A sermon preached November 13, 2016, at St. Luke's, Madison, on the following Scripture readings:
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Each of us carries expectations and dreams for how, in our lives, “it’s” supposed to go. Early on, “it” may be the daily rhythm in our homes: expressions of nurture, comfort and love; experiences of authority, judgment, and freedom. Then there’s the question of schooling, the institutions we’ll attend and the coursework we’ll take. Our parents likely managed a good bit of these expectations for us, but make no mistake, expectations were there. At a certain age, “it” may be a wedding, who will attend, what kind of cake, and what each member of the bridal party will wear. Sometimes “it” is what comes after the wedding and school, the jobs we’ll work and the trajectory of your career.
Of course, it never goes exactly as we plan - there are promotions and unexpected moves and times you feel stuck - but there’s still the expectation of a certain life shape and the reasons you have for why that shape is important to you.
Sometimes “it” is the family you build along the way, or the decision not to build a family. Two point four children, on average, preferably in a home you can own. Sometimes “it” is your health or the health of your partner or spouse, because health is important for almost all the other plans you might make. Sometimes “it” is maintaining your sobriety or keeping some other promise to yourself and those you love. Sometimes “it” is caring for your parents as they grow older, or being cared for by your children as you grow old. Again, you don’t know exactly how it will go, but you have some ideas you prefer over others. Sometimes “it” involves your hopes for your church, your community of faith, what flourishing will look like, and what will be true of you and your community as you grapple with new realities and the challenges of a post-Christian culture. Other times, “it” means your city or country and your expectations for an election. We all had expectations, some now have celebrations, others now fear for their place in the future of this country. Because each of us carries expectations and dreams for how “it’s” supposed to go. Now, it’s fair to say, one, these expectations aren’t bad things by themselves, in fact, they are important to know and name when we have them and, two, things don’t always go as we expect.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus confronts his followers with their own expectations about how Israel is supposed to go. Israel is supposed to be mighty and all victorious. David’s kingdom is to last forever. True, that kingdom is still intact, but for the last hundreds of years, what has counted for Israel’s kingdom is only what the occupying foreign power allows. Israel eats the crumbs of Rome’s pity. Israel is a paper kingdom dependent on other kingdoms.
The temple is at the heart of Israel’s self-understanding of its kingdom and the promise of God to bless and keep Israel. Never mind that God had appeared ambivalent at best when Israel first brought up the subjects of a king and a temple. “Are you sure?” God had asked. “Are you sure you’re sure?” Somewhere along the line, though, Israel came to believe that the continued existence of the temple was the only way forward for it to still be Israel at all. As Jesus sits on the steps of the temple this morning with his disciples, Israel can’t imagine a future that doesn’t look like the only future Israel imagines.
Speaking into Israel’s silent fears, Jesus announces it will all come down. Every last stone. But God is still faithful. God still watches over Israel. Israel is at a loss to understand what Jesus means. And we’ve been there with Israel. We’ve stared down the question of how one begins to move forward after the unthinkable happens, when the imagined, hoped for, future is lost. After the death of a child. After the divorce. After the lost job. After the kids move across country. After the election, when the political movement you had hoped in has stalled. After the church conflict. After you first hurt someone you love in a way that, once upon a time, you could never have dreamed, and the harm is real and lasting. After the diagnosis. After the temple falls.
Jesus’ response to the prospect of the temple’s fall and Israel’s deep disappointment about a future Israel can no longer envision is to remind Israel of four things:
• This is not the end.
• Do not be terrified.
• To continue, to persevere, in the meantime, will be costly and will sometimes hurt.
• You will be given opportunities to testify - to tell others about - the God who loves you, protects you, is with you, and will give you the words you need at the just right time.
Depending on the situation and the level of one’s disappointment, the news that “this is not the end” can be admittedly hard news to receive. The way forward seems too painful. All feels lost. Some days, we want to say to the mountains, “Fall on us! And to the hills, cover us!” But Jesus names the difficult way forward as the place of new possibilities, the place of the previously unimagined future. The space, even, of resurrection. Indeed, when in the other gospels, Jesus says, “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days,” and he’s talking about himself, his own body, we are reminded that Jesus, in his death on a cross on Good Friday, took his disciples to the very edge, to the end, of all they could see and hope for, the death of their Savior. They wept at the cross, not knowing the ending. It was the end of belief. But then, through the women on that first, dark Easter morning, God’s people discovered that, where there seemed to be no way, God had made a way. What looked like the end was not the end at all.
And in that moment the angels whispered, “Don’t be afraid.” It is good to remember that the way we live in love toward each other, the way we hold up the Gospel of the angels for each other, can speak God’s love into places of understandable fear, whether our own fears or those of others. Our love toward each other, lived in our flesh, can remind others of the love with which God still holds us, after the temple falls. If we suffer after the time that isn't the end and the suffering we experience comes because we are standing with and loving our neighbors in ways that are costly and breathes love onto fear, that suffering, Jesus says, is holy. It’s the love Jesus commends to his friends on the night before he dies, when he says, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Loving each other through fear and suffering will almost certainly involve speaking words we can’t know how to prepare in advance. Thank God for Jesus’ assurance that we will not be alone when we come alongside the loneliness of our sisters and brothers, whatever the disappointment. God also is with us, giving us the same promise God gave Moses some thousands of years ago in the famous bargaining session beside the burning bush; the same promise God poured out like fire on the disciples as they waited, afraid, behind locked doors for the power to preach and proclaim the Good News of Jesus.
In this life, there will be terrible things you did not sign up for and cannot control, much less did not expect, Jesus says. “But that won’t be the end. Don’t be terrified, keep on at it, stand with the others in their fear. Love one another. And speak the words I’ll give you.”
Finally, a story to remind us to listen to the disappointments of others, not just our own; to be present to the grief of fallen temples that were not ours at first. I remember a conversation some students and I shared with an elder of the Lakota people five years ago in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He was explaining the dreams - the beautiful dreams - his forebears had to be a mighty nation, a great kingdom. Dreams for their children and their children’s children, of which this elder was one. When white Europeans arrived, for lots of reasons, not a little of which was disdain and deceit, the dream of that kingdom died. A people’s future was stolen. As he told the story, the elder gradually shared his definition of forgiveness, which he described as a life-long project. “Forgiveness,” he said, “is giving up all hope for a better, different past.” Such forgiveness does not come easily. If it comes at all, it comes because God’s people discover, through God’s continued presence with them, the resources we need to choose to be present to a present we did not choose. Among those resources is Jesus’ four-fold reminder this morning:
• This is not the end.
• Do not be terrified.
• Know that to continue, to persevere in Christ’s love, in the meantime, will be costly and will sometimes hurt.
• You will be given opportunities to testify - to tell others about - the God who loves you, who protects you, who is with you, and who will give you the words you need at the just right time.
Endure in this way, Jesus says, and you will gain your souls.