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Monday, November 19, 2007

The End of the World

"By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Luke 21:15-19
XXV Pentecost – Proper 28C
November 18, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton
rector and pastor

There’s no getting around it. Today’s scriptural lessons are pretty grim. Every last one of the scripture lessons is laced with the same theme of ‘the end of the world as we know it.’ All of it is ‘gloom and doom’, or as the Germans would say, “sturm und drang.”

We begin with the prophet Malachi and his prophesy about the day that is coming “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evil doers will be stubble.”

Jesus seems to have been reading Malachi, for his mood is no better. “As for these things that you see,” he says, “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Right. Well, there it is, then. If you came to church this morning, expecting to hear happiness and light, you’ve come on the wrong Sunday.

If you came to church this morning, hoping to hear something to get you into the Thanksgiving spirit, well, hang on. All is not lost.

In order to understand this piece of scripture, you’ve got to understand the context in which it appears. You’ve got to understand that the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, or Passover, was about to be upon them.

Jesus is beginning to understand something about the connection of that festival and the purpose of his time on earth – his mission and ministry. ‘The end of time’ for him is not a frivolous idea; not the passing of a season. Rather, it is coming from a place of deep truth and understanding in his heart and in his soul and in his mind.

Jesus points to these end times, the signs around him, as he begins to prepare for the end of his time on this earth. In the very next chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus begins to make preparation for the Feast of the Passover.

This feast has become our Eucharist – our prayer of remembrance and celebration of thanksgiving for the gift of the life and death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

It seems to be in our religious DNA that, in the midst of the darkest days of anxiety and uncertainty, we pause to give God thanks and praise.

Every school child knows that the holiday of Thanksgiving commemorates the feast celebrated by the first Pilgrims, those faithful citizens of the Crown who fled Briton to find freedom of religious expression in the place they called ‘New England.’

They reportedly came together, having lost many of their own to the perils of the sea in their crossing, as well as the challenges and rigors of the new land, to give thanks for all they had, nonetheless, been given.

You probably also know that it was Abraham Lincoln who called the holiday into being with the famous Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863. It was in the end times, right in the midst of the Civil War (1861-65).

One can hear Lincoln having been influenced by the apocalyptical imagery of this passage from Malachi and Luke: “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

Indeed, that was precisely what was happening in the land.

You may not know that it was a woman who encouraged Lincoln to have a national holiday of Thanksgiving. That woman was one Sarah Josepha Hale. Widowed and penniless at 34, with five small children to raise, Hale supported herself with sewing and poetry.

Then, at 39, her first novel, Northwood, was a huge success. A year later a British publisher asked her to serve as the first editor of The Ladies Magazine and the rest, as they say, is history. Sarah Hale continued to write and edit until she was 89. She died at a robust 91.

Hale had advocated a national celebration of Thanksgiving as early as 1827 To Sarah Hale Thanksgiving would be a therapeutic holiday. She wrote, "There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out . . . the best sympathies in our natures."

Hale saw this spiritual dimension of Thanksgiving as a means for preventing the insanity of civil war in America. This is why, as hostilities heated up between North and South, she bombarded both national and state officials with requests for the national holiday.

By 1863 when Lincoln issued his now famous Thanksgiving Proclamation, Sarah Hale had penned literally thousands of these letters in her own hand. Hale wrote in a 1859 editorial, "If every state would join in Union Thanksgiving on the 24th of this month, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States?"

Speaking of America's blessings, even in its darkest hour, Lincoln wrote in the Thanksgiving Proclamation: "In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union."

"Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore”.

“. . . .No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People."

And so Americans celebrate Thanksgiving together on the fourth Thursday of November each year. It is hard not to speculate if perhaps that celebration has helped as much as anything to keep us from the insanity of fighting against ourselves again.

It is harder, still, in the midst of all that divides us in the world, to pause to give thanks and praise.

A Civil War continues to rage in Iraq and Afghanistan and threatens in Iran and Korea.

A wall divides the city of Jerusalem as an uneasy peace has been worked out to boost consumerism for the 60th Anniversary of the nation of Israel.

A wall also divides Belfast, as ancient tensions and Civil War between northern and southern Ireland continue to play themselves out.

In this country, there continues to be the cry to build a wall to ‘secure our borders’ in these days of illegal immigration and the hysteria of terrorism.
In our own church, the threat of schism has come and now is.

The diocese of Ft. Worth voted in convention this weekend to begin to take its leave of the Episcopal Church, joining the diocese of San Joaquin and Pittsburgh. All indications are that we will be locked in a religious civil war for years to come. Property disputes will no doubt consume most of the episcopate of Katharine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop, and the resources and finances and leadership of the church along with her.

These are undoubtedly dark days in our country and in our church. And yet, it is right to make a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Indeed, there can be no better time to praise God and offer thanks.

Even as we hear Jesus preparing for the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, today, we, ourselves, celebrate Bread of Life Sunday. We do so in the midst of concern about our finances and the launch of one of the most aggressive Stewardship Campaigns in anyone’s memory. We do this as the stewardship of our buildings requires us to spend thousands of dollars of our endowment.

Well, some have called our stewardship goals aggressive. I am choosing to call it ‘faithful.’ It will take the courage of our faith to meet our goals.

Then again, it takes the courage of faith to choose to be positive in the face of so much negativity; to choose the life of Christ, in the face of all the death in the world.

It takes courage to choose to be happy in Jesus in the midst of all the unhappiness in the church.

Jesus reminds us, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” We can endure because we have faith. It is audacious, in these days of the scarcity of human kindness to believe in God’s abundance.

We believe because we, like Lincoln, know that “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.”

I believe the path to true happiness can be found on the road that is paved not with gold, but with praise and thanksgiving, ministry and mission.

It takes courage to make, what our Eucharist calls, ‘a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’.

As Christmas approaches, our culture will soon enough become frenzied by rampant consumerism and corporate greed. Perhaps our ability to stop and give thanks may well bring about the end of the world as we now know it.

And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

Perhaps this simple act of giving thanks and praise from people of all religious persuasions, all races, colors and creeds, will be such a radical act of deep spirituality, that it will also signal the beginning of the Realm of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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