Lectionary 33C (November 13, 2016)

There is tension in our texts, today. Tension like the tension we felt when the Cubs blew their lead in the eighth inning of Game Seven. (Thank goodness we’ve had no other tense moments since then.) I intentionally didn’t work on a sermon for today until after Tuesday had passed, because I knew there would be tension, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that I largely would be saying the same things today regardless of what happened.

There were some things I couldn’t know. I didn’t know I would be invited to participate in protests against President-Elect Trump. I am neither joining nor supporting these. I am not sure what they are supposed to accomplish. This election was only going on for four years. We had ample opportunity to make it turn out differently than it did. I assume none of you gathered here have been rioting. (And I differentiate between protesting and rioting, because they are different things.) To those who are rioting, I say, This is destruction of property. Go home. Judging by election turnout figures, anywhere from half to two-thirds of you didn’t even vote. You’re not mad about the election; you’re just rioting. Stop.

I also didn’t know precisely what a spike in hate crimes I would see. We’re seeing one, akin to those after 9/11 and Obama’s first election. I don’t care who you voted for. If you are here and a Christian, Christ calls you to stand with victims of bullying, assault, and intimidation. These crimes are happening. They have happened to friends. They have happened on the Valparaiso University campus. They have happened to members here at Trinity, to people you know. When you see harassment like this happening, Christ calls you to stand with the victims. Literally. Go stand with them. Make eye contact. Talk to them about anything other than the harassment. Ignore the belligerent party. Nine times out of ten, they lose interest and leave, and you can then help the victim calm down, ask if they need you to call someone, ask if they want to report it. I cannot guarantee that the other times this happens we won’t wind up on the receiving end. But Christ says these sorts of things are “opportunities to testify,” not that they will go well for us. Such are the times in which we find ourselves.

I did not know that those things would transpire until we woke up Wednesday morning. But aside from those, I had basically the same thing to say regardless of who won on Tuesday. Because I would be standing before some people pleased with the outcome, some people upset with the outcome, an epistle about living in the tension between the old and the new, and a gospel about the Temple being destroyed.

The Temple can’t be destroyed; it’s always been there. Now, people know it hasn’t always been there. The most telling comment on the Temple is in John 2, when Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And the people reply, “This temple has been under construction for 46 years, and you will raise it up in three days?” On the one hand, they can say that work’s been going on for 46 years, prior to which the thing wasn’t there. On the other hand, they seem to think nothing can go wrong with it. The 46 years of work make it last forever. So, today, Jesus says not a stone will be left on another. Whether he’s omniscient or these are the words of Luke who has lived through the destruction of the Temple, in the story his words just don’t compute. We know the Temple won’t last forever; we don’t believe it.

We treat much in our world today as though it is permanent, and we can’t hurt it, when in truth it is transient, even fragile. Take our environment. Is there global climate change connected to humans? The fact that this is an open question to some is proof of our false sense of permanence. Weather patterns are shifting, sea levels are rising, polar ice caps are melting, global temperatures are climbing, and all of it is tied as definitively as scientifically possible to our use of resources and our patterns of life. We’re failing as stewards of the world. And you know it wouldn’t have mattered who had won on Tuesday? Because during the campaign Americans didn’t make an issue of it. Neither candidate was asked about it in the debates. How many of us could describe both Trump and Clinton’s proposed environmental policies right now, without looking them up? I couldn’t. Because we believe nature is forever. We know it is changing, but we don’t believe it. So, we stand by and insist on the permanence of that temple, never acknowledging the Roman soldiers gleefully dismantling it.

It is a brand of escapism. It’s what is affecting Paul’s congregation at Thessalonica. Our second reading today is from 2 Thess. In 1 Thess, Paul lays out an understanding of the world. According to Paul, God offers us a new existence in Christ Jesus, and this is changing our lives. The old way of sin and death has been defeated, but hangs on desperately. The faithful must still struggle against it. Our method for struggling is the imitation of Christ. When Jesus calls me to do something, I do it, not because I think it’ll save my soul but because Jesus called me to do it. As we struggle, we see the new era breaking in.

Something’s gone wrong, though, in Thessalonica, since Paul sent his letter. We read today, “keep away from believers who are living in idleness.” Many of our minds stopped there, right? Protestant work ethic kicked in. Idleness = bad. The sentence continues, though, “living in idleness and not according to the tradition they received from us.” Paul’s talking about the understanding of the world I just mentioned. That word “idleness” is a bad choice by the translators. The word Paul uses comes from a Greek root meaning, “fixed” or “appointed.” Paul’s use of the negative means those living in an unfixed, un-appointed, undisciplined, insubordinate, disorderly manner. It is more than laziness. Instead we get the picture that the church at Thessalonica faces continued challenges from a hostile world, that members feel they are losing the struggle, so some of the members have started preaching something different: “The End is here! We don’t have to struggle anymore! Quit engaging with the world, because we’re better than they are!” In other words, they’ve stopped paying any serious attention to Christ. They’re preaching an escape from reality, and they’re winning people to their cause.

Our own escapism is subtle. We might not easily see it. It was in full force the whole election cycle regardless of party affiliation. It is the myth of progress and our sole civic duty of voting. I was schooled in the myth of progress. I was a kid in the 1980s, “Morning in America.” Life was great and was getting better all the time, so questioning the system was unpatriotic, and this was the Cold War, so you were playing into the hands of the Soviets. Your role in progress, though, was to vote, and otherwise leave things alone. Never mind that almost all substantial changes in our country originated outside the three branches of government, either through general economic changes or intentional moves by businesses or large scale civic movements. We are taught that voting is it. We heard a lot this week about how this has all changed, but honestly you had one candidate saying “progress” and another claiming “progress has stalled.” The solution was to vote, and then everything would magically be fixed. I don’t think either candidate personally believed that, and if I put it to you this way you may not either. And yet as a society we function that way, even to the point that after every election when someone tries to talk about the work that needs to be done with the new president, they get shouted down. Happens every time. “We voted. It’s done. Stop talking.”  That is some hard-core escapism!

It’s nice; it kills the tension of the election cycle. (After this last one we’re all ready for a break.) But the tension in which we live—the tension between the old dying world and the new world of Christ—is a tension no human being or group of human beings can break. Only Jesus can do it, and he chose to live his life in full tension between his human and divine natures, between the old and the new. For crying out loud, the man is crucified AND risen from the dead! We can assume this is how it is going to be for now. And if the tension is still here, we are right where St. Paul left us: imitating Christ, struggling with the old and bearing witness to the new.

Jesus doesn’t break the tension; in fact, it’s more than that: Jesus creates the tension. For Christians, the resurrection introduces tension into our lives. Without the resurrection, there is no tension; there is only the old way. Without resurrection, there is no new existence, no one to lead us in the struggle, no new world breaking into the old. It is just sin and death. That tension is what makes it worth being here. The tension is life in the Gospel. Attempts to escape from that tension are attempts to escape from new life in Christ. You can do it, but God, why would you?

Life in Christ means work. Not work that will save our souls. Hardly. Christ has done that for us. Living in Christ means working to imitate him. He has given us a tension, a source of life. For us today a fair portion of that tension involves caring for the environment. Whether or not we are passionate about it, it is the situation we face. Our well-being is not permanent. It requires work. Christ calls his disciples to follow him in their work. Christ’s life of feeding calls us to feed—to work for sustainable fisheries and farms, and to make sure everyone gets something to eat. Everyone gets something. Christ’s life of teaching calls us to teach, and to learn. Know something about how better to steward our environment? Tell us. Don’t? We’ll share notes afterwards; let’s listen, now. Christ’s life of forgiving calls us to forgive. We don’t just turn a blind eye to every new swath of destruction, and give everyone involved a free pass. But we do offer new life in Christ, and we must be eager to forgive those whose work has harmed our earth, when they ask for forgiveness.

There is tension in our texts today. It is the tension of a crucified and risen Lord. It is the tension that would drive us no matter what had transpired this week. It is the tension of life in the Gospel. It is the tension with which Christ calls us. Are we willing to make care for our environment an article of faith? Are we willing to make standing with victims of hate crimes an article of faith? Are we willing to imitate Christ, knowing that he has already saved us?