Monday, November 30, 2009

The End of the World As We Know It

Sermon preached November 29, 2009

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

This morning I am going to begin with cartoon strips from this week’s newspaper. First, two from Peanuts. Charile Brown is walking along talking to himself. Sometimes, when you walk by the home of the girl you love, you can see her standing by the window… She waves at you and you wave back, but it’s her grandmother. Later in the week, Charlie is talking to his younger sister, Sally. She asks, “What’s this about waving at somebody?” Charlie: “Every day when I walk past the little red-haired girl’s house, her grandmother and I wave at each other.” Sally: “That’s weird.” Charlie: “No, it’s kind of nice.” Sally: “I waved at a kid on the playground today, and he threw a snowball at me!” Life’s little disappointments – waving at your girlfriend, only to discover it’s her grandmother, waving and getting a snowball in return.
Life’s little disappointments found their way into two of Tuesday’s cartoons. Close to Home showed a wife looking at a card, and then saying to her chagrinned husband: “Oh, isn’t that sweet! My dentist sent me a birthday card! The only person in the whole world who remembered!” Oops! Then there was Non Sequitur. The cartoon was captioned: “How Marketing Works.” It showed a man looking at a display in a store. He was thinking, “Hmmm… Maybe this will relieve the feeling of inadequacy that I didn’t have until just now” and the sign read: “For Real Men Only… BALD DUDE SHAMPOO!”
Life has its little disappointments. It also has bigger disappointments and hurts, losses and griefs. Even with these, most of us would not want to dramatically change the world as we know it. Some changes, yes, but most of them would leave much of the world intact.
Last month during one of the number of meetings I attended out of town, I overheard a United Methodist bishop talking with a lay woman about apocalyptic literature in the Bible, literature depicting cataclysmic change. What he said was that we have trouble relating to that literature because we are relatively happy with the way the world is. I have wondered about and pondered that statement since – and it came back to me as I read the Scripture for this week from Luke. It is apocalyptic – There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Apocalyptic literature is about change, dramatic change, earth-shaking, earth-rattling change. Apocalyptic literature sings out – “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” Heaven and earth will pass away. The end will be jarring, cataclysmic.
But I agree with the Bishop, we have a difficult time relating to this literature. Yet it arrives every Advent season in the church, so I want to suggest that this literature is deeply relevant to our lives. This literature wants to say three important things to us:
1. The world is out of whack, off kilter, more than we imagine, more than we want to imagine.
2. We are invited to have a certain restlessness in our lives in the face of what is wrong with the world, seeds of divine discontent.
3. In spite of the darkness and difficulty, there is always hope, for God is always at work. If the days are coming when heaven and earth will pass away and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, then these days will also bring with them the promise of God for justice and righteousness, as Jeremiah indicates.
I think the basic message of Luke 21 and other apocalyptic literature in the Bible is this: open up - - - open your eyes to see more of the world, open your hearts to feel more deeply, open your arms to work for change.
We need to open our eyes to see that the world we live in has some deep, dark sides to it. While we may be relatively content to live in this world, there are realities that cry out for dramatic change.
We cannot ignore the depth of human inhumanity. All we need do is pick up the newspaper, or turn on our computers and we hear stories of rape, murder, torture in the world, stories about abused and neglected children, about child soldiers in Africa, about the selling of human beings into slavery – mostly for purposes of prostitution. In the recent history of humanity have Hitler’s holocaust, Stalin’s five-year plans, Mao’s cultural revolution, and Cambodia’s killing fields. The word “genocide” is less than 100 years old, coined in the 1930s, though the reality of killing groups of people based on their identity is certainly as old as organized human community. But it was not until then that we coined the term – what does that say about human progress?
We need to open our eyes to our use of the earth’s resources. Can we sustain the economic models which sustain our lives without doing serious and significant long-term damage to the planet? Is the cost of our highly mobile society the depletion and even the death of the planet? I listen to some futurists discuss a more wireless future, communication systems that rely on sensors everywhere, more information immediately available than we can process, but where will the energy for this come from? This week I read in The New York Times Book Review a review of a new book on Google, interesting subtitled – “the end of the world as we know it.” Popular title I guess! Anyway, towards the end of the review the author noted that Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin now “fly around in a customized Boeing 747 and talk sincerely about green computing, even as the free streaming of everyone’s home video clips on YouTube burn through mountaintops of coal.” Is that sustainable?
We need to open our eyes to the realities of wealth and poverty in our world. The Bible and Christian faith are not anti-wealth. The Bible and Christian faith are concerned for the poor, and create in us an uneasiness about a world where some are remarkably, fabulously wealthy, and many, too many are mired in grinding poverty. In his book Enough, John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Mutual fund Group, tells the story about Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, both authors, attending a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. The host is a hedge fund manager, and Vonnegut says to Heller that this man had made more money in a single day than Heller had ever earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22. Heller responds to Vonnegut, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough.” (1) Bogle goes on to write: the rampant greed that threatens to overwhelm our financial system and corporate world runs deeper than money. Not knowing what “enough” is subverts our professional values (2). We live in a world where too many don’t have enough and some don’t understand the word “enough.”
The things that are off kilter are not just out there – they are also in here, inside each of us. Inner change is also important in our lives, often small and quiet, sometimes dramatic and far-reaching. We need to open our eyes to our need for change and to the difficulty of some of the change needed inside. I appreciate these words of Ernest Becker about inner change which can involve the going through the hell of a lonely and racking rebirth where one throws off the lendings of culture, the costumes that fit us for life’s roles, the masks and panoplies of our standardized heroisms, to stand alone and nude facing the howling elements as oneself (The Birth and Death of Meaning, 146). Sounds a little dramatic, perhaps, but when patterns of self-destructiveness are deeply ingrained in one’s life, or patterns of relating that cause hurt to others and deeply woven into one’s life, deep change is needed, and it is challenging.
Apocalyptic literature reminds us that there are aspects to our world that need dramatic change, that the world as we know it may need to end in significant ways for a new world to be born. It plants in us a certain restlessness, a certain divine discontent with the way the world is, with the way our lives are. This literature in our Bible invites us to open our eyes to see the world more truthfully. It also invites us to open our hearts to hope, for we trust that God remains at work to build a newer world. It invites us to open our arms to work with God for that newer world.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes about a deeper openness to the world in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. It is actually difficult to edit life. Especially in regard to feelings. Not being open to anger or sadness usually means being unable to be open to love and joy (203). She goes on to tell the story of a woman in her early sixties who Dr. Remen was treating for ovarian cancer. This woman had led an extraordinary life, at one time taking her children out of school to travel with them around the world. Remen called her a “Zorba the Greek kind of woman.” The treatment experience was tremendously difficult. The woman told Dr. Remen, “At the start, I saw myself at the top of a ski run. It was a hellacious run. What I didn’t realize was that I would have to make it on my knees.” (204) Throughout the experience, the woman listened to what she called her “chemotherapy music.” About a year after her treatment, the woman threw a party for the people who had helped her with her healing. She spoke about her pain and loss, her feelings of hopelessness and despair. She thanked those who had helped her through, and she shared with those gathered her chemotherapy music. Here is Dr. Remen’s description of what happened. After a few seconds of silence a voice filled with emotion shouted out, “Praise God, brothers and sisters!” and a blast of gospel music rocked the room. There was a moment of shock. Then a hundred people – friends and neighbors, sons, daughters, beauticians, lovers, grocery delivery boys and taxi drivers, masseuses and yoga teachers, nurses, cooks and house cleaners – began to dance. We danced for a long time. It was one of the great life celebrations I have ever experienced (205).
Open up, that is what apocalyptic literature like Luke 21 invites us to, asks us to do. Open our eyes to the world in all its pain and ugliness and beauty and wonder, to those places that need dramatic change and those that are already embodying God’s dream for the world. Open our hearts to hope, for God continues to work in our world. Open our arms to work for that newer world. Sometimes the end of the world as we know it is a good thing, for it is part of a new creation. Amen.

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