November 18, 2007
Today’s gospel is filled with signs of the end of the world: wars, and famines, and dreadful portents. Clearly the gospel writers are pointing to that great day when Jesus will return, bring this world to an end, and establish the Kingdom of God. But it would be a mistake for us to limit the meaning of today’s gospel to that great event at the end of time. For the truth is that in our lives we experience moments when our world comes to an end. There are moments of passage, moments of change, when one world ends and another begins. These moments can be joyful or frightening. Oftentimes they are both.
When you commit yourself to another person in marriage or when you give birth to a new son or daughter, your world changes. There are new opportunities and there are new responsibilities. Very soon you cannot even remember the way things used to be. When you are told that you no longer have a job, when you file for divorce, when you receive a negative medical diagnosis, when the person you love dies; one world ends and a new one begins. As much as you would like, you cannot go back again. When your youngest child leaves for college, when you hold your grandchild for the first time in your arms, when you enter retirement; your world changes and you must change with it.
In all of these rites of passage, in all of these changes—even when they are joyful—there is always some fear. Will I be able to be the parent that my child needs me to be? How will it be living without my children under my roof? How will I face the holidays without the person I love? How will I fair with chemotherapy? When we face a new reality, when we enter a new world, there is fear. How do we deal with it? How do we cope when our world changes?
Today’s gospel points us in a direction. Jesus says, “By your perseverance you will save your lives.” Jesus is saying that when we enter a new world we must be willing to persevere. But what do we mean by perseverance? You can define perseverance in a lot of different ways, but the understanding I am suggesting to you today is one which is most common and most practical. This is the understanding that I hear over and over again in ICU units and at wedding receptions, in funeral homes and at baptism parties. It’s the understanding of perseverance that most easily and commonly comes to our lips: perseverance is living one day at a time. Perseverance is refusing to be overwhelmed by all the things that we do not understand and cannot control in the new world in which we must live. Perseverance is choosing to take one step, the next step—choosing to take that step as best as we can and to keep taking the next step until we end up where we ought to be.
Now this understanding of perseverance can seem foolish to some people. They can ask, “How can you take one step and be sure that you’re going anywhere?” “How do you know that that one step will lead you to where you need to be?” “How can you live one day at a time?” “Who is planning for the months and years ahead?”
Now these questions are not pointless. In fact they make a certain amount of sense, if we presume that we are living our lives alone. But Christians have a different perspective. We believe that God is living our lives with us, that God is in fact guiding us. We believe that when we take that one step, that next step, God is guiding us in the right direction. We believe that when we live one day at a time, the day that we live is connected to future days which God is planning for our benefit.
With faith we have the freedom to take the next step, to live this day, and to leave the rest to God. Now, this understanding of perseverance as living one day at a time is beautifully captured in a prayer by John Henry Newman. This prayer would be appropriate to pray every time we leave one world behind and enter a new one. Newman’s prayer goes like this:
Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom.
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home.
Lead thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
Let us then persevere in taking that next step. Let us believe that God is with us and God will lead us on.
Hope in Winter
November 14, 2010
Ted was having a very bad day. He was pushing seventy-five and his arthritis was kicking up. He was now having difficulty doing the simple things that he once took for granted. When he looked at the future, he was frightened. He sat on the window seat of his family room and looked out on a cold December day—barren trees, pelting rain, limited light. Ted was feeling sorry for himself. When he looked at the years to come, he saw little reason for hope. He took out a match to light his pipe and in doing so a flying ember fell on the corduroy cushion on which he was seated and burnt a hole into it.
“Darn it,” he said. His wife Helen, who was crocheting in the same room, lifted her head, “what’s wrong?” she asked. “I’m so sorry, honey,” he said, pointing to the hole in the cushion. Helen walked over and picked up the cushion. With a gentle teasing voice she said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” She left the room. When she returned, she showed him the cushion. Helen had carefully stitched a happy little flower over the charred hole. “There,” she said, “it’s fixed. Better than ever.” She went back to her crocheting.
Ted looked at the repaired cushion. His eyes filled with tears because he saw in Helen’s carefully stitched repair a symbol of their life together. He had been married to this woman for over fifty years. He knew he was blest to have her because Helen was a repairer of broken dreams, a healer of wounds. By her quiet and caring presence, she was an antidote to fear. As Ted thought of this his spirits rose because he recognized in Helen’s love a sign of God’s love. If his wife could be for him such a sign of life and hope, could he not also trust that God’s love for him was even greater? And if God was a repairer of broken dreams and a healer of wounds, then Ted had nothing to fear.
Today’s gospel is a gospel of hope. But we might not recognize it. We can be distracted by thinking that the gospel is predicting the future, what will happen at the end of time. But actually by the time Luke was writing this passage, the things that he was describing had already taken place. The temple was already destroyed. Wars and earthquakes were occurring. False teachers were leading people astray. Persecutions had begun. So far from predicting future events, Luke was describing the crises and turmoil of his own time. It is in those contemporary challenges that Luke’s call to hope becomes clear. What Luke is telling his audience and us is that it is in the midst of our suffering and turmoil that we should cling to hope. In the midst of our present troubles Christ assures us not a hair of our head will be harmed and by perseverance we will secure our lives. This gospel tells us to persevere, to hold on, not to give up hope. Of course the basis of our hope is not our own cleverness or our confidence that we can resolve all of these crises. Our hope rests in our belief that God is a repairer of broken dreams, a healer of wounds, a God who will protect us and save us.
Therefore today’s gospel invites us to identify in our lives what is broken, who is wounded, and what circumstances lead us close to despair. Once we have identified these difficulties, the gospel advises us to hold on, not to give up hope. God is active and God has a plan that we cannot yet completely see. Therefore we are called to trust in God, believing that people can change, opportunities can emerge, obstacles can be removed, and that God is prepared to use all of these changes to save us. If we can see care and love in a spouse, in a co-worker, or in a close friend, then those gifts challenge us to see an even greater love and care in our God. Circumstances can surround us and frighten us but God is with us. Therefore do not give up hope. Hang on. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.
The Good That Is Gone
November 18, 2013
Luke 21: 5-19
The setting of today’s gospel is important. Jesus and his disciples are in the temple of Jerusalem, and people are commenting how beautiful it is. It is adorned with precious stones and votive offerings. The Jerusalem temple was the pride of every Jew, Jesus and his disciples included. It took years to build at tremendous cost and effort. It was a symbol of Israel’s faith in God and at the same time a sign of Jewish identity. The temple was massive, glorious, and good. So when Jesus tells his disciples that it would soon be destroyed, that there would not be one stone left upon another, we can be sure that his disciples were deeply shaken. The sign of their faith, the sign of their nation, would all be taken away!
Now this gospel is not only about the temple of Jerusalem or Jews of the first century. It is about us. We are to see in the temple a sign of the good things in our life, the things that we care for, the things we take pride in, the things we have built by our hands. This gospel reminds us that those good and glorious things can be taken away.
We might have pride in our work, in the job we have performed well and faithfully for years, in the company that we built by our own ideas and efforts. And then, because of a mistake, someone’s dishonesty, or downsizing, our livelihood is taken away. We no longer have an income and work that gives us satisfaction.
We might take pride in the family we have built, in the wife or husband that we love, in the children we have raised. We feel blessed in the time and love that we have invested to make our families strong. And then by misunderstanding or divorce or death, the structure of our family is broken. The edifice that we worked so hard to build is undermined. Not one stone is left upon another.
We can justly take pride in the temple of our body. We tried to live well, eat healthy, and exercise. Then there is a surprising diagnosis and further tests and procedures. We realize that our health has been seriously compromised. Our energy, our mobility, our future is all violently thrown down.
We know that there is no guarantee that the good things in our life will always remain. The things that we love, the things we have built, the things we take pride in, like the temple in Jerusalem, can be lost. It is when we recognize this truth, that the words of Jesus become so important. Jesus tells us that when our life falls apart, God will not forget us. When the things we take pride in are destroyed, it is then time to place our pride in God’s faithfulness. When we feel alone and powerless, then we must believe that God’s power is real and active.
The most important line in the gospel is the last line where Jesus says “…by your perseverance you will secure your lives.” Perseverance means our ability to hold on, to trust in God’s care. We cannot always rebuild the good things in our life that are destroyed, but we can continue to live. The Jews were never able to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, but they continue to flourish as a people in our world today. So can we. When our life lies in ruins, then it is time to trust, then it is time to persevere, then it is time to hold on, believing that by the grace of God we can secure our lives.
November 13, 2016
Luke 21: 5-19
Today’s gospel is full of turmoil and confusion. In it the disciples ask Jesus this question. “What signs will occur when these things begin to happen?” Because of this question we might imagine that Jesus’ response is about describing some future event, something that is to happen at the end of the world. But when we listen to what he says, it sounds all too familiar. Jesus describes a world in which there are wars and insurrections, where one nation is pitted against another, where families are divided one against another. Jesus is describing not some future world, but the world in which we live.
This allows us to apply Jesus’ word to the occasions in our life when we experience turmoil. And there’s reason to believe that we may be experiencing turmoil today. We have just finished a political season that has been the most divisive in our country’s history. The election is over but the turmoil continues. Many people are elated; many are dejected. But everyone is wondering what will happen, who will be helped, who will be left behind. Some of us here might be facing turmoil in our families, turmoil that is occasioned by divorce or misunderstanding or sickness. We wonder what will happen. Can the divisions among us be healed? Will my life ever become normal again?
However we might be facing turmoil in our lives, Jesus’ words today are helpful. Because he tells us to do three things when our life is in confusion. The first thing that he says is, “Do not be deceived.” When our life is in turmoil it is important to use our heads. It is important to test the truth. In light of the recent election all kinds of things are being said about things that will happen in the next four years. Much of it is conjecture. Much is rumor or lies. Do not be deceived. Test what is true before you react. When our families are divided, people are quick to give advice about what we should do. They say, “Don’t talk to her. Make sure you tell him this.” Do not be deceived. All advice is not wisdom. Certain choices can make things worse. Test what is true before you decide to act.
The second thing that Jesus tells us is, “Do not be terrified.” When our life is in turmoil, it is easy to be afraid. But we are people of faith. We believe that in every circumstance God still loves us, and God is acting for us. It is important to believe that God always has a plan and is in some way working through the events of our life and our world to bring about God’s Kingdom. Both in our country and in our families God will not abandon us. In faith it is possible to replace fear with hope.
The third thing that Jesus says to us is that we should testify. When our life is in turmoil it is particularly important to witness to the truth of the gospel. We are called to speak out—not out of anger or selfishness, but for justice and service. In our country at this time it is particularly important for us to speak out for those who have no voice, to speak out for the life in the mother’s womb, to speak out for the undocumented immigrant who is trying to keep his or her family together. We should speak out for our fellow citizens who cannot find good jobs and for every person who is need of adequate health care.
In our families when we experience division, it is always important to speak out for what will heal rather than further divide, to promote dialogue and understanding, and testify to Jesus’ teaching of mercy and forgiveness.
When our lives move out of balance it is easy to panic. That is why Jesus tells us three things that are important in times of turmoil. First: Do not be deceived. Test what is true. Second: Do not be afraid. God is still with us. Third: Witness to the truth of the gospel especially speaking out for those who have no voice. These three directives allow us to find a path through troubled waters. If we embrace them, we can also claim the promise that Jesus makes at the end of today’s gospel. He says, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
Our Better Angels
November 17, 2019
Luke 21: 5-19
Is the world getting better or getting worse? Are we overall making progress in human rights and equality or are we all going to hell in a handbasket? You and I certainly have moments when we become discouraged at how many wars are present in our world and how extensive corruption is on every level of society. Yet there is a credible case to be made that the human race is getting better, that our civilization is more enlightened and more just than any that have come before it.
Steve Pinker has written a book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” He argues that the present time is the best, most peaceful time in human history. Now, of course, we can point to many acts of violence and injustices that are still present in our world. But Pinker argues that if you look at the sweep of history, we have made remarkable progress in the areas of human rights and of kindness. He gives an example from Samuel Pepys. Pepys was a middle-class businessman living in London in the late 1600’s and he kept a diary. In his diary, he describes what he calls “a very pleasant day.” He began the day by taking a vigorous walk around the city with his friends. Then at noon, they went to a public execution where they saw a man hung and disemboweled. They applauded with great joy as the executioner held up the man’s head and heart. After that, they ended the day with a delicious oyster dinner. An act of barbarism in the middle of what Pepys saw as a “delightful day.” That was four hundred years ago. Today we still have executions, but they are not public, and no one sees them as entertainment. Pinker says that is progress.
Now whether you are inclined to accept Pinker’s belief that the human race is getting better, we are required to listen to the words of Jesus. In today’s gospel, he tells his disciples in vivid language about wars, earthquakes and significant signs in the sky. What Jesus is describing is the end of the world, where we are going. His dramatic language is not meant to disturb us but to encourage us. It is the bible’s way of saying that God is active, that God is moving to destroy the evil around us and change this world into the kingdom of God. This means that Christians should be people of optimism and positivity. The things around us may appear dismal, yet we continue to believe that God remains active in our lives and in our world. We trust that God is leading us to a place of justice and joy.
So if you begin to complaint that you sprained your ankle or that you have arthritis in your right knee, remember that you also live in a world of modern medicine where there are treatments for such problems and where you can make an appointment with your doctor on the internet. If you worry about someone you love whose life is being ruined by the addiction of drugs or alcohol, remember that you live in a world where we understand that such behavior is not mainly the result of a willful choice but is influenced by biology and genetics. There are also support groups that, if used, can truly keep that negative behavior in check. If you lament the fact that our environment is being abused and you worry about the effect that global warming will have on your children or your grandchildren, remember that there is a consensus growing in our world that action must be taken to protect the environment and that we have governments that can be made responsive to the will of the many.
It is easy at times to feel that things are falling apart, but the words of Jesus remind us that God is active in our lives and in our world. This should give us hope, because we believe that God is leading our world and all humanity to a better place.