Frightening Omens, Patient Endurance

November 13, 2016
Luke 21:5-19; Isaiah 65:17-25

I am grateful to be with you all again today. Last weekend I spent an intense and idyllic weekend with 160 women doing theology in Leesburg, VA. We were participants in a conference called “I’ve got the power.” Having the weekend planned and led primarily by women of color was a rare privilege in the Mennonite world. The brilliance, creativity, thoughtfulness, beautiful singing, intentional breathing (led by our own Annabeth), deep honesty and truthtelling, were indeed nourishment for the body, mind and spirit.

Even under ordinary circumstances, coming back after a weekend like that, there can be a bumpy transition. With the late night call on Monday that our own (church staff) had been assaulted and then the result of the presidential election… Well, let’s just say that I was in mourning this week. I would get ahold of myself and then I would remember by name another friend who is black, an undocumented immigrant, Muslim, LGBTQ, I would remember my daughter and her young women friends and I would weep all over again.

I know it is probably not the right thing to do, to admit such passion from the pulpit. But this election season was grueling and it became personal. Bodies of people I know and love were disparaged. The bodies of black people, Muslims, immigrants, women, people with disabilities were disrespected and ridiculed. The bodies of people without jobs, less education, struggling to make a living, were called names.

If we are all created in the image of God, as we proclaim as Christians, then it was the very body of Christ that was being degraded, attacked, vilified, in front of us, in the media, over and over again. And it was other bodies, also created in the image of God, that were part of the process. No wonder there is so much pain and anger and grief and fear.

This text from Luke is not one that I chose for today; it is the prescribed reading for the day. I usually dread when this text and ones like it come up in the lectionary. But today, as we wonder what the future will hold for us as a country so divided, as Christianity divided, it has a fresh resonance. There are times when the ancient text comes alive; you start to understand why some people read the bible literally. I heard someone say on the radio this week, “Donald Trump is the one who can save us.” Jesus said, Do not be misled. Many will come in my name, saying I am the One and The time is at hand.

Depending on your circumstances, an apocalyptic text like this one from Luke can sound scary. One might focus on this part of the text: Nation will rise against nation, and empire against empire. There will be great earthquakes, plagues and famines in various places – and in the sky there will be frightening omens and great signs.  Depending on one’s position in the world this can sound like a very big threat. The implication is that nothing will be the same. If one is invested in the nation, in the success of the empire, this does not sound like anything to look forward to.

On the other hand, the same Jesus, in the same breath, also says, Everyone will hate you because of me, yet not a hair of your head will be harmed. By patient endurance, youll save your lives. If all you have is your very body, what you came into this world with, there is no reason to fear. Patient endurance is all you need.

Is Jesus contradicting himself here? Describing a future of horror even as he says make up your minds not to worry…”?

I wonder if the text gives us a clue as to the wide range of people who are listening as Jesus teaches. Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a donkey, lauded with “hosannas” and now he sits in the temple courtyard and teaches, day after day. There are people who might be hearing his teaching, this approach to a renewed Judaism in the midst of the Roman Empire, for the first time. For them he has a warning: “This is not an easy path. Be sure you understand the choices you are making.” He also speaks to the followers he knows well, who have been traveling with him. For them he has a word of comfort. “Do not worry.”

I wonder if we can identify our own situation in life, by which words of Jesus we hear most strongly. A group of local Anabaptists from various congregations recently read this text from Luke together. People spoke aloud the words and phrases that caught their attention.

“Everything will be torn down.”

“Make up your minds not to worry.”

“because of my name.”

“the end doesn’t follow immediately.”

It reminded me again that our context and the way we already live out our faith, make a difference in what we hear, in how we hear the text. Do we hear “not a hair of your head will be harmed”? Or do we hear that everything will be taken from us, we will be put in prison, family and friends betray us, we may even die?

What I hear this time around is this part of the text: This will be your opportunity to give your testimony. So make up your minds not to worry about your defense beforehand, for I will give you the words, and a wisdom that none of your adversaries can take exception to or contradict.

I have often longed to be able to stand up and preach extemporaneously, allowing the Spirit to ———— just give me ———-the words that  ——-  are needed. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is talking about here.

Giving testimony is an essential practice in some streams of Christianity. It is related to tes-ti—fying, to telling the naked truth. Testimony implies vulnerability, speaking from the heart. The reason Jesus says no one can take exception or contradict a testimony is because it is a genuine description of one’s experience. How can personal experience be contradicted? A listener might not like it but if it happened to you, there is a certain truth, in your body.

While we do not use the word “testimony” in this congregation, we do share testimonies here. When people become members and share their spiritual journey or faith story, that can be sharing testimony. Sometimes in sharing time, we hear a testimony. I am often asked to tell the story of how the Spirit is at work in this congregation, and I am delighted to share that testimony.

Every time is the right time, but I wonder if we are entering a particular time when we will need to recommit ourselves to testimony, living our faith out loud. When we live out our commitments to love and justice, when we live out a deep faith based on the ancient commandment of loving God with body, mind and spirit and our neighbor as ourselves, we will develop a testimony that cannot be contradicted.

Testimony is not so much about convincing others as it is sharing our convictions. While the church sometimes encourages testimony as a way to convert others, Jesus describes testimony as a way to save oneself. When we give a testimony, we remind ourselves who we are and where our purpose lies. We tell the truth of our experience to whoever is willing to listen.

I invite us to a season of sharing testimony. Let’s notice those places in our lives where something mysterious and holy is going on, where our experience of doing justice and standing with our neighbors brings peace. As we share our own testimonies, we can remember the testimony of the prophet Isaiah, who points us toward a vision of hope for people, the earth and her creatures.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;

they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit;

they shall not plant and another eat;

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,

    the lion shall eat straw like the ox;

    but the serpentits food shall be dust!

They shall not hurt or destroy

    on all my holy mountain.

With the disciples, we will be tempted to ask When will this happen Rabbi?

Don’t be surprised if the response is the same as what Jesus told his disciples: Dont be misled. By patient endurance, you will save your lives.