World War I, which involved the United Kingdom, France, the Russian Empire, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the United States, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, signaled a horrible kind of watershed moment. In 1915, chemical warfare was unleashed upon the world as 168 tons of lethal chlorine gas were fired against two French colonial divisions in Belgium. Five thousand French soldiers died within ten minutes of the gas dropping down into the trenches. A further 10,000 were blinded and maimed as they tried to flee. By the time the war ended in 1918, more than 9 million soldiers had lost their lives.
People’s faith in God and the institutions they relied on was shaken. The Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement marked by a celebration of the powers of human reason, a keen interest in science, the promotion of religious tolerance, and a desire to construct governments free of tyranny; gave way to the cynicism, disillusionment and loss of cultural and emotional stability of the Lost Generation.
Just a few decades later, the instability created in Europe by the First World War set the stage for another international conflict–World War II – which broke out two decades later and would prove even more devastating. Among the estimated 45-60 million people killed were 6 million Jews murdered in Nazi concentration camps.
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I awoke to news coming from the speakers of the clock radio beside the bed; news my brain couldn’t process. At first I thought some horribly misguided private plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Then the day was thrown into confusion. Griffin had just started preschool. Were they open? Yes. Should he go? We finally decided yes. My husband Paul worked downtown, at the Columbia Tower, the tallest building in the state. Should he go? Definitely not – the FBI had identified the building as a potential target and shut it down. The rest of the day, and the days that followed, sports stadiums vacant, churches full, and skies eerily silent, felt surreal.
The morning of Wednesday, November 9th, felt a little like that to me. I had gotten very little sleep the night before and I felt anxious and disoriented, as if the earth had shifted under my feet. What was I supposed to do now? Panic? Rebel? Flee? Pull the covers over my head? Should I go to my Zumba exercise class? I didn’t really feel up to it, but at least having somewhere to go helped me make it out of bed that morning. Dancing with my Zumba friends was healing – there were lots of hugs and damp eyes after we did the routine to our favorite song: “I Will Survive.”
For the hearers of Luke’s gospel who probably gentiles in one of the major urban centers of the Mediterranean, it seemed like the world of the Palestinian Jewish culture, of Jesus’ ministry, had come to an end. By the time the gospel of Luke was written, sometime between 70 and 100 C.E., the bloody siege of Jerusalem had taken place, the temple destroyed, the surviving Jews slaughtered or sold as slaves. The Jewish revolt and its violent annihilation by the Romans marked the end of the Jewish state until modern times. Just as Jesus had predicted, according to Luke, the beautiful, bejeweled temple had been thrown down.
But despite the devastation of Jerusalem, despite the apocalyptic picture he paints of wars and insurrections, plagues and famines, Jesus also warns, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them….do not be terrified…for the end will not follow immediately.” Dire as the situation is for Jews and Christians in the late 1st century, certain as they were of the imminent the end of the world as they knew it and the return of Jesus during their lifetimes, when the author of Luke wrote his gospel, some 70 to 100 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the second coming they were longing for still hadn’t occurred. Now what?
Now what? Two thousand years later, in the face of world wars and weapons of mass destruction, poverty, violence, and deep divisions between people and nations, we lift the same question up to God. Now what? Is it time to hoard and hide, time to give up and wait for humankind to destroy itself or make the earth uninhabitable? Apocalyptic themes are pervasive in popular literature as well as in the Bible. Books like The Road don’t become best sellers because the remnants of the human race all lose hope and die, like the character of the mother did in that book. We’re gripped by these stories because of characters who, facing overwhelming odds, through their own agency and perhaps some divine agency, seize the awful fate that has been handed to them and make something else out of it. Hope, survival, transformation – sometimes even self-sacrifice, but on their own terms. These stories of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of crushing adversity, against all odds, resonate so deeply within us because they are iterations of the most ancient and powerful of human narratives – that we are capable of overcoming our own smallness and selfishness, that good is stronger than evil, life is stronger than death, love is stronger than fear.
Our story, our history, is a continuation of the story of God’s people struggling in the face of oppression, exploitation, occupation and exile – from ancient Israel to the Roman conquests to the persecution of early Christians, the crusades against Muslims and the slaughter of Jews. It’s the story of confronting the halls of power and the structures of Empire, of the Civil Rights movement and marriage equality. Again and again, God’s people rise up. Again and again, the challenge is to rise up not in hatred and violence, but with love and just peace. Fight or flight – we’re biologically programmed for those responses. Our first impulse might be to take to the streets, or take to our beds. The longer, harder road is to rise up day after day and live not in despair and bitterness, but in openheartedness and hope.
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon [in the 6th century BCE]. It said: Thus says [God], the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:1,4-7).
It’s going to take awhile. Many of us have stages of grief to work through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Many of us are still in shock, and as after 9-11, the days feel surreal. Then there’s the waiting, the feeling of limbo between Election Day and Inauguration Day, when the new administration takes power. But ultimately, we are called to live, to build houses, plant and harvest gardens, and seek the welfare of the place in which we live.
We live in a world where many of us feel exiled from our true geographic or spiritual homes. A world where the things we value are appropriated or destroyed. A world sharply divided between rich and poor, a world of hunger and illness and violence and grief. We live in a world where you can be attacked, verbally or physically – even fatally – for what you believe, what you look like, who you love. Things might get worse before they get better.
Now what? “Do not be terrified,” Jesus tells us. “This isn’t the end. Desolation, destruction and exile do not have the final word. Feed the hungry. Clothe the poor. Trust in the wisdom of the Spirit. Testify on my behalf. Don’t worry – you’ll know what to say. Forgive others as you are forgiven. Love even your enemies. Pick up your mat and walk.”
As we say in the United Church of Christ, protect the environment; care for the poor; forgive often; reject racism; fight for the powerless; share earthly and spiritual resources; embrace diversity, love God and enjoy this life. There are times when it feels like the world is coming to an end. But our work hasn’t changed. The aching tension between human finitude and the human capability for transcendence hasn’t changed. The essential goodness of the universe and the universal promise that God is with us haven’t changed. We are Easter people, resurrection people, and we are in it for the long haul. Amen.