Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Sometimes it is hard to know what to do. While it is true that people in many different time periods have believed that they were witnessing “the end times,” it’s still difficult not to listen to today’s scriptures and get just a little bit paranoid. In recent years we have experienced wars and insurrections, nations rising against nation, earthquakes, famines, plagues, fires, floods, and other “dreadful portents and great signs” that suggest that this world could very well be heading to its conclusion. For me, what is sad is not the thought that the world will end – for, as Christians we know that there is a better place that waits for those who believe in God’s saving grace. What bothers me is that instead of rising to these challenges in graceful unity, we have instead, as our prayer book says, “turned against God and turned against one another.”
That’s why we should hear today’s scriptures with gratitude instead of fear, because these lessons should reassure us that God has provided us with all we need to salvage our souls. But first we have to abandon what we think we know about what is important. We have to learn to stop thinking of ourselves – our individual selves – and focus on what we might do for others. And we have to let go of our fear. Fear is deadly. Fear is what draws us away from other people. Fear is what separates us from God. Fear is sin.
It’s also sneaky. Fear convinces us that our lives, perhaps even our souls, are in danger, and that we are within our rights to do anything to save ourselves and those we love. But this is not what scripture says. Today we heard about the early Christian community at Thessalonica, which was in disarray because some members were not doing their share of the work. “The situation in the church at Thessalonica had arisen out of an eschatological expectation that Jesus was coming soon. This expectation must have led some to assume there was no longer a reason to tend the fields or the shop, since all would be gathered in the Lord any day.” Why, they thought, should we bother to care for this world when we’ll be in the next pretty soon? This may sound familiar, as it is exactly why many 21st century Christians are not concerned with climate change. They do not think it is their responsibility to care for this world, as Jesus is coming to take them away to another, better world, leaving the rest of humanity behind.
But there is nothing in our scriptures that suggests that it is acceptable to simply write off our human brethren – whether we think they are right or wrong. Jesus never suggests that we can stop trying to live our best lives just because we afraid. He never says that we are allowed to hide from the horrors of the world –to assume that we are somehow worthy of being safe when others are not. The author of the letter to the Thessalonians knew that there are always some people who are willing to take advantage of others – to “work” the system rather than work in it – and that is what he is condemning. As followers of Jesus, we are always to be concerned about other people at least as much as about ourselves, not only because this is what our scriptures tell us over and over that we are to do, but because it is the only way that we can survive the chaos and evil that surround us.
“Do not be fooled,” Jesus warns his disciples when he sees how they are drawn to the temporal beauty of the temple – just as we are drawn to our stained glass and silver chalices and embroidered robes. These earthly symbols of power and authority have no meaning to God. Do not allow them to mean so much to you. Of all of the things that can and do happen to human beings – violence, persecution, betrayal – nothing is as dangerous as the words of the false prophets, who tell you that it’s okay to be selfish, that the more you have, the safer you will be and that putting yourself first is good and right.
Many years ago, Gary and I went to Rome. Gary’s grandmother, then in her 80s, was a pious Catholic woman who had lived a difficult life, filled with many indignities and hardships – but she had survived and thrived because she was a person of faith. So, when we visited Vatican City, we decided that we would get something special for his grandmother, a sign of respect for her great faith. We bought her a rosary which had been blessed by the Pope. We were excited to give it to her and when we got home we handed her the package with delighted expectation. She opened it and seemed properly impressed, but almost immediately put it down, looking pensive. “What is it Grandma”? Gary asked. “It is only that this is so very beautiful and in your pictures I see that there are so many beautiful things in the palace where the Pope lives.” “Are you sad,” we asked, “because you didn’t get to go there?” “Oh no,” she said. “I am sad because they have so many things and there are still so many poor people who have nothing.” We had, without knowing it, walked right into the trap that Jesus warns us about. We had equated earthly riches and power with the power of God. We had tried to give his grandmother a false idol. But she knew better. She knew better. Brothers and sisters, beware that you are not led astray, for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”
And do not be afraid. The day is coming, the prophet tells us, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will have neither root nor branch. But for those who revere God’s name and who do God’s will the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. Those who are faithful to God will sing a new song, a song of mercy and justice and joy.
Generations of human beings have seen evil rise and sometimes triumph – and it may indeed be our turn. But our good Lord will not desert us if we do not desert him. It is our opportunity – our blessing –to demonstrate our love for God. When we look around us and see people who are cold and hungry and sick and homeless and our heart cries out against injustice, we are blessed, because God has placed his hand on our hearts and given us the chance to demonstrate – to testify– to the God of love.
This is what happened to Thomas Dorsey, who was born in 1889 in rural Georgia. Dorsey was an excellent blues and gospel musician, who ultimately dedicated himself to church music. “In August of 1932, Dorsey left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting in St. Louis. After the first night of the revival, Dorsey received a telegram that simply said, ‘Your wife just died.’ Dorsey raced home and learned that his wife had given birth to a son before dying in childbirth. The next day his son died as well. Dorsey buried his wife and son in the same casket and withdrew in sorrow and agony from his family and friends. He refused to compose or play any music for quite some time. While still in the midst of despair, Dorsey said that as he sat in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed through him. He heard a melody in his head that he had never heard before and began to play it on the piano. That night, Dorsey recorded this testimony while in the midst of suffering: Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand; I am tired, I am weak, I am worn: Through the storm, through the night lead me on to the light; Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.” And so he will. AMEN.
Elizabeth Barrington Forney, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 305.
Nancy Lynne Westfield, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 312,