until “The End”

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 24.36-44 and Romans 13.11-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016

Today, the First Sunday of Advent, we, again, begin a new church year. We, again, begin to retell our Christian story of God’s redemptive activity in the coming and birth, life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet strangely Advent begins by calling us to contemplate the end.[1]

the-last-judgment-1467-1471-hans-memling-1430-1494

Jesus speaks of the close of this age, the consummation of human history, the culmination of this life and this world. For some, a sobering, chilling concept as captured by the words of that 13th century hymn, Dies irae:

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!

See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,

heav’n and earth in ashes burning!

O what fear man’s bosom rendeth

when from heav’n the Judge descendeth,

On whose sentence all dependeth!

For others, the very idea of the end is so far removed from daily consciousness, any consciousness that it evokes little regard and provokes little response.

Whatever our view, ominous signs, suggestive of “end times”, are (and always have been!) about us. War, yesyet with combating forces, for generations, no longer only nations, even regions of peoples, but ideologists and religionists governed by no boundaries and possessing greater firepower and perhaps greater vengeance with a capacity and willingness to annihilate. Poverty, yesyet spreading through larger portions of our global community. Environmental change and degradation, yesyet sweeping across grander expanses of our planet. These and more continuing downward arcs of “development” bespeak the terrible callousness, even terminal wickedness in the heart of sinful humankind.

In the face of the ever-present evidences of “the end”, until it comes – and “about that day and hour no one knows,” not even Jesus – Advent summons us to speak and act with expectant exultation. Today’s Collect gives voice to our prayerful petition for ourselves and our hopeful proclamation to the world: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came…” whose second coming, second advent, “in the last day, when he shall come again,” is the heartbeat of our greatest hope, “(that) we may rise to the life immortal.”[2]

This is the promise we affirm every time we acclaim, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”[3] Implicit in this promise is the assurance that God, as the only One who knows, is in control, that good will conquer evil, that peace will prevail over conflict, that love will triumph over hatred, that even given humankind’s proclivity for self-destruction, history has a redemptive conclusion, that, in Martin’s words, “the arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[4]

And this promise is our destiny, our end. Yet here and now, we have more than this promise, for Jesus gives us a prescription for the living of our lives in this world: “You must be ready!” One way, among many, to answer this call to readiness is not to gaze at the horizon for Jesus’ coming, but rather to keep busy, constant, steadfast in our Christian living. For me, “Christian living” means striving to do, to be for all people the love and justice, the unconditional generosity and equality, of Jesus. What Christian living is for you, you are called to decide.

Many years ago, during my discernment of a call to ordained ministry, I met several times with a wise priest and mentor, the Reverend Dr. Joseph Nicholson, the sometime rector of my home parish, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis. During one of our conversations, in one of those “inquiring minds want to know” moments, I asked, “What would you do if you knew the world would end tomorrow?” He paused for a moment, looking at me intently, then reached for his appointment book, turning to the page of that day. “This afternoon, I have hospital and Communion calls and, in the evening, a weekly Bible study and, after that, another meeting, and then, my wife and I will go out to dinner.” Obtusely, I asked, “OK. But what would you do?” With an understanding smile and kindly look, he replied, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would continue to attend to the labor the Lord has given me to do.”

This remains sage and sound advice for anyone, on any day, and at any time. So, let us, following Paul’s counsel, “Knowing what time it is…live honorably…putting on the Lord Jesus Christ,”[5] that is, doing what the Lord has given us to do until the end when he comes again or until our strength and breath subside in death, whichever comes first.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: The Last Judgment (1467-1471), Hans Memling (1430-1494), National Museum, Gdańsk, Poland. Note: In the central panel, the resurrected and ascended Jesus, sitting in judgment of the living and dead, is enthroned above a rainbow, his feet resting on the earth. From his mouth emerge a lily (mercy), reflected in the palm-up blessing of his right hand and a sword (justice) reflected in palm-down condemnation of his left hand. He wears the scarlet robe at the time of his conviction to death (Matthew 27.28). His open hands reveal his stigmata (wounds) of his crucifixion. He is surrounded by his apostles and his mother, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. Below, St. Michael the Archangel, attired in soldier’s armor, holding a scale to weigh human souls, drives the naked unrighteous towards the underworld (the right panel). In the left panel, the also naked righteous are greeted and guided toward the gates of Paradise on a crystal stairway and given clothing by St. Peter and the angels.

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 26.36-44 is the day’s appointed gospel.

[2] From the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, The Book of Common Prayer, page 211, my emphases. The full text of the Collect: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

[3] The Memorial Acclamation, The Book of Common Prayer, page 363, my emphasis.

[4] From Our God Is Marching On! by Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on the occasion of the march on Selma, Alabama, March 25, 1965

[5] Romans 13.11-14 is the day’s appointed epistle.

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4 thoughts on “until “The End”

  1. Paul,

    Thank you! Earlier this afternoon I chatted with someone who looks forward to your sermon blogs on Sundays as much as I do. He commented that it’s difficult for him to make it through the week without your sermon. I smiled… on the drive home I thought about my friend’s comment. I knew exactly what he meant. We’ve read the same passages many times over the years, but your sermons typically focus on very relevant parts of the passages that we wouldn’t normally think about.

    The End… when I read the title, I thought this is gonna be good!! So many things can be tied to the End… but my mind will usually go to the End of my life… So I love how you connected the variety of Ends we face in the world. Living a Christian life makes it easier I believe to be ready for the End. I was a Girl Scout when I was younger, and the motto of course was Always Be Prepared. None of us are ready for the End, but in my mind we have less to panic about if we are living the right way. When Tim died, one of the first things I thought about was if he had left anything unsaid or undone, and the answer to that I believe is No…. because of the way he lived his life, the End was good for him (if there is such a thing)… He didn’t need to apologize or forgive anyone.

    I know we can all improve in our Christian Living, but I’m happy with how I’m living my life so if the world was to End tomorrow, like your friend, I would just keep doing what I was already doing even if I knew the world would end tomorrow. Doiing otherwise would cause me to panic so much about what to do with my last 48 hours, that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. I’d keep doing what I had already scheduled, just in case the End would pass me by…

    I’ll be thinking about this sermon this week, especially as we continue in Advent, about the changes I can consciously make to improve on my Christian living.

    Glad you were able to get back with your flock this morning, I’m sure they were thrilled to see you!! I pray you are feeling well. Much love to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Loretta, always and in all ways for your reading and reflecting on my sermon texts. Thanks, too, for sharing the word of your friend who finds some benefit in reading my sermon texts. Makes my heart happy!

      Thinking about your ruminations gives me pause and cause to consider that I spend a good bit of time looking back to the past (which I can’t change) and forward to the future (which I can’t control) rather than living in the now – AND this is true even when I remind myself frequently to strive to stay present in the present! Because this is true for me, this Advent reminder and my memory of Fr. Nicholson’s wise counsel helps me, verily, comforts me in my hardheaded penchant to look back and look forward. Perhaps in this comforting counsel I’ll spend more time (at least, for a moment! 😉) focusing my the work God gives me to do here and now!

      Much love,
      Paul

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  2. Dearest Paul,

    I have so many reactions to this sermon. First of all, I am overjoyed that you were able to deliver it with and for the people of Epiphany. I am so glad that you came through your surgery well and are healing, apparently, apace!
    Second, the juxtaposition of Advent waiting and the “end times” seems so apt this year, given the world and national circumstances we are dealing with.

    Third, just before I read your sermon I was writing an email of gratitude to a dear friend from high school who is a retired Methodist pastor. I only ever heard him preach one sermon, but I remember so clearly one thing that he said from the pulpit that day: “Don’t look for God in the past; He isn’t there. Don’t look for God in the future; He isn’t there. If you want to encounter God, look to today; that’s where He dwells. That’s where we find Him.”

    I was thinking of Jim’s words as I read your sermon. Usually I would conclude that Advent is a season of waiting for God, and indeed that is true, but your sermon so beautifully makes the point that waiting does not mean “watching the horizon.” It means: “to keep busy, constant, steadfast in our Christian living. For me, ‘Christian living’ means striving to do, to be for all people the love and justice, the unconditional generosity and equality, of Jesus. ” What a fitting statement for these times we are living in. Yes, we are waiting, but if we only passively wait, the thing we anticipate will not appear. It is our active waiting that is essential to God’s moving into the world in a new way, which is so sorely needed in this moment.

    I hope you and Pontheolla had a wonderful Thanksgiving. The pictures from Clevedale looked so inviting. I would have given a lot to have celebrated with you there! You and she were among the year’s sweetest blessings for which we gave thanks around our table this year. May you both recognize and be ever encouraged by the power of your loving ministries in others’ lives.

    With gratitude and love,

    Karen

    Liked by 1 person

    • ThAnk you, Karen, always and in all ways. I appreciate you and your reading and reflecting on my sermon texts.

      Yes, I am recovering well, I think (though it always could go faster!). That said, I overdid it a bit today and now must pay the physical price of discomfiture. A good lesson learned!

      Often, I confess, I need the reminder to live in the moment and to resist the temptation to dwell on the changeless past and the uncontrollable future. Advent, for me, is an annual 4-week searingly focused light on the necessity, as Jesus says, of readiness, which, as you aver, involves “our active waiting” (what a powerful paradoxical coupling!). I like, too, Jin’s observation. As I read it, I heard myself say: “That’ll preach!”

      Much love to you, Ted, and Emilia. Pontheolla and I rejoice to know you!

      Like

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