RESOURCES FOR THE END OF THE WORLD
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
November 17, 2019
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
My daughter Emily’s beautiful five-year-old Golden Lab (who ate specially-prepared organic food, wore a raincoat when it was cloudy, and was the center of her family) died two weeks ago, only 36 hours after suffering sudden seizures. Despite the best of medical care, costing thousands of dollars, the decision was made to send her across the Rainbow Bridge, to let her go. A testament to the power of the unconditional love Piper lavished on everyone, my daughter Emily and her wife Pam and me are heartbroken, devastated at the loss. At first it seemed like the end of the world.
So many questions come to the surface at such times: Why can love sentence us to nearly unbearable pain? Is it worse to suffer yourself or watch those you love suffer? Is there anything that heals besides time? On any given Sunday, a good amount of pain is present in these pews and these fundamental questions are not far beneath the surface.
So here come today’s lessons, seemingly intent on scaring us to death!
Malachi (a word meaning “tiny messenger”) says that “evil-doers” should be burned. (I wonder if Hitler referenced this passage regarding the ovens.) Similarly, in the Epistle, Paul issues a strong political statement that those in society who don’t work, shouldn’t eat… no welfare for them. And the Gospel reminds us that buildings and everything in them don’t last.
At the time of Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem was a massive structure that the Jewish King Herod built as a monument to himself. It was the length of 29 football fields, and at some places, 30 stories high. It was the center of Jewish life.
Luke predicts that eventually the Temple, that magnificent edifice, will be in ruins. Good guess, because when he writes this it is 40 years after the fact. The Romans had obliterated the Temple. Someone observed that even today “The Temple of Jerusalem hovers like a ghost above the Western Wall….its absence a palpable ache that throbs stronger” as you approach the site. And 40 years later Jesus has not returned as he had promised. It was a time of deep despair for the Jews who followed Jesus.
Jesus spent a lot of time in the Temple, usually calling out immoral leaders — the Romans, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the bigwigs running the Temple, the rich Jews who called the shots. Jesus preached about the “Kingdom of God,” a world of economic justice, peace, and nonviolence. The authorities he challenged had other priorities, especially preserving the system that was serving them very well. If “politics” at its core is about the use of power, and the way that people living in groups dispense power and resources, and punish wrong-doers, Jesus was “political” to a fault. In fact, his was a political execution by the Roman rulers.
We come here for many reasons, for the music or the liturgy or the architecture or the sacraments or to pray or to be comforted. Of course, these things are fine, but when we come to church, we also buy into the vision of Jesus for “the kingdom of God.” We are here to gather strength for our journey as human beings and to make the choices to which God calls us. Sometimes these choices are political. They certainly were for Jesus.
With that background, I pose two questions for the day: What are those times when our worlds seem to end? What resources does our faith provide for those times?
Our worlds seem to end when we lose something that is irreplaceable; a person, a pet, a job, health, an opportunity.
Our worlds seem to end when we are betrayed or lied to by someone we trust.
Or when depression gains force, anxiety attacks again, and darkness closes in.
Or when we are left behind by those we have loved or by a judgmental culture.
Or when a precious dream is deferred – again.
The poet Langston Hughes writes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
My own world seems to end—or at least is threatened – when words lose their power to reflect the truth.
Words have been at the heart of my vocations as a preacher and a writer and a teacher (I plan to get the tee-shirt “I’m silently correcting your grammar.”) I have great faith in the power of words, to clarify, to heal, to love, to name truth. When I first learned I was pregnant, before telling any relatives or friends, I insisted on going to the library to get the books! (I know – “thank you, boomer.”)
Words are what we use to solve problems in our personal lives or in our institutions, our churches, and usually in our governments. It is through words we pray, we worship, and access the sacraments, and how we transmit information from generation to generation. The Gospel of John even describes Jesus as “the Word” – God’s communication to us. “In the beginning was the Word…” And we would probably not know much about Jesus if it was not through the words that have been passed down for thousands of years from the faithful followers who loved him.
So, when words don’t work as they’re supposed to, I am threatened and I am scared. A person I have admired for many reasons is the journalist Bill Moyers: originally a Baptist minister, advisor to President Johnson, and interviewer-supreme of poets, writers, and philosophers such as Joseph Campbell. Last week Moyers said that for the first time in his long life, including the Depression and World War II, he fears for the nation’s survival, saying, “Society, a democracy, can die of too many lies — and we’re getting close to that terminal moment unless we reverse the obsession with lies that are being fed around the country,”
Differing understandings of lies and truth are polarizing our country, our families, even our churches. A sweeping study by the respected Pew Research Center found this: “There is a growing perception that the opposing party isn’t just misguided, but dangerous. In 2016 …. 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats felt that the other party’s policies posed a threat to the nation. About a third of either party viewed the opposition as less intelligent than other Americans.”
The study goes on to explain: “A part of the problem is that Americans are less likely to have the kind of interpersonal contact across party lines that can dampen harsh beliefs about each other. Neighborhoods, workplaces, households and even online dating sites have become politically homogeneous. Voters are less likely today to have neighbors who belong to another party than they were a half century ago. Party is the number one division in contemporary American society…”
A new study suggests that nearly two out of every five Americans say politics is stressing them out and one in five have had friendships damaged over politics. I’m afraid for my country today.
Another way in which words are central to the Christian tradition is in the foundational stories that form our faith: Creation, Noah and the Ark, John the Baptist, the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Someone observed that our worlds can seem to end when the foundational stories we have always believed are no longer adequate to the present situation.”
For example, in Genesis God appoints humans to be caretakers of creation, stewards of the planet. Yet ninety-nine percent of the scientific community says that we have put this creation, this planet, in peril because of our actions. And yet our government walks away from most of the rest of the world which is trying to work together to take some remedial actions. We cannot be nationalists on this issue. Dirty air does not respect national borders; dirty water can’t be dammed up indefinitely.
A bishop I could not admire more is Stephen Charleston, a Lakota elder, formerly Episcopal bishop of Alaska and former dean of Episcopal Divinity School. Recently he said this: “I am continually asked who would I vote for if the election were held today. Here is my answer: I will be voting for the poor. I will be voting for the homeless, the hungry, the elders who can’t afford health care. I will be voting for the single moms, for the day laborers, for the kids in school. I will be voting for the wetlands, the rivers and the sea, for the forests and all the creatures who live there. It doesn’t matter if the election is held today or tomorrow, I know who I am supporting.”
In the final words of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that God will be with us when our worlds seem to end and “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
How do those of us who follow Jesus build endurance?
Through prayer – which changes us much as it does God.
Through paying attention to how the divine shows up in our lives.
Through practicing gratitude and constant awareness of what we have been given.
Through the spiritual discipline of coming to church, and asking our burning questions, hearing our stories, receiving the mysterious strength of the sacraments, singing and praying, and being with each other.
We build endurance through staying in touch with the natural world. The writer Barbara Brown Taylor says that in trying times she goes outside when it’s dark and the night sky seems to heal her. The poet and naturalist Wendell Berry says that we can be healed by drawing near to other creatures and experience “the peace of wild things.” Again, and again, my grand-dog Piper offered me her peace, as she allowed me to rest my troubled head on her calm, warm body. My cat Finley allows this, too, but it’s kind of rationed.
We gain endurance by being realistic about our imitations and confessing our faults. I am so guilty of the sin of condescension, of thinking of those who disagree with me as “less than.” There’s a certain amount of judgmentalism built into the job of the teacher; I have spent three decades with a gradebook in my hand so it’s hard not to judge. (Remember I’m silently correcting your grammar!)
I think we have a mandate continually to seek common ground. As the holidays approach not everyone at the table will be on the same political page.
One person who went on the Jerusalem trip talked about going into a Palestinian bookstore every day and trying to make a connection with the shipowner who knew Dave was an American and therefore a probable supporter of Israel. Nothing was happening until the last day when Dave said that he couldn’t resist showing him a picture of his grandchild. The Palestinian smiled and brought out his own picture.
In Theater La Te Da’s fabulous musical based on real events, “All Is Calm,” German and American soldiers face each other across the battle line on Christmas Eve, 1914. The connection they make is through music, by singing Christmas songs — and their repertoires seem to be nearly identical. For one night at least, music silences the guns.
So, we do our best not to be the ones who abandon the conversation or drop the melody. Today’s Gospel promises that “the words we need will be given us.”
A lot is required of us at this moment in time. So, we stay alert for where the Spirit might be leading us, even when our worlds seen to end. We are promised the ongoing presence of God. That is the hope I can offer you today.
In 1932 a young blues and gospel musician named Thomas Dorsey left his pregnant wife at their home in Chicago and traveled to St. Louis to be the featured artist at a revival. The first night he received a telegram: “Your wife has just died.” Dorsey raced back to Chicago and the next day his newborn son also died
Dorsey withdrew from his family and friends for months and refused to play anything, but then one day he sat down at a piano and these words came to him in the midst of his suffering:
“Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me home.”
David Lose, “Commentary on Luke 21,” Working Preacher, November 12, 2019.
Bill Moyers, online CNN interview with Brian Stoelter, November 12, 2019.
“Stress of US Politics Taking Toll,” U.S News, Sept.25, 2019.
Pew Research Center, “Partisan Divide Grows Even Wider,” October 5, 2017.
Marcus Borg, “Jesus and Politics,” cited online, November, 2019
“Precious Lord,” cited in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4.
The Rt. Rev. Stephen Charleston, online blog, last week.