Semon on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Also known as "my first sermon at my field ed site".
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
A new attack was launched this week, and fighting continues daily as numbers of wartime casualties climb. Devastating earthquake claims one hundred victims, while thousands more are left homeless. Ongoing drought leads to starving children.
What are we talking about here - headlines from this week’s newspapers, or apocalyptic signs as predicted by Jesus? Luke’s Gospel reading for today certainly sounds like Jesus is talking about our own time. Nations at war with one another, lives claimed every day by famine, disease or natural disaster. Towers fall so that not even a stone is left upon another. Especially since September 11th, it seems as if the world as we know it is coming to an end. Is it really good news for us to hear that Jesus knew all that would happen?
The earliest Christians thought so. Because, before we get too caught up thinking that this Gospel is an awful lot like our own times, we should remember that it also sounded a lot like the times when Luke was writing this Gospel. The Gospel of Luke was written in the mid-eighties. At that time, Jerusalem was recovering from a terrible war, and the Temple had been destroyed. The first period of severe persecution of Christians happened just shortly before Luke was writing, under the reign of Nero. It was a chaotic and unstable time, and Luke relied on the traditions of Jesus’ sayings to comfort the early church in their struggles. Apocalyptic writings are less about predicting the end of the world in some future time, as they are a way of making sense of the chaos in our own time. As Kathleen Norris writes in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith,
“It is a wake-up call…to sharpen our awareness of God’s presence in and promise for the world. The word apocalypse comes from the Greek for “uncovering” or "revealing", which makes is a word about possibilities. And while uncovering something we’d just as soon keep hidden is a frightening prospect, the point of apocalypse is not to frighten us into submission” .
And, in fact, Jesus tells us just that. These signs are not intended to frighten his listeners, on the contrary, Jesus directs his audience “do not be terrified”. Fear is the natural reaction to chaos, but being terrified is not a helpful response. Fear is overwhelming, even paralyzing, especially fear of something we don’t understand. When we are living in constant fear, we cannot do anything – and doing nothing is not how Jesus calls us to live as disciples. Here, Jesus wants us to be prepared in order that we might be courageous. Unfortunately, sometimes the best way to deal with our fear is to name the worst-case scenario- whether it is the destruction of the Temple, outbreaks of violence and disaster, or being persecuted and abandoned. By naming these signs, Jesus tells us that we are not alone when we are in chaos – rather, that these things will happen as part of the order of the world. These things will not be the end, and they are not signs of God’s kingdom. Through this apocalyptic good news, we are freed from the fear that chaos will have the last word. We are free to hope for life beyond the failings and fears of this world. And, we are free to live as Christ’s disciples working towards the realm of God, no matter how the world reacts.
Our job is simply to keep on keeping on. We hold fast to what we have been given: faith, hope, love, and each other bound up in the Body of Christ. We proclaim God at work in the world, even in the chaos. We give our testimonies of hope. What is testimony? It is simply showing that God is working in our lives. As Saint Francis said, we are to “preach the Gospel at all times- if necessary, use words”. We give our testimony each time we find hope in the midst of chaos and sadness, each time we choose to love our enemies instead of seeking vengeance- whether on a global scale or in our individual lives. We preach the good news when we are not overcome with fear in the face of disaster, and reach out to those who are most marginalized among us. We tell the world about the unchanging God of Love when we are able to do these things despite the difficulties on the road of discipleship. And, we should not deceive ourselves.
Although this passage is essentially one of comfort and encouragement, Jesus does not sugar-coat the realities of the world and neither should we.
Friday night I attended a benefit concert for a woman trying to live her life this way. Amy is going to Israel/Palestine with the Christian Peacemaker Team. These delegations train in non-violence work, and then she will spend two weeks working in Hebron. One of their main tasks is escorting children to school, so that they are not harassed by the settlers. This may sound like a simple job, but the level of hostility can be shocking. When Amy stood up at the beginning of the concert to tell us about this work, she also told us that in September, two members of the Christian Peacemakers had been attacked and badly beaten while walking children to school. My friend Ryan commented, “Well, it is a war zone. May as well be upfront about that if you’re going in.” Amy knows what she is getting into – and that knowledge helps her face her fear so that she can persevere in her own work. We all face our own struggles, some more or less dramatic than others. But proclaiming the Gospel happens in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of places, and it is never an easy task. The things that are most worthy of our time are never easy. But we have hope to share- and our hope is not dependent on what happens in the world. Our hope is from knowing the loving God, who is active and present even in this world of chaos.
We do not know the day or hour when Jesus will return, and until then, there is much work to be done. In the chaos, we persevere as disciples because there are hungry people to be fed, there is hope to be shared, and there is good news to proclaim Praise Jesus who releases us from our fear, so that we can get to the real business of keep on keeping on.