Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Living Through What is Temporary without Losing Sight of What is Eternal"

26th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 28 (Year C)
Isaiah 65.17-25; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Despite being a Christian my entire life, despite being ordained for ten years, I never cease to be amazed how Scripture speaks to us right where we are in our own contemporary lives. Our Sunday readings are dictated by an established lectionary, with designated readings for each Sunday of the year, arranged in a three year cycle. And even in the fixed nature of the readings, there are times in our common life when the words that are appointed for a particular day seem to have been specifically selected to address the particular situation or circumstances in which we find ourselves – as individuals, as a worshiping community, as a society.

So it is today. Even in the contradictory images from our Scripture readings – in the very contradictions themselves – we find a word to us to help guide us through what many may consider difficult times. Just as these same words guided their original audiences – Isaiah speaking to the people as they prepare to return to Israel from exile in Babylon, and Luke’s gospel speaking to the newly formed church at the beginning of the Christian era – through the difficult times they faced in their common lives.

The message the prophet Isaiah offers to the exiles returning home is about new beginnings. He conveys a vision of a future time of peace and prosperity. That God will not just rebuild Jerusalem in its former glory, but will establish the ideal Jerusalem where there will be no suffering and no violence. This is about the creation of a new paradise, where not only humanity, but all creation, will live in peace and harmony. These are words of hope to a people who had been oppressed, removed from their homes and their land for 70 years. Now something new and wonderful would happen. Their life would be far better than it had been in recent history.

But then there’s Luke’s gospel, which offers a completely opposite narrative. A message about the end of the ages, ushered in with cataclysmic events. Here Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He then goes on to provide a description of God’s judgment through a cosmic struggle and warfare. This is a description of coming apocalyptic events – stereotypical descriptions of the end times, complete with calamities in nature and society, and even persecution. These are frightening signs and events. Rather than peace, “nation will rise against nation.” Rather than prosperity, there will be famines and plagues. The newly forming Christian movement appears to be doomed before it can even get off the ground.

Undoubtedly, Jesus’ audience was dismayed by what they heard. Not only because of the nature of his message, but because it was in such stark contrast to the promise given to the people – to them – in Isaiah’s prophesy. Could they both be correct? If not, which is the truth?

Such apocalyptic imagery arises periodically when a people are so downtrodden they cannot foresee any relief from their suffering unless some cataclysmic event destroys everything and allows for the earth to begin anew. The only hope, if you can call it that, is for the old broken systems to be completely wiped away, making way for something completely new to take their place.

Juxtaposing Isaiah’s predictions of a glorious new era with Jesus’ predictions of the doom and gloom leading to the end of life as we know it sounds awfully familiar right now. Such competing narratives are amazingly reminiscent of what we as a nation have lived through in the past week. Like the stark distinctions between the words of Isaiah and Jesus, the current reality we woke up to Wednesday morning is very different from the predictions that were being made mere days before.

Before I proceed, I should probably issue a disclaimer. I rarely preach about politics. I certainly have my own political perspective. I recognize that some of you may share my positions. But I also recognize that some of you do not. And I respect that. I firmly believe that we are all entitled to our own political beliefs. That as Christians, our faith and our understanding of Scripture and our Anglican tradition inform those political beliefs. And the beauty of our particular expression of Christianity is that we do not dictate specific political positions. I take that seriously. How you exercise your civic responsibilities – and engaging in our political system is as much a Christian responsibility as it is a civic one – is between you and God.

You will find that when I do preach about politics – when the Gospel or when particular situations in our nation or the world cry out for expression from the pulpit – I attempt to do so in a very even-handed manner. I try to do so in general terms, not pointing the finger at one perspective or the other. And if I do criticize one party or position, you can be sure that I will do my best to equally criticize the other party or position in the same sermon.

That being said, yes, I am obviously talking about our recent presidential election. And while I have my own opinions and feelings about what happened Tuesday, I am no making direct statements about one candidate over the other – of winner over loser or vice versa. I am not speaking to the fact that things looked like they were going to go one way and then did a stunning reversal. I am speaking to and acknowledging our collective feelings and response to the election results.

Some are feeling joyous, validated, and hopeful. Some are feeling angry, betrayed, and fearful. You know the feelings. You may feel one way or the other yourself. You have probably heard feelings opposite from your own expressed by family or friends, or at least in the media. Just as in our contradictory biblical images, some are seeing hopeful signs of new beginnings, while others are seeing fearful signs of destruction.

But truth be told, if the election had gone the other way, those same feelings would have still been felt. Just who is feeling them would be different. Not only the divisive nature of the presidential campaign, but also the stark differences in our personal and collective – sometimes extreme – reactions points to something that should be of common concern to all of us. Republican or Democratic or independent. That all of this has pointed to a fact that we are a deeply divided nation. Perhaps more divided than at any time in our history. Our political, economic, and social systems are broken. If not broken, certainly strained to the limit. And we are franticly looking for a way to fix it. For someone who might possibly be able to fix it.

Each of our major party candidates had less than stellar qualities and engaged in questionable actions. No denying it. But we each made our choice based on who we felt could best address the issues facing our broken and hurting society. Given the stark differences between the two, it’s easy for us to question how people could vote for the other candidate. Even to criticize or demonize. But that doesn’t do any good. Given what we had to work with, we as a nation rolled the dice. Whether we won or lost will be up to history to decide.

In the meantime, we do have a choice in how we move forward. We can criticize and condemn the 50 percent of the electorate who voted the opposite way that we did. We can speculate about what the future would have been like, “if only.” We can speculate about doom and gloom in the future. All of which only further emphasizes the division in our nation. In other words, we can continue to be part of the division-making. Or, as Christians we can hold to our values. Particularly as summarized in the baptismal covenant, which we renewed last week. To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. To strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. We can use these values and the lessons of our Lord to work for reconciliation with those who differ from us. We can look for that which we have in common, for that which binds us together – the fact that each of us, regardless of political affiliation, are beloved children of God.

This is how the church has survived 2,000 years of tumultuous history. By holding on to our Christian values. By living them. By being an example to others. Particularly in difficult times. This is how we have responded to uncertainty from the beginning.

In our Epistle reading from his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is responding to the fact that some members of the church in Thessalonica, because of their belief that Christ would return at any time, had given up. They stopped working and were living off the generosity of other members of the community. As a result, their social system was under great strain. There was a serious tension between the current reality and the perception of the world to come. But Paul issued a call for them live in the real present, and to follow the example of Christ. Similarly, Jesus reminds us in Luke’s gospel that in times of difficulty the believers will draw strength from their relationship with God. They will be given the words they need to testify to the truth and to endure without fear. Paul and Jesus both are describing the “meantime” – what it means to live as God’s people in the midst of a broken and hurting world, caught between the resurrection and the promised Second Coming. To continue to be faithful to God’s word, to the teachings of Christ.

The Lutheran Collect for today says it all beautifully. “O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.”

That “we may live through what is temporary without losing sight of what is eternal.” This is who we are called to be. This is what we do. In times of difficulty, times of division, we hold on, not to the often fleeting truth of this world, but to the ultimate truth of God in Christ.

1 comment:

Ivan said...

Thank you, Father Fincher!