At the Brink of Times

Goodshepherd- Catacomb of Callixtus - Cimitero di Callixtus, Rome VanderbiltThere’s a dizzying, apocalyptic feeling in the air, in the wake of this election. And it does feel like a wake.  Our expectations, the predictions of pollsters, the urgent, dire, denunciatory final weeks of the campaign have all died away, and we are suddenly faced with a reality no one expected.

What now? is the question at which everyone is grasping.

And the gospel reading echoes all this. It’s the last Sunday of the year cycle, and we are facing Advent. The reading is always apocalyptic at the last Sunday, echoing the thought that, into the worst of times, the Messiah will be born.

This year we are reading the brief conversation Jesus held on the cross with the thieves beside him. One understood Jesus was innocent, and the other saw himself as the victim. And Jesus said, “You will be with me this day in Paradise.”

Traditionally we read this as a promise only to the fellow who understood rightly what was going on, and that not he, but Jesus, was innocent. And we read this as a warning to us to be that wise about ourselves and about our situation.

But really this tradition does not gibe with Jesus’ frequent assertions that he has come for everyone, that he will raise all people to himself. Not just the penitent, not only Christians. Not specially the churched, and above all, not the virtuous. Paradise is not a reward for good behavior. It is God’s gift, made in love.

The election campaign became a contest of denunciations, a shouting match of condemnations. But that has nothing to do with the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus’ presence on the cross attests. No, the issue is not that some belong on the cross but Jesus does not. The issue is that even the lowest of the low, even the vilest of the vile, even the despised, the anguished, the crucified, are part of the ‘all’ whom Jesus will raise.

Jesus has made his way through all the sordid and ignoble quarters in which humans suffer: lepers, the poor, shady taxmen, prostitutes, adulterers, the chronically ill, the lame and blind, and the towers of the very rich (another sordid quarter), the doubts of the highly educated that afflict their peace, the lost souls of this world. The cross is yet another sordid quarter. Jesus is not there to separate the sheep from the goats, but to embrace even these goats.

I’ve just been in Rome, with the always engaging Harvey Cox, who kept asking the question, Why in heaven’s name have we carved the Last Judgment over the doors of the churches? What are we saying about the gospel? And is what we are saying true?

The campaign, and the reading on the last Sunday, Reign of Christ Sunday, ask us the same question: why do we interpret everything as a judgment, rather than as a raising of the world from all its hellishness into a moment of heaven?

Now I am as stunned, by turns as mournful and as robotic, as the next person in the all-blue American northeast, in the wake of Trump’s win.

But this moment may in fact not cast us all into hell. Nor might a Clinton win have been the gateway to the heaven we hoped for.

My heart rises to see the protests in the streets, people asserting their values in the face of Trump’s ugly rhetoric, insisting they will not let America come to be that ugly.

And I expect we will all be called to the duty of public demonstration during the next four years, to try to save the Sioux lands, our national parks, our water and air, Oklahoma’s quaking ground, the rights of women, immigrants, black citizens. But heaven will hold us, all of us, in all of this. For even Donald Trump is a child of God.

A wise commentator, a Latina woman whose name I have lost, said this week, The media took Trump literally but not seriously. But those who elected him took him seriously but not literally.

We do know that reading the Bible literally is errant, and causes much harm, allowing us the false belief that the Bible is a book of rules, rules that let us control and predict the blessing of God.

And, dear God, we can also falsely assess  human beings by being too literal, just as we falsely assess God. Even Donald Trump, whose advent makes us quake in our boots.

Trump is clearly no Messiah. He has avowed that he has no respect for suffering. But neither is he the anti-Christ. He is not beyond becoming an agent of God’s will for this world. In moments that may surprise us, when we least expect them, and in moments to which we may lead him by raising our voices in the streets, Trump may be a good man.

So we are not lost. Indeed, even in this moment, in what feels like a dire situation, faced with terrific losses, we are known and found. Surely you will be with me in Paradise is spoken for us all. For both thieves. Because God’s grace is not earned, but given, and not given to some, but to all. As Jesus said, the blessings of God, like rain, fall on the just and the unjust.

Over our church doors, then, as our image of welcome, should be the Good Shepherd, carrying the lost sheep, not judging them but saving them. For we shall all be found, and come home, at last, in the world in which god is always waiting to be born.
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Image: Good Shepherd. Catacomb of Callixtus, Cimitero di Callixtus, Rome, Italy. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.