Grace and peace.
Thank you for the welcome St Andrew’s has extended to St Francis House, to be with you across the morning. It is good to be with friends, and I am especially grateful for all that St Andrew's does to cultivate your relationship with SFH. Father Andy, of course, serves on the SFH Board, many of you have provided meals on Sunday evenings, others of you are alumni of the House or friends through the university. But for those of you who may not know, St Francis House is the Episcopal Student ministry of our diocese to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The students and I will be with you all morning. Some of us were especially keen to learn that Sundays have mornings. We’re very glad to be sharing this one with you.
In the 2009 film adaptation of the popular children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, Max, the boy in the wolf suit who makes mischief of one kind and another, says to one of his monster friends: Carol, did you know the sun was gonna die?
Carol: What? I never heard that... Oh, come on. That can't happen. I mean you're the king, and look at me, I'm big! How can guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun, hmm?
But you and I know that Max was right: one day the sun will die. Moreover, that the sun will die signals, for some, the end of any meaning that finally matters. A friend of mine likes to tease his teenage daughters when they get too caught up in any one of life’s many particulars: “In ninety years,” he tells them, “we’ll all be dead. It doesn’t really matter, does it?” When the same can be said of the universe - though in a few more than ninety years - in what sense does it make sense to talk about meaning?
Of course, the end of the universe does not necessarily signal the end of meaning. A professor in seminary liked to remind us that we Christians worship a God who promises to kill us all in the end. That is, faith in the God of Jesus is not surprised by the fact that there will be an end.
Truthfully, many of us are ambivalent about the end of the world. We know that we do not want to die, but also that we do not have the strength to keep this up forever. For some of us, especially parents of young children, the suggestion that we might, one day at least, rest in peace, is good and welcome news.
So here we are, two more weeks until Advent, almost to the end, at least of our liturgical calendar. And our scriptures come to us this morning preparing us to contemplate the end and also Christ’s coming again in glory.
When Christians think about the end, we think about those things our lives anticipate. Our Old Testament lesson from Daniel reminds us that, as much as we anticipate Christmas vacation, the end of the semester, the next season of American Idol, or Jersey Shore, God’s people are given freedom for a deeper longing:
“...at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
Over against Dancing with the Stars, Daniel foretells that those who lead many to righteousness will be made like the stars.
When Christians think about the end, we think about those things we anticipate. We learn to confess the paltry substitutes around which, in the absence of meaningful hope, we order our lives. Worship of Red States and Blue States, for example, surely betrays our fear that the end will not end with the conquering Lamb who is King. And how does truth compel Christians to speak about our worship of college football? Perhaps it is best not to ask. Put differently, when you catch me on the street and ask me if I have plans, what I am looking forward to this week, why isn’t my first answer “Holy Eucharist”? And why, if that was my first answer, would the most charitable reading of that answer likely be, “He’s a little eccentric”?
But here, at the Eucharist, we Christians learn to anticipate the prayer “on earth as it is in heaven,” and so we learn to long deeply, like Daniel. When Christians think about the end, we think about those things our lives anticipate, the things for which we long. Daniel frees us for a deeper longing.
To long deeply takes courage. To hope, to lean into the contingent future of God, leaves one vulnerable, especially to things like delay and disappointment. In the gospel lesson, Jesus warns his followers - the same followers who are in the process of being disappointed by the shape of Jesus’ kingship - that the end will not come as quickly as they would like: “Beware,” he says, “that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” It seems strange that the most significant thing Jesus says about the end is that this is not it. We are called to long deeply and wait patiently.
That we are called to long deeply and wait patiently leaves us especially vulnerable, Jesus says, to those who would announce the end before we get there.
There are, I think, at least two kinds of unhelpful complacency in life. The first kind happens when you don’t think the promised end will come and the second kind happens when you’re sure that it has, i.e., coasting to the finish. I’m not sure one is preferable to the other. Despair, on the one hand, and presumption, on the other, seem equally at odds with the Christian vocation to holiness. We require both Daniel’s reminder that our hope is true, and Jesus’ warning not to start coasting too soon.
If you’ll humor me a moment: since moving to Madison from South Texas just over two months ago now, I have become something of a Mapquest addict and an expert at getting lost. An iPhone upgrade has recently given me the benefit of Siri’s voice lovingly intoning my every upcoming turn, but prior to the upgrade, I was left reading the direction in printed list form: turn left in 436 feet, another left to take the highway in 0.7 miles. And one day, as I reflected on my many adventures getting lost, I observed that it was almost always for turning too soon. Never the other way around. “It says in 0.3 miles...I know I haven’t seen that street, but surely I’ve gone that far...feels like I’ve been driving for ever.” Pressures of time and lateness get the best of me, I’ve found. I begin to second guess the directions I’ve been given and also my ability to read them. I find that I need a voice next to me, whispering: Not yet. Press on. Don’t give up. Keep going.
I think Jesus is encouraging his disciples along this line when he warns them about the signs that do not mean the end has come. The writer of Hebrews is likewise encouraging us in this manner when he exhorts the baptized faithful to hold fast to the confession of their hope, to remember the faithfulness of God, and then - my favorite part - to provoke one another to love and good deeds (a wonderful phrase!), not neglecting to meet, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Collectively, these voices meet us, we who long for, but have not reached, the promised end for God’s people; they gather around us, surround us, and whisper: press on. Keep it up. Keep going. Go! Stay the good course, don’t let up, trust in God. You aren’t there yet, but that’s because the road is long, not because you missed the exit. Long deeply. Live truly. Anticipate fully. Keep the faith.
Provoke one another in love, break bread as often as you can. Learn to relish the anticipation of the Eucharist. Remember that, though the sun may die and the universe end, you are indwelled by the Love that first moved the sun and the stars and his Kingdom will have no end. Remember your place in that Kingdom. Yes, above everything else, and this is our end, remember your baptism.