Is this it, the Apocalypse?

by Kari Baumann; Isaiah 61.10-62.3, Luke 2.22-40

Good morning. I have the unenviable task of delivering the last sermon of the year. Oh, sure, make the intern try to find something to say to wrap up 2020! I see how it is!

How do we even begin to sum up this year? I scrolled through a lot of our pictures over the past few weeks, trying to think about what my family might remember from this year. The last play Mike and I attended at Triad Stage (2 Wolves and a Lamb). The last movie I saw in the theater (Little Women, not a bad choice). The last concert I attended (Emmylou Harris, can’t complain there). And then a lot of pictures of us at home. The walks we took in our park every day. The books we read. The first mask my mom made for me. The fireworks our neighbors set off every day at 7pm, just to celebrate making it through another day. The black squares on Instagram and the protests for justice. A lot of LEGOs. Of course I wore a lot of caftans as usual. I changed jobs and started Divinity School. 

But a lot of what we will remember this year wasn’t necessarily photo-worthy. The way I made Mike buy extra toilet paper in February because I am a worrier. The stress we all felt about having to learn to Zoom and teach and learn and work from home. There were a lot of undocumented tears and arguments and disappointments and teletherapy appointments, and if I never hear the words “social distancing” or “flatten the curve” or “unprecedented” ever ever again, that will be just fine with me. 

I imagine that I am not the only one who has thought about the word “apocalypse” regularly throughout this year. In many ways, the world as we knew it ended and we were catapulted into an uncertain and confusing space. Of course, as you know, the word “apocalypse” is from the Greek to uncover or to reveal. 

Reveal is a fitting word for this year, when nationally the pandemic revealed inequity in our healthcare system. It revealed the many many services that schools provide for students besides an education. Later in the summer, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery opened many eyes to the inequities in our criminal justice system and to systemic racism in our country. We have seen many people place the economy over lives, revealing our country’s priorities. 

In our own homes, there were other, more personal revelations. Perhaps being at home revealed something to you about the way you are treated at your job, or the strength of a relationship you had taken for granted. Maybe you started to see your house in a new way, or did some renovations to make it a better space for your family, which you wouldn’t have realized except for being at home so much. A lot of my friends found themselves decorating early for Christmas, because they wanted the light and the cheer. At Thanksgiving this year, we had brisket instead of turkey, and we realized that no one in our family really likes turkey all that much and we aren’t going to make it anymore. 

The musician John Darnielle, also known as the band The Mountain Goats, writes a benediction of sorts on Twitter every year on New Year’s Eve. That’s a particularly resonant holiday for The Mountain Goats because of their song “This Year,” the chorus of which is, “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” I am going to go ahead and admit to you that I have played that song a lot in 2020. And, thank God, I have made it through this year, and so have you. We have lost many and we have lost so much, and I am grateful we are here. Last year, for his benediction, Darnielle said something that has stayed with me and proven to be particularly insightful for 2020: “Traditions are only any good if they nurture.” He went on to say, “Some of us . . . have been through times when our traditions not only no longer nurtured anything good within us, but were actually our enemies. Yet did we continue to observe our traditions, because, you know, at least we had that going for us, right? Right right.” Many of us lived this truth this year, dropping things that did not give us life, where we did not see God’s fresh growth, and clinging to the things that the pandemic revealed were life-giving.

What is being revealed in our text today? The prophet known as Third Isaiah is speaking to a people who have returned from exile into a ruin. While brighter days are on the horizon, there is an incredible amount of rebuilding to do. Sounds familiar, right? It’s a perfect text for the end of 2020. In many ways, the world as we knew it needed to end because it was broken and harmful. To quote Imagine Dragons, “This is it, the apocalypse / I’m waking up / I feel it in my bones / enough to make the system blow / welcome to the new age.” Here at the end of the year, we are left with a question of what that new age might look like; what we might rebuild together. 

Growing up, people in my church often talked about the “already/not yet” of the Christian life. We can be aware of the gifts God has given us and yet we see with kingdom eyes the ways that our communities are not flourishing. Right now, we can feel hope at the idea of a vaccine, while being aware of the severe outbreaks of COVID-19 in Native communities and in prisons. We can be grateful for time with our families while also doing what we can to help the long lines at the food pantry and the kids who aren’t able to access online learning. We can be grateful for the justice work that has been done while acknowledging the work, some within ourselves, that still needs to occur. 

In the light of all of this, the prophet rejoices in the blessings that God has given, but also says not to remain silent about injustice, that speaking up and speaking out leads to life springing up like living things from fertile soil. Speaking up and speaking out is a way to lean into that hope of a new future, to help reveal that possibility to others, and to create it together. Speaking up and speaking out reveals health and growth. It does not negate the blessings that we have received, but is in fact a fulfillment of them, helping us to share our blessings with the world around us rather than only being concerned about ourselves and our own families. When we see the gifts of God in this way, the prophet says, we will be vindicated and called by a new name. 

What new names will we be called this year? What new role will you take on? Of course some of us listening will get new names through becoming parents or grandparents, or getting married, or gaining siblings, nieces or nephews. We might take on a new job or a new role or take up a new hobby that gives meaning to our lives. But on a deeper level, what will 2021 reveal in our lives about our passions for God’s blessings and the world’s injustice? At the beginning of 2020, I doubt that Maggie and Brittany thought they were going to become the laptop fairies, delivering laptops to kids in our community who needed them for online learning. Don and Kristy didn’t know their work of feeding hungry families would become even more crucial as kids were out of school and food insecurity worsened in our community, to the point that 40% of their families are new. Some College Parkers expanded their families unexpectedly through foster care, taking on new roles and new names for an entire family. These stories are bright spots of hope and action in a year where many of us struggled to know how to help our community. 

One of the classes I took this fall was about Womanist worship, which is centered on Alice Walker’s definition of what it means for Black women to be a Womanist. Now, as a white woman, I am not and cannot be a Womanist, but I learned a lot from the class about constructing worship services in inclusive and liberating ways. One of my main takeaways from that class had to do with hope, the persistent imaginative hope of Black women who are often not centered in our country, in our communities, and in our churches. The hope that I read about in their writings was not a far-off hazy one, but a powerful hope in and belief in liberation and flourishing. Several of the women who spoke to us throughout the class mentioned the powerful scene in Beloved by Toni Morrison where Baby Suggs calls the community children to laugh, the men to dance, and the women to cry, for each to release the feelings that they were keeping inside. It goes on to say that Baby Suggs offered them her heart, “She did not tell them to clean up their lives or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure. She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.” That’s what this scripture is calling us to as well, the idea that all of us can and should imagine a new world and experience transformation so that all can be ushered into the kingdom of heaven. We can all participate and be called something new. The revelations in our life, the ways that we remix the story of faith, are unending because God does not stop moving and working in our lives, and God continually gives us an invitation to continue moving and working and creating together. At the end of the passage, Baby Suggs blesses her community, calling on them to love their bodies, and says, Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.” Morrison’s use of grass here echoes the growth spoken of in the scripture, the growth that shows where God is at work. 

We see this also in the other lectionary text this week, the gospel reading, which is about the long and persistent hope of Anna and Simeon, two elders in the community who waited and longed for the birth of the Messiah, and who rejoiced upon seeing him. When Mary was told about Jesus’s birth earlier in Luke, she sang a beautiful song, my favorite scripture, a powerful message of justice. She said that the proud would be scattered, the humble uplifted, the hungry filled, the rich sent away empty. Simon, upon seeing Jesus, also offered praise to God: “You are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Joseph and Mary were amazed by these words. Simeon then added, just to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Did you catch how Simeon remixed Mary’s own song to her, adding to her message about the powerful falling and the lowly rising and proclaiming that Jesus would be a light to reveal God’s glory to the entire world? Did you notice that he said God’s glory won’t come without some conflict, without some speaking up and speaking out about the power structures that were keeping the community from flourishing? 

While reading these two texts, I could not help but think of Chanel Miller, the sexual assault survivor in the Stanford case. In 2016, many of us read her powerful victim impact statement and were dismayed at the lack of seriousness that the judge seemed to take by giving Brock Turner a six month sentence. In her victim impact statement, she spoke out about the injustice that she saw and experienced. Until her statement was published, she had felt alone and almost as if her life was in ruins. But speaking up and speaking out caused her to realize that so many people had been through the same thing. Her powerful message of strength and hope led the community to recall the judge when they did not feel he had provided justice in the situation. It caused her to be able to reclaim her name – no longer did she have to live simply as Emily Doe, but she felt able to share with the world who she really is. 

In the children’s Sunday School classes this winter, we are going to talk about some young people who have made change in their communities, and one of those will be Greta Thunberg. In the picture book Our House is on Fire, Jeanette Winter talks about how Greta felt invisible at school until she learned about climate change and her whole life changed. She felt compelled to speak up and speak out, to go on strike from school and demand that the lawmakers take climate change seriously (if Atticus knew that striking from school was an option, he would definitely be interested in joining her). Little by little, other kids joined her, not just in Sweden, but all over the world. She’s grateful for our world, and she is fighting to protect it. She has a focused hope, not in the adults who she feels have let her down, but in other kids just like her being able to make important change. She found her voice, even speaking at the UN, and she found a new name for herself as an activist. She was even the Time Person of the year in 2019.

This is the story that we are invited to participate in, where our voices matter and are in fact crucial to the good things growing in the Kingdom of God, where our gifts are needed, and where God is always helping us to become and be called something new. We waited during Advent for Jesus to be born, and now we work and speak and hope for the new kingdom that his birth has uncovered. How will we know when we are moving the right direction? We will look for the new fresh shoots to be springing up from the ground, signalling that God’s work is producing good fruit. Or to put it another way, as Howard Thurman says,

Now the Work of Christmas Begins . . .

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

Let me close us out with the prayer that John Darnielle shared at the end of his 2019 Twitter  benediction:  “May the traditions of this year that no longer nurtured you all die at midnight. May their memory next year and in the years to come be complex and may it grow blurry. May we persevere carrying the banner of those we could not bring with us into the full splendor of our perseverance. May we do them all proud. Long live the traditions worth living through.”

I would add, may we let the apocalypse we experienced in 2020 cause us not to close our eyes in fear but to be open to the revelations, the changes, and the learning that are still to come. May we speak up and speak out, and may we embrace the new names that God will call us in 2021. Amen.