the first snowfall and the long months of winter, there are few of us who don’t delight when new life burst forth in the spring. The colors, the smells, and the hope of warm days to come, are that much more spectacular because they follow a time where everything in the world around us seems to have withered or hidden itself away.

The changing of the seasons serves as a wonderful metaphor for what God is doing in our world. Breaking down the old to make space to create anew.
And as we approach the season of Advent – the time in our Christian calendar where we anticipate the coming of light into the world in the form of Jesus – we’ve conditioned ourselves to hunker down in the dark days of winter, waiting for joy and hope and new life to be born all over again.

But while we may be accustomed to moving with the rhythms of the seasons in nature and the rhythms of the seasons in our Christian calendar, the sudden shift presented in our scripture texts this morning might leave us feeling out of sorts. This shift that asks us to believe that the world as we know it must come to a complete and catastrophic end for God to create something new.

For many of us, apocalyptic visions are better left to science fiction writers and Christian literalists, who imagine the world coming to a fiery and violent end with only a chosen few escaping death and gaining entrance into the Kingdom of God.
Most of us on the UCC end of the Christian spectrum tend to put more emphasis on the here-and-now than on the hereafter.
We might say we concern ourselves with what we should be doing to make this world a better place, now and for future generations, with God’s help, rather than worry about getting ourselves right with God to ensure our personal survival during the battle between good and evil that is to come.

But whatever our theological beliefs are about how and when God’s peace will come to reign over this world, there is truth in the understanding that growth and renewal only comes when we make space for it to happen.

In practical terms, the people of Israel in Isaiah’s time needed to clear away the rubble of what was in order to build what was to be.
Their city and Temple had been completely destroyed by the Babylonians in the year 586 BCE. The people were taken into exile.
When they returned to Jerusalem 50 years later they had to pick through the pieces of what had been their homes and marketplaces and worship spaces, and clear them aside. They had to gather up the broken dishes and burned scrolls and tattered prayer shawls, and throw them on the garbage heap, letting go of the things that were once so precious in their hearts.
We can imagine any people returning to their homes after war or natural disasters having to do the same.  First you bury the dead, then you bury the part of you that died along with them, the life that you once knew that has forever been changed.

We can imagine the people of Israel holding the grief of this overwhelming loss in their hearts as they looked out at the Temple being rebuilt, one stone at a time. It took 23 years to construct, and as new scrolls and new tapestries were placed inside, and a new generation crossed the threshold to welcome God home, we can understand why they saw this as the beginning of a drastically new era.  
The prophet Isaiah went so far as to envision a world where weeping would be heard no more, children would grow to a ripe old age, and the wolf would eat with the lamb. All around him was the rubble of pain and destruction, yet God was creating something new and wonderful in the midst of it.  
How could he not see this as a turning point in God’s intention for Creation?

500 years later, the Temple was destroyed once again, and the writers of our Christian gospels saw a similar turning point being played out for God’s people. The stones that at one time rose up among the rubble signaling a new age, would themselves become rubble.  
God was again allowing the destruction of something they held sacred, and hopefully, they prayed, God was creating a space for something new.

In our reading from Luke’s Gospel we hear Jesus predict the fall of the Temple.
He looked up at the beautiful building where his parents had brought him to be named and blessed just after he was born, where his frantic mother found him teaching the elders after he had wandered away at age of 12, where he spent his adult years preaching from the Torah and engaging in spirited debates with the Pharisees….he looked up at this sacred Temple and he described a time when it would be no more.
Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “The day will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

That prediction was not well received.
We might imagine a someone raised in our church school and confirmation program, returning to become an active adult and committee member, and then standing in front of the building predicting how it and everything it stands for will come crashing down in a matter of years so God can make way for something new.

Accepting change is never easy. But new hymnals and new paint colors in the vestry are one thing, drastic changes like the destruction of our worship space or the destruction of the world as we know it tend not to sit too well with most of us.

Thankfully, we have the option of reading these texts allegorically.
God was indeed making space for something new, declared Isaiah and the writer of Luke’s Gospel – That something new was an inclusive faith that tended to the needs of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized;
an expansive faith that could not be held within the Temple walls but was meant to reach around the world.
But while we have the luxury of looking back at these texts and interpreting them outside of their literal context, we should do it with the understanding that the destruction and the suffering the writers speak of was all too real in their time.

As it is in ours.
People all over our world are living with the unspeakable horror of having their homes, livelihoods, and lives destroyed by natural disasters, famine, disease, war, and violence.  But destruction touches all of our lives in many ways. We don’t have to live through a natural disaster to feel like the walls are crashing down around us.
The loss of a job, the end of a marriage, the diagnosis of an illness, the death of a loved one, all of these things flood into our lives and knock us off our feet, and the last thing we’re thinking of is the something new that God will allow to grow in its place. We want what we had, not the future that is to come. No matter how wonderful we’re told that future might be.

As I told the children earlier, I am a huge fan of Star Trek.
Part of my love for the show has to do with the vision of its creator Gene Rodenberry.  Rodenberry envisioned a future world where humanity has eliminated most of the causes of suffering that have plagued us from the beginning. Disease, hunger, and war have all been eradicated. 
National boundaries have been erased and the earth has come together to be a part of the United Federation of Planets.
 Even the Klingons and the Vulcans have agreed to put aside their differences and work together to establish peace throughout the universe.
On Star Trek, the Enterprise flies ahead at warp speed, seeking not to conquer but to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where on one has gone before!

When I hear Isaiah’s description of a world where suffering is no more, where the wolf and the lamb shall eat together, and children will grow up knowing no calamity, I can’t help but think of Gene Rodenberry’s vision realized in Star Trek.
But the Star Trek universe has its flaws.
Hostile life forms still lurk in the far reaches of some galaxies - like the Borg whose goal is to assimilate all other life forms and cultures, eradicating their individuality and independence, which irks the freedom loving humans to no end. And while some species like the Vulcans and the Bajorans maintain a rich spiritual belief system despite their advanced culture and intelligence, Rodenberry’s vision of humanity left no room for religious belief. Earth was said to have evolved beyond religion, viewing it as primitive and divisive.
For Rodenberry, we human beings have it within ourselves to create a new and better world, without the help of God.

While I’d love to believe that we have the power to create such a utopian world – and eradicate disease, war, and famine – we’re still human beings with all our imperfections and misplaced desires. We’re still going to experience loss, grief, anger, guilt, envy, shame, and fear and all the other emotions that make us human and cause divisions in our world.

I believe we can work together to create a new world.
But we don’t have the capacity to overcome all of our human limitations on our own.
We need to make space for God to create something new in our hearts.

Every time we let go of a prejudice, a grudge, a judgment, a fear, and choose instead to nurture feelings of love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, we’re creating space for God to create something new in our hearts.

This to me is the boldest challenge that humanity can embark upon.
Outer space may be the final frontier, but the space we have in our own hearts is too often left unexplored.
This is where we encounter God, and the unconditional love that strengthens us for the journey.

Isaiah dared to envision a world where no heart is left unchanged by God.
Jesus dared to do the same.
It may be difficult for us to hear their predictions of apocalyptic destruction and a radical reshaping of the world as we know it.
But can we imagine a radical reshaping of who we are as God’s people?
Might allowing something new to grow in our hearts, change the world in ways that we could have never imagined?

Might we boldly go where no one has gone before…
  and carry forth God’s love and grace every step of the way.