Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
My father and I often respond to absurd news reports shared by text message or email forward with the tongue in cheek response: “A sure sign that the apocalypse is upon us.” In the past few weeks I have not been sure if that’s an appropriate joke to make. Wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and violence and death plague every news cycle. My cries have been “Come, Lord Jesus” more often than they’ve been jokes or hashtags.
When I read the Old Testament lesson appointed for this coming weekend and hear Amos’ denunciation of 8th century Judean social, economic, and religious practices, it sounds so familiar. Income inequality, corrupt business practices that benefit the wealthy, religion that’s nothing more than form without substance. It was bad news for Judah. Amos told them it was the end of the line.
This weekend I’ll be mounting the pulpit in a comfortably wealthy, white, mainline church. Are there ways in which Judah’s bad news needs to become our bad news as well?
Does our country’s disintegration into an endless stream of gun violence, police brutality, assaults on police, mass incarceration of persons of color, the proliferation of drugs in both poor and wealthy communities, an increase in poverty, the greatest gap in wealth distribution in recorded history; the breakdown of communities, the breakdown of families; and political candidates embroiled in controversy about their personal conduct on both sides of the aisle mark the end of America as we know it?
Does the Church’s shattering into a thousand factions marked by race, class, language, political preference, or the color of the carpet while neighbors are literally dying outside our doors mark the end of the mainline church as we know it? What if we’ve gotten to the point where speaking in such apocalyptic terms about the condition of our country and churches isn’t hyperbole?
If this is the end of the world as we know it, what else is there to say? Do we anesthetize ourselves by binge-watching another season of Game of Thrones on Netflix and hope it all goes away? Do we put on our happy faces and keep on serving those popsicles to the kids at VBS? Do we kill the prophets that tell us such things? Do we point our fingers in blame?
In the pocket NRSV that I carry around with me, the prophecy of doom and destruction that Amos levels towards God’s people is found on page 871. It is tempting to close the book and assume that there is nothing more to be said. This is the end, there’s nothing more we can do about it. Right?
But that’s not where the story ends in my Bible. On Sunday I also get to stand in that same pulpit and read from page 1097:
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.
This is from the epistle lesson appointed for Sunday from Colossians 1. It is another chapter of the same story. This is a story in which God does in fact level judgment on the wayward ways of God’s people, but it is not a story that ends with that judgment. Paul points to a way for us to be part of a different ending to this story. Paul tells us that if we are brave enough to pick up the pen on the story that we’re trying to write for ourselves and instead be written into God’s story, that what looks like an ending can in fact become a new beginning.
The death of everything we thought we wanted and the gods we constructed for ourselves is where this story climaxes, not where it ends. We serve a God who does God’s best work in situations that look to us to be hopeless. We serve a God who turns our endings—the point where we give up on ourselves, our material affluence, our deep-seeded and often subconscious racial superiority, our desire for vengeance, our trust in money and weapons—into new beginnings. We serve a God who looked at this world when it was most divided; when we were so far away—from God and from each other—and for us and for our salvation made a way for us to be reconciled through his own body and blood.
This new ending is ours to receive if we are willing to let the old ways die so that something new can be born in us and through us and in spite of us. This new ending is, in fact, already possible, and God is writing it every single day. I see it being written when I drive by a Methodist Church in East Durham where an old, white congregation who, for years refused to connect with the folks living in their neighborhood after it transitioned into a predominantly poor, black community chose a new ending by dying to the story they thought they could write for themselves and opened their lives and building to their neighbors. That place now houses a vibrant, diverse missional church and a nationally known anti-poverty initiative.
I see that new ending written by Christians who travel regularly to stand at the US/Mexico border wall and pass the body and blood of Christ to Christians on the other side as a way of naming that that there is a unity that is bigger than the divisions between us. I see that new ending written by a friend who every week travels across a literal train track into one of the poorest and most violent housing projects in her town to tutor in an after school program—choosing that act of love over the fear and bigotry of her neighbors.
I see that new ending being written when a woman whose husband is a police officer and who is the coordinator of her local “Back the Badge” initiative takes the time to call on the phone and ask about the “Black Lives Matter” Facebook post I made…because she wants to understand and she refuses to believe that people who think different ways can’t both claim the name of Jesus. She refuses to believe that Christians talking to each other can’t find a way through this mess. Jesus’ body and blood is writing a new ending to this story, friends. Some days it is a painful death for both of us as we let go of stereotypes, assumptions, and past experiences in favor of remaining rooted and grounded in a greater truth which is God’s reconciling love for blacks and police officers together.
These are the stories that give me cause to keep on hoping in the face of what looks like the hopeless truth that everything is coming to a devastating, painful end around me. These stories remind me that we stand at the end of something, but it is not the end of this story. These stories remind me that every day I stand at a hinge point in the story where Jesus takes the very worst that this world can do and in the lives of those who believe that another ending is possible begins to write a new ending to this story by making peace through his blood. It’s the story we tell every single time we gather as the church. It’s the story that we’re commissioned in the power of the Holy Spirit to live—and even die—for when we leave our churches each week.
So, maybe the folks we preach to on Sunday don’t agree with us and can’t hear a word we’ve said. Maybe someone in your church thinks that someone else in your church’s lifestyle is an abomination. Maybe there’s a guy you pass who stands on the street corner on your way into the office each day whose past bad choices have left him destitute and given you cause to judge the motives of what he’d do with that $5 burning a hole in your wallet.
Maybe the gulf between rich and poor will continue to grow. Maybe the animosity between blacks and police will continue to grow. Maybe we elect “the other guy” who you don’t vote for to be the President this year and hateful partisan mudslinging gets louder until we can’t do anything but split apart and be the un-United States of America. Maybe…
Or maybe we claim this ending to our story…
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death.
Maybe there’s a different ending possible if we, for the sake of the world and the glory of God, risk drawing near to Christ and in doing so draw near to one another and our neighbors.Maybe we keep coming, even when it’s hard, to this Table and the dinner table and the diner table where the sacraments of bread and juice…or maybe it’s eggs and bacon, write us into a different story.
This is our hope. He is our peace. Thanks be to God.