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The Shock Doctrine:The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, November 17, 2019:
Malachi 4:1-2a
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

We’ve come to the end. The end of the Church year that follows different rules than our calendar year, and concludes next Sunday. This week we hear these disturbing apocalyptic texts, and then next week we’ll observe Reign of Christ, as a sign of hope that there is, in fact, something to hope for beyond the troubles we find ourselves in.

And then December 1st the Church year begins again, with Advent: a season that’s not just about trimming the tree and getting our shopping lists in order, so much as recognizing the dire, even apocalyptic situations we tend to find ourselves in — again and again — and looking with hope and faith to a future that’s in God’s hands. This cycle of despair-and-hope of this week and next week is mirror, or replaying of the cycle we’ll enter into next week and the weeks that follow: Advent and Christmas. (Where we hear the pleading and yearning of people calling upon God to make things right in the world, and then finding God’s response in the form of a baby in a manger.)

But that doesn’t make these scary, apocalyptic writings any easier to deal with. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that these passages are “intellectually difficult and pastorally problematic.”* These references to stubble burnt up in an oven. To stones thrown down; wars and insurrections; persecutions and false messiahs; natural disasters. We don’t want to scare people. We don’t want to be scared. We’re wary of playing into the hands of extremists that focus on the form — the language and imagery of these scary texts — without seeming to grasp the comfort and hope on the flip side of the coin.

But these dire, apocalyptic ruminations aren’t limited to ancient religious literature, or modern day religious zealots. Scary, apocalyptic thinking isn’t hard to find. Brueggemann continues:

We cast about for a timetable, wondering how much time we have left before the earth is too hot or the oil is gone. We ask whether there is still time for a remedy, and we cringe from the expected answer.

And he wrote that back in 1992. Not last week, in response to what could have been one of several headlines.

And then alongside these disturbing “intellectually difficult and pastorally problematic” scriptures, the lectionary tosses in something that seems totally different. A snippet from a second letter to a community that was probably learning to live in the here-and-now after their initial apocalyptic expectations have been dampened. After the assumption of a quick return of Jesus gave way to the realization that they’d be kicking around for a little — or a lot — longer. So rather than urgency there’s some planning, clarifying, rule-making. ‘This is who you trust, or imitate. (The apostles.) This is who you need to be careful around. (Busybodies.) This is the code for community life. (Everyone contributes, everyone works.)

These contrasting readings say something, I think, about the creative tension implicit in the Christian life. Concerns about the future of the whole world; talk of The Day of the Lord; the judgement of God. But also very concrete, everyday instruction for what was probably a house church.

We even see that tension in the opening paragraphs of the first book of the Bible: a creation story where an unseen God creates through will and word; brings into being the world, the seas, and the stars. And then alongside it, a second creation story. Where God rambles through the garden, and man and woman find themselves alienated from one another, and from God. There’s a grand vision, and the reality of the challenges of everyday life in community. As a parish there are those grand questions about our mission and our vision. But also the more mundane needs: recruiting some more ushers, coffee hour volunteers, shovelling the sidewalks. Figuring out how to get along when we disagree.

I wonder if we might make some connections between these two types of reading when we recognize how panic and anxiety about the future — whether supernatural, environmental, or having to do with the survival of the Church — if left unchecked, this anxiety can have an impact on our life as a community.

And conversely, these unnamed “busybodies” that Paul warns about, rather than being just annoying neighbours along the lines of Steve Urkel, or Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched, or Kimmy Gibbler from Full House, maybe these first century busybodies were the false messiahs, or advocates of the false messiahs, that Jesus warned about in Luke 21. An example of how our internal strife, our personal dysfunction (and we’ve all got some), or our unhealthy reaction to the apocalyptic dysfunction in the world can sow seeds of conflict and confusion in our shared life. Is this not the phenomenon that Canadian author Naomi Klein raised in her book The Shock Doctrine? That the crises of our world can be used by some in power to instigate, perhaps surreptitiously, self-serving policies. (And in the end, people die because of this.)

So, how is this ‘good news?’ Walter Brueggemann would bring our attention to the ends of today’s “problematic” passages. To the hope and healing that our faith insists will follow the fears and pains of our lives and our world:

“[F]or you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”

“[D]o not be terrified…. This will give you an opportunity to testify…. [N]ot a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

What Brueggemann says is that “it will take an outrageous poem, one like Luke 21, to let the Holy in on our emergency.” These, he says, are “lyrical, daring, jarring texts” that speak of how things in our society and in our lives can become unglued. How the things we value most, the beautiful stones of the massive Temple in Jerusalem (or the beloved neighbourhood church) — even those things will see the day when they’re thrown down to the ground.

Our task as Christians in this situation is to hold on to faith, even when everything is coming unglued. When stones are thrown down, then WE can be the living stones, holding together in times of anxiety. We can hold to the words of Jesus who says: “do not be troubled” and to remember that there is work for us, and Good News to communicate, even in the midst of violence, natural disaster, religious extremists, and persecution. It may sometimes seem futile or ridiculous to pray, to hold on to faith in these situations. We might see our prayer, rather, as an offering to God: ‘letting the Holy in to our emergencies.’ We don’t know what will happen because of, or after our prayers. But, like what we do in our celebration of the Eucharist, we come to God and offer ourselves, our stuff, and our world, because that’s what Jesus has instructed, and left us with.

There’s life on the other side of apocalypse. I think that’s what Jesus wants to awaken us to. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

*Brueggemann quotes from: