Readings: Isaiah 65.17-25; Luke 21.5-19
Before I begin, I want to clarify some labels that I will employ throughout. When I say “we” or “us,” I am primarily referring to those who regularly attend this church. However, because I know these people well, I know that most, perhaps all, voted for her, so it is not at all unfair to think that when I say “we” or “us,” I am referring to those who voted for her. Part of my task today is to provide some comfort to those who are heartbroken, including myself. I have definitely taken a side in this and I want to be honest about that. So, when I say “they” or “them,” I’m referring to those who voted for him. I want to assure anyone who voted for him that this is a sacred space where people speak as honestly as they can and give one another all the grace they can. Our aspiration is to always create a space for open dialog, so that we can come to mutual understanding and respect. You might have to undergo some extreme vetting before communion, but it’s nothing personal.
This is not the sermon I intended to give. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate to procrastinate, so I looked at today’s lectionary passages a couple of weeks ago. Luke tells us of the signs of the impending apocalypse and tells us what we will suffer along the way. Isaiah speaks to the Israelites returning from Babylonian exile to discover that others occupy the houses that they built, that someone else eats from the garden of their labors. I thought that I would be speaking from a place of victory. I thought I would describe, as honestly as I could, the experience of apocalypse and exile of the other side, the losers – in his parlance – so that we might be compassionate to our neighbors, the ones who would certainly find themselves disappointed, if not heartbroken and fearful. And yet…
The funny thing about an apocalypse is that we know neither the day nor the hour when it will strike. We don’t know if we will be the builders and gardeners one day and the exiles the next. It’s a shocking thing to wake up and realize that we are the aliens in this world. Now, it looks like the promise of hope that Isaiah offers, that we knew – we just knew – we were taking one step closer to, is actually still in the uncountable years ahead.
But the reason we rehearse this narrative of birth, death and rebirth, of creation and destruction and creation again, Christmas and Good Friday and Easter and Advent, the reason we tell this story over and over again is that, at some point, this is not a metaphor. I always expected the calamity would come with age and that, lying on my death bed, I would have the comfort and courage of knowing the story. I could confidently drift into oblivion without fear or regret. But calamity came early – for us. For them, calamity has been coming for a while. Oblivion has been right on the horizon for a long time.
I have attempted in the past few weeks and even since the election to engage my family, who decided to support him. They are they. The engagement has been on Facebook and many have cautioned me that this is not a place for dialog. However, this is the place we most often meet and communicate. I submit that we must learn to use it well, to have meaningful conversations over the cyber. For years, my family and I have simply ignored one another. They pretended not to see the den of iniquity I was living in, the path of sin I was taking us down. I scrolled right past the videos of the screeching blonde woman and the casual racism. We agreed to disagree. But that doesn’t produce understanding; it only thickens the walls of our bubbles. I decided to engage, mostly by asking questions, but also, as gently as I can, refusing to let untruths go unchallenged. We can’t simply abandon the possibility of holding facts in common. Through some difficult conversations and some additional reading, this is what I learned of their apocalypse.
First, there is a very real economic calamity in the rural United States. For much of the 20th century, ironically due to the progressive politics of organized labor, we had a thriving working class. You could get a job at the local factory, make a good wage, buy a house, and raise a family. My cousin, who is my mom’s age, by the time he finished his blue collar career, made good money, had a pension, and, between shift work and accrued vacation time, only worked about 100 days out of the year. His job mostly consisted of watching dials that only moved if there was a problem. So he spent most of his time at work peddling side businesses, whatever home sales product was in fashion. On the weekends, he went to the dump, picked out serviceable items for repair and sold them. With all of this, he had a house and a few acres. He had every toy he could imagine. My redneck cousin was the first person I knew to have HDTV and a satellite dish with movies on demand. It was a good life.
But over the last 30 years, that has ceased to be the case for communities like his. As we know, those blue collar jobs have moved overseas. Regardless of what anyone says, they are probably not coming back. You just can’t compete with those wages and the demands of investors for ever greater profits require CEOs to make the move or lose their jobs, golden parachutes notwithstanding. In many places, a town has one factory. When it closes, the town shuts down. That is the reality for many of his voters.
There is also, if we’re being honest, racial anxiety. White people have had a pretty good run. But by 2050, the United States will be majority non-white. White people, for the first time are having to confront the possibility that their success is not entirely due to their own labor. I heard one person say it this way: as a white person, you used to have to have a plan to fail; now you have to have a plan to succeed. There is now competition for the jobs they took for granted. And all these people complaining all the time, upset about things that happened 150 years ago. They are made to feel guilty for things they didn’t even do. They are tired of the accusations, the snide mocking of the Hollywood elite and the academics. Of course, few people think they are racists because racists are bad people – and they are not bad people. They’re right; they are not bad people. I know my family to be kind and generous, always willing to help a person in need. However, there seem to be limits to their kindness and generosity. As with all of us, it is usually reserved for the people nearest us. It can even cross racial lines because you and the black people in your little town have an understanding. They have the chance to be one of the good ones, as long as they are polite and respectful. It’s the others, the ones on TV making trouble in Baltimore and Ferguson and Dallas, Texas, that are the problem. They are the sign of things to come. We can’t make light of this anxiety. It is a real sense of loss that we gain nothing by mocking.
Finally, there is a spiritual anxiety shaped by a very particular theology. Yes, it is fundamentalist and it is evangelical, but it is more than that. It is, in may ways, the antithesis of the way that we talk about God at Church in the Cliff. It buys completely into the hierarchy. It sees God as an actor in history, sitting on the throne of judgment. They are always on the lookout for the apocalypse and they know that our nation’s sin will trigger it. It seems that their faith has centered on two things: abortion and gay rights. They truly fear that, if our nation continues on its path of tolerance for those things, God’s judgment will be rendered. Worse, if they don’t combat this slide at every turn, their souls and the souls of their loved ones are in jeopardy. Eternal life is at stake here. Again, we can disagree, but we can’t mock their fear. A failure to understand these things, to speak meaningfully to these things is what gave us him.
This man came along and took God’s name in vain – truly – and said, “I am the One.” He spoke of culture wars and minority insurrections and they were terrified. He told them that the time was near, the time that their temple would be torn down, and they followed after him. He told them he could bring manufacturing back. He told them their economic anxiety was the fault of a host of others – non-white others, non-Christian others. He told them he would give them judges that would stop our slide into immorality and spare us from God’s judgment, earthly judges to keep the ultimate judge at bay. Because we had no answer to these claims, because we wrote their concerns off as silly or perverse, who could they follow but him?
Luke’s Jesus tell us in the NRSV not to be terrified. However, it’s one of those words that a translator could take in a lot of directions. It suggests being startled, like when Lisa doesn’t hear me come into the kitchen and suddenly turns around to find me there. So we could say, “Don’t be surprised.” Don’t be surprised when these things happen. This is reinforced by the claims that all of this is necessary. The Inclusive translation chooses to say, “Don’t be perturbed.” I had to look up the precise definition, but one meaning is “to throw into great disorder.” This is an entirely different, yet still rich word. I can imagine many of us feel as though we have been thrown into great disorder. This is the nature of apocalypse: the world is thrown into disorder where everything you thought you knew is no more.
We were surprised and we were thrown into disorder and now we are terrified. We are hearing of culture wars and white racist insurrections. We know that with trade wars and broken alliances nations will rise against nations. We know that unlimited fracking will cause more earthquakes. We know that climate change will create more famines and plagues. These are dreadful portents and signs from heaven. We know that all the progress we’ve made in the last 50 years is under attack. We know that we are at risk of violence, that our families may be torn apart by deportation or the dissolution of our marriages. We know that we face death, whether by policy or police or pogrom. Worst of all, we know that we have been betrayed by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends.
So feel your fears. Accept them. Because they are real. Luke warns us of what is to come. When you take on the name of God, the name of Christ and Sophia and the Word and the Light of the World and the Bread of Life, of Allah and Buddha and Krishna – by whatever name you call that which orders the world toward good – when you take on that name, there will be resistance. When you act for justice, when you build those houses and plant those gardens, you will be brought before the powers and principalities of this world and held to account. You will be held to account for not getting along, for disruption of business as usual, for rebellion against the status quo, for indecency in the public square, for impoliteness at the family table. You should be afraid because the calling of God is into the place of conflict, into the pain and suffering of the world. You should be afraid because Jesus came, not to bring peace, but a sword, a sword that divides brother from sister, parent from child, cousin from cousin, and friend from friend. If we do the things we ought to do, we might lose the people that we love, people who are invested in the status quo, invested in the way the world is with no imagination of what it might be – constantly looking backward rather than forward. It hurts.
It hurts to lose them, but it also hurts to know they could not see a future with you in it as you truly are. Turning back the clock, making America great again, implies that we were great when you were not, when you didn’t exist. When you hid away in the corners of the Black Cat Lounge and the Stonewall Inn, we were great. When you served us dinner and mopped our floors, your eyes downcast and speech deferential, we were great. When you made our grapes and our lettuce magically appear in our grocery stores, freshly washed of any reminder of you, we were great. When you stopped speaking your mother’s tongue and wearing the clothes she made you, we were great. When you stayed at home baking cookies and standing by your man – then we were great. If we were just more like them, behaved in the ways they demand, loved the people they love – and convert or conquer the rest – we – all of us – would be great again. It is as though your existence, living into the truth of who you are without shame or fear – that is what caused us to go astray.
Feel your fears and your grief, but don’t let them consume you. Give yourself a chance to grieve; allow yourself to be angry. This will also give a moment to let things play out, to see if moderating forces can be brought to bear on the one that says, “I am the One.” I also don’t want to cede the power of good and the hope of justice. This is not a time for despair, but a time to work because we believe in the promise of Isaiah, that there will be no more weeping or cries for distress. We believe that we can be reconciled, that the wolf will lie down with the lamb. But we also believe that the serpent must be content to crawl on the ground and eat nothing but dust. Whatever hurts or destroys has no place on God’s holy mountain.
So what do we do? How do we come back from exile?
First, we take on God’s name. We continue to practice justice. We continue to stand with those who are threatened and assaulted. This alone provides a witness to the name we claim as our own. Many will come in God’s name, but we must not allow people to be fooled. In the living of our lives, we provide testimony to God’s goodness.
Second, we must actually testify. We will be called to account. When we are, Luke’s Jesus tells us not to prepare a defense. It could be read to mean that we should just wing it, that the Holy Spirit will magically move our tongues and flap our lips and everyone will be convinced of our righteousness. Does that really happen? Instead, I wonder if the call here is to be open to the moment, vulnerable to the person standing right in front of you. We’ve all had those conversations where both parties simply rehearse the arguments they have had a million times. You’re not even listening to each other. You’re just waiting for the other person to stop talking, so you can make point number three in your surefire winning argument. Does it ever work? But if you really listen to one another, really pay attention and make yourself present, you hear more than any argument could tell. Behind the “they took our jobs” rhetoric is a father struggling to feed his family or a mother who doesn’t have time to help her kids with their homework. Behind the racial anxiety is a kind of isolation. Behind the fear of judgment is a lack of alternatives. In our lives and in our speech, we can be that alternative, our loving engagement can be the remedy to that isolation. Nothing transforms the other like real relationship, being present to their pain and their wonder and allowing them into ours. They cannot withstand this; they cannot contradict it. Because it’s not an argument; it’s a relationship.
If we do these things, we will gain our souls. We will be able to stand without fear or regret in the full truth of who we are as God’s children. Only then can we have reconciliation. Only when we regard one another fully, only when we bind our lives together in mutual respect can the wolf and the lamb feed together and the lion share straw with the ox.
Never give up on the promise! We did not know when the apocalypse would come and we do not know when the promise will be fulfilled, but we must always live into that hope. If we do, it will certainly come sooner. If we build and plant, then we might live and eat. We will not labor in vain and our children will not be born to calamity. And we’ll do it together. There will no longer be an us and a them. We will all be a we; we will all be us. That is our hope and God’s promise and I believe it to be true because this is not a metaphor.