Homecoming or Going-Away Party? Questioning the Rapture through the lens of homelessness

This is the sermon I gave at Patchwork Central’s Sunday evening worship on July 26, 2009. Of course, these texts are not the only ones pertinent to discussion of the so-called “end times,” but 1 Thessalonians in particular is of major importance since it is the text most-often used to discuss “what the Rapture will be like.” Judging by the number of bumper stickers and t-shirts with stupid slogans like “in case of Rapture, this car will be UNMANNED,” it is a matter that is sorely in need of an injection of good, contextually-informed Biblical theology in the popular arena.

As this is the full text of a sermon (approximately 30 minutes in length), it’s considerably longer than my usual entries.

First reading: Isaiah 40:9-11
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

[I started the sermon by recalling a story from my time at Harlaxton, when I spent the better part of an afternoon in Cambridge having dinner with a homeless man named Ian. Rather than try and recall exactly how I told the story on Sunday, here is my description of the event upon returning to Harlaxton that evening.]

Of course, as we all know, homelessness is not just something that happens in England. I remember growing up in Petersburg, a town of considerably smaller size than Evansville, and every few months I would hear advertisements on the radio for programs to benefit Street Relief and other efforts to serve the homeless in Evansville in some way. Now, being from a small town and having never seen a real, live homeless person before it was all a bit of an abstraction for me. It was hard enough for me to just get my head around the notion that there were people out there who didn’t have a stable place to go every night to sleep. Homelessness was something that, for me, only existed on the radio or television, or maybe I would have a teacher mention something about it in class. By the time high school rolled around I had a little better grip on things, having taken a few trips to cities such as Washington D.C. and seen first-hand people whom I knew would be sleeping under the stars that night – and not because they were on a camping trip with friends.

When I moved to Evansville for college I began to get a fuller picture of things, though being a dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite conservative I assumed homeless people, or at least most of them anyway, were there because they wanted to be, or because they were just too lazy to get a real job. Needless to say, since then my thoughts on the matter have changed a bit. I have had a few rather significant interactions with homeless people, like Brian whom I mentioned earlier, a guy named John who used to hang out with us around what is now the art colony, back when it was still Synchronicity, who fancied himself a bit of a traveling preacher for one. He and I used to sit on a bench either on Haynie’s Corner or on Main Street and talk about all kinds of stuff, and boy did he have some good stories to tell. I’ve been a part of the crowd at the Rescue Mission, both during times when I volunteered or coordinated groups that wanted to volunteer, and during times when in fact that was the only place I could afford to eat. I’ve never actually been homeless myself, but there have been at least 3 occasions when I’ve been anywhere from a few weeks to a few days away from not having a place to call home. Perhaps some of you have been in the same boat, eh?

There’s been a lot in the news lately about foreclosures and people not being afford to stay in their homes and all that kind of stuff. Not just people on the lower end of the economic ladder, but increasing numbers from the middle and upper-middle classes as well. No doubt the number of certifiable homeless has increased in the past year, though I have found reliable statistics predictably hard to come by. But even before there was talk of a mortgage crisis, a housing sector crash, Wall Street shenanigans, and the “R-” word (not to mention the “D-” word, which you’ll never hear out of any politician’s mouth unless he’s talking about how we’re not going to have one), the fact of the matter is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1% of the US population, depending on what studies you cite and which methodologies you accept, went from day to day not knowing if they were going to be able to have a shelter to sleep in that night. That’s around 3 million people, if you’re counting. Continue reading

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Support our troops?

This morning, my grandfather sent me an email “action alert” from the American Family Association urging protest of the recent Berkeley, California City Council resolution that declared the downtown Marine recruiting office “unwanted” and urged the recruiters to leave town. This article does not respond to that issue, but rather to the subject line of the email he forwarded from the AFA, which was “Support our troops”.

I have to admit being somewhat perplexed by the exhortation to “support our troops”. Whose troops are they? They certainly aren’t mine – I’m not sending them anywhere, and they don’t represent me or my thoughts. It seems to me that the designation “our troops” implies a kind of kinship between us and the troops that does not really exist. Certainly it is true that my (step)brother is among those who are being sent over there, but it is not on my behalf that he is being sent, just as it is not on my behalf that any of them has been sent.

This entire enterprise of war in foreign lands has very little to do with the protection and preservation of American values, but it has everything to do with protecting and preserving business interests that profit heavily from maintaining a forced subordinate status in certain nations around the world. The United States has done the same thing for over a century now in Latin America, and has long maintained an official policy that essentially says “if you have something we want, a resource we ‘need’, then as far as we’re concerned it belongs rightfully to us, not to you”. This is the only rational explanation for the military interventions in Hawai’i for pineapples; in Guatemala for bananas; in Iran for oil (with the deposition of a popular government in order to reinstate the Shah, a move on our part whose eventual consequence was the Islamic Revolution of 1979); in Iraq not only for oil but also to create a living experiment in extreme neoliberal free trade as an example (and warning) to the rest of the world that consumer corporate “democracies” will have what they want from the “developing nations”, and we can get it the easy way or the hard way.

This critique stands regardless of one’s religious persuasion, but it is much more pertinent for me as a follower of Jesus, the prince of peace and king of all creation who urged his followers not to retaliate when evil was done to them, but rather to turn the other cheek. The unanimous response of the early church to persecution was not to respond by fighting back for their own gain, even in defense of their own personal liberties, but rather to witness to those who tormented them by showing the same attitude of Christ – loving and forgiving their attackers in the hope that they would be transformed. They believed the cross of Christ is the hope for the transformation of all doers of violence and opponents of God. To suggest that the idea of premeditated war for the economic gain of certain sectors of society (the corporate management classes first, and then to a lesser extent the consuming classes – which is to say that yes, you and I likely are beneficiaries of the violence), which was sold as a preemptive (or preventative, depending on who you ask) war to ostensibly “protect our way of life against the terrorists” would never have even occurred to them as a valid option for Christians.

Even three centuries after Christ when the church went from being a persecuted minority to the triumphant majority with the imperial sanction they did not develop a theology of warfare that went so far – instead, Augustine’s formulation of Just War doctrine carried the day. It is important to note that even Just War doctrine does not actually justify war for self-defense, to say nothing of preemptive warfare. Therefore, even on the less-strict Christian stance on war than that of Jesus himself, the type of activities in which the U.S. military has engaged in Iraq cannot in any way be construed as representative either of me or of my Lord.

They are not “our” troops, they are troops under the command of people in the thrall of the American political/business system which “make[s] unjust laws. . . deprive[s] the poor of their rights, withhold[s] justice from the oppressed. . . [makes] widows their prey, and [robs] the fatherless” (see Isaiah 10:1-2 in the NIV). They are being asked to die for a cause that, in the words of Alisdair McIntyre, is rather like being asked to die for the telephone company. They are not my troops, they are my fellow-human-beings being manipulated and exploited in more ways than they realize, and rather than praying for success in their mission I simply pray for an end to war and for the desire of men and women to make war. I pray that guns would jam and bombs would fail to explode, and that soldiers on all sides would simply lay down their weapons and refuse to engage any longer in this silly business of war. I support people, not troops, and I support them as potential brothers and sisters in the new world that God is creating even in the midst of this world of bloodshed and hatred, a new world of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation who walk in the ways of God’s shalom.