Everyone I know is dying. It’s one of the most disturbing facts of life that a person ever learns. It’s true for me, and it’s true for everyone. Not a complaint – not an exaggeration; just a fact.
Forget what you hear from insurance companies and health food devotees – forget the modern obsession with living long and well – the growing number of people living into their eighties and nineties notwithstanding – none of us, as the saying goes, will make it out alive.
This has been true since the beginning of time, and it is such an alarming thing that humanity has always been searching for something to offer comfort – to combat the certainty of our mortality. We have, as a result, developed some very captivating ways to imagine what happens once we die. Religious thought (in every form) is concerned with how the world works; what does it mean to live and to die? What happened to bring us into being? What happens when we cease to be?
The idea that there must be something that existed before us – that will exist after us – something to which we aspire; someone to whom we finally go – these are the driving forces behind ancient and modern religious thought. A higher power; a supreme being; an eternal consciousness; a guiding principal – it’s God, to us, with a capital G. A figure with a name so holy that our Jewish brethren don’t pronounce it – a word that some refuse to spell in English (printing instead G-d) out of respect and devotion. God is the source of our existence. God is our final destination. And since death wins every battle, it is no surprise that religious folk conclude that- paradise / heaven / the eternal city / the highest heaven – their would-be reward is the focus of all faithful enterprise.
So every religion has a theory – and ours has developed into a comforting description of endless light and pearly gates and everywhere – EVERYWHERE – the glittering goodness of God’s love. Constant worship; no thought of suffering or pain (that is reserved for our enemies and those who dismiss our holy ideals); nothing but glory awaits us, thanks to the love of Jesus and the great theological minds who have tried to helps us understand ‘what it all means’.
The problem, of course – other than the truth about our mortality – is that paradise sounds so much better than this present existence…so of course we are more likely to wait with certain longing for the trumpet to sound and the roll to be called up yonder. Most of the hymns of the Reformed tradition – much of what we call prophecy – and a big chunk of the New Testament assure us that dead in faith is better than alive in any condition – and our traditions and habits develop accordingly. When faith becomes just a path to glory – when salvation is only a ticket to heaven – one could easily presume redemption is an action reserved for God’s distant future. But this morning we are blessed with Scripture that suggest otherwise, thank God.
Isaiah, presuming to speak with God’s authority, calls the people to account. Their sins are limitless, yet they continue to act-out the rituals of faith. They bow their heads and say their prayers. They observes feats and fasts in their proper times. But the nature of their devotion is self-serving. The “delight to draw near to God” (Isaiah 58 end of v. 2) but do so only that they may be recognized as ‘faithful’. They bow down and dress down – they do all the right things but for all the wrong reasons – and the prophet reminds them that the right things have less to do with assuring a place in the promise of God for themselves, and EVERYTHING to do with opening the promise to those who are burdened and oppressed.
“Is this not the fast I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7 NRSV)
The work of faith is very much concerned with the here and now – with politics and relationships and understanding and compassion. It’s not enough to wish for a better world, God’s people are called to work for it – to act it into being. Salt of the earth, Jesus calls us – not ornaments of heaven. Light of the world, he says – bearers of the light that promises eternal joy to those whose joy is spent. These are hard words because they force us to confront the world as it has become and live in it – love in it – seek change and growth in it “…that [others] may see your good works and give glory to your Father…”
In the midst of the horrific news this week around the senseless killings at the Centre Culturel Islamique in Quebec – we have also seen the best of those who are determined to act their faith into being. In the gracious words of the Imam who named the shooter as a victim of the pressures of society. In the actions of people from many faith backgrounds (and some who would claim no faith) who gathered and listened, and prayed together in the wake of the news of the shootings. In the numerous acts of love that saw citizens surround Muslim worship centres, as they did in Halifax, as symbols of support and protection – signalling that they would not stand for anything but respect for the rights and beliefs of their neighbours. “Do not put your light under a bushel…”, Jesus says – and these people have not – they refuse to hide.
Do not imagine that the completion of the catechism as a teenager was the completion of your faith journey. We cannot, even for a moment, be content with a faith that assures only us of eternal comfort while the world presents one challenge after another to all and sundry. Our ‘status’ as members of the Christian faith is meaningless if it represents nothing more than a seat at the ‘heavenly banquet’. There are many who are hungry – waiting t be fed; many who are suffering, longing to be freed; millions who need an advocate, and we are called to be – to do – all those things IN THIS WORLD; in Christ’s name – for God’s glory.
The opportunities are all around us. The tools to accomplish the job are built into us – part of our humanity. What are we waiting for?