Sunday, June 5, 2011

Seventh of Easter: In Ascensiontide

Acts 1: 6-15, First Peter 4: 12-14; 5: 6-11; John 17: 1-11

In the wonderful T.S. Eliot series The Four Quartets the second poem, “East Coker,” begins with this compelling phrase, “In my beginning is my end.” Then it comes to a conclusion a few pages later with the reversal: “In my end is my beginning.” --“In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.”

Perhaps on this Sunday we would feel the progressive, straight-line forward journey of our lives through time also to curve back in on itself. Seventh Sunday of Eastertide, almost midsummer sunshine and temperatures, the longest day of the year just a hop and a skip away.

And yet once again we are gathered in something of a jumble on a hillside outside of town; once again there are angels; once again our hearts are filled with hope in the promise of the fulfillment of God’s saving intention. The Advent of the Promised One.

Holy Week, Good Friday, Easter, all in one sense in the rear view mirror. But there is this new excitement, this fresh sense of beginning, and we can almost hear ourselves in the words of the disciples as they echo our old friends the Shepherds of Christmas Eve: Let us go now with haste to see this thing of which the angels have spoken. Seventh of Easter, the Sunday of Ascensiontide, leaning forward toward Whitsunday and Pentecost, and all is fresh and new. And certainly we’ve been here before. “Come thou, long expected Jesus.”

Once years ago Susy and I were driving along some back roads on the North Shore of Boston going to visit some friends who live in Marblehead. We thought we were lost, but then by the side of the road a sign, “Mablehead, 5 miles.” And a certain sense of relief, as we continued forward along the twisting and turning and mostly unmarked roads. Until, about 20 minutes later, yet another sign. “Marblehead, 5 miles.” Or was it the same sign?

And where are we this morning? In thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, but the details seem to make no difference at all. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

All jumbled together. And lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.” Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Roughly half a year since Christmas, half a year until Christmas, but here we are. In my beginning is my end. In my end, my beginning.

So in the midst of that I hinted last week that I would be saying something this week about “What Harold Camping Got Right.” You probably heard of this. Harold Camping is what they call a “radio evangelist,” of course from my own home state of California (and where else?), who has made a reputation for himself beginning some years ago for predicting the day and the hour of the Lord’s Return. He developed a calculus, as I understand it, and according to the article in Wikipedia he was able to determine the date of the Creation of the Earth in the year 11,013 BC, with Noah’s Flood in 4990 BC, and I guess with a slide rule and some figuring on the back of an envelope using clues from the Book of Daniel and the Revelation to St. John and who knows where else he was able to determine with precision that Jesus would return to gather his faithful and set into motion the Last Days on May 21, 1988, and then with some recalculation September 7, 1994, and then again just a couple of weeks ago, May 21, 2011, and I love this precision, at 6 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, and now the next date on the calendar October 21, 2011.

All this of course in the midst of all the dreary economic news and three wars and all the rest an opportunity for a little light news in the media. The Facebook exchanges were humorous for the most part, and I played along myself with a few jokes on that Saturday morning about whether it made sense for me to mow the lawn. If Jesus were really coming at dinnertime, would that really be the highest and best use of my afternoon?

In any event, the most charitable construction that I can come up with is that the guy is a nut. Perhaps of the same genre as folks who tell me with all seriousness that a secret Vatican police agency is plotting the assassination of Dan Brown after he revealed the dark secrets of the Da Vinci Code. Either a nut or pathologically delusional, or an extraordinary con-man, and in all that, not really harmless, as he has taken advantage of the anxieties of some vulnerable and gullible people, as we saw the other week in stories of families disposing of property and leaving jobs and all the rest, in anticipation of the end.

And certainly you just wonder what is so hard in the midst of all this obsessing about arcane secret codes of the Bible simply to look at the plain meaning of what Jesus tells his disciples right here in this morning’s reading from the first chapter of Acts, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” End of sentence. And yet of course this isn’t a new phenomenon with Camping. It’s how the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses got their start in the 19th century and it is something that has come and gone with regularity throughout the past 2,000 years. So it taps into something deep and real in the Christian psyche, no question about that.

In the end a lot of the popular humor directed at Camping in the media wasn’t so much about the goofiness of his calculation or the peculiar construction of his vision of the end time. I sensed anyway a deeper discomfort with any vision—and Camping was certainly an easy target—of the power of God or his purposeful intention.

But when you get right down to it I’ll just tell you that for all the weirdness and even delusional expression, in the end when the world starts tossing brickbats at Camping and at those who heard him and whose hearts were filled with hope when he spoke, I guess I’m going to need to go over and stand with them. Maybe not too close, but at least this close: “And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead—and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead—Whose kingdom shall have no end.”

We lean forward in Advent: “Come thou, long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free.” The whole pageant begins with this yearning, leaning forward into hope. The procession of the Prophets. Advent not simply the December weeks before Christmas but the character and meaning of all our lives, week after week, year after year, generation after generation. Waiting in hope. In anticipation.

“And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; To appoint unto those who mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.”

“Go through, go through the gates; prepare ye the way of the people; cast up, cast up the highway; gather out the stones; lift up a standard for the peoples. Behold, the LORD hath proclaimed unto the end of the earth: Say ye to the daughter of Zion, behold, thy salvation cometh.”

“I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.”

We are called to live coherently in this world. To roll up our sleeves. To do the work he has given us to do in our families and our churches and our vocational lives and in our communities. The harvest is plentiful, the laborers always too few.

But if we would shake our head with sadness and even with a bit of dismay at something like Harold Camping’s predictions, even so, may we be counted this morning and as we come to the Holy Table as among those who wait eagerly for Jesus, who is our beginning and our ending, our best memory and our true destiny. In my end is my beginning. In my beginning is my end. In the manger, on the Cross, ascended, at the Right Hand of the Father, who is coming to set things right.

No need to worry about the day or the hour. No need to stand gazing into the skies. But to make no mistake about it, in the words of the angel, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. And again, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go . . . .

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