“Moving On” / Hebrews 9:24-28 / 11 November 2018
What makes a dog a dog, or a duck a duck? Is there some essence of duckness that all ducks possess–a certain je-ne-sais-quack? What makes a stone a stone, or an oak tree an oak tree? It doesn’t matter whether the oak is a majestic figure towering fifty feet high above a grassy plain, or if it’s a stunted little bonsai of a thing pushing out of a crack in a windy mountain rock, it’s still an oak with all the colors and the smells and the habits of its family. What makes this handful of atoms decide to group itself into a deposit of iron, deep inside the earth, never to be seen by the human eye, while this other handful of atoms takes the green and elegant form of a Boston fern or a tasseled cornstalk? What makes a child of God a child of God? That’s the question the Book of Hebrews is wrestling with today. More than that, Hebrews wants to point out a fact that many of us know but ignore: If you’re a duck, then it doesn’t matter whether you feel like one or not–because you simply are. A duck has no need to prove its duckness with much waddling, and squawking, and preening–the way a man will often try to prove his manhood with much swaggering and bragging. No, if you’re a duck, you don’t need to prove it to yourself, or to your long-dead parents, or to everyone you meet–and least of all to God. You simply and wholly are. We spend our lives going over the same old repetitive motions, rituals, to prove what needs no proving. What most of us need is simple self-acceptance, so that we can move on to better concerns. For somewhere beyond this world of shadows and reflections, there remains a higher truth: All is well. You are accepted, and loved, and known. Last week we spoke of the world that ought to be. This week, let us dwell bravely in this world that is, all the while living as citizens of a truer one: the world, the reality that is our final home.
Through some strange twist of events, my younger daughter pressured me into watching a show with her on Netflix called “Stranger Things.” The series is really popular with kids right now. But Netflix did an ingenuous thing; they also tricked adults into watching their show by setting it in an era that many of us harried 21st century grownups remember fondly. They capitalize on people’s homesickness for a bygone day by setting the show in the recent past. “Stranger Things” is set in the 1980s because, well, people my age just can’t look away from that golden era of long hair, parted in the middle, telephones mounted on kitchen walls with the ten-foot long cords, bedrooms with fake wood paneling, enormous eyeglasses, cheap little cars, and really bad pop music played on synthesizers. “Stranger Things” gets every last detail right, and it by doing that, they drew me in right away. It all evokes feelings of a world that many of us recall as a simpler, happier place. Which is interesting because one of the premises of the show is that there is another world, existing right alongside the one we see. There is a darker, horrible world that you can get stuck in, a place almost like the one we know, but where everything is kind of broken, and it’s always night, and you’re always alone. It’s a place that’s easy to get to but hard to escape. It’s the life you know, the same old rooms, the same old streets, the same old landmarks. But everything has an eerie cast to it. Strange ashes seem to float in the air. The world is dark, and silent, and leafless, and fearful. Windows are broken, cars sit by the roadside, rotting and covered in ash. No people, no dogs, no birds.
In “Stranger Things,” this parallel world is called “The Upside Down.” It’s a place that few know about, a place to get trapped. Now, this is where the show gets a little silly. It becomes a strange mix of science fiction and horror. You can only get trapped in the Upside Down the federal government has a top-secret lab near the town. The lab has been conducting secret experiments with human guinea pigs, and they’ve accidentally opened a portal to this alternate dimension. Now monsters can come from the dark world to carry people back with them. A local kid disappears one autumn night on his way home from playing Dungeons and Dragons. He’s gone for weeks. But in certain parts of her house, this boy’s mother thinks she can hear him in the walls, calling out for help. He’s been stolen by a monster and taken into the parallel world, the one that exists alongside our own. The government, of course, needs to cover up the mess they’ve made, so they concoct a story. They say the kid has ridden his bike into a pond and drowned. But his valiant mother, played by Winona Ryder, doesn’t give up her quest. She finds a way to get to the Upside Down, where she rescues him and brings him home. But he’s not quite right when he gets back. He’s been marked by that dark world that he visited. The show goes on from there, and its strength is largely in the way a quiet Indiana town carries on with Reagan-era life as usual while such darkness lurks on its edges. There are feelings of guilt, and love, and tangled relationships. The child actors are incredibly believable. And the dialogue is clever, philosophical, funny.
It’s not original to Netflix, is it, this idea of a parallel world that lives alongside our own? The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland. In the TV show, it’s a bad world, but we find these other worlds, both good and bad, in the sacred texts of every enduring faith, where they bear the names of heaven, hell, sheol, nirvana. The Greek philosopher Plato speaks of them, too, and ancient Celtic Christianity put great emphasis on their nearness and their power. There is a world unknown to us, or largely unknown, that exists alongside the one we see. Unlike “The Upside Down,” it’s the coming Kingdom of goodness and light. It intersects with our daily lives in small and subtle ways, but mostly it is hidden. There are so-called “thin places,” in our lives and our earth where the veil that hides the world of the spirit—that thick veil which is usually the heavily-embroidered tapestry of a busy life—that veil becomes a sheer curtain, translucent, a window. And for a moment, we see through to the other side. We catch momentary echoes of our other world from afar, and glimpses, and airs. These echoes refresh us with strength and hope.
But stepping through the looking glass cannot take us there, nor falling down a rabbit hole, nor passing through a wardrobe. The other world is the life of God, to which we all belong, but which none of us fully owns. It’s the calm eternity that gave us birth, and which claims us in the end. And though our world of competition, and limited resources, and blighted love, and great evil is a mixed blessing, full of good and ill, we belong too to the kingdom of God–where everything is good in the end, where nothing good is finally lost, where no cause is beyond hope, and no heart or mind beyond healing. No matter how unducky a duck may feel in this world, in the other one–the truer one–he is forever a duck. And no matter how broken, or scared, or inadequate, or unloved you may feel in this world, in that place beyond place, that time beyond time, you are forever whole, forever forgiven, forever accepted, forever all that you are meant to be. It’s another world that exists alongside the one we see. Last week I told you to live for it. And this week, I bid you to live from it. For if we live unafraid, as if all is well within ourselves; if we live from our whole, and forgiven, and accepted selves, then we cannot help but make a broken world more whole.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a mysterious document, a large and rambling house full of old family photographs, treasured heirlooms, endless corridors, darkened rooms. We don’t really know who wrote it, though some scholars believe that it was written by that early churchwoman Priscilla—making it perhaps the only book in the New Testament with a female author. Like many of the epistles, it’s a densely theological book, and much to my distaste, it talks a lot about blood. But more than that, it’s a philosophical book, too, in the classical sense. Whoever wrote Hebrews was influenced by Plato. Every age has its pop-psychology and its pop-philosophy. In our day, whenever something goes wrong in life, it’s common to hear someone say, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s one of the two great philosophies of our day. The other one is Karma: “What comes around goes around.” Nonreligious folks in modern America live with a homegrown mix of these two guiding principles rattling around in their minds—a New Age blend of destiny and karma. We hear this odd folk-religion—destiny and karma—in the lyrics of the songs on the radio. It’s reinforced in the pages of magazines, and novels, and websites. Movies and TV shows offer it up as indisputable truth. It echoes through the airwaves and makes its way into our daily speech. People in every age are molded by the philosophies of life that their culture whispers to them each day.
In that same way, the writer of Hebrews borrows ideas that were popular in her day. And those ideas were basically a simplified version of the philosophies of Plato, which went a little something like this: Ours is a world of shadows, where nothing is exactly as it ought to be. If one apple tastes better than another, it’s because somewhere in a perfect world, the trees grow only perfect apples—crisp, a deep red, a little tart, a little sweet. The one we deem better is the one that more resembles the ones in heaven. And all of us are forever longing for that better world that exists on the edge of our memory. If one flower is lovelier than another, it’s because that flower is most like those perfect flowers that grace the better world. If one man is saintlier, or wiser, or manlier than another, it’s because he more resembles those saintly, wise, or manly men of the other, better world. All goodness, truth, and beauty in our blighted world is a mere shadow of the perfect goodness, truth, and beauty of a better place. The best things in our lives sound an echo in our memories, a vision of our far-off home.
This is what the Book of Hebrews is doing with Jesus, for it says, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, to appear in the presence of God on our behalf, once and for all.” In other words, we’re forgiven by God once and for all—out there in the true and perfect world. So why do we live like guilty people? We’re accepted by God once and for all. So why should we live like people who have something to prove? Somewhere off in the perfect world that is our heart’s true home, we are forever the people we are meant to be, the people we will surely someday be…and so why do we live with brokenness, anger, or fear? We can be free of them. We can move on.
A man in a movie theater notices what looks like a duck sitting next to him. He whispers, “Are you a duck?” The waterfowl replies, “Yes.” The man asks, “What are you doing at the movies?” The duck responds, “Well, I liked the book.” A duck is a duck is a duck, whether it reads books, or watches movies, or chases after bread crumbs at the park. And a child of God, claimed in the waters of baptism, is a child of God: accepted by God, loved, and redeemed, and made for acts of mercy and kindness befitting a better world. No matter if that child is the grumpiest, or the saddest, or the most confused, or the most frightened person you know. The life of faith is learning to live into the better selves that are being kept for us somewhere in the life and mind of God. We have to live not only for the world that ought to be, but we must live out of it, and not out of these threatened, insecure, easily angered selves that we so often know.
My colleague at Temple Emanuel, Rabbi Mark Mahler, recently retired. Most of us have heard him speak on occasion. I was deeply touched when I saw that Rabbi Mahler’s son was the nurse who attended the Tree of Life shooter at the hospital. Ari Mahler, of course, is Jewish…though he says he’s not very religious. Mahler said, “I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong.” Now there’s a man living out of his better self, his otherworldly self. Can you do it? In a world run amok; in a nation and a time where our first reaction is always anger; in an age of wildfires, and crazy weather, and politicians gone off their rockers, and hate, hate, hate…can you live like the child of eternity that you are, the child of light, the child of love, the emissary of a better world? Oh, I hope you will. The future of this broken old world of shadows depends on our living here like children of a world that’s already whole. Amen.