Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 28; Ordinary 33; 18 November 2012

When I first left parish ministry to re-enter academia, I joined a church in my town and enjoyed attending worship as a member of the congregation for the first time in two decades. I missed preaching though. Missed it terribly. So imagine my surprise when the pastor asked me to stand in as the replacement preacher on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, so that he could go and visit his family in a distant state!  “Absolutely,” I said, “I’d love to.” Then I went home and looked up the lectionary readings for the day.

Little apocalypse.  Bleh. 

Ever since I was very young I have been not only supremely unimpressed, but somewhat embarrassed by the fascination that American protestant Christians have with the parousia, the end-times, the second coming, the rapture, the whatever-you-want-to-call-it. It’s not that I don’t like imagining an exciting future, mind you, it’s that I deeply resent people pretending that they have it all figured out – and anybody who thinks that they can decode all of the apocalyptic passages in the bible and assemble them into a coherent and reliable road map for the future is trying to sell somebody something.

The radical unpredictability of God’s action in bringing about the consummation of the age is reinforced when Jesus, in this Sunday’s gospel passage, tells his disciples that the signs to be read are signs which appear in each and every year. There has never been a time when there have not been wars, rumors of wars, belligerent nations and earthquakes. However, in 2009, Jerry L. Harber invited readers of Homily Service to pay closer attention to Jesus’ warning that many would come, claiming to be messengers of Christ, and would in fact be deceivers. Given the precipitous decline in numbers of Americans willing to self-identify as Christians, Harber suggests that in the present era, fewer and fewer are being deceived.

Maybe they notice the average Christian’s weak, or even absent, response to the problem of homelessness or racial disharmony. Maybe it is the greed they see that helped drive our economy to the brink of disaster, and they wonder where Christians were while all this happened. It could be they noticed our totally unexceptional lives blending right into a culture that is becoming more and more frantic and pleasure-seeking and wondered where the peace was they heard that Christians experience.

Pretty clearly, our lives aren’t making much positive impact on people. Pretty clearly, fewer and fewer seem to need what we say is of utmost importance, a relationship with God in Christ. We were commissioned by Jesus to make disciples, that is, people who are learning and following the ways of Jesus. In this country, we seem to be failing. If I’m right, the important question isn’t, “What will we do about it?” The important question is how will each of us address this failure? Until we each have a sense of personal responsibility for the changes required, the slide will continue. And as it does, the end will come. And perhaps not as Jesus described at all, but as T. S., Eliot suggested in “The Hollow Men.”

How do you handle the apocalyptic passages in your preaching? 

Jerry L. Harber. Homily Service 42:4, 133

Jerry L. Harber is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Memphis, TN.

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