Monday, November 14, 2016

Not One Stone Upon Another: Apocalypse, Election, and Christian Life

Model of the Jerusalem Temple (Wikipedia Commons)
"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."

Today’s readings, close to the end of the liturgical year, may seem to have an appropriately apocalyptic feeling, evoking God’s great day of judgement, persecution and destruction, even the end of the world. Perhaps you are still reeling from recent events that seem to have conjured up such possibilities  - yes, I mean could the Cubs really have won the World Series?

Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel about events far more cataclysmic to his contemporaries than anything in recent sports or politics here - the destruction of the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. These events were to take place, along with destruction and suffering on a tremendous scale, between the time this story is set and the time the Gospel of Luke was written down, when in AD 70 Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans, its people killed or dispersed, and the Temple razed to the ground.

The Jerusalem Temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world - in Jesus’s time it was a great platform more than half a mile long and 600 feet wide. Even now, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem occupies over 35 acres. Pious Jews still gather at the so-called Wailing or Western Wall, not part of the Temple proper but a section of the retaining wall that held up the tons of earth supporting the Temple structure proper.

The stones to which Jesus refers were largely a series of walls encompassing sacred space, parapets and barriers that dictated how far each visitor could come, according to their status. Starting at the center, the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, was entered by the High Priest only once a year; beyond that was a court where only the priests as a group could go, to fulfill their sacrificial duties; outside that, another area where only male Israelites could go to pray; then a further court, where Israelite women could attend; and beyond that, a court of the Gentiles. It was this last outer space in which we might imagine Jesus overthrowing the tables of money changers, and this Gospel story being told also.

The cataclysm that would come on Jerusalem was not only about physical walls; Jesus goes on to prophesy other forms of division, and of struggle and destruction, at human as well as physical levels: "You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name…"

Perhaps this feels like what some of you have experienced in recent days, trying to understand or be understood by people close to you, but whose perspectives have been incomprehensible to you, and vice versa. 

The deep divisions in political culture reflect even more serious ones: economic inequality is getting worse, not better; racism seems as intractable as ever; things women should have been able to take for granted - shall we say since at least the 1970s, or just forever? - seem to be as elusive now as decades ago. Everyone knows something is wrong, but everyone has retreated into one of two regions of the mind, divided by a (so far) invisible wall, increasingly unable to imagine how anyone on the other side could think differently. Walls, literal or figurative, are rarely the answer.

A literal wall, at least the idea of one, has played a part in this recent campaign. Maybe, as one leader of the incoming administration put it a couple of days ago, that wall was just a “campaign device”; but whether or not it comes, it represents something problematic, and there are existing walls of a subtler kind that have to be dealt with. There have been signs this past week that some have been encouraged by the result to express negative feelings or even physical violence towards other members of the community who now feel vulnerable. Whatever our understandings of the election, can be clearer about our response to these events. 

And while we don’t yet know exactly what a new presidency will itself achieve or seek to, from hereon we pray for the president-elect, just as for every president, not because we believe in him but because we believe in prayer, and based not on whether or not he or his predecessor deserve it, but because they need it.

The breaking down of walls is not easy, and comes at some considerable cost. They may seem to protect what we hold sacred. The destruction of Jerusalem was a tragedy in every sense, yet it challenged those who contemplated the ruins to ask how God was present and active among them. And at that time, they remembered Jesus’ words - “not one stone will be left upon another."

In the Letter to the Ephesians, there is another word-picture that alludes to the destruction of the Temple and to those stones and walls that not only protected the sacred, but divided people one from another: “[Jesus Christ] has broken down the dividing wall between us…so you are no longer strangers and non-residents, but fellow-citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.” This text was referring to Jews and Gentiles as divided, but the point applies to us in so many ways now, too.

Jesus would have been a poor presidential candidate - his reflections on what was to come would have been even more confronting to his hearers than anything said or thought in recent days or months in this country - but he demands your allegiance beyond your civic or even familial ties. Christians do not constitute a particular political party or by our nature identify ourselves as a group with the secular world’s attempts to define what is right. Jesus says "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."

God’s candidate was, however, and is, Jesus Christ. You have not chosen him, he has chosen you. And we are thus elected by God to hold office in the Church by baptism into him. In the days and years to come, as in the past, he seeks your service, your discipleship, your loyalty. We express that service here in our eucharistic celebration, but we also express it in our lives beyond these walls, and especially in our treatment of those who are behind different walls of separation: from God, from one another, from what makes for fullness of life in every way. Our membership of Jesus’ party, Jesus’ commonwealth, will be reflected in the days ahead by our willingness in home and workplace and public square to defend what and who we must, and to be prepared for the negative reactions of others in doing so. "But not a hair of your head will perish,” Jesus says. "By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

“Not one stone will be left upon another.” Our most sacred places, literal or conceptual, may fall; but whatever comes, we will have been brought near to God and to one another in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

How to Vote? All Saints' Day

[Sermon for the Sunday after All Saints' Day, Church of the Transfiguration, NY, November 6 2016]

As the praise of all saints resounds here in hymns and psalms today, I am sure we are all focussed on the one theological question:

Could Trump really win?

In case at this point you are a little afraid, or perhaps a little hopeful, that I might tell you how to vote, yes I will - but, no I won’t. It’s not my job as a preacher or as a sojourning non-citizen for that matter to offer an endorsement of candidates. Yet there are more profound issues at stake even than those of candidates, which do connect our celebration today with your responsibilities on Tuesday.

The reading from Daniel today may seem a little more apt than the framers of the lectionary imagined decades ago, when it was selected:

“I...saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another...As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones [saints] of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever.”

There were times in the summer when this seemed to describe the Republican primary contest - and in fact as you may know, Christians have sometimes attempted to correlate such symbolic characters, here and in the Revelation to John especially, with particular figures of their own time. Daniel and John the Divine may really have had ancient kings or other historical characters in mind, but underlying these visions was a deeper message of hope in troubled times. Although would-be kings (and presidents) will come and go, there is a true king and a different kingdom for the “holy ones” as this translation puts it, but which is the same word we otherwise use for the “saints."

The first saints were just the Christians as a group. Saint Paul often addresses his letters to the “saints of God” in a certain place, referring to all the believers by that term, even though in the course of the letters we sometimes find reference to behavior that is anything but “saintly.” Paul calls the Corinthian Christians, who seem in theological terms to have been an ancient basket of deplorables, “saints” because God by calling them had made them holy in ways they did not yet seem to understand.

Gradually the idea of a “saint” became more narrowly defined, as martyrs who died for their faith rose from the mass of faithful and less faithful Christians to be represented as models and heroes; and when the Church became established and there were fewer martyrs, other forms of heroism were recognized as appropriate to offer for imitation and veneration.

The feast of All Saints was added to the calendar somewhat late in the piece to allow for the fact that there were such exemplary Christians who were known only to God, or who simply couldn’t be squeezed into a crowded liturgical calendar. But as time has gone on, the Church has now come almost full circle to see this as an occasion to celebrate not just the great and the good, but all the baptized, including those to whom we look with admiration and hope and whose prayers we seek, but also the curious, the flawed, and those others whose participation in the category of “sainthood” by its very nature makes us marvel at the character and the extent of God’s grace.

God’s view of what is great and good is not the same as ours, whatever our preferred policies or candidates. God does not have the view of one candidate on Tuesday that only the superficially strong and those who are not “bad hombres” are the chosen. God does not have the view that those who disagree are a basket of deplorables either.

The issues that face those of you who vote extend far beyond the characters of the individual candidates, although neither the candidates nor the platforms are morally equivalent by any means. Neither this nation nor by extension the world affected by its choices will have solved the problems this election has rendered so stark merely by choosing the better of these two.

The deep divisions in political culture reflect a nation divided: where economic inequality is getting worse, not better, where racism seems as intractable as ever, where things women should have been able to take for granted since at least the 1970s if not forever seem to be as elusive now as then. Everyone knows something is wrong, but everyone has retreated into one of two regions of the mind, divided by a (so far) invisible wall, behind which the like-minded shout at each other in furious agreement, increasingly unable to imagine how anyone on the other side could think differently .

What is the Christian then to do in the polling place? Again, I will not answer that in terms of which handle to pull or box to check, although I am very far from thinking the alternatives are neutral or indifferent. Neither candidate or party is really your party, as a saint. We make tactical alliances with these causes, seeking the good and avoiding evil. I suggest however that when you undertake that civic duty, you act and think in particular ways. How to vote? Vote in hope. Vote in faith. Pray before you vote. Pray for the candidates you deplore as well as those you admire. Pray for the outcomes on the lives of people in this and every country.

Whether the result is the one you favor or not, and even if it seems to bring us closer to some apocalyptic future with beasts and false rulers, that this is not the most important kingdom or nation to which you belong, not since you were baptized and joined the saints. In the Letter to the Ephesians we read “[Jesus Christ] has broken down the dividing wall between us…so you are no longer strangers and non-residents, but fellow-citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.” We are members of that citizenry of the saints not because we were good, but because God is good. Celebrate or mourn what the Times tells you on Wednesday but give thanks for that calling, and keep building with God that kingdom where walls are broken down, where all are included, where justice and peace are known and where true greatness is found in the treatment of the weakest. May Mary and all the Saints pray with us, for this nation and every nation.