Monday, November 7, 2016

Pre-election Sermon at Dayton (WA) First Congregational Church 11/06/16



2 Thessalonians 2:1-5;13-17
2:1 As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.

3 Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

When I was a kid growing up in Ohio, there was a lot of “end times” talk in popular culture.  Although it had long been a part of the conversational and educational life of some churches, those were a minority in Ohio where simply trying to be nice was a religion in and of itself. In the 70’s and 80’s, it was actually mainstream movies like Damien Omen or even GhostBusters that suggested we were never all that far from the end of the world. Add to the mix the possibility of nuclear annihilation; environmental degradation or even the emergence of AIDS and it sometimes it sometimes seemed as though the news was reporting on the Apocalypse, LIVE.

These days, there still seems to be a lot of it but from a different angle. We don’t seem to be focusing on the arrival of the Apocalypse as much as trying to imagine what it might look like afterwards. Think about all the post-Apocalyptic movies, books and tv shows just this year. There was always some of this but the amount of attention being focused on how to get through an environmental disaster or a plague or zombies is everywhere and seemingly increasing.

I don’t know if any of you heard but there’s an election this coming Tuesday. I know that I know I can’t wait until it’s over and I’m guessing one or two of you might be in that same camp, too. However, there’s some that are planning on it being over in a different way and by “it” I mean the world as we know it. Stores are selling out of emergency preparedness kits. Gun and ammunition sales are experiencing a spike. Websites that help you learn how to prepare for a disaster are seeing their numbers go up, too.

When researching this article online, I found folks who, through their websites and sermons, quote one particular part of today’s scripture to refer to Clinton, Trump, Obama and Pope Francis among several others. It was the part that read:
“Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”
Yep, folks are convinced that the end of the world is close and there’s an anti-christ ready to emerge and take over at any moment.

Those that really want to apply scriptural proof for the end of the world scriptures have always been able to find ones like the one we read to day to back themselves up. They are just vague enough that those with an apocalyptic worldview are always able to find things that fit into that narrative.

Those of us in the mainline church have usually pushed back against those who use scripture in this way. There is always another historical story behind the texts that are lifted up. All these texts were current to that time and described challenges of that time and place.

The references to today’s text from Thessalonians are no exception. Although attributed to Paul, it’s unlikely it was actually written by Paul. It was a normal practice in this time to write under the name of a teacher as a way of saying what was being written was intended to be an extension of a teacher’s writing. When this was written, there was a clear expectation that The Day of the Lord - a day of terrible upheaval for some and of grace for others - was going to come at any moment. Jesus was coming to judge and to save.

However, as 2nd Thessalonians was written this coming of Jesus was, well, late. Early followers who believed in this had expected that it was going to happen earlier, They were trying to figure out what to do now. The idea had been that although there was some suffering and sacrifice, it wasn’t going to last forever and they would be relieved soon. They were going to be saved at any moment. But, there were some, the text suggests, who were suggesting that, well, maybe Christ had already come and those receiving this letter had just not been included.

The leader they refer to in this text was probably the Roman Emperor Caligula and he was doing some pretty awful things to people and saying some pretty awful things. His power was on the upswing but the writer of 2nd Thessalonians was just trying to help people chill out a bit. This emperor would fall. His lies would be exposed. “Don’t worry, God will still win,” the author was trying to say. This letter was meant to be words of hope to people whose hope was wavering.

This is what this text meant, then. However, the problem in talking about these texts is that sometimes we get so wrapped up in rejecting one interpretation of them that we miss another.  We miss real opportunities to talk about what it feels like when our world is falling apart. We miss the opportunity to talk about hopes that have been dashed. We miss the opportunity to talk about leaders who worry us or frighten us.

This election cycle has been one of the most disheartening one in, maybe, our lifetimes. No matter which candidate you may support, the statistical reality that there are such a large number of people who disagree with you about some central perspectives and issues is sobering. Knute Berger, a Pacific Northwest writer, takes the terms “Cold War”and “Civil War” and suggest that our country is in a Cold Civil War. The political and social rhetoric of the last several months has been heating that war up a bit to levels that are creating more and more anxiety. Anxiety creates more anxiety. Unresolved conflict only makes way for more unresolved conflict. It seeps into all levels of our relationships and interactions.

I can tell you that before the last few election cycles, those churches that call me looking for help related to church conflict go up and more and more of them mirror the patterns of social conflict. In too many churches, the call isn’t to try and figure out how to save the community. They ask my involvement from one side or another of the conflict to try and help them figure out how to “win.” In and of itself, this isn’t new. There have always been a few churches that reach this state of conflict but in the time before election seasons, more of them sound like this and I get more calls about church conflict than usual. Within these congregations, there are frequently those convinced that their fellow church member is lying and, as in the text for today, that the lies of one side or another will be - must be - exposed. At some point, they begin to anticipate the congregation falling apart; their own end times. We are in anxious times and anxiety sometimes breeds more anxiety.

I get why folks in the mainline church frequently try and reject an apocalyptic interpretation of biblical texts. However, there’s a problem in rejecting these texts as applying to now. By getting so wrapped up in rejecting one interpretation of the Apocalyptic texts, we miss real opportunities to talk about what it feels when our world is falling apart and miss the opportunity to talk about how awful that can feel. We miss the opportunity to, maybe most importantly, recognize that end times are a part of our collective human experience. Maybe, just maybe, by feeling the pre-election anxiety, we are also feeling a small portion of what those in Syria felt during the earliest days of their civil unrest. Maybe, just maybe, as we recognize more and more or our environmental realities, we are beginning to feel some of what those in Samoa, Micronesia and those living on the west coast of Washington have been feeling as they’ve had to seek higher ground further from the ocean’s edge. Maybe, just maybe, as we worry about the safety of our electronic infrastructure and consider cyberwar with Russia, we are feeling the anxiety of those who live their lives with constant monitoring. Maybe we’re just catching up with the kind of anxiety many other folks throughout the world feel daily.

By getting so wrapped up in rejecting one interpretation of Apocalyptic texts, we miss the opportunity to say just how close to the edge of end times we are because the power of this text is not in its prophesy... but in its witness.  This text’s application to all times puts our current season of anxiety in context. The reason this text has been used so often and for so long as part of Apocalyptic conversations is because something is always ending; there is always someone or some group of people in leadership who are corrupt and whose lies need to be exposed. There are always those who gather in fear and anxiety. There are always end times. Always. In times when we have the gift of being so quickly informed of ideas, events and tragedies all over the world, we have the challenge of constantly being exposed to the anxiety of the world. It is that exposure that leads towards being infected by the anxiety of it.

It is easy to look at that which is evil in the world and be convinced that evil is winning. It is easy to look at those natural, political and religious systems humanity has had a hand in corrupting and believe that only more disaster and corruption are inevitable. It is easy to focus all our time, energy, and power into the anxiety these ideas present. But the text for today ultimately suggests something different.

I invite you to close your eyes, take a deep breath and listen to this part of today’s text.

“But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

It is these words that may be the most radical in the text. They call us back to an amazing reality. The reality of our world being messed up may be a cause for anxiety but it is also proof of the importance of the faith and work what we are called to. We are not simply victims of this time and place. We are called to this time and place. We are not bystanders to life’s challenges. We are called to be witnesses of them. We are not passive consumers of media. We are called to proclaim good news. We are not called to be swept up in the anxiety of the world. We are called to “stand firm and hold fast.”  Yes, there are endings every day and most of them have, at least, some pain involved but God has made available to us an endless supply of “comfort and good hope.” Sure, there’s a lot to do but when we’re doing good work - the right work - our hearts are strengthened for it.

There are plenty of voices in this world that are telling us that we are powerless and that only they can save us. That is the big lie. The big truth is that we are actually more powerful than we can imagine and that, with God’s help and God’s love, we can find a better way, together.

A friend of mine is a strong Clinton supporter and her neighbor is a strong Trump supporter. This friend of mine had been doing a lot of thinking and praying about this and the overall division that this election has has exposed. It troubled her. So, after talking about this with a friend, she baked an excellent apple pie and nervously brought it to her neighbors. As she delivered it, she said something along the lines of “We may disagree, but I just want to make it clear I still care about you.” The neighbor smiled, received the pie and said - while pointing to the Trump sign in their yard- something along the lines of “These things shouldn’t matter between neighbors. I love you. Come on in.” She was welcomed in for more conversation and, I imagine, some coffee and excellent pie.


This, my siblings of Christ, is communion. This is the heart of our faith. This is the good news of this time and place. This is the time and place we are called to. Amen.