Read Martha’s Sermon from November 17, 2013
For a pdf version of this sermon, click here.
St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for Proper 28C
November 17, 2013
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Isaiah 65:17-25; Ps. 98; 2 Thess.3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Our opening collect: “Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life…”
And so we hear and read today’s gospel, try to mark what it is saying, learn from it, and inwardly digest it. Apocalyptic language abounds in scripture, and it has been so misused. So Jesus’ words of caution are something to take to heart. Many do try to lead us astray. Especially those who would venture to say that they know precisely when the “end times” will come — something scripture resolutely refuses to do — and who will be saved, and chances are it isn’t you. Don’t worry. They don’t know.
Some context for this gospel is helpful, and we are helped to remember that the times of which it is speaking are the times in which it is written, rather than the time being written about. Luke’s gospel was written between 90 and 100 C.E. This is critically important. Some of you may be reading the hot new bestseller Zealot as I am. There’s more to say about that, at a later date, but for today’s purposes I would say that it vividly depicts the violence and strife of first century Jerusalem. A brutally oppressive Roman regime. A Temple culture — the Temple built by Herod to be more of a tribute to himself than anything else — that was bloated and often colluded with Rome against the people. Insurrections and uprisings by various Jewish sects, brutally put down, and then successful for a brief period of time between 66 CE and 70. In 70 C.E. Jerusalem was blockaded, starved to death and then sacked by the Romans. Sacked. Left in utter ruin. Nothing, nothing, left of this ancient Jewish city. It must have looked for a time as though God had abandoned the Jews and as though Judaism had come to an end. Remember that the Temple was where God dwelled, it was the axis mundi, the center of the world where the divine met the secular. Now it was gone.
Today’s gospel passage from Luke, though it writes about the destruction of the Temple — “not one stone will be left upon the other” — as though it were some time in the future, in fact, in history, it had already happened. With that in mind, we can see that to those Jews who were alive after the destruction of Jerusalem, these would have been words of comfort. “Do not be terrified,” Jesus tells them. Jesus is presented as foretelling not the end of the earth, but the destruction of Jerusalem. And of course he is also speaking of his own death, which he knows is near, because he knows what happens to people who confront Roman authority.
What did happen is that it marked a profound turning point for Judaism, when it turned from being a temple religion, to a religion of the Torah. They ceased to be a religion that was centered around a building. Being faithful to God did not depend on going somewhere, but on how one lived and observed the law in one’s daily life. And God is not just at the Temple; God is everywhere. This was yet another turn toward the universal.
The language of wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines and plagues is standard apocalyptic language. What are we meant to mark and inwardly digest from today’s gospel in the face of such tragedy? I know i don’t need to say this, but the text is not saying that such disasters are from God. It is a terrible misuse of scripture to look at destructive events and see them as happy portents of the coming of the end times in which we at least will be saved. The fact that we seldom see things that way unless they are happening to someone other than ourselves should be our first clue that this is misguided thinking. The text does make the claim that God is with us in the midst of tragedy, even when it seems that all is lost.
The gospel speaks of tragedy and destruction wrought by human violence 2000 years ago in Palestine. What has been on most of our hearts and minds this past week is tragedy and destruction of a different kind in the Philippines. The super typhoon is one of the strongest landfalling tropical cyclones on record. Entire cities and towns have been reduced to rubble.The United Nations yesterday reported the death toll at 4,600, and over 600,000 homeless.
A release from Episcopal News and Development said this: “In recent days we have all seen the photos and video of the devastating and wide-ranging effects of Super Typhoon Haiyan on the people of The Philippines. It is difficult to imagine the effects of a storm so huge and how responders will provide relief and assistance to the millions of people in desperate need of care. However, that is what we do as Christians, and we all have a part to play.”
So my question is — Why? We take that for granted, I suspect. But Why is it that “this is what we do as Christians” and “why do we all have a part to play”? What is it that enables us to feel this tragedy so far away from us and respond with compassion, or not? This is not as obvious as it sounds, and it’s an important question. I suggest to you that our ability to feel and respond to something that happens to someone else, very far away, has everything to do with our cognitive development, which has a lot to our spiritual growth.
It is worth asking because the idea that we respond to the suffering of others was not the least bit obvious to us when we were four years old. Say to a young child something like “how do you think that makes me feel!” and you will be met with utter incomprehension. The ability to perceive another’s different thoughts simply isn’t there. The cognitive development of child to adult has been well researched and documented. We do, in fact — unless we suffer some trauma and get stuck, for example, in narcissistic personality disorder — evolve. We go through stages of consciousness, beginning with what has been called egocentric (seeing everything as the self and projections of myself without self differentiation) and then ethnocentric (my team, my tribe, my ethnic group) and then worldcentric. (1) Societies and culture too evolve in similar ways, which as been mapped and documented — from mythic to tribal to imperial to nation-states, to global. Of course many people never make it to worldcentric, but stop and remained fixed in a place where they divide the world into “us” and “them.” I suggest that practicing Christians are continually reminded that this kind of dualistic thinking is not the Gospel. Recognizing this takes a lot of work. And, the spiritual claim goes still further, beyond world-centric to the truth of the unity of all life. And lest you think you’ve arrived as a fully developed consciousness, the truth is that wherever we are, we have more evolving to do! And that if we are open and attentive to this we get glimpses. And the more evolved we are the more frequent they are, and the more able we are to interpret them.
This is famously described by the 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer, and retold by, yes, Joseph Campbell. (2) Campbell tells an event that happened in Hawaii several years ago at a place where there was a deep gorge and high winds, attractive to tourists but also a place where people would commit suicide. Two policemen are riding by and see a man about to jump off and the first policeman jumps out of the car, grabs hold of the man and is going to go over with him, and the second policeman rushes over and pulls them both back. Afterwards the first policeman is asked “you were going to be pulled over with him — why did you do that? you were going to lose everything! what about your family? your future? self-preservation?” He is not be able to answer this. We can only interpret events within the frame of our level of consciousness, which may have no frame of reference. All he knows is, he doesn’t feel like a hero, he’s embarrassed when anyone suggests it. In that moment, all he can say is “If I had let that man go I could not have lived my life.” Schopenhauer’s insight is that at that moment there is a breakthrough of a metaphysical realization that you and the other are one. That separateness, in Campbell’s words, is only an effect of the temporal sensibility of time and space. The true reality is that unity of all life spontaneously realized.
If you have ever had a glimpse like this, a breakthrough of consciousness when you see the unity of all things, you know it. The gift of that insight needs to be consciously lived into. When you are open to it, you have another glimpse. And another. And another. And there is the realization that work for and on behalf of another is not some gratuitous act of charity that reminds me of how lucky I am not to be in his poor shoes, but the embodiment of this realization that your neighbor is yourself. This is “putting on the mind of Christ” or Christ consciousness that Paul talks about in Romans 12:2, 1 Corinthians 2:1, and Philip. 2:5, to name a few. (3) It is the goal of the spiritual path, to allow God to transform us inwardly.
Another person’s cognitive development is not something I can do much about. But I can take responsibility for and attend to my own. Doing good works in the world, without attending to our inner consciousness runs the great risk of being an ego project, or guilt driven, or an opportunity to reify boundaries that separate people, and to do more harm than good. But as a conscious opening of the heart to the suffering of another, the willingness to be changed, lived into in recognition that we all are one, it can change the world.
(1) Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World (Boston & London, Integral Books, 2006), 51.
(2) Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth” with Bill Moyers, PBS series, Episode 4 “Sacrifice and Bliss,” 1988.
(3) Jim Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ: The Inner Work of Christian Spirituality (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, 2011), xiii.