Monday, April 9, 2012

Sermon by Jonathan Firme

Imagine, by John Lennon. This is one of my favorite songs. Granted it is not a song that is often played in church, but I hope to explain myself this morning. I have done a lot of growing up with Imagine, and though I may not be on track with the author's original motivation, this song carries a strong message for me. I would like to share it with you.

When I was in high school, Imagine was my own personal anthem. I was not a church goer. I did not grow up in church, but I had friends who did. I didn't really know where I stood, religiously, except that I did not need organized religion! Of course, I had no idea what organized religion was.

In that stage of my life, I was pretty sure that I believed in God. I didn't know what that really meant, but I knew that I didn't want to go to Hell, so I believed. I had my own personal relationship with God. That is, if I ever needed something, or got into a jam, I would apologize for never praying before, promise to try to do better, and ask for help. That was about it, my personal relationship, and this song made it all okay.

Imagine there is no Heaven, no Hell below us. Imagine all the people, living for today.
I didn't need someone threatening me with going to Hell, holding out Heaven as some reward tied to a stick. Say the right things and go to church on Sunday morning, and you get to go! I have things to do Sunday morning. God knows that I believe in him. He knows I was basically a good kid. It was between me and him, the whole world could stay out of my business. I didn't need organized religion. In fact, religion has been used to kill more people than any other anything, ever, so it couldn't be all that great... right?

Have you ever heard that one? I have a personal relationship with God. God knows what I do. I do these certain things, and God doesn't mind if I don't go to church. It's between me and him. This song is justification for all those thoughts. Or is it?

When I was marching to the beat of my own drum, I was a bit misled. I was more than a little confused. To such a confused, or searching, or arrogant person, this this was enormously comforting. Here is this great person telling me, “Hey, it's okay. Just live for today, be nice to people. That's all we have to do.”

Before people start getting up to leave, sure that I have popped all my seals, let me get to the heart of the matter.

The reading this morning comes to us from Thessalonians 1. Thessalonians was written in 51 AD, which is a long, long time ago. In fact, these are the oldest words in the New Testament. This book of The Bible was actually a letter to the church in Thessalonica, a Roman city. The reading today is just a small it of this letter, really not much more than the introduction. It is, however, enough for us to get the reason behind the letter.

Paul had been hearing good things about the church, and he is proud of them. He wants to encourage them. He praises them for doing many things right. They all behave the way Jesus taught. He thanks them for being so helpful while he was there preaching. Later in the letter, he reminds them about Jesus' return. That one day, no one knows when, Jesus will return. He speaks of this as a great event, not the left behind kind of thing that was pasted on billboards all around the country last year. He praises them for acting together as one body, the church, and lets them know that others are talking about what great role models they are, which is causing more people to become believers in Jesus, even in far away lands.

Paul also mentions that he is glad the people have given up their dead idols. They worship Jesus, and they aren't letting anything come between them. How many of us would receive this kind of praise from Paul. How many different things – work, school, the great outdoors, hunting fishing, Wyoming football, do we let get between us and worshiping Jesus?

In a nutshell, Paul is telling the people in Thessalonica that they are helping people all around the region get closer to God. Their actions are bringing about the kind of change that Jesus spoke about. Jesus taught about a world in which people would share, take care of one another. People would love in peace. Jesus taught about creating nations of believers. Jesus said this would be difficult to accomplish, but when it was all put in place, we would find ourselves in Heaven – not necessarily traveling to Heaven. Far away Heaven up in the sky was the old thing. Jesus talked about the great new thing, Heaven right here on earth, for everyone.

I have found myself moving away from the concept of Heaven as a place you have to go to. Rob Bell, author of “Love Wins”, the book we are studying on Sunday evenings, at 6:00, in the pilgrim room, writes about Heaven and Hell this way: “So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn't ultimately matter, as long as you've said or prayed or believed the right things? If you truly believed that, and you were surrounded by Christians who believed that, then you wouldn't have much , motivation to do anything about the present pain and suffering of the world, because you would believe that you were going to go somewhere else to be with Jesus.”

On the topic of Hell, Bell writes, “God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. The God will torture you forever in Hell. Huh?”

So, if Heaven can possibly be a place that will actually replace what we have right here, right now. If Heaven will one day be here, look at that song with me again.

Imagine there's no Heaven
Heaven is not a far away place. It will happen here.

It's easy if you try
If you have faith that this will happen, if you believe it, it is easy to see.

No hell below us
Our God is a redeeming God. No one is lost. Why punish anyone forever?

Imagine all the people, Living for today
Heaven is right here, right now, today.

Imagine there's no countries
We are all in the kingdom of God. Nations of believers.

Nothing to kill or die for
All our needs are met. We love, we share. We experience social justice.

And no religion too
If we have nations of believers, there is no religion, just believers in the message of Jesus Christ.
Imagine all the people, Living life in peace

All the people, not just Christians, or Jews, or Muslims at peace with themselves.
Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger. A brotherhood of man

Call it Socialism, call it Redistribution of Wealth, I don't care. Without greed, there would be no hunger. All mankind working together, a brotherhood.

Imagine all the people, Sharing all the world
sharing, caring for one another, across the globe

You may say that I'm a dreamer, But I'm not the only one.
I hope someday you'll join us. And the world will be as one.
There are lots of believers, and we need your help to bring Heaven to earth.

Maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe Lennon is rolling in his grave. However, this is what I think about when I hear this song. I think of Heaven, here on earth. I think of how easy it should be for us to achieve this goal. To help do their part, the UCC is launching a mission called Mission 1: The First 11 days of November. It starts on 1-11-11 and ends on 11-11-11. That's a lot of ones. The goal is to get the UCC churches to all act as one, like the Thessalonians did, to feed the hungry and combat food related injustices. During the first 11 days of November, we are encouraged to help send 11,111 letters to Congress, collect 1 million items of healthy food, collect $111, 111 for Neighbors in Need, and bring one friend to church. In order for this to happen, the UCC will have to be as one, share the good news about what God is doing in the world today. Share the message that Jesus will come and make heaven on earth, that church isn't the car we use to get to Heaven, rather it is the moving van we need to get Heaven here, and w e need movers! Jesus encourages us not just to do good. Jesus very definitely wanted us to go to church. Belonging to a church by means of financial support is not enough. That same financial support combined with good deeds, it is not enough. Jesus wants you to go to church, and do those other things. It is not a menu to pick and choose toppings for your Christianity pizza. Jesus makes no mention of a personal relationship with God. Jesus makes it very clear. You need to be here. I hope someday you will join us, and the world will be as one.

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