Year B, Epiphany 3 January 24, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For the present form of the world is passing away.”
It is good to be back. This past month has been kind of a swirling haze. Christmastide, vacation, Egan, influenza, shelter week… Nothing has been normal, schedules have been off and everything is out of whack. It has been rather relentless. For everyone who has kept the wheel turning here, thank you. In particular, I want to thank Marsha Shankman for her superlative job running of this year’s shelter week. Windy couldn’t do it, couldn’t take care of the kitchen, she’s been so sick. Thank you Marsha for your leadership, and thank you all for showing up. At least 9/10s of ministry is just that, showing up, and again, this parish is doing what needs doing in the name of Jesus Christ for the world. Thank you. But here we are, nearly at the beginning of February and a new day is before us, which is great and just in time, “for the present form of the world is passing away.”
One of the commentaries I referenced about this passage from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth pointed out a very obvious complication in preaching on this text: Paul got it wrong. He wasn’t writing metaphorically, not only, he wasn’t just talking about a “spiritual” passing away. He wasn’t telling the married to forsake their spouses, or the mourners to cease mourning or the joyous to cease rejoicing in some abstract, theological way, or for the sake of some ascetical practice he was advocating. No, for Paul, the end was near; the fullness of time approached and it was imperative that the faithful ordered their life in accordance with the immanence of God’s return. The end was near, repent and believe, we’ve heard that somewhere…
It is always complicated when a very specific prophecy doesn’t come true as expected. In the early 1950s the forerunners of the Branch Davidians expected the return of Jesus at 2:00 on a specific day. It didn’t happen. They waited for a couple of days, answering uncomfortable questions from a dwindling pool of reporters until a couple of days later they went back to their compound on the outskirts of Waco. I can imagine they were heartbroken, disillusioned, maybe embarrassed?
But what is more foolish, predicting something to happen, even expecting and living as if something very specific is going to happen, or to think of nothing but our own time and place, and count that as eternal? Which is more problematic? Which is more perilous? (And I am not talking about our time and place in a “sacrament of the present moment” kind of way, but that this, here and now we have arrived in the fullness of time here in January 2015). I mean seriously, look around at our world, have we arrived? Is the present form of the world passing away? Has the kingdom of God come near? Good Lord, I hope so!
“For the present form of the world is passing away.” Like many of the prophets of old, the words of St. Paul may have been consciously pointed in one direction, may have been intended as one thing way in his age, but have been fulfilled in other ways, for other age. Holy scriptures address layers of our encounter and experience of reality. Paul’s presenting message was simple, and reflected his understanding of reality, and reflected his sense of divinely enflamed urgency: it was all coming to an end. He was writing only 20 years after the resurrection. Central to the early church was the parousia, the waiting for Christ’s immanent return. And by return, he meant real, embodied, come-to-fullfill-my-promisies, kind of like what the folks in Waco were waiting for kind of return. That is the presenting layer of this teaching: like really, He is coming back any day so get your priorities in order. Give the utmost priority to God: other relationships are less important, material things are secondary, your daily business is unimportant, “the kingdom of God has drawn near, repent and believe,” right? What he is talking about is prioritizing your life, ordering how you live to reflect what you believe in, what you know to be right and good and true. This is good religious teaching no matter your time frame, and you can see that it would be particularly important if you knew that Jesus was coming back any moment, right? Layers of teaching addressing layers of reality.
At the same time, remember Paul’s context. He lived at the zenith of the Roman empire, the peak of the advancement and culture and grandeur of the greatest empire the west had ever seen. But as these things seem to go, the peak of development seems to coincide with the peak of moral and material corruption, of filth, disparity in wealth, declining natural resources (Rome was out growing its food shed, its ability to feed it self). Rome was rife with disordered priorities and attachments of all sorts and Paul is calling the empire on it, is instructing the faithful that this is not the final answer, that the world around you as you see it is passing away. And it was. And what a perspective Paul had to point this out. He was an apostle of a Galilean radical, an enemy of the state, executed for subverting imperial power because He, Jesus Christ, proclaimed a reality that the principalities and powers and those they influenced rejected, or wouldn’t/couldn’t begin to consider. That we are to love God with everything we have and love our neighbors ourselves. That the last will be first and the first will be last. That is not what Caesar stood for. Did Paul sense that it as all coming down? That at that very moment they were in fact cresting and passing into the decline and fall phase of the empire? Another layer of reality.
“For the present form of the world is passing away.” Last spring I went to the bedside of someone who was dying. It was a regular day, a Tuesday, actually, and sunny. I remember so clearly how normal everything was as I went about my business, and then walked into the room where this person lay dying. It all dropped away, everything changed. The world outside of those walls, outside of that web of relationships and memories, griefs and joys, it all ceased to be. What was a perfectly normal day for me, and for the people in the cars driving by, and most everyone else I could imagine, and at the same time it was the final moment of this person’s life. Nothing else mattered to the people gathered around that bed. The present form of the world passed away very clearly in that room, and each of us left changed.
That is one teeny-tiny example of how the world changes, truly, ontologically changes depending on how you see it, how you approach it and live it. Partially, this is just a statement of fact, an observation of the nature of things. Your experience of the world changes based on your perspective. The way I see the world could be, probably is categorically different from the person sitting next to me. I’m driving down Hilyard with the girls in the back seat… our world looks one way. We come to the corner of 30th and chat to Paul who lives in the park and often flies a sign there… his world, through his eyes looks utterly different. Two completely different experiences of the world within a three foot radius. (And can you imagine what it all looks like through the eyes of a 7 or 5 year old)?
That is all well and good, “You can’t see the world through my eyes,” “Don’t judge until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes.” Good truisms. But the gospel imperative that Paul attaches to this, and the volition, the power he notes that we have to guide our approach to and actually shape our reality, now that is the heart of the matter not only that the world as it is passing away, but that the kingdom of God has come near.
And what is the kingdom of God but life as God intends it to be. Kindness. Forgiveness. Generosity. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. And really, really, really, we make that happen by making it happen. I fully believe, the reason I do all of this that I do is that I believe that if we live into our understanding of God’s will, if we try with all of our hearts, and all of our minds, with our full being and body, if we try to live as we understand God wills us too, we will have arrived. The Kingdom of God will have been revealed. This doesn’t mean that the empire won’t still exist. Torture and drone strikes, free trade agreements and Keystone XLs, homelessness and racially suspect police shootings will all still exist, they will happen, but when you live as God intends, these things will be resisted. They won’t be able to hurt you. Your body, sure, it is at risk, but your being, your soul, they can’t make you believe anything. They can’t make you collaborate. They can’t make you one of them. That is what Paul is saying. Live as though you are not mourning. Live as though you have no possessions. Live as though you have no dealings with the world. Live as though you don’t benefit from living in an empire. Unplug. Live as though there is enough for everyone. Share irresponsibly. Live as though everyone deserves to live and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect even if they don’t try very hard. And live as though the rivers deserve to flow and the forests to grow and the prairie to be swept by the wind and the earth to exist for its own sake and not for ours or its monetized potential.
The world in its present form will pass away if you hold up what we do and try to do here, if you look out across our world through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is all about the layers of reality we inhabit, and how our perspective changes us and the world around us. It is all about discerning the will of God and discerning how we are to follow its lead.
Let us end today with a poem by W.S. Merwin. It speaks so perfectly to perspective and the world as we know it passing away.
For the Anniversary of My Death by W.S. Merwin
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day When the last fires will wave to me And the silence will set out Tireless traveler Like the beam of a lightless star Then I will no longer Find myself in life as in a strange garment Surprised at the earth And the love of one woman And the shamelessness of men As today writing after three days of rain Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease And bowing not knowing to what