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Proper 28B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September.” The Great Resignation is in full swing. According to the Washington Post: “Many workers have made the calculation that their old jobs — low paying work in industries like restaurants, which have really struggled to fill holes — are no longer desirable, even as companies dangle raises and bonuses to lure employees back to the workplace.”

Some older workers have taken early retirements, 750,000 people have died from Covid, the U.S. labor force has shrunk. Most cite poor working conditions and lack of childcare as the primary reason for quitting. There’s talk of a “general strike.” The new mantra seems to be: “get me out of this job!” People don’t want to fill the openings posted and don’t want the jobs they have. (Diana Butler Bass, The Great Spiritual Resignation, 11/13/21)

Jesus said, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13: 2b) The 13th chapter of Mark’s gospel is often described as a mini apocalypse. The word ‘apocalypse’ conjures a landscape laid to waste, a civilization in ruins, a dystopian nightmare that is the premise of countless popular movies. Sermons on this gospel preachers will speak of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the fall of Rome, or the scene following a natural disaster. Yet, in these days of the great resignation, when scientists say we have just ten years to make a difference before reaching a climate disaster; when historians and politicians openly speculate about the end of democracy; when doctors and nurses receive death threats for administering medical care, a Mad-Max style end to everything we know doesn’t seem like fiction or ancient history. We are living our own kind of apocalypse now.

Apocalyptic literature was very popular in the centuries before Christ when nothing seemed to be working and the bad guys always won. These strange words of Jesus from Mark 13 we have skipped over and ignored suddenly seem more relevant. Could it be this mini apocalypse is meant for such a time as this?
In contrast to what we might think who have spent hours consuming the movies, tv shows, and novels of dystopia, and of conservative Christian speculation about the end-times, apocalypse is not about destruction. Rather, in the bible, apocalypse means something quite different. An apocalypse is an unveiling, or an uncovering. It is a disclosure of something secret and hidden. To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before. (Debi Thomas, Not One Stone, 11/11/18)

If we are living through apocalypse, it is because we are seeing ourselves, our nation, our religion in a difference light. We are confronted with the reflection of ourselves in the potential demise of everything we hold dear and are bewildered and humbled. If the economy of daily life is leading to ecological collapse it is because we have distorted and ignored what it means to be stewards of creation. If we are facing a racial reckoning it is because we have not been honest about the history of this nation. If we have become divided into warring political camps that threaten our democracy and undermine our ability to cope with world-wide pandemic it is because we have not loved, nor listened, to our neighbors as ourselves.

Like the Hebrew prophets of old who warned people of faith of the immanent consequences of their own bad choices, the fruit of apocalypse is disillusionment. In her sermon collection, God in Pain, Barbara Brown argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life. “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart 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 who God 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 endure apocalypse so that truth will set us free. Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees. Things are getting uncovered. Let’s hold each other tight and pull back the veil.” (Debi Thomas)

“Don’t be alarmed,” Jesus says, when truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred. Don’t give in to terror. Don’t despair. Don’t capitalize on chaos. God is not where people often say he is; God doesn’t fear-monger. God doesn’t incite suspicion. God doesn’t thrive on human dread.

So, let us “avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments. Be perceptive, not pious. Imaginative, not immature. Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. This is the great challenge and gift of the Gospel. Not simply to bear the apocalypse, but to bear it well. To bear it with the radical, self-sacrificial love Jesus models on the cross. (Debi Thomas)

The author of Hebrews holds out the antidote to apocalypse and the job description for any community of faith. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

The “Day Approaching” is not destruction but the reconciliation, the final restoration of all creation. The God who made the world still loves it. “This sweet old, fallen world is loved by God and therefore embraced by Christ’s body in the world, by us. In the paschal mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the reign of God is remaking the world. This world has been returned to us as the space for all of our vocations. Our lives take on meaning in the shadow of the Day approaching.” (Stephen P. Bouman, Baptized for This Moment, p. 52-53)

Confronted with apocalypse now, “it’s easy to despair. Or to grow numb. Or to let exhaustion win. But it’s precisely now, now when the world around us feels the most apocalyptic, that we have to respond with resilient, healing love. It’s precisely now, when systemic evil and age-old brokenness threaten to bring us to ruin that we have to “hold each other tight” and allow the veil to part, the walls to fall” (Debi Thomas). What’s happening, Jesus promises, is not death, but birth. Something is struggling to be born. Yes, the birth pangs hurt. But God is our midwife, and what God births will never lead to desolation. What God intends to bring to life in and among us now will end in peace, shalom, and joy.

Proper 28C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

On February 14th, 1990 the Voyager I space probe sent a love letter.  It was Valentine’s Day. The probe had already travelled 13 years and nearly 4 billion miles from earth when the late-great astronomer Carl Sagan, convinced NASA engineers to turn Voyager’s camera toward earth for one final photo. The famous image, called “Pale Blue Dot,” depicts a single pinprick of light in a dark, vast, empty, expanse of space.  Voyager has travelled 43 years without stopping and is now more than thirteen billion miles from earth. It is the first human-made object to leave our solar system.

Carl Sagan wrote that pale blue dot, “That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was…every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” (Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot,” 1994)

This is what Bulgarian-born writer Maria Popova has called a telescopic perspective on our world. It’s when we think of life, not in the span of days or years or even generations, but across geological epochs and cosmic space. From such a distance we ask ourselves different questions — not, “What matters to me?” but instead: What does it mean to matter? And what must we choose to care for when life is both so precious and so lonely in the universe?

As we end one year reading the gospel of Luke and are about to begin a new one reading from Matthew, our story pans out to include the beginning and the end.  This stretch of Sundays, from All Saints to Christmas, our bible trains us to look at 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 small things loom large.

As they walked past the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus told the disciples, not one stone would be left upon another.  The ruin of it must have been impossible to imagine.

The historian Josephus wrote: “The outward face of the Temple…was covered with gold plates of great weight, which at sunrise, reflected a fiery splendor that forced those who looked upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays.  At a distance this golden Temple appeared like a snow-covered mountain, for…those parts…not covered in gold… where exceedingly white. (As quoted by William Barclay).

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.  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].

We are not the first people to live in a time it seems everything is upended.  In a new twist on an old story, Jesus points to the beginning that is beyond the end. He invites us to look at life as if through a telescope. Regardless of our leaders, Jesus Christ is king. Of all the things that exist today, tomorrow, and yesterday, only the Word of God is eternal. God opens the way that rekindles our hope even as kingdoms the world are brought low.

In a sermon collection titled, God in Pain, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

Viewing life through the telescopic perspective of the end-of-days, may provoke grief and disorientation in us. Like Job, sitting in the ashes of our own human striving, we cry out to God, ‘What does it mean?’

As we envision ourselves in the disciples’ place, listening in bewilderment as Jesus pops our spiritual bubbles, we start asking ourselves different questions: What lies, and illusions do I mistake for truth? In what memories or traditions do I attempt to “house” God?  On what shiny religious edifice do I pin my hopes, instead of trusting Jesus? (My denomination?  My church?  My spiritual heritage?)   Why do I cling to permanence when Jesus invites me to evolve?

Am I willing to sit with the fact that things fall apart?  (Things I love, things I built, things I cried and prayed and strived for?)   Can I embrace a journey of faith that includes rubble, ruin, and failure? (Debie Thomas, By Your Endurance, Journey with Jesus, 11/10/19)

The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart 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 endure apocalypse so that truth will set us free.  Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees.” (Debie Thomas)

From the perspective of eternity and the far-flung distance of space big things that fill our minds and calendars begin to look small and certain small things loom large. From four billion miles we can clearly see life itself is breath-taking and miraculous. The most important legacy of our lives is in sustaining and extending life on this beautiful pale blue dot rather than in subduing and extinguishing it. Our fate rests in how we choose to care for what’s right in front of us, day after day, no matter how miniscule that may seem. As Carl Sagan wrote of that distant image of our tiny world, “It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

You do this at Immanuel when you take time to help a child learn to read and be successful in school. When you build community among young families. Through your support of an immigrant family torn apart by detention and deportation. By welcoming young people to Christ and belonging as siblings of God. When you take time to listen to a co-worker, care for a friend or family member, or take risks to oppose injustice.  When you lift your voices to sing and give God praise.  When you answer the sabbath call to gather here for worship to hear the word, to be nourish at the table, and made new in the waters of the font. The sacrifice of your time, sweat, and money for these small things loom large because these are the very things that sustain us and add to the vibrancy of all life.  All the angels in heaven sing, and all that is, was, and is to be, will join us in celebration. May Christ be praised. Amen!