Advent 1, November 27, 2016
Music by Whiskey Flats Brass Band of Stevensville, Washington
‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’
When will the Kingdom of God come?
It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said,
“Look here!” or “Look there!”
Rather God’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.
Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian, p. 195
So, will there be a second coming on some day in the future? I think not. Its meaning is not literal-factual. Rather, the affirmation of the second coming has more-than-literal meanings. It is the return of Jesus already experienced as the risen Christ and the Spirit of Christ. It is Jesus coming again in the rhythms of the Christian liturgical year. Advent is preparing for the coming of Jesus—about the coming again of the Christ who is already here. Jesus also comes again in the Eucharist; in the bread and wine Christ becomes present to us. And what is meant by the second coming is also the ultimate Christian hope—for that time, to use Paul’s language, when “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28)
I begin with an explanation of the title of the sermon, “Watch, Don’t Watch.” When I put the bulletin together I was thinking of the two Jesuses within the gospels, the one in Matthew who says watch and be alert for the Son of Man who is coming at any moment and the other Jesus who says don’t look for the kingdom of God coming here and there, it is among us already, spread out on the Earth.
One Jesus says, “Watch.” The other, “Don’t watch.”
Which Jesus is the real one?
Or which Jesus resonates with you?
Is the kingdom of God something to come in the future?
Is the kingdom of God already here among us or spread out and we need to wake up and see it?
I will leave that for you to think about as I talk about something else.
In recent weeks I have been hearing a lot about the “elite bubble.” The elite bubble is where folks who think alike on many matters talk amongst themselves and do not interact that much with others who have quite divergent ideas about how reality is structured. Those in the elite bubble know about these other ideas but find it difficult to accept that others really believe in the things they do.
“Those who do believe those things surely make up a small minority,” think those who live in the bubble.
Then events happen that pop the bubble and expose those in the bubble to the vast numbers of people who are outside the bubble and who vote. Those within the bubble are stunned. How could this happen?
Those within the elite bubble affirm evolution and modern cosmology, for instance. Neither are easy or intuitive concepts and they are both relatively new ideas about reality. Both of these ideas challenge thousands of years of traditional teaching about how the world works, what a human being is, what our origins are, and the trajectory of our future. Those are big ticket items.
Those in the bubble don’t interact much or at least interact about those topics with others outside the bubble, and because of that may underestimate the number of people who do not affirm evolution or modern cosmology. Those in the bubble may underestimate the resistance to these modern concepts by those outside the bubble.
Those within the elite bubble recognize, are concerned, and wish to do something about catastrophic climate change. Those in the bubble see that the ecosystem of our planet is changing dramatically and likely irreversibly due to the effects of the rise of industrial civilization, human population, and the emission of gases related to the burning of fossil fuels. Those outside the bubble either don’t think it is true or think the elites are overstating the problem, or are trying to fleece them.
Those within the elite bubble, and I am of course speaking about Americans, are critical of the United States, its history of slavery and genocide and the ongoing effects of such, its militarism, its consumption of earth’s resources that far exceeds its population, and of its global reach.
Those outside the bubble find these criticisms unpatriotic, even blasphemous. They believe that America is the light on the hill, that it is good and exceptionally suited to lead the world. They think that America has been ordained by God, that is, the Christian God, to the mission of earth’s redemption. Those who are enemies of this mission are the elites as well as foreigners who do not “love America” like they do. If America is not great yet, it is because of the stain of sin caused by those who do not love America and as such the God who blesses America. This stain must be cleansed.
Those within the elite bubble are not particularly religious, or if they are, don’t view its teachings as seriously as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents do or did. They have been influenced by evolution, cosmology, history, the presence of those who practice other religions, other religious literature, and so forth, to be critical of and to relativize the teachings of their own faith.
For instance, on this First Sunday of Advent, what do the elites in their bubble think when they sing, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus?” What is going through their minds when they hear this text, supposedly said by Jesus, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour?” What do the elites in their bubble think about these words? I would be curious actually. Since I am conscious that I am speaking to elites in the bubble, how do you respond to these texts and these concepts of Christ returning from the clouds to rule one day? My hunch is that you have found some way to relativize this teaching into your own reality.
Those who are outside the bubble take these texts and their religion as a whole very seriously. They do believe and are convinced that Jesus is a real supernatural figure who will return sooner than later and establish his kingdom. Many believe in a rapture and a role for the modern nation-state of Israel, the United States, and some other supposedly godless country like Russia or China, all engaged in a final battle that will begin in the Middle East.
What is shocking to the elites in the bubble is how many people really do believe that and who believe their role is to participate in making it happen. And they vote. I am not saying that everyone who voted for our president-elect has the views I just described. Nothing is ever quite as simple.
I am saying that the number of people outside our elite bubble is larger than we thought and those who have those views, that is,
1) who are suspicious of the modern reality provided to us by science,
2) who take selected religious teachings seriously, often literally,
3) who are white,
4) who believe in American exceptionalism,
5) and who are apocalyptic,
…influenced our future.
If you take a look at the president elect’s appointees, you will find characters who either share these views or who are opportunistic in regards to those who do. Take the new education secretary. Never went to public school. Her children did not go to public school. Wants vouchers. Wants privatization of schools. She will get full support of those outside the elite bubble. Why? Because according to those outside our bubble, what is wrong with public schools is that
1) God was removed from them,
2) public schools teach evolution and modern cosmology as if they are true,
3) and the teachers are elite liberals who are critical of America’s history and destiny.
I don’t know if this person selected as Education Secretary believes in any of that, but a huge chunk of America does, a huge chunk that we elites in our bubble continually underestimate, dismiss, and mock.
I am not trying to be exhaustive about theories regarding the election. I haven’t even talked about economics or other issues regarding the Hillary Clinton and the thousands of other factors that played into the election.
So what am I talking about?
I am talking about religion.
What I am trying to say is that those of us in the elite bubble are often not aware how seriously those outside our bubble take their religion. We are also not aware of how large that population is. We are not aware specifically, how the religious views of those outside the bubble influence the way these folks view life and participate in American politics.
I think those of us in the elite bubble and that includes the media are afraid of religion. We are afraid to analyze it and thus understand religion’s role in American life and politics. Religion is a taboo topic that is killing us because we are not talking about it.
Gospel of Thomas saying 70:
Jesus said: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will kill you.
I was talking with Krista Tippet who host’s NPR’s On Being. She was a so-called “hard news” reporter before she decided that religion was important. She tried to pitch it to the network and was rebuffed for a long time. It took forever for them to grudgingly accept an intelligent program about religion.
We don’t even talk about religion in church.
When I say talk about religion I mean seriously talk about understanding religious texts, and how we use religious symbols such as God and how religion relates to ethics and issues of justice and so forth. Not only our religion but other religions as well are rarely talked about at any level of depth.
If there has been a consistent criticism of me and of my ministry, it is that I make people upset because I talk critically about religion. I mess with people’s faith and all that. I talk about the difference between the historical person of Jesus, if there was one, and the mythological, legendary Jesus of the gospels and the later tradition. I push regarding the glib use of “belief in God,” and challenge people to articulate what that means. I also push in regards to what happens to religion when we see it as a human construct and how we can find value in it and still be religious.
The reason I push is because we see what happens when religion is not discussed critically. The world is changing. The way we see the world has changed. This change is a threat to traditional religion. Unless we talk openly about it, we won’t be able to navigate our way through the clash between traditional religious beliefs and the reality into which we are living.
The sign of this clash is this past election. It is a religious struggle.
Those of us in our elite bubble, who have either moved beyond religion or who have relativized it are unaware that a huge chunk of the population takes their religion very seriously and views these intellectual changes as antagonistic to their beliefs.
Here is my bottom line:
Unless we have conversations with those outside our bubble about religion, not about politics or other surface matters, but religion and value and speaking honestly about how we wrestle as well with religious concepts and the insights of science we will continue to polarize.
We cannot afford to allow religion to be a taboo topic.
I think this conversation begins with us. How do we regard these texts and traditional teachings, and where is it a struggle for us? Even deeper than that, what is faith, for what do we hope, and how does our religious tradition inspire us or leave us flat?
Speaking for myself, I do find inspiration in our texts and in our tradition and in the tension itself between the already and the not yet.
Although, not always. Sometimes I want to throw the whole thing out. But I usually find a way to appreciate the texts as metaphor. For instance, Advent.
Advent is the possibility of a future of peace with justice and the possibility that it is here amongst and within inviting our participation. The take home word for this first Sunday of Advent on our banner is “Courage.”
We need courage to talk about religion in public. To be honest about what it is for us. We are one species this Earth and we need to talk about the changes we are facing openly. Perhaps Advent can inspire us to do so.