Proper 28c, November 17, 2013

November 18, 2013

The Beginning Is Near!
Luke 21:5-19

21:5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he 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.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And 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.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there 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. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

The world shifted last week, and it was well covered on television. At least on local television. I don’t know if you saw it or not – maybe you were on hand to witness it in person. It was a sad day for some people, but for others it was phenomenal – who would ever have thought that we would land a Bass Pro Shop in Pulaski County!!?

I feel bad for Gene Lockwood’s Sportsmart, it’s hard to imagine the pain that Academy Sports must be feeling, and I can’t help but to think there is great dread in the heart of Gander Mt., but for the masses of people who love a great deal on cool outdoor equipment there has never been a better day to be a resident of central Arkansas. I’m not worried about Ft. Thompson. For some people, loyalty means something and they wouldn’t think of wearing waders without the Ft. Thompson duck foot logo on the front.

I guess I’m just a little struck by the contrast that I find between the world that I occupy and the message I find in this morning’s scripture. The setting for today’s passage is one of extreme adversity. Jesus was speaking in the context of facing an imminent death in a horrible manner. Luke was writing to a community that was experiencing extreme persecution from the government and rejection from their families, and I’m living in place where the big news of the week is a new shopping opportunity.

I’m not complaining. Any time you offer me the choice between living in a world that’s characterized by shallow comfort or of meaningful suffering I will probably take the comfort option. I’m not proud of that, but I’m just saying I know myself pretty well, and I like living in a calm neighborhood in a comfortable house. I try to be grateful for the comfort and security I have, and I also know that I’m a fortunate person in this regard. I didn’t choose to be born in to relative privilege – I just was. And I try to remember that.

Nor am I under the illusion that having comfort and security are the essentials for a good life or a sign of God’s favor. In fact I’m very conscious of the way in which shallow comforts are impediments to the development of a rich spiritual life, but I don’t want to romanticize suffering. Our scripture lesson addresses the great opportunity that emerges when disaster and hardship break in to our lives, and this is great news, but this is not easy to hear. I take great comfort in knowing that people who face persecution are provided with the clearest understanding of how God’s kingdom prevails, but I am under no illusion of how costly that understanding really is.

The opening of the new Bass Pro Shop wasn’t the only headline of last week. The typhoon that hit the Phillipines was a storm of an apocalyptic scale. It’s hard to imagine the extent of death and destruction that swept across that island nation. I can’t fathom the suffering that the survivors of that storm are enduring right now. And I know there are people who are wondering how God could have allowed such a thing to occur. I also imagine there are people who are explaining what role God has played in all of that. I’m sure it would be hard not to give God the blame for taking some loved ones or the credit for saving others, but I think the simple truth is that God was not behind that storm.

I think one of the messages in this morning’s text is not to over-interpret the cataclysmic events that occur on this planet, and there are always people around who claim to have such special knowledge. But it’s also a mistake to think God is absent when disaster erupts. God isn’t behind natural disasters nor does God disrupt the violent designs of twisted humans, but God is available when horror befalls. In fact, the message is that our souls can actually flourish when our lives are in peril. It’s subtle truth, and it’s easy to miss, but this is the bedrock of Christianity. When hard times happen, our souls can become very anchored in the source of true life.

This song that Lucas and John provided for us, “Precious Lord”, was born out of tragedy. It was written by Thomas Dorsey, who was an African American musician and songwriter in the early 1900s. As a young man he had a career as a house musician in some of the great nightclubs in Chicago. But he gravitated toward gospel music, and is actually known as the Father of Gospel music as we know it. But it didn’t come easy.

People didn’t like the way he turned the rhythms of nightlife in to songs for Sunday morning. He was slow to be accepted in to many churches, but it did catch on and he was helping with a large revival in St. Louis when he got a telegram that his wife had died in childbirth. They were living in Chicago, and he immediately went home. She had given birth to a son, but the child died the next day, and as you can imagine this threw him in to a deep despair.

He was inconsolable for a period of time, but as he was sitting near a piano at a friend’s house he found the tune and the words to “Precious Lord” playing in his mind, and it became the avenue for his recovery. And it’s a song that has spoken deeply to many people who have found themselves in difficult places.

And while it’s true that we are living in a seemingly calm spot on the planet, we all know that none of us are far from calamity. We aren’t generally threatened by apocalyptic weather, geologic turmoil, or a dictatorial government, but our personal worlds can get turned upside down pretty quickly. We are all fragile creatures living in precarious circumstances. Randomness is alive and well, and it can land on any of us any time. So is foolishness – whether it’s our own or somebody else’s. Any of us can find ourselves facing extremely difficult situations and it’s easy to want to know why God has done this or that.

I don’t think it’s wrong to think that God is involved in our lives, but I don’t believe it’s God who moves us in or out of harm’s way. I believe God is with us wherever we are, but I think the primary work God does is to move within our souls.

A soul is a mysterious thing. You can go on the internet and find a diagram of every organ in your body, and you can probably find someone who has created a diagram of a soul, but it’s not so easy to know what a soul really is. It’s the mysterious part of who we are, but Jesus considered it to be the most essential part of who we are, and he wanted us to understand the way in which our external circumstances affects the eternal aspect of our selves.

He wanted us to understand that the times that are the most trying to us on the surface of life can be the most fertile periods of time for our souls. I think we’ve all heard that the things that don’t kill you will make you stronger. I don’t know that this is always true. Sometimes terrible experiences simply leave people wounded on deeper levels, but our message today is that God is with us in our trials and if our trust in God can endure we can come out of those hard times with nourished souls.

As I said earlier, I don’t want to romanticize suffering. I don’t know about you, but I find suffering to be very painful. I don’t wish to suffer and when I’m at my best I don’t wish it upon anyone else, but what I believe is that Jesus didn’t want us to confuse the good times or the bad times with God’s favor or punishment.

The passage begins with someone pointing out to Jesus how beautiful the rockwork of the Temple was, and he responded by telling them not to confuse godly looking things with the actual work of God. The spiritually richest places are not the official buildings of religious organizations. Jesus was very clear about this. He didn’t avoid stepping in to local synagogues and he even went to the Temple on occasion, but he knew how easy it is for us to confuse the illusion of spiritual truth with the reality of God’s ways.

The reality is that God doesn’t reward us with easy lives, but God pays particular attention to us in our hardest times. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be grateful when the living is easy, but I don’t think we should mistake good fortune for God’s favor. Horrible things happen to good people, and faithful people emerge from hard times with renewed faith in the living God.

It’s not easy to think of the arrival of disaster as an opportunity, but I think Jesus would encourage us to think of such moments as the beginning of a new relationship with God. Jesus didn’t think any of us had the capacity to predict the end of the world, but we all know that our own personal worlds can become totally disrupted in an instant. Cataclysmic events aren’t welcome in the least, but along with the loss of those things we cherish can come the renewal of our souls.

Certainly people who are in the midst of disaster need the compassion and love of their human neighbors as well, and any time we have the capacity to help a neighbor in need we are functioning as agents of God. The loving hand of another human being can feel a lot like a hand from God, and it may well be one of the ways God touches and nourishes our souls. But even when people are abandoned by friends and family God never turns away, and this the heart of the good news that Jesus taught and gave his life to reveal.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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