The Real World

Walter Cronkite

Luke 6:17-26 NRSV

Dishonest, greedy politicians. Drug addiction. Gun violence. Russian collusion. Racist public policies. Perpetual war. Poverty. Haitian protests. Homelessness. Immorality. Inequality. White Christian Nationalism. Child abuse. Climate Change. Bigotry. Mental illness. School shootings. Sexism. Suicide. Sick religion.

Billy Joel once sang: “We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.”

In other words, this is the way it is, and this is the way it has always been. This is reality. As Walter Cronkite used to sign off after talking about

Watergate, Vietnam, Charles Manson, Patty Hearst and the murder of John Lennon: “That is the way it is.” In other words: This is the real world.

Which raises a very important question: What is reality? And who gets to define reality. Who gets to say what is real in a world where, in the words of Plato, there is obviously “more shadow than truth?”

The world is forever telling hopeful, progressive Christians like myself to “get real.”  “Bleeding heart preachers like you are out of touch with the real world.” “Things are not getting any better.” “He’s never going to change.” “She is not going to ever be able to take care of herself.” “Preacher, you are wasting your time.”

“You know, I think faith in God is fine and all, belief in a higher power of love and justice is okay, but sometimes you just got to get real.”  “You say what now? That selfless, inclusive love can change the world? That love wins?” “Preacher, it’s like you are living in another world.” “You need to come off of all that progressive idealistic thinking and hoping and believing and face the facts!”

The world is forever telling people like me: “Wake up ‘cause you must be dreaming.” “Open your eyes man.” “Hello?!” “Get your heads out of the clouds, and get real.”

All of which begs my prior question: “What is real? What on earth is reality?” “What are the real facts of life?” And “Who gets to say what is real?”  Who gets to define reality?” “Who gets to name the facts of life?”  “Who is ultimately in charge of this world in which we live?” “Who gets to say the reason we are all here and the direction the world is heading?”

Do we really come into this place Sunday after Sunday to escape from the real world? After all, we do call it a “sanctuary.” When we enter this sacred space where all are welcomed, accepted and loved equally and unconditionally, are we entering into some sort of never-never land? What are we really doing here in this hour with all of our singing and hoping and praying and preaching and eating and drinking from this table?

Maybe it would help us to listen again to one of Jesus’ very first sermons. Now, you might think that Jesus would use his first sermon to tell us what to do. For isn’t that the purpose of a sermon? To learn what we must do in order to live a better life? You come to this sanctuary every Sunday to get some advice on how to survive out there in the real world.” Right?

But this doesn’t seem to be the purpose of this sermon in Luke. Jesus is not telling people what to do out there in the real world. Instead, Jesus is defining the real world. Jesus is telling the crowd what’s what. “Here are the facts” says Jesus. “This is the way life is.” “This is the real world.”

Jesus begins his sermon by pointing out the people in the world who are blessed. Jesus doesn’t tell people what they must do in order to be blessed; rather, he simply announces that certain people in this world are blessed. The entire first half of Jesus’ sermon is simply a list of facts.  He’s simply stating the facts of life. He’s telling us the way things really are in the real world.  In one of his very first sermons, Jesus is defining reality.

And it was as obvious to his first hearers as it is as obvious to us today, that according to Jesus, the way things really are in the real world is nowhere close to the way we thought they were. In a few simple statements, Jesus turns the whole world completely upside down. If you thought God was in the business of damning the sinner and rewarding the saint, Jesus says: “You better think again!”

Blessed are the poor—the same people whom we overlook, disregard, despise and consider failures, worthless. Blessed are the mothers who can barely take care of themselves, much less their children. Blessed are the fathers who are doped up and locked up and all together messed up.

Blessed are the hungry—the same hungry people who we know must be lazy or inept. Blessed are the ones who we think are always looking for a hand-out instead of a hand-up. Blessed are the unwaged and unemployed who we believe are solely responsible for most of their misery.

Blessed are those who weep—the same whiners and complainers who are always acting like they’ve had it worse than everyone else. Blessed are those who think they are the only ones in the world with problems. Blessed are those self-centered crybabies who believe the whole world should stop and join their little pity party.

Jesus says, that reality is, the God’s honest truth is, that God blesses those in the world whom we tend to curse.

I expect it was a shock for all the good, church-going, Bible-believing people of that day when Jesus completely shattered their old image of God and the world by introducing them to a brand new world. A brand new way of seeing things. A brand new reality.  A new creation.

Perhaps this is why Jesus begins his sermon by healing everyone who came forth and touched him. The mass healings were a sign that a new world, a brand new reality, was breaking into the old world where those on the bottom are brought to the top. In this new reality, those who are poor and those who are weeping are put at the center of what God is up to in our world.

No, in defining reality in this sermon Jesus does not tell us to go out and do anything. However, by implication, Jesus’ words lead all of us to think of some things that we need to do, to think of some places that we need to go, to think of some people that we need to see.

But we do not do these things or go to these places or see these people because Christ commands us to in his first sermon. We do not visit the nursing homes or the hospitals, we do not feed the hungry, we do not help a stranger clean-up her house, we do not give generously to the mission and ministry of the church because Jesus tells us to.

We do these things and go to these places and give of ourselves, because of the way we now know the world to be.

We rebuke dishonest, immoral, and greedy politicians who hurt the poor so we can get in line with what’s what.  We stand against racism and all kinds of bigotry to get real. We detest division and seek unity to get in step with the facts of life.

We deplore the worship of guns and all apathy towards war and all violence to get grounded in the truth.

We welcome and include children, we fight mental illness, and all sorts of addiction, we support healthcare for all, and we are good stewards of this earth, not merely because we believe Jesus leads us to do those things, but because we want our feet planted deep in the real world, in the new reality that Christ has revealed to us. We love our neighbors as ourselves, because we believe God’s got the whole world in God’s hands.

William Willimon tells the story of nurse who works with seriously ill cardiac patients. Most of her patients were born with defective hearts. She assists in the surgery and the care of people whose hearts have all but given out. Many of her patients do not make it through the very delicate and risky surgery. And most of the ones who do pull through the surgery have a very difficult time in recovery. They are prone to infection and a host of complications. It can be a depressing and very draining job.

As her pastor, one day Willimon asked her, “How do you do it? How do you keep going?”

Without hesitation the nurse replied: “Walks in the park.” She then explained, “I take an hour off for lunch every day and go for a stroll in the nearby park. And there I see people everywhere who are happy and healthy. I see children laughing and playing, and I see older people sitting on benches enjoying being with one another. I am thereby reminded that this is how things are meant to be. This is the real world. And this is what keeps me going day after day in hospital.”

Are her walks in the park an escape from reality? Some trip into never-never land?  No, they are for her, a realistic engagement with the reality of the way things are supposed to be. And these engagements keep her going in an oftentimes shadowy world where it is easy to forget what’s what.

That is, of course, one of the main reasons we come to this place Sunday after Sunday—to be reminded of what’s what, to get a grip, to capture a vision, to receive a picture of reality now that God through Jesus Christ has reached out to us. We come to this place, to this sanctuary, not to escape from reality, but to get real.

We come as shameful, sinful human beings who are unable at times to look ourselves in the mirror, and we receive grace and forgiveness.

We come feeling loathed and despised and lonely, and we find acceptance and love.

We come broken and sick and tired and weak, and we are given healing and wholeness.

We come with pain and grief and despair, and we are offered assurance and hope.

We come floundering and meandering, and we receive a purpose.

We come to this place failing and fading and dying, and we are gifted with life abundant and eternal.

That, my friends, is the way it is.

This is reality now that God through Jesus Christ has come into our world.  May we all have the grace this day and every day to get real, to live in this reality and to share this reality with all people.

  O God, grant us the grace to see the world as it really is, the world as you intend it to be, the world you are working to create for us. Keep revealing to us your intent for the world and for our lives. Then, help us to live in the light of that vision. Help us to align our lives with the true shape of reality, this day and always. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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The Realness of Christmas

wounded children

Instead of decorating my tree this year with Christmas music playing in the background, I decorated it while watching the nightly news. As I hung ornaments, I listened to the tragic story of a high school student killed in an automobile accident. As I turned on the lights on the tree, I glanced up to see pictures of mothers with their children escaping from Syria into refugee camps in Lebanon. I saw images of many children: some starving, others injured, some dying, others sick, all very afraid. I thought to myself, “I need to turn this depressing mess off and put on something Christmasy.”

Then it occurred to me. This is probably as close to Christmasy as it gets, for this is Christmas undecorated. This is real Christmas, and it is a shame that we try to cover it up with colorful paper and tie a bow around it. We string it with lights and decorate it. We romanticize and sentimentalize the whole Christmas scene with gleeful music and cheerful food.

Perhaps it is because in our shallow minds, the scene is majestic. It is glorious: angels flying in the night sky singing a heavenly chorus; a brilliant star rising in the east; a baby worshipped by shepherds and kings and even animals. In our nativity scene, there is no crying, no hunger, no disease, no anxiety, no fear, no mourning. Our nativity is a serene, sweet, sanitized scene.

However, this was not the reality of the first Noel. Christmas reality was not beautiful and was far from perfect. And no matter how hard we try, no matter how much energy we expend or how much money we spend; we cannot conceal the real harshness of it, the harsh realness of it. Christmas reality, says the prophet Isaiah is “like, a root out of dry ground.” Jesus was born among animals in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.

Yes, Kings, Magi or Wise Men came to worship the baby, but we like to forget that King Herod was using those eastern visitors to locate the baby so he could run a sword through him. And we forget the holocaust in Ramah, the innocent babies slaughtered, the desperate cries of anguish and despair from parents because there children were “no more.” We forget the escape to Egypt like homeless refugees. This is Christmas reality.

This is the reality of it, and this is the good news of it! The good news of Christmas is that there is nothing glamorous, glitzy sentimental, or romantic about it. The good news of Christmas is that God came into our depressing mess. God came into the real world, encountered real evil in the most real of ways, experienced real suffering and pain and died a very real death.

Someone who was suffering with terminal cancer once told me: “Although I cannot explain it, somehow, the sicker I am, the more pain I experience, the more hopeful I become. In the moments of my most immense suffering, God is the most real to me.”

Through the coming of God in Christ into a very real and broken world, we know that God knows something about real human suffering and real human misery. God knows what it feels like to feel forsaken by God. God is therefore able to relate to us in the most intimate of ways in those moments when life is the most real and the most broken.

Thank God something as depressing as the nightly news can actually be Christmasy.