Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, November 17 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

I have occasionally referred to the four gospels in their entirety as instructions for the end times, but some parts are more obviously so than others; and as we approach Advent, we will be hearing those parts in particular.

Of course, part of the irony of this is that Jesus consistently urges us not to be looking for signs of the end times, but to understand that all of history is upheaval, all of history contains, in a sense, the possible end of history. The end times are both always and never. But I cannot blame anyone for whom they feel very close right now – as credible scientific predictions of the course of climate change become more and more inevitable and terrifying, as the coup in Bolivia installs yet another racist, authoritarian government claiming – exactly as Jesus here predicts — to be acting in his name, as the rainforests burn and openly fascist forces grow in strength around the world.

So what are the instructions here? First of all, do not follow those who claim to be acting in the name of Christ and who act against everything that Jesus of Nazareth lived out for us. Remember that Jesus who was small and poor among the small and poor, who would kneel down among the outcast, eat with the worthless, forgive, serve, renounce violence in his own defense, accept death at the hands of power, the Jesus whom, frankly, most people who call themselves Christian do not want to know. The people, and there are many, who use his name to seize the kind of power over others which he came to unmask and oppose, the people who align themselves with the values of Caesar in the name of God, can make it very hard to continue to call yourself a Christian. But I am bidden not to give up his name, even when it is in the mouths of false prophets every day. The Son of Man, the child of humanity, is still here among the poor and the helpless, and we are bidden somehow to remain loyal.

There will be a cost to this. Not the kind of persecution alleged by some who call themselves Christian and apparently experience agonies when someone says, “Happy Holidays!” to them in a store, but, for instance, the fact that Scott Warren, in Arizona, is facing ten years in prison for leaving food and water for starving migrants at the US border. We must not seek out suffering, or be quick to claim it, we must not plan on it, or try to make it happen; but we must also know that the cost of discipleship is real, and may come to us at any time, that power does not want love to prevail.

It is hard knowledge – but do not be terrified. The word used here is interesting; it is not the “do not be afraid” which echoes through scripture, the word is more extreme than that. Do not be afraid, do not let fear master you, is good advice, but in this passage it seems like Jesus thought that might be asking too much, that fear was inevitable, that perhaps the disciples would have to spend time walking through fear. The Greek word which is translated “terrified” is used in only one other place in the gospels – a scene where the disciples see the risen Christ and initially believe him to be a ghost. Supernatural terror, superstitious terror, the terror which blocks us from seeing the possibility of resurrection. The fear of the nightmare, the obsessive fears which are at war with hope. This terror we must resist, must walk through. However tenuous, however threatened, the grounds for hope may seem, we cannot abandon it.

It is out of this determination that the astonishing vision of the writers of the Isaiah material emerged. The passage which was read earlier in the service was, scholars believe, written by the third major Isaiah author, and was written after the return from exile in Babylon – a difficult time of rebuilding in a devastated land, a time of hope, yes, but also a time of uncertainty and considerable fear. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra – which are not read very often in church, and there are reasons for that, but they are important context – both show the restored people responding by hardening their literal and figurative borders, turning against foreigners, against any mixing with the religious traditions of other nations, an entrenchment into a narrowly guarded theonationalism. The forcible putting away of the foreign wives is one of the most chilling incidents in scripture – all those suddenly desperately vulnerable women and children cast into a desert land without defense – and Nehemiah’s cheerful description of his physical assaults on Jews who were not, in his opinion, wearing their hair in proper religious fashion is not, let’s say, a million miles from attacks on “you people” for allegedly not wearing the right decorations to establish patriotism.

Against this, Third Isaiah sets another vision, a hope – a breathtaking evocation of universal reconciliation. A new heaven and a new earth, where children and the elderly enjoy health and community, where people live simple and sufficient lives from the fruit of the land and their work, not producing for the benefit of exploiters and landowners – and I might note that, although the passage from Thessalonians is frequently cited in a finger-waving way which can be used to support reduced social assistance rates and stigmatization of the unemployed, it is at least as possible that Paul is criticizing landowners, industry owners, people who profit from the alienated labour of others. The Isaiah writer shows us a world which is not built around the structures of exploitation, of predator and prey, winners and losers, where we do not have to hurt or kill, to be hurt or killed, any longer. A vision painted over and over by the 19th century Quaker Edward Hicks, often showing, in the background, the Indigenous peoples of what is now called Pennsylvania, establishing a treaty with the settlers; a treaty that, though the settlers broke it like we broke all the other treaties, stands as a challenge to us still, a vision of justice to which we must be reconciled. Isaiah gives us this always available vision, God’s vision of the proper and desired life of the world, so basic, so impossible; this must always be the vision which leads us.

The canticle which was sung in place of a psalm is also from the Isaiah writings, but this one takes us back in time – and I think it’s useful to do so – to the first Isaiah, who wrote before the catastrophe of the exile, but while that catastrophe was clearly coming; a time more like the time of Jesus, before the fall of the temple; a time perhaps more like our own, at the edge of the fall of another empire. It is this writer who begins to create the threads picked up by Third Isaiah to weave his vision, the water freely given, the water of God’s life. And again, the command against fear. I have said this many times before – our scriptures were written in bad times, they are written for bad times, for times like our own. The commands against fear and terror are not spoken lightly, they are the hardest, perhaps, of all. But they are essential, if we are to continue to move towards God’s vision for us.

There is a disagreement about the translation of the last sentence of the gospel reading. It’s an important disagreement. The NRSV translation, as we heard, says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls” — a future-oriented reading, and one which leans in the direction of concern with personal salvation. But the Greek is not actually a future tense. It is true that Greek can use present tense to express futurity sometimes. But the verb, as written, is in the imperative. The King James, which every now and then is actually the more accurate, translates it more literally from the Greek, and gives us, “In your patience possess ye your souls.” It is a command for the moment. Be patient. Endure. Do not let yourself be controlled by fear, or hate, or the adrenalin of hollow victories. Do the small, embattled work of love. Hold to the truth of your own soul and the name of God written upon it. And in this patience, that soul and that name will become more truly your own.

We may be a strange and small and ridiculed group, and the world may not know, in the time of the false prophets, what to call us, but so it has ever been. Hold onto your soul. Resist the terror which makes no room for hope. Hold open the gates for all who come. Do the work which comes to your hand to do, be the cost of it small or very great. For in this are embedded the fragmnts of the new heaven and the new earth, the promise we may not let go.