Life in the apocalypse | 13 November 2016

Text: Luke 21:5-19

So first of all, a bit of an explanation why we read from Luke 21 when the bulletin says Mark 1.  With Ted Swartz performing Laughter is Sacred Space this evening, we planned for worship this morning to address a similar theme of mental health.  Out of the many appropriate stories from scripture, I selected Mark 1, Jesus healing a man with leprosy.  There are lots of connections between the stigmas and social isolation of leprosy and mental illness.

But the lectionary gospel for this week is Luke 21.  And while it didn’t initially feel like it fit with our emphasis, the more the week unfolded, the more I was haunted by this passage.  And the more I valued the solidarity that comes with reading the same gospel passage that other Christians around the world are meditating on this morning.  So that’s what we’re going with.  And it will tie back in with mental health.

These are words from today’s lectionary gospel reading.  “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say ‘I am he.’”  “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”  “They will arrest you, and persecute you.”  “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends.”

If someone were to select this passage on their own to read after this past week of all weeks I’d say they were being a little over the top.  Maybe the ecumenical committee that sat down in the mid-1980’s to create the Revised Common Lectionary knew that every so often the placement of this passage would coincide with the Sunday after an election in the United States.  Maybe that was the furthest thing from their mind.  Either way, preachers of this text today at least have the excuse that the lectionary made me do it.

It’s a passage known as the “synoptic apocalypse.”  Each of the three Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke — contain their own version of Jesus’ sobering words uttered in his final days.  They were spoken, of course, not to 21st century Americans, but to 1st century Palestinian Jews, and written down by the gospel writers right at the time these very events were unfolding.  In 70 AD the Romans marched on Jerusalem to put down a Jewish rebellion.  They destroyed the second temple, and in doing so, destroyed the primary meaning making structure of an entire people.  It was the end of the world as they knew it, to quote an REM song also a product of the mid-80’s.

And apocalypse has come to mean just that.  The end of the world.

But that’s not what the word originally meant.  It’s a Greek word, the language of the Christian testament, and it means unveiling, or revealing.  That’s why the most apocalyptic apocalypse of them all, Revelation, is called Revelation.  An apocalypse reveals something that had been hidden.  It pulls away the veil, removes the illusions, and shows reality for what it is.  And it’s not always pretty.

Luke’s apocalypse, like that of Matthew and Mark, begins with something quite beautiful.  The disciples are marveling at the beauty of the temple.  And it was, indeed a marvel.  Decades of remodeling and expansion under the direction of King Herod made it the jewel of Jerusalem.  The first century Jewish historian Josephus writes almost poetically about it: “The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye.  For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays”  (Josephus, The Jewish War, 5:222).

And so just as the disciples are mesmerized with all this, Jesus goes apocalyptic on them.  To put it another way, the disciples were focused on something beautiful, solid, and enduring.  And Jesus pulled away a veil, and revealed a fuller picture.  And it’s a sobering picture of violence, fragility, and upheaval.

I so do not want to fall into the ditch of partisan politics or sensationalism, but I want to name that the election of our next President has been apocalyptic.  It has unveiled some things that not many people had fully recognized.  There are a large amount of people in our country so utterly discontent, that they were compelled to vote for someone who has essentially pledged the end of the world as we know it.  More or less.  And the full package of this is a person who has spoken openly and unapologetically against many different groups of people.

On Wednesday several of us were a part of an evening gathering outside the statehouse.  We heard tear filled laments from a number of local university students whose parents immigrated to this country, bringing them as children, without documentation, a status they still bear.  They are terrified for their future.

This week I sat down with a young African American youth pastor trying to come to grips with what to say to his youth.  At the same table was a middle aged white pastor who said his young adult daughter had just enrolled in a self-defense class.

I know we are not all of the same mind politically, thank God, but this week I have spoken with a number of you who are in various states of shock, sadness, fear, and anxiety.  Or, as one of you observed, various points around the stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression.  Not quite ready for acceptance.

I’ve also heard something else this week that’s caught my attention.  People from at least five non-overlapping spheres of life have told me they feel the need to know more about what Mennonite experience has to contribute to all this – both as a peace church that takes seriously the counter-cultural teachings of Jesus.  Mark noted to me that one of his fellow MTSO seminary grads posted that we may need to be re-teaching our young people about conscientious objection.

So I want to offer a story this morning that sits at the intersection of these concerns and the mental health focus for today.

It happened back in the 1940’s, one of those points in history when nation was rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom.  During World War II there were over 45,000 people who registered and qualified as conscientious objectors, unwilling to kill.  They represented over 100 religions, but over half were from traditional peace churches – Quakers, Brethren, and Mennonites.  About half of the conscientious objectors served noncombatant roles in the military, such as medics who didn’t carry a gun.  Others were assigned to “work of national importance” within the country.  Fighting fires, building public works, having medical experiments done on them.  About 3000 served in mental hospitals.

And those serving in the mental institutions had an apocalyptic experience.  What was unveiled in front of their eyes was the awful conditions within those places:  severely overcrowded, men with no clothes, sitting in their own filth.  Violence.  Patients being violent toward one another without intervention from staff, and staff brutalizing patients in order to control them.

And these COs, after getting over the initial shock, began to contribute gestures of humanity, in an inhumane situation.  They had no training for psychiatric care, but learned quickly that patients were less violent when treated with respect.  One anecdote, told by the chairman of the War Resisters League, goes like this:  “One objector assigned to a violent ward refused to take the broomstick offered by the Charge. When he entered the ward the patients crowded around asking, “Where is your broomstick?” He said he thought he would not need it. “But suppose some of us gang up on you?” The CO guessed they wouldn’t do that and started talking about other things. Within a few days the patients were seen gathering around the unarmed attendant telling him of their troubles. He felt much safer than the Charge who had only his broomstick for company.”

Beyond this, the CO’s felt compelled to reveal the awful conditions to the public.  First sneaking a camera into one of the facilities, leading to a May 1946 issue of Life magazine publishing photos and stories from inside the mental hospitals, eventually leading to reform.  A number of these conscientious objectors continued their whole lives to champion community mental health care that addresses the needs of the whole person.

I don’t mean to elevate this as a heroic story of people changing the world.  I think a much more helpful way of seeing it is as a group of people who committed themselves to being human in inhumane circumstances.  For the health and survival of their own integrity, and for the well being of those they were asked to serve.

And this is where the truly apocalyptic begins to take full form.  When the veil is lifted, and the closed doors opened, what it reveals is not always pretty.  It can be downright terrifying.  But the Christian notion of apocalyptic goes beyond this.  Because it keeps unveiling, and keeps revealing, until finally we’re able to see the good, the true, the beautiful that we weren’t able to previously see.  It circles back to the beautiful, that initially blinded the disciples.

The Synoptic apocalypses climax not in the destruction of the world, but in the coming of the Son of Man.  One interpretation of this is that this points to the end of history, the Second Coming of Christ, the consummation of creation.  That may be the case some day, but another dimension is to recognize that Son of Man simply means “The Human One.”  The coming of the true human being.  Apocalypse reveals the darkest corners of our collective humanity, but it also can reveal our deepest, best, most Divine humanity.  Our self that is truest to who we have been created to be.

Jesus, the Human One, blurs those lines between the human and the Divine and invites and empowers us into a similar pattern of existence.  The coming of the Human Being, who lives humanly despite inhuman conditions.  Like relating to someone with a conversation rather than a broom stick.

And so may I be so bold as to say that the apocalypse is now.  And it’s not a particularly bold statement because the apocalypse, the unveling, is always happening in a post cross and resurrection world.  There are just times when we have the opportunity to see more clearly.  And resolve more firmly that we belong to God, and that we belong to each other.

It’s likely that those of us with mental health challenges, or who live with those who struggle with mental health, already know all about apocalypse.  The end of worlds as we thought we knew them.  The need to hold on to something deeper than the illness, to find the core of humanity in oneself and the other to love.

And so these are the times we live in.  When the church is at its best, it has risen to the occasion, and been a witness to the Coming of the Human One pressing in on history.