Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, November 13, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 23

Pentecost 23, 2022
Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, this is quite a collection of readings this morning, I think you’ll agree.  To quote Gimley: Certainty of death; small chance of success.  What are we waiting for?

We don’t have sufficient time to fully deal with the reading from second Thessalonians, but I feel like I have to say something. It really needs its own 40 minute sermon, which you won’t be getting from me.  But it is important to remember that not everything in the Bible has equal weight.  A letter written by an apostle to the church in some city is not the same as the words spoken by Jesus in one of the four gospels.  Whatever this Thessalonians reading is, it is not the heart of Christianity. It most certainly is not what Jesus taught.

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  It sounds like something we intuitively agree with, which is why it’s so dangerous. It fits with how we view the world. We pass laws saying parents receiving government assistance must also work while also watching their children.  And it’s a quick slippery slope to talking about the “worthy poor,” which somehow implies the existence of the “unworthy poor.”  And don’t even get me started on that blasphemous concept!  But we can see that this is not the message of Christianity by just asking a few questions . . .

If those who don’t work should not eat, explain to me the parable of laborers in the field, where those who show up at closing time get the same amount as those who worked all day.  Or, how has Mary “chosen the better way” by just sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha toils in the kitchen?  Or, taken to it’s extreme, why should we ever feed babies or our pets, since they clearly haven’t worked a day in their lives?

This reading is a red herring for Christians. Don’t believe the hype.  Whoever wrote second Thessalonians was writing to a specific group of people experiencing specific problems in a specific time and place.  We are not those people.  So let me just say this:  People who do not work still deserve to eat, no matter what you just heard in this reading.  Rant over.

Now, about that Luke reading.  In some ways, this is the perfect Gospel text for our politically troubled and divisive times.  Some people see what has been happening in our country as a good and proper thing.  And others sense that everything has been torn down.  We are in one of those times where two people can look at the same exact thing and yet somehow see exactly the opposite.  Some see a restoration of goodness, and others despair over something that has already been thrown down.  And the problem with both those views is that we are putting our trust in things human.  We are putting our hopes in things that will ultimately pass away, whether those things are currently ascending or descending.  We cling to what is fleeting and temporary, just as the disciples did.

But, Jesus says, “do not be terrified.”    We are used to Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid.”  He says that a lot.  But here, he says “do not be terrified”—or, what he actually says is, “may you not be terrified.”  These things will happen, yes.  And when they do, may you not be terrified.  Personally, I prefer that Jesus says “may you” here.  Because when he says “do not be afraid,” that sounds more like a command . . . like it’s up to us to do that thing.  But “may you not be terrified” sounds more like a blessing to my ear.  “May you find peace” as opposed to “FIND PEACE!”  But I digress.

When we hear or read this part of Luke, we get focused on the destruction and despair.  The wars and insurrections, the nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  We fixate on the great earthquakes, and famines and plagues, and dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.  You know, the timeline we’ve all been living in since 2020.

It is an unsettling text, yes.  But it is meant to be settling . . . or, I mean, reassuring.  Bottom line: Jesus is not telling us what the future holds.  He is telling us who holds the future.  He is not saying, “Though there will be suffering . . . you got this.”  He is saying, “Though there will be suffering, God has got you.”  God holds the past; God holds the present; God holds the future.  Our story is God’s story; the two are interwoven from the very beginning, and God will not let us go until the story is entirely written.  Jesus is saying: what is important is not what the future holds, but who holds the future.  Remember that.

When bad things happen (and they will), may you not be terrified.  You and I are not likely to be dragged before kings and rulers.  We probably will not be handed over to prison for our faith.  And some of the things Jesus describes will probably never happen in our lifetimes.  But there will be suffering for each of us, in one way or another.  Marriages will fall apart; family members will disown one another; jobs will be lost, and loved ones will pass away.  These things will happen . . . and may you not be terrified.

We want to be saved from suffering.  We want God to prevent sorrow and pain.  But God does not save us from suffering.  God saves us in the midst of suffering.  Since our story is God’s story, God continually meets us in our pain.  I don’t need to tell you that suffering is part of life.  Being a Christian does not mean you will not suffer.  In fact, based on what Jesus says to us today, being a Christian just might be the cause of suffering.  That was certainly true for his disciples, who suffered horribly under Roman persecutions.  Our suffering is different from theirs, but it is still our suffering, and we still need God to meet us in our pain, just as much as the disciples did.

We look for God in our suffering.  But we should never look for God as the cause of suffering.  There are people who like to say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”  
Please.  Just.  Don’t.  

God is not sitting around handing out suffering to see how much you can bear.  Let me say this clearly:  God does not cause the suffering in your life.  God meets us in our suffering; but God does not cause it.  Sometimes it’s us; sometimes it’s other people; and sometimes it’s just the way things are.  But no matter the cause of our pain and grief and sadness, the important thing to remember is this:  God does not cause it; but God meets us there.  

In today’s gospel text, Jesus tells the disciples, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  He has just warned them about the persecution they will face, and says that persecution will give them a chance to testify.  But he tells them not to plan what they will say in advance, because he will give them the words they need.

How does that relate to us?  Well, let me suggest something like this:  Maybe we should avoid having prepared bumper sticker slogans, like “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”  Maybe we should resist the temptation to always have a pat answer to explain away evil, and pain, and heartbreak.  God does not cause the suffering in your friend’s life; but God meets them there, and we meet them there.

Maybe we should face whatever suffering comes our way by finding where God is meeting us in that pain.  Because God is there.  Perhaps it is more helpful and faithful to seek God in the moment, trusting that God is there.  That God will give us a word when we need it.  Rather than preparing in advance to explain God’s absence in our pain, we’d be better off looking for God’s presence in our pain.  Trusting Jesus when he says, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

But enough of that.  Here’s what I really want to get to this morning.  This section of Luke’s Gospel finishes with Jesus telling the disciples, “You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Let me start with that last sentence.  Though the translation we get sounds like a thing we have to do—that is IF we endure, we will gain our souls in the future—the actual wording is more like, “keep your souls in patience.”  Which is more akin to saying, “do not let your soul be anxious.”  It’s not an if/then, meaning “If you want to gain your soul you must endure.”  Rather, it is more like, “Keep your soul at peace.”  Two very different things.

And secondly, the hair thing.  Jesus promises, “not a hair of your head shall perish.”  This is a metaphor.  I point to my own head by example.  I have lost a lot of hairs over the years.  They are lost to me, but they are not lost to God.  I’m not saying God has a bag of my hair on a shelf in the closet—since that’s weird, and kind of gross.  This is obviously a metaphor.  And the metaphor can be interpreted as something like this . . . 

Whether or not elections turn out the way you wanted, and whether or not you got the job, or kept the marriage, or made it through the operation . . . you are never lost to God.  The Temple that Jesus talks about was the center of Jewish worship—the very place where God was thought to dwell.  People marveled at its beauty  And it was utterly destroyed. 

Yet even in the destruction, it is still known to God.  Just as you and I are known to God.  The hairs on your head, and the love in your heart, and the despair you may sometimes feel, all of these are known to God, and all held close at hand.  God knows you intimately, because your story is part of God’s story, and that story is still being written.  And for that reason, no matter what may come, the blessing from Jesus remains:  may you not be terrified.  May you never be terrified, because God holds your past, God holds your present, and most importantly, God holds your future.  God has got you, just as God has always had you.  May you never be terrified.


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