I should also get Jessica’s excellent (no bias!) stewardship message posted.
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
The way of the Christ is our past, present, and future—just as we confess at communion: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We embrace Christ and our past in him even as he opens us for God’s promise to Isaiah: “I am doing a new thing.” So our focus today is to be open to the future and what is new.
But we don’t have to be like the futurists who anxiously look for signs of what is to come and try to adjust our sails to whatever new wind blows in. Earlier, we confessed our faith in the Holy Spirit; that is the only wind we sail by. And we believe the Spirit is always different and new, but also always the same Spirit as the one Jesus Christ breathed on his disciples. So we draw our principles from the past, and apply them creatively to the present. We can keep an eye on the future, without getting too worked up about signs and portents. Mostly we live in the flesh-and-blood present.
That’s pretty much the message we get in our (admittedly strange) reading from Luke today: the future holds some dreadful portents, but don’t lose your head. Trials will give you a chance to testify, to show your faith, and to gain your souls. When that time comes, don’t get all anxious about what to say, don’t rehearse for the new, because by then your message will be dated anyway. But when that time comes, Jesus tells us, as you live in me, so let me speak for you.
Luke wrote his gospel when the world seemed to be ending. Jerusalem and the temple had recently been destroyed by Rome in 70 (which Luke refers to in the verse after our reading). Before the insurrection and brutal crackdown were over, perhaps 2 million lay dead on all sides. But God brought healing and new life out of that total catastrophe. Do we think our current crisis is beyond God’s salvation?
God will deliver our age too, I believe. But we must be prepared to let go of our present, of who we are. We need to embrace a new future; instead we may find ourselves digging in to our disgruntled pessimism. We cling unhappily to our current options, but we must be willing to let these pass. That mighty Roman world perished. The medieval world that replaced Rome slowly evaporated. Our age of tolerant democracy is teetering. But the Christian faith (as well as Judaism) has been preserved and reborn again and again. It has changed enormously from age to age. Yet because our faith does not live for itself, neither can it perish.
But every age, every nation, and every church that tries to live for itself, for its own power and prestige and self-interest, inevitably perishes. “Those who want to save their life will lose it.” I take that wise saying of Jesus to mean that those who wish to preserve me and us against you and them will inevitably lose; they always have.
But as we saw, that doesn’t mean that the futurists who race ahead to leave who we are now behind always do right. Our society’s future seems to hang on a dreadful balance between those who want to assert ourselves against “them,” and those who carry very high-minded ideals of openness to others, of tolerance and acceptance; ideals that are international and cosmopolitan, which in many ways sound like our Gospel. (Indeed, I can understand how some pastors confuse the two). But as these two sides push each other apart in a political shoving match, the nationalists look more and more bigoted, and the cosmopolitans look more and more snobbish, very quickly trying to outdo one another in being woke. The nationalists are the more brutal side in embracing their us vs. them; while the cosmopolitans really want to be open to others, but they end up looking hypocritical—they are not as open as they claim to be. Each side operates with their own us vs them, and more and more they are becoming each other’s them. And that angry energy is all getting funneled and magnified into national politics, into an Armaggedon between Democrat and Republican. That’s happening not only here, but all around the world: Great Britain, Europe, Israel—the way of liberal democracy is just about everywhere under trial.
It is scary to hear about wars and insurrections, especially when cooperative action on climate change hangs gets caught up in this political war, promising quite real famines and plagues to come. What is going to hold us all together in this frightening future that seems already upon us?
What Jesus said then stands even more true today: do not be terrified. There is an organization that exists in every town of this country, and indeed in every nation of the world. This organization welcomes everyone and seeks especially the lost and those who are not welcome other places. It seeks to bring people together around a table to live like family, practicing face-to-face belonging instead virtual “communities of preference.” No, I’m not talking about MacDonald’s. It’s the church! We are universal but also very local. And our world’s warring impulses of us vs. them will only be reconciled by practicing local, embodied, face-to-face reconciliation and learning to love again, while also being a genuine international, global community—your family and your nation can’t do that. The church uniquely follows a global, universal way of life that is genuinely local, a genuine “us” in the flesh, welcoming all kinds of people and all ages into a shared path of transformation toward oneness with God. (And to make good on being global, we need our denominational covenant with the UCC. Or does God live only in Granby?)
I say this as one who believes in the church’s future; but we’re not there yet. The church is only starting to equip itself for this future, for the healing of the nations. We’ve been terribly complicit in the various factions and interests of the world. We’ve been seduced into seeking to force others to be Christian and we’ve put down other faiths; but then, in our rush to distance ourselves from the sins of our past (and those of our evangelical nemesis), we nearly lost our identity in Christ, preferring the vagueness of “faith” or “doing good.” Our future, I think, lies in being true to our past, the only legitimate foundation of which is Jesus the Christ who perfected the art of being embodied and local as well as global and universal. But others have their own way of being local and universal. All religions and even secular movements are capable of this. I can continue to believe that Jesus perfected it even while appreciating how others offer their own version, and often do it better than Jesus’ own followers have done. What matters is the practice of it, and we can admire and learn from others there.
These global issues that are hard to get a handle on. If I’m not making them clear, don’t worry. Just know that you are in the right place. The future of the nations and the kingdoms and the parties is indeed bleak. But do not be terrified, although our media knows that’s what keeps us glued to our screens. The “dreadful portents” we see will be our opportunity to testify. And if the church makes up its mind to not rehearse the same old message but allows Christ to be our words and wisdom anew, none of the warring sides will be able to withstand our way of peace.
I believe in the church we will become. I believe the church has a future, because I believe the church is the future—that future in which “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together.”