Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Years ago I heard Walter Brueggemann say that the task of the church is to always proclaim the vision and vocation of God’s reign. Always. But at the same time always be patient with one another as we fail to live up to that vision and vocation. Always.
Keeping that tension is part of the task of the pastor.
Brueggemann’s statement is a reminder of the work we pastors do: we’re prophetic – always proclaiming the vision and vocation of God’s reign; we’re pastoral – always helping a congregation be patient with one another as we fail to live up to the vision and vocation. The tension is always there and we’re caught right in the middle of it.
It’s not easy living in that tension. The constant temptation is to ease up one way or another. The easiest is to let off the pressure on the prophetic side. Quit proclaiming texts like Luke 21 and Isaiah 65.
In the Luke passage Jesus foretells the coming destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the coming of persecution and upheaval.
I remember seeing the movie The Planet of the Apes as a kid with its shocking ending of the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. What made it appalling was the abrupt realization that New York City and the United States would one day come to an end.
The disciples would have been even more shocked and perhaps outraged at Jesus’ assertion while standing before Herod’s great Temple that “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Luke 21:6).
What I’m learning is that although many of my generation and before have had a difficult time imagining the coming of the end of the United States and “our way of life,” many younger people don’t. Things like climate change is ever on their minds and with the drought in my part of the world, it’s on a lot people’s minds. The end doesn’t seem to be as far away as it used to be.
The tension I feel as a pastor is not so much over preaching the coming end and destruction of our way of life as it is in preaching the coming of the new creation in Christ. Bad news is easy to believe; it’s the gospel that’s unimaginable to most of the people sitting in front of me on Sunday morning.
In the pulpit we look at people overwhelmed and just trying to hang on by their fingernails from the cancer, the grief, the disappointment, the shattered hopes, and the plain ol’ exhaustion of trying to stand for the good in a world where profit and greed have built a world based upon badness and meanness. Add to all that the terrorism, climate change, wars and rumors of wars and sometimes I’m surprised that anyone shows up in church at all.
By the time of Isaiah 65 the handful of exiles have returned to Jerusalem after a generation in Babylon. The city they yearned for, cried over, and prayed they would someday return to turns outs to be a pile of rubble covered in weeds. What’s the use of hoping when it all turns to naught? What’s the use of standing against the Keystone XL pipeline? They’re going to just run over us. What’s the use of fighting the cancer? It’s just going to come back. What’s the use of feeding these hungry children? They’ll come back hungry the next day and the next and the next… What’s the use of standing against systems and powers and principalities? After all, they have all the power; that’s why they’re called the powers.
Jim Wallis tells the story from some years ago of volunteering in a church homeless shelter around Christmas time. The church basement was decorated with banners and Christmas decorations, “Good news! Christ is born!” “Glory to God in the Highest” and so on. One of the men who lived each day out on the streets looked around the room and asked, “What is the good news anyway?” Jim said there was a long pause; no one knew what to say. Finally someone spoke up from the back of the line, “The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this.”
To a people habituated to bad news, sad news, and maddening news, there is the good news that it doesn’t have to be like this. Isaiah says God is about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind… there will be no more infant mortality; instead there will be adequate housing and everyone will have their own gardens and eat from them instead of growing food for someone else… and the wolf and the lamb shall feed together…” (Isaiah 65:17-25). God intends for us, for this world to be better, to do better. God’s future is out there and it’s coming.
Any church that stops leaning toward that “new heaven and new earth,” any church which no longer keeps taut the tension between the world as it is and the world as God intends it to be, is a sadly compromised and accommodated church. We’ve somehow got to keep before us the gap between the status quo and the world that God intends; between the bad news or no news and the good news. There is some distance between God’s will for the world and the world in which we now live. There is stress between what is and what ought to be.
What is the good news anyway? The good news is that in Jesus Christ the end has already come. Our vocation and vision is to live out “the end” now. Here and there, in small, quiet, and persistent ways the church is to embody the practices that Isaiah foresaw. It’s not all here; it’s still coming. Keep up the tension; don’t let up.