Luke 21: 5-19
Do you ever feel tired because you been walking at the edge of the apocalypse for too long? Every week it’s either blackouts to stifle more wild fires in California, or Venice is going the way of Atlantis. Much of Latin America and Hong Kong have been protesting in the streets for weeks, and while I promise not to talk about impeachment hearings and what feels to me like breaching all the norms of democracy and decency; it’s in the air. I try to do my bit. I bike and walk to work, no more plastic straws, raising money for the Hot Chocolate Run and I chair the Northampton Housing Partnership, and I hope my family is good with receiving carbon offset credits for Christmas. But on top of this, we are supposed to do our jobs, pay bills, raise children, volunteer at church and achieve something called work-life balance. If I stop too long to ponder this, I would get writer’s block. So let’s talk about hope, even now in the midst of so many things that bring us near despair.
Luke’s Gospel is forged in a time such as this. Jesus is with the disciples in the Temple on about Wednesday of Holy Week. This is the same Temple where he turned over the tables of the money changers two days before. Here is Jesus, who has to keep his evening lodgings a secret so he isn’t arrested, listening to his disciples yammer about how beautiful the Temple is. Look at the enormous stones, the craft, the grandeur of it all! I wonder if it ticked him off, feeling that his disciples were out of touch with what was going on. So he gives them a dose of reality, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Now that we would be a major event, since the Temple is just a step outside the 7 wonders of the ancient world. The loss of the Temple would be the end of the nation- perhaps the end of Judaism- level of cataclysm. When will this be Jesus? What will be the signs? Will there be a comet? 40 days and nights of rain? A white buffalo? Talk of the end snaps our survival instinct into attention. Time to buy bread and milk, or bullets and beans to store in the basement.
I grew up often hearing both religious and secular end of the world diatribes.
Somewhere in the time capsule of my brain is this memory. I’m sitting on the cold marble floor of Bryant Elementary School with my math book over my head to protect me in case a nuclear missile is aimed at Boone, Iowa. I really need to go to the bathroom, but I sense that this drill is far too serious to the adults in charge. My best friend Chris, a fellow math geek, whispers, “Don’t they understand the improbability of us surviving a nuclear attack?” He pleads his case to Miss Mitchell that while math may be the salvation of the world, this math book on his head will be no help. He is shushed and hides his eye roll under said math textbook. I look across the hall at Greg, whose mother is the only Vietnamese person I have seen in real life. His Dad is MIA, lost in the fight against Communism, which is supposed to prevent the nuclear cataclysm that could destroy Bryant Elementary School and the country we love.
The silence is broken when Marsha Peck, the principal’s daughter, starts to cry. The kids who laugh are shushed, and she hides her shameful tears under a page of fractions. I have a crush on her and wish I could go hold her hand. She is the only one honest enough to face the terror of it all. Not only are we doomed, but the adults in charge have no clue.
Nuclear War was not our only fear. Our bookshelf at home included Rachel’s Carson’s “Silent Spring” about DDT killing off the birds and the bees, before anyone would explain to me “the birds and the bees”. “The Population Bomb” was next to Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth,” about how the world would end violently and Christ would come again and save the faithful. I grew up watching movies like “The Planet of the Apes”, “Mad Max” “Escape from New York” and if you shout, “Soylent Green is people!” I know. If it wasn’t for Star Trek, I would have lost my mind. It was the only show in the 70s that was still optimistic about the future, where a multi-ethnic, multi-planetary beings worked together to preserve human life with some sense of dignity, even though still tinged with prejudice and manifest destiny. And they totally missed how terrifying it would to ask computers to do things for us. (Today, Captain Kirk would have to say, “Alexa, beam us out of here. No, I don’t want anything else in my cart. Three to beam, Now!) At least there was Spock saying the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.
So, if Jesus had come to First Baptist Church in Boone, Iowa and told us that one day all the great buildings we know, from the White House to the Washington Monument, to the World Trade Center, would be destroyed, I would not have batted an eye. It seemed a foregone conclusion that if the nukes didn’t get us, the pesticides and pollution, or overpopulation would finish the job. It’s a wonder any of us grew up with hope at all. You probably know me as a generally hopeful person. So how did I get here? How did I move through a culture of religious and political apocalypticism, to preach good news that does not involve Jesus destroying the evil world? Honestly, its just faith. I keep reading the Bible, and the Gospel will not let me give up hope.
I find Jesus’s honesty about the world as it is to be refreshing. You will constantly hear about wars, insurrection, national division and unrest, earthquakes, plagues, but don’t be mislead, and don’t live in constant fear.
By the time Luke had written down these words, everything Jesus said had already happened. The Temple was destroyed about 15 years before Luke’s Gospel, and the whole world knew it. It was so awful even the Romans felt horrible about it, and the General who massacred Jerusalem was called back to Rome in disgrace. They wanted him to teach a lesson, get a few slaves and call it day, not initiate an embarrassing cultural genocide.
Christians had already lived through times of persecution. Luke also wrote the book of Acts that chronicle the stoning to death of Steven, the arrests of Peter and Paul, and by Luke’s day Paul and all the original disciples, except for John, have been martyred. Early Christianity was nothing like a Billy Graham rally or a Joel Olsteen prosperity Gospel show. When some Christians today claim they are persecuted because people are saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” they need a reality check from Luke. Christianity is not a religion designed to make your life easy. It is a religion to face the world as it is with courage, hope and love.
Jesus message to the disciples in Luke 21 sounds like, Don’t worry things will get worse. But you are not alone. When you are in a tough spot, I will give you the words you need. His last words in the reading are intriguing. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”
I don’t think this simply means that if you endure you will get to heaven. I think it means we can live from our souls right now. What do I mean by that? How do we live from our souls?
A common response to living at the edge of apocalypse, living with so much danger, is to adopt an attitude of fear, blame and anger. You know people who have given themselves over to this powerful trilogy. We may sometimes feel on the edge of all three. Living from this place either burns you out or makes you hate. You either give up and become apathetic, or start to be hateful towards people who disagree with you, or who you think are the real problem. Either way, you have lost your soul.
Faith teaches us to live with compassion, gratitude and hope. These are the attitudes of resiliency, that keep us in the game for the long haul. These are the path to gain our souls. You will hear a lot about gratitude from Sarah as we approach Thanksgiving and the next Common Ground. And you will hear about hope as the major theme of Advent in December. So I will close with a few words about compassion. Compassion has a similar meaning to words like love, care and kindness. But here is what is unique about compassion. In Latin, “com-pati” means “to suffer with.” It could be translated “co-suffering.” To have compassion means that the world breaks are heart, but we still love.
You might be thinking, I don’t want my heart broken. Me neither! But I don’t like the alternative. Not feeling, not caring, not being engaged in relationship. “There’s nothing more powerful than a broken heart, as long as you have a spiritual container to hold it.
The world will do its best to make you angry and afraid. Hang tight to your souls. It may feel like the end is near, but the only thing ending right now is this sermon. May God bless you and keep you.