Ozymandias and a Time to Speak

It’s been a rough and weary week for many of us. I started the week at Jefferson Barracks, commending a friend to God’s keeping. Over the course of timg_5671he week, I have ministered to a family dealing with the fallout of an unspeakable act of violence. I have listened as darling four-year old Rose tried to work through her feelings at the loss of three friends, and as her mother Jacque has tried to support her while dealing with her own grief. I have listened to our neighbors grieve the City Council’s decision to rezone a large portion of the neighborhood to commercial. I have talked with friends and relations around the country and here in Washington, people of color, Muslims, mix-race families, immigrants, LGBT folks, all of whom are not just worried for the future but frightened for their safety. I have watched 4th graders sing in honor of veterans who served to protect the freedom of every American, and heard my son name with pride his great-great-great grandfather, William Frye, whose name my father shares an abolitionist who fought on the side of the Union and spent 18 months in Andersonville prison during the Civil War. And even as we have honored veterans who died for freedom, even as we buried our friend with honors for her service, we have seen people around the country begin to threaten other citizens for their heritage, their race, their beliefs.

I am overwhelmed by the events of this week. I, like many of you, have looked for words of comfort. And I am surprised to find them in today’s gospel reading. Which at first glance, sounds like an affirmation of fear – not one stone will be left on stone, nations will rise against nations, earthquakes, famine, plagues, persecution. None of it sounds comforting. In fact it sounds terrifying. But terror is not the point of this text.

In the story of Luke, Jesus has been wandering around Galilee for the last year or so, healing the sick, casting out demons, gathering a following. Now, as the festival of the Passover draws near, he has come up to Jerusalem, where he was greeted as a king. He has been driven the merchants out of the Temple, wept over the city, and come every day to teach, making enemies among the chief priests, scribes, and leaders, who have begun looking for a way to kill him.

The people who have gathered around him are certain by now that this is the Messiah. They expect that he will finish the work of clearing out the corruption in the Temple, and raise up an army to kick out the Romans while he’s at it. He will reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, and together they will become a great nation and take their proper place in the world. Nothing in that plan includes the destruction of the Temple, which was a centerpiece of the Kingdom of Israel, the thing that unified them. Instead, they seem to be intent on reinvigorating it. As they sit there listening to Jesus praise the widow who has given her last cent to God, they are praising the Temple itself, the stones of the building and all the glittery stuff that fills it. They have missed the point entirely.

By the time Luke was writing this story, the Temple has been thrown down. The Romans have destroyed it, and Jerusalem with it. They have slaughtered hundreds of thousands, and dispersed the Jewish people to the winds. The scribes and the Sadducees have been destroyed. All that’s left is the Pharisees in the countryside, and this small band of Christians Jews. And they are all trying to understand what they are supposed to do without a Temple. The Temple was everything. It was the center of their relationship with God. It was their unity.

And Luke looks back to this day, this time just before Jesus died, when he was sitting with his disciples and teaching about the Temple, and finds words that help.

Maybe the disciples didn’t understand it when it was said, but now, as the people are trying to make sense of their world without the Temple, now they can look back and see that there is more going on than they understood, that this Jesus was not the Messiah they were looking for, but he was the Messiah God sent. And they’re starting to get the point.

There’s a poem by Percy Shelley called Ozymandias. In it, the poet describes a desert scene: In the middle of a vast wasteland stands a huge pedestal with a pair of stone legs broken off at the top. Nearby, half-sunk in the sand is the face that once sat on the top of this statue, now broken and worn, but with the sneer of cold command still visible, so that when you see it, you know how proud the king was who once ordered this statue of himself to be placed here. And in case we were in doubt, the inscription on the pedestal reads

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

A great king, who once thought he was the supreme ruler of all, who ordered crowds and commanded legions, who believed that his works were the most enduring and mighty of all, so that they would drive all other pretenders to despair. That he alone could unify the people of the world. And now it stands in ruins, in the middle of the desert. The final lines of the poem tell us

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

In Jerusalem today, there is a place where you can see the original stones of the Temple. They are taller and wider than any human. Standing in front of them, it is hard to imagine how they were ever placed there without the help of industrial machines. The Temple was once among the greatest human achievements ever. And now, like the statue of Ozymandias, it is a ruin. Are you starting to get the point?

This is what Jesus is telling them, telling Luke’s community, telling us. Human achievements are not going to last. Whether it is a statue, or a Temple, or a wall, or a nation. Human achievements are not our salvation. They are not our hope. A Temple will not redeem us. And an election will not condemn us.

All those things will pass away, just as surely as Ozymandias and the Temple did. But in the meantime, Jesus says, we will have an opportunity to testify. We will have an opportunity to stand together as a community of Christ, and our building and our ministry and our human endeavors will be in service to that testimony. Testimony to that which unifies us, to something much bigger than our human endeavors, much bigger than our building or our congregation or even our community. The call that Jesus issues is a call to testify, not to the might of the Temple or to the beauty of the stones or to the wonder of the gifts dedicated there. The call is to testify to the Kingdom of God. Because whatever happens to the Temple or the statues or the stones or the human endeavors, we have a promise that we are bound together, not by our achievements or our earthly allegiances, but by our God.

Our God who continues to break into our world, in both simple and profound ways.

This is the Christian life: looking for the places where God’s kingdom is breaking in. Naming these places, and making space for them.

So I encourage you, as Paul encouraged the Thessalonians, “do not be weary in doing what is right.” It would be understandable if you are weary. It is a natural reaction to seeing the level of anger, hatred and vitriol that has spiraled out of control. Weariness is a normal reaction to the grief of burying a friend, to the trauma Rosie and Jacque and their friends and our town have experienced to losing a battle with city hall after two years. When that spreads throughout the nation as it has this week, it is reasonable to want to withdraw and take shelter from the storm. That is what the Thessalonians did. Expecting Jesus to show up any second, they withdrew, they sheltered in place, and they stopped proclaiming God’s in-breaking kingdom. But Paul told them, as I tell you, “do not be weary.” This is the time to testify, not to ourselves, not to our building, not to our achievements, but to Christ, who is God’s in-breaking kingdom in this world.

When the psalmist
says that God will judge the world with righteousness and equity, it is Christ. This is God’s judgment on the world, God’s Word made flesh, dwelling among us and dying for us. When Isaiah says that God is about to create a new heaven and a new earth, it is Christ. The new heaven and the new earth are being created again each and every day, when we rise again in Christ, freed from our sins, freed from our fears, freed from our need to save ourselves with our own human endeavors.

As Christians, this is how we view the world: through the lens of Christ; through the incarnation – the God who has come to us to be with us even in the midst of our despair; through the cross – the God who has given the Son to die for us rather than turning to the ways of violence and oppression; through the empty tomb – the God who has stolen the power from violence and oppression, and turned even the most violent of acts into God’s redeeming love.

Some days, it is really hard. We drop our Jesus glasses and we can only see through the lens that the world has taught us. The lens of fear, hatred, and violence. The lens that tells us that we have to be against one another, because people who are different from us are a threat. The lens that tells us that we are less worthy because of our age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, size, sin, shame, guilt, grief, or whatever other label has been fixed to us. On those days, and this week has been made up of a number of those days, we become weary. We shrink from the world and we begin to believe all those things. We begin to believe that we are too weak, too small, and too weary to make a difference.

But those hard days do not changimg_4495e the fact that God is still at work transforming this world. Starting with you. Starting today. Starting here. By virtue of your baptism, you have been made an ambassador of Christ. And this sanctuary where we gather is an embassy for God’s in-breaking kingdom. A sanctuary in every sense of the word. A safe space for each of us to be exactly who we have been made to be – made in the image of God, claimed for God’s Kingdom, and sent into service of the cross.

This is the moment to testify. This is the moment to open our hearts and our minds and our building and our community and Christ’s table to anyone who feels unsafe, to anyone who feels unheard, to anyone who feels that they have been labeled, to anyone who has lost hope, to the grieving and the frightened and the widow and the alien and the orphan, to anyone. All are welcome at this table, regardless of who they voted for, what they’ve been through,who they are. At this table we receive a foretaste of the feast to come, Jesus Christ is the host at this table, and all are welcome in his name.

The Hope of the Saints

In 1961, Joe Ellwanger was a young pastor in his first call, not far from where he grew up. While he was familiar with the area, he was less familiar with the territory, as a white man serving an African-American congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. One day, he received an invitation from the intern pastor at a white congregation in Tuscaloosa, 60 miles away. The invitation was directed to the youth of his congregation, and asked them to come to Tuscaloosa for a Sunday evening of fellowship, worship, and refreshments. It sounded like the kind of Sunday evening you might find in churches all around the country, even today. However, in Alabama in 1961, it was far from ordinary to bring black and white youth together for much of anything. As you likely already know, they did not go to school together, hang out together, play sports together, or go to church together, even if they were of the same denomination, as these students were.

However, Pastor Ellwanger shared the invitation with his youth, and there were two young ladies who responded. Pastor drove, and they spent an evening in the company of people very different from themselves, swapping stories and learning about life on the other side of the deep racial divide that ordered their lives. Driving back, it was clear that these young women had been energized and moved by their experience, and that they were hopeful for more such events. However, when Pastor Joe picked up the next edition of the Birmingham paper, the excitement of that evening quickly faded. There on the front page in great detail was the story of what had happened since. The KKK had kidnapped the host pastor at that congregation in Tuscaloosa, driven him out of Tuscaloosa and beat him, and left him to walk back to town in the wee hours of the morning. A cross had been burned on the lawn of the church, and a warning sent that there would be worse consequences than these if there were ever another mixed-race youth gathering.

Even as Pastor Ellwanger was still reading the article, his phone rang, and a rough voice on the other end threatened him, “You and the two girls are next.”

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you,” says Jesus. Do you suppose the intern pastor felt blessed in that moment? Do you suppose Pastor Ellwanger did? Or the two girls, Carolyn and Betty? 15 years old and already far more aware than most of us sitting here of their oppression and the hatred they faced, simply because they were born in their skin. This was no idle threat for them. They had probably seen or at least heard of lynchings in their area. They probably knew more than one person who had been harassed, possibly beaten, maybe even killed. After all, this was only 6 years after 14-year old Emmett Till had been brutally murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Do you suppose Carolyn and Betty felt blessed by the hatred? By being excluded? By being reviled and defamed? Would you?

And yet, when he went to talk to the girls and their parents, to let them know about this threat, when he asked Carolyn if she was afraid, Pastor Ellwanger was floored by her response. “No. I am not so much afraid as ashamed. I’m ashamed that others have suffered so much for the freedom of our people, and all people, and I have suffered so little.”

This young woman understood the beatitudes in a deep and profound way. Where some would have been angry or afraid, this young woman felt blessed. Blessed by the people who have worked for her equality. Blessed to have her eyes open to the truth of racism in our country. Blessed to have had an evening that gave her the opportunity to see a glimpse of God’s in-breaking Kingdom, and blessed to see how far we are from it.

In this famous passage from Luke, this passage that we know so well we almost glaze over and tune out when we hear it, Jesus is actually laying out the most profound and important statement of what it means to be a Christian. What it means to live as a child of God, a disciple of Christ, in a world where there continues to be poverty, hatred, hunger, and sorrow. This is not a list of haves and have-nots. It is not an accounting of who is in and who is out. It is not winners and losers. Not in the way that we usually divide people out.

Instead, it is about what it means to have caught a glimpse of God’s in-breaking Kingdom. What it means to have no hope except the hope that God is at work, that God is working justice in this world in spite of all appearances.

This country is in the middle of another time of upheaval, very similar to the 1960s. Hatred and exclusion are the dominant rhetoric. Fear is palpable on every side of the political spectrum. I have talked with therapists who report an increase in patient anxiety. I have heard from pastors who have heard the same. Individuals in our communities are worried about their safety, about their ability to stay long-term in this country that they call home.

If you doubt whether the rhetoric is really affecting people here in our neighborhood, let me assure you that it is. The hate mongers are bolder today than they were a year ago, and they are getting more bold every day. A friend of mine, a professor at East Central, recently received proof in a form similar to what Pastor Ellwanger received 55 years ago. One morning a few months ago, she opened her mail to find a letter from the KKK. It was addressed directly to her, at her home address, and it had no stamp. Inside was a picture of a Klansman with his white hood, pointing out of the picture at her,Uncle Sam style, with the words “Watch Your Step!” written across the top. This happened less than ten miles from here. When she shared it with me, I was shaken. And resolved. This is not okay. This is not Christian. This is not American. This is not human.

Tuesday is election day, and I imagine that most if not all of you will be going to the polls to cast a ballot for the person that you feel will lead this country in the right direction for the next four years. And I, like you, have opinions about who that is. But the most I am going to say about that is this: I encourage you to vote, not from fear, but from love, from hope. Because regardless of who wins on Tuesday, our hope is not in any politician or any political party. Our hope is in the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ. The God who has blessed those who are poor and hungry and grieving with a vision, with the hope of a future in which they will inherit the kingdom of God, in which they will be filled, in which they will laugh again. The God who has heard the cries of the hated and the excluded and reviled and defamed, and given them hope of being included and loved and welcomed. The God who has already welcomed everyone into God’s family through the waters of baptism, who died on a cross and overcame death and the grave, for all of creation, and who is preparing a place at the table for each and every person – whether they are rich or poor. Whether they are hungry or full. This promise if for everyone.

The story of Pastor Ellwanger and Carolyn is as relevant today as it was 55 years ago. As relevant in Washington, MO, as in Birmingham, AL. To live in this world is to face fear and hatred. Poverty and hunger continue to be very real in this world. Grief is a part of every life. But Jesus tells us in this sermon that God has a different vision for the future. That God is not satisfied with the status quo. And Jesus tells us in his very life, death, and resurrection, that not only is God not satisfied with the status quo, but that God is going to move us toward justice, toward reconciliation, toward a new life, a life in which fear is not our only option, in which a grace is our founding principle.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, there will still be work to do. And whatever happens on Tuesday, God will still be doing God’s work. This is what you have been named and claimed for. This is what you are baptized into. To be God’s people, to be the gathering of the saints; saints who will live now as if this promise were true, saints who will step out together in bold proclamation of justice, of love, of grace, of hope. Saints who stand in solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the hated, the excluded, the reviled, the defamed.

This is the hope of the Christian. To believe, not only in a God who cares, but to have faith and hope in the God we meet in Jesus Christ – the God of all Creation, the God of all peoples, the God who so loves this world, and so wants to bring this world into God’s Kingdom. The God who comes to us here, in this assembly, in this water, in this bread and wine, and makes us to be saints, fully saints, even as we are still broken, still hurting, still sinning, Our God calls, gathers, and sends the saints – the Pastor Ellwangers and the Carolyns and each and every one of us gathered here, to live into the hope of a different future, a future shaped by God’s unparalleled, unfailing, undying grace.