November 13, 2016
Whenever a disaster strikes, it doesn’t take long for some people, even those who identify themselves as Christians, to blame it on the secularization or moral permissiveness of society. On September 13, 2001, the Rev. Jerry Falwell blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on groups and organizations that he characterized as promoting “an alternative lifestyle” and trying to “secularize America.” A priest in Austria; Gerhard Wagner, wrote in his parish newsletter that Hurricane Katrina resulted from the indescribable amoral conditions of New Orleans. The members of Westboro Baptist Church are known for their hate-filled picketing at the funerals of gay people who were murdered because of their sexual identity.
People like that have been known to turn to our gospel reading for today to justify their belief that God uses wars and natural disasters to punish people for “attacking” Christianity, because at first glance it may appear to support that view. In this story Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and more general catastrophes that will come after an intense persecution of Christians. However, those who use it to proclaim God’s judgment miss the point.
The Gospel of Luke was written around 85 C.E, and the temple was destroyed fifteen years earlier by the Romans in 70 C.E., so for the first people to hear the gospel this story would not be a prediction of the future but a vivid remembrance of the terrible devastation they experienced. The temple that Jesus and his disciples visited was a wonder of the ancient world. The outer walls were faced in imported white marble that gleamed in the sunlight. It could be seen from miles away. Its destruction marked the end of an almost 600 year period when the temple represented the heart of Judaism. Luke uses the destruction of that magnificent temple, the center of the Jewish faith, to make a statement on the impermanence of human achievement.
When it seemed that all his audience could focus on was the temple’s physical beauty, Jesus attempted to divert their attention from their fascination with “these things that you see”. Their focus should be on something else. He did not specify exactly what he meant, but immediately before the discussion about the temple Jesus had drawn their attention to a poor widow. Perhaps Jesus thinks we should focus our attention on the poor, rather than human achievements. However, those listening to Jesus teach remained concerned with what will happen to the building, and so Jesus moved from describing that future historical catastrophe to more general statements about the coming of false prophets, wars, and other calamities.
At this point his words become apocalyptic, which means they should not be interpreted literally, but understood as using provocative language and images employed as a means to assure us that we should keep our trust in God even when facing the most challenging of circumstances. Jesus tells us not to be afraid even in the midst of terrible events. Every age has its own false prophets, wars, natural and human-made catastrophes. Jesus is not describing any specific events, but trying to make a point that when bad things inevitably happen we should “not be terrified,” nor should we believe anyone who proclaims that they are signs of God’s judgment and the end of our world. Instead, we should trust that God always remains present in our lives.
The theme of this passage is the assurance of God’s faithfulness to us in the face of difficult times. Jesus describes the different kinds of persecution that his followers can expect to face, but rather than assigning blame to a particular person or group of people, Jesus says that persecution gives us “an opportunity to testify”. Just as God gave Moses and other prophets the words and ability to confront their doubters and opponents, Jesus will provide us with the strength and wisdom for such testimony. Jesus quotes a proverb from Hebrew scripture that signifies divine protection, which says that not a hair on their head will perish. Ultimately, the experience of persecution will not end in death but in a victory for our souls. Jesus urges us to trust in God even in the midst of hardship and persecution. Despite its language and imagery of destruction, this is ultimately a passage grounded in hope – the hope that God remains present in the world and in one’s life even when things have gotten so bad that it feels like the world is closing in on us.
We have just been through a long and grueling election season, and we are desperately in need of hope. A sign in front of one church said, “Jesus is coming. Hopefully before the election.” But that didn’t happen. We are still here, struggling to make sense of it all. As commentator Karoline Lewis says, we can’t mend arguments and anxieties, tensions and traumas in one sermon, one speech, or one day. It is going to take some time. So today the world is still broken, but the world is also full of God’s grace and love.
No matter whether what party we belong to or who we voted for, as Christians who proclaim the gospel message of God’s love, compassion, mercy and justice, and who share in our core values, it has been frightening and demoralizing to hear Latinos being denigrated, women spoken about as objects, promises to register all those of the Muslim faith living in America and ban any more from entering, promises of mass deportations, the chant of “JewSA”, and the use of code words from the Nazi era against the Jewish people and the press. Who could have anticipated that any candidate for president would ever be endorsed in this day and age by the Aryan Nation, the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, because although we knew they still existed we naively assumed the ethics and norms of our society would keep them in check. Many forces from different places caused this to happen, but as Christians we can stand in solidarity for our values of love, compassion, mercy and justice.
All we can do is turn to the gospel. Jesus taught that the two greatest commands are to love God with all our heart, our mind and our soul and to love our neighbor as God loves us. One of the important things to take away from our gospel story is the admonition of Jesus to pay attention to what we see. God calls us to try and see what and whom Jesus sees, because what we see determines how we choose to act. If we see all refugees as terrorists, then we will not offer innocent people sanctuary. If we see people of other ethnicities and religions as less deserving than us, then we will never advocate for them. If we see women only in their physical appearance, we will treat them as objects. If we see our Jewish brothers and sisters as joined in some sort of conspiracy to take over the country and the world, then we will never respect them as God’s first chosen people. If we see God only as judge and jury, we will speak about others as deserving of condemnation.
In this campaign the forces of hatred and violence were unleashed, and the results are already frightening and chaotic. People have been intimidated, insulted and assaulted from both sides. People dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan are making appearances in North Carolina. Young African American women who are students at a SUNY school were told that now they can be returned to slavery. Muslim women have had their hijabs yanked from their heads. Demonstrations that were intended to be lawful and peaceful against hatred and violence were turned into chaotic riots where property was destroyed. After a minor traffic accident a man was beaten just because of who the perpetrators assumed he voted for. No one should ever be assaulted because of who they voted for. All of these actions are frightening, intimidating, and completely unacceptable and should be condemned and rejected.
Following Jesus means testifying to our trust and belief in God in the midst of such circumstances that test our confidence and our hope. It means maintaining an enduring witness to the marvelous things that the Lord has done and will continue to do regardless of how things may appear. Our faith in action is our testimony and our witness against hatred and violence. God needs us to be the eyes of the Gospel when the world and those who have the loudest voices in it seem only to see negative stereotypes. That is how we claim the sure and certain hope we have in God – our God who is still present and powerful even when we feel powerless in the face of all that seems to be working against God’s message of love, mercy, compassion and justice for all people. Since the election, we have heard uplifting speeches, including one from the President-elect; that called for unity. We can only pray that will happen, and it is our call as Christians to work together to make it happen. Unfortunately you cannot incite hatred and violence for months and then expect that it can be easily reversed with one speech, in one day or in one week. It will take time.
Our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton reminds us, “No human candidate can guarantee our life or our future. That is work that God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus.” We are commanded to love God and to love all of our neighbors, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, just as God loves all of us. We are called to testify together to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness that no one will be able to contradict. We pray that in this act of unity, of solidarity and of shared testimony, wounds might start to heal, animosity might turn to respect, and despair might change into the desire and determination for an optimistic and holistic view of the world that God gave us to share.
Let us pray. God, our refuge and strength, you have bound us together in a common life. In all our conflicts, help us to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, to listen for your voice amid competing claims, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.