Take Heed

Luke 21:25-36

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Superstition discourages us from thinking too much about things that are too bad. Let sleeping dogs lie, we say. Irrationally, but honestly, we resist considering harsh possibilities, partly out of the very human hope that if we do not mention them, they will not happen, or, more dreamily, might not even exist. My parents’ generation had this feeling about the word ‘cancer’. In fact, at some level, most of us construe our lives most days as if we were, in the words of a poet and former parishioner now gone on to glory, ‘temporarily immortal’. Religion sadly and regularly includes measures of superstition, idolatry and hypocrisy, of pride, sloth and falsehood. This is the reminder, the warning, given us in the Protestant Principle, the necessary religious critique of religion.

You may augment or even multiply this manner of superstitious avoidance with regard to sermons. Hope, encouragement, promise—these are our homiletical preferences, both in listening and in speaking. A fellow OWU alumnus and an eminent graduate of Boston University, recently honored here and rightly so, made this his single message until his death on Christmas Eve in 1995. There is something to be said of and for, about, and with Norman Vincent Peale and his Power of Positive Thinking. Furthermore, there is simply sometimes a matter of courtesy at work in our reluctance to name the elephant in the room. We much prefer someone else to do so. If we are forced we will sometimes use the device, the locution, “John said that…” , so bracketing the offense in a quotation of some (hopefully absent) soul or other. We avoid, but life has a way of presenting itself anyway.

The day I deposited our youngest child in his freshman dormitory I met a fellow dad, a fellow depositeer. I soon learned that he was from my home town, Syracuse, and that he had been there in our own return years time, during the late 1980’s , and that he had been an SU administrator. Ignorant, I went ahead to ask, ‘How was your time in our neighborhood?’. If I could describe the pain in his eyes, which I cannot, I would not, for your sake, his and mine. “I was heavily involved in the recovery from Lockerbie”, he said. That probably means little or nothing to you from this long distance. Even then, 2002, it took a half-second for me to catch the sub-text, to hear the unspoken. When I caught up, I sorely regretted my courtesy, my prying inquisitiveness, overheated on a day of much emotion.

In 1988, in Lockerbie Scotland, 200 Syracuse students and others were hurled to their painful, horrific deaths by Libyan terrorists. In retrospect, you can draw a straight line with some other dots along it from 1988 to nineleven. That Christmas, then Chancellor Eggers, gave an interview in the Syracuse Herald Journal. I will never forget the tone of pathos, of loss in that interview. Nor will I forget his grief. Nor will I forget his challenge: ‘we look to the chapel, an nothing seems to come’. Now that I am the Dean of a Chapel, his words ring even louder, ever louder, louder still. Mel Eggers, a great builder, a great leader, a great president, never really recovered from Lockerbie, in my view. How could he? Remembering Eggers challenge, I have written today’s sermon, today’s interpretation of Luke 21, an ancient apocalypse.

Today, apologies now made in advance for what is an awkward and difficult message, I want to speak a pastoral word about the fire next time. We have the wisdom of the Bible, the presence of the Spirit and the experience of pastoral imagination to go on, but for a word like this we will also need your wisdom, your spirit, and your experience as well. In advance I ask your patience, forbearance, indulgence, and, perhaps even forgiveness. This is a hard word, both to speak and to hear.

As a world community, as a nation, and particularly as Christian people within both world and national communities, we need furiously to work to prevent, and we need strongly to be prepared. We need to work to prevent and we need to be prepared for the fire next time. I say this as someone who had to wait to hear if parishioners survived nineleven, who conducted services with thousands of people present in those days, whose parishioners were sent to discover the remains of the dead in NYC, who rode through the aftereffects of nineleven in a congregation of many thousand who were by turns faithful, angry, patient, vengeful, patriotic, nationalist, Christian and American. After the Sunday service, as powerful an hour of worship as I can recall, a friend nonetheless critically said, ‘Well, that was good, by you should have ended with ‘God Bless America’.

Nineleven did not start the fire. I hope that nineleven is its end. I pray so, I work so, I hope so, I fervently reverently desire that it may be so, that no other child shall have to hear that mom went to work and did not come home because of fire of that kind. May we spend every thoughtful moment, every creative hour, every generous impulse to beat back the flames of such a fire next time. My prayer and my expectation is that there will be no fire next time, no other nineleven. Such is not God’s will. Such is not our desire. Such is in nobody’s interest.

But I have parishioners, past and present and future. I am baptizing babies, marrying young people, counseling the bereaved, working with the sick, teaching faith by precept and example, and burying the dead, Friday by Friday. I have a pastoral responsibility that anyone with a pastoral imagination will admit includes being prepared for the unforeseen future.

Our apocalyptic gospel from Luke 21, a fading late 1st century prediction of the end of time, no longer occupies, twenty centuries later, the kind of literal centrality for Christian teaching which it did in the year 90. Even then, by Luke’s time, apocalyptic was waning. The church, beginning with the church’s formative influence on the New Testament, converted apocalyptic eschatology into ethical exhortation. Portents and predictions of wars and rumors of wars became, in the main, as they are today, words of caution and preparation, and warning. ‘Take heed…’. Be prepared. And on that basis this morning we shall render, interpret Luke 21.

Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. Then do your most. And leave all the rest. How many times have you heard me say that in three years? Yet how often have we truly preached the first line, about planning for the worst?

Not all tragedy befalls someone else. Not all inexplicable, hurtful, senseless accident happens to other families. Not all fire burns in the next town down the line. Into each life a little rain, and more than a little rain, does fall. If every heart has secret sorrows, which every heart does, then every home harbors potential hurt, as every home does. More: Religious expression has its perils.

The best way to prepare for the fire next time is fire prevention. The best way to stop the fire is to keep it from starting. We all have some responsibility here. You have responsibility. You have responsibility in your time and in your way to strive for the things that make for peace. You can make a difference. Let me take just two examples, speaking of religion, with regard to a crowded small world in which, Europe and some parts of North America excepted, religion is furiously alive. That is not necessarily a good thing, but it is a fact.

First, you need to know something about non-Christian religion. You are in a good place to make a start. In 30 minutes, starting at Marsh Chapel, you can visit active communities of mo
st of the world’s great religions, on foot, along Bay State Road. Right here, you can take a walk and learn something in one half hour about Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism, and, that great New England religious expression, Baseball. A simple walk along Bay State Road and on out to Fenway Park will show you Hinduism, Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and the search for Common Ground. You can read Huston Smith, or read him again. Before you come back to church, push yourself to some further, better comprehension of the world’s religions. They make a difference—not always for the good. Take heed. It is good form not to judge what you do not understand or know. Walk in different moccasins. You need not affirm, agree with, or accept any particulars from any of these traditions, but these are things that matter, greatly, to the vast majority of the world’s population which population looks, by the way, not all like you.

Second, for your own health and well being you need, for your own health, to find one counter influence to the fire next time, of your own considered selection, and make a point of doing something. Help Iraqi refugees. Support housing for the world’s poor. Fund a mission trip beyond the borders of this country. Travel for learning and for serving. Spend some time in ‘women without borders’ discussion groups. As Christian people you have nothing to defend and everything to share. Our special offering envelopes today support Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Coalition. Support our own nascent, new this year, Marsh Chapel and BU Religious Life InterFaith Council. If nothing else, you could write a check.

Prevention matters. Nonetheless, all the prevention in the world and for the world is not enough. It is not enough to prevent, as primary as that is. We also need to prepare.

We may have another serious catastrophe, somewhere in the country or somewhere around the globe. It is not a question of taking such a portent in stride, for there is no such stride and no such taking. Yet we can prepare ourselves, spiritually, for days we hope will never arrive. We can prepare by ‘taking heed’, facing facts, being ready.

How?

One starting point is a phrase from our President in 2002: ‘we shall meet violence with patient justice.’ I never tire of repeating this quintessentially wise proverb. You may dispute the living of it, even harshly judge various failures both in patience and in justice. That however does not diminish the truth, and the honest integrity, of the desire and insight. Patient justice. We can learn to respond not to react. We can learn to be responsible not reactive, that is to seek patient justice.

But to do so, we shall need deeper, truer preparation. I wonder what kind of training those civil disobedient youth had fifty years ago that kept them in check in the face of dogs, hoses, curses and clubs? No training alone would ever be enough. There must reside, deeper in the heart, what Niebuhr called ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’. That is, we are going to need to learn the arts of disciplined endurance. I think at some low level of our collective psyche we are pushing toward this. Hence the increase in jogging, in running, in cycling, in all forms of physical endurance. At some bone level our bodies are telling us to be prepared for a long twilight struggle.

Those of us who live in US cities by choice have every reason to think soberly in these terms. We are potential targets. Radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, and other forms of terrorism, are actual historic realities, which need to be tracked, contained and defeated by international police and military work. Meanwhile, here we are. The fact that another so-called fire may break out, or does break out, does not change the lasting commitments we have to freedom, peace, justice, and love. In fact, such portents serve to toughen and harden our commitments so named. As Luke remembered his apocalyptic inheritance, let us remember our religious inheritance, in the voices of those who can encourage, admonish, and advise us. Here are three, and very different voices, lifted near here, this fall.

One. Anton Chekov advises us. A friend led me back to his work, after thirty years. Coming from someone so wise who died so young, his words bear weighted meaning. I note them and quote them for they bear such weighted meaning: ‘My holy of holies is the human body…faith is rooted in experience and in acts of charity…Knowledge leads to truth, but knowledge does not exhaust truth…I affirm an all embracing love of life’ (Fr Thomas, in BMC lecture, 11/19/09)

Two. Andrew Bacevich admonishes us. His prophetic voice has gradually received a fuller hearing, across the land, though from his Boston University office he has been writing and speaking for more than a decade. Caution and promise: real change is real hard and takes real time. Bacevich gives me encouragement because his work and word have only gradually, first minimally, then marginally, then more massively gained a purchase, a foothold, a hearing. He taught twice here at Marsh Chapel earlier this month. Coming from someone so wise and from someone of his experience, his words bear weighted meaning. I note them and quote them fully for their bear such weighted meaning. He admonishes, ‘The American people will ignore the imperative of settling accounts—balancing budgets, curbing consumption, and paying down debt. They will remain passive as politicians fritter away US military might on unnecessary wars. They will permit officials responsible for failed policies to dodge accountability. In Niebuhr’s words, they will cling to ‘a culture which makes ‘living standards’ the final norm of the good life and which regards the perfection of techniques as the guarantor of every cultural as well as every social-moral value’. Above all, they will venerate freedom while carefully refraining from assessing its content or measuring its costs. ‘The trustful acceptance of false solutions for our perplexing problems adds a touch of pathos to the tragedy of our age’. (Limits, 182).

Three. Elie Wiesel is a great encouragement to many of us. Each autumn at Boston University, on three Monday evenings, our community sits to listen as he sits to teach. Biblical theology, historical criticism, religious insight, and pastoral guidance are annually, regularly, beautifully combined. I listened to his last, his third lecture, this fall, from the balcony. Due to another earlier commitment, I had to arrive a little late, and so went up to the balcony. In any case, by confession, I am a balcony sitter, by nature. The sight lines are always better, the sound is always the clearer, and there is plenty of space. Wiesel this year concluded his reflections on the tragic history of the ‘St Louis’, a moment of American moral failure which had mortal consequences, with some words of advice. Coming from someone so wise and from someone of his experience, they bear weighted meaning. I noted them quickly and quote them fully for they bear weighted meaning. They bear weighted meaning for us, as we face an uncertain, unforeseeable, unforeseen, and perilous, future: ‘Waiting in the face of crisis is a sin…Silence in a crisis is a sin too…When you are planning to give help, do so quickly…Act yourself, do things yourself, do not depend on someone else to do it for you…Never give in to despair…Never give up on hope…Think higher…Feel deeper’.

So we also read in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 21, verse 25 and following:

But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand be
fore the Son of Man.

~The Reverend Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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