Reflection for November 17, 2013

Malachi 4:1–2a, II Thessalonians 3:6–13, and Luke 21:5–19

      These readings today speak of the coming end of the world. Most of the time, most of us really don’t think the world is coming to an end. We go about our daily lives. We do not focus often on how the world will end or when. Somewhere in our memory of scientific details we recall that the universe will cease its gradual expansion, begin to contract, and then implode. But that’s a few billion years away.

     But then sometimes we start to have anxieties. There appear to be more imminent threats, things that we do worry about as humans on a fragile planet: a nuclear war, a wandering black hole after a star explodes, a gamma ray impulse frying everything, an out of control bio pathogen or germ, a sudden warming of the earth’s climate, the accidental release of anti-matter into the environment, a super volcano, the collapse of biodiversity (one half of the world’s species have vanished in the last 100 years), a gigantic solar flare, a collision with an asteroid, or a meteor. All of these are possibilities, but the chance of any of them happening soon is fairly small. We may be concerned about each one of these, but they usually do not rise to the surface of our complex of anxieties.  So we go about our days, thinking we will all probably be here tomorrow, thinking of the future as somewhat dependable and making schedules and plans for the future, buying calendars for 2014.

     But within this dependable future, we still may have anxieties about whether or not our future will happen or work well. We wonder about our politics and our economics. We sense the shifting nature of international affairs. We wonder about how the condition of the planet will shape our future. We sense that growing numbers of people will place ever increasing demands on our natural resources and environment. We sense sometimes a decline in the quality of life. We realize how fragile our power grid can be and how dependent we have become on electricity and technology for much of our lives. 

     And then we also face that creaturely anxiety around our own end time, our deaths. We sense that even though the world may go on, our own days are numbered. As we grow older, we grow wiser, and part of that wisdom is realizing our limitations and preparing for a good ending for a good life.

     So although the end of the world, the focus of today’s readings, may be something we do not think about often, we also hold within us an ancient and primitive fear about the vulnerable nature of our future. Sometimes a sense of fragility surrounds the plans we make.  Sometimes that old fear bubbles to the surface of human awareness, and we hear of rumors that the end is near, usually at times when public anxiety runs high.

     You know, 2012 was an especially busy year for those predicting the end of the world. According to Ronald Weinland, Jesus Christ was supposed to return on May 27 and the world was to end Memorial Day weekend. Jose Luis de Jesus predicted that the world’s governments and economies would fail the coming month on June 30, and that he and his followers would undergo a transformation that would allow them to fly and walk through walls. Then the Mayan apocalypse was to take place on December 21 of that year just before Christmas.  Warren Jeffs then predicted the world would end on December 23, but when that failed, moved the prediction to December 31, blaming the delay on the lack of faith of his disciples.

    But despite all of those predictions, we celebrated the dawn of 2013. Although we may scoff and laugh — and humor is a good thing — we also know this attention to the end comes from the recesses of human anxiety regarding our future.

     When things are difficult, we become anxious, and we may think about a coming end. In the difficult 5th century various Christian bishops were certain that Christ would return in 500AD. In the 14th century, faced with the black plague in Europe, many thought the end was near. Two hundred years later, Martin Luther, faced with Turkish invasion of Europe, thought that the end was near.

    In Malachi, the first reading, the burning fires of the end speak of a time of great tension as a nation tries to rebuild itself from the ashes of defeat. And in II Thessalonians, Paul is facing a congregation in which everybody has decided to stop working because the end of the world was coming. He wants them to believe in the Lord’s return, but he also wants them to get back to work, lest they all starve before Jesus returns. And in Luke, there is a great deal of travail and struggle reflected in the struggles and persecution of the early church which saw a new beginning in the coming end.

     These Biblical reflections on the end remind us that yes; there is an end, for all of us, for each of us, and for all things. And to be prepared for our own end as we die, well, that is not a bad thing. Live each day like it is a precious gift. Let our days be marked with compassion and forgiveness.

     Yes there is an end, and with it will be anxiety, fear, struggle, hardship and pain. Those things give rise to the sense that the end is near. When we face hardships and the anxieties they create, we may sense that the end is close. And when that anxiety grows overwhelming, it’s a good idea to talk about it with friends and with God in prayer.

    Yes, there is an end, filled with various hardships and issues; but, in all of these readings and most of the others like them in the Bible, the end becomes a transformation. It turns out, we do not only live in the Lord, we die in the Lord.  The ending becomes a change into something else. Many of the things that we worried about in the past have later become those things that helped us grow. Eventually all creation will find its way back to God.

     So through these readings, as we raise the human fear and anxiety that is part of life, let us still see that God has given our fragile future a durability, that we will make it through, one way or another, and as Paul suggests, that we really need to go back to work! 


Reflection for November 10, 2013

Job 19:23-27a, II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-43

We are in the 20th chapter of Luke: the final confrontations of Jesus and the religious leaders. Jesus will win the arguments yet lose his life. But we are getting ahead of ourselves in the story. Today, the Sadducees question Jesus about eternal life in an attempt to prove their point at his expense. They use a riddle about marriage to muddy the waters. It won’t be the last time questions regarding human sexuality will be used to complicate God’s eternal message of compassion.

Eternal life. That’s the question placed before Jesus by his opposition. Is there a heaven? Is there life after death? That was a hot first century topic in ancient Israel. Some said yes there was. Others said no there was not. Jesus, according to Luke and the other gospels, comes down on the side of eternal life. Yes, there is a life through death. We are not consumed by the forces of darkness but will live.

In our own time not only the shape of marriage, but also this question of heaven is debated by those who study the Bible and are committed to the Christian faith. For centuries now the story of Jesus has been shaped as the story of the one who died on the cross to save us from our sins so that we might go to heaven when we die. All we need do is believe in Jesus.

Others also dedicated to the faith and the study of scripture, would say no, this was probably not the core message of Jesus. Jesus called his disciples to love one another and to change this world with the force of their love. Jesus died on the cross because he challenged the authorities of the day to stand for justice, peace, and love. He was a martyr for the cause that he championed among the peasants of Palestine, oppressed by the Romans.

But the church, it seems, as it became established with authority over time, put eternal life rather than life in this world on the front burner. Before the gospels, Jesus was a revolutionary voice calling for the transformation of life through love. In the gospels and after, Jesus becomes a savior who held the keys to the kingdom of heaven and everlasting life. So the church could decide if you went to heaven or went to hell.

Over the centuries, the church then used this saving Christ to expand its power. If you did not follow the teachings of the church, you would go to hell. It was an engine for enforcing the current authority and power of the church and its leadership for centuries. Strangely, the Jesus who challenged religious authoritarianism became that which supported the power of a hierarchical church.

To recover from all that, we should amend our ways and speak once again of Jesus as the one who stood against religious, economic, and political tyranny rather than the one who focused on individual salvation in the world to come.

Let us recognize the message of Jesus for this world. We are called to be a just and compassionate people, not because we have some reward coming in heaven, but because this world needs compassion and justice. We live as Christians in this world, and we are called to make a difference for those less fortunate than us, for the fallen by the side of the road, for those overcome by forces too large to contain, and for all those in need. And we are called to challenge current authorities, structures, and understandings that make life more difficult for those who suffer. And we do this in the name of the Jesus who challenged the powers of his day.

And let us appreciate that over the centuries, the church has overplayed its emphasis on eternal life, using the concepts of heaven and hell to control thought and curtail liberty. That too needs to be recognized.

But I also think all of that does not mean that life ends with death. Yes, the Bible calls us to justice and compassion here and now. And also the Bible before and after Jesus reminds us that nothing will separate us from the love of God, not the powers of this world and not even death. Since the first lesson from Job with its ancient Iron Age reference to a chisel, we know that our Redeemer lives, and at the last, all of us will stand together in a place where tears will be no more.

We do not need to choose between this world and the next. There is not any real reason why we must choose one or the other. Indeed, I think the two are connected. They are two sides of the same coin of love and grace. A restored balance to Christian life and hope will allow us to sense the fullness of the compassionate love of God, the depth of the grace of which we speak when we talk of the affection of God for all creation.

So a congregation, focused on caring for those in need in this time and place, can at the same time speak of a life to come, can speak of death as a transformation rather than an end, and can be fully engaged in this world precisely because whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

Now life beyond time, eternal life, life through death, or heaven is a difficult thing to talk about. We really don’t know much about it. We are not able to describe it precisely.  This inability to describe heaven creates openings for difficult questions like the one Jesus gets this morning, questions that seem to require precise answers.

That is why the riddle of the woman who married seven brothers works as a challenge to heaven. “Whose wife will she be?” is a legitimate concrete question, and no matter how we answer it, there will be problems because heaven is not something we can precisely describe with respect to the relationships of this world.

But the answer of Jesus is useful to us as we live with one leg in this world and one leg in the next.  We should recall that the Sadducee’s riddle comes out of a concept of marriage in ancient Israel that is far different from our own.

In ancient Israel, marriage may not have involved emotional relationships and love. In smaller tribes, rural communities and villages which marked subsistence life in the Iron Age, marriage was about survival.  If someone died, the relatives would step up and fill the void. A widow became the economic responsibility of a brother of the deceased. The widow would not be abandoned by the husband’s family. She would be cared for. And it was important for the survival of all that many children be born, so if a widow was childless, it was important for the brother and the widow to continue the possibility of children.

We do not have this same perspective on marriage, nor this urgency regarding the need for a brother to support a widow or for the birth of children in order to perpetuate the village. But in the Iron Age, life is much more fragile, and the village itself is just one famine or one generation away from extinction.

So if a man died, the marriage custom emerged that his brother would then take the widow as an additional wife for economic support and in hopes that children would be born so that the family and tribe would grow. The Sadducees are not making up something ridiculous for Jesus to consider. Everyone knew that the brothers in their turn had this important and significant responsibility for the sake of the family, tribe, and village.

As different as this idea of marriage is for us, the riddle regarding Iron Age marriage and the response of Jesus still provide us with insight for living. The riddle’s answer reminds us that life beyond death is not focused on our own bliss after death, but on the welfare of the community. In the heavenly understanding of the brothers and the widow, she is no one’s wife. She is her own person. What matters is not the particular relationship between one man and a woman, but how marriage works for the good of the tribe, family, and village.

With our concept of marriage, it is hard for us to imagine a heaven in which the relationship of loving partners is not part of the nature of heavenly things. It is fine for us to think in that way. But Jesus reminds us that in heaven, we stand before God as individuals: as persons with our own identity. In heaven she is her own person.

Here we are reminded that what matters not only in heaven but also on earth is how the life of husband and wife, how the lives of all partners should contribute to the well being of the community. From the heavenly point of view, the question is not, “Who is this woman’s husband?” The heavenly questions for this world are: “Does this partnership, does this marriage contribute to the well being of the community?” And also, “Does this marriage assist each person in the marriage to be the best individual he or she can be?” As heaven infuses earth with its sensitivities, it asks every couple to think about how we might sustain the community of which we are a part, and how all partners help each other be the best individual persons they can be.

So trusting in heaven, we ask the earthly questions about households, our partnerships, relationships, and marriages and how they build up individuals and communities. For what matters in heaven is not so much whose spouse you were but what you as an individual and your partner are doing now for the good of each other and all around you. Marriage and family is not an end in itself. It is a means to accomplish a good. So today, with eyes focused on the eternal, aware of what needs to be done now, let us ask ourselves, “How can all of us, our households, families, single people, and couples contribute to the compassionate and just society we sense Jesus wants both here and beyond?


All Saints Reflection

The falling leaves, the assembling geese, the cold rain, the gathering clouds, the displays in the stores remind us that in just a few weeks we will be into the holiday season. As Thanksgiving approaches, we start to think about what we will be doing for the holidays.  We begin to think more about our families and coming or going home.

Each year as November begins with thoughts of autumn and harvest, family and home, we celebrate the Christian tradition of All Saints. We give thanks and praise to God for our beloved dead. At St. John’s we remember especially those who have died in this past year. We recall their time with us. We re-dedicate ourselves to the faith and principles we have received from them and which we hope to pass on to the coming generations.  This is a day of remembering our dead and our values.

Since the middle ages, in the European church, November 1 has been the Day of the Dead, the day when we recall those who have gone before us. The night before All Saints Day was Hallowed’s Eve or Halloween. As the day’s darkness lengthens and we face a coming winter, we become more aware of a final darkness that eventually comes to us all. It’s something that is built into the human mind, I think. The tendency to remember the ghosts, holy and otherwise, seems to rise in these autumn mists.

As we once again give thanks for the faithfully departed, as we dedicate ourselves to the values we have been given, and as we face directly this issue of death, I wanted to lift up three different sides to All Saints Day that address these matters of the human mind and heart.

The first is grief. The second is ancestor worship. The third is memory loss. All Saints Day has continued through centuries, I think, because it helps humans with grief, ancestor worship, and memory loss.

The first thing about this festival is that All Saints Day moves us through grief and loss. When faced with death, we mourn and we grieve. As the loss matures, the mourning fades, but the pain of grief never fully goes away. We always have a difficult time now and then because a memory can suddenly well up in us, and we struggle for composure. All Saints Day helps us with this by giving this thing called grief a regular and ongoing rhythm and structure. Yes, there are times when we are overwhelmed by loss, but then we slowly use the rhythm of the year with its appointed seasons to lift up our sorrow, to respect it, and then to move on. So gradually we are able to entrust our loss to the rhythm of life and the community of faith. Gradually we are able to entrust our grief to designated times, knowing that this is part of the natural order of things. We know that this community of faith will remember our beloved dead each year as the years pass. And knowing that, we are able to both remember our beloved and at the same time rebuild the fabric of our lives and go on. We need not be ruled by grief forever. This is one of the purposes of All Saints and other festivals such as Memorial Day. Eventually we can entrust our sorrow to the greater sorrow of all the saints, and weave new patterns for our lives. All Saints Day is a renewing closure to that grieving process when we entrust to God and to the community of faith the sorrows we have born, as we recognize those sorrows in a formal and consistent way year after year.

Second, All Saints Day helps us with the problem of ancestor worship. Now we may not think of ancestor worship as an important issue, but even in our post-modern, information age, we have this instinct deep within us. Throughout its history as the people of God have encountered different cultures, one of the issues often faced has been ancestor worship.  As part of their religion, cultures have a natural tendency to construct some form of ancestor worship. The ancestors are themselves worshipped, often in shrines at home, or in special places, similar to our cemeteries.

Ancestor worship may seem like a strange pagan thing to us. Yet as we think about our own families and how highly we value them, and how religious we become when we think about our own faithfully departed; we can understand how veneration of the dead can be an important dimension of spiritual life and religious devotion.  We also come close to the worship of our ancestors in some of our own practices regarding faith and funerals.

Christians, however, want to focus on the worship of one God, not our family ancestors. So somehow we want to lift up and recall our families, our heritage, and our ancestors without worshipping them.  This day helps to remember that our dead are beloved. But they were human. They were saints and sinners. They were good and yet needed to rely on God to help them through their shortcomings, just as God continues to help us.

So this day helps us remember the saints but not worship them. If you’ll turn to Hymn 420, By Your Saints, written at the end of the 19th century, set to an English folk tune in Evangelical Lutheran Worship; you’ll see this tension between remembering and worship especially in verse two and the final verse:

Apostles, prophets, martyrs, and all the noble throng
Who wear the spotless raiment and raise the ceaseless song—
For these passed on before us, we sing our praise anew
And walking in their footsteps, would live our lives for you. 

The saints are exalted, but then in the closing verse it is God who is worshipped, 

Give praise to God Almighty, and worship God the Son,
And sing to God the Spirit, eternal three in one.
Till all the ransomed number fall down before the throne
And honor, power, and glory ascribe to God alone.

 The saints and their struggles are recalled with tender affection. But we do not worship the dead. We remember them.

Finally All Saints Day helps us with memory loss. I don’t mean here dementia or Alzheimer’s or a loss in our thinking process as we grow older. I mean the human loss of the specific memory of our beloved dead.  When grief is fresh and we continue living, we recall our dead. But after three or even two generations, most of the memory of our dead is lost.  We may remember our parents well. We usually remember our grandparents fairly well, too. We may even remember some things about our great-grand parents. But beyond that our memories become mere fragments of who these people were. This is the memory loss we commit to All Saints Day.

For this day is about the great cloud of witnesses, the unnamed generations who have gone before us, as much as it is about our losses this past year. All Saints was focused on all of the saints, all of the hallowed ones, even and especially those we no longer are able to remember.  We recall the great cloud of witnesses to the faith in generations long before us. We celebrate those who lie beyond the horizon of our memory on this day. And we rejoice in those faithful lives, even if no one is alive who can raise them into current awareness.  All Saints helps us to remember we will be remembered in those centuries to come when we too are no longer recalled as individuals. We will still be remembered as part of that long line of faithful, as part of the fellowship of God that exists far beyond the human capacity to add or detract from the memory of God.

So All Saints helps us grieve by lifting up our loss at regular intervals in the shared nature of community sorrow. And then All Saints helps us with that natural tendency to ancestor worship. And then it moves us beyond our memory loss into the great cloud of witnesses.  It does these things by giving us a time at the beginning of each November to recall the hallowed ones of all times and places, as we give thanks and praise to God for our beloved dead.  We re-dedicate ourselves to the faith and principles we have received from them and which we hope to pass on to coming generations.

The falling leaves, the assembling geese, the cold rain, the gathering clouds, the displays in the stores remind us that in just a few weeks we will be into the holiday season. As Thanksgiving approaches, we start to think about what we will be doing for the holidays.  We begin to think more about our families and coming or going home.  And All Saints day reminds us, that no matter what our plans for the holidays, we too will be going home soon.