HOMILY—25th AFTER TRINITY—Living in Dangerous Times
In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
If you’re at all like me, watching the nightly news has become spiritually risky business. I say that because, not only does so much of what I see and hear so often distress me, but there is something deeply, deeply corroding, I believe, in watching ethics and morality being so intensely slighted and so fundamentally undermined. It’s as if I’ve been in some close promiscuous contact with evil, and I need to back away and clean myself off. And I’m pretty sure you know what and whom I’m talking about. We seem to have developed an obsession with certain political leaders, some more than others, that is positively unhealthy; it unnerves, and angers, and deeply distresses me. I am repulsed by the twisting of language and the dismissal of truth as what it is and what it should always be: simply and only truth. So often I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer these days, wondering what he would say and do, he who was not afraid of standing up to abusive and corroding power, and who ended up paying the price for it. How do we live in dangerous times, and do so honestly and with passionate conviction? What hope can we possibly find for ourselves in what we have just heard here this morning?
On the surface of things, the lectionary readings for today appear quite gloomy with their talk of wars, rumours of wars, the beginning of birth pangs, and the sudden rise of Michael the Archangel. End-of-times talk. Liturgically, it’s obvious that we’re getting ready for Advent, a time for us to turn to thinking about how the world is about to change, how things will never be the same once the long-promised One finally does arrive. The passage from the gospel of Mark, for example, comes right before the story of the Passion, so it makes sense that Jesus should talk of something about to be utterly and fundamentally altered in the rhythm of our lives. His death and resurrection will initiate a new order of things.
This kind of gloomy end-of-times talk, however, and as we all know so well, has fed some of the most nefarious ideas about millennial catastrophe. The line itself about “wars and rumours of war”—to say nothing about such signs as earthquakes, and famines, and those posing as Christ to lead people astray—have been repeated time and again by all sorts of individuals and movements to justify their own particular brand of ideology, some with disastrous consequences. Hence all the more reason to pay attention to Jesus’ warning from the gospel: “Beware that no one leads you astray.” And so, I ask the question: how can we do this? What can we do to prevent ourselves from being spiritually tainted? How can we maintain our spiritual integrity in a world that appears sadly and defiantly off-kilter, and that doesn’t seem to mind very much about it? How do we ignore the abusive tweets, the misplaced logic, the outright lies, the degradation of respectful language? How do we remain spiritually focused in these perilous times?
In 1932, the American Protestant theologian and pastor, Reinhold Niebuhr, published Moral Man and Immoral Society, one of the foundational theological texts of the 20th century. In this book—and I quote from a notice announcing a recent reissue of the text—he adopted “a more deeply tragic view of human nature and society,” arguing “that individual morality is intrinsically incompatible with collective life, thus making social and political conflict inevitable,” hence the title. Niebuhr was a Protestant through-and-through, though his focus was not so much on individual human failing and sin, as it was on social sin, those institutions and broader social forces which ultimately escape human control and so often overtake us and fracture the collective bonds that bind us together. As you might imagine, Niebuhr has once again become quite popular in recent years, and it’s obvious why. He touched upon an essential, if prickly, truth about us: that we so often are unable to rally our better natures when it comes to our collective life. That we all too often are mesmerized by those “who come in my name,” as Jesus puts it. Let us therefore consider the promise found in the reading from Daniel: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky…” How might we be spiritually wise in these unwise and reckless times?
Perhaps the letter to the Hebrews will provide some clues: “Therefore my friends (…) 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, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Let me summarize what I think is being said here in one stark and simple word, though perhaps not one you would normally expect to hear in a Sunday sermon: RESIST. Resist the twisted language, and the dehumanizing stereotypes, and the facile and puerile explanations, and the rumours of decline and decadence. Resist those who dare to speak falsely in the name of the Almighty. Hold fast. Yet there’s a tone in this passage that pushes us even further, I should think. There’s a call to resistance as a kind of backing away and a sort of backing off, a deliberate and defiant refusal to engage with, or linger helplessly over, the empty and insipid pronouncements of the powerholders: a summons and a warning to keep our morbid curiosity in check, a refusal, ultimately, to pay attention; a kind of holy righteousness aiming to keep us spiritually whole and sane at the last. It’s most certainly not because we are better or purer than most, or want to ignore the damage being done, or do not want to provide some honest and daring alternative, or want to keep ourselves safely at bay; rather, we need to keep sane and focused for the God-given task at hand.
And that is why the author of the letter to the Hebrews has an even more inclusive and broader sense of what resistance might mean: to provoke one another to love and good deeds. I think that is a magnificent line: resistance as provocation, as a source of encouragement and human community. Resistance as love in action. It has a delightfully Sixties’ feel to it, and, I must say, it does warm the cockles of my aging boomer heart! Above all, there is hope and encouragement, for that is the promise of the One who is ever faithful. In the words of Jesus, we will most assuredly never be abandoned. What might resistance as love mean, actually? Certainly, welcome the stranger and the outcast among you. Strive to bring people together; build communities of resistance. Refuse the corruption of language. Do not give in to the enticement of propaganda. Do not, under any condition, cease to hope and believe in the Word and the promise given.
In two weeks’ time, we will be celebrating the Reign of Christ, the formal end of our liturgical year, and the beginning of a new one with Advent. The notion of kingship doesn’t really speak to us as it once did; it’s rather outdated. But I can’t help wondering if we can still draw something important and meaningful from it, some deeper sense about where our ultimate allegiance lies. Whether we picture Christ as a powerful monarch, or a righteousness God, or simply a good and decent man—we need to know where we stand, and for whom. But also, on behalf of whom we stand, for that is what Christian resistance ultimately means: we stand for someone, and we stand for something. And so, we should be wary about being led astray, but our very refusal will help ensure our spiritual survival. Amen.