A few nights ago, millions watched as history unfolded. Some stayed up long into the morning until a clear winner emerged, while others turned off the TV and devices, opting to read all about it in the morning. Still more chose not to care or had given up long ago. So let me ask you, where were you?
Where were you when you found out . . . that the Chicago Cubs had won the World Series?
How many of you would rather watch a game — of any kind — than talk about politics this morning?
I, for one, had hoped that when we woke up this past Wednesday, it would be a new day — that the ugliness, the bitterness, the fear, the hatred would be behind us and we could begin again.
But the truth is, as divided as we are, as combative and conflicted as we are, we have made this ourselves. Each of us.
How did we get here?
You know, our lessons today give us a little glimpse at how we got here. These readings — pretty incredible — in some traditions, the preacher selects the texts to be read but I’m not sure I could have picked any more appropriate for today. These readings are full of apocalypse and transcendence, which ends up being a bit redundant. Apocalypse means an uncovering, or a revelation of something hidden. It is a picture that shows something more than this world can reveal. And we have these complementary texts of Zion and Apocalypse.
Zion itself is a very full word. It is a dream of both a people and their God, a mutual dream. It is the idea and ideal of that city, that real and heavenly city where God and Creation are once again one. Where God’s people living out God’s love for all of creation are united with God in the place that has always been their home and their hope.
That place that isn’t quite yet. It is at once a place and a state of being.
A few short weeks ago I preached on a remarkably similar passage talking about building houses and living in them, tending gardens, making a home in our exile. This week, we have a similar passage but the setting is now flipped. We have, held before us, not only what could be, but what should be, what should be but isn’t.
That is the job of the prophet. To upset our reality with a glimpse of God’s hope and dream for us. The world that God is right now creating. The world that God is right now inviting us into.
But it is not that simple.
We try. Oh, we try. But we end up recreating the world in our own image.
How did we get here?
Jesus holds up a vision of the world that seems to be at odds with the dream of the city Zion. In fact, his image seems to upend Zion itself. The temple of God lies in rubble. Not one stone left on top of another. Zion itself is the name of the hill upon which Jerusalem was built and, possibly but undoubtedly prophetically is centered on the very altar in the Holy of Holies of that sacred heart of God’s people. This is what has been upturned.
It is scandalous. Jesus’s audience is stunned. “How will we know? What will be the warning?” And this is when it gets interesting. There will be signs. “Is now the time?” No. There will be wars. Now? No. There will be persecutions and earthquakes. Is it now? No. Famines? Not yet. Sign after sign. And still it will not yet be the end, the ultimate tragic end that seems to be worse than can be imagined or named.
And the faithful of God well, here’s the kicker, the faithful of God will be in the middle of it, waiting for this end that never comes.
Luke’s audience, by the way, knew exactly how to imagine the scene. At the time of the writing, the temple had already been sacked and destroyed. Rome had already chopped down the hope of rebellion. The center of the life of the people of God had been thrown down like a house of cards in the wind. And Luke himself is the one to give us the story of a new way of knowing God that swirls out beyond Jerusalem and Antioch and Damascus, to the far reaches of the Empire, and even further. They knew — they had lived through all of this, seen all of this fall on God’s faithful people. And it was not yet the end. There was not yet a rescue brought from God to save them from the pain of the world, from the pain of themselves.
When I was growing up, just before the Left Behind stories came out, we had these horrible and weirdly wonderful low-budget Christian films about the rapture literally meant to scare the Hell out of you and the Jesus into you. For those of us who grew up in traditions that gave us the vocabulary of the rapture, our sense of end times is much different. Our understanding was that signs would operate more like little exit signs, each new warning pointing for us the way out toward safety, toward our heavenly redemption. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be holding this line.
In fact, there is work to do. Our role, it seems, is to remain rooted in our time and place and to speak, to testify. But the words, did you notice? The words aren’t our own, they aren’t of our own creation. The words are from God, the Holy Spirit. Our job is to be here, to listen to God, to share truth with our neighbor.
How did we get here?
We got here, perhaps, by speaking too much of our own truths (lower-case t), building our own temples (again, lower-case t), shaping them in our own interests. When all the time, God has called us to create the world God wants us to inhabit, where the peaceable reign of God breaks in and we are at peace with ourselves and with one another.
It sounds fanciful, and sweet, like something we can easily forget over lunch, but we have a manual — we have guidelines. We spoke them out loud just last week. Remember? We call them vows. To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. To persevere in resisting evil and when we fall into sin, repent and return to God. To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. To seek and serve God in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. To strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
We have struggled a bit with that last one recently.
Wherever we are politically, Faithful Christians . . . sisters, brothers, we have some work to do.
We have some repentance to seek, as we continually realign our hearts to God’s.
As many of you know, apocalypse happens. There are many kinds of devastation that upturn our world, tear down everything we hold dear, and give us a glimpse — not of the way the world is — but help us name what we hope for, the way we wish the world could be. There is a whisper of Zion in each apocalypse, the not-yet dream of God for us, for Creation.
And that is where we are called. That is the work, my friends. We are called by God to create space for the dream of God to break into our reality. If we’re not doing that, we’re building temples to ourselves. And the disastrous destruction will leave behind overturned stones that are nothing more than tombstones. God has something else in mind.
Politics has become a spectator sport like any other. We cheer our champion on, excited when they best someone else, when the sound bite matches what we already knew, and we imagine they are playing just for you and me. We scour the internet and news for evidence of how good our person is (and by extension ourselves), and how vile the opponent is. We have too easily labeled anyone who believes x as the opposing team. And anyone who is on the opposing team must believe x, right? We have too easily and too often objectified God’s beloved as the label of our own or someone else’s making. Even now someone is thinking about how the other team is so practiced at doing all these things.
This is the opposite of the way of Jesus. Even now, after all these months, we would rather talk about the pros and cons of protest … and cabinet choices than to sit with someone who is genuinely afraid; than to walk or talk with someone we don’t know who is afraid of being outed as black, or muslim, or an immigrant, or a strong woman, or poor, or a prisoner. We are so hesitant to see our neighbors as people rather than a category.
How did we get here?
We have done it to ourselves.
And today, strangely, I pray that our apocalypse is at hand, that we have seen enough. I pray we learn to stop, and testify with words that God has already sung into our hearts. I pray we work hard to make space in THIS world for what God has planned for the NEXT.
Make God’s deeds known to the peoples:
tell out his exalted name.
Praise the Lord, who has done great things;
all his works God’s might proclaim.
Zion, lift your voice in singing;
for with you has come to dwell,
in your very midst, the great and
Holy One of Israel.
(Hymnal 1982, 679)
Rev. Alan Cowart
November 13, 2016