Jesus and his disciples are talking about the Temple. The disciples are amazed by its beauty and the gifts dedicated to God. And, right out of the blue, Jesus begins talking about how nothing really lasts – not even this beautiful Temple dedicated as a gift to God – and then he tells them how nation will rise up against nation and there will be wars and they will probably be arrested and persecuted and imprisoned and maybe even put to death, but well, not to worry because, hey, “by your endurance you will gain your souls”. (Luke21:5-1)
As my kids would say, “Holy Macaroni!” What does that even mean, “by your endurance you will gain your souls”?
It probably helps to know that this exchange between Jesus and his disciples takes place in chapter 21 of Luke’s Gospel. There are 24 chapters. That means we’re getting closer to the end. So, it doesn’t exactly come “out of the blue.” Jesus not only knows what’s going to happen next, he knows how the story ends.
So, where I want to begin is at the end. I want to begin by asking you if you’ve ever experienced a moment in time when you thought to yourself, “Well, this is the beginning of the end”? I’m wondering if some of you have been in one of the wars. Korea? Viet Nam? Sarajevo? Iraq? Iran? Afghanistan? Syria?
Everyone I’ve ever spoken to – of any age, of any country – who has been in a war zone has had an experience wherein they believe that the end of the world was only moments away and they were about to witness it – and go down with it.
People who have been in a traumatic situation – a fire, an earthquake, a flood, a tornado – express feeling the same way.
It’s absolutely terrifying.
I know my parents felt that way when Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. My father took one look at him wiggling his hips and he got right up and turned off the TV saying, “When I fought for the freedom of this country in WWII, I didn’t fight for THIS!”
He did the same thing when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. I said I’d never do that to my kids! No, not me!
So, it’s probably no surprise that I had to work hard to really control myself when my kids started listening to Grunge Music and Punk Rock and groups with names like Arrowsmith and Guns ‘n Roses and Cheap Trick and KISS and . . . well, you catch my drift. (PS: I like their music today. I'm not sure what I found so scary then.)
It’s going to mean ‘The End of the World as We Now Know It’. And, though we put on a brave face – or, worse, a grumpy face – secretly, we’re terrified with the change each generation brings.
Don’t you wish, sometimes, that there was a Crisis Hot Line or a Webpage named, “What Actually Happened. What it means. What is True. What is not true. And, what to do.” Just a place you can call on your smartphone or click your computer mouse a few times and you’re instantly in a place where there are easy answers to tough questions and a list of rules to follow that would make everything all better?
I clearly remember the first time I wished for such a resource. It was right after I watched the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. At that time, I was working for the bishop in the diocesan offices in Newark, NJ.
I was driving into work on that beautiful, crystal-clear-not-a-cloud-in-the-sky morning, and at the end of the road, I could see the familiar landmark of the Twin Towers. Suddenly, I saw a plane circle ‘round one of the towers and I watched as that plane crashed right into the tower.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Some of the drivers of some of the cars in front of me felt the same way. We all pulled over and stopped our cars. Slowly, we all got out of our cars and looked again at the hideous scene: the South Tower up in flames, dark, thick smoke billowing out of the deep hole in the side of the building.
One man yelled, “We’re under attack! We’re under attack!” And panic ensued. I drove to the office only because I was scared out of my wits and didn’t want to be alone. I found everyone up on the roof of the building where we had a clear view of the Twin Towers.
I arrived just after the second building had been hit and as one of the buildings collapsed. We were at some distance, but we could see people who looked from afar like thinly-drawn stick figures jumping out of the windows.
And, I thought to myself, “It’s the end of the world.”
I had that thought several times more during that day and the next few days that followed. That’s when my whole world was reduced to black and white, no shades of gray. There were bad guys and good guys and I was in desperate search of easy answers and easier solutions.
The easiest thing to do was to become tribal and the easiest thing about being tribal means drawing lines in the sand. If someone is not for you, they are against you. If someone hits you, you hit them back. If someone doesn’t look like you or sound like you or eat like you, or pray like you, they are immediately suspicious.
There were lots of people trying to find more recruits for the newly forming local chapter of the Vengeance Squad.
And, we know how well that worked out, don’t we? We're still working that out through the immigration crisis in this country.
Well, somehow, we made it through that time and some of us learned some lessons. Which was a good thing because although this nation hasn’t been attacked again by a foreign power, we have been under attack from within.
The second time I thought the world was going to end was the massacre at Sandy Hook. When 20 little children and 6 of their teachers were slaughtered, I was convinced that we, as a nation, had lost our minds and that ‘The End of the World as We Now Know It’ had actually happened.
That was December, 2012. By June of 2016 there had been over 900 shootings, including 50 who died in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. That was the deadliest shooting in modern US History until October of 2017 when 59 people were killed at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, Nevada.
There have been more, of course, including another school shooting just this past week and yesterday, there was a shooting on a high school football field in NJ.
Have we learned anything from any of these tragedies? Well, some of us have sifted through the rubble and have discovered shards of truth, which we have gathered up. They are like bits of broken glass that shine when even the smallest amount of light is cast on them.
We learned that there are no easy answers, no matter how much we want there to be. We know that this world is a very dangerous place – always has been, probably always will be. We know that we are an extremely vulnerable species, that Cain is still killing Abel – and for some of the same reasons – and that, good men like Abraham really do believe that God wants them to sacrifice their sons.
We know that nations will continue to rise up against nations and there will always be wars and rumors of wars somewhere on this planet. And we know that there will always be floods and fires, tornadoes and earthquakes, and all sort and manner of calamities in nature.
We know that "Why" is not a useful question and "Figure it out" is not a good answer. And, we know that the poor, the innocent, babies and the very old, always bear the brunt.
That said, we also know that, in the midst of all of the turmoil that is part of being human, there is always the gift of grace. As one wise person said, “grace is always last at-bat.” And, the calm always follows the storm and light always follows the darkness.
These are not clichés. These are truths we know.
Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, once related something his mother told him. She said that whenever something bad happens, to look for the helpers.
Grace always shows up in the helpers. And, from them, we learned something about grace.
We learned that if we pause and breathe and stick together, the world doesn’t seem so bad a place. We learned to look at each other in the eye. We learned that it not only doesn’t hurt to say, “Hello!” and “Good morning!” and “How are you?” we learned that pushing through your terror and being polite and friendly and kind makes you a better person.
We learned that someone living on the street probably needs a coat and could use a blanket or two and maybe a scarf and some gloves and when we give from our abundance – as God does – it changes how we see the world. We learned to go to the market and engage with old or unusual people who seem lonely. This becomes a sacramental act of transformation.
My grandmother taught me that, in the face of human tragedy, if we do some seemingly insignificant thing, like go around the neighborhood and pick up litter, even though there will be more tomorrow, that bag of picked up litter becomes an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. And, God is pleased.
Later, I learned from my seminary professors the wisdom my grandmother already knew: When we take action, insight will follow. I learned that we are basically powerless, but we are not helpless.
And, the hardest lesson of all is this: It takes time. I hate that! I hate that, I hate that, I hate that. I do not want to admit it, because patience is my short suit, but I have no alternative because it is Truth: It will take time.
Which is what I think Jesus means when he says, “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”
As one of my seminary professors used to say, “Everybody’s gotta do somethin’ while waiting for the Parousia”. That often gets translated and put on refrigerator magnets as, “Jesus is coming. Everybody look busy.”
Here’s what I say: No one is going to live forever. We have gotten very good at replacing parts – knees, hips, kidneys, livers, and even the engine, the heart – but the truth is that every single last one of us comes into this world with a warranty that has an expiration date written in invisible ink.
So, until then, why not be kind? Show up. When presented with a choice, do the right thing. Choose to be generous. If that’s hard to do, maybe ask God for help.
Got an extra coat? Send it to the cleaners and bring it to the Thrift Shop or local charity.
Cook a meal for a local homeless shelter.
Make a pan of brownies or a put together a fruit basket and bring it to your local firehouse.
Return a phone call or an email or a text message.
Bring back a library book before it’s due.
Make eye contact with strangers.
Say 'good morning' like you mean it.
If she’s alive, call your mother. I know. Call her anyway.
It won’t protect you from evil. It won’t change the world. It won't extend your warranty and give you more time on this earth. It won’t change laws that need to be changed. But, it will change you. In the midst of everything that is terrifying, you will find the strength to endure.
And, as Jesus says, “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”