Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

 

 

What do we do when we hear a reading like the ones that we encounter today in Daniel in and Mark? Daniel says:

Michael shall arise. There will be anguish. Many of those who sleep in the dust will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

And then Jesus describes war and earthquakes and famines and he says:

This is but the beginnings of the birthpangs.

What do we do with apocalyptic Biblical passages? There are lots of them in scripture to choose from. What do we do with passages in which the Bible sure appears to tell us that God is the catalyst for violence, that God requires violence, sometimes that God is an active participant in violence?

This question is more or less inescapable at this time of year in which the lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow from Sunday to Sunday, gives us one apocalyptic reading after another. For many Christians in parishes such as this one, these readings are variously troubling or embarrassing to us, maybe because we associate them with the Left Behind series of books and movies, with the notion of the rapture. Although, like a lot of troubling or embarrassing things, these passages are simultaneously fascinating to us.

Well, here is one of the things I believe. When someone or something leaves me feeling troubled or off balance, repelled and fascinated, that is an invitation to pay attention. Experience has shown me, for instance, that I when I notice feelings of dislike aversion in myself for another person, that person almost always has something to teach me. I remember some years ago asking for a meeting with a former boss – some things had happened since I had left that workplace – and opening my conversation with him by saying,

I knew that I had to talk to you because I really didn’t want to.

Apocalypse is similar. If we have a reflexive “yuck” feeling about this part of the Bible, if we are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by these passages, then maybe that is an invitation to pay attention, to ask:

What does this have to teach me about God and about my neighbour and about myself?

Now, I want to say something early and explicitly: what these passages do not and cannot teach us is that God is in the violence business. The cross makes that clear and irrefutable. Jesus suffers the worst possible humiliation, he endures the greatest possible agony, and after his return he refuses to respond to this violence with violence of his own. The resurrection is not about God coming back and exacting revenge on those who killed him. It is about God bringing new life and new light into the world.

The cross tells me that Richard Rohr is right when he says that the test for an authentic understanding of scripture and, more broadly, an authentic understanding of God is this: if an interpretation, a teaching, an action is less loving than the most loving person whom you know, then that thing isn’t from God.

Jesus coming back to torture or kill all the people who have believed wrong and lived wrong? That’s kind of less loving than the most loving person I know. So that can’t be how to understand Daniel, it can’t be how to understand Jesus when he talks the way that he talks today.

The word “apocalypse” translates into English as something like “unveiling” or as “revelation.” Hence, the final book of the Bible is sometimes The Revelation of John and sometimes The Apocalypse of John. It could just as well be The Unveiling of John.

And what is being unveiled when we encounter violence in the Bible? Well, as the theologian Mark Heim puts it, violence in the Bible is unveiling the truth, it is telling the truth. It is telling the truth about the human condition, about the conditions that lead to bloodshed, and in particular about the old connection between religion and violence.

Because religion, when it gets bent, when it loses sight of God and gets distracted or seduced by what St. Paul calls the world, has ended up in the violence business early and often. Somehow, when Emperor Constantine came along, when the other kings and emperors followed him, the symbol of Jesus – the symbol of the one who is murdered by the government for telling stories of freedom and handing out free food and health care – ended up on the banners of soldiers marching into battle.

There is no way to tell the truth without unveiling these things. As Mark Hein goes on to say, when we complain that the tales of Genesis, that the bloody sacrifices of Leviticus, that the fire for revenge in the Psalms, that Jesus talking about the birthpangs is too much, that these things are too sordid and too human to have any place in a book as holy as the Bible, then maybe we are admitting that these texts reveal the human condition altogether too well.

In Mark, Jesus says that the temple will be torn down, brick by brick. Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask him when this will be. And Jesus, who has elevated the non sequitur to an art form, who often answers questions with statements or stories that, at least at first, don’t appear to answer the question at all, says:

Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he,” and they will lead many astray.

And then he goes on:

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars?

Don’t be alarmed.

Wars and earthquakes and famines – this stuff going to happen. It is part of the human condition. Let’s name that, let’s unveil that. But let’s also, Jesus says – and this is fascinating and maybe surprising – not be alarmed by it.

Now, “do not be alarmed” cannot mean, “do not care,” or “do not take action.” Because we know that Jesus takes action in response to suffering early and often and always, that he calls us as his disciples to do the same. Maybe, therefore, “do not be alarmed,” means, “do not attach theological significance to this stuff, do not imagine for a second that this is something that God is doing or that God wants or that God requires or that proves that God is coming.”

If that’s right, then Left Behind and the televangelists and the door-to-door religion peddlers who love to point at this passage to prove that, well, the end is nigh, have things backwards. Violence isn’t telling us anything about what God is doing or when God is coming. Violence is telling us about humanity and about how far we sometimes stray from leading the lives of grace and mercy and kindness and love and freedom that God wants for you and for me and for everyone.

There is an amazing line that shows up today in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is one of my favourite verses in all of scripture, when I last saw it printed in a bulletin or leaflet I cut it out and pasted it in my journal. It goes like this:

Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.

Not let us encourage one another, not let us teach one another, but let us provoke one another to love and good deeds.

Huh.

Weird as it is, maybe that line makes perfect sense. Because I think we all know about being provoked to goodness and to love. I suspect that all of us, as young people, received the difficult gift of a teacher or a parent calling us out on our behaviour, telling the truth about our behaviour, unveiling our behaviour and thereby provoking us to be better. I think that all of us, to this day, know about encountering art – several of the artists from PHAME are with us this morning and will be sharing their art with us as part of this service – that provokes us to be better. I think that all of us know about hearing someone’s story, a story of maybe searching or injustice or healing – I remember the woman who came here on a Sunday morning a couple of years ago and who told us about what it was like in Portland to try to function on minimum wage – and being provoked to being better.

And maybe that is what stories of violence in scripture, including stories – maybe especially stories? – that attribute that violence to God are doing. Those stories unveil human violence and they unveil our tendency to project human violence onto God, to make God in our own image, to say that God – who goes to the cross innocent and yet who will not make resurrection into an occasion of revenge –  somehow wants and needs our violence. Maybe these stories provoke us to say no! That isn’t and never was who God is. Maybe these stories of apocalypse and there to provoke us into following Jesus, into joining him in building a Kingdom of non-violence, of goodness, and of love.

Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

 

 

We are on the far side of one of the most intense elections in memory. The months leading up this past Tuesday were frequently angry and uncivil and just generally emotionally fraught. And that continued on Tuesday night. Across this nation, we saw jubilation and despair in almost precisely equal measure. Our nation could’ve been mapped – it could be mapped still – with a sine wave, with some people on a peak of triumph and others in a mirror image place, in a valley of despair.

When we are confronted with emotion this intense, both as individuals and as a nation, we have a choice available to us. The one possibility is to respond in a reptilian fashion, to draw on an ancient part of our brains. High school biology introduced me to the term fight or flight, and later on I heard the term freeze added. (I am very much a freeze kind of guy. As a pedestrian, I have had to consciously retrain myself to yell when I am in a crosswalk and it becomes apparent that a motorist hasn’t noticed me. Freezing when a car is driving right at you isn’t actually a helpful strategy.) I get the impulse to go to a fight, flight, or freeze place. That’s a choice.

Another choice is – with some effort – to draw upon a more evolved part of our brain and to allow the possibility that these big emotions might be an invitation into (and I’m going search for words a little it here) empathy or mutual understanding or reconciliation or (I’m going to settle on a word that is used by Jesus and about Jesus) compassion.

I’d like to wonder with you about three ways that we might say yes to that holy invitation, three ways that we might participate in compassion today, and three ways that we might participate in compassion in the coming weeks and in the coming months. Let’s start in an individual place – let’s start with you and me – and then let’s work our way out to community.

To begin, I’d like to suggest that you and I as individuals are called accept the compassion that God has for you and me and (if that doesn’t sound hard enough, then let’s up the ante) I’d like to suggest that you and I are called to join with God and extend compassion to ourselves. We’re called to be loving and gentle with ourselves.

I’m deliberately starting in a self-oriented place. But I want to insist that it’s not a selfish place. One of the fundamental rules of love is that you can’t give away what you don’t have. Anyone who has been called to the vocation of parenthood knows this, anyone who has been called to the vocation of marriage knows this, anyone who has been called to the vocation of deep friendship knows this, anyone who has been called to the vocation of deep service knows this. You need to be whole and healthy if you hope to pass that wholeness and health onto another.

There is a reason that, when you take First Aid Training, the first thing that they teach you is: Don’t become a victim yourself. If someone is drowning, it’s not actually helpful for you to jump in the pool – you’ll just end up with two people drowning. You need to stay on the deck and go find a life preserver. If someone is being electrocuted, it’s not helpful to run over to him. You need to go find the breaker panel first and turn off the power.

This act of self-care is Biblical. Jesus begins his ministry by lying in John’s arms in the Jordan, by receiving his baptism, by hearing the words of the Father, This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Now, part of the reason that the Gospels include these words from heaven is literary, it is to let us as readers or listeners know who Jesus is.

But the words from the Father also come because, if Jesus is fully human, then he is beginning his ministry in a place full of self-doubt, he is wondering if he is up to the task before him. And Jesus needs this word of compassion and love from the Father if he is going to go forward. After that he is led or driven into the desert, he has this time by himself, he does his own work before he starts working with other people. He casts out his own demons before he casts out other peoples’. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus grounds himself in prayer and worship and renewal. And that is what allows him to go towards the pain, to respond in compassion to others.

So, be compassionate with yourself. When it comes to your emotions, in particular, see if you can put away that loaded word “should” and give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel right now without apology and without shame. If you are angry, give name to that. If you are jubilant, give name to that. If you are disoriented or confused or afraid, if you need to celebrate or to grieve, that’s fine. Extend the compassion to yourself of holding generous room for whatever is happening in your head or your heart or your gut right now

Maybe turn of the TV or Facebook for a bit. Pray. Take care of yourself so that you may be able to take care of others.

Second, I’d like to suggest that we are called to extend compassion to those who did not vote the way that we did, to those who are experiencing this election in a very different way than we may be. If we are in a place of jubilation, how do we get into relationship with those who are in a place of despair or vice versa? I scrolled down Facebook’s big white wall on Tuesday evening (maybe that was a mistake), and of all the many comments and photos and memes that I encountered, the one that popped for me was from my friend, Carman. Carman said something like this:

There must be tonnes of people on Facebook who are celebrating right now.

But I don’t know any of them.

To some extent, Carman’s insulation from the fully half of our fellow citizens who experienced this election differently that he did is a function of how Facebook is built: Mark Zuckerberg and colleagues have worked hard to design algorithms that protect Facebook’s users from competing perspectives on the world. Facebook exists to reassure you that everyone is more or less just like you.

But to a larger extent, Carman’s experience is a comment on how we have structured our lives. More and more of us are living in silos, in contexts of homogeny in which the vast majority of people whom we encounter look like us and live like us and think like us. This isn’t just online. Consider the example of Portland these last few weeks: seeing a lawn sign that said “Make America Great Again” was like spotting some rare, tropical bird.

This kind of compassion begins with the hard and vital work of engaging in conversation with people whose politics are not are own. Two people who are modeling this hard work right now are Van Jones and Chris Arnade – you can find them both readily on the internet. Both Jones and Arnade are lefties. And both of them have chosen to seek out conversations with Trump supporters. And to be clear, by “conversation,” I mean real, physical conversations that feature actual listening; so not shouting, not waving signs, not regurgitating talking points, not tweeting. I mean being in the same room and listening with the goal of learning something as opposed to just waiting until it’s your turn to speak.

Van Jones shared a video of a conversation that he had in the home of a Trump-supporting family in Pennsylvania. And friends, the video is beautiful and inspiring and really hard to watch. There is a moment in which the Dad of the family says to Jones – and I almost flinched when I heard him speak these words – “I’ve lost two careers to NAFTA.”

Friends, I know that pain. I’ve been laid off twice. I know that pain.

Extending compassion to people whose politics or philosophy or theology or whatever are not are own – well, such a meeting comes with bad news and with good news. The bad news is that such a connection makes it hard to sustain our reassuring stereotypes, our comfortably simple understanding of how the world works. The good news is that such a connection makes it hard to sustain our reassuring stereotypes, our comfortably simple understanding of how the world works.

What I saw in Jones’ video were people who, like you and like me, are trying their best. And like you and like me, these folks are looking for someone who can hear and honour and respond to their grief and their pain. And say what you like about Donald Trump, he has done an extraordinary job of giving name to people’s hurt. People who attended his rallies say that the pain that of being in a small and economically depressed town was given voice.

By the end of Van Jones’ video (and let’s be clear, a video is not as good as a real-world meeting, but it is a beginning) there was no way that I could simply write off the people in it as xenophobes or racists or misogynists or idiots. I saw people who, like me, we’re trying to live lives, and to pass onto their kids, lives of fullness and love.

Last of all, I’d like to suggest that we are called to extend compassion to those who are on the margins and, in particular, to those who are feeling off balance or unsafe right now. I got a message from a colleague on election night. My colleague is a young black woman. And her message simply said:

I’m afraid.

Now, I’m a white, straight, physically and mentally typical man who was born into the middle class. Outside of being tall, I am in every category of privilege that you could hope to name. And what compassion calls me to ask right now is:

What must it be like?

What must it be like to be my colleague, or to be any person of colour, and know that the President-elect ran on the slogan, “Make American Great Again,” when you are so painfully, inescapably aware that the time when America was great was the era of Jim Crow and redlining and segregated schools?

What must it be like to be a student at PHAME, the arts group for developmentally disabled adults that meets here at our church, and know that the President-elect – in a scene borrowed straight from a cruel schoolyard – viciously mocked a disabled reporter?

What must it be like to be a woman, and know that the President-elect guffawed about sexual assault, about violating their privacy and dignity of multiple women?

What must it be like to be Latino, and know that the President-elect is willing to concede that not everyone like you is a rapist?

What must it be like to be Muslim and know that the President-elect thinks that there might be a scenario in which people who share your faith could reasonably be barred from entering this country?

What must it be like to be an immigrant – and here, even my privilege cracks, because while I love this country and I am invested in it, under the law I am not a citizen – and to know that, at some level, the President-elect thinks that I am part of what is holding it back from being great?

Before I go any further, I want to insist that the kind of compassion that I am talking about now (that is, compassion for those on the margins, for those who are afraid) and the compassion that I spoke of a moment ago (that is, compassion for those who voted in a different way than most folks in Portland) are not in competition with one another.

There is an interpretative struggle going on right now, with Camp “A” is saying that what we saw in this election was ignored and marginalised white folks speaking up about how they have been shut out of government, and Camp “B” saying that this election was a racist exercise. But we don’t need to choose between those explanations. They are both true. There are people in economically depressed contexts who, to use Donald Trump’s language from his acceptance speech, are forgotten men and women in this country. And his campaign absolutely used coded – and sometimes not coded at all – racist language.

As or more importantly, we can insist that compassion is not a finite resource. We don’t have to decide to whom we are going to extend love. We can extend love to ourselves, to those who voted differently than we did, and to those on the margins. We can do that all at once.

Compassion is not just a feeling. Compassion is an action, it is something that you do – remember, compassion is what Jesus feels before he feeds the 5,000 in the desert, it is what the Samaritan feels before he helps the wounded stranger on the roadside.

In the coming weeks and months, I want to dream with you about what our compassionate action might look like. Could compassion mean that we at Grace forge a relationship with a mosque? Could it mean that we really get serious about learning about race – including, for those of us who are white, our own complicity in racism? Could it mean asking GLBTQ folks how we could be better allies? Could it mean being a whole lot more intentional about nurturing our relationship with PHAME and its students? Could it mean holy and hard conversations with people whom we find it hard to like and to understand?

I bet you have your own ideas.

Beginning on Sunday, January 22nd, when the intercessor leads us the Prayers of the People, we will pray for our President, Donald. I suspect that there are people in this room for whom that is going to be a hard prayer to respond to with an “amen.” But we are called to pray for him nonetheless. We are called to that prayer because by refusing to name Donald Trump, we make him into Voldemort, into he who must not be named, and thereby we surrender our power as citizens. And even more, we are called to that prayer because Donald Trump too needs our prayers, because we are in the enterprise called America together, because Donald Trump too is a beloved child of God, because Donald Trump too needs and deserves our compassion.

The work of compassion is hard. It is really hard. Compassion means taking off what the poet Rebecca del Rio calls “the armour of certainty.” It means choosing vulnerability. But it is the best and most important work there is. If we let it, this work – with God’s help – will lead us into freedom, into relationship, into communion, into love.