The Church of the Ascension, NYC
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Elizabeth G. Maxwell
November 13, 2016
Luke 21: 5-19
Let us pray.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p. 815)
This will give you an opportunity to testify.
The moment we find ourselves in and the testimony it calls for may not have been one we would have asked for or chosen, but nevertheless, Jesus says it is an opportunity, through which we may gain our souls.
In our response we may not be so different from the disciples in Luke’s gospel this morning. Imagine them there in the Temple, with Jesus in the midst of the crowd he has been drawing with his teaching since his impressive arrival in Jerusalem. The Temple is the heart of Israel’s life, though it is still under construction. It is the place where the presence of the holy, in beauty and tradition, is palpable, and where national identity is nourished. It is for Jesus a place of worship, of teaching and of controversy with religious authorities- remember that when he came to the temple, he took a whip to those who sold things there and drove them out, and “from that time on… the leaders.. kept looking for a way to kill him…”.
As the disciples look about, marveling at the beautiful stones, the shining gold and glorious structure dedicated to God, Jesus says it’s all going to come down. “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.” What they see is not lasting.
Can you feel the shock of that word? Perhaps we who cherish this sacred space, and who are genuinely nourished by its beauty, can empathize with the punch to the gut. We look at the wonders of art and architecture, and feel the strength, power and tradition they invoke, but they are not, finally, what endures, nor where our hope lies. In the words of our processional hymn, “Mortal pride and earthly glory, sword and crown betray our trust. Though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust. But God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.”
What does this mean, in their time and in ours?
To make this text still more interesting, Luke is actually writing after the destruction of the temple. That devastation happened in 70 CE, as the Romans put down a Jewish rebellion against the Empire. Some 15-20 years later, Luke is looking backwards rather than forwards. He presents Jesus’ words not as prediction so much as reflection on what has occurred. As such, he uses the language and imagery of apocalyptic, a type of religious writing very common in his day. The word apocalypse means revelation or uncovering; it speaks of catastrophes, both human and natural, through which God’s people must endure faithfully, looking into a future they can barely perceive, awaiting the new thing that God will do. Such disasters, in fact, have occurred many times in our history. Wars, earthquakes, famines; conflicts in nations, communities and families. They do reveal what has been hidden, often- what has been hidden about us, our sin and our capacity for goodness and change. They reveal our vulnerability and our courage, our violence, our betrayals, and our fidelity in love. They give an opportunity to testify to what is most central in our faith. Most central in our lives.
Jesus, even as he acknowledges how hard things may get, tells the disciples, and us, not to be afraid. As he so often does. Literally, he says, “don’t be terrified.” He too has faced persecution, arrest, and even death because of his testimony to the love of God. He shows us how to do it. And he says that if we are faithful, we will gain our souls. As I understand it, that means that we will know, despite our struggle and confusion, that in the depth of our beings that we are held in God’s love. And God, though we may not know how, God is at work even in the apocalypse, even in the most horrible circumstances, always seeking the healing, the flourishing of creation.
Hear me carefully: I did not say that God causes or wills the horror, the catastrophe. But God, even when we do not perceive her, loves us and is able to bring hope out of despair, love out of hatred, meaning out of futility, life out of death. And in that work, God uses us, our testimony. So Jesus says, “you will gain your souls.”
For some of us, the results of the election this past week have left us reeling as from the destruction of the world we thought we knew. Surely deep division has been revealed in our national life. I would never tell you how to vote- that is not my job, nor my right, God knows- but in the aftermath surely our call as Christians is to pray for our nation, for our fellow citizens, especially those with whom we disagree- and especially for our president-elect, that he may, as he said in his speech on Wednesday, be the president for all Americans.
At the same time, the hateful language that marked so much of Mr. Trump’s campaign- language that trivialized sexual assault against women, that demeaned people with disabilities and the LGBT community, that threatened immigrants and people of color, that sought to exclude and profile our Muslim neighbors- this must not stand as we move forward. Especially as, over the last few days, we have heard reports of attacks on our fellow citizens and the strangers within our gates, as we hear that vulnerable people are afraid for their safety, their relationships, their bodily integrity- we must stand up and speak out. We must testify, not to partisan politics, but to the love of God for all people. We must testify again and again, with all the courage and creativity we can muster, speaking in solidarity with our words and our lives- that God cares for every single one of us, especially for those who are most vulnerable. We must also testify to the preciousness of God’s endangered creation, on which our life together depends, and which is entrusted to our stewardship, our care.
As it happens, we have 2 baptisms today- a great joy for this community, and an opportunity for us all to renew the vows by which we live, and which point a way forward for our witness.
We promise to resist the evil that corrupts and destroys the beloved creatures of God. Racism. Violence in our deeds and words. Greed. The objectification and abuse of women and children. Homophobia and transphobia. All the ways we see our neighbors as “other”, and less than, less worthy of care, opportunity and respect. The spoiling of the earth. We renounce, repent of, and promise to resist them.
We vow, with God’s help, to ground ourselves in community and the things that nourish our faith: the sacred stories of scripture and of our own lives, prayer with and for each other, and sharing life-giving bread and wine from Christ’s table.
We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons- not only nice people, and not only those with whom we agree. In fact, it is especially urgent that we see that of God which is in those we are tempted to regard as enemies- praying for them and willing them good may be the best we can do as we start. We are to love our neighbors- all our neighbors- as we love ourselves.
And, we commit ourselves to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being. As we take one step and then the next, we pray to see which particular part of that work is uniquely ours to do.
Dear brothers and sisters, we will have the opportunity to testify. Don’t be afraid. Let us stand together as church, and with all people of faith and good will. Let us find ways to support each other and to reach out beyond our own walls. This is a soul-making time.
I want to say a few words to our baptismal families, who may be feeling like they are getting more than they bargained for! What demanding commitments to make for such little people, no matter what the external circumstances. Yet like us all, they will grow into their faith, exploring who they are, what they believe and how they want to live, their whole lives long. Part of your testimony, as parents and godparents, is to share the love of God with Will and Bennett. We want to keep them safe. We want that for all we love, and especially for our little ones. But baptism does not invite safety in a conventional sense. Instead, in the deepest way, it acknowledges the claim of God’s love on our lives, and marks us as Christ’s own forever. We pledge to follow Jesus in the way of risky and life-giving love. We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, enlivened by the Spirit of Jesus, made part of the body of Jesus- and commissioned to be the heart and hands of love in the world.
You promise, today, to testify to that immense love, both for you and, through you, for others- as a vital gift to your children. I trust that helped in large part by your prayers and witness, they will grow up faithful, courageous, and loving.
And church, we are called to commit ourselves to stand with these families- with Katie and Michael, with Melissa and Matthew, in testifying to Jesus’ love for these precious children, and for every child of God.
Last week we celebrated the feast of All Saints. This week, I have found myself thinking of our forebears in faith who faced opportunities to testify more harrowing than our own. The early Christians who proclaimed Jesus as Lord in the face of the Roman Empire. The desert fathers and mothers who offered a wilderness alternative to corruption in the church. Reformers who faced death for seeking to worship in their own languages, according to their consciences. The martyrs of Memphis- 19th century nuns who would not abandon people dying of and orphaned by yellow fever, though many became sick themselves. The good villagers of Le Chambon, France, who as a community saved literally thousands of Jews from the Nazis. The civil rights heroes of our own country. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and in our witness we draw strength from their example, and mysteriously, from their prayers.
As you know, our 7 pm service features readings from many traditions. For last week’s celebration, I found a poem by the great Sufi mystic Hafiz entitled “A Golden Compass.” In it, he calls his hearers to join the band of God’s saints- a rag-tag, unlikely bunch, not necessarily proper or even conventionally nice, but distinguished by their utter need for divine love and grace. The lines that touched me most were these:
Come, join the courageous
Who have no choice
But to bet their entire world
Indeed, God is real.
My friends, let that be our testimony.
God is real. And we will stand and proclaim God’s real love and justice for all creation, and for every single human being.