“I believe it is the word of God. I do not believe it is the word of God for me.” Lutheran pastor, gifted preacher, noted Biblical scholar, Dean and professor of Harvard Divinity School, and Bishop of the Church of Sweden, when he said those words Krister Stendahl did not advocate the picking and choosing of only the Scriptures we like or feel comfortable with as the basis for our life of faith. Neither did he advocate the summary dismissal of any text that seems to us culturally strange or politically incorrect. Rather he called us to examine closely both the Scripture and our own lives, to see clearly the differences as well as the similarities between them, so we could see and hear more clearly the call of God to us, not two thousand years ago, but here and now, in our own place and time.
Our Gospel reading this morning is the “little apocalypse” of Luke. “Apocalypse” means “revelation” or “unveiling”, and here Luke portrays Jesus as the one who reveals or unveils to his disciples not only the fate of the Temple and the world, but their fate as well. Certainly there are similarities between the lives of those disciples and our own. Luke is writing to a community which realizes that the Second Coming of Jesus is delayed, so that “the end will not follow immediately”. They, like we, are in a time of waiting. We, like them, know that “nations rise against nation”, that false gods are numerous, that there are indeed famines and plagues and portents — although whether these are “great signs from heaven” or part of our own human folly is not entirely clear.
But there are two major differences between our place and time and the place and time of the Lucan community. The first difference is that while our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world are indeed under persecution, at least at this time in this place, we here are not. The second difference is that as we are connected to a major research university in whatever capacity, it is our work, even our calling, precisely to “prepare our defense in advance”: to study, to learn, to examine, to theorize and present theses, to argue, to debate, to prove, to conclude, to receive and also to develop our own words and wisdom that none will be able to contradict; all this in the interests of our careers, our lives, even our faith as we understand ourselves called to this place by God.
It may be that these differences are related. It may be that even with all our preparation in advance, we are not worth persecution. For the words and wisdom we are given and develop in this place are increasingly seen as irrelevant. Not just our theology and faith, but also our scientific knowledge and understanding, our honest emotion, our rational argument. For what are theology and faith, what are science and emotion and rationality, where there is money to be made, where there is fear to be cosseted or manipulated, where there is power over others to be gained. Let us be realistic.
Ours is a more insidious age and place than the first-century Mediterranean. The challenge to our faith is not persecution but seduction. An average of 30,000 advertisements a day tell us that we are not and do not have enough; that only more consumption will make us rich, thin, forever young, and successful. Alcohol, drugs, sex, or gaming promise us relief from our pain and our loneliness. Violence, technology, and empire offer us quick fixes and easy redemption.
The title of this sermon is “Apocalypse as opportunity”. Barry Neil Kaufman of the Option Institute invites the participants in his programs to use the hardest and most challenging events of their lives as means of transformation, with the phrase, “What an opportunity!” What an opportunity to live out our deepest and highest ideals, to live out the choices we most truly want for ourselves and for those around us. As he puts it, “Happiness is a choice, and misery is always an option.” Our apocalypse, the revelation or unveiling of our reality, offers us that same kind of opportunity, not to be seduced by expediency or fear, but to live out the word of God that is for us, in this place and time. Just as for the Lucan community in a different kind of apocalypse, so our apocalypse gives us the opportunity to testify to the good news of God.
Now we all know that pr
eachers love words. Academics love words too, just as much as preachers or maybe even more, depending on the day. People who hang out or tune in with preachers and academics love words too; they have to, or they’d go crazy. I am both preacher and academic, and I love words, in more than one language. So I am a bit leery to suggest the preaching and academic heresy that for our apocalypse, words may not be enough for the testimony we are called to give. Still, I suggest it any way. Phrases like “Actions speak louder than words.”, and “Your behavior speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”, are truisms in both our language and our experience. It is the living out, not just the speaking out, of the good news of God that is our testimony, our testimony that our “opponents will not be able to withstand or contradict”.
Last week the class for which I am a teaching assistant had the privilege and honor of a visit from the Reverend R. Edwin King. He was in town as one of the recipients of the School of Theology’s Distinguished Alumni Award, in recognition of his own work and his work with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the movement for racial justice. He talked with us about the class theme for the day of “negotiating power”, and he talked with us about his testimony to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of the “Beloved Community”. In order to make that vision into a reality, he said, he and his colleagues committed themselves to continue to work toward it, even if they might not fully realize it; they committed themselves to live it even as they struggled for it; they committed to try not to betray it as they worked for it.
As a white United Methodist pastor in the Deep South of the time, for Ed King his testimony included marches, rejection by his religious colleagues, beatings, imprisonment, hard labor, torture, military surveillance, a place on the President of the United States’ “Enemies List”, and strategic compromise and back-room dealing on a local and national level. And, as he says, while there is still a ways to go, he is amazed at how far the vision has come, how much it has become reality. Ed King says, “We are not alone.”
Now it is a different time, and we too are not alone, in any sense of the word. For us in a globalized world, this morning Isaiah proclaims a globalized vision: an entirely new creation, of this world, in this life, so new that former things will not be remembered or even come to mind. Jerusalem, that holy city now such a center of conflict and pain, Jerusalem will be re-created a joy. There will be no more mourning, there will be no sickness and all will live to a ripe old age, there will be enough for all to live with stability and pleasure, and those who work and create will enjoy the fruits of their labor themselves. There will be perfect communion with God. There will be a “Beloved Community”, if you will, in which all of creation will be fulfilled in harmony, justice, and peace.
For us to realize this the vision we are given, there may not be marches and prison. But there is the equally, and perhaps even more, challenging work: to claim our relative freedom and stability, and in that freedom and stability to stand with our sisters and brothers who undergo persecution, to stand with them not just in spiritual ways but in political and material ways as well, so that they too know that they are not alone or forgotten. For us to realize this the vision we are given, there may not be beatings and torture. But there is the equally, and perhaps even more, challenging need: for what Saints Jane de Chantal and Francis de Sales called “the little virtues”: friendship, generosity, cordiality, hospitality, kindness, patience, and the like; those practices that sound so simple and obvious in words and are often so difficult actually to do, especially with those we see — or are increasingly told to see — as “them”: the person of another faith or another skin color or another body weight, the competition in the next library carrel, the immigrant, the differently gender-preferencing, the stranger or newcomer, those who have lost their jobs or their homes or both. For us to realize the vision we are given in our time, there may not be backroom dealings and rejection from our religious colleagues. But there is the equally, and perhaps even more, challenging invitation: for us to consider, as individuals and as members of communities, our own behavior; to consider how and where and on what we spend our money, our life energy, our time; to consider what and who we let into our minds and our bodies and our emotions; to consider whether what we do as well as what we say is just more capitulation to seduction, or is it behavior to answer the call of God and help bring in the vision for our place and time.
Apocalypse, the revelation, the unveiling, is opportunity: opportunity not just to see the world in our place and time as it is, but to see it as it might be. It is opportunity to testify to the creativity of God at work in the world through our behavior, behaviors that help to manifest the globalized vision of a new world of justice and peace right here, right now. There will be a certain amount of working toward it, even if we might not fully realize it; a certain amount of living it even as we struggle for it; a certain commitment to try not to betray it as we work for it. So there is with any vision. But the vision itself will sustain us, if we keep our focus on that prize, and not on the seductions that surround us. When we claim those aspects of
the vision that already exist in our own lives, it becomes easier to resist the seductions and to live out the vision even more fully. The writer Sarah Ban Breathnach reminds us: “Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we shall tend. … When we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but on the abundance that’s present – love, health, family, friends, work, and personal pursuits that bring us pleasure – the wasteland falls away and we experience joy in the real lives we live each day.”
We are not alone. The God who calls to us out of the Apocalypse, the revelation, the
unveiling, that is the God who goes before us into the places where the vision is not yet realized, who goes with creativity and love to prepare those places for us and to meet us there with power and grace. And we have each other, both right around us and further away, even in virtual reality, people of like mind and purpose. We can work together not just in spite of our differences but because of them, as our differences make a whole of our talents and of our results. The organizational consultant Margaret J. Wheatley writes, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”. Both in the Church and in the Academy we can discover whole networks of individuals and communities that care with passion about what we care about, networks that invite us to join with them or who will accept our invitation, the invitation to do something practical, to bring that shared vision into being.
Apocalypse as opportunity. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”, says God. Amen.
Chapel Associate for Methodist Students