And Ending & A Beginning
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
13 November 2022
Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is noticeably different from everything else we’ve read this autumn. It isn’t a parable. It isn’t really a story about Jesus. It is Jesus giving answers to questions about end of the world. Particularly here about the end of the Temple and how that relates to the end of time and the coming reign of God.
This sort of discourse is known as “apocalyptic.” The common understanding of the word apocalypse suggests catastrophes at the end of time. But the literal translation of the Greek word into English is “unveiling.” Apocalyptic discourse, then, lifts back the veil to expose what’s really going on—how history and the cosmos really function as a contest between good and evil.
So, with those words of introduction, let’s listen to Jesus:
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “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.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God within us,
For the Word of God among us,
Thanks be to God.
A month ago Katie and I were in Sioux City, Iowa for the Joint Annual Meeting of the Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa Conferences of the United Church of Christ, our denomination. This was our first in person gathering since June 2019, so there was much warmth, joy, and celebration as we actually saw people in the flesh, rather than a Zoom box. We got to hug and shake hands and share meals and drinks and laughter. And you could just feel the strengthening of connections, the relaxing of tensions, the sense that we had come through some difficult days together.
As usual, a table with books for sale was there in the exhibit hall. I’m a sucker for such a thing, of course. And I walked away with a small stack of books, including some new children’s books for our children’s library here at church.
One volume I was deeply interested in, and have already read, is a collection of essays by prominent theologians entitled Doing Theology in Pandemics: Facing Viruses, Violence, and Vitriol.
In her foreword for the book, Pamela Lightsey states, “This book makes clear that a pandemic is a kind of apocalypse—a revealing.”
As I reflected on this idea and the ways it is fleshed out in the book’s essays, it became clearer that we’ve lived through an apocalypse in both senses of that word—a major catastrophe that ended the world as we knew it and a moment when the veil is pulled away and hidden truths are revealed.
Think of what all was revealed. The failures of governments and health care systems. The health impacts of systemic racism. The way different socio-economic classes were impacted. How refugee meat packers and minimum wage store clerks died so that others could be safe and comfortable at home.
How fraught and fragile our systems of childcare and education are. How unprepared each of us was. How at risk we were for mental illness, and how little prepared society was to support those needs.
How supply chains do and don’t work and what the impacts of those disruptions would be on normal life. How workers had had enough and quit. How sectors of our economy are now rapidly adjusting.
How much we can and cannot trust our family, friends, neighbors, or fellow citizens to put the common interest above self-interest.
And without all the normal escapes and distractions to occupy our attention, we were able to watch when George Floyd was murdered and so there was a massive uprising against police brutality and systemic racism, a major reckoning impacting every sector of society, and the ensuing backlash.
And in these years we’ve been compelled to pay more attention to the effects of the changing climate and how we’ve come so close to the brink of catastrophe so stupidly. How governments seem incapable of effectively dealing with all of the major dangers we face.
And piled on top of all of that a rise in autocracy, a senseless and brutal war in Europe, and threats of more war in the Pacific.
“Permacrisis” was picked as the word of the year by a British dictionary. I’ve also seen the word “polycrisis” recently.
So, this reading from Luke, which a few years ago would have seemed to us kind of crazy, doesn’t sound so crazy anymore.
This summer, while on my sabbatical, I read a lot on how we as a community can be faithful and resilient as the climate changes and impacts everything about lives. It was sobering reading, some writers more hopeful and comforting, and some less so. The theologian Timothy Gorringe opened his book with the question, Is a dark age coming? And came to the conclusion: “I think we have to say that civilizational collapse is likely.” His subsequent chapters do lay out what we might do to prevent it and what we should do to survive it, as faithful followers of Jesus. His main advice is a “rigorous return to the traditions, practices, and virtues that Christians have nourished for so many centuries.” For the small communities of the church to focus on being the church and doing what we do best because that’s what we can do “to keep human beings human in the dark ages already upon us.”
He sounds a lot like the final verse from today’s Gospel, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Vital to our faithfulness will be remaining grace, generous, hopeful, and joyful in these times. That is the gift from God we give ourselves, our fellow congregants, and the wider world.
The great theologian Rita Nakashima Brock contends that what has happened to all of us is a form of moral injury. Our moral consciences have become “ungrounded from our pre-catastrophe identities.” And while she provides some insights in how to care for ourselves and heal from the trauma, she also believes this apocalypse is an opportunity to change things for the better, and we absolutely must take the opportunity.
“How do we feel our way through an apocalypse?” asks Cody Sanders, the American Baptist chaplain at Harvard. Because we’ve been living through the end of the world as we knew it, Sanders says we have been overwhelmed by fear, anger, and sadness. All of these are appropriate emotions, but he worries that they might become pervasive moods. In order to avoid that, we need to care for ourselves and one another. We need to care for these emotions. How?
First, he gives us a dose of reality—this “Isn’t the first ending the world has faced, and there are many endings yet to come.” Which is the value of reading this crazy passage from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus’s listeners did live through apocalyptic times, when the Temple was destroyed, and then a generation later Jerusalem itself was laid waste. Christians lived through the fall of Rome and the sacking of Constantinople. My grandparents and great-grandparents dealt with world wars, the Great Depression, and the Spanish flu.
In other words, we’ve been through these times before. And we can look to the past for wisdom and guidance. And be reminded that the world can be made otherwise, that we can create a better world, that times like these are also vital opportunities, and, thus, periods of hope and growth.
So, we need to cultivate other emotions that care for the fear, anger, and sadness, we are feeling. We need to grieve our losses, we need to practice gratitude for our blessings, we need to cultivate a sense of wonder at what is good and beautiful in the world. And he recommends that these skills are best acquired in communities, like the church.
Where does Jesus leave his questioners and listeners? In typical biblical fashion he reminds them, “do not fear.” Be aware and be realistic of what is happening. Times will be difficult, but we can do difficult things. And the reason is because God is with you. Jesus says he will give us the words and the wisdom we need. And “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”
As faithful followers of Jesus, we have felt all the emotions, as we’ve lived through this apocalyptic time. We’ve been afraid, angry, and sad. And as faithful followers of Jesus, we aren’t going to get stuck there, are we? We have been grieving our losses and are cultivating a rich emotional and spiritual life, full of gratitude, wonder, generosity, and joy. This is a time of opportunities, a time for vision and mission. This is a new beginning, and we Christians are the “eternal beginners.” W are beloved children of God, called to serve, with gifts to give the world.