1905 there was a very passionate young librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library who worked as the superintendent of children’s department. With much conviction, she came to her supervisor one day with the request that the books The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer be removed from the children’s library because of the characters’ “coarseness, deceitfulness and mischievous practices.”
Her boss, troubled by the prospect of making a move to keep these books out of the hands of children, wrote a letter alerting Samuel Clemens—the author we know as Mark Twain—that efforts were underway to ban his books from children at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Clemens immediately wrote back, tongue in cheek: “The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave. If there is an unexpurgated [Bible] in the Children’s Department, won’t you please help that young woman remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship? Sincerely yours,
S. L. Clemens”
The books did not, in the end, get banned from the children’s division of the Brooklyn Public Library. And Samuel Clemens had a point. The Bible is full of passages we probably wouldn’t want to read to our children right before they go to bed at night. Today’s gospel lesson from Luke’s gospel can probably be counted in that category.
As you may know, in order to offer some discipline to our worship life and tie our community to the larger community of Christians around the world, around here we follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of passages assigned for every Sunday. And in the lectionary, today’s assigned gospel passage is Luke 21:5-19.
Several weeks ago when I looked at the passage, which talks about deceitful leaders and insurrections and plagues and arrests and persecutions and being betrayed by parents and siblings and friends and getting hauled in and persecuted and killed by the government, I thought: “Well, this will preach during stewardship season!”
See, we’re in the middle of a three-week series we’re calling Grateful, thinking about the gift of this community and how it is we live faithfully in this place, investing our lives and our resources so that we may become people who live boldly in a world that teaches us to close our hands and our hearts and give into the narrative of fear all around us. But we’ve been given this gospel lesson for today, so there must be a message for us here somewhere. Let’s take a look.
A version of this story is found also in Mark’s gospel, and in both of these accounts, Jesus, who is increasingly frustrated with religious leadership who couldn’t or wouldn’t seem to get his message of radical love for all people, encounters outside the temple a little group of folks discussing the building. You know what they say: that most of church business happens after the business meeting in the parking lot. So anyway, they were standing around in a little group, pointing out some of the fancy adornments on the temple building, exclaiming over the beautiful stones Herod had used to renovate the temple not long before.
And overhearing their conversation, Jesus challenged them. He said to them: “You do know, don’t you, that there will come a day when this building doesn’t even exist anymore.”
“What are you talking about? When is this going to happen? What are we going to do?,” they asked, stunned. And then Jesus said, “But this? This is nothing.” And he started talking about terrible things. Wars, insurrections, nations rising against nations…well, you heard it. It reads almost like a litany of horrible things, scary things, things you’d never want to read to your children before bedtime.
Our gospel passage from Luke today is commonly known to scholars by the title “Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple,” but if that’s what Jesus is really doing here, then we have to ask ourselves why Luke would sit down to write his memoir, memories of life with Jesus, decades later and after the destruction of the temple—which did, in fact, happen before he was writing…but would still choose to include this little scene.
Maybe Luke put it in so we would know that Jesus could tell the future?
Maybe. But…probably not.
Recall Luke was writing to the first Christians, little communities that faced hardship beyond imagining; had lost most of their material possessions and social status; and were oppressed by a government that had begun to kill them for what they believed. Because of that I have to think that this passage isn’t included to solidify Jesus’ credentials as a fortune teller.
This passage is here because Jesus, and Luke, knew that the witness of people of faith could not be eliminated, even by the destruction of the temple. What would, however, destroy them…was fear.
Look at the progression here. The group Jesus ran into in the temple was concerned about preserving the stones and beautiful adornments all around them. They were afraid of losing the physical place that represented their faith. The fear that motivated their conversation was about the trappings of faith.
But when Jesus interrupted the group, he seemed to be saying to them—yeah, that’s scary. But there’s a lot more than that to be afraid of. You are afraid of losing all the outward trappings of your faith, but you don’t even know that what is really at risk is losing the substance of your faith.
In essence, “Look up, people! Lift up your heads and look around at what is going on. Tear your myopic and fear-filled inward-focused gaze to the world around you. Things are bad out here, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the temple building and whether the stones are pretty. It has to do with the fact that the message that can heal our world is offensive, and it makes people mad. People don’t like it when you tell them to love their enemies and give away their possessions and welcome strangers. And when you preach and live that message, the world around you is going to get really scary, really fast. You want to talk about fear? Sure you’re afraid to lose the trappings of your faith, but here’s what’s worse: losing the substance of your faith.”
“Whatever you’re afraid of, most of all…don’t give into the fear. No matter what you do, don’t let fear narrate the story of your faith community. That’s your work: not worrying about losing the outward dressing of your faith…or even facing the kind of abuse and persecution you’ll face if you keep the substance of your faith strong.”
Your real work here is to push back hard against the fear.
Because you can survive a lot of things: the destruction of the temple, persecution, corrupt leaders, betrayal by friends and family, wars and insurrections, injustice all around…you can survive all of that and by your endurance you will gain your souls.
But if you give into fear of any kind…it will destroy you.
The Jews in Jerusalem that worried about the preservation of the temple needed to hear Jesus’ message about fear.
The first Christians, decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection and facing oppression, persecution, and death, needed to hear Luke’s message about fear.
And maybe this week, we need to hear our holy scripture’s message about fear, too.
Don’t we wish we could have a softer passage this week, one with a nice ending where everything is okay? Don’t we wish we could move this one right out of the library?
Friends, Jesus isn’t saying here that everything will be okay in the end. He is saying that what we think will destroy us…and all of us can name any number of things, anything from low interest returns on the church endowment to a country fundamentally unwilling to face its misogyny, racism, and love of empire…those things, though troubling, will not destroy us.
What will destroy us…is fear.
From the time I can remember, every time something big happened in our family, my Dad would go into the living room and call out, “Kids! Family meeting! Get in here for a family meeting!”
Whenever we got summoned to a family meeting, we knew that something big had happened. Sometimes the news was something terrible—someone we loved was very sick or there had been an accident and someone had died. My cousin Keith, I remember especially.
Sometimes we were lined up in a row until we told the truth about who had caught a frog and put it in the mailbox, terrorizing the mailman.
A couple of times I can remember, we learned our little sibling band of three would soon be four…and then four, five.
Whatever the issue at hand, when Dad called a family meeting, we knew it was serious. We knew that whatever it was our parents were going to talk with us about, it would be the beginning of change, of a new way of being a family together.
This week the United States elected a president that many of us did not expect our country would elect. During his campaign he represented values and ideals that directly conflict with what we hold dearest as Christians: an ethic of radical love. Perhaps some of you were shaken by this news and realize that it signifies the beginning of a change.
A big change.
So I think it’s only appropriate this Sunday, as we’re thinking about the gratitude we share for this justice making community, that we call a little family meeting.
Okay, a big one.
Riverside Church, on Tuesday night, the way we live as family together…changed.
The high profile, historically progressive witness of this church suddenly shifted focus. Friends, things are about to change.
Here’s what I mean:
On Tuesday the foundations of our life together moved from the occasionally radical exercise of an institution steeped in establishment, a place we have rested for many years…to a platform of protest, agitation, and prophetic witness on a level that perhaps few of us can even begin to imagine.
If policies and practices that hurt our poor, LGBTQ, immigrant, Muslim, black, or any other of our vulnerable neighbors begin to take actual effect in our life together as a country—as it seems they are already beginning to do—then we will increasingly be called upon to live in new and more radical ways as a bright light in a sea of darkness; as a voice calling for righteousness and love; as a gathering place and organizing point for people who stand up together and say,
“No! These things cannot happen, and as long as we have breath in our bodies, and as long as The Riverside Church exists in any expression, we will speak truth to power, we will protect and defend the weakest among us, and we will not give in to what will destroy us. We will not give into fear.”
If we determine as a family of faith, a gospel community, that we are going to live this way, then we’d better be prepared to hear Jesus’ words less as scary material we wouldn’t want to read to our children and more as a call to bold faith and deep commitment to tending the flame of this witness. When the really scary stuff goes down, and it will, let us remember that the gift of exiting the establishment and becoming a true community of protest is that we have now, perhaps more than ever before, an opportunity to testify as Jesus said to radical love and righteousness, to goodness and faith and justice and peace in ways we never have before.
Founding pastor of this church, Harry Emerson Fosdick, wrote the great hymn of the church that we sing often. You remember the words: “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. Let the gift of your salvation be our glory ever more. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.”
This prayer is in the very DNA of this church. And so, as we face the future together:
We will speak up.
We will protect our neighbors.
We will insist on righteousness and justice and truth.
We will live the radical love of Jesus here in this place and beyond these walls.
We will walk boldly into the future of our shared life together with open hands and open hearts and more courage than we ever suspected we might summon.
And now, more than ever before, we will absolutely, categorically reject fear, because it is fear more than any other troubling thing that will, if we let it, destroy us.
Many wise leaders have reminded us that we really begin to live when we can finally find something to die for. Perhaps this week, we have found it.