Tuesday, December 4, 2007
I was a little worried writing this sermon, because the first line of the gospel to jump out at me was, “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.”
When I got past that I looked at the gospel and went, “Oh great, it’s the apocalypse.” I didn’t want to preach about the apocalypse. The whole fire and brimstone aspect of God’s judgment is something I haven’t completely reconciled with my understanding of grace – it’s always been an angry side of a loving God that I don’t like to deal with. But I figured I’d let it sit until 8th week, and, as reliably happens at U of C, 8th week got closer and so did the fiery end of the world. In the middle of relationships falling apart, apocalyptic midterms and an unrehearsed choir with a furious director, I found that point last week where I just wanted to be done. That point when gray and damp seep out of the buildings and onto the streets, when life is just hard. The point when all I want is to go and be with God. When that love pulls me, suggests abandoning my difficult, broken relationships, abandoning my work and that difficult search for meaning in it to go and be wrapped warmly and finally in that love. The disciples in Luke’s gospel understand that desire. When is the end coming? They ask him. When is that time of relief when everything will be made right again, ordered according to God’s plan? Something in their question is eager, echoes of Malachi who understands the end as a time of ultimate retribution when the wrongs of the world will be righted.
So I, like the disciples, started looking to Jesus for answers. But he doesn’t answer the question. We think we’re getting an answer; after. After nations rise against nations, after betrayal, famine and plague. When will this happen? We know when the temple will be destroyed; 70 AD, when the Romans take Jerusalem or 8th week, about two hours before my econ midterm. And yet, not quite. Because these chaotic collapses are always happening. People and their societies are always fighting, always falling apart, always hurting one another. And the end does not come immediately after, Jesus tells us. Just after. If those things are happening now, and they always have been happening now, his answer doesn’t tell us anything. We pass through these points like the uptaken breath before midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999; then we deflate and unsquinch our eyes moments later to find the world has not in fact ended. We are in 9th week, or the year 2000. We are disappointed. Just a little bit. Because then we would have had answers. We would know. Jesus doesn’t give us the satisfaction.
“Don’t worry about when that will be,” he tells us. “First, you have something more real to deal with. Deal with your lives, because you will be betrayed and put in prisons and called to testify in my name.” That’s not what I was asking. I was asking, when do I get to be done? I was calling you to account, saying, “When are you going to come back and fix this broken world?!” There are people who sleep on the heat vents on the Midway. There are wealthy neighborhoods on the Northside that are unrecognizable as part of the Chicago I live in every day. The cellphone in my pocket is the complicated product of sweat shop labor in Taiwan and a civil war in the Congo. I ate today. My second grade student, Thabang, and his family didn’t. God alone can fix this world.
In this gospel, wars, plagues, famines and betrayals do not signal the end of the world. Those dark things are part of this world we live in. Before the end of the world, they will happen. But they do not signal an imminent coming. Don’t spend your time figuring out when the apocalypse will come, counting days, pages or problem sets until break or graduation. He tells his disciples, you cannot rely on food, health, states, communities, families or your own expectations. These structures will not always be here. This is true for the future, and true in the past and true now. Human creations fail, have failed, will fail. Jesus tells us, I do not fail. I am always and constantly with you, if you make up your minds to accept me. If you stop preparing for something else and live presently in the world around you. Endure, he says. We have from Thessalonians this command to work. “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” Even when I have taught Itumeleng this sum seventeen times, in seven different ways, Jesus calls on me to have as much patience and love the eighteenth time I teach him as I should have had the first. Even when there is this longing to be done, here is Jesus saying, “No. Stay and work, and testify. And it will not be easy, or pleasant or without pain. But it is what you have to do.” We cannot wait for Christ to come. Because we are in a broken world. But we are in it. And Christ condemning the state of our world does not condemn our contributions to it.
The verses of this chapter before the reading recount the widow, who gives a coin from her meager savings to the temple. Jesus praises her gift as greater than the gifts of those who give out of their wealth, but some read the story as a condemnation of the temple system, which forced the marginalized to offer money they did not have. The morality of the system, the temple’s structure, is profoundly questionable. But the widow’s contribution is not ruined by that fact. She cannot change the world, nor can we. We cannot end hunger. But we also cannot know God’s plan for bringing about its eventual demise. We are not supposed to. If we focus on ends – on creating significant political or economic change – we burn out easily, we quail at the futility of our efforts and lives. But we can continue to do the work, only because to do nothing is impossible, and because we know we find God in it. We are called by Christ to work with him and in him.
This is not an exhortation to put our heads down and work without asking why. Rather, it is offering a way to challenge that unanswerable why with an answer that does not abandon us to whether it’s a fulfilling optimistic day or not. We work for and with the God who made us. We endure each day to carry out whatever plan he has for us in a plan infinitely greater than what we can imagine or predict. That paradise of dimensions we cannot comprehend that we talked about last week. And we cannot be wearied by the fact that we do not immediately see that kingdom coming with our efforts. Christ calls us to have faith that, even in prison or finals week, he is with us, giving us words and unshakeable justification.
In the final line of today’s reading, Jesus says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” The word “souls” is in some places translated as lives. The Greek incorporates a sense of wholeness, personhood and integrity. By only anticipating the end of this life apart from God, Jesus tells us, we are in some sense not whole people. By endurance through this inescapable world, we come to call on Christ in the present. We require him as the only certain source of meaning and reliability. We know this in our own lives. It is by our trials that we learn to appreciate God and Christ’s sacrifice more dearly. God has saved my life more than once, and I have seldom felt closer to him than in these moments. We discover God in new ways when we fight with him, when we demand his presence and strength. He calls us to draw closer to him in that faith, relying on him alone. My teachers in South Africa knew God intimately because there was nothing else they could rely on. When food was on the table, it was often only and obviously a work of God. By our work in faith, we incorporate Christ into our actions as our only meaning and into our very beings. By our endurance, I would venture, we bring Christ eventually into the world.