The Soul Work of the Resistance Community
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
A sermon preached November 13, 2016 among Brookmeade Congregational UCC
I would not be here today if not for a saint named Lydia Elizabeth Nash Greuling. She gave birth to my mother, so there’s that. I would not be here — in church — if not for that grandmother Deedie, a widow since before my birth. Two months from now, Jan. 17, is my infant baptism anniversary, an event that took place at the church where she was a life-long member: my first church, the Valley Congregational Church in El Paso, Texas.
I remember Vacation Bible School as a 4 year old like it was yesterday. I remember worship services that I didn’t understand but it felt good to sit up straight in the pew sometimes and snuggly sleep next to my grandmother at other times. I learned to love hymns, and coffee hour’s donuts, and the smell of wooden pews and wax candles. God met me there.
It was the church in the lower valley of El Paso, back in the day;
I had to count it up: I have journeyed with sixteen churches thus far — in 5 states — a journey begun on January 17, 1954, the day I was baptized, the day we all testified that my story was part of God’s story.
That church, the Valley Congregational Church, no longer exists. I can’t even find a picture of them on the internet.
The second church of my youth — the Grace Methodist Church in El Paso — also no longer exists with their name and distinct identity. They apparently merged with another congregation in 2013. That was what their last Facebook post said.
When I was 3 or 5 or 12 years old, growing in the faith, I didn’t think to ask:
When will this church die?
When will it be torn down?
Could it ever be swallowed up by a bigger church?
Knowing my Deedie, she would have washed my mouth out with soap! Or, if she was feeling more charitable and optimistic, she might have said, “Oh honey, this church will be here long after I’m gone.” It wasn’t that long.
The disciples gazed upon the Temple, their beloved Temple “adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God,” and Jesus prophesied: “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.” The movie version would have shown their eyes getting big in disbelief. We would hear their collective gulp of fear. A couple of tissues might have been discreetly shared, right before they ask Jesus in voices tinged with a tremble: “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
Jesus goes on to describe a destruction that goes way beyond Temple stones and gifts. To paraphrase briefly: Jesus says, “There will be liars and deceivers. There will be wars and insurrections. Nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines, plagues, portents, signs from heaven. You will be arrested, persecuted, handed over.”
Imagine their fear.
Jesus is telling them this while the Temple is intact, stone upon stone, adorned with gifts, bustling with people. Oh, and notice that widow over there giving it her all, out of the way of the male powers-that-be. Yes, let’s notice that her presence in the story might have gone unnoticed if not for Jesus. Hers is the story that sets us up for this one . . .
The disciples attention is focused not on what an unnamed widow with a couple of copper coins might have to do with anything. They are gazing at stone upon stone. Their privileged position allows them to speculate — perhaps in the theoretical — or maybe their grandmother gave that stained glass window. They wonder — aloud — how long stone upon stone will last.
“What you see here . . . the days will come,” Jesus says, “when not one stone will be left upon another. All will be thrown down.”
Imagine their fear!
Imagine ours. Everything we’ve built, everything we’ve worked for; every sacred thing we’ve counted on. Thrown down.
Imagine our fear. When all that we expected to be there is not there. Or the prediction of doom is in the air.
Is our fear for the fate of our church? Our building? Our history? Our investment? The United Church of Christ? What might become of all of those stones and great gifts?
Imagine our fear.
Do we fear because a United States 2016 presidential ballot referendum rejected our Jesus-mandated radically inclusive approach to life and to people? Our open and affirming values? Our commitments to justice and peace? What might become of all we have built when we are handed over, when persecution gets real?”
Imagine our fear.
Or is our fear for the very bodies of those caught in the avalanche of stones? Black bodies; Latinx bodies; Muslim bodies; gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender bodies, female bodies, sick bodies, children’s bodies, poor bodies? What might become of them in the fallout? They were thrown under the stones, you say?
Imagine our fear.
“Nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines, plagues, portents, signs from heaven. You will be arrested, persecuted, handed over . . .”
Today, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to put ourselves in that picture:
And yet, that outcome was not determined by a day at the ballot box.
Either way — can’t we see it ? — either outcome would leave the stones shaky —
I am indebted to my beloved grandmother Deedie — compassionate, generous and my first pastoral mentor. She was “just” a widow with a feisty grandchild that she took under her wing. I made my first homebound person visit with her to take plum jelly we had made to Miss Lela Kelly, who was blind and in a wheelchair. That was no church program; that was a widow doing what she does with all that God has given her, including that mouthy grandchild.
She was unaware and/or unconcerned that her white Congregational church in the mid-20th century — and not just that church — maintained racism, sexism, heterosexism, and a certainty that Latinx persons need to understand their place in the servant class. It would be perilous for us — here, today — to believe we are past our own participation in clueless privilege. We have much work to do.
Each and every day — before the election and since the election — out there and in this church — each of us benefits from death-dealing powers and principalities: the suffering of unseen workers exploited by unjust corporate systems that provide us our food and our clothes and our cars and the fuel that runs them — and the underpaid and overworked mostly people of color who clean our houses, our hotel rooms — and our church — and serve us. Service us. We prop up unjust systems all day long.
And, though we have dared not admit or examine it in church, we benefit from ignoring and maintaining our privilege. The normal person is male, white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied. Add to that the privilege of education, employment, and economic class — not equally available to all.
We are not deceived. Election day did not inaugurate the season of “some are more equal than others.” In this country, fear was not born on Nov. 8, it was unleashed. That was the day that some of us saw the deadly fragility of those Temple stones when some of them fell on us for the first time — such grief to discover that what we thought we had built was being brought down —
In the same way that we might ask: “How long do you think those fries will take?” — or “How much do you think gas will be over the holidays?” — I wonder if the disciples made a casual comment to Jesus that day: “How long do you think this Temple will last?” Jesus was a carpenter — so, you know, shop talk. And he says to them: “These stones are not long for this world.” Which turned out to be true.
And then he unleashed on them. But notice what he poured out on them. Beyond the dire prediction. Those devastations were going to happen; they always happen; they are happening all the time. Stone upon stone always goes away. Always. Look around. What do you see? How long are you betting this will last?
They might have missed what Jesus was unleashing on them. It would be easy to miss: Jesus is not delivering a litany of destruction. He’s delivering marching orders for the necessary acceleration of their soul work.
Get to work! Every sentence is a command. And every command is a command to RESIST.
Do not be led astray.
Do not go after them.
Do not be terrified.
And then, Jesus says — while describing stone after stone coming down —
They will turn to you for a witness.
“This will give you an opportunity to testify” is not a good translation. It’s passive, and it seems to be influenced by the mid-20th century translation that it is. Back in those days, testimony was about converting other people to Christianity. See how that doesn’t work for today?
Jesus says, “When all that happens, they are going to turn to you.” Really, “step toward you.”
We’re onstage, lights up. We’re up to bat, bottom of the 9th.
Why would they be looking to us?
More like “when” would they be looking to us?
WHEN we are not led astray — to believe that political systems or players can save us
WHEN we do not go after them — in revenge or self-righteousness
WHEN we are not terrified — we’re going to stand out and be noticed right now —
THEN, they will turn to us — alternative to what has never been life-giving.
When we do not go after the destructors, when we let go of punishing the aggressors —
we can stand with the vulnerable.
When we do not get terrified, when we do not live in fear and terror —
we can practice extravagant acts of love and strong actions of resistance.
When we do not let ourselves be led astray — when we are not focused on believing that political systems or players can save us —
we will have time and energy to be God’s community of peace and justice and love — always growing more fully into an attractive strong community, resisting any and all death-dealing systems and narratives.
We are not my grandmother’s idyllic church. The structures of oppression are crashing down. Our own cluelessness took a big, hard hit — and that’s a good news thing. God can do something new with that. We don’t want to be the church that our grandchildren are assessing as unable — for whatever reason — to wake up and do the work to not only comfort our very wounded souls — our battered psyches — but, rather, now is the time to do the work we need to do so that our very souls can be salvaged.
My grandmother was wise, and right now the choices seem really hard. I would love to ask her what to do. And then, I heard this wise thing from a generation-younger woman who loves her church:
“Be the church today that will make the history that our children and grandchildren will build on.”
Yes, let us indeed be the church today making the life-filled history that our children and grandchildren will someday build upon.
Behold, God is doing a new thing . . . Amen.