Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Her name is Stefani. She laughs easily with a throaty chuckle. Her eyes sparkle. ‘Bliss,’ could be her nickname. But her words catch us by surprise. In a quiet moment, she says, “What a sad world. I look around the world and grieve.”
Stefani is not a sad person, but she has the capacity to grieve, and she has had a good deal of personal experience. Stefani Schatz moved with her husband to live and work among the poor to follow Jesus. She says, “I work with people who have no jobs, and whose families for two or three generations have had no jobs. I see people who die here at a younger age than other places because of alcoholism, and drugs. I see people living in homes that crumble around them…There is no sense of hope…This feeling pervades everything.” (Anne Sutherland Howard, Claiming the Beatitudes, p. 33-34). For people like Stefani and her husband faith is not an abstraction but a shelter. While the world around them swirls with conflict and chaos they have a place in their hearts and minds to come in from the storm.
As they walked past the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus told the disciples, not one stone would be left upon another (Luke 21:6). The ruin of it must have been impossible for them to imagine. Yet to the hopeless poor like those Stefani serves, people who are feeling crushed by the weight of life circumstances then constrain and oppress them, Jesus’ ominous warning sounds like good news.
Among us, bible stories about ‘apocalypse’ and ‘end-times’ call to mind God’s wrathful destruction of the world and of sinners. That’s because, we, like the disciples, mostly have the wrong idea. We’re going to get a lot of apocalyptic stories of the end-times these next few weeks which aim to kindle our hope not to enflame our fear. Bible apocalypse was made for times like these when wars and rumors of wars swirl around us and the future is so uncertain.
An ‘apocalypse’ is an unveiling, and the ‘end-times’ are when the eternal things are revealed, not to destroy the world but to restore it, not to end all life on this planet but so that it may flourish. Apocalypse points the way in a world of endings toward the peaceable kingdom of God, and to new beginnings which are always and everywhere being springing up in, with, under, and around us. Thanks be to God. Jesus invites us to come in from the cold.
Bulgarian-born writer Maria Popova has called this a telescopic perspective on the world. Think of your life, she suggests, not in the span of days or years, or even generations, but from the perspective across geological epochs and cosmic space. The bible trains us to view our life through this telescopic perspective with its language about the end-times. From this vantage point so-called big things become very small and certain other things which may seem small now, loom large.
We are not the first generation of believers to feel discouraged and bewildered by world events. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., it was a bewildering event that seemed to signal the end of the world. Josephus’ account of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans just thirty years after Jesus’ resurrection is no less spectacular that his description of the Temple itself which he described as blinding in reflected sunlight clad in so much gold. He writes, “The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze” (War 6.271-275) [p. 359].
It’s time to come in from the cold. Jesus does this, in part, by popping our spiritual bubbles. The disciples drew confidence from the grandeur of the temple. Today’s gospel challenges us to take inventory. What lies or illusions have I mistaken for truth? On what shiny religious edifice have I pinned my hopes? In what memories or traditions do I attempt to put God in a box? Why do I cling to permanence when Jesus invites me to evolve? Can I embrace a journey of faith that includes rubble, ruin, and failure? As the traditions I love, places I built, things I cried and prayed for fall apart? (Debie Thomas, By Your Endurance, Journey with Jesus, 11/10/19) What will remain of our life when we are done living it? Come in from the cold, Jesus says. Let us work together on what lasts.
The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God,” implying that our conceptions of God and faith must always fall short, always fail. “Let’s name honestly, he suggests, the imposter gods we conjure because we fear the Mystery who really is. Let’s admit that we shape these gods in our own image, and that they serve us as much as we serve them. In other words, let’s undergo apocalypse so that truth will set us free. Let’s open our eyes, our hearts, our minds to see the world as Jesus sees it. (Debie Thomas) Open your imagination. Come in from the cold.
Christians like Stefani remain joyful yet engage fully in all the sadness in the world. Her sense of calm and confidence in the face of tremendous grief comes from knowing she is already living in the undying life of God. Because she imagines herself seated at the heavenly banquet, she has resources in God to draw upon that never run out. Stefani says, ‘It’s a Good Friday world we live in.” (p. 37). But we are an Easter people.
If you’re like me, then you breathed a sigh of relief this week. Authoritarianism and the toxic oxymoron of Christian nationalism suffered defeat. As of yesterday, every election denier who sought to become the top election official in their state lost at the polls (NYT, 11/13/22). Yet we’re not out of the woods our future, and that of future generations, still hang in the balance. We must come in from the cold. Dwell in the shelter of the Lord. Our ancestors in faith marked a lighted pathway out of the swirl and chaos stoked by those who want to keep us locked in our fear.
In the midst of the endings and upheaval which are part of every life, Jesus points toward new beginnings. When we follow Jesus we begin to imagine and “…to make a new community — one that embodies peace, justice, and righteousness; that gives itself to hope, faith, and love. It is a people gathered in sharing and sabbath, in generosity and gratitude. That community will insist that new life comes of every death, that resurrection is a practice and not a miracle. In the midst of the world’s decay, the Kingdom is coming — not with a bang but with a whisper” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, 11/13/22).
It’s time to come in from the Cold. “People who live in such a way — especially in a world whirling with wars and rumors and war, awash in conspiracies and insurrections — aren’t always loved by those whose power thrives on fear. Indeed, the powerful would keep us on an emotional razor’s edge of Armageddon all the time. Jesus insists, however, that his friends not get distracted. Pay attention to what is true. Know what signs are really important. This age is, indeed, ending and God’s reign is near. But don’t be surprised. Stay the course. Tell your story. Honor God’s name” (Bass).