September 25, 2016
Rev. Jeremy Smith
366 days ago, I was living into the sermon title of the already but not yet. We were expecting our second daughter Caeli, we were a week past due date, and everyone was asking us “when is the big day?” I was my usual snarky self and would either reference Pirates of the Caribbean and say “a due date is more like a guideline than a rule” or I would reference Gandalf from Lord of the Rings and say “Babies are never late, nor are they early, they arrive precisely when they mean to.” Already, but not yet.
365 days ago, I was at Providence St. Vincent’s Hospital welcoming our daughter Caeli into the world. This was a year of many mountains and valleys. I’ve had more joy than I’ve ever had in my life. But I’ve been more exhausted than I’ve ever been in my life. I would wake up after an hour or so of sleep and not know what day it was or which child or partner was crying in the next room, or if it was me crying.
So I don’t remember much of this time of year last fall, of the changing of the seasons. My memory of the Fall is really fuzzy from being sleep-deprived. And that’s too bad my favorite time of year is Fall.
Author Stephen King in one of his early unknown novels writes describes Fall’s swirl of memories perfectly (and it’s not scary, don’t worry):
“But when fall comes, kicking summer out on its treacherous tail as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favorite chair and take out his pipe and light it and then fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since last he saw you.”
The first day of Fall was last Thursday. The changing of the seasons sets off a series of lists in my head. Time to find the jackets and the boots. Time to take out the air conditioner of the window. Time to look for ants that always seem to invade when the season changes. Time to get the socks for my sandals–kidding, this Oklahoman is not that assimilated to the northwest yet. The weather hasn’t changed much but the date means things are inevitably going to change. It’s Fall already, but not yet.
It’s like when you overlay two pieces of tissue paper. You can see where they overlap but you can’t tell which color is on top. That weird overlay of “already but not yet” defines us at so many seasons of our lives. We are already qualified for a promotion or another job, but we haven’t yet been recognized or given the opportunity. Our child is already so grown up, but hasn’t yet made the leap into maturity. Our parents already need more managed care, but haven’t yet decided that for themselves. In each case, the person has already moved into a new season of life, a new way of being, but they aren’t always aware of it, or it hasn’t been made real for them yet.
We yearn to be like those people who seem to have it all accomplished, all figured out. These are the people who live into Jeremiah 29:11, a verse you might recognize. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” They know the future is the Lord’s and they’ve seemingly gotten it all figured out. The future looks bright, they have already moved into the “already” while the rest of us are stuck in the “not yet.”
But if we step back a moment, we see in context that that’s not how it works. Jeremiah 29:10 says “For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” The people in Jeremiah were scattered from the Temple, they had lost their holy of holies, their temple had been destroyed, their nation scattered. Their savings wasn’t anywhere close to what they needed to retire in five years. Other people were having babies while they hadn’t found the right partner yet. The pressure to perform at work and home and church and parenting was too much and they broke down. They didn’t have what they needed. And God said actually, we needed this time. We needed to go through the valley to be able to appreciate the mountain. We needed to spend 70 years wandering in exile before the promised restoration would come. God was already still in control, but we had not yet seen the fruition of this reign.
The Hebrew people in Jeremiah’s time were in slavery in Babylon, in exile from power in their land. Jeremiah reminds them that there’s a set season ahead of them that cannot be rushed. And in the meantime, they are unable to live in the way they had before and had to find a new way of being. The same call is for us today.
Our sermon series today is on Heaven. Rev. Donna kicked us off last week talking about how we live into the fullness of Heaven in the here and now and not be so focused on what life is like in the hereafter. But that’s not how we’ve always seen heaven in the past. What we believe about Heaven shapes the way we live, and the way we live shapes our beliefs about heaven. But nothing shapes us more than whether the world around us feels more like God’s kingdom or like Babylon.
Heaven and Hell have been mainstays of Christian sermons and lessons since this nation began.
In colonial America, there was a huge emphasis on hell in that time’s preaching. Jonathan Edwards “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” was penned which depicted humanity as hanging by a spider’s thread above the flames of hell, with God just waiting for any reason, any infraction to snip the thread. The mortality rate was also very high in colonial America, so death was a constant companion, and fear of eternal death was quite strong. 99% of colonial America identified as Christian.
During the second great awakening in the early 19th century, heaven became more of an emphasis. There was better livelihood then, but preachers did more than focus on personal salvation but also societal ills. This was the time of actions against alcohol and concerted efforts to abolish slavery. Hell and Heaven functioned as tools to spur America towards better living now so that they could earn a better afterlife later. As Chuck Pah-Lun-ick, author of the novel Fight Club, writes elsewhere “What makes earth feel like hell is our expectation that it should feel like heaven.”
We don’t have the same mortality rate or ever-present specter of death like the early days of America. We don’t have the strong institutional Church to lead the country against society’s ills, with over 20% of Oregon and Washington not identifying with any faith tradition. So how do we see Heaven now?
I think we should listen to the prophet Jeremiah, who knew we were in the already but not yet, and see that Heaven is the same way. In seminary at Boston University School of Theology, my New Testament Professor would often reference his watch in class. He would ask a question as to why Jesus would act such a way, why Paul would say such a thing, and when the class wasn’t getting there on their own, he would point to his watch and say “They knew what time it was.” It became a thing, and we made fun of him. But his point was the prophets and those closest to God knew the kingdom of God was at hand, they knew it was already taking place, they knew that Heaven was coming down, and becoming a part of us. Already began, but not yet fully realized.
Sometimes the “not yet” part lasts a long, long time, and longer than the 70 year wait in Babylon. Yesterday was the opening day of The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. “Not Yet” describes the birth of this museum. The effort began in 1915 when black Civil War vets wanted a memorial or museum dedicated to black American’s efforts at their emancipation. It continued through the next century, opposed at every turn, defunded at procedural motions, and was finally approved by President George W. Bush in 2003, ground broke in 2012, and it was finally opened yesterday. And it is opening just as we continue our very hard national conversation about what it means to be Black in America, and the ever-present specter of death that accompanies that white people don’t understand.
President Obama was preaching a bit yesterday and he said this museum shows that: “We should not be surprised that not all the healing is done. We shouldn’t despair that it isn’t all solved. Knowing the larger story reminds us just how remarkable the changes are that have taken place truly are, and thereby inspire us to further progress…and see how our stories are bound together.” Already but not yet.
So how do we move forward? How do we live into the already but not yet? I think it takes a sense of bold faith in what God is calling us to be, and it may be the time is now. A few years ago, I read one of the biographies of Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple computers, who died first week of October 2011. Apple is the first/second most valuable company in the world depending on the week and much has been attributed to Steve Jobs’ design culture and the pursuit of perfection. But it misses the point that Microsoft computers dominated the market for the first 25 years of Apple’s existence, and it took Apple 34 years to pass Microsoft in value of their company. What really happened is not that Microsoft or Apple had the right philosophy, but that they had the right philosophy to match the market at the right time. Apple eventually beat Microsoft not because Apple or Microsoft changed, but because the market changed. Jobs had to wait until the world caught up to his vision, and he saw that vision realized. Who knows who will have the vision tomorrow.
It is in our history as a church to believe in something more than is in front of us. Some of us may wonder how we lost our own awareness of this vision in our personal, professional, and spiritual lives. Maybe we have advanced in age and lost abilities we once cherished; but in Christ we are called to let the 70 years in Babylon be the past, and bring our remaining talents to a new one that needs us exactly as we are. Maybe we have recently moved or recently began attending church anew after a long absence; in Christ, we are invited to persist in our vision until we’ve received the next. Maybe our hearts ache and our hands itch and our gut clenches with a new sense of ourselves that doesn’t fit in with our friends and family around us; In Christ, we do not have to wait to be accepted but already are given a grace before we were aware and are empowered to live boldly into our new sense of ourselves.
This spirit that says we are on the road but not there yet. Throughout Scripture we see this common theme of already being on a path but not yet arriving at the destination. Jesus healed a blind man, but the first stage left the man “already but not yet” healed. The Apostle Paul believed that the end of the world when the kingdom would come in its fullest was “already began but not yet completed.” The author of Revelation dreamed of a world where the kingdom had come to spark an imagination with us that we are in the “already but not yet.” Today Olympians and young maestros of music, some of which undoubtedly are in our own choir, were recognized before they were fully developed as “already, but not yet.”
In our church, we are already but not yet. We may have become reconciling and affirming to all people as a church, but there’s a thousand churches beyond our borders that could be mentored and supported on their path too. We are already but not yet. We have a shelter already that helps families each and every night, and a mentoring program through the New City Initiative, but we have not yet solved the problem of homelessness in Portland. We have a strategic plan and we are already on that path towards the three-year goals but we are not there yet until every person in our community participates in some way.
The whole of the Christian life is the already-but-not-yet, and Heaven makes the most sense in this vein as well. And we may not see the fullness of Heaven and the Kingdom until we find the right amount of faith and vision to build it here, guided by the Holy Spirit. My hope is that we seek a vision that matches and moves forward our community to the already-but-not-yet.
Hear these words of wisdom from Black Theologian James Cone in his book The Cross and The Lynching Tree.
“Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet, we are not what we used to be and not what we will be.”