Living Under Threat of Disaster

HOMILY: THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, Year C

Luke 21:5-19

I don’t care how young you were when you first read Harry Potter: You quickly figured out two things:  (1) Harry would ultimately survive and be OK and (2) He would eventually kill Voldemort.  Right?  But even though you knew both those things, you didn’t just say, “OK, Harry equals good guy.  Voldemort equals bad guy.  Harry will win.  Next!”  You made a decision to put your trust in the author that this was a story worth savoring and throwing yourself into even though you knew where it was going.  

And then, one day, Dobby died.  How many of you cried?  It was awful.  And at that point, you could have just slammed down the book and said, “I give up.  This is terrible.”  But somehow you decided to trust the author.  You didn’t know how bad it would get, how many more precious characters and places would be lost, but you were pulled forward because you knew that, however bad it got, Harry would win.  

Now, of course, the Harry Potter universe also opens kids to the reality that life isn’t always just good vs. evil, and that people who appear evil might in fact be good deep down, and people who seem good and wise may harbor secrets or conflicting motives.  But Rowling ultimately sorts these things out, and we see the reality behind our guesses, behind our initial prejudices.  

The attraction of the whole universe Rowling created, of course, is that it conforms to what we see, and it conforms to our hopes.  

So, what about our story– the actual story we’re living in and which we see through the lens of our faith?  When we turn to the Gospel, of course, we have Jesus in full-blown apocalyptic mode.  They’re walking through the temple– which is huge and, we should note, at that time pretty much brand new– and Jesus says to the folks who are admiring the beauty of the place, “Yeah, this building that seems so stable and so permanent?  So much a symbol of national and religious pride?  So much a sign of how we have made our peace with Rome?  The days are coming when this whole thing will be torn down utterly.”  

That got their attention.  

And then he cautions them, saying, essentially, “Look:  You are going to experience some really bad times.  Wars.  Insurrections.  Persecutions.  It will feel like the end of the world.  It won’t be.  Nations come and go.  Buildings come and go.  Evil may reign for a season, but love has the last word.”

Whatever your politics, and however you’re feeling about the election, it’s worth noting that Jesus realizes the temple isn’t forever.  Nor is Trump.  Neither, for that matter, is the United States.  Only his Church and his kingdom is forever.  People put their faith in the temple, which was destroyed.  People put their faith in Rome, which fell.  People put their hopes in an endless string of nations, political movements, and charismatic leaders over these last two thousand years.  All once seemed more powerful, and now all are gone, but Christ’s church remains.  

If you are letting Jesus shape your understanding of your political obligations, that’s called discipleship.  If you are letting your politics shape your understanding of Jesus, that’s called idolatry.  Be a disciple, not an idolater.  

I have heard repeatedly from Christians this week that we must not worry because “God is in control.”  At one level, of course, they are correct.  At another, I find myself wondering why they jump to this so quickly.  History is littered with examples of things going very, very badly.  History is littered with times when good people stuck their heads in the sand and let horrible things happen.  History is littered with times when seemingly good people– including religious leaders!– sold out to evil, justified evil, even collaborated with evil because of a misguided desire for power and safety.  God is indeed in control in the sense that he will ultimately work his purposes out.  But God has given you a conscience.  God has commanded you to be kind.  God has commanded you to love the immigrant, the widow, the orphan.  God has commanded you to love justice.  God has commanded you to protect the vulnerable.  God has commanded you to side with the poor.  If we know these things and know that we fail, how can we assume that somehow everything’s going to work out splendidly in the near term?  We can’t.  

Now, that said, we have to be humble enough to know that our assessment of any situation– even when things appear to be going our way– always bears within it the potential for being wrong.  This is why Jesus warns us that many will be deceived– human fear can distort us and our perceptions.  This is where prayer comes in– it is a long, loving look into reality as it is, not either as we are afraid it might be or as we unrealistically think it is.  The world is a stubborn thing that will not wrap itself around your human hopes.  

So it is for us to long for holiness, to strive for justice, to love the truth more than we love being right, to love the poor, the disabled, the orphan.  In a world where bad things happen, we need to stay close to Jesus, stay courageous, recommit ourselves to justice and to each other, be sober and vigilant.  But above all, people, be charitable.  Be kind.  Be respectful of difference.  Do the difficult work of reconciliation when reconciliation is possible.

A few things:

  1. Don’t let either your activism or your happiness get ahead of the facts.  The world needs sobriety and vigilance, not hysteria and gamesmanship.  If you engage in politics, let truth and love guide your steps.
  2. If you find yourself speaking with hatred or condescension, check yourself.  Whatever Jesus wants of you, he does not want this.
  3. Don’t attribute to God’s will what can be better accounted for by human sin, selfishness, stupidity, or lack of wisdom.  
  4. If you find yourself giving in to despair, know that this is not of God.  The authentically Christian life is both aware and light.  As Wendell Berry would say, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”  
  5. Be, above all, a person of prayer.  When we admit our need for God and we begin to trust in his lovingkindness, the inevitable setbacks and tragedies of life can start being framed against the grand narrative of his story.   

Being a Christian does not mean that things can’t get abysmally bad; things do, in fact, fall apart. Being a Christian is knowing that the story’s ending is in the author’s hands, and that by staying close to Jesus we can share in that ultimate victory.  And I can’t emphasize this enough:  This altar, right here, is where heaven meets earth in the Eucharist, where all the saints and martyrs gather around the throne of the lamb in the new Jerusalem, in a living temple of which we are all building blocks. Remain in him, let him be your strength and your joy until we come at last to the fullness of his kingdom where he lives and reigns forever and ever.  


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