Sunday, November 28, 2021

Signs of Trouble, Signs of Hope


November 28, 2021 – Advent 1C

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Who is OJ Simpson? That depends on how old you are. If you are my parents’ age, you probably remember when “the Juice” was setting records at USC and in the NFL. People my age never saw him on the field, but I do remember being told that that mediocre actor I saw in The Naked Gun was once a legendary running back. Those who are my children’s age, of course, only know him as a famous defendant from a murder trial, if they know him at all.

Like most of you, I bet, I remember where I was when Simpson’s white Ford Bronco led an army of police cars on a low-speed chase around Los Angeles. And I remember where I was, sixteen months later, when the verdict in his murder trial was read. Likely a consequence of my age, I remember not really caring all that much about the trial and feeling a little surprised at how big a deal grown-ups were making about it. Except that one of my teachers kept the trial on in her classroom—a welcomed distraction from school work—I was not in any way invested in the outcome, but, if I had been forced to offer an assessment of Simpson’s not guilty verdict, I would have called it a miscarriage of justice—another example of a celebrity using his power, influence, and wealth to buy the outcome he desired.

Of course, I would have reached that conclusion not because I had weighed all the evidence offered at trial. I barely watched any of the proceedings. I could not have told you what the burden of proof was, nor could I have separated in any way the media’s coverage of the trial from the trial itself. Still, I would have told you that Simpson deserved to go to prison not because I actually cared about the outcome but because I belonged to a community that was predisposed to think that he was guilty. There were no black students in the classroom with me when the verdict was read. In fact, I was so insulated from anyone who thought otherwise that it wasn’t until fifteen years later, when the adult animated sitcom Family Guy reminisced about how differently white and black America had reacted to the verdict, that it occurred to me that anyone other than the defendant would have been relieved by the outcome. Sometimes we interpret world events not because of what happened but because of what attachments we hold.

“There will be signs,” Jesus tells us, “in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” When those calamitous signs take place, Jesus explains, many “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” But when you see these things taking place, he tells us, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

There are two kinds of people in the world, Jesus reminds us, and, when the cosmos is shaken to its foundations, we will discover who is who. Many will run and hide and panic because the sky is falling, but those who belong to Jesus will stand up tall and look toward the heavens in order to see that their redemption is drawing near. Those who belong to the world—whose values and hopes are enmeshed with the powers and institutions of the earth—will have every reason to cower in fear because everything they’ve built their lives upon will come crashing to the ground. But those whose only hope rests in the one who will come and make all things new will celebrate that great and glorious day because then and only then will their salvation be complete.

Our job, as people of faith, is to make sure that we can recognize those signs for what they are and embrace them when they come. In order to do that, though, we must also remember what Jesus doesn’t tell us to do. As eager as we might be for the perfection of all things, Jesus never tells us to make God’s kingdom come, only to look for it. We pray for it. We hope for it. We watch for it. But we do not make God’s reign come. That’s God’s work. Sometimes that work takes place through us, as we offer ourselves each day to live more fully within God’s reign, but the great and final consummation of God’s loving purposes is not up to us. It’s up to God. 

That’s most definitely good news. In part, it’s good news because it’s exhausting when we convince ourselves that we are personally responsible for making sure that goodness will win in the end. Aren’t you tired, too? Aren’t you tired of things not going God’s way no matter how hard you try? Yes, we are called to the tireless work of living within the kingdom of God, but that kingdom will always be bigger than any jury verdict, any piece of legislation, or any political victory we might celebrate. And it’s also good news that God’s reign belongs to God because, even when we think we’ve got the whole “standing on the right side of justice” thing figured out, sometimes we still mess things up—because we’re human. As mere mortals, there is no decision we can make—individually or collectively—that will bring God’s reign to its fulfillment. 

But we can recognize that when the sun and moon and stars begin to fall, when the waves and the sea begin to roar, and when the powers of the heavens begin to shake, that our redemption is drawing near and that it’s time for us to stand up and take notice. Sometimes Christians get confused by what all those things mean. Sometimes overly enthusiastic preachers claim that this particular natural disaster or that particular world event are signs that the end is near. I don’t know about all of that, but I do take comfort in Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Maybe interpreting the signs that God’s fulfillment of all things has come near is really as simple and obvious as seeing buds on a tree and knowing that summer is right around the corner.

Our problem isn’t that we focus on the wrong signs but that we fail to notice that these signs are evidence of the nearness of God’s reign. We miss them because we allow ourselves to be distracted by other priorities. Jesus warns his disciples not to let their hearts become weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life or else the day of Christ’s coming might catch them unexpectedly, like a trap. That’s a warning we must heed as well. In the Bible, drunkenness isn’t just an expression about the over-consumption of alcohol. The prophets use it to represent the state of losing one’s faculties to the allure of the world. Those who are drunk are drunk not only on wine but on all of the temporal, earthly pleasures that distract them from the centrality and importance of God’s heavenly reign. If the complete and chaotic reordering of the world feels threatening to us, maybe it’s because we’ve become so accustomed to the comforts of this life that we’ve forgotten how to recognize what God is doing when things get turned upside down.

Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of God’s great reordering of the world. These are moments when the power of Christ’s victory over sin and death breaks through into this life and reveals the ways in which God is bringing all things to their perfection. For many, those breakthroughs are deeply divisive and threatening, but for others they are signs of hope and promise. We must forsake our attachments to the ways of the world in order to interpret those signs for what they really are. We cannot make God’s kingdom come, but we can recognize it when it does. And, when we see those signs of God’s imminent reign as signs of hope and renewal, we become eager to stand up and lift up our heads and celebrate the day of Christ’s coming, not afraid of what will come but overjoyed at the one who comes to make all things new. To him be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Recognizing Labor Pains


November 14, 2021 – The 25th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 28B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the gospel and sermon beginning around 20:20. 

I was in the fourth or fifth grade when my mother took me to Washington, D.C.. I had never been on a trip like that—just me and one of my parents—and I knew it was special. We saw some amazing things, including the National Cathedral on Easter morning. I had never been in a church that big, that grand, that amazing. The music was concert-worthy, and the liturgy was sublime, but the sheer volume of the space—a seemingly boundless expanse—transported me to another spiritual plane. In that Holy Communion, I experienced, as John Calvin might describe it, a heavenly encounter with the real Christ as my soul was transported above even the lofty heights of the cathedral’s ceilings into the divine presence.

A dozen years later, I went to Rome for the first time and again felt my soul ascend into the heavens as I stepped inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Feeling beneath my feet the place where centuries of innumerable pilgrims had made their way to the center of western Christianity, I looked up and admired the dome that had funneled their prayers to God. But in Rome I also visited the ruins of religious shrines where prayers to Castor, Pollux, Saturn, and various deified emperors long ago fell silent. I saw the relics of a fallen empire and perceived within the fractured columns and broken arches the same architectural features I had seen boast of imperial might in our nation’s capital. What a difference two thousand years makes!

Jesus didn’t need to look that far into the future to behold the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, which fell during the city’s siege in 70AD, but his words about not one stone being left on top of another were aimed as much at institutional powers as the structures that enshrined them. 

On their way out of the temple, one of Jesus’ disciples remarked how large and impressive the stones and structures of the temple mount were. Indeed, they were impressive by any measure. An ancient rabbi wrote that “one who has not seen the temple in its full splendor has never seen a beautiful building.”  Imagine, then, what that marvelous expanse of white marble and gold looked like to a Galilean tradesman—a country boy from a fishing village up north. Imagine how easy it must have been to stand in that place and feel God’s Spirit tugging your heart and mind and soul upward. Yet, in Jesus’ mind, those magnificent stones were already scattered, lying crumbling on the ground. 

It is the prophet’s role to stand in the courts of power and declare their emptiness and inevitable decline. It is the prophet who brings the sharp truth of God’s word that the structures and symbols of earthly power must always give way to divine strength. And it is the job of the faithful to discern within those difficult proclamations a message of transcendent hope.

Today’s gospel lesson is a transitional passage in Mark’s account of the good news. It comes after Jesus’ lengthy teaching about the role of the temple in contemporary Jewish life. He had turned over the moneychangers’ tables and openly questioned the authority of the religious leaders. He had used barely disguised parables and clever scriptural techniques to expose the hypocrisy of the temple’s authorities. As the disciples listened on, Jesus had laid out a host of reasons why the institutional religion of his day had let God and God’s people down. And, now as they left the temple precincts, one of those disciples couldn’t help himself. “What large stones and large buildings!” he remarked, overwhelmed by their splendor. “Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus asked in reply. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Those words were more than a prophetic rebuke. To announce the impending destruction of the temple was not only to threaten the structure itself but also everything that it represented. This was the home of God. This was the place where God met God’s people here on earth. To declare that one day it would lie in ruin was more than a critique of the religious leaders. To those who felt in that holy place an irreplaceable connection with their Creator, it was like announcing that God would abandon God’s people. Rebels and heretics had been killed for less.

But what happens to God’s people when those generational symbols of strength and comfort are threatened? What happens when the foundations upon which we have built our faith in God are laid waste? That’s what we hear about in the second half of this gospel lesson, which links the destruction of the Jerusalem temple with even greater forces that seem to threaten us. This is where Jesus offers hope to those who have felt the sting of existential threat and corporate loss.

The disciples asked their teacher, “When will this be? What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” And Jesus replied with terrifying language about wars and rumors of wars, nations rising against nations, earthquakes, and famines. But all of those things, he told them, are just the beginning of the birth pangs. What an important image Jesus used to describe all that conflict! To him, they are not the last gasps of a dying people whose best days are behind them but the sharp labor pains of a people whose hopes are just being born. This is the future of a people whose broken symbols of earthly might are being torn down so that a new way of knowing God’s power and presence in their lives might take shape.

“Do not be alarmed,” Jesus says to us. “These things must take place, but the end is still to come.” Sometimes, when those symbols of power and strength begin to crack and crumble, it feels like God is abandoning us. Haven’t all of us, in recent months, discovered new fault lines in even the most basic building blocks of our lives? But Jesus teaches us to recognize that they must all fall away if God’s reign is to take hold in our lives. We cannot know the salvation of God until we have been emptied of the pretense of our own security. 

Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, we tend to confuse symbols of earthly strength, beauty, and majesty with the One into whose presence they are supposed to draw us. And, when those institutional structures are called into question by contemporary prophets, it feels as if everything we’ve built our lives upon might come crumbling down. Oh, that it would! Jesus tells his followers to look forward to that day. That’s because, if our hope is in anything of our own making, our future destruction is assured. Only when those symbols of earthly might have fallen away can God build in their place a new hope, a new possibility.

We are surrounded by signs that that transformation is taking place. Jesus is the one who teaches us how to move beyond the comforting symbols and structures that are familiar to us in order to know the power of God and God’s love. His death and resurrection have shown us how to recognize in our losses and struggles signs of new life being born within us. As with any birth, that new life comes with pain and great difficulty, but it brings with it hope and promise. In the midst of conflict and strife, we stand at the cusp of something new and glorious. “Do not be alarmed,” Jesus tells us. These things must take place, but the end—the fulfillment of all things—is still to come.