Sunday, November 14, 2021
"We Have Met The Enemy, and They is Us: A Sermon on Mark: 13: 1-8
Open My lips, O, Lord, and my mouth will speak thy Praise. In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: In 1970, the cartoonist Walt Kelly drew a poster for the very first Earth Day. It was a portrait of Pogo, the opossum protagonist of Kelly’s long-running strip, also named “Pogo,” holding a stick with a spike in it, trying to pick up an enormous amount of litter, only to gaze further and see the degradation of the environment stretching out as far as the eye could see. Pogo says simply, “We have met the enemy, and they is us.” In today’s Gospel reading, one of the disciples marvels to Jesus about the magnificence of the Temple, and even of the stones used to build the Temple. Jesus immediately casts down the unnamed disciples’ tourist enthusiasm, saying that all of these great buildings will be thrown down, and that not one of these magnificent stones will remain on another. It’s an image of total devastation that Jesus tosses out to the disciple, and this understandably troubles his closest disciples, Peter, James and his brother John and Andrew. So they join Jesus when he sits down across from the Temple, and they ask when will all of these things happen and how will we know it is coming? Jesus’s answer is another warning: Do not be fooled; he warns the disciples that there will be not just one, but many who present themselves in his name, and will say “I am he!” These false Christs will lead many astray, he tells these closest disciples. Then he tells them that worse is to come: wars, and rumors of wars, nations against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes and famine. Jesus finally tells them that “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” This passage (and its equivalents in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels) is the beginning of what is called “the Little Apocalypse.” And, let me tell you, it only gets worse from here. The Sun and Moon go dark, stars fall from the sky, the powers of the Heavens are shaken, and life only survives at all because God shortens the days to save the Elect, the chosen ones of God. The Little Apocalypse provides an ending that reaffirms the power and goodness of God—the Son of Man “coming in clouds with great power and glory. .. sending forth his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds.” So, happy ending for those of the Elect who manage to hold out to the end. For the rest of us—neither the sheepo nor the goats, for us in-betweens—who knows? So what do we do with this passage? Back in 1912, Professor Burton Scott Easton published an article on the Little Apocalypse in a scholarly journal called The Biblical World, [Aug.1912, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 130-138, “The Little Apocalypse.” ] Easton pointed out that the Hebrew tradition was “extremely fond of predictions of the end of the world and a really voluminous literature of such predictions existed.” As an oppressed people, they saw themselves as the Elect, who would be redeemed by God, while the rest of the world would suffer for sinning against God. In the Book of Revelation attributed to John, you see the same disdain for those who are not of the Elect, and who are depicted as oppressing the Church and the world. The sufferings of the once powerful are to be rejoiced at, as they clear the path for the Kingdom of Heaven. Although many of these apocalypses have been lost, examples can be found in the Book of Daniel, the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Revelation to John, and especially the book known as Fourth Ezra. Fourth Ezra was written at about the same time many estimate the Revelation was. (Easton, p. 131; see also Translations of Early Documents, Series 1: The Apocalypse of Ezra (trans., GH Box, SPCK, 1917, chaps. 3-14. Mark’s Little Apocalypse and Fourth Ezra both describe wars, kingdom against kingdom, tribulations, and close with the coming of the Son of Man, and the gathering of the chosen few to him. Easton tells us that in Fourth Ezra “before the rule of God begins, hostility to God will reach a climax,” and that “the parallel to the Little Apocalypse is perfect.” (p. 132). So the Little Apocalypse is a summary version of already-held beliefs about the end times. As Easton wrote “It is very much as if the Apocalypse had said ‘the events of the end will be those you have always expected.’” In other words, it is nothing new—and we could treat it, as some scholars have, as wishful thinking in. reaction to the sacking of Jerusalem to Rome in 70 AD, or even a prophecy of that event attributed to Jesus only after the event. But that doesn’t mean that this passage is meaningless to us, or that it has no message for us in 2021, as we blink our eyes and look around the COVID-altered landscape we all are living in. After all, today’s Gospel provides a warning we can see coming true in the world today, even in our own beloved community. Human carelessness, greed, pride, and arrogance are endangering us all—whether by refusing to take steps to protect each other from the pandemic that still surrounds us, or by our recklessly continuing to destroy the environment that supports our very lives, even as “extreme climate events,” to use the current euphemism, are increasing in frequency and severity. Wars and rumors of wars? In a recent book, Our Own Worst Enemy (August 2021) Tom Nichols, a Professor of National Security Affairs, at the United Sates Naval War College, says that the greatest threat to American democracy is “We, the People,” who are bringing about the death of liberal democracy and the rise of illiberalism and authoritarianism, which rests on the nihilism, conspiracies, misinformation, and a type of propaganda that says, “Everything is possible; therefore, nothing is true.” Nichols warns us that such information degradation fuels a “Cold Civil War.” And indeed, at least one poll—the “Edelman trust barometer” for 2021 found a majority of Americans believed that we are locked in just such a cold civil war. As Pogo says, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” But there is, in Jesus’s warnings about false messiahs in the Little Apocalypse, an answer to the question of living in dangerous times: Don’t trust the charlatans, the liars who raise absurd expectations. Don’t live in fear. Instead, use your intelligence guided by experience. That’s a start. But like the friendly little opossum, we have to do more; we have to pick up the trash. Which means really looking at ourselves—where have we caused division in our families, out workplaces, our network of relationships? Can we repair the harms we have caused—or if we haven’t caused them, can we help repair them anyway, taking the first step, whoever was at fault? At yesterday’s diocesan convention, the theme was “Your Faith Has Made You Whole” and the image of the Japanese art of Kistugi—that of honoring the broken ceramics of our lives by repairing them with precious metals to bind the broken surfaces—gold, silver, or platinum. You’re the gold, the platinum, the silver. We all are. We’re all the broken ceramic, too. I can’t fill my own broken places, and neither can you—but we can fill each others’ needs, by reaching out in love. We can all fill the cracks in different ways—simple as calling a friend or relative we love but haven’t kept up with, or reaching out to someone we have dropped for whatever reason, to repair a broken tie. Every day is a chance to take the steps toward reconciliation, and living in wholeness with those we free ourselves to love, either by forgiving them, or by asking their forgiveness. And we don’t know how many of those chances we get, how many days we have. None of these nostrums will prevent the end of the earth. And we almost certainly won’t be here to see it. But our own world—this earthly life—will be richer and holier if we live as if our kindness and love to each other would end the world. And who knows? If cynicism and disdain can spread like COVID, maybe love and forgiveness can, too. Now that’s something worth catching. In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.