The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, 2016 – Isaiah 65:17-25; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
I read somewhere a couple of days ago that “the American people” are being “victimized” by the recent elections. People are protesting: “not my president”, they say; you are forcing him on us. Maybe it feels that way. In elections – really, any kind of election – we are giving ourselves over to other people’s collective decision-making. It’s very odd: yet we call this way of making decisions “free”, not coerced. We do this because we know that this act of solidarity with others, is the way we affirm our common life, and hence my own life as worthwhile in living with others. Though it often doesn’t feel that way; and increasingly, perhaps, even looking at this way is becoming harder to do. Americans, we hear, are clambering to immigrate to Canada. In a move that is familiar: when we feel we can’t do what we want, or in the way we want it, or with the prospect of losing what we want, we tend to run away.
We shouldn’t. Not when it comes to the places we exercise our faith, our hope, and our love.
Whether it is a demanding and constricting friendship, a job, a family relationship, a religious calling, simple decency – running away in the face of their burdens on our sense of freedom gets us no where fast. And Jesus today wants us to be clear about this.
Our society is deeply concerned with victims and victimization. What was once a term that denoted sacrificial animals, in the modern period came to mean someone who is set upon by others unjustly, mistreated, injured, oppressed. Worrying about victims or being victimized is something that has made our societies deeply sensitive and rightly so to issues of justice and injustice. On the other hand, as many social critics have noted, our worries about victimization mask perhaps a deeper anxiety: freedom and its loss. To be set upon, to be buffeted by others, to be bullied or mocked or discriminated against, denied access to this or that – this is all about our lives being “determined” by others against our will. It’s about freedom assaulted, destroyed, disappeared.
It’s a disorienting feeling most of us have had, even in our more normal existence: every time we mutter to ourselves “it’s not fair”, or “there’s nothing I can do about it”, or “that’s just the way it is”. The feelings build, to greater and greater degrees of resentment. And, oh, how this is a deeply religious worry in our day! That God should hem me in and come upon me!
In a world where victimization is the measure of our lives, God is a tyrant and faith withers.
Free will and determinism is one the great religious debating topics in our day; and because birth and death stand as the two immovable demands upon our beings, impervious to our free wills, realities that render us, simply in being here at all and then disappearing, incapable of choice at the most basic level, being a creature of a creating God has become a thought that is socially anathema. Better not to think of God at all, since God means slavery.
Our Gospel reading from Luke 21 this morning is nothing but a long catalogue of some great cosmic or worldly assault on our freedom, a list of victimizing promises: buildings torn apart, wars breaking apart nations, earthquakes and diseases ravaging whole peoples; arrest, imprisonment, treachery, abandonment. It seems as if Jesus is uttering the very confirmation of the fears and distastes of modern people at the claims of God: “the days will come in which…” (21:6). They will come, from whom? Whether from God or simply from the nature of things, they will cry out to us, “your freedom is nothing but illusion”. And, whether so spectacular as in this catalogue, or more unremarkable – weakening bodies, unraveling families, particular cancers, paralyzing failures, personal betrayals – Jesus’ promises here render a picture of a fundamentally enslaved existence. “The days will come in which…” It is an existence that, if we were honest, we would have to admit is ultimately ours, simply by being -unwillingly – born.
But then he ends by saying: “by your endurance you will gain your souls” (21:19). I want to suggest that, in an instant, with these words Jesus turns upside down the whole of our worries, and subverts the anxiety of our fundamental victimization that slowly burns beneath our sense of self for so many of us. “By your endurance you will gain your souls”: this is about freedom: endurance “gains”, it purchases, buys back your life, so that instead of slavery, you are now liberated. Endure, and be free at last!
We can take Jesus’s statement in two parts: “endurance” first, and then the gaining of our souls.
Luke’s word, translated as “endurance” has had other translations, the most common being “patience”. So, the King James: “in your patience”, you will possess your souls. The Greek work, hypomone, implies immovability, stability. In the Greek Old Testament, it is often translated as “waiting”, waiting for God, standing still where one is, in trust that God is God and will act as God. There’s a sense of rootedness, then, finally, of standing firm, the steadfastness that comes very simply from knowing God and relying on him.
It’s as if you were to say, “I can’t take it any longer”, and someone says to you, “hang in there!”. Hang in there, because you are God’s. No more or less than that.
This word – endurance or patience – is a tremendously important word in the New Testament, and I could give you many examples of its centrality to a discussion of the Christian life. Among the most famous is Paul, in Romans 5, where he is talking about the fruit of our justification in Christ. Now, he says, “we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope” (5;3-4). Patience, or endurance ends up giving rise to hope, Paul says. Just “hanging in there” stirs up the greatest gifts. In another place Paul describes what it means to be a servant of God, and he says this involves testifying to one’s service “in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses (2 Cor. 6:4). Endurance or patience is something we are all called to “follow”, he tells Timothy, along with “righteousness, godliness, faith, love” (1 Tim. 6:11). I could go on. But endurance or patience is at the center of the Christian life. “Hanging in there” is itself a virtue of its own. Why?
Because such “steadfastness” constitutes a kind of clinging to God; or even better, a kind of solid binding to God, as the place that faith, hope, and love find their source and sustenance.
To “hang in there” – to endure anything: earthquakes, wars, diseases, persecutions, betrayals – as a kind of resting firm with God that somehow brings into being all that is good.
Which brings us to the second part of Jesus’ statement: to endure will “gain your souls”. This sounds like winning salvation, but the translation here probably isn’t the best. The King James is better: endurance lets us possess our souls, or our lives. “Possess” is accurate: the issue is “who does your life belong to?” Possession is about ownership. “I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess”, says the Pharisee (Lk. 18:12). To be sure, the notion that our “souls”, in the sense of our living beings, our personal “lives”, are ever really ours, that we “own” them, is one that Jesus more than once points out is false. You remember the so-called “rich fool”, who gathers so much wealth he needs to build new barns to contain it all, only to have God say to him, “Fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” (Luke 12:20). He goes on to say to his disciples, “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life [ or soul], what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on.” Life, he says, is not only “more” than this; it isn’t even yours to worry about in the first place (22, 23).
Yet today, Jesus says that if you endure and hang in there you shall own your own life. It is yours. That’s the paradox: endurance is about resting in the fact that your life is bound to God; yet in being bound to God, your life becomes your own!
If I can grasp that my life is God’s, this will make me utterly my own, fully who I am. Is there no greater freedom?
“Why was I born this way?” “Why did this happen?” I’m nothing but a pawn of fate. Looked at this way, we are all slaves. But people throughout history have recognized that freedom cannot be defined primarily in terms of lack of constraints placed upon us. The ancient philosopher-slave Epictetus argued this in terms an almost Buddhist vision of indifference before the world’s assaults and our own desires. But Christians, in a much more profound way I think, have understood that the virtue of “hanging in there”, of endurance and patience and steadfastness, based on God’s ownership of our lives, is utterly transforming. God changes what he owns; and as God changes us, we become whom we are in fact meant to be.
I recently read something from the Romanian Jewish writer, and later Christian monk, Nicolae Steinhardt. Steinhardt, who became a Christian in the course of his sufferings, was imprisoned for years by the Communists, and is considered one of the great modern writers of his nation. Later in life he published what became a major literary work, called The Happiness Diary. In prison, he was finally happy, he wrote. And he details this at length, trying to describe where happiness and freedom reside. “I went into prison unhappy, I come out knowing happiness”, he says. How so? By finding himself unable to run away, by having to face just himself, by falling back on the limited resources of “just me”, as it were, he sees himself for who he is: God’s alone. At this point only, he writes, God takes hold of him in Christ, such that this divine possession turns him into his own true self. He tells numerous stories. In one, it is the act of divine forgiveness now at work in his heart that demonstrates to him the deepest freedom he discovers in his imprisonment. He is being transported in a prison van, and finds himself chained up with a former torturer of Jews, Sandu.
I feel high-flown at recollecting what happened in the van: I shared a kind of cage with another prisoner, Sandu L., an ex-fascist. No sooner are we both crowded in there than he starts talking to me. He says he is terribly sorry he used to be a [fascist thug], he is asking for my forgiveness: I must be awfully uncomfortable sitting there next to him, so close. Am I not terrified? He hardly finishes his word when the roof of the van opens; the blue sky above opens too. I answer that I can’t see why he is speaking of forgiveness: if we put it that way, then I am asking for his forgiveness, because I am a Jew and he has to press himself against me: as for the guilt, we are all equally guilty.
Steinhardt is describing how, being forced, literally in a small cage, up against a man who hated and tortured people like him, “opens up the skies”. There they sit, slaves to the state, jammed up against what each hates most. Yet just there, God does his work. He goes on:
So now that we asked for each other’s forgiveness, I propose that we come to peace, embrace and call each other by name. We kiss in the dim light of the bulb in our wheeled-jail and, considering ridicule just an empty word and a non-existing feeling, we suddenly and overwhelmingly go into […] that state of unspeakable happiness as compared to which any book, any trip, any successful exam, any high dignity in the government is zero, dust and ashes, deception and void… (57-58).
The victim, speaking humanly, is always alone; the believer sees that this bounded life, is God’s. With God, all things are possible (Mat. 19:26) – the definition of liberation. With God, slavery is turned to complete and utter freedom. Is this not at the center of our faith as we turn to Jesus himself? As the author of the Letter of Hebrews writes, let us “look to Jesus the author and finisher of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross – it is Jesus’ word today: to stay, remain, wait through, be steadfast in — who endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). And so Paul will write: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ” (2 Thess. 3:5).
Whoever you are, Jesus tells us, hang in there. “There”, that is, where you are given responsibilities, burdens of duty, demands of existence, unasked for, perhaps undeserved, hemming you in, making your choices difficult. Hang in there for a simple but profound reason: by enduring and waiting, we find our way to see God’s full ownership of our lives. And seeing this, that we are fully the living God’s, the God of Jesus Christ, we are transformed and become our own at last, the image of the Son of God. And neither raging nor giving up we can pray that wonderful prayer from the Prayer Book, known as the Collect for Peace: O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom…