September 25, 2016: Everlasting Life: Be Careful What You Wish For

This sermon was delivered for the people of First Parish Church in Newbury, Massachusetts

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 , LUKE 16:19-31

Grace to you, and peace, from the One who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.

That’s an apostolic greeting. It comes from the first chapter of the Revelation of John, the last book of the New Testament. It’s an excellent greeting for followers of Jesus to give each other: it reminds us that God needs us to serve as God’s hands and feet and voice for one another and for the world.  When we greet one another, like it or not, intend it or not, we do so in God’s name. That’s one of those double-edged privileges of the life of faith. Sometimes we praise God in our speech, and sometimes we don’t. But we do speak in God’s name.

Grace to you, and peace, from the One who is.

When I say that from up here in this pulpit, I’m claiming to speak for that One. Is that arrogant of me? It would be arrogant if the preacher just started talking without readings from the Holy Bible, the Word of God, coming first.  We all stand together underneath God’s word. We all come to worship to experience the Good News. We come here because we hope to see, hear, and feel, that holy Good News reflected in one another.

But, you know, human nature being what it is, sometimes we’re not the best carriers of the Good News. We need a safety net. So we read the Bible to make sure we get a little bit of that Good News, even if our own greetings and words to each other aren’t as strong as we wish they were and as God wishes they were.

But, it’s inescapable that we all, as people of faith, speak for God whenever we speak. So, let’s go with it. Let’s embrace it. Let’s turn to one another and speak that life-giving apostolic greeting:

Grace to you, and peace, from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

What do we human beings look like from a divine perspective? What do we look like to the One who is, who was, and who is to come? Our lives are limited by time and nature in a way that God is unlimited. Our “was” and our “is to come” are not God’s.

When we ponder today’s Bible readings we get some hints of what we might look like to God. It’s pretty clear God sees us for who hope to be as well as who we are.

The Bible affirms over and over, in many ways, that God endures forever. As followers of Jesus our hope is to live forever in communion with God, to be part of the eternal dance of the Trinity. Sometimes I daresay we might call that eternal life our ambition as much as our hope. It’s something we strive for and wish for.

What would it look like to have that hope – that ambition — realized, and actually live forever? Of course, that’s a mystery to us who walk by faith. Today’s readings – both Jeremiah and the Gospel – give us some hints about that mystery.

“Forever”: In the New Testament Greek, it’s written “into the age.” Forever and ever is written “into ages of ages”.  That Greek idiom is helpful for us as we ponder the mystery of eternal life … forever doesn’t start and doesn’t end, it goes on into the ages of ages.  Forever is, was, and is to come. Our journey into the ages of ages is already in progress, like it or not.

Our journey is shaped by how we live.  Our actions shape our souls, and our souls shape our actions, both now and into the age. That’s true for the people in Jesus’s parable, both Lazarus and the rich man with the fancy clothes.

When I was studying for the ministry, I had a fellow student and friend, Rodriguo was his name. He was a great guy and an inspired preacher, leastways in our preaching-practice sessions. He comes from a strain of Christianity that teaches that the Holy Spirit “slays” those who truly believe – that they’re visibly overcome and reborn in the power of the Spirit.

Rodriguo told me this story. In a conversation with his supervising minister, he confessed that he hadn’t had the experience of spiritual rebirth. And, his minister said, “fake it ‘til you make it.”  Rodriguo was doing that. He was living and learning and serving in the Spirit. He was, and probably still is, letting his actions shape his beliefs. After a while his beliefs gain strength and start shaping his actions. And I know his actions and beliefs are shaping his life journey into ages of ages.

The rich man in our parable did the same thing. He also faked it ‘til he made it. His behavior shaped his beliefs, and his beliefs shaped his behavior.  And together they shaped his life journey. His journey carried him far away, across a vast gulf, from the place of justice and mercy inhabited by Abraham. We can wonder whether he understood where his life choices were carrying him. We do know he came to regret his choice, and that he wanted to warn his brothers.

And, we also catch a hint of what people look like to the one who is, and was, and is to come. We catch a hint of divine annoyance at human thickheadedness —  ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

We hope to live forever. Should we be careful what we hope for?  We should indeed. We should also be care – ful in the way we shape our lives, and the way our lives shape those around us. The rich man’s careless living is a warning to us.

Living forever: let’s be careful what we hope for!  Some years ago I worked in a high-tech company, in an office building with other companies. One day a man who worked at a well-known company upstairs approached me in the lobby and asked me for a job. I pointed out he already had a job at a good company. He told me that the feds were prosecuting three executives, the CEO, the VP of Sales, and the treasurer, for faking the books to deceive investors. Among the executives, the founder and biggest shareholder escaped prosecution.

And since then, that founder has been pitching the idea of unending life. He’s been talking up the idea that medical science will soon be able to cure human ills faster than we get them, and so we will no longer die and be buried.

I wonder if he knows what he hopes for? I find myself wondering what his life into the age will be like if he gets his wish. What’s it like for him to live, forever, with the memory of seeing his coworkers taken away by the police for fraud – for fraud from which he himself benefited? Does that life path carry him to the other side of an uncrossable gulf from the place of justice and mercy?  For his sake, I hope not.   I hope those executives can find reconciliation. Forever is a long time to bear guilt and grudges.

And of course, it’s not just about him. It’s about you and me. We’ve all taken steps in our life journeys that take us in the direction of the uncrossable gulf. We can all hope that God’s mercy will lead us to reconciliation, and away from that gulf. God hopes that for us, and sends us prophets and his son to offer us that reconciliation.

One small good thing came out of that mess. We hired the man who asked me for a job, and I gained a good friend.

It’s a dangerous plan to live like there’s no tomorrow. Tomorrow will surely come; we know that from the heart of faith.  In our Hebrew Bible reading the Babylonians were at the gate of Jerusalem. They were about to do some “ethnic cleansing” (to use our modern euphemism) and haul everybody away into slavery.

Under those circumstances, Jeremiah could be forgiven for choosing to live like there was no tomorrow.

But, with divine urging Jeremiah refused. Instead he gazed fearlessly into the abyss of the future and saw hope. He saw an end to his people’s exile. And he chose to use Hebrew law and custom shape that future and him.

What we see in this reading is a detailed explanation of how the Hebrews made a deal for land that would endure into the age. The deed was sealed, witnessed, and stored in a permanent place. All that elaborate ritual was done in the certain hope of abundance, and mercy, and life, into ages of ages. “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  Jeremiah saw a vision of life enduring beyond the evil of his time and acted on it.

It’s my prayer that you can pay attention to the prophets and the resurrected Jesus. I pray you can live into the divine hope for us. I pray we all carry the hope of Jeremiah and the compassion of Abraham with us on our journey into the age. Everlasting life has already begun! May our deeds and beliefs celebrate that life yesterday, today, tomorrow, and into ages of ages.

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