Sermon for October 16, 2016, from by John P. Reardon
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” How odd to hear Jesus ask such a question. I’ve always assumed it to be a rhetorical question. After all, if you take Scripture as a whole, there is no doubt as to the outcome of history. God wins. Indeed, in Christ, God has already won. But what if, in the midst of his historical, earthly life, Jesus really doesn’t know? What if he is left to wonder, like the rest of us, what the human race will do with its history, and whether upon his return he will find anyone having kept faith?
As the calendar and liturgical years come to an end, it is natural for our thoughts to be directed toward ultimate things, to the end of things, to the outcome for which we hope and the outcome we fear. The readings we encounter on Sundays begin to speak more of end times, of judgment, of Christ’s Second Coming. They invite us to contemplate the ultimate meaning of history—of our personal stories and of all history. They invite us to take stock of our faith.
That is a particularly vivid challenge in this year, this most surreal of election years when so much of what has been our common life appears to be coming unraveled. In this country and throughout the world, there has been an intensification of verbal, physical, and emotional violence, a hardening of hearts and minds in which beliefs are presented as caricatures of themselves. Amplified by social media, we appear to be at one another’s throats a good deal of the time. Reflecting on the current tenor of the times in which we are living, I find myself contemplating a nearly 100- year-old poem written by William Butler Yeats after the end of the first World War, as discord was heating up in his native Ireland. He, too, found himself contemplating the idea of a Second Coming. He, too, felt that the outcome had to be framed in the form of a question.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Jeremiah tells us that the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. What a visceral image for the ways in which one generation seems only to benefit from its negative actions while future generations are stunned when the bill comes due. Whether it is the cycle of war, terrorism, and other forms of violence, the increasing fragility of our environment in the face of our demands, or the pent-up rage of people on the short end of things—the economically destitute, people discriminated against due to race, gender, or sexuality, or people who feel their familiar culture and mores slipping away and hear themselves accused of bigotry for espousing beliefs that were considered common sense when they were growing up—our world is finally vexed to nightmare by the rocking cradle of injustice, and we all find our teeth set on edge.
In the cacophony of angry voices trying to make sense of their grievances, it is hardly surprising that, as Saint Paul tells Timothy, we have arrived at a time when people coming from multiple perspectives and experiences are no longer able to put up with sound doctrine and wander away to explanatory myths spun by would-be demagogues who know how to tickle people’s ears. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
In this painful context, it is vitally important to hear the encouragement today’s Scripture readings offer us, cheering us on to pray always and never to lose heart. Jeremiah tells us that God is at work in all the messiness of human history, even ascribing negative events and destruction to God’s overall purpose would-ber away what has gone bad and to plant anew. Jeremiah tells us of God’s purpose—not just the restoration of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but the full restoration of both the Southern and the Northern Kingdoms. No dream is too big for God.
Jesus tells us of a tough and determined widow who will not quit until justice is done for her. To be a widow in Biblical times was to be utterly vulnerable and helpless, dependent on the protection and care of others. The Torah commanded special care for widows. But the world often does not conduct itself according to divine precepts, and this widow’s fate lies in the hands of a corrupt judge who has no regard for God or for other people. But even if that judge cannot be inspired, he can be worn down by persistence. If the persistence of a powerless widow can get results from a corrupt judge, how much more can our constant return to prayer, alone and together, accomplish, when the God to whom we pray is the very one who cares for us and has chosen us to live in God’s Kingdom and to accomplish God’s work in the world? This is the God who, the Psalmist tells us, neither slumbers nor sleeps.
Returning again and again to prayer, we can find the strength to steer clear of the temptation to become one more loud voice in an ongoing squabble. We are able to persist, in a spirit of patience, in the holy work of convincing, rebuking, encouraging, and teaching, not our own views or agendas, but the truths of God’s reign that manifest themselves through Scripture. And we can hear and respond to God’s voice speaking to us through the voices of those who, like the widow in today’s Gospel story, do not give up demanding justice.
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? Of that there is no doubt. As we know, God wins. But will he find your faith? Will he find my faith? He will if we follow the example of this poor widow and pray always, never losing heart.