Sunday, November 13, 2016

the hard work of witnessing

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 28, Year C, 2016

"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" (Luke 21:6).

The little apocalypse—that’s the nickname Biblical scholars have given this section of Luke and the parallels in Matthew and Mark. It’s easy to see why: in the passage we hear of wars, natural disasters, torture, and murder.

Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. He overhears his listeners remarking on the beauty and majesty of their worship space. I imagine Jesus shrugs and says, “Don’t get too attached; it’s not going to last forever.” In response, Jesus’ disciples begin freaking out, wondering when the temple will be destroyed. You see, for the Jews, the temple is the symbol of God’s presence with them. Their whole identity is wrapped up in being the chosen people of God. Without the temple, who—or whose—will they be?

In a similar way, the cases of vandalism, arson, violent protests, beatings, and harassment that people have experienced this last week have highlighted the division in our country. These states are not united, but deeply, deeply fractured. And in a way, this polarization has caused a kind of identity crisis that has left many reeling.

Faced with the destruction of the temple and their identity, the Jews are confronted with their own mortality: “not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (v. 6). The things of this world, our creations as well as ourselves, are finite. Yet even at the grave we make our song Hallelujah. It may be a “cold and…broken hallelujah”, but it’s a hallelujah, nonetheless (“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen).

The Good News is that through our baptism in Christ we are granted citizenship in another kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. The heavenly kingdom is not marked by division or schism, but is united in worshiping God. Still, the reality of that future kingdom requires us to act in this one. In the face of countless challenges, we are “given an opportunity to testify” to be a witness, of Christ’s love for all (v. 13). We witness by following in Christ’s footsteps; Jesus cared for children and widows, healed the sick, welcomed the stranger, and dined with sinners rich and poor. He also called people out when they were not doing the right thing, chasing money collectors out of the temple, discouraging violence, and pointing out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. And on several occasions he was even moved to tears.

We need to be moved, too. In response to events this week, there have been voices, so many voices, clamoring for our attention and telling us how we should be acting or reacting. Pay attention to who is speaking the loudest; it is often only the people in positions of power who are able to effectively get their message or point of view broadcast. I invite you this week to search out the voices of people on the margins; what has life been like for everyday people not influenced by money or an agenda? Once you have listened—really listened—to what they have to say, based on what you hear, where do you feel Jesus calling you to action? I’d like to suggest that immediately after an occasion like this, sometimes the best action is to simply be present with people, to be a safe space for them to talk or rage or mourn or to just be.  

Human nature makes us yearn for easy answers and solutions. We don’t like to dwell in the uncomfortable, but would rather like to brush off our shoulders and just move on. We may be tempted to put the events of the last week behind us and move straight to the work of reconciliation. But the rift in our country is never going to be repaired as long as there is such a discrepancy between rich and poor. It’s never going to be repaired as long as people’s basic human rights are threatened. And it’s not going to be repaired as long as we are unable to recognize that every single person has value in the eyes of God. We do not seek a cheap or hurried unity. We should not want unity for unity’s sake, but instead work together to build authentic relationships.

We certainly have our work cut out for us, but, as Jesus mentions in today’s passage, he has always been clear that Gospel work very often is not going to be easy. Life in this world is difficult, but in the face of division and brokenness, we are called to do the hard work of witnessing to Christ’s love. The Good News is that God’s love is big enough to include all of us. God did not keep this love to God’s self, but opened up, poured out, and was broken for our sakes. God is present with us in this moment, and God will be present with us as we continue. And finally, in the end, “by [our] endurance [we] will gain [our] souls” (v. 19). 

At Prairie Home Companion last night the Dover Quartet played Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" as it was originally written (for quartet). Its mournful tone, dissonance, and incomplete cadence was balm for the soul. Perfectly captured lamentation and the idea that we don't immediately move toward resolution but must work through the grief first. 

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