I have been pondering the terrible storm in the Philippines, and how to think about it. It is a matter of perspective, when we consider bad things, we need to think about the question of, from whose perspective do we consider this? Is it from our perspective? From God’s perspective? If we think about something like this from God’s perspective, then I think it is both vast and personal at the same time. There is the enormity of God, when I look at the stars at night, I feel very, very small, very insignificant, compared to the vastness of the solar system, compared to God. At the same time, I believe that God is right here, in me, in you. My friends say Namaste, the spirit in me recognizes the spirit in you. So that God is both vast and intimate. When we look at something like this superstorm, and at the incredible damage, it helps me to step back, and say yes, this is an expected consequence of our sinful degradation of our world. It is not a punishment, it is a consequence that we have brought on ourselves, and there will be more to come. If we don’t want that to happen, we need to get moving on the issues of climate change, and that will change the way we live. That is the long view. The personal view is that there are hurting people, and we need to help because they are our brothers and sisters.
When we look at the Gospel lesson, Luke writes story about the temple falling down, and a series of predictions that sound like they could be rather current, don’t you think? Wars and rebellions, great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics – but Jesus was talking about his time, not ours! Interesting!
Let’s look at this more closely. Jesus spoke Aramaic, and he was speaking to people in Jerusalem. Luke was writing for a group of people who spoke Greek, not in Jerusalem. Aramaic is close to Hebrew linguistically, and very far from Greek. Luke wrote his story about 3 generations later than Jesus spoke. So they were a totally different group of people in a different context speaking a different language. The people Luke was writing for also had a different perspective. Why?
By the time Luke was writing, the temple had been destroyed by the Romans. For these people, it was about as dramatic as 9/11 and the Twin Towers coming down, but even more. Remember that the Temple in Jerusalem was the center of the religious practice. Imagine that all that we ever did at our individual churches was to get together to pray, but the real worship service happened up at the cathedral, and that it could only happen at the cathedral. Now imagine that suddenly the cathedral had been bombed. What happens to our understanding of our religious practice?
That was the question they were facing. Already during the time of Jesus, Romans were coming to the end of their tolerance for the Jewish people. The Jews were only people in Roman empire who did not have to agree that the Emperor of Rome was a god, which was a rather large concession, but they, like all occupied peoples, hated their oppressors. Dissident groups were forever rising up, and the Romans squashed them with a vengeance. Jesus of Nazareth was just one of many, many crucifixions during this terrible time – and we have to remember that for the Romans, Jesus was a political execution, just someone who made too much noise. The Romans didn’t care about theological niceties, but they cared a lot about gatherings of people around charismatic leaders. Remember that one of the followers of Jesus was called a Zealot, and that was one of the groups that was rising up against Rome. These little flames of resistance were lighting up all over Judea, and Rome finally said a big NO!
They destroyed the temple, which they understood as the powerhouse of the people.
The interesting thing is that they did not destroy Judaism. So what happened there? Before the fall of the temple, many rabbis had gone to the north end of the Galilee, out in the sticks. It is a beautiful area, and they formed a community there. Already in the time of Jesus, the area around the Galilee was full of people who were really interested in religion – the Pharisees. They get a bad rap in the NT, because they were often sparring with Jesus – and for another darker reason as well.
We see this a lot in the Gospel of John, this increasing demonization of the Jews in general, and of the Pharisees in particular. What’s going on here? Were the Pharisees really that bad? I don’t think so! Here’s what’s going on at this point: the Romans have destroyed the temple, the center of Judaism and they have killed lots and lots of dissidents. Jerusalem is basically under martial law. Any religious authorities that were left had gone up to the Galilee. At the same time that the real center of their religious practice had been destroyed by the outside political authorities, the Jesus movement was threatening from within. There was a huge fight for the soul of Judaism, at the same time that Judaism was having to re-invent itself.
Can we even imagine how terrifying this was? It is difficult. People at this point are worried that Christianity is going under, they point to the numbers of churches that are losing people, and they are right, and to the statistics of how many people are not coming to church compared to how many used to, and they are right, and how the church used to be influential in the halls of Congress and now it is not, and they are right, and so they conclude that Christianity is dying a slow and painful death, and they are wrong. Their version of Christianity is dying, and that is quite painful to many people who remember what it was like. However, I agree with Phyllis Tickle, who points out that when the Reformation came along, there were many who thought the Roman Catholic Church was going to die. There was a part of it that did, but the rest of it is still alive and kicking. Now there are many who think Christianity will die, and yes, the part that thinks it must continue the way we’ve always done things or the whole thing will go down the drain, that part will die. And that death will cause some other things to change, and we don’t know what the final result will be, but while I am quite sure things will change, I do not expect Christianity as a whole to die, not at all. For one thing, there are other parts of the world where Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds. I do think that the Eurocentric version of Christianity may well die, and I really hope the exclusivist version of Christianity goes under. I have a book called Christianity through Asian Eyes, and it is an art book, Christian Asian art. It’s wonderful, and very different. Just as the hymns in Sound the Bamboo sound different to ears that are accustomed to European scales and harmonies and rhythms, so these lines and colors and sensibilities are different.
I draw our attention back to the passage from Isaiah: I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth…Be glad and rejoice in what I’m creating…
When we look back to the creation story in Genesis, this verb tense is the same. We are used to the translation, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, but the correct translation is “creating” not “created.” Creation is seen as an ongoing event. I think it is instructive that Isaiah reminds us that we need to be glad and rejoice in this new creation. But it’s not the way it always used to be. I went to a beautiful church up in Seattle on Wednesday to see what they were doing, and got into a discussion with one of the women that was setting up for the holiday bazaar, and she was lamenting the fact that things had changed. It was fascinating. I commented on the lovely social hall we were in that they were decorating, and she said, oh yes, we built this nice big space, and now all of these new people have come! She was not happy. On the one hand, she was pleased that the church was growing. But on the other, she was not happy at all. These new people were doing things differently. She felt out of control. It was very hard on her. She had been there a long time, and no one had asked her about building this new building, and it was taking “her” church away.
We were visiting friends up in Seattle who had left their home, church, friends of more than 30 years and children in Atlanta to retire in this new place. Yes, they missed their daughter and son still there, and some friends, and the church. But they were quickly making friends in this new church, volunteering to help out here and there, being part of what was so disquieting to the older folks.
I just read an interesting article about church growth, and his conclusion was that we get to choose between this death or that death. Either we grow and die, or we do not grow and die. If we grow, then the old ways will die, and that is painful. People don’t think about this when they say “we want to grow!” However, the pain of growth and transformation can be shifted, if we are willing to rejoice in the midst of acknowledging our loss.
Isaiah gives us words to help us rejoice: God says, Before they call, I will answer, while they are still speaking, I will hear. Will we be open to God’s creating – or will we be angry that things are changing? Will we rejoice at God’s presence and reflect that to our neighbors – or will we hide our faces from those in need? God is with us, let us join in God’s work of creating, and rejoice.