…Here’s a sermon I preached last Advent, when the Christian apocalyptic texts come up.
The season of Advent in the Christian church has two waiting themes: the first one is a sweet one: it’s waiting for Jesus’ first arrival on earth, that is, Christmas. The second one is a little…saltier. It’s about waiting for Jesus’ second arrival on earth, Judgment Day, the fabled Apocalypse at the end of human time. This is so not us. We are the practical, rational Christians. We like our Jesus human and kind and tweaking the world from within it with his lovely picnics and healings, not arriving with eyes blazing fire, his winnowing fork in his hand, whatever a winnowing fork is.
We’re about to hear a fragment of a long discourse Jesus gave on the end-times in Matthew’s gospel, an idea we’ve come to know as the Rapture. The Rapture is actually a late invention of the Christian right, cobbled together from a bit of the Book of Daniel, a smattering of Revelation, and a few fragments from the Gospels glued together with self-righteous conviction and very modern prejudices. But then we on the Left so metaphorize or ignore these teachings about the end-times that they cease to be a real thing for us, a thing deserving of attention, prayer, and even, fear, fear the way the Hebrew scriptures use the word, as in AWE. WONDERMENT. A big part of the spiritual life is about going where we don’t want to go, but as Tanya said, if we have company, it’s easier–so let’s go together to look at this text.
36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only Abba God. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
I remember the moment that our son Rafe became a bookworm. He was seven years old, and something just clicked for him. He started devouring all the books that had been sitting there on his shelves just pining for a kid to take an interest in them. One of them was a science book called “I Wonder Why…” Rafe was reading about the solar system one night before bed when he came running into our room, and he and his book climbed into bed with us. “I just learned that the sun is going to explode in 5 billion years,” he said, with contrived nonchalance. “When was this book written?”
Even those of us who know we have a few billion years left until the sun explodes, knows what it’s like to fear the end of the world. Many of us went to bed on November 8 with a miasmic dread that largely hasn’t left us since. We’re going on three weeks now of waiting and watching and wondering what’s going to happen next, who is going to suffer, and how, and when. It feels like the end of the world we know.
And though we’re not the kind of Christians to quote scripture as a triumphant prophecy-fulfillment, there is this very trenchant text, a couple verses before the scripture I just read from Jesus’ same sermon, that seems tailor-made for our times. Jesus said:
“For nation will rise against nation, and there will be famine and earthquakes in various places, all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs. Many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase in lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.”
Beloved, do you feel that we are in fact that nation rising up against itself? Say Amen. Do you feel the hatred and the betrayal Jesus spoke of like a chill deep in your bones? Say Amen. Have you seen on your news feeds the false prophets arising, leading many astray: the smiling preachers of the cult of the Christian Right, who have betrayed all that Jesus stands for by standing up for white straight male supremacy and countenancing violence against the bodies and spirits of God’s beloved? Say Amen.
Yes. Whether these texts are predictive or just proof that history keeps repeating itself, God knows exactly what we are like, and the weakness and violence to which we are given. The last year has been an ugly revelation of just how sexist, racist, xenophobic and homophobic our country still is. But not everybody was surprised by the turn of events on Election Day, nor by the acts of hatred and violence that have erupted since then. Many of the people of color I have been talking to said they knew all along that this demon was alive and well in our shadowside, just waiting for permission to express itself.
The rest of us, who thought we were #woke, well let’s just say there are degrees of woke. There’s always more woke. And one of the things we are now woke to is just how messed up things were under the surface of America. How many wounds there were, and how infected, and how ignorant and/or complacent we were in the face of them, because many of us could be complacent, sheltered from the worst of it. We had a black man as President for 8 years! We could just ride the arc of the universe all the way to justice. We thought, like the Jesus we love, that we could just tweak the world a little here and there, change the system from within, make a few phone calls and donations, and we’d be done.
The thing about the end of the world scenarios–we fear them because the status quo is kind of working for us. But the last month has been a painful reminder that the world wasn’t working for everybody. The world was in fact already ending for lots of people in lots of places, and the anxiety and wokeness into which we have been cast is purposeful–it puts us in solidarity with those who have been suffering and disenfranchised all along.
But now all the wounds are out there, exposed. Did you know that Apocalypse means: uncovering? We are living through a time of the Great Uncovering. We finally know who and what we are dealing with. To know this saps Apocalypse’s superstitious strength and makes it a balm. The street preacher William Barclay, who made it his life’s work to bind up the wounds of society’s castoffs, said of these apocalyptic texts that:
“They tell us that God has not abandoned the world; for all its wickedness, the world is still the scene in which God’s purpose is being worked out. It is not abandonment that God contemplates; it is intervention.
“They tell us that even a very crescendo of evil must not discourage us. An essential part of the Jewish picture of the Day of the Lord is that a complete breakdown of all moral standards and an apparent complete disintegration of the world must precede it. But, for all that, this is not the prelude to destruction; it is the prelude to reCreation.”
Let’s go to the text and see if we can’t find some evidence of this reCreation, shall we? I’m told there’s always some good news in there somewhere. Not that Jesus makes it easy to find. In fact, this story he tells about the so-called Rapture really makes me mad at him. He spends his whole life’s work messing with human perceptions of good and evil, and denying us the right to judge one another, and then in one paragraph plays right into the hands of millenia of fundamentalists.
First he reminds us of the flood and God’s ultimate destruction of humankind, no matter that God promised She would never do it again. Ever. Then he says two men will be working in a field, one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and the other left. Not only is he pandering to our worst ideas about God’s choosing favorites, he is reasserting gender roles! I am so disappointed.
And lest you think people don’t take this teaching seriously–I used to live in a little conservative Christian nook of super-liberal Massachusetts. The Left Behind book series was very popular there, and I’d see bumper stickers all the time that said “Come the Rapture, this car will be unmanned.” That annoyed me on two counts: number one, that the driver of the car ahead of me was dead certain that they were going to get picked for God’s team, and number two, that fake courtesy! Pretending that they were looking out for my safety, when all along they were really gloating that I was going to get cast into a lake of fire in the outer darkness while they ate bonbons with Jesus!
It would be easy to do a little feint-and-shuffle and just say that the fundamentalists are reading this scripture wrong. Clearly WE are the good guys and THEY are the bad guys because we hold love flash mobs and don’t open carry handguns in church. But this is just another assertion of the false binary, that dooms us to more violence, alienation, separation. I don’t want to live in a world of winners and losers anymore, a two-party system where the losers are always asked to shut up or go away.
Nor do I want to minimize the real and palpable differences between us. There are actual things that make us different. But they don’t have to divide us. It took about seventeen seconds after the election for some on the Left to fracture into factions: fighting about whose struggle was most important.
There is only one struggle: to be fully human, awake and alive and doing our best to love each other as God loves us.
Because God is not a zero-sum God. God did not make a world of winners and losers. That is our invention. All the evidence we have from the life and example of Jesus, from the first day he came as the baby that defied the odds to a full-grown man who loved even the enemies who killed him, suggests that none of us can be certain of our worthiness and therefore God has just decided to love us completely and recklessly and wholeheartedly, every single one of us, and when our days are over, bring us all Home.
Read in that light, here’s how I imagine the deleted scene from the end of the story Jesus gave us. Come the apocalypse, the fundamentalists of every faith are raptured up to Heaven. They are initially delighted, until they figure out they have to live for eternity with all the people who they thought were going to Hell.
Meanwhile the rest of us, progressive coreligionists, atheists, Nones, secular humanists, recovering centrists and people who like to read the New York Times on Sunday morning, we all get left behind. And, well, what’s wrong with getting left behind, especially if the fundamentalists are gone? Maybe this is God’s gift to us. Maybe this is the afterparty! Here we have bodies! We have pie for breakfast! We have three minute dance parties!
I know that’s the Molly gospel and not the Jesus gospel. I know that in the Jesus gospel, we don’t know when the end will come; it’s a mystery. Jesus tells us even he doesn’t know. And so the good news is that for now we have to find a way to live together as one people, stuck with each other just as God is stuck with us. We have to have to live every day with hope and vigor, as if it were the beginning of the beginning and NOT the beginning of the end, because if you have no idea when the end is coming, we’re always just beginning.
This is our day to live fully woke and throw our bodies into the work in the fields and at the grindstone! This is our day to be defiantly joyful in spite of all the evidence! This is the day to hope against hope! This is the day to tell the whole truth, to love our enemies into friendship, to put our privilege on the line, to shine a light into every dark corner including the shadows inside ourselves, to reveal all that needs revealing, to embody the Heaven we long for someday in the earthly here and now! Amen. Amen.