Sermon for Nov. 29, 2020. Advent 1B
Video is here.
[According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said:]
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
I remember when I came home from college one summer and discovered that I could no longer be a member of the church my family had been attending for years. They had updated their bylaws, including their Statement of Faith. As is common for Evangelical churches, signing the statement of faith was a membership requirement.
While I was away, based on texts like the one we read today, and others, they had changed their statement to include a belief in the return of Jesus (which they took literally), before the 1,000 year millennium (which they took literally too) and before the great seven-year tribulation (also taken literally). Well, I was still an Evangelical back then, but my understanding of these issues had started to evolve. Anyway, I was not able to sign that statement, and so quietly dropped off the membership roles.
Looking back, I think there are many levels of why that experience was sad, and by “sad” I mean, mistaken in a way that was unhelpful to anyone.
One of the levels of mistake, I now believe, is to take all of those descriptions of what is going to happen in the future literally.
Another level of mistake is to make believing things about the future into a membership requirement, as if it is up there with belief in God.
On an even deeper level, when we look at the historical Jesus in the oldest layer of the synoptic tradition, we do not hear of Jesus requiring anyone to have a specific set of beliefs as a criterion for receiving God’s mercy, so I do not believe we should either. For Jesus, Samaritans, Roman soldiers, Canaanite women (non-Jewish) were all the recipients of God’s grace without needing first to sign a statement of faith.
The Embarrassing Jesus
Speaking of the historical Jesus, one of the criteria used by scholars to determine whether a saying attributed to Jesus was authentic is the criterion of embarrassment. If a saying attributed to Jesus would have been embarrassing to the early Christian communities, then, the fact that they included it in their developing collection is evidence that it was authentic. Even though it was embarrassing, they retained it because it was authentic, like, for example, telling Peter who became the leader of the church, “Get behind me, Satan.”
One of those embarrassing sayings shows up here in this text from Mark’s gospel. According to Mark, Jesus was explaining what his disciples could expect to happen in the future. He predicted a calamity which the church later interpreted in an apocalyptic way, believing that it referred to his literal second coming. He told them,
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
To put it plainly, the apocalypse did not happen. Jesus had not returned, literally. And the fact that it did not happen was a confusing issue for the early church. Paul addressed the problem of the delay of Christ’s return in 1 Thessalonians. It must have been embarrassing for them that Jesus got it wrong.
Not Apocalypse, but Disaster
Unless he didn’t. Unless it was a misunderstanding. Maybe Jesus was not talking about the far off future at all, or about returning, literally. Maybe he was saying that some of the current generation would still be around to see the tragic events of what happened in the year 70; the Jewish rebellion and the Roman army’s crushing response.
You did not need to be a prophet back then, to see that the headlong rush to revolution, which was already brewing in Jesus’ day, would lead to a disaster. If that is what Jesus meant, he got it right, even if the church later misunderstood him.
Cliché, Compelling Advice
Jesus expected that there was trouble coming. If trouble is expected, what advice do you give? I have heard that the most cliché thing you can say is often the best. Perhaps it has become a cliché because it’s true, like the advice to “get plenty of rest, exercise, and watch your diet.” Or “wear your mask and keep socially distanced.”
Jesus’ advice may sound cliché, but I believe it is true, and can lead us to some profound reflections.
We too know trouble is ahead. Trouble is always ahead. Hopefully, not another pandemic, but we know that no previous year has been without its challenges, so there is no reason to expect perfectly calm seas ahead. So what is the advice Jesus gives his disciples as he anticipates national calamity ahead?
“I say to all: Keep awake.”
The people of Jesus’ day who were asleep to the gathering gloom of war clouds approaching were asleep to them at their peril. When the Romans showed up to put down the rebels, ancient historian Josephus said that hundreds of thousands were killed. To be asleep and unprepared, was to be in mortal danger.
Awake to the Spirit Today
My question for us today is, what are the issues we need to stay awake to? There are many, as always.
We, in the Presbyterian Church, are awake to the climate crises, and we will continue to be.
We are awake to systemic racial discrimination, and we will continue to be.
We are awake to the issues of poverty, of hunger, of homelessness, and of at-risk children, and we will continue to be.
But I believe there is one issue to which we have not yet become sufficiently awake. It is, I believe, a new movement of the Spirit in our times. It is the movement of God among sheep of “other folds,” as Jesus called them. It is a growing discovery, as The Second Vatican Council said that
“the…Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions.”
There are indeed things that are holy in other traditions. We do not have a corner on the market of spiritual truth.
There is now, a growing understanding of the truth that the Gospel of John puts on the lips of Jesus: that we humans are essentially one: one with God, one with each other. This is a mystical unity that is deeper than religion or race or politics.
From Inter-faith to Inter-spiritual
We Presbyterians have been in interfaith dialogue for over half a century. By now, most of us are comfortable with the idea that God is the God of all people, not just us Christians. Most of us are used to the idea that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans and others, have a right to practice their faith and do not need us to convert them for them to be acceptable to God.
It is now time to wake up to the beautiful opportunity to go beyond mere tolerance and acceptance, to a deep appreciation. That appreciation includes the liberating understanding that there are things to learn from each tradition.
I believe the Christian tradition is rich with treasures to offer to the world. I will always be a follower of Jesus, whose spirituality was profound, whose ethics were revolutionary, and whose vision for God and humanity are compelling.
I also believe that there are treasures in other traditions that can enrich my spiritual life. For example, from the Buddhists we learn about mindfulness; about staying centered in the present moment, and about the practice of silent meditation.
Jesus practiced these ways of being, but his teachings only give us hints and guesses. If we were to practice “interspiritual mysticism,” that is, openness to the gifts and treasures of spirituality from other communities, we would find much in common, and much to take us even further.
It is noteworthy that Hinduism and Buddhism include calls to be awake, just as Jesus did.
Those of you who are familiar with the work of Richard Rohr know that he has been teaching about the value of interspiritual mysticism. It is time we took this seriously. Rohr tells us about people who have gone before us on this path. He introduced us to the interspiritual teacher Bede Griffiths.
Bede was born in England, became a Catholic after college, and later became a Benedictine monk. After almost twenty-five years in that community, he went to India in 1955. It was in India that Bede discovered a different way of thinking. He wrote:
“The Western mind from the time of Socrates and Plato had concentrated on the development of abstract, rational thought which had led to the great systems of theology in the Middle Ages and to the achievements of modern science and philosophy. But India had been nourished from the beginning by the truth of the imagination, the primordial truth, which is not abstract but concrete, not logical but symbolic, not rational but intuitive. So it was that I was led to the rediscovery of the truth which the Western world has lost and is now seeking desperately to recover.”https://cac.org/a-christian-ashram-2020-09-24/
It is time we realized that the Western orientation to abstract rational thought misses treasures of imagination and symbolism that the East can reveal. In fact, openness to a non-rational mysticism has given us new insight in our own scriptures, like the Gospel of John which resists literal interpretation on every page.
We are people who believe that “all truth is God’s truth.” Just as God’s truth can be revealed by science, so God’s truth can be revealed by seekers of wisdom, poets with insight, and storytellers from many traditions whose creativity can open our hearts to God’s mysterious, amazing presence.
Whatever trouble lies ahead for us, whether it will be medical, political or economic, psychological or relational, Jesus calls us to “stay awake.”
Let us stay awake to all of the issues that we have already embraced, and let us be awake to the new things God’s Spirit is doing in our times.