This is a year of anniversaries—in January of the Emancipation Proclamation, last August of the March on Washington, next Friday of the assassination of President Kennedy. Each of these events both upset and altered our expectations of the established order. As they happened they appeared to us in one light, in retrospect another. How do we read our past? How do we respond to the present moment?
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:5–6)
It is a bit disorienting to gather in this transcendent space on an autumn morning and hear Jesus in today’s Gospel predict the destruction of the temple. We erect buildings like this one because they speak to us of permanence. Beyond that, they represent the good, the just, the holy. In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus seems to be saying that the temple—and here the temple stands for everything we think permanent and hold dear—will be shaken up, torn down, and destroyed. This is probably not what you got out of a warm bed this morning to come out and hear.
How do we read and respond to the present moment? In our Gospel this morning Jesus goes on to make some dire predictions about international events and cosmic calamities:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. (Luke 21:10)
I’ve never been one of those preachers who gets into the pulpit, holds up the good book, and confidently announces that your Bible is more up to date than today’s newspaper. It is tempting to hear in a passage like this one a prediction of September 11, 2001, or to connect it to unrest in the Middle East, global warming, or the arrival of Lady Gaga and Honey Boo Boo. There is no current calamity, social problem, or celebrity sighting on display here. Still, Jesus does seem to be saying something about the situation of his followers then and now in the world:
But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. (Luke 21:12)
Things are bad. They’re going to get worse. And everybody is going to blame us for the situation. That about sums up this morning’s Gospel. Have a nice weekend!
How do we read and respond to the present moment? What is our situation? What will become of us? In times of crisis or calamity, people of faith often look to the Bible. But what, in this era, can the Bible mean for us? Right now in England BBC 2 is running a series called The Story of the Jews featuring the historian Simon Schama. In a recent interview, here is what Schama said about the Bible’s role in Judaism:
It is a salient characteristic of the endurance of the Jews that when the usual markers and supporters of endurance—namely a territory, an army, the institutions of a state—are completely ripped from them, they invent (beginning with the Bible, much of which was written in the first Babylonian exile) a form of portable narrative. And a portable narrative does two things: it actually tells them their own history (part myth, part fable, part accurate); and it also sets down a series of laws and precepts which are specifically about trying to live a Jewish life in a non-Jewish world. (Simon Schama on Nightwaves, BBC Radio 3, September 13, 2013)
From Simon Schama’s perspective as a twenty-first-century Jew, the Bible is a “portable narrative” setting down “laws and precepts” about “trying to live a Jewish life in a non-Jewish world.” They were exiles. Their portable narrative gave them a sense of home.
In some sense, we too gather in this Cathedral as exiles. Like all Gothic church buildings, this one stands as a monument to a time when Christianity was the official religion of Western culture. When we gather in places like this today it is easy to pretend that we are still at the center of things and to forget that in the postmodern world a multiplicity of faith traditions and narratives live together collectively to shape our shared experience of the holy. As the philosopher Richard Rorty used to say, there is no longer one, unifying “big picture.” You and I live in a moment when we are emerging from the Western cultural consensus that there was a big picture, and that (conveniently for us) it belonged to Christianity. Now—in spite of what this building wants to say about our pretensions to cultural power and authority—we Christians make our way with other faith traditions in the world. That’s a bit destabilizing, but it’s the truth. And it’s also good news. In a funny way it helps us understand our early Jewish and Christian forbears better than we used to. Because our situation now is almost exactly like theirs.
Early people of faith needed their Bibles as “portable narratives” to tell them how to be faithful in a world in which they were exiles. Our parents and grandparents did not need that portable narrative in quite the same way because they were comfortably at home in the “big picture” of the Western world. But just as the early Jews and Christians were exiles, so are you and I. We need our Bibles the way first-century Jews and Christians did. When we read the Bible today, it may not be more up to date than our newspaper, but it speaks to us with a power and relevance it may not have had for our immediate predecessors. It is once again our portable narrative, telling us how to be at home in an increasingly alienated world.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus points forward to a coming time of calamity. The seemingly invincible temple will be thrown down. Nation will rise against nation. Rulers will identify people with Gospel values as the problem. That all sounds like pretty bad news, but Jesus does not stop there. Jesus is blunt and uncompromising as he describes the situation of Christian exiles abroad in the world. But he is not hopeless or depressed about it. Listen to how he concludes:
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 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. (Luke 21:16–19)
Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. How do we read and respond to the present moment?
Those of us who are drawn out of a warm bed on Sunday morning into a place like this are responding to a powerful divine pull that we cannot easily identify or name. As Emily Dickinson said, “it beckons and it baffles.” We hear something or feel something not apparent to everyone else. We respond to something good and beautiful and true at the heart of reality, and we feel called to orient our lives around it. Even though things seem to be going to hell, we find life full of meaning and hope and joy. We share a symbolic meal together as a way of connecting with each other and the source of all that is good and beautiful and true and hopeful and joyous. Call us crazy.
As Christians, we may no longer own the master big picture narrative of Western culture, but we do have an important truth to tell. And here it is:
Let’s not delude ourselves. Buildings like this one are only temporary. Nations and peoples will continue to fight each other. People who stand for justice and compassion will be persecuted. But it will all, finally, be OK. Not a hair of your head will perish. As perilous as our situation may be—whether we face public or personal tragedy—we are finally in the embrace of someone who will not let us go. As we make our way through a difficult and often hostile world, we have our portable narrative, our community, our shared meal to remind us that we are loved and precious, and ultimately secure in that one’s embrace. We and our world will continue to suffer. But in and through that suffering we will be sustained by someone loving and faithful and good.
In this year of anniversaries, things will continue to be complicated and hard. I doubt that they will get easier or more simple. How do we read and respond to the present moment? We read and respond to the present moment in the light of our portable narrative. And what that portable narrative tells us is that not a hair of your head will perish, that all will finally be well. That news may not be newer than your newspaper, but it is the deep and abiding truth around which we gather, and for which we proceed in this meal to give thanks. Amen.