Year C, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28
20 October 2019
Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
Sermon preached at Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven, CT.
The lectionary today presents two clear choices for a preacher.
The first way is tempting, and perfectly valid – to preach just on our collect. It’s a great one after all! “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them…” Much can certainly be said about how we are to fully engage with Scripture over the course of each of our lifetimes. It’s a beautiful collect. It could be a beautiful sermon, perhaps even tied up at the end with a nice bow. This road is certainly the scenic route.
The other way a preacher may go is a more winding and frightening road: to address Jesus foretelling coming destruction, disaster, persecution, and murder. The Gospel today is strikingly harsh as it talks about the coming of the end times, a theme that we pick up as we approach the beginning of the Advent season in just 2 weeks. This is not beautiful. There is no way to tie it up with a bow. I’ll admit I struggled with how to even end such a sermon. Let’s travel down this road together.
I was thinking about our Gospel this week, in light of a book I have been reading. One of the many wonderful things about being your priest is that you are a well read community, and you love to share books with me. I have a pile of such books that has grown quite high on my nightstand – I was being loaned and gifted more books than I was reading, marking, learning, or inwardly digesting. (The end time for the towering stack of books was near…) I was away last weekend, traveling to a dear friend’s wedding, and so I decided it was time to get at least one started, if not finished, on my train trip.
I picked up the book Five Days at Memorial, written by investigative reporter and physician Sheri Fink. In it, Dr. Fink reconstructs 5 days at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the beginning, hospital workers arrive at Memorial to staff it through the storm, and they also bring family members and even pets – it was common that they would all weather out the storm in the supposed fortress of the hospital – they had weathered other hurricanes and tropical storms there before. And they weathered the actual storm just fine, but then the levees failed and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, the heat climbed, and the exhausted caregivers had to choose, amid the chaos, to designate which patients would be last for rescue.
Months later, a doctor and two nurses were criminally accused of injecting some of those patients with life-ending drugs. The book, which I have barely been able to put down, brings the reader into a site of panic and chaos. It focuses on questions of actions and ethics: how is healthcare rationed? Which patients should be prioritized, the healthiest or the sickest? Can health professionals ever be excused for hastening death? Additionally, the book shows how we all can make questionable decisions when we fear our lives are at stake. Fear of mobs and riots after the storm led to hospital workers arming themselves. False rumors, such as the city supposedly being under martial law, led some hospital workers to believe that they had been ordered by the military to hasten patients’ deaths. As the system unraveled, all pretenses were dropped, and social and racial biases influenced critical decisions.
I haven’t finished the book, so I will not spoil it, but the author shows how ill-prepared the hospital and the city were for such a large-scale disaster. That can lead us to reflect: how prepared are we for such disaster? As climate change leads to more super storms, the portents Jesus warned of are almost bound to happen more often. And yet, as I read of the latest school shooting this week in Santa Clarita, California, I was struck by how so many teachers and students were prepared in the sense that they knew how to hide, how to be quiet, how to barricade doors and windows. How terrifying, and how unfair. Because somehow the greater system is not better prepared to prevent such disaster from happening in the first place.
From the comfort of my reader’s chair, it is easy for me to blame folks represented in the book as having made bad and unethical decisions. But what if I were there – exhausted, with heat stroke, trying to serve others whose lives depended on me in a system and city that had completely shut down? I kept thinking to myself, where was God in that disaster? Where is God in any disaster? How do we keep this endurance that Jesus speaks of when it seems like our world is indeed ending?
Every generation in history has thought its time was the end time – our time is no different than the time of Jesus and his disciples. When they visit the temple in Jerusalem, the disciples were likely astounded by its beauty. It had been recently renovated by Herod, and it may have been the largest man-made building in the region or in the world at that time. The temple was impressive, beautiful and adorned, and the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem. Nothing would ever happen to it, right?
Jesus says “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.” Instead, Jesus correctly predicts the destruction of the temple that would occur about 35 years later. But that won’t be it – “…the end will not follow immediately.” There will be more – much more.
There has been much more. Wars and insurrections, great earthquakes, famines and plagues have occurred throughout every era. And we still live in scary, unknown times.
The Gospel writer Luke was able to write some decades later after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and after the destruction of the temple, so he had the benefit of some hindsight. But he also wished to encourage the faithfulness of his contemporaries – to reassure them that Jesus made possible an end to suffering and death. And yet, suffering and death have continued, and many have questioned when Jesus will return – will God’s people ever be safe from all harm?
Jesus warns of persecution, of being brought to trial – of families betraying each other. That all will be hated because of Jesus’ name and some will be put to death… imposters will come and try to trick the faithful, wars and conflicts will rage on, and natural disasters will bring great suffering. Jesus tells the disciples the end times will eventually come, but that not everything will happen at once. Jesus also says something odd: “this will give you an opportunity to testify.” Jesus goes on to tell the disciples that their testimony cannot be canned or rehearsed, that Jesus himself will provide them with the wisdom they need in the moment. Jesus will give them the words they need. And even through all of this, Jesus assures them that “not a hair of your head will perish.” How can this be?
Testimony, in a religious or faithful sense, is usually given in praise of God for good times, healing, rescue and salvation. How are we to testify in times of suffering and destruction? Jesus promises to give us words. The words that come from the one who is The Word have endured the destruction of the temple, the fall of the Roman Empire, and all horrific events since.
Jesus doesn’t promise us tomorrow, but he does promise us forever: that by our endurance we gain our souls. That our salvation lies in God’s hands, yet our endurance requires patience and work. As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, we are not to be idle busybodies. Instead, Paul warns “do not be weary in doing what is right.” Or, as we are told by the prophet Malachi, “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” In times of crisis, we are to find Christ present amidst our troubles. We are to make Christ-minded decisions, out of love and care for those around us, and not out of fear for our own lives. We are not to follow false prophets.
We are to live in hope. It is when we lose that hope that we lose our souls. It is when we keep that hope that we gain our souls.
The great work that is always before us as Christians and as God’s church on earth is to spread this hope, even in the scariest and most uncertain times, trusting that somehow God will give us what we need in each moment. We must shore ourselves up with rest and prayer, keeping our hearts open to God’s word, not living in anxiety but in confidence that it will be enough.
May we endure in hope.