“Paradise Lost” was once only the title of a 17th century narrative poem. Now it describes a California community torched out of existence by wildfires. One of the morning news shows cautioned hearers that footage from the burn site might be disturbing. It was. I have added to my daily prayers the search teams, combing through ash and rubble for evidence of those who did not escape the fire. Some of you have been touched by this inferno through friends and relatives who lived there. I’m so sorry for their loss, for your burden of grief.
How odd that Sunday’s gospel reading seems to predict this unsettled time. (Mark 13.1-8) While strolling through the temple compound with his disciples, Jesus warned that every stone in the temple compound, even the holiest of places, would be torn to the ground. In the same breath, he warned his disciples not to make too much of it: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Nation will rise against nation; there will be earthquakes and famines.” Of course, we know that he was forecasting the destruction of the temple and its attendant unrest in 70 CE, only a few years later. But if he was trying to make them feel better, it didn’t work.
His dire forecast is as apropos today as it was then. As a friend’s Thousand Oaks grandniece said after the shooting there last week, “There is no safe place.”
There are many ways to think theologically about our own troubled times. Some try to make “sense” of them by placing blame on policies or practices or people, as though having someone to blame makes the burden lighter to bear? Others imagine God’s hand in this trouble, either in confidence that these are signs that the End is coming soon, or that God is impotent and unable/unwilling to intervene. Still others go through life with shrugged shoulders, muttering “meh” in the face of the world’s troubles.
What do we say to these things?
On Sunday mornings, we’ve been reading through the book of Hebrews, and I find the final verses of Sunday’s pericope particularly potent. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, meeting together often, encouraging one another all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10.24-25)
What a great turn of phrase: provoke one another to good deeds.
Might I provoke you to good deeds? Supporting relief efforts is an immediate opportunity; I’m particularly fond of working through Lutheran Disaster Response or Thrivent (which is matching up to $250,000). Refraining from blame, speculation and easy answers is always a good strategy. Engaging public policy discussions about climate, development and federal relief efforts is difficult but critical. Meeting for worship, as the writer of Hebrews suggests both comforts and empowers us. Imitating the good deeds of others is also an avenue open to some of us: one of our members, whose elderly aunt escaped with only the clothes she wore and her purse is assembling a photo album to replace family pictures lost in the fire. And Jesus’ advice? Be aware. But unalarmed. Hmmm. I need to think about that.
Though the city of Paradise may be lost, hope is not. Today I give thanks for the relative safety and security of our life together, knowing that temples will topple and the earth will shake beneath our feet. I look forward to worshipping with you Sunday, as we receive pledges of support for our 2019 ministries, and heed Jesus’ ancient advice to his troubled disciples.
Aware but Unalarmed,
Pastor JoAnn Post