Sermon for the Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
November 13, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
For the last year or so, many of my friends, of all different political persuasions, were posting the same image on their personal online profiles. At first glance, it looked like a campaign bumper sticker. But instead of a logo, a candidate’s name, the year, and a slogan, the image showed a rock, the “name” “Giant Meteor 2016,” and the slogan, “Just end it already.” Sometimes, for desperate people, that’s what hope looks like.
Although this was a new image, shared using new technology, it was really an exercise of an ancient tradition, the tradition of apocalyptic thought and literature. The image follows the tradition in several ways: depicting the end of the world, accomplished by an overpowering outside force, using dramatic imagery, that is nonetheless specific to its culture of origin, and suggesting that this ending is desirable, preferable, to the hopelessly corrupt status quo. And since we are part of the same culture, we immediately understand the image. We aren’t scared, and we may even laugh, because we know it’s really an expression of dissatisfaction and perhaps paradoxically, hope. It’s like saying, making the world significantly better is really hard, but we can start by applying some imagination.
When we read ancient apocalyptic literature, we have a hard time understanding because the images are so striking, yet so foreign. If we don’t know what we’re looking at, we might make the critical error of taking the images literally, or as an endorsement of the evil they merely describe. Like any genre of literature, apocalyptic is rich and complex, rewarding close study, and you can read books and take classes in it — I can recommend a few — but for now I want to point out a couple of principles.
The first is that the word apocalyptic means revelatory. Some of you might remember that Catholic bibles call the last book “Apocalypse,” while the rest call it “Revelation.” Ironically, “Apocalypse” is Greek while “Revelation” is the Latin translation. The idea is that something hidden is being revealed, and while that something does concern the end of the world, the point is not necessarily that the world was going to end soon. Just like what we just heard, scary things will happen, “but the end will not follow immediately.” Apocalyptic had already been popular for centuries when the New Testament was written, because of the most important thing about it: apocalyptic is meant to provide hope, not fear. People who wrote and shared this stuff had plenty to worry about already. The idea was to name the problems, the threats, the injustices of the present, and express the heartfelt emotions of the people about them, and then to affirm that an even more powerful force would intervene to set things right, to change history decisively. For Jewish and Christian people, that force is always God.
I’m guessing you all already know about the big news of last week, the upset election that nobody, or hardly anyone, expected. Apparently Trump’s own staff didn’t think he would win. That reactions were mixed might be the understatement of the year. But in one way, everybody felt the same when the news came: everybody felt that the world had become a very different place. But I want to push back on that notion. Just like that fake bumper sticker was really an example of a popular tradition that goes back thousands of years, I’m going to argue that a lot of things haven’t changed at all, and many of them are far more important than any person, campaign, or office. You’ve already heard the news, so I’m going to tell you a few things that are not news.
In the year 70 AD, the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. This was not an isolated incident, not a prank that got out of hand, but the defining moment of a superpower’s campaign to neutralize a population that had proven irrepressibly restless and stubbornly resistant to the typical Roman program of cultural assimilation. For Jews, it felt like the world really could be coming to an end. If not the world, then certainly their identity as the world’s sole monotheistic nation, their unique, literate, culture, and its unique system of ethics and religious law. They didn’t know what was going to happen next, but then, that’s always true. But sometimes it takes a massive shock to remind us of the fundamental uncertainty of life. And even then, it’s human nature to speculate wildly, to create a sense of comfort, or control.
And of course, the world, and the religion, endured. And another was coming into its own. Some of the Jews who survived the Temple’s destruction remembered one of the rabbis who taught there, taught that it would be destroyed. And yes, some modern scholars claim that those teachings must have been written after the fact, but they are distinguished by a complex use of more ancient Hebrew prophetic imagery, and promises of specific calamities that hadn’t happened yet, which you probably wouldn’t bother with if you were trying to send a simple message to your contemporaries.
But anyway, there’s also nothing new about going off on tangents in sermons. Jesus himself cut to the chase. After sharing all manner of apocalyptic images, epic wars and disasters, nations rising and falling, he returns to the people standing in front of him: what will happen to them? “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Which brings me to two more pieces of non-news. Everything will not be OK, and, everything will be OK. We don’t know what’s going to happen any more than we did a week ago, regardless of how we feel now. Our nation is still deeply divided, racially, economically, geographically, and culturally. Both parties still care little for the poor.
The same problems of oppression and injustice, selfishness, recrimination, and disconnection, still vex our country, and yet we remain a people who demonstrate tremendous generosity and limitless potential for good. Domestic crime and international war are both at historic lows. Those who cherish and uphold the rights of historically marginalized groups are not about to give up their hard-won victories. But the most unchanging thing is also the greatest. God.
God is still God, is still sovereign, all-powerful, and all-loving. God is still the only being worthy of, or entitled to, our worship, still the only hope who will never disappoint us, and therefore our first allegiance must always be to God. We may not be in control, but we have cause for great, and genuine, comfort. The world will never be OK so long as human beings are running it, but we won’t always be running it. God will set all things right in the end.
Therefore, by virtue of our baptism, we are children of God, and we, too, have not changed. We endure. The same is true of our mission, God’s mission. Protecting and caring for the vulnerable, standing up for justice and compassion, living the ordinary moments of our lives with kindness and integrity, loving our neighbors as ourselves. These are the right things to do in every season. Whether the world makes them easy or hard, whether we are rewarded or punished, we are always blessed when we do them. God will grant our endurance, will answer the prayers of the weary. Yet, brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.