Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Our fascination and faith about the end times

     Our readings this past weekend were pretty straight-forward. God reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush. Paul reminds the church in Rome, as well as us, of how we are to behave towards one another and towards our enemies. And Jesus reminds us that we all, at times, slip into the comfortableness of the Pharisees and describe the Messiah as we would have Him, not the way that God has invisioned Him. What to preach and teach on?
     Then came Thursday morning. One of the real joys of my ministry here has been the Thursday morning Eucharist and Bible Study. Mostly, it is populated by women. Mostly it is populated by discerning and prayerful women who are not afraid to speak their mind about whatever comes up in our discussions, be it an Old Testament lesson, contemporary news, or a fabulous new recipe. And these women have been doing this for many years now, so there is a real sense of trust built up between them. No one is required to apologize for what is about to be said because each of them knows from where the speaker is coming from. And the laughter. This group has been together so long that they simply revel in one another's presence. And the joy is usually so pervasive that relative newcomers like myself or Pat can slide right in and feel a part of the group way sooner that we should. But this past Thursday, a number of questions popped up mostly about Paul's letter to Rome, but also about Jesus' teaching on the Last Judgment and justice. Why? What amazed me was just how much the ladies' questions seemed to have captured one of those problems with which society is fascinated. After listening and talking with the ladies on Thursday, I noticed that "End of Days," "Constantine," "The Devil's Advocate," "Contact," and a few other similar movies were playing on the cable channels this weekend. Society, it seems, struggles with similar questions. Is this all that there is? Or is there more happening than meets the human eye? All of those movies did ok at the box office, and each gets run on cable tv from time to time, so the questions would seem to resonate in our culture's psyche.
     I made the statement this weekend that centered around the belief that our faith is best tested by our understanding of the Last Judgement and God's vengeance. It must have given a few spiritual wedgies because it generated a great deal of discussion. What prompted that statement was our Thurday discussions about how hard it is not to seek revenge against those who wrong us. Now, understand, we are not talking about not bringing the court system into play for criminal or civil acts which abridge our rights as citizens, though some may choose to live an ethic that radical. What we are talking about are those acts which harm us and for which we want to be the executors of judgment: when somebody uses us as a rung on the corporate ladder, stealing the promotion and benefits that should have been ours; when that sibling or other family member throws us under the bus so that we look bad in how we handled or dealt with a particular situation; when that bully threatens us for our lunch money or Wii game or whatever; when that idiot drunk driver who has no license or no insurance crashes into us; when that friend stabs us in the back; when that first love inevitably breaks our heart; when anything happens which causes us to want exact revenge on someone else. It is precisely those situations into which Paul was speaking to the Romans. "Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads."
     Can you imagine? Were the backstabber who stole your rightful promotion and blew the money on whatever nonsense to come to you hungry, God expects you to feed them! Were that family member who made you look unfairly bad to your loved ones to come to you with hand out, God expects you to clothe them! Is He trying to make it impossible for us? One of our hopes as Christians is that God will keep His promises and come to judge the world. And that final judgment is important because it is at that time that God will repay all the injustices. Christ will have paid the penalty and born the wrath for all those who accept His work and offer of salvation. But there will be punishment for those who have rejected Him and His offer. That belief in the final judgment and our faith in Christ, however, can often be tested when we are the victims of an injustice. Our nature cries out that we "have to get even." Yet God consistenty instructs us that He will get even. And when He judges, there will be no mistakes, there will be no errors, and there will be no further appeals. He will have His justice in the end! Why can't we get even; why can't we seek revenge?
     Part of it, of course, is that we make mistakes. How many times have we been absolutely furious with someone, only to realize that the other either was unaware of the hurt or that the other unintentionally harmed us? How many times would our temper cause us to seek an exhorbitant punishment for recent hurt that far outweighs the injury to us? How long do we carry grudges and then seek to pounce on the other when given the opportunity, giving no thought or consideration to the injury which we may cause? But part of it is that remembrance that you and I and all who have now accepted Christ and His offer of salvation were once enemies of God. Like the "ites" of the Promised Land, the citizens of Nineveh, the Pharisees, the Romans, and whoever else ignored God's will, you and I each were once God's enemy. Only His grace, His mercy, and His patience gave us the time to seek a right relationship with Him. Only His Son made that right relationship, as a beloved son or daughter, possible.
     What is more amazing is that He has called you and I into a relationship where you and I are meant to be His incarnations in a broken world. You and I have become part of His nations of priests who are called to be a light to a dark world. How we treat our enemies, in light of the wrongs done to us and of what society expects us to do in retribution, can have a profound effect upon the world. When we act as if we believe that God will repay the wrongs done to us, the world takes notice. If I flip off an idiot who first flips me off after running the four-way stop in front of church, the world laughs. Worse, were I to punch the one in the mouth for their lying to the cops when their selfish behavior caused them to injure another innocent, law-abiding driver by running those same signs (don't laugh, there have been at least 7 injury accidents in front of church since I arrived), the world chuckles and revels in such behavior. The world mocks us because I am no different than them. For all my profession of Christ cruicified and resurrected, I felt the need to seek vengeance and belittle my enemy.  Where is my trust in God's promises to repay?
     Yet God calls us to love the enemy. Just as He loved us while we were still His enemy and sent His beloved Son, you and I are called to love the enemy. We are called to feed the enemy, clothe the enemy, and pray for the enemy. You and I are called to meet the needs of the enemy as we are given resources so to do. Why? Is it a cosmic farce? Was Al Pacino's Satan right when he said that God was playing mind games with humanity, "Look but do not touch. Touch, but not taste. Taste, but do not enjoy." Should He have added, "Have enemies, but do not battle them?" And loving our enemies is incredibly hard. How can we ever love someone who intentionally causes us harm? As I said, it is a question of faith. When we realize that we were once His enemies, loving our enemies is not quite as challenging. Once we begin to pray and think on His promises, we begin to be challenged by His instruction. Once we give up our perceived right to vengeance to His will, we can become amazing tools in His great plan of salvation.
     Thursday, the ladies and Pat were drawn back to the Amish schoolhouse murders from a couple years ago. Each of us remarked how hard that must have been for them to forgive that man who murdered their children. If any group of Christians ever had a right to execute their own judgment, surely it was them. Yet, to a person, the Amish forgave that troubled man. The hurt did not go away; the anguish is likely still there. Yet each trusted that God will repay, that vengeance is His. And what did the world talk about for a news cycle? The world did not talk about how the Amish had tortured the young, troubled man. The world did not laugh at the Amish's gestures toward the man when a couple actually hugged their child's murderer. No, the world wondered how they could ever do such a thing. Why are they not furious with the man and pressuring the prosecutors to seek the death penalty? No, the Amish lived into the biblical ethic and caused the press to scatter seeds to the end of the earth.
     Brothers and sisters, how we face death and how we face life may be the best sermon any of our friends and neighbors ever hear. Do we live as if we believe in His resurrection and His promise to return to judge? Or do we live like the world expects us to live? Do we incarnate that mercy He so wondrously bestowed upon us? Or do we still seek our ways instead of His? Whether we know it or not, whether we accept it or not, the world is always watching us; our enemies are always watching us. How will we treat them and so love even them into the Kingdom? By the world's ethic, or by God's.

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