Fear and Foreboding

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on December 1, 2018.

I was just sitting down to work on a sermon one night last week when I had phone call from a man who wanted me to react to various statements about one thing and another:

“How do you feel about Mayor London Breed: very positive, slightly positive, slightly negative, very negative. . . ?
“Do you consider yourself progressive, liberal, conservative, reactionary?”

But it turned out that what he really cared about was driverless cars and especially about driverless cars on the streets of San Francisco. Well, I’m so out of touch that my computer doesn’t accept “driverless” as a valid word, but he wanted to know whether I think driverless cars will make the city more safe or less safe; and whether I support the notion of a company providing driverless cars for the elderly and handicapped, and so on. Did I agree with this statement and that statement strongly or slightly or disagree strongly or slightly? I kept saying, “I don’t know; I haven’t thought about it.” I wanted to say, “Send me the questions and let me think about it,” But that wasn’t an option. it probably only took ten minutes but it seemed like forever and when I finally got back to working on my sermon it seemed like a good idea to try the same approach on you. I thought maybe I could read you today’s gospel again and ask: do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree?

Well, I won’t do that, but I will read you two statements on a possibly related subject. I won’t ask you to agree or disagree but I would like you to consider which one worries you more or less or not at all. Statement A you have heard before; I read it to you just now in the Gospel:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

I could ask for a show of hands as to how much or how little that worries you, but let me just go ahead and read you Statement B:

“Two centuries ago the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 275 parts per million; it has now topped 400 parts per million and is rising more than two parts per million each year. The extra heat that we trap near the planet every day is equivalent to the heat from 400,000 bombs the size of the one that was dropped on Hiroshima. As a result in the past 30 years we have seen all 20 of the hottest years ever recorded.”

Now one of these statements is from Jesus and one from the November 26 issue of the New Yorker and my question is, “Which one worries you more?” The one thing I wanted from the man on the phone was time to think about it. I felt as if I hadn’t been worrying enough about driverless cars to have strong opinions and I just wished he could send it to me and let me think about it. So I want you to have time to think about which statement worries you more – or less – and ponder it this afternoon or tomorrow morning or later this week. Or maybe every day. I won’t get back to you for an answer. I just ask you to think about it. We’re talking about the future of human civilization, your life, my life, rising sea levels, and forest fires, and we need time to think about it – and maybe pray about it.

I was on this subject two weeks ago, if you remember; if you were here. If you were here, what you remember, if anything, is probably the joke I told you about Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James G Watt and Smokey Bear, but the gospel two weeks ago was asking you to deal with the same issues as this week’s Gospel. In fact, for reasons obscure to me, we are essentially getting the exact same message two weeks out of three. Two weeks ago we had St. Mark’s version of Jesus’ teaching about the end and this week we have St. Luke’s version. But it’s the same story. And why, you might well ask, do we have two versions of the same story two weeks apart?

Well, this sequence is provided for us by an obscure international, ecumenical committee on which, incidentally, the Roman Catholic Church is heavily represented. It’s a plan for reading the Bible used in every Roman Catholic Church as far as I know, and in Anglican Churches and the Episcopal Church. It’s widely used also in Protestant Churches – even, I learned just this last Friday, in some Southern Baptist churches. But when you see readings as short as this week’s Old Testament and Epistle readings, you can detect a strong Roman Catholic influence because they just aren’t used to spending big chunks of time reading the Bible. I think it’s great that we’re all on the same page, but I think it’s embarrassing to come to church and get no more than this to chew on. And then to get two versions of the same story two weeks apart: bad planning. Bad planning. Or did they want us really to pay attention to something we might otherwise dismiss as old fashioned, out of date, irrelevant, and the kind of thing that puts people off religion? Maybe they gave us those tiny snippets for the first two readings so we would really pay attention to the Gospel. Maybe. Maybe they imagined people listening to that reading two weeks ago and not taking it in, letting it role on by, and maybe they said, “Let’s give them a week to get over it and hit them with it again.” And maybe – how’s this for a conspiracy theory – maybe they also infiltrated an editor at the New Yorker to hit us from the other side in between.

But what if some people don’t read the New Yorker? If you don’t like to worry, you’ll be better off. I can’t remember a reading that scared me more than that New Yorker article; not for myself, perhaps, but for my grandchildren. The title of the article is “Life in a Shrinking Planet.” The quick summary is: “with wildfires, heat waves, and rising sea levels, large tracts of the earth are at risk of becoming uninhabitable.”

I said two weeks ago that the Bible has a “destiny orientation.” A destiny orientation. It imagines a time line with a start and a finish and a divine purpose, and science supports that orientation more strongly than ever. It was good science two thousand years ago and it still is. Put the Bible and the New Yorker side by side and you get the same story. On the one hand, all the stuff about the melting of the ice cap and rising temperatures and so on, and on the other hand “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People . . . faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” “Faint from fear and foreboding” because they read the Bible or the New Yorker or both and got the message.

The Bible does not imagine a world that goes on for ever, nor does science. Nor does science. This world is not forever. The Bible wants us to understand that because it ought to shape our lives. And if the lectionary committee gives us essentially the same reading two weeks out of three, we can put it down to carelessness or seriousness. I think perhaps they’re serious.

But the problem is that the Bible’s message comes to us from a world so different we can’t even imagine it: no computers, no cell phones, no cable network news, no television, no Golden State Warriors, no cures for cancer. It’s actually the world I grew up in; maybe the world you grew up in. The world has changed more in my lifetime than in all the centuries before. So we have to translate the Bible message, and the New Yorker does a pretty good job. The message is that time is limited. The Bible says it one way; the New Yorker says it another. If you are Donald Trump you can ignore it and make decisions that endanger life on this planet. If you are a Bible-believing, church-going Christian you will take it seriously and let it impact every aspect of your daily life: your stewardship of your own resources, your support of organizations committed to making a difference, your daily prayers, your buying habits in the supermarket, your concern for your children and grandchildren, and so on and so on: life itself, your life, your community, the commitments you make when you get an appeal from the Sierra Club or a letter from Colby Roberts about your stewardship and the church and when you decide who to vote for and maybe even what you think about driverless cars.

No, there are people who hear the message and decide to eat drink and be merry because the world is not for ever so you night as well enjoy it while you can: get down to Mar a Lago as often as possible, play golf every day or two, relax what few environmental safeguards we have, and send the army to beat back the desperate refugees on the border.

That’s one response to what the Bible and the scientists are telling us. It’s certainly the easiest. But set in a context of worship, of worship and prayer, in context of a Bible that proclaims a God with a purpose in history, we are, as I said, called on to respond with a commitment to being part of the solution, not worsening the problem. God has a purpose in history and if you read on you find a picture of a new Jerusalem in which people of all races and nations are united in worship and praise. That’s the other option.

I said two weeks ago that the message was hopeful, that the Gospel proclaimed the doomsday scenario to be the birth pangs of a new world. This week again, we are told that when these things begin to take place, we should “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In the midst of chaos and change God’s purpose is being worked out.

I went over to Oakland one day last week to join in discussion of a book about American history with half a dozen other men who get together three or four times a year to talk about a designated book about history. Five of us had dinner together first in a local restaurant. Over dinner I learned that three of them were raised in the Episcopal Church but don’t go any more. One calls himself an atheist. There wasn’t time to get into the question. “Why?” but I hope we can at some point because it baffles me to find three intelligent men who care about history and don’t want to be part of the plan, don’t understand that they are called, as we all are, to work together with God toward a new world of peace and security and opportunity. Here, at the very moment when critical choices are being made, with the destiny of millions, billions, on the line they’ve opted out. They’ve decided life has no larger meaning or purpose, that this blue planet in one galaxy in an infinite universe is here by a lucky accident, that Plato and Aristotle, Moses and Isaiah and Paul were just people with interesting ideas, that Sunday morning is a good time to read the paper or watch a game show. They could be here as we are working and praying together to be part of God’s purpose and make a difference. Why would you not? It baffles me.

The Gospel reading said, when “People . . . faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world . . . stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” As I said two weeks ago, it’s a message of hope. God has a purpose and never more important than now that we understand and respond and be part of that plan. But if the Bible and the New Yorker together can’t get our attention and make a difference, we are indeed lost.

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