October 5, 2008
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Twenty First Sunday After Pentecost
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
I have been exploring the concept of paradise. I have tried to indicate how a recovery of the image will aid us in our religious sensibility for our daily living. I have suggested that paradise is an image about the beauty of this world, that it is this world God loves and calls us to care for it.
We have thought of our beautiful earth, God’s good creation, as our original paradise home. We have considered how early Christians decorated their sanctuaries with images of paradise - the garden of Eden, scenes from Bible stories, saints of their own community and men and women from scripture. They made and thought of their church as a paradise on earth. We noted that Jesus called his followers friends, making us all friends, equal partners, in paradise. And then we thought about hospitality as the mark of true friendship. It is through our generous hosting of each other and all people in our community and our world that we make friends out of strangers and create a paradise of peace, justice and abundance and beauty, in our congregation, our community and our world. And we explored how prayer forms our minds in paradise.
I am suggesting a reworking of the Kingdom of God image. In its place I am suggesting the image of the the dream of God for paradise. Paradise suggests the presence of God as one working for compassion and wholeness. So whenever you hear the phrase kingdom of God think of "dream of paradise" as way of understanding what is being said.
Today we continue our look into paradise through examining the sacraments: of baptism and communion. Baptism and communion have deep connections with paradise. For the early church baptism was your ticket into paradise. Becoming baptized was serious, strenuous work. Rita Brock in her wonderful book "Saving Paradise," says:
From the time of Jesus baptism was more than a personal choice about one’s beliefs. It was a ritual that incorporated initiates into a community and its sources of power. As such it was inseparable from social and political issues. ... To be baptized was to renounce allegiance to the polluting and false powers of Rome and to join movements that drew on different wellsprings - Wisdom, Word, Torah and Spirit. (p.41)
In the early church preparation for baptism was demanding. It was to train oneself in the practice of faith. It was understood as moving out of an old life into a new way of being. One spent time in study, prayer, and fasting to prepare for the ritual of baptism. All of this was to prepare one to live in the world as the place of God. It was to ask how things could be better for all? It was to train oneself, so one would not be caught by the values of the world but confirmed and conformed by the values of paradise. They were encouraged to ask questions, to open the mind to novel ways of seeing reality, to encourage critical thinking. And they were supported and encouraged in their transformation by the whole congregation. Becoming Christian required a high degree of discernment in order to perceive paradise in the ordinary world. And it still does. It requires high degree of commitment, strength, and wisdom in order to see the lure of God in everyday life.
The other important sacrament was the Eucharist. The Eucharist creates in us the sense of gratitude, training of the whole person - body, soul, mind and strength to know the world and to discern the Spirit of God in it. People feasted on the Eucharist surrounded by the images of paradise. The presider called upon the Holy Spirit to enter the elements, and as the divine spirit entered the food so it entered everyone who ate it. There was a sense we are tasting God and the goodness of creation -it is a meal of generosity.
Eucharist made you a participant in the divine life. In every Eucharist Christians feasted in paradise. They were nourished by paradise, by its joy and its beauty. Eucharist strengthened Christians to live the life of paradise in the world. It trained them to resist evil, coercion of Rome. The life of paradise - of friendship, hospitality, creativity and beauty - was so powerful that those early Christians would not give it up in the face of ridicule, persecution, and even death.
Paradise belongs to us still. This morning we are called by our baptism to the eucharistic table, to the feast of paradise. In the taste of bread and wine we partake of love of God. We too participate in the joy and beauty of paradise. We train all our senses to discern glimpses of paradise - God’s goodness, justice, peace and beauty - in the world we live in. On this Sunday of world wide communion we are reminded we eat with those here and everywhere in the world, we are one in the table of hospitality, linked in a culture of gratitude.
We too live in a world that is full of persecution, fear, worry, injustice, poverty, skepticism. The events of the past few weeks cause us to fear, and fear makes us turn in, to make our world smaller. In the communion feast we strengthen our minds, our bodies, and spirits to resist these evils. The Eucharist prepares us to bear witness to the truth of God’s dream of peace and justice and goodness and beauty and to live out God’s paradise of shalom in the world around us. We overcome adversity with the gifts of paradise; the gifts of generosity, hospitality, friendship, justice and truth. What the faith allows us to do is to look into the issues of today with an openness to others. As the table of hospitality reminds us, we must go beyond self interest to other interest. It allows us to live in uncertainty so we may collectively address the issues. The table of hospitality forms us in the practice of gratitude.
Christ calls us to be witnesses to paradise. We are called by our baptism to care for the world and all its creatures because it is the creation that God loves. It means doing everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint and slow down climate change. It means caring for the poor for the poor and disempowered are also part of God’s paradise. It means, in our secular age and consumer world, to insist that God loves the world and desires its well-being. We claim that we make a difference to God and that God values up the goodness in what we do. And we go further. We claim that we are living in paradise, in the dream of God that Christ spoke of, right now. That assurance can free us to live in abundance, generosity, compassion, peace, delight and joy. Our spirits cannot be quenched by the troubles, ills and fears of the present age for we are nourished by water from the rivers of Eden and fed at the table of the shepherd. That is the gift of Christ we claim through our baptism and that we celebrate together.
At this table the elements of paradise - creation, friendship, hospitality, prayer - come together. Here we renew our commitment to create paradise in our everyday world. All are welcome at this table. All are welcome at the feast of paradise. Amen.
Thanks again to Suzanne E. Sykes.
Acknowledgments for this series, and for further reading:
Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire. Beacon, 2008
Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighbourhood Church Is Transforming the Faith. Harper, 2006