Homecoming or Going-Away Party? Questioning the Rapture through the lens of homelessness

This is the sermon I gave at Patchwork Central’s Sunday evening worship on July 26, 2009. Of course, these texts are not the only ones pertinent to discussion of the so-called “end times,” but 1 Thessalonians in particular is of major importance since it is the text most-often used to discuss “what the Rapture will be like.” Judging by the number of bumper stickers and t-shirts with stupid slogans like “in case of Rapture, this car will be UNMANNED,” it is a matter that is sorely in need of an injection of good, contextually-informed Biblical theology in the popular arena.

As this is the full text of a sermon (approximately 30 minutes in length), it’s considerably longer than my usual entries.

First reading: Isaiah 40:9-11
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

[I started the sermon by recalling a story from my time at Harlaxton, when I spent the better part of an afternoon in Cambridge having dinner with a homeless man named Ian. Rather than try and recall exactly how I told the story on Sunday, here is my description of the event upon returning to Harlaxton that evening.]

Of course, as we all know, homelessness is not just something that happens in England. I remember growing up in Petersburg, a town of considerably smaller size than Evansville, and every few months I would hear advertisements on the radio for programs to benefit Street Relief and other efforts to serve the homeless in Evansville in some way. Now, being from a small town and having never seen a real, live homeless person before it was all a bit of an abstraction for me. It was hard enough for me to just get my head around the notion that there were people out there who didn’t have a stable place to go every night to sleep. Homelessness was something that, for me, only existed on the radio or television, or maybe I would have a teacher mention something about it in class. By the time high school rolled around I had a little better grip on things, having taken a few trips to cities such as Washington D.C. and seen first-hand people whom I knew would be sleeping under the stars that night – and not because they were on a camping trip with friends.

When I moved to Evansville for college I began to get a fuller picture of things, though being a dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite conservative I assumed homeless people, or at least most of them anyway, were there because they wanted to be, or because they were just too lazy to get a real job. Needless to say, since then my thoughts on the matter have changed a bit. I have had a few rather significant interactions with homeless people, like Brian whom I mentioned earlier, a guy named John who used to hang out with us around what is now the art colony, back when it was still Synchronicity, who fancied himself a bit of a traveling preacher for one. He and I used to sit on a bench either on Haynie’s Corner or on Main Street and talk about all kinds of stuff, and boy did he have some good stories to tell. I’ve been a part of the crowd at the Rescue Mission, both during times when I volunteered or coordinated groups that wanted to volunteer, and during times when in fact that was the only place I could afford to eat. I’ve never actually been homeless myself, but there have been at least 3 occasions when I’ve been anywhere from a few weeks to a few days away from not having a place to call home. Perhaps some of you have been in the same boat, eh?

There’s been a lot in the news lately about foreclosures and people not being afford to stay in their homes and all that kind of stuff. Not just people on the lower end of the economic ladder, but increasing numbers from the middle and upper-middle classes as well. No doubt the number of certifiable homeless has increased in the past year, though I have found reliable statistics predictably hard to come by. But even before there was talk of a mortgage crisis, a housing sector crash, Wall Street shenanigans, and the “R-” word (not to mention the “D-” word, which you’ll never hear out of any politician’s mouth unless he’s talking about how we’re not going to have one), the fact of the matter is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1% of the US population, depending on what studies you cite and which methodologies you accept, went from day to day not knowing if they were going to be able to have a shelter to sleep in that night. That’s around 3 million people, if you’re counting. Continue reading

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My message for Pentecost, May 31, 2009

The following is the message I’m giving for the Sunday evening service at Patchwork Central this evening, which is Pentecost. Feel free to use it if you like, give credit if you wish.

Well, we’ve had a reading from Acts, a Psalm, and an Epistle, so those of you who know how this pattern usually goes will be expecting a Gospel reading here. I hope you won’t be disappointed, but we’re actually going to turn back a few centuries or so to an older story.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we remember and celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, with tongues of fire and the ability given to the apostles to speak and have others hear in their own languages. This is really the beginning of the church, where the Jesus movement moved beyond a small circle of a few, frightened disciples who had taken to hiding in closed rooms waiting to see what would happen next – and really, who can blame them – what a whirlwind of events over the previous month or so! Their leader, Jesus, whom they believed to be the Messiah, had been tortured and killed, only to reappear a few days later, claiming that the new era of God’s liberation and peace had begun. This same Jesus had spent many days teaching them, and finally, instead of taking charge of things to lead the disciples in glorious conquest to the ends of the earth, ascended into the heavens with the parting command to go forth to all nations with the message of the Gospel. And finally, on this day, the descent of the Spirit gave them a new boldness to speak of this Jesus, and the same Spirit gathered into their number over 3000 in one day. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never preached a sermon with that kind of effect.

It’s a wonderful story, one we should always keep in our hearts to remind us that God can do amazing things, that God’s ability to work wonders is greater than we can imagine. But the story I’m going to read, in lieu of a Gospel reading, seems at first glance to be precisely the opposite of the one we heard earlier. I’m speaking of the story of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9, where instead of God’s work in changing languages and understanding leading to a new gathering, an age of understanding and hope, it leads to separation, confusion, and apparent chaos. The two stories have long been thought of as polar opposites, and while I won’t dispute that entirely I think we have generally missed some very important things the author of the Genesis story was trying to convey. But before I get into that, let’s hear the story again, and pray that God will open our ears to hear it in a new way.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar [near the Euphrates river, in present-day Iraq] and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that they were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:1-9, TNIV).

We think we know this story pretty well. Late medieval interpreters, living in a time when common use of Latin was beginning to decline, set the trend to read this as a story of judgment in which a golden age of enlightenment is shattered by the curse of difference, the confusion of languages, and for the most part we’ve followed their lead ever since. But is that really what’s going on in this text? There are a few clues in the story, and one whopper of an ancient Assyrian royal inscription, that indicate otherwise. First, isn’t there something fishy about their using bricks to build the tower? The text makes it a point to mention that they used bricks instead of stone. Who else do we encounter in the Bible who used bricks, and under what circumstances? If your answer is the Egyptians, you get a gold star. The Egyptians used bricks, made with slave labor, to build their cities. The notion of using bricks to build a tower would NOT have had positive connotations according to the historical memory of the Israelites. Continue reading