This past week has pretty much contained All Of It. And it has been very difficult for a lot of people. For others, it has been the opposite. I knew that I would be speaking to both in my congregation, because we welcome ALL in my congregation. I knew I needed to speak to the space between.
A verse in today’s gospel text has stood out to me since I began pondering this lesson 2 weeks ago, but the Spirit waited until yesterday to speak to me in the space between as to exactly what I would say. This was without a doubt the most difficult sermon I have ever had to write or preach. I hope it can serve as food for thought. God’s blessings to you.
Sermon for November 13, 2016
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“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.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
I feel quite certain that this is NOT the job I signed up for.
When I entered candidacy nearly four years ago, I don’t remember hearing ANYTHING about this.
Can I get a do-over?
No. Actually, I can’t.
And this text is part of the reason why. This sliver of the story after Jesus has come into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” reminds us that this life to which you and I have been called is sometimes difficult, and challenging, and painful – if not risky to the end. But I don’t think it’s a template for how to calculate the end times.
One of the things that is important to understand about this passage is WHEN Luke’s gospel was written, which was about 80-90 CE.
This destruction of the temple Jesus is talking about – has already happened. The siege and destruction of Jerusalem was in the year 70 AD.
Luke’s audience is desperate to hear a word of hope. They are living in the aftermath of the siege and destruction. Life has gotten measurably worse in the 50 or so years since Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I feel sure Luke’s audience wants all this to make some kind of sense, somehow.
And I don’t think Jesus is predicting the future so much as he’s reading the signs around him. He’s looking at the powerhouse that is Rome, and he’s looking at the tensions that surround everyone in Jerusalem. He’s looking at the divisions within Judaism itself. He’s spoken of this tension and division before.
But Jesus is not concerned with accurate predictions here. Jesus is concerned about the community.
It’s no secret that the gospel Jesus preaches, the good news, is understood to be just this side of insurrection by the dominant power structure. You may recall some time ago in this lectionary year, when the stories are of the early part of Jesus’ ministry, he goes to his home town of Nazareth and reads, in the synagogue, from the prophet Isaiah: the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…..and so on.
And for his efforts, he is basically run out of town on a rail.
That reality is one that has been a part of human history from the very beginning. If you tell the truth – if you stand up for the oppressed – if you call out corruption in high places – look out.
What Jesus lays out here, however, is not a battle plan. It’s not an algebraic equation into which you plug values, like certain events and the years they occur, in order to calculate when Jesus will return.
It’s a reality check.
To stand up for what is right, no matter how you arrived at the determination of what is right, is risky business.
And in the middle of the description of just how bad things can get, Jesus reminds the disciples that if they follow him, at some point the powers-that-be will come after THEM.
And here is the part of the text that I think is pivotal. Everything, I think, rests on this verse:
“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance…..”
Now this goes against everything I’ve ever been taught as a paralegal, not to mention a singer. Not prepare in advance? What are you, nuts?
But this…..this is our problem. We prepare our defense in advance.
I’m just as guilty as the next person.
I turn off the radio station I don’t like. I switch the TV away from the news channel I don’t agree with. I unfriend people on Facebook with whose views I don’t align.
I prepare my defense in advance. And in that preparation, I lose the ability to listen.
I lose the ability to listen to the person who is LGBTQ, or a person of color, who is genuinely afraid for their life.
I lose the ability to listen to the veteran who is sick and tired of the levels of corruption in the government he or she fought to defend.
I lose the ability to listen to my sister or brother, whose pain and frustration is real.
I lose the opportunity to make some room so that God might speak.
Do not prepare your defense in advance.
God will give you the words…..when they are needed.
But first – we MUST LISTEN.
We must sit with one another and listen to each other. Not simply wait until there’s a break in THEIR narrative, so that we can insert OUR narrative. No, I need to listen:
What does my brother long for? Once I’ve heard it, can I articulate it?
What is my sister afraid of? Once I’ve heard it, can I put it into words?
I don’t have to agree with them. But can I hear them?
Dear brothers and sisters, if there is one thing I have discovered over many years on this earth, it is that it is more important to be in relationship, than it is to be right.
I have known many of you for years. Some of you, I have known for most of my life. And I know we do not agree on everything.
But what I do know is that you are good people. Caring people. Who just want to help make the world a better place.
I also know that you are faithful people, who gather whenever you can around this table, this font, this Word, at the foot of this cross – to share in the love and grace of God as poured out in Jesus the Christ. Who are sent from this place, eager to serve the neighbor.
And if I believe what I preach – if WE believe this gospel, this good news – we will claim the truth that unites us and that stretches across time: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
In the light of those words, even when faced with the hard and painful work that is surely ahead of us, we don’t need to be afraid. As the eyes of the disciples were opened at the table in Emmaus, so our eyes are opened when walking the gospel road.
Psalm 98 is appointed for today. The only other days in the church year we hear it are Christmas and the Easter Vigil. At each of those times, we are concluding a time of wondering whether God is for real. The Psalm interrupts that wondering by offering another way to reflect on our present reality.
We are invited to break out of spaces where thinking is limited, and life is regarded as something lived independent of other living things – or of God. I think the writer insisted on pushing people to see the unseen that was right in front of them.
And once they could begin to make out the outlines and contours of the activity of God, then it was time to shout, burst into song, and make music. What else can really happen once you’ve discerned the previously un-discernable?
Church, in order to make music together, to discern the un-discernable, we must listen to one another.
We must break out of the limiting spaces.
Because OUR identity is in the cleansing, renewing waters of our baptism. Not in a political party, or an ideology, or a candidate – but in the water and the Word.
And that Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; full of grace and truth.
Believe this gospel, dear brothers and sisters. It is all we have.
And the best part: it is all we need.
Thanks be to God.