Note: The following is the transcript from my June 7 sermon at Fernwood Baptist Church. The texts of the passage were 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 and Mark 3:20-35. It's not exactly what I said because I never say what's exactly in the manuscript. Also, the sermon does not have my full thoughts on the movie Tomorrowland, but what I felt was pertinent to the sermon. I didn't want to lose people.
What did you think the future would look like when you were younger? I grew up on Superman comic books, Star Wars, and Back to the Future. As a result, I always envisioned a future as being filled with unbelievable technology: flying cars, personal jetpacks, hover boards, cute robot helpers, trips to outer space for everyone, time travel without any sort of repercussions. In other words, it never crossed my childhood mind that the future would be anything other than completely awesome.
I was reminded of this complete awesomeness when I recently saw the movie from which this sermon takes its title: Tomorrowland. The idea of the movie is that many decades ago, the best and brightest scientists, artists, inventors, philosophers, etc. gathered together and somehow created a better and more beautiful tomorrow. The first time that we see this place, Tomorrowland is a gleaming futuristic city under a crystal blue sky. Everywhere is all of the technology that I imagined as a kid and more. It is clean. It is filled with green spaces full of trees. And its citizens are people from every nationality on the planet. It’s wonderful. As I shoveled popcorn into my mouth, I watched with awe. This is what I thought the future would look like.
But when you get to the future, it’s not always what you imagined it to be. Back to the Future Part II was set in the year 2015. Growing up that year seemed like the future future. Yet here we are and we don’t have flying cars or hover boards or many of the other wonders of technology that were in that movie. Science has six months to get its act together or this year is going to be a huge disappointment to the seven year old version of myself.
Even more important and more disheartening than silly things like flying cars is the state in which we find the world today and what that means for the future. It is not a bright and beautiful tomorrow. There is a scene in Tomorrowland in which the protagonist Casey, a teenage girl, sits through a day in school where teacher after teacher rattles off the ills that afflict this world: war, poverty, corruption, terrorism, global warming, famine, the surveillance state of Big Brother governments. And this terrible news is delivered so stoically by these teachers. Their faces are blank. Their voices are flat. They have given up and accepted the world for what it is. They do not have any hope for tomorrow.
From a church standpoint, it can be kind of discouraging too. There are these enormous problems in the world, but various denominations often find themselves at each other’s throats. Realizing this has been a decade plus deconstruction of the idealism with which I saw the church for the vast majority of my life. Aren’t we supposed to represent the hope of God to the world? What on earth happened to tomorrow? What tomorrow is going to happen to earth?
So how do you carry on when what you see tells you that the present and future are bleak? That’s the dilemma that Paul faced in one of our texts for today. When in 2 Corinthians, Paul makes a reference to not losing heart, we don’t know exactly the circumstances that he and the church at Corinth were facing. We know his relationship with the Corinthians was like many relationships. There were many things about these people that brought Paul joy and others which frustrated him to no end. With the reference to the outer nature wasting away, the apostle could have been facing poor health. He could have been reflecting on friends in the faith that had passed away. Though we do not know the catalyst for his statement, the fact that he says that we should not lose heart indicates that things were not great. You don’t encourage people to not lose heart unless losing heart is a very real danger. Like us, Paul and perhaps the Corinthians were worried about tomorrow.
How then does Paul propose that we hold onto our hearts when the present and the future are fraught with problems? He says that we are supposed to look not at the decay around us that is seen, but at that which is unseen. We don’t let ourselves become overwhelmed with the troubles, but consider that God is renewing us day by day. We remember that within the scenes and behind the scenes God is and will make all things new. God will ultimately save. That is the hope to which Paul clings even as he’s tempted to lose heart; even as everything around him seems to be wasting away.
I realize that focusing on the unseen can sound like magical thinking. It might seem like I am saying that we trick ourselves into believing that things are better than they actually are. In Tomorrowland, Casey first encounters this futuristic world via a pin. Whenever she touches it, she is—and I realize this is trippy but this is a science-fiction movie—transported to this beautiful place in another dimension. But only she can see it. It is completely invisible to those who are around her. It is unseen. Yet her two minute experience is so profound that it propels her to do whatever she can to find that beautiful place again. Her experience is not imagined, it is not wishful thinking, but it is real.
That is the main thing that I love about Tomorrowland. It’s a summer blockbuster and like all summer blockbusters, the world is in great peril. But the world is saved, not by aliens or superheroes or a cataclysmic fight. The world is saved by the hope of this girl. Her hope changes everything.
So too did Paul’s hope change things. His faith was grounded in a very real experience. He had experienced Jesus and the power of his resurrection, he had witnessed transformation in his life and the lives of many others. So he wasn’t just wishing things to be better. He trusted that same change that he had seen God bring about would continue to renew himself and the world around him.
That is something onto which I try to hold as well. For all the disheartening things that I have seen in faith over the last decade or so, I cling to all the good that I have seen God do in this world. I hold on to the ways in which God has changed me and has changed those around me. Despite what I see, I try to be like Paul, and believe that God will ultimately bring about a better tomorrow.
That kind of hope can look like foolishness to the outside world. When Casey is in school and is being barraged with all of the awfulness that is in the world, she is shown raising her hand in every class. Yet she is completely ignored by her teachers. When she is finally called upon, Casey asks what we can do to fix things. Her teacher sighs with exasperation and her classmates roll their eyes. Her hope is foolishness. When she makes her initial exploration of Tomorrowland, people in the regular world see her wandering around aimlessly like a crazy person. Her father worriedly asks her if she is on drugs. Even when she encounters a former citizen of Tomorrowland played by George Clooney, his cynicism seeks to douse out the flame of her hope.
Similarly, placing our hope in God will often garner the derision of others. It did for Paul. Scholars think that some of the Corinthians may have found Paul’s presence in the world to be shameful. There were some who held a triumphalistic mindset. They claimed to be filled with the Spirit, they were rich, and they were wise. They had all they wanted. And here was this apostle: an unimpressive man who was not wealthy and spoke frequently of suffering for God. Some of them looked at Paul and they saw a fool.
Even more explicitly, we can see the derision heaped on those who follow God’s will when we look at today’s gospel reading. The passage in Mark is fairly early in Jesus’ ministry, but he has already created quite a stir. When this passage begins, his family comes out to restrain him because people say that Jesus is crazy. But the love fest does not stop there. Some religious leaders come in and say that Jesus has Beelzebul and the only reason that he can cast out demons is because (dun-dun-duuuuuuuun!) he is one of them. Jesus takes apart these arguments by pointing out that Satan would not cast out Satan and then states that those saying he is demon possessed are guilty of blasphemy. More to the point, these religious leaders are failing to see the new ways in which God is moving and they are standing in the way.
That might be something with which you can identify though probably not to the extent that Jesus faced here. But as you have followed Jesus, you may have encountered people who thought you were crazy. People who thought you were crazy for following a carpenter who lived nearly 2,000 years ago that we believe was resurrected from the dead. Or crazy for letting God’s grace lead you to love those that they would not necessarily love.
Perhaps some of the religious leaders of our day might think you have gone off the reservation as you try to follow God. I’ve heard plenty of stories of people who have asked questions or have sought to follow Jesus in ways that ran counter to what their churches taught growing up. And these people were hurt by fellow Christians as they did so. The point is: If we follow God, if we cling to this hope in the unseen, we’re going to get flak from all sides.
The passage in Mark does not stop there. As Mark is often prone, the story comes back to the beginning: the whole scene where his family tries to drag him away. Jesus is sitting with a crowd and his mother and brothers are calling to him from outside. When Jesus is told of this, he asks: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
I wanted to bring Mark into this conversation because it is not simply enough to hope for a better tomorrow, to see the unseen. In trying to foil the impending doom that hovers over earth in Tomorrowland, Casey declares that what they need are dreamers. And that kind of sat oddly with me. Obviously, I knew what they were going for. They needed people who would think outside box, people who could find solutions to the problems. But this was a Disney movie and, as much I love Disney, whenever you hear about dreams and wishes in their theme parks or in many of their movies, it is always something easy. It’s something magical. There is little struggle in the process.
It actually reminded me of something that the villain of the movie had said earlier in a completely different context. When the antagonist was asked why so many people like Casey’s teachers and classmates just accepted their impending doom, he responded, “That future doesn’t ask anything of you today.”
The same unfortunately can be said at times about our faith. People have taken Paul’s ultimate hope in, what he calls in 2 Corinthians 5:1, a building from God eternal in the heavens, and construed that to mean that we don’t really need to concern ourselves with things here on earth. We can simply dream about the day in which things will be made better for us and go about our business. Of course, that’s the exact opposite of what Paul says just a few verses earlier. In 2 Corinthians 4:13, he cites the 116th Psalm: “I believed, and so I spoke.”
Paul did not just believe and hope and decided to wait. He believed and therefore he spoke with his life. He told others about the hope that he had in spite of the things crumbling in the world. He lived out that hope in the unseen understanding that God calls us to be a part of that better tomorrow being created today. He was being one of Jesus’ brothers: a dreamer, yes, but a dreamer who did the will of God. Because Paul understood that hope is not a true hope unless you live it out. So we must ask ourselves: Does the future into which we are following God ask anything of us today?
Brothers and sisters, I do not know what kind of world you see around you. I don’t know if it’s a wonderful world, a world of pain, or an ordinary world. Most likely, it’s a combination of all three. But remember that God is working in ways that we can and cannot see. More than that God calls upon us to join in that work. God calls us to build a better tomorrow; not in some sort of futuristic utopian ideal. God wants us to be people who do the will of God. To be people who, like Jesus, like Paul, break down barriers, help the brokenhearted, point people to the God who saves, restore persons to wholeness. God wants us to dream, but also to do. And God will be with us; renewing us day by day as we go along. People may think we’re crazy and it will undoubtedly be difficult, but it’s our calling. The world desperately needs us to be active people of hope.
I cannot help but think about this in the context of Fernwood. As Bailey starts as our pastor this coming week, we are about to enter into an exciting tomorrow. I hope that we do not expect her to do all the work for there is much that you and I must do. I pray that we take this new start both as individuals and as a congregation to be believing people who speak God’s grace into the world around us. I pray that we would do this within these walls and out in our everyday lives. I hope that when people look at our church, not just in the excitement of this summer, but many years down the road, that they would continually see a glimpse of the tomorrow that God is building.