First preached on November 17, 2019, at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Logan Square.
Relevant lectionary readings here.
The tension is building, things are starting to really ramp up in the lectionary readings this week. The past two weeks we have been spending time contemplating endings and beginnings; remembering the saints of the past, present and future, reflecting on life and the afterlife.
And this week we have several readings about the intensity of the end times. There’s wars and drought and famine. There’s powerful liars and natural disasters. When we read these apocalyptic parts of scripture, we can practically draw direct lines to our own international headlines. With the global climate catastrophe already upon us, mass extinction happening rapidly, and ocean levels and temperatures rising, it is not hard to imagine a world on fire. Climate refugees coming to our borders are telling us of famine, saying, “We left home because food won’t grow there anymore.” There are plenty of wars, on many fronts. In fact, there are people in our country who are now old enough to vote who have never known a time when the United States wasn’t at war with Afghanistan. There are coups, violent fascist powers are on the rise here and abroad. There are righteous uprisings, too, for liberation, that because of intense political repression nonetheless result in the loss of life. And throughout all of this, the political elite continue to lie to the common people, telling us that they are on our side while cutting back door deals with the uber wealthy.
If we look around, if we see the signs, if we pay attention, we might notice that worlds are ending and beginning all the time. The end times are happening all around us. And these end time texts today are blunt. They are honest…full of both terror and promise.
I know that my initial reading of the Malachi text in particular bumped up against still tender parts of me. These apocalyptic Hebrew Bible texts talk about God sending a cleansing, refining fire. Those of us who are LGTBQIA+ have been told that we are wicked and have been threatened with the fires of hell time and time again. And as we approach the Trans Day of Remembrance this week where we remember our trans siblings – mostly Black trans women – who have been killed by violence in the past year, we don’t have to look very far to see that some of us are already unjustly experiencing hell on earth.
And so it is so important to me to say very clearly, especially to my queerly beloved, that we are not going to burn in hell. This fire is not that kind of fire. Our identity is not some hideous part of us that is offensive to God and needs to be burned away. Instead, in these end time fires, God will be burning away all the wicked things within and without that keep us powerless and divided – things like white supremacy, queer antagonism, hetero-sexism, transphobia, and perhaps most importantly, our own lingering internalized self hatred – so that once these systems are burned away, our truest selves, beloved by God, can rise up from the ashes and be carried up towards the sun.
Queer people, trans people in particular, have a lot to teach the Church about rising up from the ashes and soaring towards new beginnings.
Actually, queer people have a lot to teach the Church about a lot of Biblical principles. Jesus warns us today that by following Jesus we are subject to all kinds of threats of danger. By radically loving God, loving our neighbor, loving ourselves, we are likely to suffer the betrayal of those close to us, like siblings and parents, relatives and friends. Many in our community have walked this road before, facing rejection on various levels from people we hold dear. And as a result and means of survival, LGTBQIA+ people have formed what is often called “families of choice,” a queer principle that – not unlike certain Christian ideas about community and baptism – where it is not bloodline that connects us as family, but things like our values, our identities, our shared experiences.
Oppressed people of all kinds know that under the crush of Empire and brutal systems that the only way that any of us have a prayer of making it through is if we all pitch in and give what we have.
Which brings us to the reading in Thesalonians today. When we read sentences like, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” in our modern context of late stage capitalism, this phrase can bring up images of the mythical, so-called Welfare Queen. This racialized trope conjures up a derogatory figure of the Black single mother who leeches money away from hard-working coded white citizens by abusing government assistance to fund her own self-destructive behaviors. This stereotype, made popular by conservative politicians in campaign rallies of the late 70s and 80s, has been thoroughly debunked, of course. In fact, we know that people who depend on public housing or SNAP benefits are actually in situations of great need, and fraud or abuse of government services is minuscule. But that doesn’t make the damaging power of the idea of the Welfare Queen in popular imagination any less real. And this idea persists; that there are lazy people out there who just want to mooch off of others and take advantage of them. And that those people do not deserve basic human rights.
The thing is, though, that the writer of 2 Thessalonians was not living under late stage capitalism in the US or watching campaign speeches during the Reagan era. The writer of 2 Thessalonians, as part of the early Church, was more likely engaged in underground communities with no concept of private property, where all was shared in common. And in the broader context of scripture which makes multiple, ongoing provisions for social safety nets for the poor, using verses like this one to shame those trapped in systems of poverty is not at all a faithful interpretation.
So outside of capitalistic definitions of “work,” how might we understand these verses in 2 Thessalonians about those who refuse to contribute? We might look again to other epistles, where letter writers admonish communities where the wealthy had gathered for communion and eaten up all the food before those trapped in poverty could even arrive. In that case, we might look instead to people and corporations who make their wealth on the backs of exploited workers and refuse to give their fair share. These people are not toiling to survive, they often aren’t working at all, but using money to make money while others suffer and struggle.
We could conceptualize “work,” too, as the important internal reflective work we are all called to do in our journeys of healing. Many of us have people in our lives who harmed us, and so then we end up doing extra work in therapy to recover from the hurt they caused while they themselves refuse to go and do that work. Their refusal to be held accountable, their unwillingness to do the work that rightly belongs to them, means that others have to unfairly pick up the slack.
We might also think of “work” in the sense of the justice work we are called by Christ to pursue. In fact, in organizing circles I often hear people talk about, “doing the work.” This type of work is completely different than toil or labor under capitalism. But in the United States, we often see, for example, white people who refuse to do the work of anti-racism but still insist on benefitting from the labor and culture of people of color. There are people who want the perks of a utopian post-racial world without doing the work of restitution through things like reparations and land repatriation.
In light of the Trans Day of Remembrance this week, where we remember transgender people in the last year who have been killed by violence, I think also about cisgender people who have not done the “work” of learning the true names and pronouns of the trans people they claim to love, but still want the blessing of being in relationship with their loved one without doing even this most basic work.
The fact is, we all have work to do. Myself most of all. How often have I looked around in my faith communities and my neighborhood and scornfully said, “Someone should really do X,” without putting my own energy and time behind it? I, like many other nice white progressives, are often all talk and no action. I criticize Jeff Bezos for being a greedy billionaire, and rightfully so, but those Amazon Prime packages still come to my mailbox because its convenient, and I am idle when it comes to doing the work of finding a different, more collective and less materialistic way to live. But the fact is that Malachi, Jesus, and the author of Thessalonians are all telling us that we are running out of time here, that the end times are here and now, that this message is urgent. There is so much work to do, work that needs all hands on deck, stat.
And this work in the meantime, God’s work for us, is no joke. Jesus is chillingly serious in our Gospel reading today. If we are honestly truly doing God’s work, powers that be will inevitably rush to silence us. We will be cast out by our religious communities and beaten by the government and arrested and imprisoned and even killed. It might feel like the end of the world.
Praise God that we have a savior who knows this road well. The words that Jesus says today about the end times are a mere ONE CHAPTER away from his arrest. In fact, it’s his threat of the destruction of the temple, the threat of destruction of property in our reading today that puts the religious aristocracy and the Roman Empire over the edge and they plot to execute him. Jesus knows what faithfulness in the face of empire leads to. God is with us and God is not asking us to do anything that God has not done, that God does not continue to do. And in the midst of all of the danger, in the same breath that Jesus says we might be killed, he also promises that not a hair on our heads will perish. The reality of persecution when we live radically and faithfully is real, but so are the promises of God, who is more powerful and more everlasting than any earthly empire.
Thanks be to God.