“By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
So there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that Jesus is coming back. That is good news. A new heaven and a new earth; a new Jerusalem, a new temple… and, not a hair on our heads will perish. That is very good news.
The bad news is that Jesus is coming back. That is not the bad news, but what it implies is. The former things won’t be remembered. Not one stone will be left upon another. Wars, insurrections, famines, plagues, dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. Then the prisons and persecutions. It will take endurance to gain our souls. Maybe that is not technically bad news, but like some lifesaving medicine, it is a bitter pill to swallow.
It is good to be back in Eugene on such an uplifting note! I am sorry about last week. My plane from Boston had mechanical problems which I was glad they discovered on the ground in Boston, and not over Lake Michigan or the Grand Tetons, but it did keep me away last weekend. I am grateful for everyone’s patience, and am grateful to Sue and the Altar guild and especially to Deacon Lauri for their divine flexibility and just all around graciousness. Thank you!
Here we are on the penultimate Sunday of the church year, and we are reading from the 21st chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, which is often called Luke’s Little Apocalypse. Sounds so nice, a Little Apocalypse. Well, an apocalypse isn’t actually that bad. Pop quiz: the word apocalypse is Greek for ___ (Revelation). The revelation to St. John the Divine. Luke’s little revelation. Remember, that the purpose of apocalyptic literature is not to predict that x, y and z will happen, be it next week or in the far off fullness-of-time. An apocalypse is not prophetic in that way. An apocalypse is prophetic in that it proclaims a truth about right now. What St. Luke does here is to put the trials and tribulations that Jesus and His friends endured into context, and that context was that that moment, everything that was happening as they neared Jerusalem, everything that would happen there, that was happening across the Roman imperial domain, that that was the last crisis in human history; that was the beginning of the end, that the signs and portents, the trails and tribulations they faced all pointed to the fact that the end was near, the final consummation was just around the corner. All the things that were happening were indicators of what was about to happen, the end was near.
That is one of the challenges of Christianity. The end is near, repent and believe. That is has been a rallying cry generation after generation! The technical term is Parousia, the immanent end, and that immanent end has been near, so our story goes, for 2000 years. That is kind of hard to keep up, isn’t it? To try to live as if the end is near year after year after decade after decade after century… that requires a lot of faith.
Next to “The Political Economy of Misery”, the most depressing class I took at Divinity School as the “Jewish-Christian Encounter from Antiquity to the Present” taught by David Berger, an Orthodox Rabbi and a specialist in medieval persecutions of Jewish people in Europe. The class was a survey of the horrors that the church and Christian people have rained upon our Jewish brethren right up to the present. Blood Liables, disputations, pogroms, golems, and of course Ha-Shoah, the Holocaust… Grim.
One day Professor Berger told us that he never bought the Christian story. Not the resurrection or Jesus’ divinity, that wasn’t his concern, as an historian, his concern was how the church developed, and he didn’t believe that a people could hold on to the belief that the a messiah would die and promise to return, and that people would believe that and would wait; year after year, wait for the promised return and not lose hope, not lose faith. He didn’t buy it. Didn’t think it was possible. Then the Lubavitcher Rebbe happened.
There was an image of him in National Geographic that I described to you once years ago. The Rebbe was in the center of this small room, long rabbinic beard, the Hassidic hat, and crowded around him, from all sides, were all these men in their blue and white tallits, just pressing in, arms outstretched to touch, or to just be closer to the Rebbe. It was a photograph of the image I have of the crowd pressing in on Jesus, the woman reaching to touch the hem of his cloak. And that is what he was to them, a Messiah, the Messiah, waited for so long. And then he died, but his Messianic return was anticipated. The death was in 1994. I took the class in 2003 or 4, and they were still actively waiting. Professor Berger was all in the middle of this academically and in the Jewish world of Brooklyn. And he told us, sitting on the desk, “I didn’t believe the Jesus story, but now I see these people, people I know, years later and they are still waiting. I have to reconsider…”
Now very few of us, at least from what I have gathered in my years of being your priest, very, very few of us are sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for Christ’s promised return; that all of this, all the mess of the world, the principalities and powers run amok, that it is all going to end in the Big Correction any day, maybe tomorrow, or this afternoon after our celebration of our annual giving campaign. I don’t think I am off base on that assumption Am I? Ok.
But that doesn’t mean that Luke’s Little Apocalypse isn’t relevant if not helpful for us today. It is actually the little black dress of apocalyptic literature, you know, suitable for nearly all occasions: with pearls and the evening is yours, with flip flops, you’re tailgating and everything in between.
Luke’s little apocalypse is about a 1st century crisis that isn’t particularly relevant today but for its religious curiosity. But what it does do, in spades, is give us an inspired view of the meaning of history. As one commentator puts it, “History is a constant struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Christian has no right to expect that everything is going to get better and better, or that Christ’s cause will progress without hindrance. All the Christian knows for sure is that God will eventually bring good out of evil, that right will triumph in the end, and that the Christian’s task in the present is to show patience and endurance: ‘By your endurance you will gain your souls.’”
Evil exists. There is less and less argument about that, at least amongst people who read the papers. Natural evils like plagues and famines; human ones like climate change, war, oppression and injustice in all their various and sundry forms; individual people doing evil things with malice or just utter disregard for anyone else they share this life with. That is true. And… and that is not the end of the story. Evil exists; and good prevails… God prevails.
Our charge as Christians in this very moment, as in every moment where evil is apparent on the world, is to bear faithful witness even when the future is not clear. We are called to believe God’s promise of a re-created world, a resurrected world even, if not especially, when that promised and hoped for world seems so distant, so far in the future, so improbable.
Ken Emmes startled me after the Vestry meeting on Thursday. He and Christine were recently in Italy (retirement is agreeing with the Emmes’). He showed me a picture of a statue of St. Bartholomew that is in Milan’s Cathedral. The photo looked really weird, this statue, bizarre. Apparently it did in person, too. When he asked a passing priest what the deal was, he pointed out that Bartholomew in the statue did not have skin. It was weirder than that but I’ll leave out the details. He did not have skin because that was how Bartholomew, one of the 12, was martyred: he was flayed, skinned alive. Each of the 12 met terrible ends. Peter was crucified upside down; Thomas was run through with spears, four of them; James was stoned and/or beaten to death; John may have escaped martyrdom, but one tradition has it that he was boiled in oil, just that he survived. How bleak it must have looked to them, their present moment, but they, and their friends and their followers and their spiritual descendants persevered, they held onto the knowledge that Jesus was coming back; that the Commonwealth of God was here, but not yet realized. They bore faithful witness in a moment where the future wasn’t obscure, it was down right terrifying.
It is not that bad for most of us. Not yet, any way. But we really need to consider what are we supposed to be doing right now. Right now. In this news cycle. In this very moment, what are we supposed to do?
First and foremost, we’re supposed to listen to Jesus. “Not a hair on our heads will perish.” Now granted, that is reassuring in an eschatological, an ends times sort of way. Perishing doesn’t mean die or suffer (meaning that we very well may suffer and die), but it means that we will not be destroyed in a cosmic sense, we will rest in peace and rise in glory at least in the end, the whole resurrection of the dead part of the creeds. That is exceedingly good news, but that kind of good news is most helpful when we face what Bartholomew faced, or Paul or Bonhoeffer on the Gestapo gallows, or Romero and the martyrs of El Salvador. When you are facing that kind of end, knowing, in your heart of heart knowing that you, your death and suffering are not in vain, will not perish, that knowledge can save; it can inspire endurance that very much can gain your soul.
God willing we will not face those sort of challenges, willed evil with designs on our lives. But cancer is abroad in the world, in this room. As is Alzheimer’s. And heart disease, blood conditions, diabetes. In this room we as a community face addiction, violence and threats of violence, of war. And histories of trauma born in the flesh and mind and spirits of people right here. We, you will not perish. No matter what happens, what happened, by our endurance, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, baby steps to the Commonwealth of God, we, you will gain your souls, your strength and will will endure to the end of the age and beyond. That is Christian Hope. As it says in the catechism, “Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose in the world.”
That’s the long game. For now, I think St. Paul says it best in his 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians: “Brothers and sisters, do not weary in doing what is right.” That’s clear enough. It implies, of course, doing what is good like being patient, kind, gentle, self-controlled… committing all the good acts can imagine. It also means omitting the bad. Gluttony, avarice, jealousy, meanness, lying, using our bodies for our own pleasure alone, not for the edification if not glorification of God. Commission and omission We need to do what is right.
There are plenty of practical things to do (or not do), and that kind of day to day decency has gotten people through the most horrific times. But as Christians, heirs of God’s wisdom, bearers of the story and love of Jesus Christ and therefore bearers of faithful witness to Him, we have the opportunity and obligation rolled into one to have faith. As Christians, we are obligated (there’s a word that makes modern folks uncomfortable), but we are obligated keep our hearts and minds open to not he possibility of grace, but grace’s inevitability. That is what Jesus was telling the people when He spoke to them at the Temple. The inevitability of suffering, and the greater inevitability of grace
We watched “Babette’s Feast” at the movie night on Friday. I had never seen it. It was fantastic. I won’t spoil anything, but I mention it because it speaks to the point of grace. It is about a 19th century puritanical sect living in the barrens of Jutland, Denmark, a barren, wind-swept spit of land in the Baltic Sea. These dour people renounced the pleasures of the world for the pleasures of the spirit in the distant fullness of time. The story is about this beautiful thing that happens. Twelve of them (hint, hint) sit around a dinner table and allow grace to happen. They believed one thing, for decades. One woman had dreams of Satan infecting their hearts through the very act of sitting at that table. But… and this is a lesson for us in this very moment, they were open to grace. Slowly, through the unwitting witness of a guest who brought a vision of the world through a very different lens, they were invited to try something different on. They did. And in that act, that openness, their faith in their own experience of the world and God, grace happened. And as grace happened, it was followed by joy, forgiveness, friendship, generosity, love. Requited and unrequited love, happened. And it was beautiful. All of it. Even the little basket of dead quail.
This is what Jesus is teaching us in this Little Apocalypse, that we are in the midst of the end times, that dreadful portents are about to happen. Winter is coming, this is bad news, no doubt about that, the sky is falling, but it has always been falling. That is not the end of the story. There is good news, The Good News with a big “G.” Evil exists, but good prevails. The Commonwealth is here, even though it is not yet realized. The future cannot be seen, and it is even probable that the dark night of the whole human project stands between now and then, but we have been promised a re-created world; promised that not a hair on our heads will perish. Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior didn’t promise us a rose garden, but He did promise life, even life abundant, and that by our endurance, we will gain our souls. AMEN.