Trust God, not institutions, and in that trust, be changed so you can change institutions for the good of all.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 33 C
Text: Luke 21:5-19
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Recently these apocalyptic words from Jesus have taken new meaning for some of us.
We hear warnings of collapsing institutions and rising opposition to what is good, and no longer think, “it’s different for us.” We hear of threats from legal systems and religious leaders and no longer say, “not here.” Climate change has made shaking earth and threatening storms and even plagues a reality. For many of us, these little forays into the apocalyptic texts in worship each November and early Advent seemed unrelatable. But in the past years, many of us have heard Jesus very differently.
That previous inability to hear Jesus’ warnings as viable is because some of us lived in privileged situations. We weren’t listening to our neighbors, weren’t seeing the pain of our siblings. In this country and around the world, what Jesus describes is consistent with the daily lives of billions. Jesus’ words and hope are deeply relevant to them. It’s part of the sin of some of us that we haven’t been more aware before now. But now we are. So let’s truly hear what Jesus needs to say today.
Jesus warns that institutions are fallible and can’t ultimately be trusted.
His disciples couldn’t have comprehended that the Temple in all its glory would be torn down stone from stone. Ever since this second Temple was built after the return from exile, it stood as an impressive monument to God’s presence with the people of Israel. Throughout 300 years of oppression first by the Greeks and now the Romans, with only about 100 years of independence in the middle, the Temple of God remained. They might not have had their own country and governance, but the Temple stood. Which meant God stood. God was with them. That’s security.
Except, Jesus said, it’s not. As impressive and important the building, they couldn’t trust it for their security, their hope, their life. It would one day be destroyed. And forty years later, it was.
In the past six years, we’ve learned that the temple of our democracy is also fragile.
We never thought that was possible. We thought we built modern democracy for everyone else to emulate. But since 2020, for the first time in our history, international democratic watch groups placed the United States on the list of endangered democracies. We face a very real threat, not from two parties that disagree about policies and priorities, but from people seeking power for its own sake. People who will do anything to keep that power: suppress voting, gerrymander districts, lie about perfectly open and obvious truths, threaten violence. Not to govern, that’s clear, but to control. To enrich themselves. And to destroy their opponents.
After Tuesday, there’s hope. We once again had a peaceful election, something we’ve always simply assumed would be true. So far there hasn’t been another insurrection. But the final results aren’t all in, the actual transfer of power hasn’t happened yet. Who knows what kind of wretched plans are being made.
We couldn’t imagine the end of democracy in America. But we’re still on the edge of that precipice. And Jesus says, “good, I’m glad you understand that. You can’t put your ultimate trust in your political system, even if it is a good one.”
But Jesus also warned about other institutions, not all of them doing good.
He told his disciples they might be arrested and put to death for their faith, threatened both by civil and religious authorities. Institutions that are supposed to do good and promote the common welfare will not always do that. So don’t put your trust in them, Jesus says.
Many of us are late to this realization, too, because of privilege. I am the white son of a man who was first the county attorney and then the county judge. His good friend was the sheriff. The sheriff even won me a stuffed dog at the county fair when I was five. When I was 17, driving to a friend’s house at night, I was pulled over for running a stop sign. I hadn’t – there was a truck at the intersection and I had to wait for him to pass. The officer insisted I hadn’t stopped. But within two seconds of seeing my license in the dome light of his car, he brought it back and told me to go on my way. I’ve never doubted that my name caused him to do that. That’s privilege.
We know there are many in authority who are good people, faithful public servants. But that’s not always the case. Law enforcement, the courts, the legislature, city councils, religious institutions – including the Church – all supposed to work for the common good, do not always do so. Many of my neighbors have the exact opposite experience as mine, with no reason to trust anyone in authority. Jesus says it’s beyond time for some of us to realize the truth about such institutions and put our trust elsewhere.
Now that your eyes are open, Jesus says, here’s what you can trust: God is with you.
Yes, we’d be better if democracy survived. Yes, we need to fix or dismantle any institutions that are doing harm and evil. But the God who has defeated death is with us, giving wisdom to live the life God intends for God’s children, the words to say what needs to be said in the face of evil and oppression. Even if this whole country falls apart, Jesus says, God will still be with you. And you will survive, even if you die.
But hear this: God with us means God with everyone.
In our privileged, safe, secure lives we can’t say, “God is with us,” and ignore billions of God’s children who are suffering and struggling.
God loves all God’s children, without exception. God has no sides. But the Scriptures are crystal clear: God can’t stand it if a single child of God is hungry, or poor, or oppressed, or raped, or abused, or crushed by the legal system, or falsely arrested, or threatened, or hated for what they look like or who they are or what they believe. If those of us who are safe ignore all the rest of God’s children who aren’t, then we’ve created sides. And God will not be on ours.
Institutions that have become corrupt, that harm rather than heal, that break rather than repair, must be changed, and you and I must join with the rest of God’s children to do that. We must have the wisdom that even if good people serve in them, evil can still be embedded and empowered and needs to be excised.
And we need to work for institutions like democracy that do good, even though we don’t put our ultimate trust in them, so they’re sustained and strengthened for generations to come.
Even though the earth shakes and the mountains fall, God is with us.
With all God’s children. That’s our hope in the midst of a fractured world. God is with all of us, giving us wisdom to navigate a complex world, words to bring hope and life to ourselves and our neighbors, grace to heal even our nation’s wounds.
God is with all of us, giving us the command to love, and do all we can to ensure all our neighbors are well and whole. So that all might know the joy of God’s gracious life and love. Even if all this falls apart.
In the name of Jesus. Amen