Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | March 22, 2020
When I was eleven years old, I read The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. It was the first science fiction story I ever read. On the surface it was a simple story: Life as we know it comes to an abrupt end when earth is invaded by aliens with superior technology and firepower. What was fascinating to me about the way H.G. Wells wrote that story is that the main character of the story, the narrator, was anonymous.
As such, he could have been anybody, and so as a young reader I could identify with the character. He could have been me. Therein lies the appeal of H.G. Wells as a storyteller. He invites the reader into the story and makes it possible for the reader to participate in the “alternate reality.”
One of the questions provoked by a good alternate reality story is, “What would you do?” My friends and I had plenty of discussions over the years about how we would deal with an end of the world scenario, assuming of course we survived the initial event to take up the struggle for survival.
The War of the Worlds was adapted for film in 1953. Like many American science fiction films of that era, the underlying message was: The Russians are Coming!
There was one scene in the film that summarized the “end of the world as we know it.” The Martians had landed, and the military amassed to meet them. There is the army with its standard hardware; there is the scientist wearing his Harris Tweed; there is his girlfriend; and the girlfriend’s uncle Matthew who is a minister.
Watching this film as a kid I naturally wondered what Uncle Matthew was doing out on the front lines of a military operation. The scientist you could understand – a civilian advisor sort of role. His girlfriend, that was just the Hollywood mushy stuff. But Uncle Matthew in his dark suit and clerical collar? He wasn’t even a military chaplain.
While the army is gearing up to let the Martians have it with both barrels, Uncle Matthew decides to take matters into his own hands – which he seems to equate with God’s hands. He will let them know that we are a peaceful nation. God is on our side, so to speak.
Uncle Matthew begins walking toward the Martians who are inside their flying saucer-like thingies. He holds up his bible and starts quoting the 23rd Psalm. Naturally any God-fearing beings will recognize this as a sign of peace. About the time he gets to, “I will fear no evil,” a death ray shoots out of the flying saucer-thingie and vaporizes him. These Martians have no concept of “our way of life.”
In the end, Humankind prevailed. The Martians were not outsmarted or conquered by force of arms. They were slain by a virus, the simple common cold.
Part of the appeal of stories like that was growing up in an era in which the possibility of the end of the world was part of the backdrop of our lives. As a kid it was easier to think about the Martians, than it was to think about the Russians. We were constantly reminded that their missiles pointed in our direction. The reality was more frightening than science fiction.
When I would go to church in those days, part of the message was, “Don’t worry. We’re living in the ‘end times.’ Jesus is coming back soon, as in at any moment and God is going to wrap things up.”
What they meant was, true believers would be taken up in an event called, “the rapture.” The rest of humanity would be left to suffer the dire consequences of God’s wrath. So long as you were certain of your salvation, then you didn’t have to fret about an A-bomb. Jesus would be back before they started going off. Afterwards, who cares?
We care. We are never really in the “end times” so much as we are always in the “now times.” Life here and now is being upended. The present is fearful, and the future seems uncertain. We feel as though the roles in War of The Worlds has been reversed. We are the Martians.
Sometimes to see the way forward it helps to look into the past.
There was a time when the people of Jerusalem were looking at the end of their existence. The year was 587 BC. At that time the military might of Babylon had surrounded the city of Jerusalem and it wouldn’t be long before the walls came tumbling down. If they resisted, they would be destroyed. If they surrendered, they would be carted off to a life of captivity in Babylon.
The end of the world as we know it never seems like a good choice.
The Babylonians didn’t launch a surprise attack. If people cared to look, they could see the signs of what was coming. In the years leading up to that stand-off the people believed that because they were God’s chosen people, God would come through for them. God would send some kind of rescue in the end. That’s what a lot of the official prophets were saying. Not to worry, just show some faith. It was important to tell the king what he wanted to hear.
One of the prophets held a different view. His name was Jeremiah. Jeremiah was not a popular prophet. He told people things they didn’t want to hear. He said, “God is not coming to your rescue. In fact, God is using Babylon to show you the error of your ways. They will destroy the city and you will be taken into captivity.”
Not a popular message.
One time when the official prophets were going on and on about God pulling them out of the fire at the last minute, Jeremiah came along with a big clay jar. He lifted up the jar and threw it on the ground where it broke into shards. “That’s you,” he said.
One time he walked around stark naked for two years. “Jeremiah,” people said, “Why don’t you put on some clothes?”
“Because God’s going to strip you bare,” he answered.
There toward the very end, just when the people could hear the sounds of the besieging armies beating their swords upon their shields, Jeremiah came up with one last illustration of what God was going to do. “We know, we know, we’re doomed. You’ve been telling us; we get it now.”
But Jeremiah was not interested in “I told you so.” This time he had something different in mind. He had a clay jar, and in the clay jar he placed a deed to a piece of land. He sealed it up so that it would last a long time. What he had done was to buy a plot of land.
He told the people, “There will come a time when houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Most of them would never live to see that time. Some of the very young children would be very old people by then. But their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s children would come back and build those houses and work those fields and plant those vineyards.
Not everyone gets to see the hopeful outcome. But making a hopeful investment in the future insures that the hopeful outcome actually comes to pass. That’s the way God’s economy operates. The investment we make into hope is an act of faith. It takes faith to sign on to hope. The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.
Yes, life right now is fearful, no doubt about it. God’s promise is not about fear; God’s promise is about hope. The faith for the task of daily living is the same as the faith for times of crisis. The message of “God With Us” is a here and now reality. The action it calls us to is the everyday work of God’s inclusive love and liberating justice.
What would it mean for us to buy that plot of land for the future to come?