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Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28)
18 November 2007

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Storm K. Swain

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

8.46am September 11th 2001
The evening of February 10th, 1933
12.15pm, Sunday October 7th 2001
7.48am December 7th 1941
7.58am December 26th 2004
The evening of 23rd October 1984
The morning of June 5th 1981
The morning of 16th May 1985
6.10am August 29th, 2005.

It’s hard to hear Luke’s gospel today without at least a vague sense of unease.  We know he was writing of the words of Jesus early in first century Israel/Palestine; we know he was writing about 40 years later than that, not long after the destruction of the temple, yet we also know that the words of Jesus are speaking of the end times, the parousia, the second coming of Christ, which as far as we know hasn’t happen yet.  So we can’t hear this Gospel and simply historicize it.  The words spoke in to Jesus’ day, they spoke into Luke’s day and they speak into our day.
When we hear these words of Jesus in Luke where do our associations lead us?

The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down…
Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and, "The time is near!'
…Wars and insurrections;
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…
great earthquakes…
famines and plagues…
dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

Whether our minds unconsciously go to such events as the destruction of the World Trade Centre, Hitler’s parody of the Lord’s Prayer in his first speech after being elected the Chancellor of Germany, to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to the earthquake in the Indian Ocean that caused the devastating tsunami a day after Christmas, to news breaking of the extent of the famine in Ethiopia, or of the outbreak of a new disease AIDS in America, to the whole in the Ozone Layer, or the hole still in people’s lives and our national life after Hurricane Katrina ripped through; wherever our minds may take us, Luke’s Gospel this morning doesn’t take us to a place of comfort, but of disaster.

It is unclear of course as Luke writes, whether it is disaster past or to come.  Certainly, the community was aware of the devastation, the temple had fallen, Peter and Paul had been executed, the community was as old as Moses’ sojourn in the desert and Jesus still hadn’t arrived.  Paul’s experience of this seeming delay was that people began to avoid work and meddle in other lives.  His commendation, like Luke’s is to endure – “Do not be weary in doing what is right.”  It would be easy to stay with the Epistle, to preach on the general principle of endurance, of good works, of paying for the bread you eat, especially in Stewardship season, but Luke’s gospel won’t let us stay in the place of endurance as if it has nothing to do with disaster.  Luke’s Gospel is speaking into and pointing towards the context of suffering.  And it is from that place that we need to let the Gospel get under our skin, into our lives, into our very breath.

Theologian Dorothee Soelle asks why some suffering enables us to grow and some just leaves us mute, breathless and devastated.  She suggests we are often abandoned to theological consolations that in essence indicate a Christian masochism that almost seems to commend suffering or a theological sadism that indicates an image of a sadistic God that causes or allows suffering for some greater meaning.  The alternate, she says, is often a secularist apathy in relation to suffering.

We see something of the image of what seems like a sadistic God in the images from Malachi this morning:

Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.  See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.  But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.

Here we have an image of God who will cause suffering “on the great and terrible day of the Lord.”  The consolation in the midst of suffering, is only for those that feel they are righteous.  In these last words, in the last book of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, we are left with the image of a God who may or may not be merciful. 

Liturgically the Psalms promise hope that God will remember God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  Yet it is not until the Incarnation that it becomes clear that the God who will judge the world with righteousness, is the God that so loves the world, not simply those of the house of Israel.

Yet in Jesus’ words in this morning we are left in the place of paradox.  This is not a God who will visit suffering upon us for God’s own ends, however, nor is it a God that will save us from suffering.  We are told that we will be persecuted, arrested, tried, betrayed, hated, and some of us even executed.  Yet in the very next sentences we are told that not a hair on our heads will perish.  What are we to make of such a contradiction?

This final discourse about the end times, comes in Luke’s Gospel in the week preceding the Passover.  Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey colt.  He has taught in the temple, thrown out the moneychangers and now predicted its downfall.  Three times in the Gospel he has predicted his own downfall, but his disciples fail to understand.  Here he is speaking of suffering, whilst facing into his own suffering for us.  In the face of his own death, he paradoxically seems to promise a resurrection reality.  Ultimately, none of us will be harmed, even though we face suffering and death, in the name of the one who faced suffering and death for us.

Here Christ shows that God is present in solidarity with in our suffering, not simply merciful from on high, but the incarnation of mercy in our midst, a mercy that forgives and redeems even those that inflict suffering and points to a new way.

Soelle argues Christ’s solidarity with us in the incarnation and crucifixion lead us to not simply be present to others in the suffering but to act in ways that a transformative of the structures which cause it, a conquest of powerlessness. 

She says that the first step towards overcoming suffering is to find a language that leads out of the muteness.  She sees the language of suffering as encompassing three phases.  Muteness, lamentation and finally, communication.  From this latter point of communication, there can develop a sense of solidarity, and an ability to change the structures. 

Do you remember the days after September 11th?  Those days when we were almost struck dumb by the horror.  I remember the national day of prayer being called for the Friday on that week.  Friday was the day I always took the midday Eucharist at the Cathedral.  The thought of preaching any words of consolation at that time seemed like an intrusion, an offense, when we were still looking for live bodies in the rubble.  So instead we offered the opportunity for people simply to come forward after the Gospel to be anointed with oil for healing in the sign of the Cross in the name of the God who stands with us in or suffering.  It happened to be Holy Cross Day.  I remember wondering if anyone would come forward.  We had about 1500 who came forward to be anointed that day.

Do you remember the days and even weeks that followed the destruction of the towers and the massive loss of life that became apparent.  People were nicer to each other, were more compassionate, spoke to each other on the subway, paradoxically the city felt safe from crime.  People turned to the Church but even more turned to themselves and their lives and reassessed the path they were on.  People turned to God and found the sacred even on the pile, a cross amidst the ruined beams of the Trade Center.

In those weeks after Sept. 11th many people seemed to express that somehow they felt more at risk but safer, terrorized but also transformed in their connections to those around them.  People reached out and helped those they didn’t know.  We didn’t know if another attack would come, or when, and lived under the continuing threat of anthrax and other domestic terrorism, but there was, at least for a while, a different, even if disturbed quality of life.

It seems to me that it is out of that kind of space that Luke’s Gospel is speaking and Luke is inviting us into.  The end of Luke’s discourse invites us to “watch at all times,” the end of this one commending endurance even in the face of suffering.

Soelle would warn us that endurance is hardest when we are not the one’s having to endure the suffering.  When it becomes someone else’s suffering then it is easy commend suffering or simply retreat into an apathy that says whatever we do won’t make much of a difference anyway.  In the end what can one man or woman do?  It is harder to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering.  And it is hard.  It is hard to sit with someone that is depressed, that is fearful, that is sick unto death.  To bear others pain with them is painful.  And to seek to change the structures that support suffering harder still.

[It is hard to be arrested in solidarity with Amadou Diallo, and others who have suffered, to make the system take note.  IT is hard to push for legislation that brings benefits to others when you are not personally affected.  It is even hard to pay a few dollars more for Fair Trade Coffee that supports farmers in places we have never seen, it is harder to commit to supporting orphans get schooling in Tanzania when one is worried about fees for things in New York.  It is harder to help out at the Soup Kitchen than it is to share a cup at coffee hour after Church, it is harder to commit to helping out those in the decimated areas of New Orleans, or even Bed-Sty. when we are wondering how we will pay our rent or mortgage here.]

Yet, after we have done the work of the people in worshipping God, it is this work that we are sent forth in the name of Christ to do, to be in solidarity with Christ in the world, in the poor, in the oppressed, and even to be in solidarity with the one who calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Such is the cost of discipleship, which many here live out day by day.  And each week as we are nourished by the broken body and the blood poured out, we too are poured out into our broken word, for what can seem like a hard task but in Christ is all too easy.  For what is offered to us at the altar is the love of God that we may “be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction,and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”

From this place we see not a sadistic God that visits suffering on us, or a call to masochistic suffering as an empty piety, nor yet an option of simply sinking into apathy, but a God who calls us to a faith, where our names are not written in a Book of Remembrance as righteous or left out as wicked but a God in whose righteousness, loves both Christians and Unbelievers, and calls us to re-member him as often as we break bread here together, that we might be the body of Christ to transform our suffering and broken world for the good of all.  From this place, even though we don’t know the day nor the hour, we have the chance of seeing Christ’s presence in the world each day and standing in solidarity with him.

I end with a poem from one who faced that which Luke warned of in the Gospel today.  The German Theologian and Nazi resister Deitrich Bonhoeffer penned these “words and wisdom” from prison.

Christians and Unbelievers.
Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead:
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead:
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goeth to every man when sore bestead,
Feedeth body and spirit with his bread,
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead:
And both alike forgiving.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

©2007 Storm Kirsten Swain