The Penultimate – Proper 28(C)

[RCL] Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

There are some words that just sound good, that are attractive all by themselves. A great example, which the Gospel reading especially brought to mind, is ‘penultimate’. It’s a fine old Latin word that means ‘next to the last’. Not the last, not the ultimate, but next to that, before that. The penultimate things are not the ultimate things, but the things that are a step down from them, things come before them.

Penultimate is a great word to hear and ponder as we listen to these wonderful Biblical stories about the end of all things, about “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” and the day of the Lord burning like an oven, and how not one stone will be left upon another. We always hear stuff like this as we get close to Advent; it’s good for us, and these saying are really all about that little word.

Let’s start with the temple in Jerusalem. In the first century, the temple was absolutely the center of Jewish religion, history, culture, civilization and civic pride. It was a beautiful temple, one of the best in the region. Solomon himself had designed it, and King Herod had recently completely renovated it—making it quite a bit bigger and a whole lot more elaborate. In its thousand-year history, the Temple had never been as glorious, as extensive, or as popular as it was when Jesus and his disciples visited. In fact, it may have been the largest man-made structure in the world at that time. It was certainly seen as the ultimate thing in Israel—and as central, indeed indispensable, to the plan of God and the fate of the nation.

When Jesus and his disciples visited the temple for the first time, the disciples were like a bunch of strangers in the big city, staring around with their jaws hanging open, pointing at everything and saying “wow” a lot. Jesus isn’t quite as impressed, and he says two things about the Temple.

First, he predicts, quite correctly, that the Temple would soon be completely destroyed—that not one stone would be left upon another – which is exactly that the Romans did about 35 years later, after an unsuccessful Jewish rebellion.

That’s the first thing Jesus says. The second is more subtle. As he predicts the destruction of the temple, and the chaos that goes with it, Jesus also says, (again quite correctly) “the end will not follow immediately.” The temple will crumble, there will be problems, but things will go on pretty much as before. There will still be much to do. There will be people to help, and evil to resist, and prayers to say – just like before the Temple was destroyed. So, the temple falls, but “the end will not follow immediately”.

That must have been a hard thing to hear. It was almost impossible for anyone in Israel to imagine the destruction of the temple. What would be even harder to imagine was the destruction of the temple and the rest of the whole world not coming to an end right then. After all, everyone knew that the Temple was the ultimate thing, the final thing: if it went, everything else was sure to go, too.

But that was wrong. The Temple was not the ultimate thing after all, it was only one of the penultimate things, something that was next door to ultimate, maybe, but that’s all.

All of creation did not hang on it. The main thing, the one truly important and indispensable thing, is God, and what God is up to. Everything else is penultimate.

Everything else takes a back seat. Everything else can—and will—crumble to dust. Anything else can, and will, crumble to dust. The fate of creation hangs on none of them. Who God is and what God is up to – this is what abides, this is the main thing. This alone is ultimate.

It can be difficult to remember this. When the Temple actually fell, (and the world did not end) the fledgling Christian church in Jerusalem (as well as many Jewish groups) faced a huge crisis of faith.

Lots of people then simply could not separate what was most important and most valuable and most immediate to them from what was most important and most valuable and most immediate to God. For many, the Temple’s fall was devastating, and seemed to prove God false. They had confused the ultimate with the penultimate.

And something very much like that is still with us. We all have our temples, our penultimates. We all have our own ideas of what is indispensable to creation – these may be personal things, or religious things, or social things, or cultural things, or election results, things we cannot conceive being otherwise, or doing differently, or losing – things we cannot imagine that either we or the world or God could ever live without.

So, every now and then, we need to be reminded that these things are not quite ultimate.

It’s very important to be able to make this distinction—to be able to realize that our special concern, our pet project, our current passion, is not really the same thing as the kingdom of God, or the will of God. This whole business of the last things, the end of the world, all of that is here to remind us that our stuff, no matter how important it may be, our stuff is not ultimate. It will all pass away. Remember that word…penultimate.

Instead, it is who God is and what God is doing, right now among us, that is of ultimate importance. Nothing else matters nearly as much, nothing else will matter for so long. The point is not to hang on  tight to what we have. The point is to keep our eyes and hearts open, and our hands busy at what we need to be about.

Written by The Reverend James Liggett. Liggett recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. 

Download the sermon for Proper 28(C).

Live today, wonder about tomorrow, 26 Pentecost, Proper 28 (C) – 2013

November 17, 2013

Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

The bright sun stunned the disciples as they strolled out from the majestic temple onto the bleached limestone. Hand-chiseled, these giant stone blocks measured eight feet on a side. A grown woman could walk two or three paces per stone, and watch hundreds of people milling in the courtyards and patios outside the temple. Rising far above the streets, these massive boulders were hewn from limestone cliffs.

They. Were. Big.

The stones were here to stay, and the delicate, gorgeous temple made you gasp. As this was the holiest place in all Israel, the disciples were surely in a state of awe. Someone said, “Look, what large stones and what large buildings!” Everyone marveled at the grandeur.

So you can imagine the disciple’s dismay when Jesus asked, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

All will be thrown down? Really? Who invited Apocalyptic Jesus?

All will be thrown down? What happened to “Come to me, you who are weak and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest”?

Well, buckle your seat belts, good people of God, because Advent is around the corner, and Apocalyptic Jesus is at the wheel.

Who does he think he is, talking about the temple’s demise when he’s at the temple?

Can we relate to the disciples’ frustration? We love our houses, cars and clothes, our health, our wealth. We like the occasional shiny building, the thriving city, the world’s most powerful military. They make us feel safe, these things.

We’d rather not hear that moths destroy and rust consumes, that our possessions are short-lived, temporary like mist. We don’t want to lose our material status. This economic system works – for some – and we move mountains to prevent its crumble. We have a dark fear: Eventually we will die, and we’ll go back to God with nothing. Everything we’ve built on earth will stay here, and we’ll be gone.

Mortality is a scary thing, and talk of the end makes most people fidget. But the bulk of the gospels come from messianic and apocalyptic Jews who spent their days waiting for the end.

That’s why the upcoming Advent readings are full of end-times prognostication. Our spiritual ancestors expected the end within months, and they were anxious to know when all of this would go down.

For example, the Essene community that followed John’s gospel and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls moved as far away from civilization as possible. They were camped in desert caves by the Dead Sea, literally training for a cosmic battle. And like it or not, these people are part of our spiritual story. They asked with pained anxiety: How do we live in the present when we do not know the future?

As Jesus forecasts the temple’s destruction, the disciples also wonder: How do we live today when we do not know tomorrow?

The gospel writers must have agreed on the temple story’s importance because Luke tells it in today’s gospel, Mark tells a similar tale in Chapter 13 of his gospel, Matthew in Chapter 24, and John alludes to the temple destruction in Chapter 2.

As Matthew and Mark tell the tale, the disciples must have been nervous. They catch Jesus at the lunch break. Sitting at the Mount of Olives, they stare across the valley at the temple. They’re probably munching on bread and olives. Peter, Andrew, James and John ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Jesus’ response is less than helpful. He tells them, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place.”

Thanks, Jesus. We ask you when, and you tell us bad stuff will happen. How do we live today when we do not know tomorrow?

Come on, Jesus, we really want to know. We’ve got plans to make! How do we live in the present when we do not know the future?

This is a disturbing reading, and perhaps it’s unwise to release the tension. That’s not what church is for, by the way. Easy answers make for good bumper stickers, but real life is more complex.

In place of an easy answer, consider what Jesus offers all of us: the profound truth that God is still in charge. God calls us to love with radical abandon. This is less of a dream, more of a concrete movement.

We don’t know what comes tomorrow, but we know God calls us to love neighbor as self and to work indefatigably toward just society and loving community.

How do we live in the present when we don’t know the future? We partner with God, giving all that we have.

God has work for us to do! And Sunday morning is just the start.

Jesus tried to start a revolution in which the last are first, the proud get scattered, the lowly are lifted up. God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

Jesus tried to start a revolution in which the sick get healed, the poor are blessed, and we are all beloved children of God.

Jesus tried to start a revolution. But it depends, in part, on us. Are we in?

When we read today’s story in the context of Luke’s full gospel, Jesus drops the temple bomb right before setting his face toward Jerusalem. “All will be thrown down,” he says, perhaps referencing his own death.

And it was so. The Roman army would plunder Jerusalem in the year 70. Soldiers would pillage the temple, murder women and children, and destroy everything Israel held dear.

Yet death never gets the last word. Jerusalem rises from the Roman ashes. Jesus dies a brutal death at the hands of the military state, but that’s just Friday. Sunday rolls around and takes the stone with it. Resurrection strolls out of the empty tomb, and God is still in charge.

Remember though, that Jesus doesn’t promise easy living. Jesus does not say that the temple remains, that we avoid death, or that pain goes away.

But Jesus does promise that God is with us to the end of the age, God is still in charge, and we can trust in God when we can no longer trust anything else.

What do we do today when we don’t know tomorrow? We try to figure out what God is up to in the world and we seek, humbly, to get on board with that project.

That’s not a simple answer, but it’s a posture we can strive to adopt. Martin Luther adopted this posture when asked what to do if he thought the end was coming tomorrow. His advice? “Plant a tree.” In other words: Invest hopefully in the future.

Have you ever prayed in a time of uncertainty, in a time of waiting? Consider mothers waiting to give birth, with a baby growing inside. When will she deliver? What will happen to the child?

Consider parents waiting to hear back from a job application. How will he pay the mortgage? When will she know?

Consider the teen applying for college. Where will she spend the next four years of her life? Where will her friends go? How will her family cope with her empty chair?

Consider the cancer patient, dying from the inside out. When will he die? Will it hurt? What will he say to his kids on the last day?

Have you ever prayed in a time of uncertainty, in a time of waiting?

Consider the poetic beauty of today’s reading from Isaiah. To the people who knew exactly what it meant to lose a temple, God says, “See, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. So be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”

How do we live today when we don’t know tomorrow? We draw strength from God, who invites our participation and endures long after the cities and buildings and stones have crumbled. We adopt a posture that asks not what God can do for us, but calls us to bring the Kingdom of God just a bit closer. We love neighbor as self and we strive for just societies and a stable planet- new heavens and a new earth. We pray without ceasing, and we trust in a mighty God from whom all blessings flow.

This is the revolutionary Good News of Jesus Christ. Are we in?

 

— The Rev. Andrew K. Barnett directs music and teaches science at Darrow School in New Lebanon, N.Y., serving as pastoral associate at Zion Lutheran Church, Pittsfield Mass. As pianist and founder of Theodicy Jazz Collective, he has facilitated worship at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; Trinity Wall Street; Canterbury, Sheffield and Cleveland Cathedrals; Yale, Cambridge, Drew, and Oxford Universities; Oberlin Conservatory; All Saints’, Beverly Hills; and faith communities across New England.

Needing reassurance, Pentecost 25, Proper 28 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Isaiah 65:17-25 and Canticle 9 (Track 2: Malachi 4:1-2a and Psalm 98); 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

We live in scary times.

Millions of people in this country and around the world find themselves unemployed or underemployed – in spite of the upbeat explanations of some economists that the recession is already at an end. The housing market, other experts tell us, has not stabilized. And the same is probably true of the vital banking system. Meanwhile, war – or near-war – continues unabated in many of the countries of the Middle East and in other parts of the world as well. Terrorism lingers as an ever-present danger. And global warming and critical environmental problems bring in their wake the threat of famine and other hardships. We could go on and on. The litany of problems facing the world today is seemingly endless.

Economic crises and wars have of course been a part of human existence from time immemorial. What we are going through in our present age is nothing new, no matter how vivid and painful it may be for us today. We have been through far worse. Just ask those who remember the Great Depression of the 1930s or the horrors of World War Two and the Holocaust. Truth is, no age and no place on earth is immune from the consequences of both human frailty and arrogance and the foibles of misguided leadership. It is all part and parcel of our fallen nature.

Throughout salvation history, the scriptures – both Hebrew and Christian – have come to terms with these and similar quandaries. What to make of the depravities of conflict and violence among the nations of the world? How to explain the vagaries of illness, hunger, betrayal, and even death? Are such tribulations somehow all related? Are they portents of God’s displeasure – or, on the other hand, harbingers of better things to come? Most importantly, where is God in all this?

And where are we?

For the evangelist Luke, such questions converge in his understanding of Christ and his mission on earth. And their answers are, for him, absolutely critical to the everyday lives of Christians in the here and now. Luke writes with the benefit of hindsight some decades after our Lord’s death and resurrection, seeking to bolster the faith of his contemporaries. He tells the gospel story with compassion and vigor: Jesus suffered the cross and thereby subsumed the sin and evil of this world into his own death and resurrection. He made possible an end to suffering and death for all time to come.

But for some in Luke’s day and age, the questions remained the same as those of the bystanders in today’s gospel account: When will this be? What will be the sign that this is about to take place? Has it already taken place? Where is Christ now when we need him? When will he, at long last, return and fix things for good?

And always lurking behind such theological probings, is the question: When will we, God’s people, be forever safe from harm?

Today’s gospel narrative is Luke’s profound – and perhaps profoundly troubling – response to these questions. For it seems to Luke that the troubles of this world are but sure signs that things are developing as they should and in accord with the Lord’s eternal plan. If the present age is replete with terror and fear, it is only because the world itself has been in some sense knocked off kilter – staggered by the power of Christ’ resurrection and his presence in the world.

Scary times, indeed.

Far from losing heart in the face of existing adversity, Luke asserts, Christians must come to know that these things – war, earthquake, famine, and plague – will but provide “an opportunity to testify” to the deeper truths of the gospel itself. For everything in the here and now already contains within it the promise of salvation to come.

As much as the Christians of Luke’s day might have wished for the Lord’s speedy return and an end to their trials, they were not to lose heart nor be “led astray.” It would have been all too easy for them – faced with persecution and mockery – to turn aside from the way of truth. But “not a hair of your head will perish,” Luke reassures them. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” It takes endurance – and great faith – to see Christ already present amid the turmoil of the age. But that is the challenge Luke sets before followers of Christ.

We face the same challenge today.

We, too, need reassurance of Christ’s nearness and imminence in our world. Everyone wants change. Every one of us wants a better future for ourselves and our children. Everyone, alas, also has differing views of the problems before us and the solutions to them.

It is easy to think that the world has changed significantly in our own time; that our current problems and challenges are unprecedented or that our age has undergone a unique “paradigm shift” in thinking and understanding. But the human heart does not change so quickly or easily. And, the truth of the gospel – and of Christ’s promise – remains as alive as ever it was. If we live in scary times, we also live in sacred times not unlike those of Luke in the first decades of Christian faith. Christ still has work for us to do.

Paul, by tradition Luke’s mentor in faith and mission, might challenge us as he challenged the Thessalonians of the first century: “Brothers and sisters,” he might say, “do not be weary in doing what is right.”

Brothers and sisters, we have our work cut out for us.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus has completed his ministry at “The Episcopal Church in Almaden” in San Jose, California, and is looking for work. Visit his profile at the Interim Ministry Network website, http://www.imnedu.org/PTSHegedus.htm.

Engaged in Christian worship, Pentecost 25, Proper 28, (C) – 2007

[RCL] Isaiah 65:17-25 or Malachi 4:1-2a; Isaiah 12 or Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

It is hard to hear today’s epistle without recalling Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ants. Thinking about the fun-loving grasshopper who showed up at the hard-working ants’ door, cold and starving during a winter storm, seeking food and shelter, it’s easy to imagine what the ant doorkeeper had to say. Maybe something like: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
It would be easy to consider this a very appropriate answer. It would sound about right if we were to imagine ourselves as parent ants seeking to protect our innocent baby ants from the irresponsible grasshopper who might eat the precious food we had saved for our little ones. Anyone unwilling to work should not eat – especially the able-bodied but lazy among us. This is a natural opinion.

Engaged in Christian worship, however, we might consider that such a view clearly seems more in keeping with the realities of modern politics than with the teachings of the church. Yet, of course, we realize that the response made by the ants to the grasshopper is nearly an exact quotation from today’s Epistle reading.

St. Paul reminded the Christians in Thessalonica that “We gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” And he added, “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

This doesn’t sound like the gentle, caring Jesus we normally think of, does it? Perhaps we even wonder if Paul misunderstood the Messiah, who seemed far less judgmental. Wouldn’t it seem more like Jesus to tell the ants, “You need to share what you have with this poor creature”?

How do we understand these seemingly inconsistent views?

We can begin by recalling the context in which Paul wrote. The new Christians in Thessalonica were caught up the spirit of believing the Second Coming of Christ would occur immediately. Assuming that was the case and that all would be fulfilled very soon, some of them appear to have decided not to do anything except wait and watch for Jesus to return and bring in the fullness of God’s realm. What riled up Paul was that the idle were taking advantage of the loving, outreaching and given nature of the local Christian community.

It is important to remember that what is being called into question here is a refusal to work – an unwillingness to contribute – like the grasshopper in the fable. Paul obviously was not referring to those who have no ability to produce. We must be careful not to apply this lesson to those who have lost their jobs, or are disabled, or to retirees reaping the fruits of a lifetime of work.

The refusal of some Thessalonians to work is bad enough, but what Paul seemed to dislike most was what the idleness was causing. These people weren’t just playing away the summer like the grasshopper, but their idleness had led them also to become busybodies. Paul is alert to the fact that there are few sins more damaging than gossip, especially in the life of the church. Malicious interest in the business of others is harmful and hateful. Even gossip that is not intended to be harmful has little chance of becoming productive and has no place within a life lived in the spirit of Christ.

We don’t have to be lying around waiting for the Second Coming to fall prey to this malady. It is all too easy to have enough time on our hands to spend it as busybodies. We see this among our friends and acquaintances and in ourselves. We recognize it as the familiar peeping-out-the-window desire to know what the neighbors are up to. We see it as a growing phenomenon that feeds on a culture of celebrity in which people take undue interest in every detail of famous people’s lives.

Listening to and spreading gossip about public figures, about anyone in authority, or about anyone in the church or our local community is something St. Paul warns us against. The warning he issued to the church in Thessalonica is a warning for us too: This is not the way Christians love their neighbors as themselves, and it not a way to respect the dignity of every human being, as the Baptismal Covenant requires of us.

What led to the Thessalonian busybodies’ refusal to work was a fundamental misreading of basic Christian ethics. They understood the beginning of our faith: the grace of God, love given without our having to earn it, given with no strings attached; God loving us and forgiving us regardless of our sins; unconditional love. But they missed the fact that this is only the surface view, only the beginning.

The idle people in Thessalonica took advantage of God’s grace, asking “Why should I exert myself to do God’s will? Why should I work? Why should I take risks? Why should I sacrifice and give myself away for the sake of others? Why not just sit back and take it all in?”

Perhaps in our time we have moment of relying on such a surface view, wondering “Why should I, too, not also become idle?” And so we ask, “What is the incentive?”

In today’s epistle reading, Paul used his own behavior as an example. “We were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.” St. Paul understood better than anyone about the power of God’s grace, but he did not “rest on his laurels” or take advantage of God’s love. He did not fall into idle pursuits. Rather, he did what he could to contribute the well-being of the community. He did not become a busybody or gossip or talk maliciously about others.

The incentive for us not to be idle comes through the development of a thankful recognition of what God has done and continues to do for us. In grateful response, we Christians do all in our power to respond to God’s love by loving God in return and, in so loving, also love our neighbors as ourselves. We do share as we are able, day by day, discharging the stewardship opportunities the Christian life lays before us. Using our God-given abilities to their fullest, keeping focused at all times on the values of God, we will not have the idle time to lapse into being busybodies.

Knowing that God loves us unconditionally, with no strings attached and regardless of our sins, we still have an incentive to refrain from the idleness that reaps such a bitter harvest. Our incentive is to gain the richer, fuller, more meaningful life to which God draws us.

Written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus
The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, TX. Email: Kesselus@juno.com.