The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. The Apocalypse, the end of time, is at hand! We here who on the other side of two millennia from Jesus' life, death and resurrection of the most part don't find Jesus' return to be too compelling a topic. If anything we are probably somewhat uncomfortable with it, or perhaps even contemptuous of it. Cruising along at night with in a car you can pick up lots of interesting broadcasts. Sometimes a radio preacher is attempting to match up contemporary people and places with one in the apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Gog and Magog are clearly this or that Middle Eastern country, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were sighted in some former Soviet republic and some series of symbolic events from the book of Revelation is matched up with recent historical events - - all of which is presented as grist for the repentance mill. That Gog and Magog all to often match up with the political and economic enemies of vested interests frequently goes unnoted, but not unnoticed. Apocalypticism seems, then. A rather shoddy propaganda too and anything but the word of God.
Those stories probably scared a lot of us when we were younger. Growing up in a nuclear world facing environmental catastrophes, apocalypse is not an entirely foreign concept for most people alive today. But Gospel conversion based on fear was an odd sort of bait to go fishing for people with.
And yet fear finds lots of takers. The followers of Elizabeth Clare Prophet are out in Montana even as we speak digging bunkers and patrolling the perimeter of their encampment. The so-called Christian Identity Movement plays upon racism, xenophobia, and sexual/psychological insecurities to support its outrageous claims and tenuous interpretations. In the wake of the shimmering Hale-Bopp comet, seven people chose cyanide to consummate their belief in the end of time. And for them, it was and is the end of time. But Jesus was not part of that scene; human fear, not divine love, drove that event.
The Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
The first European Americans lived and breathed apocalypticism, abandoning its settled evils and seeking to construct utopian, end-time communities in the Americas. They expected Europe to go up in smoke at any moment. Paul's followers, likewise, fingered Roman Papacy received these epithets from the Reformers. All of these were due to go up in smoke, to end in shame and ruin.
Which they did. Evil collapses under its own weight, inevitably.
Part of that which identified a government, a church structure, as the enemy of God, the anti-Christ, was some kind of economic oppression. Structures which saw it as their right to deprive God's little ones of their life in order to feed their worth desires creating justifications along the way to hide the fact that hunger, want, death, lay in the wake of their exploitation of peoples and lands. Life and human singularity, the quality of each, and cast aside as objects to build fortunes and power. This is the quality of utilitarianism that Harvey Cox identified as one of the primary characteristics of the Secular City, the society that defined itself by the absence of God.
When your treasure is, there will your heart be. What we place store by is our own self-image, our self worth projected out for the world to see. Our treasure and how we use it bespeaks our inner thoughts, our true feelings, about God and God's creation.
Big international gatherings of people aren't necessarily boring. Several years ago the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women was held in China and women from every walk of life and from many of the world's cultures came together. Needless to say, stories, real and meaningful stories, were a valuable byproduct of this amazing conference. Here's one by an American woman who was there.
It seems that during a break in the round of meetings and workshops, while rain poured down outside, the American woman got into a conversation with a woman from West Africa. In the way that intimacy is sometimes achieved between strangers, their conversation took on unexpected depth.
Quite suddenly, the West African woman took the American's hand and, smiling said she wanted to tell her something. There was evidently fear and hope in the woman's eyes. She said, "My people are afraid of your people!" The American thought for a few seconds and said, "Yes, I can understand that. I realize that we have more guns and more money than any other country. That's scary, in itself." "No," the African woman said, "that's not it. We are afraid that you are becoming not human!" The African woman then began to tell about a visit she had made to the United States and how she had compared notes with other travelers.
"The frightening thing," she said, "is that you do not do many of the things that humans do. People in your country never sing for themselves. I never saw a village or a town dance together as we do at home. You do not incorporate your young into your tribe; they are left on their own. In fact, you are afraid of your own children. You do not have any "stranger laws" of hospitality (traditions governing courtesy to strangers in your land) as we do in Africa. To me, the most important things in the world my people and I share are the songs, the dances, and the love of the things of our everyday lives. And you have no bad feelings about destroying a people if they live in a place that can make things your people want -- the wood in their forests or the rocks under their villages. Your people say it is for a greater good. Other people are destroyed so your people can have things. What good are things when your people are gone? We are afraid you are becoming like the material things you want."
Where you treasure is there will your heart be also. "My people are afraid your people are becoming not human." The Son of Man came at an unexpected time for me and broke into my carefully guarded house. I was not ready for him. I did not expect him to come in a face and filled with so much love. I didn't expect my world to start changing!
As great as is our hunger for things, God's hunger for justice is greaterâ¦and the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
So where are you, are your wicks trimmed, your loins girded? When God knocks on your door will you fling it open and welcome the one you profess as savior? Or will you open the door a crack and see the judge of all humankind and cry, "Lord when did I see you hungry or naked, I have done no wrong; I didn't see you!"
One of the points that the west African woman made was that no one in the United Stated saw the destruction, only the shiny things that emerged from the death of people and lands. In that moment you have to ask yourself whether it was because we haven't seen or known, or because we won't see or know. We might all remember that West African woman when our mail arrives and the glossy catalogues pile up. For behind each catalogue is a pile of trash, a deluge of toxic waste, a people dying, somewhere, land despoiled, sacrificed to our lust for things. This is no Christian way to live. No wonder Jesus spent so much time talking about possessions.
This apocalyptic section of Luke's Gospel is an expansion on Jesus'' teachings on wealth and possessions. It follows the story of the man who had so much stuff that he had to keep on building bigger and better barns. He held an ongoing, internal self-congratulatory monologue on how successful he was. Like the Onceler in Dr. Seuss's book. "The Lorax," the wealthy barn building mans was busy "biggering and biggering," taking care of his family and destroying the lives of the creatures who had been there. Like the barn builder Onceler was convinced of a paradigm of accumulation that is still popular today. A recent T-shirt captures the gist of it, "He who has the most toys when he dies, wins."
Jesus sees it a different way. He who has the most when he dies doesn't win. Jesus keeps the discussion on money and possessions on the front burner. He knows how misplaced priorities between our possessions and ourselves can compromise our humanity. Because our humanity lies in our ability to image God, and if open handed, generous giving is essential to God's personhood, it is essential to our as well. Misplaced attention on accumulation of material good, of wealth, creates a dead-end in God's giving. It's like spiritual cholesterol, clogging our hearts so that we can't feel, and won't be able to have compassion, the wellspring of agape giving. The river of God's blessing, which permeates doorsteps if we refuse to pass on what has been handed to us. Andrew Carnegie said, "He who dies with all his wealth, dies ashamed."
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Can we imagine a world not based upon unlimited expansion, unbridled consumption, sometimes referred to as growth? Do we dare to stop our quest for material things and reclaim our humanity? If Jesus came today and asked for an accounting of the time you had spent accumulating and maintaining things, or in building up yours and others humanity and souls' health, what would the assessment be?
So is this just a cosmic finger shaking? A "straightened up and fly right" sermon, to induce guilt and threaten with fear? Yes, if that is how you choose to take it and no, if you choose to take it to a new level. Behind even the wildest Scriptures is the call to love and grace. Sometimes you have to do a little work to get there. Apocalyptic scripture is surely of this variety.
The call of apocalyptic scripture is not of threats and fear but a wakeup call to see the discontinuity between God's stated desire for our lives and how we actually treat one another. The call of apocalyptic scripture is to close the gap between now and later, to enter eternity at this moment, to act as if the kingdom has been established and in so doing experiencing God at work in the here and now with our own selves as the agents. Apocalyptic scripture us a call to seeing life in a much larger framework than that which exists within our immediate sight.
Here's a challenge! Let go of the guilt and despair that keeps the cry of God away from your heart. Act as if the kingdom is real, and seek God's leading to the brokers that wants healing, in yourself and in the world. Say no to things and yes to people. Begin giving away your possessions and yourself, and to see what God gives birth to in your life in the place left there.
God called Abraham and Sarah out to a new place, a place where their descendents would be as numerous as the stars, an unbroken line of relationships linking their small desert band to the ultimate works of the cosmos. God's call to us is no different; it's just a different desert. Out of fear and into life.