Sermons

Speak; Rev. Dee Ledger, November 17, 2019

After reading again today’s challenging lectionary passage, I am reminded of a song that the band R.E.M. released in 1987, “It is the End of the World as We Know It.”  The song was intended to be a kind of stream of consciousness, but some of the lines from the song sound eerily familiar and apocalyptic:

“That’s great, it starts with an earthquake
Birds and snakes, an aeroplane, Lenny Bruce is not afraid
Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs, don’t misserve your own needs…”

“Six o’clock, TV hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform and book burning, blood letting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate”

 

After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Clear Channel Communications  (now iHeart Media)  one of the largest owners of radio stations in the U.S., circulated an internal memo containing a list of songs that its program directors felt were “lyrically questionable” to play in the aftermath of the attack.  Despite being 14 years old, the R.E.M. song was on the list.

And who would blame the radio producers?  To listen to apocalyptic-sounding lyrics in the wake of the towers falling would likely have brought little comfort to listeners or would have been unnecessarily harsh and unsettling.

One might similarly conclude that today’s passage is equally unsettling.

King Herod has built a stunning temple.  This is Herod’s rebuilding of the Temple—his pet project– begun around 19 BCE and worked on throughout Jesus’ lifetime.  Yet this stunning temple with its beautiful masonry and gifts of wealth and abundance will be destroyed.  These large stones, Jesus says, will be thrown down.  This lofty project will not last.  “Not one stone will be left upon another.”

When Luke writes his gospel, he knew –in his lifetime—the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.  When he looks back at that time of suffering and unrest, he believes that Jesus foretold this destruction by a hostile Empire.  His words appealed to those who had seen great pain and upheaval in their lifetime.  As Emerson Powery observes, “In the ancient world, apocalyptic language generally appealed to those on the margins of society. Those lives disrupted by the Empire’s mechanisms desired language and ideas that suggested that the Empire might not last forever.” [1]

Yet, for Luke, the end of the Temple was not a sign of the end of the world.  This calamity wasn’t a sign of the end-times; those wars, that violence between nations and kingdoms, and the resulting terrible suffering– none of it was or is THE END.  All of these earthquakes, natural disasters, and revolution—not the end.  It is not the end of the world as we know it.

And yet, we might think, it may as well be.

When our own building projects lay in ruins, when bankruptcy or economic collapse occurs, when we are weary of leaders taking advantage of or oppressing people at their whim, when we see natural disasters, famine, plagues of all sorts, and pain all around, we may feel as if our very world is ending.  It can be terrifying to see all of these things and to think that no one can do anything to counteract the forces of evil, individual and societal destruction, climate change disaster, or pain in the world.  And yet, Jesus says not to be terrified.

Even when we are put on trial during chaotic times, we are not to be frightened.  Through Luke, Jesus warns that we are likely to be brought before governors and kings to testify in the midst of all this suffering.  To Jesus, if not to us, this is actually a good thing.  To be called to speak in the midst of great suffering is an opportunity to testify.  These are really odd words from the Savior’s mouth.

When does suffering require that we speak?  We might wonder when or if we would have the courage to speak our truth or the truth of God’s concerns when circumstances required it.  And what words would be sufficient or what message could we deliver to the powers-that-be in that moment?

For many of us, speaking out and speaking up doesn’t come easily and may seem especially hard when we and others are at odds or suffering.  And yet, this testimony is necessary according to Jesus.  We are not to consider and plan what we are to say, but to trust that the words and wisdom that the Spirit provides will be more than adequate to the task.  Note that this isn’t our own wisdom, but that of Jesus.  This doesn’t mean that we simply say the first thing that enters our minds, or we plan an elaborate discourse, but that the truth that we speak will be inspired by Jesus’ Word, and that we trust that this Word will reach its destination and communicate what needs to be said.

Of course, we can be afraid to speak up.

We can think it not worthy of our time or responsibility.

We can shy away from dissension and discord.

We may be loathe to disagree with those with whom we are in relationship.

All of these are reasons we give; yet, when we—or those with whom we are close– are suffering, we may actually be impelled to speak in a way that we aren’t when we are quite comfortable with the status quo.  The experience of suffering somehow does this.

But even if we aren’t suffering in an “end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-kind-of-way,” we may be called upon to speak.

In her book,  An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor relates,

“Many years ago now, a wise old priest invited me to come speak at his church in Alabama. ‘What do you want me to talk about?’ I asked him.

‘Come tell us what is saving your life now,’ he answered. It was as if he had swept his arm across a dusty table and brushed all the formal china to the ground. I did not have to try to say correct things that were true for everyone. I did not have to use theological language that conformed to the historical teachings of the church. All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on.”[2]

 

Upon what does our life depend and could we courageously share that with another in the midst of the world’s suffering or our own?

Today’s passage may seem dismal.  Yet it provokes our reflection on those who speak on behalf of others, those who speak courageously despite the fallout from family and friends, and our reflection on the way we speak our own truth in the midst of communal suffering and pain.  Through Jesus, Luke writes that we may suffer betrayal by parents and brothers, relatives and friends, will be hated, and may even suffer death, yet somehow we won’t actually perish and will gain our souls by our endurance.

How is that possible?

Perhaps it is possible because Jesus understands that we lose a little bit of our souls every time we are silent when we should and could speak our truth.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the American suffragist and abolitionist, said,

“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls. Every truth we see is ours to give the world, not to keep for ourselves alone, for in so doing we cheat humanity out of their rights and check our own development.”

Maybe Jesus understands that we will, in the midst of losing everything of seeming significance, ultimately gain something more enduring and more lasting than any magnificent temple, project, or outward manifestation of wealth, regard, and glory.  Perhaps he realizes that no matter what Empire currently pretends to power, God’s power has the final say and God’s Word and God’s justice will prevail.  Perhaps Jesus understands that no matter the dreadful portents or the fear mongering among finite human beings, the real alarm is when we believe that we are not accountable to a greater good and an infinite God to whom every kingdom—whether petty or powerful—must answer.

As Scott Hoezee writes, “Although there is no denying the forward, future bent of passages like Luke 21, in the end Jesus is not interested in telling us precisely what the future holds but rather Who holds the future.  And when you know Who holds the future, then you know Who holds your every moment in this present time as well.  It is that confidence that allows us to rest easy when Jesus tells us that he will be with us and will even provide us with words to say if and when the world presses in on us and persecutes us for his sake.”[3]

May we have the courage to speak now and in the future,

Amen.

 

 

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[1] Emerson Powery, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4255

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (Canterbury Press, 2017), 15.

 

 

[3] Scott Hoezee, https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-28c-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel