Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C/Lectionary 29C] - November 13, 2016 (Luke 21:5-19 and Malachi 4:1-2a)

The end of things! That’s the message the prophet Malachi wants to get across to God’s people. They’re going down the wrong path and so he reminds them there will be an end of things, a day of reckoning, if you will. Malachi calls it the day of the Lord—a concept, an anticipated event of the future that other prophets before him often mentioned. It will be the day when God’s patience with evil and with his people’s ways will finally run out and everything—all the good and all the bad and the alluring gray in between—would be sorted out once and for all. The truth will be told and the truth will no longer be resistible. Who knows exactly when it will come? It may catch many off-guard, but life as they know it will change, and all of God’s holy and fearsome glory will be revealed.

For some, Malachi says, the heat and light of that day and that truth will feel like a burning, scalding oven. It will reduce them to stubble, just like my clay sculpture project in 8th grade art class did in the pottery kiln when I didn’t pay attention to how I was forming it beforehand. She warned us not to form our sculptures with any air pockets in the middle of them, for air expands at high temperatures and your art projects will explode, she said. “What idiot would make that mistake?” I thought as I formed the coolest, raddest wizard sculpture you’d ever seen. Then “Boom!” went Phillip’s beautiful project on the day of the kiln, reducing almost the whole class’ sculptures to rubble, too. All that was returned to me was the head. A little wizard head that couldn’t stand on its own.

But, Malachi said, that same heat and the light on the day of the Lord will be like warm spring sun to the righteous. The new future opens up with healing in its wings, and they are formed into something beautiful, lasting. It’s the same day, same exact ending day, but it’s experienced very differently by different folks.

It occurs to me that for many in this country and indeed in this world, Tuesday this past week felt like a day of the Lord, an end of things. Time ran out and some kind of truth got registered at the ballot box by millions of people. It caught many off guard. Same day, but vastly different experiences. Some people feel very frightened, very sad, very angry, their beautiful possibilities of life and safety seeming to explode in the heat of its reality.

Others, and almost as many, feel relief, thankful, hopeful, glad for healing they’ve long anticipated. It’s the end of things, some people are saying. No, it’s the beginning of new things, others are shouting louder. It is important that we listen to both sets of voices at a time like this, with the intent to understand and not to respond. And when we step back we realize every Presidential election is cast in the same apocalyptic terms, as if America will be changed irrevocably if so-and-so is elected. There are differences, of course, and for those who are most shocked and stunned by the day of election it seems there may be no way to pick up the shards of clay and piece things back to the way they were.

Picking up pieces. The end of things. As old-fashioned and superstitious as scientifically-modern people may find that particular topic, Jesus spoke about the end of things, too, as he walked around the Temple in Jerusalem. The edifice is huge and imposing, with stones that weigh several tons stacked upon each other. Many archaeologists consider the Temple in Jerusalem to have been one of the most impressive buildings in antiquity. But Jesus predicts that time will run out and that it will all one day be thrown down, boulders going everywhere, like a big piece of pottery with an air pocket in it. No one could have imagined it, standing there looking at that structure. It was too gigantic, too formidable, too permanent. Jerusalem robbed of its Temple would have been far more cataclysmic to God’s people than the outcome of any US Presidential election.

The loss of the Temple and Jerusalem’s protection would and eventually did involve great suffering and persecution of those who were Jewish but especially those who followed Christ as Savior. And yet Jesus promises a way through the aftermath. Jesus promises endurance. Jesus gives them hope.

My sense is that many of us don’t like talking about the end of all things, that day when the Creator will sit as judge and everything gets straightened out. Maybe those are just my issues, but we often have a difficult time visualizing or believing about that point in time in the way that Scripture and the creeds talks about it. And yet we know the timelines of our lives are very real and they are certainly punctuated by many cataclysmic endings here and there, times of woe and change when we can’t imagine how things will go forward—the death of a spouse or a child, a divorce, the loss of a source of income or our own health. It stands to reason, then, that the time we are all living in will someday reach its end. I’m no astrophysicist, but it seems to me there may be some evidence to bear that theory out.

Be that as it mays, Jesus says first and foremost, when it comes to any fearsome dramatic ending between now and then to avoid prognostications and silly predictions. In the aftermath of a tumultuous event, in the aftermath of a day of the Lord, everyone has theories. Everyone seems to have a prognosis and know what went wrong and who to blame and how to fix it. So-called experts pop up everywhere, like pundits on a cable news network, promising a clever way forward, enticing people with false security. Some will even claim to speak for God. Jesus says to beware of this tendency to be led astray by these false saviors. What is the way forward then? Jesus offers himself as that, in ways of self-giving and courageous compassion.

Secondly, Jesus says not to grow worried when the Temples start to crumble, as the terrible end looms in sight. And this is more than just hunkering down and having faith that everything will work out OK. That attitude is alright, for sure, but Jesus is going for something a little more definite. It has to do with understanding that the most significant ending that any of us or the world has ever faced, for that matter, has already occurred in the cross. In his own death and self-sacrifice, Jesus has already conquered anything which would ultimately try to separate us from God. The clouds of doom have already gathered for him, the temple of his body has already been torn down, and he has risen with healing in his wings for all creation. Not a hair of our heads will perish. We do not ever need to worry about the end of things because Jesus has made us part of God’s great new beginning, and eventually that will be all that universe knows.

Lastly, Jesus warns us to prepare for suffering and persecution on account of our faith. As it turns out, the disciples would, after Jesus’ resurrection, enter a time of intense discrimination and oppression. Many would be rejected by their associations, jailed by the authorities, killed. Jesus knows that it is often difficult to stand for what he believes in, to spread the gospel when the world seems to be so against it all the time. Yet, in doing so we gain our souls. That is to say there is something about sharing and living our faith, especially in the face of hardship, that allows us to grow in ways we otherwise might not. It allows our eyes to be opened to the ways God does actually does provide and protect us that we most likely miss when everything is, by contrast, hunky-dory.

Within the last several weeks some of the Christians who had to flee the Iraqi city of Mosul and its surrounding villages because of ISIS have been able to return. It’s been more than two years since they encountered their own fearsome ending amidst the destruction of Islamic terrorism. The Iraqi forces, which, it needs to be noted, are largely Muslim, have liberated these villages, and the Christians are coming back to find their churches in ruins, the crosses adorning the walls riddled with bullet holes. And yet they return with great joy, with an unmistakable optimism that Christ will make things new.

One priest in the ancient village of Bartella returned with his wife just a few weeks ago. Bartella was a village where people of different faiths had coexisted peacefully for millennia. A camera crew followed them as the priest made his way in. Soldiers, many still bearing arms but with them slung back over their shoulders as if they no longer need them, dance and sing for joy, making a new song for God has done marvelous things. The church around them looks like it exploded in a pottery kiln. The footage shows several of them sifting through the rubble, picking out what books and other artifacts they can salvage. At one point you see this soldier with his assault rifle hanging slack across his chest, gently carrying, as carefully as he can…as if it is a human body he has discovered among the boulders…as if it is the very symbol of what will be the way forward out of this carnage…a perfectly-preserved, framed picture of the Last Supper.

“For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

In the face of despair and in picking up the pieces, when everyone offers a prognosis, a prediction, we will offer Jesus.

In the face of endings, when the world starts to worry, we will witness, and witness with joy.

And when it comes to suffering—when the world gives us terrorism—we will lift up his bread and cup, his body, broken once more, ended once more, for the healing of our souls. We know we will find a precious new creation somewhere within the rubble of the days before because that is precisely where God sets his table and places his cross.

As this congregation continues its shift from the end of one era to the beginning of another, may we be so bold to walk the journey—the journey of faith and hope—to worship the Christ—the One risen with healing in his wings—and to witness with joy—joy for a world forgiven and restored.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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