November 17/18, 2012*
For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.
Apocalyptic. That’s the word that describes the readings we just listened to, as we hear both Daniel and Jesus speak about “those days after the tribulation.” And if you have any doubt that these are, indeed, times of tribulation and impending doom…well, just listen to the news. We can’t listen to the radio, or pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing of the impending “fiscal cliff” that lies ahead for the US economy and the dangers that await us all if we plunge off that cliff into some unknown abyss. Some in our country who may have a particular outlook on politics and society see in the outcome of the recent elections signs that the end of civilization as we know it is surely in sight … After all, the presidential election did not go as they had hoped; the first openly gay woman has been elected to the US Senate, and the citizens of four US states voted either to recognize same-sex marriage explicitly, or at least not to prohibit it constitutionally. But for me, however, the clearest signal that the end of the world is in sight came this week with the horrific news that Hostess is going out of business! What could be a more clear sign that the tribulation is at hand than the fact that Hostess Cup Cakes, Ding Dongs, Ring Dings and Twinkies are no more?!
Clearly, I’m joking. But it is true that all of these things are happening in our world today, just as it’s true that they are reported or discussed with great urgency and angst.
It’s also just as true that these types of readings that we have on this, the second to last Sunday of our Liturgical year, can be difficult for many people, especially those who don’t understand what the Bible really is. Those who think that the Bible is a single book and who take literally all that it contains fail to understand that the Bible is actually a collection of books – a small library, as it were – of books that were written over the course of many centuries, in different times and places, even in different languages, for different audiences and with different purposes. Biblical literature comes in many genres – including poetry, history, gospel, as well as the type of apocalyptic literature that we have today.
Today’s first and third readings are clearly apocalyptic writings. Historically, this type of literature seems to arise in unsettled times, times when the authors experience either imagined, exaggerated, or very real tribulation and crisis. It’s the kind of writing that comes about when people who are experiencing great hardship need to know that the hardship will not last forever and that they will survive.
Specifically, the passage from the Book of Daniel describes the time in the 2nd century BCE (Before the Christian Era) when Israel was occupied by the Syrians under the Syrian King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Under his leadership, the Syrians tried to impose their language, culture and religion on the Jews. The Jews did not have the political or military strength to defeat the invaders, so they found solace in the belief that someday the Syrians would be defeated and leave. That belief gave them courage to endure present trials. They clung to what we as Christians, speaking of the Resurrection, call the “sure and certain hope” that God and God’s goodness would ultimately prevail.
Our Gospel passage from Mark was written when the community of Christians was still quite young. Christians were outsiders – and therefore despised by people and persecuted by the government. Although they were not seeking to replace Roman rule with Christian rule, it was this same experience of being excluded from the wider community that directed their vision to a world beyond the present day, to a time when their faith would be vindicated and the Reign of God, ushered in by God’s Son, would prevail.
I have to be honest and say that I typically pay little heed to Apocalyptic literature – even in the Scriptures. Probably that’s because it seems to attract an odd type of person, but also because they tend to generate in us a sense of anxiety and worry over things that we can do nothing about.
And yet, I also have to wonder if there isn’t a message for us in our own day about what these sorts of writings have to say, some two millennia further down the road of history? Is there a lesson to be learned, a truth to be uncovered, a pearl of wisdom to be appreciated in such writings?
Obviously the answer is yes. Two things come to mind. First, these writings, in drawing our attention to the future, remind us that the present day is passing away and that the world as we know it will not last forever. Our experience of life and the world tells us that all things evolve and change and ultimately pass away … pass away into we know not what. And so whether our future lasts for one year – or a trillion years – it really doesn’t matter, does it? Whether the Second Coming of Jesus happens in our lifetime or not – as it probably will not – it really doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is, as one scripture scholar put it, we need to see these apocalyptic writings “not so much [as] a warning about the end of the world, [but rather] as … a commentary on living in it. This day, this moment, this life, … NOW is the time to bear the fruit” as faithful disciples of the Lord. Now is the time for us to live lives rooted in justice and charity. These writings may draw our attention momentarily toward the future; but they also serve as a reminder that the only real moment we have is NOW.
And so NOW, we believe that life is meaningful and has purpose. We believe that in some way unknown the hand of God is at work in human history. We believe that goodness and not evil will have the last say. And most especially – coming from our own experience as outsiders, as individuals and as part of communities who know what it means to be excluded – we believe that every person on the face of this earth reflects the eternal beauty of the Divine Image and is worthy of dignity, respect, and love.
As we come to the end of this church year, as we celebrate our national day of Thanksgiving this week, and even as we struggle as a Church, a Nation and a World to work together for the good of all, let us make our own the words of the Psalmist: “You are my inheritance, O Lord! You will show me the path to life, fullness of joys in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.”
*I typically draw upon many sources in preparing my homilies. But this one owes a particular debt to Roger Vermalen Karban and James Smith, Preaching Resources for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Celebration Publications (www.celebrationpublications.com).
(c) Copyright 2012 – Timothy J MacGeorge