Sermon: The Day of the Lord


Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, Psalm 90:1-11, Thessalonians 5:1-11

Imagine the scene, if you will: It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m sitting in my upstairs office with my nice hot cup of tumeric ginger tea beside me. My purring cat is asleep on my lap, and I’m snuggly and warm in my fake-sheepskin-lined slippers on this rainy morning. I turn to the lection passages for this Sunday, still a little sleep-fogged, hoping to find a word of truth and wisdom for me to preach on. The lectionary is a daily three-year cycle of scripture readings, and it always includes at least four readings — one from Hebrew Scriptures, one Psalm, one from the Gospels and one from one of the other books of the New Testament.  I decide to read each of these four passages out loud, as a way of more fully taking them in. This is the first one I read:

Helen reads Zephaniah in a passionate, heated manner.

That woke me up!  I think somewhere in the middle of reading that passage the cat jumped off my lap. The wrath and venom in it was so over the top that by the time I got to “their blood shall be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung” I was laughing. Maybe a little nervously, but laughing.

Next. Psalm 90 starts out promising — in fact, the first two verses of this psalm served as the scripture for our 25th anniversary celebration in 2000, which marked my first Sunday of  being the pastor here.

Helen reads the Psalm starting out warm and comforting and then getting increasingly worked up.

No wonder we didn’t use the rest of that psalm for our 25th anniversary celebration. By now, I’ve taken off my fake-sheepskin slippers. It’s getting hot in here, and I’m still not sure I’ve heard a word of wisdom. At least, not a word of easy wisdom.

Next. I turn to I Thessalonians, Paul’s letter to one of the first Gentile communities he established in Greece. I Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament, written about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, during a time when Paul and other followers of Jesus are awaiting what they think will be Jesus’ imminent return, when he will come to judge the world:

Helen reads I Thessalonians 5:1-3

Clearly, there would be no escape from the theme of judgement and wrath. I’m not going to read the Matthew passage, but it ends with this verse:

Helens reads: “As for this worthless slave, throw him in the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Enough said.

What do we do with these passages in Scripture — and there are many — that speak to the judgment and anger of God? Specifically, what do we do with this idea of the Day of the Lord, which is directly referenced in both the Zephaniah and Thessalonians passages and forms the context for the others? The Day of the Lord is The Big Day, the Judgment Day at the end of time when God or Christ will judge all people — and some will go to heaven and some will go to the weeping and gnashing of teeth place. It’s when God’s anger against human wickedness and God’s judgement against it will finally, fully come to pass.

And this Judgement Day, this Day of the Lord is not a peripheral idea in the Bible, even though I confess that I sometimes want to regard it as one, as I think many liberal Christians do.  As one encyclopedia of Christian theology says, “Few truths are more often or more clearly proclaimed in Scripture than that of the general judgement.” The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures constantly refer to it; in the New Testament, the coming of Christ as the Judge of the world is often mentioned. Jesus himself not only foretells the event but graphically portrays it in his teaching. The Apostles give a prominent place to it in their writings. The book of Revelation is all about it.  What’s more, the encyclopedia continues, “The belief in the general judgment has prevailed at all times and in all places within the Church. It is contained as an article of faith in all the ancient creeds.” We don’t say the Apostles Creed in this church but it is an example of one of those ancient creeds that is still said every Sunday in many Christian churches and it includes this line: “He ascended into heaven. From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.” You can’t go to an old church in Europe and not see this Final Judgement depicted in often gruesome detail on some painting or sculpture or stained glass window. Like the painting on the cover of the order of worship, which was was painted in the 1400s by a German artist. You can’t really see this, but the folks on the left are the ones sent happily to heaven at the last judgement and the folks on the right are the ones who are engaging in the aforementioned weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What’s more, this idea of a Last Judgment is found in all Abrahamic faiths — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — as well as some other religions. And, it’s not just a relic of less enlightened times. There are many people in the world today who steadfastly believe in a Last Judgement in which infidels will be judged and punished and the faithful will be glorified. Because of the prevalence of this idea across cultures and its persistence over time, depth psychologists would say that the Last Judgment is an archetypal image in the human psyche — that is, it is a powerful image or idea that occurs over and over again in our religions, mythologies. and stories. It’s a kind of universal symbol, like the Great Mother, or the Wise Old Man, or the Tree of Life. One that keeps showing up in our collective psyche and that has layers of psychological meaning around it.

So what could this Last Judgment mean, psychologically speaking? I am serendipitously  reading a book by the depth psychologist Edward Edinger, who has written several books interpreting the Bible from that perspective. (This one was from The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament.) He says that the Last Judgement archetype refers to a “major encounter between the ego and the Self in which the former experiences a devastating insight into its defects… It is the experience of being seen by an Other often symbolized by the eye of God. The image of widespread destruction refers to those aspects of the personality which are not grounded in psychic reality and therefore cannot survive transpersonal scrutiny. If, in this encounter, the ego holds, it is followed by an enlargement of the personality”

Let’s unpack that, shall we?

“Last Judgement refers to a major encounter between the ego and the Self in which the former experiences a devastating insight into its defects… It is the experience of being seen by an Other often symbolized by the eye of God.” We talked about ego during our Lenten series on the soul. The ego is basically our everyday conscious, “ordinary” self. The ego builds and protects our sense of identity and esteem; it helps us regulate ourselves and control our impulses; it also helps us adapt to our environment — to fit in with where we are, to “play by the rules” so that we get affirmation and approval from our social world. It’s good and important to have a strong, healthy ego. The ego is also the part of us, however, that gets really attached to the idea that it is in control, that it’s the captain guiding the ship.  It does not like it when it realizes that this is not the case. Our ego is also the part of us that does not like to acknowledge there may be shadow parts of ourself — aspects of ourself that our ego has repressed as “not me,” as “evil” or “bad.” Those parts of ourself that we often had to repress to win acceptance from our family and peers. Those parts of the collective shadow that live in us — including the “isms” and phobias (racism, homophobia, etc.). We aren’t usually conscious of what is in our shadow, and all sorts of mischief and mayhem can result when we unknowingly project it outward onto others or become possessed by it or repress it to the detriment of our physical and psychological health and wholeness.

For the “Self” in this quote, think of it as the Divine Spark in us that constantly calls us to greater wholeness and consciousness of what is not yet conscious. If you want, you could also call it Spirit or Soul or Truthas long as it has a capital letter at the beginning of it. An encounter with this Capital Letter Force is an experience of being seen for who we really are, including our shadow stuff — our pettiness, our woundedness, our complicity in untruth and injustice. It is an experience of being seen in our sin, a word that means those ways in which we miss the mark, the ways in which we are not in alignment with God or Spirit or Soul. As the Psalmist says, “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.” There’s that Divine Eye, that penetrating gaze. As such, this encounter will feel like a judgment because it is a judgement. If you have ever felt a burning sense of appropriate shame or guilt, or remorse, or contrition, then you have had the experience of being seen and judged for your “defects,” for the ways in which you have missed the mark.  And it can be a devastating experience for the ego.

“The image of widespread destruction refers to those aspects of the personality which are not grounded in psychic reality and therefore cannot survive transpersonal scrutiny.”  I’m not exactly sure what Edinger means by “not grounded in psychic reality” but I hear it as those aspects of our personality that are not grounded in truth — not grounded in the truth of who we actually are, and not grounded in the truth of our Divine call. We can easily be swayed by other people’s agendas for our life; we can easily adapt or twist ourselves to meet others’ expectations and our own need for affirmation and approval. And we live within a system in which it is easy to be asleep to the truth — where we can be swept up in behaviors, attitudes, and economic and political systems that are “destructive for ourselves and others, without knowing it.” These ways in which we are grounded in untruth need to be brought under what Edinger calls “transpersonal scrutiny” or what we might call God’s Way or God’s Law or God’s Justice or God’s Truth.

“If, in this encounter, the ego holds, it is followed by an enlargement of the personality.” In other words, if our small self, our ego, can bear up under the scrutiny of this judgment, then we will be enlarged — more whole. When Jesus calls us to be “perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect” in Matthew, the word perfect should really be translated as complete or whole. We are called to be whole, as God is whole, as Jesus is whole — the human one who shows us how to be fully alive and aware in these bodies. We are called to the truth of ourselves, to the truth of our world — including our shadow, our defects (if you will), our limitations, and also, our unexpected power and beauty.

If we are on this path of awakening, of enlargement, then there are words of comfort for us, rather than words of wrath. Listen to the full passage from I Thessalonians, after Paul says: “There will be no escape” from the judgement of the Day of the Lord:

But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day (of judgement) to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober…For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ… Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

So, may we be children of the day, awake to the truth of who we are and of our world. May we endure the day of our judgement when it comes and welcome it as the wake-up call it that it is. May we encourage and build each other up, as indeed we are doing. Amen.

Sermon: Happy are Those Who Mourn

Matthew 5:1-12 (All Saints Day)

Last year, as Patrick and I were driving into San Francisco on All Saints Sunday, he asked me what we were doing in worship, and I told him we’d be lighting candles and naming those we have loved who have died. He said, “Oh, you mean the service where everyone cries?” and his tone of voice made it clear that he was not happy that he would have to sit through another “crying Sunday” this year.

And lest you think I’m telling tales on my son without him being OK with it… Patrick stands up and say: “I”m Patrick Baggett and I approve this message.”

I think a 12-year-old boy — or is it young man?  — can be forgiven for not looking forward to a crying service. But I’m struck by how many adults avoid pain and grief. I know adults who have not held memorial services for their loved ones because they didn’t want to have a “crying” event. They just wanted everything to be happy.

What does it mean to be happy? You ask almost any parent what they hope for for their child, and they will say, “I just want her to be happy.” But what does that mean? Does it mean a life of never crying? Of avoiding suffering as much as possible? For centuries, the meaning of happiness and the way to attain it has been a key question in philosophical debates about the meaning of human life, and of course the ancient Greek philosophers were right in on that debate. They felt the key to happiness was aligning one’s own will or being with that of the created order. If one could do that, then you would be makarios (mak-ar’-ee-os), a Greek word which means happy. That same Greek word, makarios, begins every sentence of the Beatitudes we just heard, where it usually gets translated, in most versions, as blessed.

The problem with the word blessed, however — as scripture scholar Susan Hylen notes — is that “blessed” sounds sort of unreal, like a quality only true saints have, only those especially awesome people whose lives of moral clarity and calling are inspiring but unattainable. Hylen suggests, instead, that we consider translating makarios as “happy” in this famous passage.  As in: “Happy are the poor in spirit. Happy are the merciful. Happy are those who mourn.” Now, “happy” is kind of a thin word in our culture. What’s that bumper sticker say? “If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention?” There could just as easily be one that says, “If you’re happy, you’re not paying attention.” “Happy” denotes someone who’s skimming along on the surface of life, unaware of the unhappiness going on around them or in them.

But, of course, that’s not what the ancient Greek philosophers meant when they used the term makarios, for they were well aware of the human condition, of the suffering we experience. And that kind of surface happiness is obviously not what Jesus meant either, or else he could never have said “Happy are those who mourn.” “He is describing a deeper happiness, the kind of happiness that only comes from aligning one’s own will or being with God’s” (from the Hylen article linked above). This is the way the psalmist uses the word “happy,” which appears many times in the Psalms. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread” (Psalm 1:1); “happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times” (Psalm 106:3). As Hylen says, both the Psalmist and Matthew tie happiness to living our lives in a way that is oriented toward God’s will. Perhaps a better way of saying that is that we are happy when our being — when who we are, those qualities we embody — are aligned with who God is.

And the God of the Bible is not a God who doesn’t want to cry, who doesn’t want to feel, who doesn’t suffer, who doesn’t cry out.  Yesterday, the Worship Committee met to plan Advent. We’re going to be exploring the “divine feminine” within our own tradition to see how our ideas of God and of how God comes into our world open up when we use different metaphors and ways of thinking about the divine. Yesterday, I told folks that the Hebrew word for a woman’s womb and for compassion are related — and both are linked to the verb “to show mercy” and to “merciful.” So, when God is spoken of as compassionate and merciful, which God is spoken of all the time, the feeling texture of the word (in the original language) is that of the kind of fierce and vulnerable love that a woman has for her child (from Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse). As Johnson says,”When God is spoken of as merciful, the tenor of the word indicates that the womb is trembling, yearning for the child, grieved at the pain.” So, when we grieve for others, when we grieve for the loss of those we love, then we are like God. When our hearts are soft and spongey, well-watered by our tears, then we aligned with God’s will. When we feel our insides trembling because of grief, then we embody God’s compassion and mercy. And we are happy.

“We can never be happy in the sense Matthew means by ignoring or downplaying suffering” (Hylen).  The paradox of happiness is that it holds hands with suffering and sadness. As the poet Mary Oliver says, “My heart dresses in black and dances.” To be truly happy we have to open our hearts to love. And if we love, we will suffer because we are fragile, mortal beings, and suffering and death will come to those we love.

Years before I had Patrick a parent told me that having a child is like having your heart walking around in the world, unprotected. I never forgot that, and I wonder sometimes if that’s why I delayed having a child for so long, because I wasn’t sure if my heart could take it, if I was ready to be so vulnerable. That’s a question for all of us when it comes to opening our hearts to love. But, if we do open our hearts to love and its attendant griefs, we are assured of true happiness. Listen to the way Mary Oliver says it, again, in her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.