Sunday, November 18, 2018

Hope amid Trauma (Proper 28b)

Matthias Gerung, "Die Hure Babylon, Offb 17, 1-18" c. 1531, 
Ottheinrich-Bibel, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

“Hope amid Trauma”
18 November 2018
Proper 28B
Homily preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
Ashland, Oregon
The Very Rev. Anthony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
8:00 a.m. Spoken, 10:00 a.m. Sung Mass with Holy Baptism
God, take away our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh.  Amen

What a blessing to renew our own baptismal covenants today together with little Arabella and Robert!  I think today’s Epistle tells us what our reaction to baptism should be: “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Then it adds this, evidence that in some ways, not much has changed in the Church over 2,000 years, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” 

Hope, clear conscience, meeting together, encouragement:  this is the life of Christian!  It is decidedly not fear, depression, and guilt.

Contrast this joyful encouragement with the banner held up for years now by a group of grim marchers calling themselves Christian in the Ashland 4th of July Parade: “Repent, for the Great and Dreadful Day of the Lord is coming!”  Contrast it with the headline from this week, “Colorado Pastor says God is burning down California as punishment for Support of Homosexuality.”  These people call themselves Evangelicals, or people of the Good News.  But with their focus on the grim, I prefer to call them Dysangelicals, people of the bad news.  They usually like to quote parts of the Bible like Daniel or the Revelation of John that speak at times about horrors coming. 

But they decidedly do not follow what Jesus counsels us in today’s Gospel.

Daniel, Revelation, and today’s Gospel lesson are examples of what scholars call apocalyptic writings.    The Greek word apokalypsis means an uncovering or a revelation of what is hidden.   The question is: what do they uncover?  Is it coming events, or is it God’s ultimate purposes? 

Apocalyptic includes some Jewish writings like the Book of Daniel and the non-canonical Book of Enoch, as well as Christian writings like the Revelation of John, and the “Little Apocalypse” of Chapter 13 of Mark, together with its parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21.

This literature is rich is images: symbolic figures, numbers, angels, and animals.  It includes disturbing and shocking scenes: a third of the sea or the moon turning to blood here, the stars falling from heaven and killing most living things there, a scarlet-clad crowned prostitute corrupting all nations here, a multi-headed beast covered with eyes and horns devouring the righteous there.  Though the earliest Christians understood this all allegorically and symbolically, occasionally Christians living in times of turmoil have seen these stories almost as if they were predictions of events to come.  In the year 1,000, penitentes were running all over Europe whipping themselves and declaring the end of the world quoting such images.  In the 1970s, we had “the Late Great Planet Earth”; today we have the Left Behind novels and even support for the State of Israel or President Trump because some think this hastens the great train schedule for the "Rapture" and the Last Day. 

But this reading completely misunderstands apocalyptic.  Jesus, in today’s Gospel, won’t have anything to do with such thinking. 

Just before his arrest, Jesus is with his disciples at the Temple in Jerusalem.  It is pretty impressive: 10 stories high, with masonry stones embellished with smaller carved jewels glittering in the sun, gold leaf covering large parts of it, truly a marvel.  A disciple says, “Wow! Look at that, Jesus! Isn’t that impressive?”   Jesus replies by dismissing it all and saying, “Don’t get too excited.  Soon not one stone there will be left standing on another.  It’s all going down.”   Later, when they are on the Mount of Olives across the Kidron valley opposite the Temple Mount, with a panoramic view of the complex, the other disciples ask him about this.  If it is going to be destroyed, this must be something on the scale of those troubling apocalyptic books.  So they ask him how his prediction fits into the weeks, days, numerology, and timetables of the Book of Daniel and Ezekiel: when will this destruction happen, when is the end of the world? What will be the signs preceding it?

Jesus explains that such a scorecard approach to end-time signs is pointless—too many people abuse such imagery for their own advantage (“many will come and say…”).  He says they shouldn’t be too alarmed or overly excited by the appearance of apocalyptic stage props of “wars and rumors of wars” or natural catastrophes.  Such things, he says, are “but the beginning of the birthpangs,” that is, Braxton-Hicks’ contractions or false labor. Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry too much about any of these things.  They’re just a false alarm.  Keep calm and carry on!”   Jesus denies that apocalyptic should be read as a coded playbook of good guys versus bad guys, but rather as an invitation to hope. 

The fact is, Apocalyptic is primarily about events and people in the world of its authors, not the distant future.  The Revelation of John, the classic Christian Apocalypse, itself says that it is about things that will “come to pass soon”  (Rev 1:1).   That doesn't mean soon to us, but soon to the writer

Apocalyptic is literature written during persecution.  It seeks to understand the sufferings of the righteous and encourage them to not lose faith, and to keep resisting the oppressors.  In John’s Revelation, these are Romans under the Emperors Nero and Domitian, who put Christians in the arena to be torn apart by wild animals because they decline to offer incense to a statue of the Emperor.  In the Book of Daniel, they are Greek Syrians under Antiochus who flayed alive or boiled in oil whole families simply because they kept the Law of Moses. 

Apocalyptic puts its message in rich images and code so that the readers can read it without the censors and secret police of the persecutors catching on and then using the possession of this literature as evidence against them. 

These books read sometimes as if some mental patient wrote them.  That is because the authors were traumatized people.  Whatever the specifics of the hardships they describe, we must remember that these books are about hope and perseverance, and the ultimate triumph of the Good.  People like our Dysangelical friends who take these books as coming events and cause for threat and alarm just don’t get it.  Instead of “Keep calm and carry on,” they, like Chicken Little, run about and shriek “the sky is falling! The sky is falling.” 

Jesus’ “false alarm!” approach here suggests what is the real message of Apocalyptic:  as Winston Churchill famously said in WWII, “If you are going through hell, then keep on going!” 

Apocalyptic is a lens to help people through bad, horrible times.  Its vision amid persecution is of a bright future city of God where God will wipe away every tear.  Trying to turn Apocalyptic into something it is not, into predictive television of coming events, lurid in horror and dim in its threats, misses the point entirely. 

Jesus is saying here that we should take the traumatic events we experience, whether war or natural disasters, as occasions for drawing closer to others, for helping them, for being helped by them.  Like Mr. Rogers, he asks us to look for the helpers, and even be the helpers, in horrible times.  This is the heart of the coming of the Kingdom. 

And this is exactly what we celebrate in baptism, and in the encouragement of hope that we owe to one another.  “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.  Let us figure out ways to encourage each other more and more to love and good deeds.”  

In the coming week, I invite us to ask how we react to bad things in life.  Do we blame God for them, or say God is punishing someone?  In prayer, let us seek ways to help use the traumas we experience or witness as ways to draw closer to others.  Let us encourage each other in hope unwavering and thus bring closer the great day when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

In the name of Christ, Amen.