This sermon, or something like it, was preached November 13, 2022, at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee.
So, “All scripture is for your learning.” You are to “read mark, learn and inwardly digest;” and they give us these lessons. I think here there are some of the most mis-digested texts in Scripture. But one of the things that caught me as reading through this - can’t imagine why - “They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be and what will the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware, Do not that you are not let astray; for many will come in my name and say ‘I am he,’ and ‘the time is near.’
And the most interesting memory popped up in my head. A few of you know that in the summer of 1980, Bishop Sanders assigned to St. Rafael's Mission Station in Crossville this recently graduated, not yet ordained seminarian to be the lay minister in charge. He went on to do hospital chaplaincy and a lot of other stuff. Yes, I was here all those years ago; and there used to be a used bookstore in the strip mall that now has the Gondola - it’s not there anymore. And I was in there one day looking through the piles of books and I ran across a book. I don't remember exactly what the title was, but the subtitle was “Why God Sent Elvis to Earth, What he had to say to us, And When He Will Return.”
Now this had an odd resonance for me because one of my lesser claims to fame is that Elvis is my seventh cousin twice removed. I’m always happy to share that because that's a relationship such that everybody knows there's no money involved. And I also know how Elvis died.
So here we are, Elvis - St. Elvis. Now, I have lived in Memphis and I have been to Graceland. And let me tell you, when you go to Graceland, you may see some things that strike you as odd. They have rearranged it, but when I went to Graceland, they had three entire display panels talking about all that Elvis did to fight in the war on drugs. And I was with a couple of other people and I said, “Do not laugh. There are true believers here and they will hurt you.”
So, yeah, there are those in the oddest of places who will say, or someone will say about someone, “I am he.” This is one we hear all the time. I can remember growing up and watching, and even as an adult watching on Sunday morning, “The World Tomorrow” with Herbert W. Armstrong and it's all apocalyptic and it's all pretending to - well I shouldn't say pretending, they actually believe it - but with this idea that you can predict the end of the world. What I really liked was that they had the most wonderful graphics, the most wonderful images of those monsters. They're beautiful art in a kind of way.
And yet Jesus says, “Do not be led astray.” This is a passage that is in all the Synoptics at this point, almost at the end of the church here - because next Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year - we get to what is usually referred to as the Little Apocalypse. There's something like this in Matthew and Mark and Luke. We don't know the circumstances under which Jesus said these things. Really we think, scholars think, that they took on a particular resonance because the written versions that we have of the Gospels probably did not come together until around 65 AD. Depending on who you ask, Mark is first and Matthew is the expanded edition, the director's cut. Or Matthew is first, and Mark is the Reader's Digest Condensed Version. But we think they came together around 65 or a little after; and then Luke was 70 or a little after, which is significant because this was after the Temple was torn down. And for this Christian community that was still in Jerusalem - there was persecution, you see it recorded in Acts but there were still still Christians around - who were still at that point thinking of themselves as Messianic Jews. It's not a term they would've used, but they were still worshiping in the Temple. And then the Romans come in and the Temple is desecrated, the walls are torn down and they say, “Whoa! Jesus had something to say about this!” And so they are looking for the end times.
And of course the end times always, always sound dreadful; because, after all, major turnover is dreadful. Anything that uproots what we know and are used to feels uncomfortable, even threatening. And so Jesus said, “Yeah, these things will happen. And guess what? You've got a while to wait.”
Now, remember that in all of the Synoptics he also says, “You don't get to know the time.” That's the problem with folks who are trying to read mark, learn and inwardly digest the scriptures as if they could figure out a calendar. Jesus said, “You don't get to know the time. You get to know there's going to be trouble. You get to know this being a Christian is not going to be the easiest and most comfortable thing. You get to know that there are going to be some people that don't like you being a Christian;” or, I guess now that we live in a Christianized culture, we live with a lot of people who don't like how other people go about being Christian. You know, I grew up in Knoxville and I remember people who would encounter you interesting encounters at West Town Mall when it was still a thing and and they would say, “Are you Christian or are you Catholic?” So you know people who are uncomfortable with how other people go about being Christian; and sometimes the people who most claim to be persecuted really seem to want to use it as a justification to challenge others.
But Jesus says, “Do not go after them, as awful as things may be. Do not go after them. Wait on me because you don't get to know.”
Which gets us to Second Thessalonians. Now second Thessalonians also has one of these really badly digested passages in it: “For when we were with you, I gave you this command. Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Now there are places in Paul when Paul really sounds rather un-Jesus-like, and this is one of the worst. Jesus said, “Give to anybody that begs of you.” Period. Jesus spent his time feeding and healing and he didn't ask whether they deserved it. And we've known in our own time people, happily few people in churches, but people who wanted to use that and say, “See these people are undeserving. They're not putting up enough effort to help themselves;” usually without any reflection about what opportunity or capacity they have to participate. Somehow this is less about what it means to be meaningfully involved in the Christian life and more about, “That’s fine, but I don't want 'em to have my money.”
Paul is talking to the Thessalonians who are a long way past waiting, probably not to the destruction of the temple - Paul’s earlier than the Gospels - but they had kind of expected something to happen on the Monday after the Resurrection, and it's now been decades. And so Paul is in encouraging them all the way through Second Thessalonians and and saying, “You guys are doing a good job” outside of this passage. He spends a good deal of time saying, “Look at the ministries you have. Look at how well you have lived in faith. Look at how well you have sustained it in the face of everything else.”
“But,” he said, “I've heard some of you are living in Idleness.” Well, at least hopefully he didn't mean retirement. That “idleness” is interesting. It's an odd word according to the scholars I read. It's an odd word in Greek. It doesn't really mean sitting around. It means disorganized, it means disorderly. When you say disorganized and disorderly to me in context of what it means to live the Christian life, I fall back to the concept of Rule. This is “unregulated,” and I think of the Rule. I am an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, a Benedictine monastic order for men in the Episcopal Church. I have my own Rule. I confess I'm not the best at keeping my own rule. The Daughters of the King have a Rule; and I wonder if the word here is not better understood as “irregular,” not “sitting around wasting time.”
I think it's significant that in here he's talking to believers, he's not talking to the world. And Jesus in this Gospel lesson, when he talks about what's going to happen, the “they,”, it's believers. So we are clearly focused on how we as believers live the Christian life. And scholars debate: are these Christians who said, “We still believe that next Thursday it's going to happen and we might as well just sit and wait?” That's possible. I don't know about anybody else - I'm sure I was particularly attentive to it because I think it happened while I was in seminary -I remember there was a small apocalyptic congregation out in Arkansas, and they decided that the time was coming. And families went out dressed in white robes, adults and children, and sat on the roofs of their houses waiting for it to happen. And they sat there and they sat there and they sat there, until the truant officer came and showed up to wonder why the kids weren't in school. So we don't know if that's a possibility.
The other possibility is that other evangelists had come through, other ministers following in Paul's tradition and they were acting somehow privileged. They were acting somehow, “Well I have the Word, you take care of me.” We don't know for sure who Paul was unhappy about, but we are pretty sure this was not simply Paul saying, “Look, I was sewing tents while I was in Thessalonica and these other people, you know, they ought to be out doing trade. They ought to be out making pottery. They ought to be out working.”
No, this is about believers and believing, and what it means to live as a believer. So what does it mean to live as a believer? And I found myself thinking that we are at the end of Luke; because starting with Advent, we get back into Matthew again. And thinking about the beginning of Jesus's ministry in Luke because it clarifies both ends of this. It clarifies what Paul may be talking about and what Jesus certainly is talking about, about who to follow and who not to follow. Remember that wonderful and powerful passage in the Fourth Chapter? Jesus is in the synagogue. They hand him the scroll. He reads from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has sent me to preach release of captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, the year of the Lord's favor: God demonstrating goodness.” And Jesus said, “Now you're seeing that be fulfilled:” Jesus demonstrating God's will, which in Jesus' ministry is about proclamation and actual healing; is about proclamation and actual feeding; is about proclamation and actual care for the poor; is about proclamation and actually showing in the world by how he lived, that God was indeed at hand.
And you've heard from me and others, as we say that's Jesus's ministry. And if we're gonna claim to be Jesus, literally the Body of Jesus now present, that's our ministry. And suddenly it becomes clear what we at least can think about, about who to follow when they say, “I’m with Jesus.” Well, are they with Jesus in that? When people say, “I am working within as a part of the Christian community,” are they working with Jesus at that? When people talk about what it means to live as a member of the body of Christ, then that means we are embracing some portion, none of us totally, but some portion of that ministry of Christ; and that ministry of Christ, at least as Luke understood it, was all about that kind of service and care, and demonstrating God's loving and caring presence in the world.
Now, before you leave today, we're going to get to the closing prayer. Pay attention because it says, “And now Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do,” which is “to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” That is, in some sense or another, a life that is not idle and not disorderly, but as each of us is called, as each of us structures what each of us understands “Christian” to be, to follow the Rule, to stick with the path; knowing that, yeah, the time will come when all things are torn down, and it may be next Thursday, and it may be long after all of us are resting. In the meantime, we are called to remember who Jesus was, and therefore who we are called to be. And as Paul said, “Do not become weary in doing what is right.”