May my words be faithful or may the slip harmlessly away.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana Peace Lutheran Church November 13, 2016 Luke 21:5-19
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, 6“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.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
One of my Sunday morning rituals for many years was to drive to church with the radio tuned to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. And while I like Rachel Martin, the current host, just fine, for me Liane Hansen will always be the voice of Weekend Edition Sunday. (Yes, even folks in their 40s can get set in their ways.)
One of the things I miss on that program is the Voices in the News, a feature that was sadly discontinued 8 years ago. During this segment they would play short quotes from various world leaders or celebrities, in their own voices. It was sort of an audio collage of the events of the previous week.
This morning I want to keep that spirit alive, so, “Here were some of the voices in the news this past week.”
“For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I'm reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”
“I feel pride and gratitude for this wonderful campaign that we built together. This vast, diverse, creative, unruly, energized campaign. You represent the best of America, and being your candidate has been one of the greatest honors of my life.”
“Everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after we have to remember that we're actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We're not Democrats first. We're not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We're patriots first. We all want what's best for this country.”
Part of the fun of Voices in the News on NPR was trying to figure out who was speaking and what they were talking about. I will save you that mystery and say we heard words from the Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
In the midst of that, here’s another voice, not from the news this week, but echoing down through the generations:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
I imagine some of you are thinking, “Yeah, tell me about it.” For the second time in less than two decades, we have a president who was elected without winning the popular vote, let alone half of the population that didn’t vote for anyone at all. That’s not to say that the election was illegitimate—it wasn’t—it’s to say that we’re very divided. And to some of us, it does feel like two nations rising up against one another. You can draw the lines of how people voted in a number of different ways, if you’re so inclined to draw lines: Democrat and Republican, of course, but there’s white and people of color, red state and blue state, or perhaps what’s interesting me the most, the incredible divide between urban city centers, highly populated and diverse, and exurban, townships and rural populations, less densely populated and more white, but who have felt forgotten and discounted by a global economy and who rose up to make their voices heard on Tuesday.
To say nothing of the divide between those who are saying “it’s time to come together and unite behind the president” while others are still howling with grief, and in some cases expressing outright resistance to the vision offered by the president-elect.
I don’t know if Pastor Sarah ever admits this to you but there are times when we preachers look at the lectionary texts for a specific Sunday and feel like the Holy Spirit is punking us. How about a little “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” huh? Or a nice juicy “God is making all things new!”?
But instead we get this horror show of violence and pestilence. “Betrayed by relatives and friends?” Yes, many of us feel exactly that way, as we can’t for the life of us understand how loved ones could have voted for the other guy, or gal. The dread over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is building even now.
As Christians, who follow a God who is reconciling the world to Godself, these divisions are painful. They’re obviously painful when our “side” does not prevail and they can be painful even when it does.
In the Presbyterian Church (USA), in which I am ordained, we’ve been having a decades-long fight over sexual orientation as it relates to ordination of ministers, and also same-sex marriage. We’ve settled those matters for the most part, taking a stand for inclusion and affirming the gifts and ministries of all whom God may call to serve, or to marry. But with this decision has come a number of congregations voting to leave our denomination. I’m thinking about one particular congregation that went through a months-long discernment that came to a vote. Because separating from the denomination is such a grave matter, the vote had to reach a 2/3 majority, a supermajority, 67%.
When the votes were counted, the congregational vote was 64%.
And my heart broke. As much as I support same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons, and as much as I didn’t want that church to leave our fellowship, to have a healthy majority vote to go, but not be able to go, felt like the worst case scenario.
And I have a similar feeling of dis-ease now.
We are divided. And the gospel doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that division will happen. It’s been said that “Do not be afraid” is one of the most repeated phrases in all of scripture. For good reason—fear paralyzes us, turns neighbor against neighbor. Fear suppresses our creativity and our empathy. But even Jesus seems to sense that the picture he paints here are even more intense than usual, because instead of saying “do not be afraid,” he says, “do not be terrified.”
It’s as if Jesus knows that living in tumultuous times doesn’t just make us uneasy, doesn’t just make us jumpy, doesn’t just make us afraid. We’re talking about a bone-chilling terror. And Jesus says, Don’t. Don’t be terrified. And not because I’m going to calm the waters, or make wars cease, or deliver you from the shadow of death. I’m not. Not here, not right now.
Jesus says don’t be terrified—because sometimes turmoil is the thing God works through. Don’t be terrified, because turmoil turns out to be one of God’s specialties. Turmoil is the raw material God used at the foundation of the world, the chaos that God scooped up and fashioned into order and goodness and light. And God can do it again.
Don’t be terrified—because God’s determined to use us in that vital, creative, gospel work. God needs us all to be ready and willing to step into places of pain and loss and vulnerability, and testify with the words that God will give us.
We’re hearing reports this week of harassment, and unrest, and in some cases outright violence, in the wake of the election. Some of it has been directed toward people who supported Donald Trump. But much of it has been directed at immigrants. At gay people—a friend shared a letter that was placed on a car windshield filled with slurs and hate. At Muslim women, having their hijabs ripped off. At women, who are harassed on the street. An elementary and a middle school near where I live in Fairfax County were vandalized this week, with the words “Illegals Go Home” spray-painted on the side—and windows broken out. That’s in Northern Virginia. These are our neighbors.
It is not partisan to call those incidents appalling and contrary to the gospel.
So what is our call as a church in this time and place?
Some of you have probably heard about the safety pin campaign. It began after Brexit, when anti-immigrant sentiment started bubbling. People started wearing safety pins on their clothing as a message to immigrants, Muslims and other vulnerable populations: You are safe with me. I will stand with you.
Now the ugliness has flared up on our shores, and with it the safety pin campaign. And there’s some conversation about whether the safety pins are helpful, or helpful but not enough, and so on.
But what’s concerning me right now isn’t the safety pins. What’s concerning me is that vulnerable people look at the cross around our neck, or the bumper sticker on our car, and don't see that as a sign of solidarity. Do people see us as safe people, not because of a pin, but because we are followers of Jesus Christ? If they don’t, then we have lost our way, and that is our most urgent issue to address.
These are tough times for many people. And sometimes I just want to hide. I want a different set of challenges. I want a different text. I don’t like this image of the world in the balance. When I think about our warring and warming world, I feel so often like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, this little hobbit who’s given this incredible task of destroying the ring and its destructive power:
Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.
I think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” We are called to endure. We are called to do the hard work and let God guide the outcome. We are called, not to be successful. Not to prevail. Not to win. But to endure. And to trust that God will give us the words and the actions. As has been quoted in the Talmud, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
I’m going to take a guess about something. I’m guessing that as thrilled as you are that Pastor Sarah had a healthy baby, that you wish she were here today. It feels uncomfortable to have someone you don’t know in front of you, especially those of you who are feeling lost and adrift. Well, she’ll be back soon enough, but I’m sorry to say that now is not the time for comfort. We do need to be sanctuary for people who are afraid and vulnerable. But I think one of the problems we face as a Christian church is that our comfort has led to complacency, not competence. I return again and again to the book Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deveare Smith. She talks about writing workshops, where people who are studying writing share their work and receive critiques from their professors and fellow students. Deveare Smith warns against writing workshops that are too cozy and comfortable: “I don’t believe in promising students safety. The world is just too rough for that at the moment. I think we should teach resilience.”
And so we shall.
It feels sometimes like the world is coming unspooled. But as singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer said in an interview recently, “The good news is that the things that have always saved us are still here to save us. Generosity, compassion, hospitality, a good sense of humor, good parenting… these things did not go away because of a rancorous election. They’re still here and completely accessible to us.”
A friend of mine is pastor of a church that’s across the street from the elementary school that was vandalized. She tells me that the church is creating a banner, a statement of support from the church to the school. They are community partners, and I have no doubt they will find tangible ways to stand with the terrified in the face of hate. Because what’s always saved us is still here to save us. Neighborliness, grace, courage... and the spirit of Christ, who was hated and reviled, and put to death, and who rose again, and is with us in the struggle.
Thanks be to God.
Image: "You are a cherished part of our community," a chalk message outside a mosque in Springfield, Illinois.