Interpreting the Times for A Dying Empire and a Dying Church

See the source imageTENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29—12:2
Luke 12:49-56

Prayer of the Day: O God, judge eternal, you love justice and hate oppression, and you call us to share your zeal for truth. Give us courage to take our stand with all victims of bloodshed and greed, and, following your servants and prophets, to look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“…why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Luke 12:56.

A large part of prophetic ministry involves “interpret[ing] the present time.” The Hebrew prophets were not hermetic mystics speaking only out of esoteric visions. They were politicly savvy and incisive critics of their time. Better than the Israelite kings and their courts who played the high stakes game of geopolitics, Isaiah and Jeremiah understood that the world around them was changing. They could see that the future of Canaan belonged not to Israel and its rival kingdoms of Moab, Ammon and Philistia, but to the great empires of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. The prophets could see that the way of faithfulness for Israel in the days to come would be radically different. There could be no return to the past, no “making Israel great again” as some of Jeremiah’s prophetic contemporaries insisted. The end of the world as Israel knew it was at hand. All hope now must be placed on whatever new world God might raise from the ashes. Salvation there surely would be-but only on the far side of judgment.

So, too, Jesus ministered at the end of an era, that era being one in which his fellow Jews occupied the land promised to Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. Theirs was a life of faith revolving around the temple in the holy city of Jerusalem, albeit under the shadow of Roman occupation. Jesus recognized (as did many of his contemporaries) that Judea was on a collision course with the Roman empire, a conflict that would bring an end to Israel as Israel knew it. But Jesus challenged is disciples and the rest of his people to recognize that the reign of God was bigger than both the temple and the empire that would finally destroy it. Turns out, he was right. From the ashes of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 CE there arose the rich and revitalized Judaism we know today and the church bringing the covenant promises of Israel to the nations.

So how are we to interpret the present times? I am no prophet by the measure of Isaiah or Jeremiah and certainly not Jesus. But there some trends that present both dangers and opportunities I believe we should be thinking about. I present my thoughts along these lines as questions because they are as tentative as my limited perception.

Is this the beginning of the end for the American empire? One might challenge the notion that the United States is an empire. But let’s not argue semantics. What I mean by “empire” is a nation state that, in addition to its sovereign territory, controls numerous “spheres of influence” throughout the globe. To put it as kindly as possible, one might say that the world has for seven decades depended on American economic and military power to ensure its well-being. A less charitable (and perhaps more accurate) assessment would be that American economic and military power has been instrumental in supporting the supremacy of North American/Western European domination of Africa, Asia and South America. Either way, America’s position is eroding and much of the rhetoric on both ends of the political spectrum is calling for a reversal of that trend.

This situation presents both temptation and opportunity. The temptation will be to fall in with one version or another of the “make America great again” meme. As I have often observed, the progressive vision of the American church’s mission differs from the evangelical Trumpist vision in methods and priorities only. Whether through banning abortion and returning prayer to the classroom or making healthcare available to all and implementing a livable wage, the objective is the same: saving America, restoring it to some golden age in its past or moving it to some lofty ideal of what it was always intended to be. Here the rhetoric of American mythology mixes freely with biblical imagery in ways that have often proved misleading and even toxic. Make no mistake, I am all for doing the right thing politically. But let’s do it because it is the right thing to do and not only because it has sufficient popular support to succeed in pushing us toward a kinder, gentler America.

To illustrate the above point, let’s stop promoting phony half baked responses to America’s gun fetish and avoiding criticism of the Second Amendment as though it were some god-given sacred cow. Let’s stop pretending that “self defense” is a natural right. According to the “just war doctrine” as espoused by Augustine, Aquinas and the Lutheran Confessions governing my own ELCA, the use of lethal force in the furtherance of justice belongs solely to the government. Thus, there is no reason for a Christian to possess a lethal weapon unless s/he is a law enforcement officer or soldier on active duty.  We ought to be witnessing to God’s just and peaceful reign by banning weapons from our sanctuaries (sad to say that this is even a necessity) and calling upon our members to empty their homes of the same. Let the politicians worry about the fallout.

This is an opportunity to proclaim loud and clear that one ought not put one’s trust in empires, parties, candidates or elections. Empires crumble, parties align themselves with narrow self-interests, candidates are corruptible and, as Professor Stanley Hauerwas pointed out this summer at the annual gathering of the Ekklesia Project, there is only one example of democratic rule in the Bible. In that one instance, the people chose Barabbas over Jesus. So let’s purge from our rhetoric all idiotic phrases like “faith in democracy,” “faith in our constitution,” “faith in the rule of law.” There is but one who is worthy of our faith. Idolatrous blather about faith in institutions has no place in our preaching and teaching.

This is a good time to consider how one can recite with integrity both the Apostle’s Creed and the Pledge of Allegiance. This is an excellent time ask ourselves why it is appropriate to have the flag of the United States of America (or any nation state for that matter) displayed in a sanctuary where we confess one holy catholic and apostolic church throughout the world in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek…slave nor free…neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. This is a good time for us to do some soul searching, asking ourselves whether we are more American than Christian and why so many of us are not even capable of entertaining such a question.

Is this the end of the Church? The end of the church might be at hand-in the sense that the Babylonian conquest was the end of Israel and the Roman sack of Jerusalem the end of Judaism. These events resulted in the unthinkable, the destruction of everything Israel thought essential to its existence as God’s chosen people. Though Israel did indeed “rise from the ashes,” its existence, self understanding and covenant life were, though in continuity with, radically different from the past.

We have good reason to believe that, at the very least, the church in America will be much smaller, poorer and less influential in the decades to come. Our decline is due to numerous factors, but the bottom line is this: American society no longer needs us. The time is long past when the Church was a big player in municipal, state and national politics. In my childhood, everyone went to church or lied and said they did. Being a believer in the Christian God was as much a part of being an American as saying the pledge of allegiance. Today, next to nobody cares whether you go to church or believe in God. You can be a good American citizen without having a trace of religion in your psychic DNA. The church isn’t necessary to American society anymore and so people no longer feel it necessary to attend, much less join a church.

The temptation will be to try and save the dying church of yesterday just as we are tempted to try making America great again. Once more, the means and priorities differ on opposite ends of the theological spectrum, but not the objective. We mainliners will be tempted to continue trying to convince progressive politicians that we are “relevant” and have something important to contribute while they, for their part, will exploit our angst to get  whatever votes they think we can still deliver. We will feel compelled to continue generating new programs and projects with whatever resources we have left more, I fear, to convince ourselves that we have a reason to exist than out of a commitment to the reign of God. A mirror image of this same effort can be expected on the fundamentalist end. In both cases, the end result is the same. In desperately seeking to save our institutional lives, we stand to lose our souls.

The opportunity here is to re-examine our mission and reflect on what it means to be a diminished church in a dying empire. That might sound dreary, but it isn’t. Really. Think of it this way: You just got fired from a job you didn’t much like and were not very good at anyway. Once you get over the anger and humiliation, you realize that this is the best thing that could have happened to you. Now you are free to do what you want, what you are good at and what brings you joy and satisfaction. I look at the situation of the church today in much the same way. It has always been assumed that the church must provide the moral framework justifying America. We have been co-opted into deifying white middle class morality, rationalizing America’s violent ways, sanctifying its wars and elevating its sacred symbols in our sanctuaries. In exchange for “Americanizing” our faith, we got “god” on our money and in the Pledge of Allegiance along with lip service in the form of our leaders occasionally referring to the United States as a “Christian nation.” Now, at long last, we are out of that damned, stinking contract. Praise be to God for that pink slip! We are free at last from the onerous burden of propping up a dying empire and free to be God’s people in Christ Jesus.

So, what does it mean to be church in America but not of it? First and foremost, I think it means being the sort of community that forms in its members the mind of Christ. Let me put some shoe leather on that. About twenty years ago now I was listening to the interview of an old Polish Catholic woman on public radio. Unlike so many others in her generation who turned away Jewish refugees during World War II, she welcomed these families into her home and, when the Nazi’s invaded, she hid them in her basement. The interviewer asked her, “Why would you put yourself and your family in danger of death or imprisonment in a concentration camp for people who are complete strangers to you?” There was a long, pregnant pause-almost as though she didn’t understand the question. Then the woman answered with a question of her own: “Well, what else would one do?”

We need communities capable of forming people like that woman, people who cannot even imagine doing other than what Jesus would have us do. That is why, though I applaud my ELCA’s decision to declare itself a sanctuary church for refugees, I wonder whether we are ready to live into that commitment. Jesus solemnly warns us in this Sunday’s gospel that he came not to bring peace to the world, but division. Are we prepared for hard conversations that might divide congregations, split families and alienate friends?  Are we ready for the bad press we are already starting to see from Fox News? Are we ready for an exodus from our church by angry Trump supporters on a magnitude bigger than what we saw in 2009 when we welcomed same sex couples? Are our pastors ready to preach the word of God’s welcome to strangers in front of hostile congregations? Are we prepared to face not mere criticism, but death threats? Legal action? Tear gas and bullets?

This might sound hyperbolic. I truly hope it is. But we have seen in the last few weeks the strength and intensity of white nationalism and the horrific violence of which it is capable. We have seen all too clearly that the present administration is whipping up racist hysteria for its own purposes and seems disinclined to moderate its rhetoric. We have seen the emergence of racist populism throughout Europe and the increasing instability of international institutions and treaties that once held nationalistic impulses in check. I would like to think that these trends are just blips on the historical pulse monitor and not signs of impending systemic crisis. But our hope can never be based on mere optimism. It must rest solely upon our confidence in the crucified one who God raised from death and with him a new creation. Such faith is learned in communities where it is lived out day by day in ways big and small. I pray that our churches are making disciples like that old Polish saint in whom the mind of Christ was so thoroughly formed that she could not imagine doing less than putting her very life between ruthless oppression and its victim. That, after all, is what it means to be a “sanctuary church.”

Here is a poem by William Butler Yates speaking a timeless yet timely message on interpreting the times.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Source: This poem is in the public domain. William Butler Yeats (1865 -1939) was an Irish poet. He was born in Sandymount, Ireland and spent childhood holidays in County Sligo. Yeats studied poetry from an early age when he became fascinated by Irish legends, spiritualism and the occult. He later abandoned his pursuit of spiritualism as he became increasingly drawn to the Irish struggle for independence. Yeats served two terms as a senator of the Irish Free State. He was a leader in the Irish Literary Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and others. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. You can read more about William Butler Yeats and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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