Proper 28 (33), Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
13 November 2022
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
I have long believed that capitalism has made us consumers and that we have become consumers before we are citizens. This has been manifesting itself for many years in the appeals of politicians who offer us more often what we want than what our society needs. Whether they deliver is another question, but we have come to believe that politicians should give us what we want, which also means that we are no longer content with leaders actually leading.
Thinking of current political issues, my thoughts on inflation are mixed. I think it is quite possible that inflation would be lower if it were talked about less as to some extent I believe it to be a copy-cat crime. Talking about it constantly provides legitimacy for further price increases because increases are now what we have come to expect.
That being said, inflation is not utterly surprising and to a certain extent to be expected. And inflation is undoubtedly a great hardship for those who were already just scraping by, living on low-paying jobs, those with disabilities, and those on small pensions.
But there is another aspect I have found interesting. Because we have been taught and conditioned to always expect more and better, we have difficulty adjusting our expectations and are on the look-out for someone to blame.
Let me tell you about my grandparents. My grandfather was born in 1884, he was 47 when my mother was born. My grandmother was born in 1891. They lived through two world wars and were never able to buy their own home. When in 1954 my grandfather finally retired, as having lived through two wars and the depression did not permit him to accumulate any significant wealth and necessitated him to work until he was 70, he and my grandmother moved in with my parents. It was a place for them, and a mortgage helper for my parents. My grandparents had their own kitchen, bedroom, and living room. The bathroom was shared. They did not own a car and used public transit to get around town. They took the train when they went on holidays, which were never further away than 500 km and where they would stay in a modest hotel.
When I first came to Canada a friend lent me William Kurelek’s beautiful book, And They Sought a New World. Kurelek was born into a Ukrainian immigrant family in Alberta in 1927, the family lost their farm during the depression, and the book my friend lent me depicts the life of immigrants as they settle on the Canadian Prairie. One thing that is clear is that those who came, came with few means, and the generation that first settled, especially since they did not belong to the English colonial class, never travelled back to the old country to visit. They never got to see again those they had left behind.
We live in a world where we have been told to always expect more even though this is unrealistic as our share of the world’s resources already is much greater than the share of others, besides it being unsustainable. The spiritual problem is that we continue to equate quality of life with a high standard of living, and we do so even though we know better. Telling you about my grandparents and about the first European settlers on the prairies is to help us gain a different perspective. What we have come to expect as normal may not be normal, and certainly is not normative.
In our reading from Luke, Jesus picks up the comments of pilgrims about the magnificence of the temple. And he places the temple in a context of impermanence. The temple will not last, so do not hang your hat on it. Do not depend on it with your life.
At the time when Luke was writing, the temple and the city had in fact been destroyed. Persecution is already experienced by the community for which he writes, the chaos of wars and calamities is not hard to imagine. These calamities are the unfolding of human history.
In our own context we are still grateful that we live in a functioning democracy, even though the voices of extremists are getting louder, and they are getting air time.
Michael Budde, in an essay from 2019, states his conviction “that many of the best climate models, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change … have significantly underestimated the immediacy and range of the threat.1 He explains that this will destabilize political systems and create a refugee crisis the world has not seen.
My point here is not to scare you, but to say, be careful on what you hang your hat. Don’t hang your hat on continued economic growth and prosperity or on perpetual political stability.
Given the direction in which the world is headed, the words of Jesus are very timely. But even if we do not share Budde’s assessment, we cannot help but agree that what we hang our hat on, what we rely on, matters a great deal and Jesus suggests that human structures and institutions may not give us the stability that we need to live a life faithful to God.
This is a gift. I know, when we first hear the reading today, it did not sound hopeful. But to know what is impermanent and to see in the midst of change what it is that will hold us and allow us to base our life on it, that is a gift. It is grace.
The problem with the way Christians live in the world is that we are basically in agreement with the prevailing culture and so if the culture is headed for a dead end, we have no alternative. Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has written about how the secular narratives in our society that have replaced the Christian narrative are incoherent and do not aim to be coherent.2 However, since stories are the way we make sense of the world and if the stories that explain the world to you are Star Wars, Disney, and whatever sitcom is popular at the moment you will not have the tools to understand the world.
In a piece on Friedrich Nietsche’s Death of God, Terry Eagleton argues that “modern secular societies … have effectively disposed of God but find it morally and politically convenient … to behave as though they have not. They do not actually believe in him, but it is still necessary for them to imagine that they do. God is too vital a piece of ideology to be written off …”3
The late Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, makes a similar point in a video book review, namely that modern society tries to hold on to values shaped by Judeo-Christian faith without holding on the faith that gives them life, stating that without such faith these values cannot stand. And he quotes, “In the place of religion came the ever inflating language of human rights, itself a concept of Christian origin. We left unresolved the question as to whether or not our acquired rights were reliant on beliefs that (we) have ceased to hold.”4
Maybe this explains, at least in part, our modern malaise.
Now, I am not suggesting that we could simply return to a time 50 years ago, not only because I do not believe that the power structures of politics are compatible with the call to follow a crucified Messiah, but also because the problems highlighted here go back nearly 400 years.
I am also not advocating for a kind of fundamentalism that mistakes nostalgia with faith, or that views faith as a rigid, a legalistic construct that guarantees that if you do a) you will get b).
We see that Jesus is not instructing his disciples to run for political office, though he is also not telling them not to. What Jesus is telling his disciples is that the institutions of this world will come and go, that following Jesus will not bring us a comfortable life without strife, and if that was our goal we have joined the wrong party. He tells us that taking up our cross is part of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Taking up our cross saves us from the illusion that we always have to be happy, that our happiness is based on prosperity, that there is no suffering in the world, or at least that we don’t have to look at it. Important to remember is that taking up our cross happens in the context of our lives being carried in and by the cross of Christ.
It is no coincidence that Jesus speaks the words we heard today almost immediately before his arrest. And it is no coincidence that Paul speaks of those who have been baptized into Christ as having died and risen with Christ.
Being with Christ then is what matters, not institutions, worldly or religious. And being with Jesus happens in the community of the church where we remember who we are, where we tell and hear the story, and we need not be afraid to let go of illusions, for we have already died and been raised with Jesus and our life is in him. He is the One on whom we can hang our hat.
1 Michael Budde, Foolishness to Gentiles – Essays on Empire, Nationalism, and Discipleship, Eugene, OR: 2022 Cascade Books, page 25
3 Terry Eagleton, An Unbelieving Age – Nietzsche’s Challenge & the Christian Response
4 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Sapiens & The Strange Death of Europe – Book Reviews