Sunday, November 28, 2004

Semper Paratus

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in St. Joseph, Michigan
on Sunday, November 28th. (Advent 1A)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Many of us are familiar with the popular Left Behind series of novels. These books tell a story about people struggling to find faith after the Rapture. The Rapture is a time, supposedly, when God will take his faithful people out of the world and subject the world to upheavals and torments in preparation for a final judgment. Now, none of you here will have heard Mother Liza or me teach the Rapture, and there’s a good reason for that. In fact, some of you have heard us speak out specifically against this notion as being unbiblical and sub-Christian. Nevertheless, here we are on the first Sunday of Advent faced with one of their favorite texts, in Matthew, where they will point out that it says “one will be taken and one will be left”. It seems straightforward: surely this is evidence of Rapture?
Continue reading Semper Paratus

Well, not really. As N.T. Wright points out
[1], the sense of the text is most likely one being taken away to experience judgment, while the other remains untouched. It is more like secret police coming in the night to arrest someone than God taking the righteous out of the world. No, in this scenario, the righteous stay in the world to continue their work.

We might be tempted to want to mute the tones of judgment in our texts, but that would be a mistake. For one, these readings pick up on a prominent theme of Advent, Christ’s return at the end of the age.

But also, that there is indeed judgment coming is an important part of Christian proclamation. When Christ returns he will bring justice and righteousness with him, setting things right in a world gone wrong. We ought to look to it with as much gladness as we can muster, happy that those who have been oppressed and victimized will be restored, and thankful that we ourselves will, at last, be set right. The theologian Jurgen Moltmann summed it up well when he said “Judgment at the end is not an end at all; it is the beginning. Its goal is the restoration of all things for the building up of God’s eternal kingdom.”
[2] This isn’t something we dare to soft-pedal.

But we ought to be quite concerned when our thinking about final judgment takes on the character of a revenge fantasy. Or as Anne Lamott says, “you can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
[3] This is, I fear, what the authors and perhaps some readers of the Left Behind series have slipped into, and something we should guard against, something we should leave behind.

So we hear from Christ that we should stay awake and be ready; that is that there’s something coming that’s not yet here. Today we also hear from Paul that “the dark is gone, the day is near”, that is that there’s something that is already here. And in the tension lies a profound truth: that the Kingdom of God is already here in part, but not yet in its fullness. And one implication of this is that Christ’s coming, and the judgment that builds up God’s kingdom are not events in the distant future, but are to have effects on our lives here and now.

Christ tells us to be ready, but he is not talking about having enough information to understand the signs of the times. We’re not to waste our time looking at social security numbers and barcodes and the United Nations thinking that they are somehow harbingers of the end. After all, Christ himself said in the verse right before this morning’s reading, no one knows the day or hour.

Our task is to live day-by-day, hour-by-hour, being ready to meet our Lord. Once we set to one side this language of one being taken and another left behind, I think we can see two clear examples in today’s texts of how we can live so as to be ready.

First, Isaiah has a vision of universal peace, in which all nations turn to God, and as a result violence and war come to an end, even to the point that unneeded weapons are fashioned into implements of life and growth. I think this is a very powerful vision of the order of thing in the world as we know it being completely transformed, turned upside down by God. There are many ways that we can begin to live even now as if this were true. Certainly one straightforward way is to support peacemaking efforts on the world stage in whatever small way we can. But this has much broader application, too. In one sense, this is not just the end of war, but the end of cutthroat competition as well, the end of scenarios where the only outcome is someone wins and another loses. Perhaps one way this might cash out is in the business world, where managers and executives can begin thinking win-win. Some business models (such as Whole Foods Market) have already begun demonstrating that taking good care of workers means taking good care of the business itself; it’s win-win. Another example of flourishing noncompetitive industriousness is in open-source coding of computer software. In this, the computer code of a program is available for everyone to see: there are no proprietary secrets to guard, and so the computer programs that these people make actually tend to be better than others because a wider variety of people can give feedback and improve it. These are some specific, rather secular examples of real-world projects which seem to participate in Isaiah’s vision of a transformed world, where there is no war, and by extension, no antagonistic competition. How might God be calling us to think win-win, that we can live so as to be ready?

Another way that we might so live is found in Paul, where he says to “lay aside the works of darkness and …live honorably as in the day.” Some of what Paul meant in referring to works of darkness is most likely works done in darkness. For example, if someone chooses to rob his neighbor, such a thing would most likely be done in darkness, partly to avoid being noticed, but also partly because then one is anonymous – there is little risk that your neighbor will see that his own neighbor is stealing from him. The anonymity given by the cover of darkness can be a powerful factor to tempt us to do what we ought not do. The darkness of anonymity can allow us to be unloving, unrighteous, and yet still seem – at least to those who we think matter – loving and righteous.

Today, we have many other forms of anonymity besides darkness: on the computer, driving in our cars, or interacting with people who don’t know us on the telephone or in shops or offices. In these settings we might be tempted to act in ways that would embarrass us, if we knew the other people involved and they knew us.

I’ve done this myself. Most days, I wear my clerical collar in the office here and around town as I take care of business. I’ve become pretty comfortable in it. It’s usually only just before I am about to lay into someone working behind a counter or after I’ve cut someone off in traffic that I remember that I’m publicly identified as a member of the Christian clergy and I have a certain standard of behavior to maintain.

Of course, I’m wrong.

It’s not that I need to treat people with love and respect because I wear a funny collar. I need to treat everyone with love and respect because I was baptized into the life and death of Jesus Christ, and that helps me to see those around me as beloved creations of God. And of course, it’s not just me, but all of us, all Christians, who are called to live, as Paul says, “honorably, as in the day.” If we do not dwell in the darkness of anonymity, but live in the light so that people may see our faces and know our names, we can live in consistent love and integrity. How might God be calling you to live in the light, that we can live so as to be ready?

These two practices – thinking win-win, and living in the light – are modest attempts by us to live so as to be ready, to reflect to the world the love and grace of Jesus Christ and even, in some small way, to anticipate the coming Kingdom.

This all puts me in mind of a rabbinic saying: If you were to treat every person around you as if though he were the messiah, come secretly and in disguise, then it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t come at all.
But maybe another way to get at it is this, since as Christians we believe Messiah has already come in the form of Jesus: if we were to treat every person around us as if Messiah had already come the first time, then perhaps it would be as if he had already returned, already established his reign completely, already set right a world gone wrong. May God give us the grace to do so, and so live in a world in which no one is left behind. Amen.

[1] N. T. Wright, Jesus and The Victory of God, p. 366.
[2] Quoted in James Howell, Exploring Christianity: The Bible, Faith, and Life. P. 183, 184.
[3] Exact source unknown.

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