It is a troubling gospel reading. It seems quite in contrast to the reading from Isaiah and the prophet’s words of hope for a glorious future in a new heaven and new earth. Or the two may share more in common then we imagine, including in our time. Context is everything.
It is troubling what we see and hear happening in the world, our community, in conflicts, disasters, climate crisis, lost confidence in leadership, and fear for the future. It may not be difficult to identify with the fears we hear in the gospel reading. What do we do with our fear, as Jesus says, do not be terrified?
First, some Bible context is helpful. The Isaiah reading: it is likely post exile and captivity for the people of Israel. If they have returned and are rebuilding Jerusalem, it is far from its former days of glory. The prophet’s words of God are a vision of a completely new heaven and new earth. And this is offered to a people who have known destruction, defeat, exile, and return to continued suffering and struggle. It is to these circumstances and struggle that the prophet speaks with great hope and faith in God for the future.
In the gospel, the story that comes before today’s reading is of a poor widow who Jesus points out to others is putting her last two coins in the Temple treasury. Jesus identifies that she has given the greater gift compared to others who give out of their wealth. She gave all that she had to live on. But people around Jesus notice instead the beauty of the Temple adorned with rich gifts. Jesus tells them it will all fall, be torn down, not one stone left upon another. Shocked and dismayed, they ask when will this happen and what will be the signs?
The connection between the two stories seems significant. The poverty of the widow compared to the riches of the Temple that people admire, cause Jesus to describe how this will all fall, it will all be destroyed.
What is also significant is that the gospel writer is composing this story in the time when the temple has been destroyed in 70AD by Rome, and the conflicts and oppression, betrayal and even death that Jesus describes may have and will take place for the followers of Jesus who hear this gospel in their communities, as we do now. These future words of warning by Jesus in the Gospel have already happened and are happening for the first hearers of the gospel. How then do they receive Jesus’ instructions to not be terrified, to trust and to testify when given opportunity?
I am struck by the power of this witness of “future” events, that have already happened, and are still happening for the hearers of the gospel, and therefore the power of Jesus’ words of faith and hope. Just as the words of the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel in their suffering, loss and grief, offer hope and faith in God’s making all things new.
How do we hear them in our time? In the fall Issue of “Geez” magazine with the theme of “Climate Justice,” (now produced in Detroit, rather than Winnipeg) new editor, Lydia Willie-Kellermann speaks about weeping and hope as she prepared the issue. She writes: (pages 6-7, issue No. 54, 2019)
“This issue broke me. As we selected and edited and sifted for commas, the words forced me to weep. I held Geez in one hand and scrolled extinction predictions in the other. I got stuck in moments of anxiety. Through the writers and artists that spill through these pages, I was taken apart, re-arranged, and in the end, put back together stronger.
As we prepared the magazine, we had the rare and stunning gift to talk with Joanna Macy. If you don’t know her name, she is an author and teacher, a scholar of Buddhism, and a respected voice in the movements for anti-nuclear resistance and ecology. At 90 years old, she brings with her over six decades of work and wisdom. As I digested each sweet word, I felt my heart churning and shifting. Her spirit and call to each of us lingers throughout the narrative arc of this issue.
As we dialed her number – voices reaching from Michigan to California – I held in my body the emotions that writers had left upon these pages. With scientific studies predicting human extinction within our lifetime, the question poured out with urgency – what do you say to folks who are filled with grief and anxiety?
Her answer was swift and clear: “Of courses you’re scared! Look those fears straight in the eye. Don’t try to avoid them. Because something momentous is happening, not only to our climate, but to the whole industrial growth society of capitalism.”
Tears welled in my eyes and I felt myself breathe deep and release.
“But I believe this just had to come. Because it is devouring our Earth…And my own feeling is, the sooner the better. Every extracted mine, every new smoke stack, every new factory, even if they are renewables – all of them are mining the Earth, exhausting Earth, and dimming our hopes.”
This is the place from which this issue begins – we are facing certain collapse of one kind or another. One which this Earth needs. What the collapse looks like depends upon our own listening, imaginations, communities, and our connection to this sweet Earth.
“It’s going to take a big toll because our natural survival skills have been weakened. But they’re not gone, and we’re plugged into a powerful and resourceful living planet… There is a lot we have to relinquish, but it’s fantastic! So, take a deep breath and don’t close down.”
…Macy reflected upon the question of young folks agonizing over whether to bring children into the world in this moment: “I’m grateful; for those who choose mindfully, with clear understanding, to bear children into this time. Because we are going to need those newcomers coming in through the passage of collapsing society, carrying the grief, and moving forward into a life-sustaining culture that can be born of this.”
Perhaps what I have held onto most since listening to Macy was her rare ability to understand the seriousness of the crisis, and at the same time, walk towards the work with anticipation and even joy. “I personally feel incredibly grateful to be alive in this moment and to have lived this long that I can take part in this immense possibility of transformation of our life on Earth from a killing society to a radiant renewing society.”
Joanna Macy laid her elder wisdom on these pages, offering us permission to simultaneously feel the fear that is real and constant and trust ourselves to the work that could be a powerful, beautiful, and joyful transformation. “We don’t want this corporate capitalism to be the last chapter of humanity.”
So…tend to your hearts… Weep when you need to weep. Trust your fear. Know that we are never alone… Offer gratitude to honey bees and compost and Cedar trees. Bask in moments of communal discernment, spirituality, activism and play. There is tremendous work before us to transform systems of oppression to eco-systems of liberation. Let us rise together facing into this great wind. Friends, we were made for this.
And a final connection to the future, already happened and still happening words of Jesus. They also witness to Jesus’ own journey of destruction and death and resurrection. Think about what Jesus describes: “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over…, and you will be brought before kings and governors…, This will give you an opportunity to testify.…and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed… and they will put… you to death. You will be hated by all… But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” This is the journey of Jesus’s passionate suffering and death for the sake of humanity, that gains us and all humanity our souls, our lives, and the life of this earth and all creation by God’s grace.
And so, if anything has us terrified, for the planet, or whatever the circumstances, whatever the death and destruction for ourselves or others, however the experience is like that of Jesus’ own, like the followers of Jesus before us; by Jesus’ own death and resurrection we can trust and not be overwhelmed, immobilized, despairing, terrified, but ready to testify as we are given opportunity, with words and ways of acting together in hope prepared for us by God for our own life and souls, and the life and soul of the world and all creation.
If those before us who endured the dire future imagined before them and yet witnessed to the hope of God’s new heaven and earth, Jesus’ resurrection and salvation in new life for all; are we able by God’s grace not to be terrified, but to testify, by our words, and more our acting together, with others, in hope, in God and God’s future for us, all humanity and all creation, now and always, in all our relations - let it be so. Amen.