November 13, 2016 CCC Lk 21:5-19; Is. 65:17-25; 2 Thess. 3:6-19
Now, if we heard someone begin speaking with the words, ‘Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…’ you would know that that person was beginning a fairy tale, a folk story. You would also know that it is not meant to be taken literally, but to give a lesson.
Well, today’s gospel story is like that. It is a style called apocalyptic literature that was not meant to be taken literally. It was a common way of writing to make a point. We need to look at this passage with that in mind. Too often, over the centuries, and still today in some circles, it was & is taken literally, and people would say, we must be in the end times, with all the extremism that that entails…With all the intensity of what we have lived through in the last week with the American election, with all the tension and rhetoric, I believe this passage may have some good news for us, but not to tell us that it is the beginning of the end times.
Before going further to the message, I think it is important to specify, that this gospel of Luke was written somewhere around 85 CE, that is 15 yrs after the Romans came in and destroyed the Jerusalem Temple because of the Jewish rebellion.
Luke’s readers knew that when they were reading his gospel. They were likely still needing to interpret what did it mean, a little bit like the various analysis of Trumps winning the election last Tuesday. What did that mean that a man such as him, and all that he represents, could win?
15 yrs after the destruction of the Temple, which had been the heart of the Jewish worship, God’s manifest presence amidst his people, people were still drawing lessons to learn. What did it mean?
So what were the lessons, the gospel writer was giving, what was the good news then & for us today?
First, The Jewish Temple and all future impressive buildings, all these signs of power, all these man-made things, will pass. They are not permanent.
I am very fortunate in my life I have had the opportunity to travel a lot. You learn a lot by travelling. I remember the time I flew in to the city airport of Washington DC. You find yourself smack in the middle of all the signs of glory, all the signs of being the super-power, with the huge white marble buildings, everywhere. You stand in awe, you see the power, the might. They were built to impress, and they do!
A few years later, I was in Egypt, I don’t remember at which site, it was an incredibly well preserved building, a temple, and you sensed the incredible power that was Egypt in its time.
Super powers come, and super powers go. We just need to look in more recent times, the colonial powers of England, France. Governments come and governments go. As far as our neighbours to the south, we need to remember that. Governments come and governments go. Not to minimize what has happened, it is best that we pray for them as well.
The Gospel passage reminds us that all powers are transitory. Not just political powers, but religious ones as well. The Church as well has been a very powerful force in the past. Its majestic churches have been a sign of wealth, beauty, but also power. The buildings have emptied; they are very difficult to maintain. The Church wonders what it is to do.
This summer I was in Ireland on holidays, an incredibly beautiful country. There were 2 places that drove home that same message of how impermanent are our buildings. Not far from Dublin, was the medieval monastic centre of Glendalough, founded by St Kevin in the 7th and flourished till the 12th. It was a hub of spiritual life where the monks preserved so much of the knowledge of antiquity. Now only walls and steeples remain. Their situation, with time, change, sometimes violently, and the community disappeared. Or there was the site of Cashel we visited where the imposing Cathedral and its community perched on a hill overlooked the surrounding country side for centuries. A sign of beauty but also power. It was Cromwell and his troops that tore it down.
Closer to home, the Catholic church in Qc, our own Anglican dioceses cannot keep up all its churches, because of many factors, one being the
dwindling number of people who attend church. Buildings are sold, sometimes to other religious groups, sometimes to developers that turn them into condos. Change is difficult.
The Gospel passage reminds us that nothing we build, religious or political, is permanent. Now that might not seem like good news at first, but it is if it helps us keep a perspective. We cannot hold on to the past and what was. There is an impermanence in all things we create.
Let’s continue to look at what else this apocalyptic passage might have to say to us that could be good news. It is found in V. 18 But not one hair of your head will perish. This is after having heard how really, really bad things were going to get, even some would die. The story is meant to tell us, no matter how bad things will get, we are not alone. God is with us. The passage is grounded in hope, even when the world is closing in on us, God is with us.
That is it, that is the Good news. Even when everything seems to be crumbling around us, God is with us. We can think of those progressive forces in the US and the world who look with alarm at the results of the American election, the word is there, God is with you.
As we are forced to close churches, as we see some of our dreams about the Church crumble, as we let go of what was, we can remember God is with us.
The Good news that this passage brings us is the reminder that there is an impermanence with what we have made, whether it is political or religious, but also the promise is there, that God is with us.
Now where do we go from there? When we are going through difficult times and we become aware of the impermanence of what we have made, whether it is political or religious, and when we are assured that God is with us, what do we do?
The writer of second Thessalonians says Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. With the mood to despair that can get a hold of us when things are going bad, when things seem to be crumbling around us, we are encouraged to continue to work for the Kingdom of God, the reign of God, to do what is right. We don’t stop working!
I gave stories of the impermanence of things created by humans. Yet I also saw signs of people adjusting to the changing times. On a Sunday morning in Dublin, I went with my partner to Christ Church Cathedral, a beautiful medieval church that is part of the Church of Ireland. The old pews were changed for very comfortable, movable chairs. The worship was not much different from our service here, maybe a 150 people were there. I went to meet the Dean afterwards as people stayed for coffee. I found out that the worshipping community was maybe 30 people, the rest would be tourists, visiting Anglicans and others. I asked him how they managed to keep the Church going. It was the admission fees to the church (10$) & the rentals. In a once predominantly Catholic country, the Church was already falling into some disrepair by the end of the 19th century, a rich whiskey parishioner spent a good amount of his fortune, to restore the Church. Now in the 21st century, a small worshipping community found ways to continue to preserve their historic building and be a Christian light in their community.
The Church is not what it was. The ruins of what it was scatter the country sides of Ireland, Europe, Quebec, but the Spirit of Christ is still there encouraging believers, us, to do what is right, to adapt and to work at the Kingdom of God. We have a vision of the peaceable Kingdom that is not founded on structures but on the way we are with each other.
If you look at your bulletin cover, you will see a small reproduction of one of 62 versions of Edward Hicks, depiction of the today’s Isaiah passage, the Peaceable Kingdom. Hicks was a Quaker, a coach maker, a farmer, a minister that finally supported his family with his paintings. The peaceable Kingdom series are his most well known. They capture in simplicity the truth of the gospel, that God desires a world where all are at peace with each other.
Despite the times that can be difficult when we see crumbling the signs of glory of what was made the Church of the past, we are reminded that the Spirit of God is present with us always and that we are to continue to work at what is right as we build signs of the Kingdom of God, the peaceable Kingdom.
Sisters and brothers on the journey, we have been reminded today that all things that we have made are impermanent.
That when things get rough, God will be with us.
Finally, no matter what happens, we are called to continue to do good and to work at the vision that God has given us of the Peaceable Kingdom.
I want to close with words from the most recent winner of the Nobel prize for literature, Bob Dylan. As he composed this, he was chronicling the unrest of the 60s.
Come gather around people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no telling who that it’s naming
For the loser now will be later to win
Cause the times they are a-changing
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s the battle outside raging
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.
50+ years later, The times they are still changing. More then ever, may we as followers of Jesus continue to work, regardless of what is happening, or has happened, to build signs of the Peaceable Kingdom. The world needs us!