Monday, November 15, 2010

Bird by bird

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem A.D. 70, Roberts (1850)

Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 21: 5-19
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
November 14, 2010 – Stewardship Sunday

As the passage from Luke was read, was not the description of events eerily like those we are experiencing now? Certainly we have wars and nations rising up against other nations. We have had plenty of natural disasters—earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Indonesia, tornados, mudslides, cholera, famine, drought, forest fires—to herald this alleged end of times.

And then there is our popular culture that at times reeks with depravity. Play Station 3 game series like “Call of Duty”, some that are rated T for teen, where war is glorified in a virtual reality and war’s greatest pain is anesthetized. In our recent election we had pundits and politicians going to war with each other rather than engaging in serious debate about what needs to be done and how it could be accomplished. And then on a lighter note: neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees was in the World Series. Surely now we know that the day of the Lord is near.

But these supposed signs of the end do not happen only to nations, cities, or groups of fans. All of these are composed of individuals and families: individuals who have been laid off from their jobs; individuals who are poor and sick and cannot get adequate health insurance or quality of care; individuals who are in danger of losing their homes; individuals who are teachers, underpaid and overworked, and their students in schools with slim to no resources; individuals who struggle to get an education, to keep their family under one roof, to hold onto hope that things will get better. Surely these are also signs that God is coming to judge the living and the dead.

Let us also remember some other words of Jesus, that we cannot know the day and the hour when God will come. That is only for God to know. Even from our own experience we can say that when we think we know something is going to happen, the fact that we think we know is proof that we don’t know anything.

We live in a culture of fear, some of it due to outside forces, all of it due to our own human weakness. Thinking we know what is going to happen is our own defense mechanism of dealing with our fear. Jesus says to us in other passages in his gospel that our fear, our anxiety will only drive us away from God and away from each other. Jesus has more important work for us to do rather than managing our fear.

Jesus tells those around him that before the end comes, they will be witnessing to the truth of the gospel as they are living it out in their lives and for this they will be arrested and persecuted. This isn’t very comforting or reassuring. For the author of Luke this was already happening to the early Christians. They were convinced the end was near because the temple and all of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans. Being a Christian was not only unpopular, it was downright dangerous. Some Jews like Saul were bringing followers of the Way bound to Jerusalem as offenders of the Jewish faith. Believers were being tortured for worshiping Christ as their King rather than Caesar. These early Christians believed that their life in the flesh was nothing. The integrity of one’s soul was more important. As Martin Luther wrote in his famous hymn: “The body they may kill; God’s truth shall triumph still; God’s reign endures forever.”

But what is it that we can witness about? To what social concern shall we apply the truth of the gospel? Almost every one of them, from gay marriage to abortion to immigration to Islamophobia, creates conflict and divides the Church. If we are to witness, shouldn’t we be doing it together as a united front, as a Church, as the Body of Christ? Isn’t there one thing all Christians can agree on?

Often it is helpful to look at the passages that frame the lectionary text as a way of providing context for the message at hand. Before this morning’s text we have the story of the poor widow and her offering. Jesus said that out of her poverty she gave all she had to live on. The author of Luke immediately goes on to contrast this scene with other folk observing the almost royal beauty and splendor of the Temple, yet Jesus says it will be destroyed completely. And then after the text ending with “By your endurance you will gain your souls”, we are told the city of Jerusalem will fall. The “city set on a hill for all to see” will be no more.

Here is where the Church’s witness can focus in agreement. Poverty is a biblical priority. I read recently that one out of 16 verses of scripture is about poverty—one out of nine in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. James Forbes, a former pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, said, “According to Matthew 25, nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

All of these other supposedly “nonnegotiable issues” that the Church is in conflict over can sometimes be distractions from the one moral issue, poverty, that one that outweighs and informs every other issue. Abortion does not directly compel us to examine what everyday choices we make with our money, how we behave as consumers. Same-sex marriage does not demand that we change how we live our lives for the sake of others. Immigration and Islamophobia beg how do we treat the outcast in our midst yet they have not necessitated a transformation of individual and collective, corporate values. To be sure, these issues are important and deserve our attention, our best efforts, our faith, and our prayer. But surely not at the cost of our fellow citizens who live in squalor or who struggle just above the poverty line.

In this bountiful land there are 43.6 million people who are poor—the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates have been published; 50.7 million are without health insurance and 37 million are hungry. 3.5 million U.S. citizens are homeless—39% of them children. If our witness to the truth of the gospel is needed anywhere, certainly it is desperately needed by the poor.

“But,” we say, “What can I do? Am I to sell all that I have and give it to the poor? Surely Jesus did not mean that I am to trade places with the poor? What can I do? The problems of our world are so huge, they are seemingly insurmountable.” Sometimes we can let the problem and all its complexities overwhelm us to the point of being paralyzed.

Author Anne Lamott tells the story of her older brother who, when he was ten years old, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. She writes, “We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, CA, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Jesus does not expect us to save the world. I suspect he does not expect our nation to save the world either. As for how the story of the world is going to end, we leave that in God’s capable hands. All anyone can do is to give what they can on a daily basis to those in need. Of course, to those who can give much, Jesus said more will be asked of them. And if we think we are doing enough for the poor, if we think we are doing our share, the very fact that we think so is proof that we could be doing a whole lot more.

But we don’t have to have some grandiose plan, some lofty goal that just might kill our efforts and our spirits. One kindness, one intervention, one increase on a pledge card, one local food drive, one hour of literacy volunteering, one church tag sale, one Saturday at Habitat for Humanity, one time when we say what we really think, just taking it bird by bird. God calls us not to manage our fear but to be stewards of our love; our money, our time, our lives are the means by which we are able to be generous and extravagant with our love. It is all anyone can really do but with perseverance. Truly it is what Jesus did in his lifetime; it is his legacy to us.

We are not meant to preserve that city set on the hill for all to see. All that we do to protect the splendor and beauty that we have created will come to an end someday. But what we do for each other, for the poor, for our neighbors—whether they be next door or 10,000 miles away or somewhere in between—what we do one person at a time, as we give witness to the truth of the gospel as it is revealed in the living of our lives, by enduring in this way will we gain our souls, which are forever. Thanks be to God.


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