Hello all! Because our service this week was reformatted to House Church, and because I didn’t deliver the sermon I wrote I wanted to share it here. For those who were at the House Church service this past Sunday: perhaps this will add some clarity to the meandering thoughts I shared then, too!
Sermon – ECC-Epiphany – 12.1.19
Advent 1 – Year A
Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Welcome to the season of Advent. Welcome, also, to a new Church year.
It’s interesting to me that this passage is the first Gospel we read in the new liturgical year. It’s one with deep roots in our region’s history, my own personal history, and also in my imagination. In particular, the verses that read, “then two will be in a field one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”
This bit of scripture has been used for purposes of terror. When preached and promulgated with enough conviction and energy, the idea that faithful and holy living are necessary not simply for the sake of a good life in the here and now – but because of impending rapture, because of impending apocalypse, and to ensure the fate of our eternal souls – has been enough to scare generations of people into conformity.
In the 19th century, this region of Central New York was known as the Burnt Over District, because of its peculiar susceptibility to new, often radical religious movements. It was said to be “burnt over” because the flames of holy furor, holy terror, afflicted communities like wildfire. By the time later proselytizers found their way to the region, they’d encounter towns that had already been swept up and spit out into multiple fiery new sects – and townspeople exhausted by failed predictions of the rapture, dubious for generations to come of anything smelling of religion, fire and brimstone.
The image of the two workers in the field; one taken, one left – was instrumental in these 19th century religious revivals. This is not to say that other pieces of scripture were not equally well-quoted when inspiring fear (and hope and fervor) into the hearts of converts, but I think it’s hard to overestimate the visceral power of this image.
Imagine going about your day – busy with whichever of the many mundane tasks that take up so much of our time – maybe reading in a group study area in the library or in line at the salad bar. In the blink of an eye – the person next to you is just gone. Or maybe you’re the one: vanished.
When I was in third grade, I had my own visceral encounter with this image. My brother and I had a baby-sitter from a nearby Baptist Seminary, called Gordon Conwell. Though Rich was a super-fun babysitter in many ways, taking us on lots of hikes and trips to the pool – he was also devoutly attached to the idea that only some people are welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, while others are destined for… the bad place.
Even as a kid, this didn’t sit well with me. But even so, I’ll never forget the deep penetrating hold the image of the two workers in a field – holding their scythes in a field of yellow wheat – had on me when he told me. He was a good storyteller, and this was a frightening, vivid story. I started thinking about the rapture all the time. The idea that there was nothing I could do – that God simply saved some people and not others – was horrific.
But eventually, I also couldn’t help coming to the conclusion that under those circumstances – if God were so mean as to save me but not my brother, for instance, maybe it would be better to be the person left in the field. Would I want to be swept up into those everlasting arms? What would heaven be without my brother – the primary locus for my fiercest love throughout most of my life.
So, although I remain compelled by these images – they are literary in nature. And indeed, there’s a lot of good literature that plays with these ideas. [I for one, loved the HBO series that came out a few years ago, the Leftovers – not to be confused with the highly flawed Nicholas Cage 2014 vehicle, The Left Behind, based on a series of books of the same title.]
In any case, for our purposes as Christians living our lives here and now, I want to insist that the rapture should not be understood literally, but allegorically or figuratively. Don’t get me wrong – there is literal truth in them: the very real fear or awe the image of a neighbor in a library carrel disappearing from thin air inspires. This feeling, though, can help us feel the core of truth that this passage highlights: the allegorical truth – the parallel we can draw to our own world.
For instance, there’s no denying that some of us seem inexplicably lucky in our lives. Inexplicably healthy, well off, and loved. Inexplicably born into circumstances that provide us with an easier path through life than others have. Meanwhile, others of us seem inexplicably and unjustifiably far from this wellness and stability. Far from financially secure. Far from psychologically secure and stable. Far from safe. We might feel like we are destined to be “left behind” in the imaginary scenario set up in this Gospel. For all we do: God does not seem to summon us into the miraculous kingdom.
But I think this is a misreading. A misunderstanding of how God’s love works. A misinterpretation of what it means to watchfully await the Son of Man.
The good news in this gospel is not that we deserve our sense of security. That one farmer deserves rapture while the other must toil on. Or that others somehow have “earned” their sorrow or fear. That children born in some parts of the country or world are simply less “worthy” of God’s love than children born in other places because one group is almost certain to have more material resources than the other. That structural inequalities are just God’s will for some of us. That debt is God’s will for some of us. That mental or physical illness is simply God’s will for some of us.
No. The good news is that a loving savior (somewhat cryptically called the Son of Man) has not forgotten us. Has not forgotten those caught in a cycle of addition. Has not forgotten children exposed to lead in their water and in their homes. Has not forgotten those still grieving for loved ones who have died.
It’s easy to create a list of all the many unjust imbalances that make some seem “blessed” and others “cursed.” But through the interstices of all this lack, all this pain and suffering, and all the joy too, enters a God who understands us to our core, and who agrees with the voice within us who cries out: this is not fair. This is not right. And who promises us, even in ways that are currently beyond our grasp, a peace and love that cannot be contained by human-made injustice.
If only there were a simple way out of the cycle of cruelty and pain. The incarnation of Christ, which we anticipate in this season of Advent, and which this week’s passage foretells through the idea of the coming of the Son of Man, is one such way. It’s simple to say: God loves us so much that God became one of us.
But what this means, we can spend a lifetime deciphering. God suffered, so we are not alone in our suffering. God saw and loved and ate with and prayed with people cast off from the center of society. Poor people. Sick people.
And if there’s a denouement (a sequel) to this story of the farmers in the field, or the women at the mill in this Gospel passage: it’s that those who are “left behind” are the ones Christ is particularly concerned with. We who have not figured everything out. We who are sad. We who are in pain. We are waiting with hope, for the promise of love the Christ’s presence in our midst presents.
We wait for this. But we also have it already. We have it in community. We have it in breaking bread together. We have it in kindness toward one another. We have it in seeking help when we need it. We have it in the ear of a friend. We have it when we pray. We have it when we turn our attention to how we can be instruments of God’s peace: how we can, through our small but infinitely important lives, be part of the incarnation of Christ, making his dream of a world more just than the one he found, real. Little by little and person by person. One farmer in one field at a time.