Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The end is near.
I'm not talking about the 42 days until end of Christmas shopping, or the 434 days until the end of the Bush administration, or the ten minutes until the end of this sermon.
I'm not talking about the end of your supervised ministry, or your wedding planning, or a bad year for crops;
I'm not talking about the end of any of the things that are on our minds each and every day.
I am talking about the end of all of them together.
I'm talking about the end of the world: the Kingdom of God is at hand.

We Episcopalians don't like to talk too much about the end of the world.
On average, we tend to do pretty well in the world as it is.
So the end of the world isn't a particularly comfortable or frankly welcome subject for us.
When we do talk about the end, we keep it at an intellectual distance, wrapped in fancy words like "Eschaton" to avoid blunt statements like "the end is near: the Kingdom of God is at hand."

And then there's the embarrassment factor.
I mean it's been almost 2000 years that we've been going on that the end is near.
How many times can you cry wolf and still have people listen?
We pride ourselves on being a church where you don't have to check your mind at the door; something doesn't sit right about making yet another claim that the end is near.

So what do we do?
Our choirs will sing anthems about the end times.
Bach's beautiful cantada "Wachet auf".
And that beautiful sequence from Mozart's Requiem, Dies Irae, sounds stunning.
And even better, it's in Latin, so we don't have to focus on the words: "Day of Wrath, that day when the world dissolves into ashes."
This is supposed to be good news?

What images does today's Gospel use to describe the end?
Matthew starts with the Flood.
For Noah, the Flood meant leaving behind everything he knew and being locked up in a crowded boat with a bunch of smelly animals for months.
And his family was the one with the happy ending; everyone else fared far worse.
And Matthew makes it clear that not everybody gets to play the role of Noah in re-enacting this story.
Doesn't sound like good news.

And then we hear that the coming of the kingdom is like a thief invading a home in the night.
Such pleasant images.
So we must be supposed to weep, not rejoice, when we hear that the end is near: the Kingdom of God is at hand.

But there's this pericope from Matthew's Gospel that gets proclaimed millions of times each day by Christians all around the world.
Depending on your translation, it starts something like this:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.
Thy kingdom come!

Now wait a minute, did we really just say that?
Was that really the second thing we prayed?
Before we asked for bread, before we asked for forgiveness, before we asked to be spared from trials and tribulations -- we ASKED for God's Kingdom to come?
That thief invading your home in the night, flood killing off most of mankind, world dissolving into ashes kingdom coming event?
We ask for this to happen?
Every time we gather to pray?
Are we nuts?

This thief in the night, this flood drowning humankind -- how is this something we want to pray for?
How is this an event for which we wait in joyful hope?
How could we possibly rejoice when we hear that the end is near: the Kingdom of God is at hand?

When you're drinking a really good thick chocolate milkshake, and you're savoring each drop of it, that echoing, resounding slurping sound you get when your straw hits an air pocket -- that's not good news.
It tells you that the end is near, and your good times are almost done.

How do we react when we hear that the end is near?
Are these words the slurping sound at the bottom of a milkshake?
Do we get upset because we are enjoying this world and hate to see it go?

That slurping sound is grace, then: grace to change our lives.

If we hear "the end is near" and think it means that our time of pleasure is done, we've been storing up treasure in the wrong place.
That slurping sound is a call to repent, to change our priorities.
Unwelcome though it may be, this is truly grace.

But when we're overwhelmed by trouble and cares, when suffering for the Gospel has us at the breaking point, when all that we have taken on brings us to ask how much longer we can be asked to endure, the words "the end is near" take on an entirely different meaning.
We just need to be sure it's the right one.

When I was in high school, I ran cross country.
Our five kilometer home course ended by going up a steep hill right before the finish line.
If you knew the course well, you knew that when you came around a turn at the bottom of the hill, you had to pick up your feet and put them down only 300 more times.
It was all uphill, and you were exhausted, but there were only 300 steps left to go.
The end is near.
And what a welcome message that was.
"The end is near" was the encouragement you needed to give those last 300 steps every ounce of energy you had left.
You'd go up that last hill, maybe passing a few people on the way, and put all your heart and all your soul and all your strength into that last burst of glory toward the finish line.

Except once they hosted the state regional meet there.
They changed some of the turns to accommodate the larger crowd.
And as a result, the finish line got moved back about a quarter mile from its usual place at the top of the hill.
The turn at the bottom of the hill that usually sent the message "only 300 steps left" was cruelly misleading.
You put everything you had into those last 300 steps only to find that there was still another quarter mile to cover.

If we think "the end is near" means "start sprinting," the fact that we've been proclaiming it for almost 2000 years makes it a cruel joke.
If we understand "the end is near" to be a promise of rest coming in the next few minutes, days, months -- and that promise remains unfulfilled for two thousand years, this isn't comfort; it's brutality.

But today's Gospel stresses that God refuses to promise to come at a particular time.
God is near and will intervene, but on God's own timetable.
The promise of the end times is not a promise that we have only 300 steps left in the race.
It isn't a promise that we have to get up one more hill and then we can rest.
It IS a promise that God is near.
God is present.
And when God decides that all is done and it is time to complete the world God set in motion, God will.

Last month they called off the Chicago marathon after a few hours because of high temperatures.
After determining that conditions were unsafe for the race to continue, the organizers stepped in and said it was over.
Some runners were far from the finish line, but just like that, the race was done.
Despite being far from crossing the line, the end was near.

The end is near because God will complete this world and bring about the next at any moment God chooses.
The end is near because when the time is right, it takes no prelude.
It takes no warm-up.
When God the Father, who so loved the world that he sent his only son, determines that it is finished, then it is finished.

And so, we persist in doing what is right.
We proclaim Christ crucified.
We feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners.
We go and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
And we persist in the face of exhaustion.

Matthew's Gospel today makes it abundantly clear that we don't get a countdown to the end times.
"The end is near" doesn't mean we only have 300 steps to go.
But when we hear "The end is near" we know that at any time, at any moment, God is ready to step in say, "It is finished."
As soon as God thinks work in the world is done, it is.
The end is near -- not in terms of time, but in terms of causality.
The end is near because it will happen as soon as God wills it.

The end is near: the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Come Lord Jesus!