“All shall be well”… Really??

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 21:5-19 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

There are few things in life that we want to believe more than this:

All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

Those lines come from Julian of Norwich in the 14th-century. It’s not her talking: it’s Jesus, as he has appeared to her in a vision.

Her vision is not cheap hope that crumbles at the first sign of pain or difficulty. It’s in the context of acknowledging the pain and sin in the world that Jesus says to Julian:

All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

But do you know what her response was to these powerful words of comfort?

Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?

“HOW could all things be well?”

The disciples were about to ask that question.

What about the disciples?

But first… they couldn’t help but admire this beautiful temple they worshiped in. They gawked at “the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts,” Luke says (The Message).

The lectionary will circle back eventually to the story just before this passage—the poor widow with her two copper coins. She takes the standard of tithing 10% and multiplies that by 10, giving everything she has.

And somehow all the disciples want to talk about is who’s in the temple’s Platinum Donor’s Club. Hey, I know that guy! I talked to that family once! They’re a big deal around here!

They’re spiraling, and Jesus disrupts it: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

It’s all going down, Jesus says, every… last… stone.

The disciples must get scared, because they snap out of their donor admiring, and ask, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

Jesus gives four:

ONE. Fake Jesuses. Verse 8: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them.”

TWO. Wars and revolutions. Verse 9: “When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

THREE. Natural disasters. Verse 11: “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

The FOURTH sign is personal: being persecuted by others and betrayed by your own family. Verses 12, 16-17, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

But then Jesus says, “… not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (18-19).

And, remarkably, Jesus says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (v. 13, NRSV). “This will result in your being witnesses to them” (NIV).

The disciples, apart from being scared, must have also been confused.

One commentary quite helpfully says, “The lack of chronological order in Jesus’ statements helps to discourage any attempts to work out in advance a timetable of events.”

The disciples couldn’t work out a timetable. They couldn’t know when their end was near; they could only know that God would be present with them no matter what happened and when.

What about us?

And that’s true for disciples of Jesus today, too.

Some scholars think this passage had both immediate fulfillment—the destruction of the temple, the persecution of the disciples, and a fulfillment that is yet to come—the so-called end times.

But just as the disciples couldn’t figure a timeline from Jesus’s words, neither can we. God doesn’t promise us we’ll know when the end is near. Elsewhere Jesus talks about the second coming as unexpected, so watch and wait for it. We’ll practice this watching and waiting in Advent.

So we hear this foretelling of wars and natural disasters, and we ask, “Surely it couldn’t get any worse than it is now? Surely this is it?”

It can get worse. Probably will.

It’s comical how many people have been so certain that the world would end on such-and-such a date.

And then, inevitably, when it doesn’t end, “Ah! I found an error in my calculations. It’ll be six months from now.”

This reality is perhaps best presented—and skewered—by the TV show Parks and Recreation. There’s a group in that show called “The Reasonabilists,” who are anything but what their name suggests. The Reasonabilists are an end-time cult that is waiting for Zorp the Surveyor to destroy the world.

Who is Zorp, you ask? A Parks & Rec fansite describes him as a “28-foot-tall lizard-god savior.” But the salvation he brought was a little different—he was to come to earth and melt everyone’s faces off with his “volcano mouth.”

Well, Zorp’s predicted time comes and goes, and the cult leader has to re-figure the numbers, only to stay up all night for the next time Zorp will come melt their faces off and thereby save the world.

Our temptation is more subtle… with every new war and every massive natural disaster, with every self-proclaimed Savior and persecution of Christians, we could begin to live in the same kind of fear the disciples surely feel.

But Jesus’s point is exactly the opposite.

No matter when such a time is, and no matter what it looks like, and now matter how bad it gets, the same God who accompanied the disciples—even to their deaths—promises to accompany us—even to our deaths.

Even in the scenario that verses 16 and 17 describe… even should your own family come to hate you, “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” They can take your body, but not your soul. No one can take God’s love away from you. So make up your minds, Jesus says, not to worry beforehand! (v. 14)

Paul picked up on this in Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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Here’s a question to consider. You might give it some thought and prayer this week. When you walk into a difficult situation, what do you carry with you?

When you initiate a hard conversation, what do you have? When you face into a challenge you’d rather ignore, what resources do you have to face it? Maybe your family wouldn’t betray you to the death, but maybe you have to face some family dysfunction this Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What do you carry with you into all that?

However you answer that, we all have the promise of at least this resource: the words and wisdom of God. The words and wisdom of God.

Verse 15, spoken first to the disciples and surely extended to us in our time of need, has Jesus saying, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Those words, that wisdom… they come from the Holy Spirit, whom God has sent to dwell in the hearts of all who follow Jesus.

Well, indeed

I said that Julian of Norwich had replied to God, “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?”

That question feels right at home with this passage. It’s the kind of question the disciples would ask Jesus. It’s the kind of question WE want to ask Jesus when we hear something like this. Or when we just go about living our lives and watching the world around us. “How could all things be well,” O Lord?

Even after a vision of Jesus saying, “All shall be well,” that was what Julian asked—and a bunch of other questions like it.

And then, she got a response. She writes:

And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly in this fashion: I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see that yourself, that all things will be well.

This is the same emphasis the Isaiah passage (65:17-18) gives us.

Behold, I will create / new heavens and a new earth. / The former things will not be remembered, / nor will they come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever / in what I will create, / for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight / and its people a joy.

I will create and all things shall be made new, God says. Not just because of some vague optimism that things just have to get better. “All shall be well” because our living and powerful God makes it so.

The 19th century poet Oscar Wilde is said to have taken Julian of Norwich’s lines—“All shall be well / And all shall be well / And all manner of thing shall be well”—he is said to have taken these lines and added to them:

And if it isn’t well, then it’s still not the end.

What God(s) Were the Pharisee and Tax Collector Praying to?

This post is the concluding portion of the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 18:9-14 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

Did you notice the Pharisee and the tax collector both start their prayer the same way? “God….”

They use the same word, the same way of addressing God, but you get the impression they are praying to two very different Gods.

We wonder: who must the Pharisee think God is, to be praying his way? And what does the tax collector think about the God to whom he prays?

Also, how does our own image of God shape our prayers?

For the Pharisee, there’s very little introspection. He’s critical of others and not himself. He mentions God, but it’s really only a quick appetizer before he can get to the main dish that is his own righteousness.

Maybe it’s as simple as: he’s just arrogant. His religiosity has gotten the best of him.

But imagine for a moment that the Pharisee is being sincere in his prayer. Sincerely wrong, yes, but what if he really means what he’s praying?

What kind of God would he have to have in mind to be praying like this?

It would be a God who just can’t stand all the ways we terrible humans mess everything up all the time.

It would be a God who LOVES when we get it right, and loves us more when we get it right more often.

It would be a God who doesn’t need a relational connection with us—just for us to check certain things off the list, and that’s enough.

It would be a God who wants us to jockey for position—who wants us to outdo each other in religious practices and spiritual disciplines, in fasting and giving and serving.

Then when we pray, if this is who God is, we’re just reporting back to our judge on all that we’ve done, desperately trying to find our place in God’s system of punishment and rewards.

The God of this Pharisee also seems to be a God who wants people to do it on their own. Because as the Pharisee is contrasting himself with others and listing his achievements, not once does he say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not once does he ask, “God please help me as I fast… increase my generosity so I can give cheerfully.” Never does he invite God into his faith practice.

What kind of God is that?

Maybe one we’ve believed in, from time to time. Maybe that’s a God we’ve prayed to.

Who we believe God is will shape how we pray. And that means that we can listen to our own prayers, dig a little deeper, and ask ourselves, “Who do I really believe God is?”

The French thinker Montaigne was right on the money when he said, “Oh senseless man, who cannot possibly make a worm or a flea and yet will create Gods by the dozen!”

By contrast, who is the God the tax collector believes in?

It’s a God who listens.

It’s a God you can approach—even from far off—no matter what evil you’ve done.

A God you can confess to, and who will hear you, and will forgive you.

The tax collector believes first and foremost in a God who is merciful.

This is a God to whom you can tell the blunt truth about yourself. You can talk to God about your sin, bring it right into God’s presence.

1 John 1 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

The tax collector believes in a God who receives us when we confess, arms open, just as the father did the prodigal son.

We don’t have to read our spiritual résumé to God. We don’t have to put other people down when we pray, to elevate ourselves. In fact, God’s presence calls for our humility. Prayer is not first about us, after all. Prayer is first about God.

God is so full of mercy, so ready to forgive—as the tax collector knew—that we simply can enter in, as we are, and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector is a model for us, not only in how to pray, but in how to think about God.

Of course, if we overheard the Pharisee’s prayer in real time, we’d be faced with a particularly cruel irony. We’d have to be careful not to say, “Lord, thank you that I am not like THAT arrogant Pharisee. Thank you, God, that I know who you are.”

Thomas Merton wrote:

There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious [people]. As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God.

New Seeds of Contemplation

In the end, the Pharisee’s idea of God and idea of himself were really not that different. He was so good, so giving, so upright, he didn’t even need God! He was basically his own God.

The tax collector knew he couldn’t survive another day without God’s mercy.

And whether we realize it or not—insulated as our lives can be—none of us can truly live another day without God’s mercy.

We need it, we crave it, we have to have it now, Lord Jesus, because we are sinners in need of Christ’s mercy.

Bonhoeffer’s Last Words, Before He Was Hanged (74 Years Ago Today)

 

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Nazi concentration camp of Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the U.S. military came to liberate it.

John W. de Gruchy describes the lead-up to that day in his Editor’s Introduction to Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 8):

On October 8 [of 1944], Bonhoeffer was taken to the cellar of the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, where he stayed until February 7, 1945. From then on, all correspondence came to an end, and contact between Bonhoeffer and the family and [Eberhard] Bethge was broken. From there Bonhoeffer was taken first to Buchenwald and then, via the village of Schönberg in Bavaria, to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he arrived on April 8. That evening he was tried by a hastily rigged court and condemned to death. Early the next morning Bonhoeffer was executed along with several other coconspirators.

He was hanged April 9. His family would not learn about it for several months.

The July before he had written to his trusted friend (and later biographer) Eberhard Bethge, one day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. He wrote:

How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world? You understand what I mean even when I put it so briefly. I am grateful that I have been allowed this insight, and I know that it is only on the path that I have finally taken that I was able to learn this. So I am thinking gratefully and with peace of mind about past as well as present things. …

May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.

His final recorded words before his hanging are especially appropriate in these days that lead up to Easter Sunday:

This is the end–for me the beginning of life.

 


 

This post is adapted from a post I wrote around this time five years ago, as part of the “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer” I was doing. See other gathered posts here.

Vote! And an Election Prayer

Paying Attention

 

The below is slightly modified from an email I sent my congregation Sunday.

Trying to enact Christian values in the public square and trying to map Christian virtues onto candidates and ballot questions can be challenging. There’s not a one-to-one match between what Augustine called the city of God and this earthly city.

Still, part of our calling as citizens of the kingdom of God is to be engaged earthly citizens. What Paul wrote to the church in Corinth applies to us: we are Christ’s ambassadors, joining God in his ongoing work of reconciling the world to himself. We want to be like the people God called through Jeremiah to seek the shalom of the cities in which we live.

It’s important that we bring our whole selves into the public square: our love, our hope, our witness, our God-shaped discernment, and our biblically informed values. We want to live out our faith in city council meetings and town halls and online forums and community events and in the voting booth.

Midterm elections are notorious for low voter turnout, so however our Christian convictions lead each of us to civic engagement, I hope we will make every effort—acting in good faith as both a citizen of the heavenly city and this earthly one—to vote on Tuesday. (Click here to learn more: polling places, hours, candidates, ballots.) And encourage your friends, family, and neighbors—in this state and in others—to vote, as well.

As we vote, let’s be constant in prayer for our city, state, country, world, and all who lead… that they would pursue justice, freedom, truth, and love for all people. Here’s a prayer for elections from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer to help shape our praying:

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Mandela the Prophet: “An Old Man Who Has Nothing New to Say”

mandelaThree years ago this week the world lost a prophet, Nelson Mandela. He died at the age of 95.

As I was watching a PBS special about him, just hours after his death, there was a friend of Mandela’s telling about a recent visit he’d made with his young son to see Mandela.

I don’t remember the guy’s name–it was a political dignitary, as I recall. He said when he and his son came in to see the aging Mandela, Mandela said, “Oh, it is so nice that a young boy would still come and see an old man who has nothing new to say.”

Prophets know they have to be repetitive.

Prophets know they aren’t necessarily saying something new, but the visions of hope that they’ve been casting have still not come about, and so they say the same thing.

They cast the same good, hope-filled vision: over and over, until it gets through our sometimes thick heads that this vision might actually become a reality.

In a Post-Truth World, Words Still Matter (Truth-Telling as “Extreme Sport”!)

In what I can’t believe is being deemed a “post-truth” world–post-truth is even 2016’s word of the year!–words still matter. So does truth, that which is real, or that which corresponds to reality. (For you philosophers reading, I’ve always favored a correspondence theory of truth.)

I wanted to share some words of wisdom from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. I know, great and timely title, right? (Here at Amazon, here at Eerdmans.)

She makes this brilliant observation:

We are all called to be responsible hearers, speakers, and doers of the word. Still, telling the truth is something like an extreme sport for the very committed.

As I’ve preached through the prophets this fall in church, I’ve been struck by what an important role truth-telling played in the prophetic ministry. I plan to write more about this. For now, here’s more from McEntrye. (Added emphasis is mine.)

caring-for-words-in-a-culture-of-liesWe have been talking about our responsibilities as stewards of language to use words carefully, precisely, and truthfully. I’d like now to consider a dimension of that responsibility that may be a little more challenging: the responsibility not to tolerate lies. It has become commonplace to observe, as I have several times in earlier chapters, that we live in a culture where various forms of deception are not only commonly practiced but commonly accepted. And most of us, at least some of the time, object — at least to the lies that vilify our party or candidate or misrepresent our causes, and at least to each other over coffee or Scotch — or we talk back to the talk-show host in the privacy of our cars. But I’d like to suggest that if we don’t take our complaints further than that, we’re part of the problem. Indeed, we bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to. As Pascal pointed out long before the age of media spin, “We hate the truth, and people hide it from us; we want to be flattered, and people flatter us; we like being deceived, and we are deceived.” The deceptions we particularly seem to want are those that comfort, insulate, legitimate, and provide ready excuses for inaction.”

I have a little bit of a hard time with “we bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to.” I think this is not totally fair, insofar as it sounds like a blame-the-victim response. But I’m not sure that’s what McEntyre means. Her suggestion seems to be that if we are truly lovers of truth, we will seek to root out in ourselves our tendency to want to hear what sounds good, even if it’s not factual.

I greatly appreciate her exhortation that in a “culture of lies” (or “fake news”=propaganda), we still need to practice “caring for words.”

Bonhoeffer on How to Answer the “What Should We Do?” Question

I’m reading this book that I absolutely love so far (even if only 10 pages in):

 

 

It is dense but wonderful. I love Bonhoeffer’s idea of answering, “What am I to do?” by answering, “How is Christ taking form in the world?”

The author of this book, Larry L. Rasmussen, says:

With this methodology moral action is action that conforms to Christ’s form in the world (that accords with reality); immoral action is action that deviates from Christ’s form in the world (from reality).

Such a measuring stick is completely apropos even in a secular democracy, since, as Rasmussen says:

The striking advantage of this method consists in its potential applicability for both the Christian and the non-Christian….

Here’s a whole page, all of which looks to be laying important groundwork for the rest of the book:

 

 

More to come.