Things Take the Time they Take

 

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I

On Veterans Sunday, we honor the serving members of the armed forces. On Veterans Sunday we also confess our hypocrisy, for we praise these men and women while on the battlefront and ignore them when they return home with bodies broken and minds scarred.

Throughout the British Commonwealth, this is Remembrance Sunday. Both Veterans and Remembrance Days originate in Armistice Day, the day when in 1918 at the 11th hour of the 11th day, of the 11th month, the guns on the Western Front fell silent. It was to be the war to end all wars. This was a hope unrealized. A hope added to a long list of broken dreams. Across the globe, nations will remember their war dead with these solemn words from the third stanza of Robert Lawrence Binyon’s poem: For the Fallen.

For they shall not grow old and we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.

On Armistice Day in 1918, the first rector of St Martin’s, Dr. Washburn celebrated the Eucharist in France where he was serving as a chaplain in the American Expeditionary Force. The significance of the day for Dr. Washburn lay not only in its contemporaneous importance but also because it was Martin’s Day -the feast day of the St Martin of Tours, our patron saint. He wrote home to the Vestry of his feelings on this day and we have his letter in our archives.

II

In the hymnal we find at number 591 the words:

O God of earth and altar bow down and hear our cry. Our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die. The walls of gold entomb us, the sword of scorn divides. Take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.

So begins the first stanza of a poem penned by G.K. Chesterton in 1906. Following a meeting of the Church Socialist League in 1912 the delegates marched on Lambeth Palace with a petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury. They marched through central London and across Lambeth Bridge singing the words of Chesterton’s poem to the tune of Kings Lynn.

This was a particularly difficult time in British national life. The Christian Socialists[1] marched against the background of viral militarist jingoism gripping the national imagination as the arms race with Germany intensified. They marched against the backdrop of deep labor agitation with a national coal miners strike in progress. The prospect of civil war was suggested as a solution to the nation’s ills. The First World War was welcomed by many in the Establishment because it provided the opportunity to cleanse the bloodlines of the nation – as Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London -proclaimed on the eve of war in 1914.

G.K. Chesterton came late to Christianity and only became a Roman Catholic in 1922. He came from the Left and is reported to have said that:

the only alternative to being a Socialist was not being a Socialist- and not being a socialist was a perfectly ghastly thing. It meant being a small headed and sneering snob, who grumbled at the rates (property taxes) and the working-classes.[2]

The words seem both quaint and yet poignant for us living in another time and national context. O God of earth and altar rang out through the tumultuous years leading up to the First World War. These words continued to inspire the Christian Left during the tensions of the interwar years . They remind us that our own time of tumult is not unprecedented within living memory. The powerful and polarizing sentiments that suggest civil war as a solution to the ills that besiege us, is I fear, not far from some people’s minds.

We have been living through a period of increasing national polarization during which confidence in the integrity and functionality of our democratic institutions has been called into question.  Contempt for democracy and the Constitution has marked the very party that claims superior allegiance to the Constitution on the floors of both the Senate and the House. The recent election evidences at least, the integrity of the electoral process.

We can all take heart from this. The fact that a candidate for the presidency can win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College is a perennial complexity of the American system. Yet it is not an indication of any deficit in the democratic integrity of our electoral process. Therefore, we echo Mrs. Clinton, President Obama, and Bishop Knisely when we call upon all to respect the outcome and now to pray for the President Elect.

III

Mr. Trump seems now to be something of a blank canvas as we wait to see how the campaigning Trump transforms into the presidential Trump. Shakespeare reminds us that:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.

I despise the way Mr. Trump campaigned. As I mentioned last week, his style of campaigning has unleashed dark forces into civic consciousness that will be hard to banish back into our collective unconsciousness. Yet he won on the promise of a real departure from business as usual in the corridors and chambers of political power. Many of us are still struggling with our grief and fear. Yet, whether as supporters or detractors, we all find common cause in earnestly desiring an end to our political culture of fiddling while Rome burns. Whether or not our hopes are fulfilled, time will tell.

IV

In her poem Don’t Worry Mary Oliver pens:

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.

Oliver’s words bring an important nuance to Jesus’ words of dire prediction in Luke 21 in which he confronts his disciples as they marvel at the grandeur and beauty of the Second Temple, a source of great national pride for them. Jesus’ words cut them off at the knees – as it were, as he warns them of the Temple’s eventual destruction accompanied by complete social breakdown – a prediction that must have seemed inconceivable to them.

Within the prediction of calamitous events of social and environmental collapse Jesus tells us that the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God will take the time it takes and we are not to worry about that – frustrating, even frightening, certainly disappointing for us though this may be.

Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple and with it the last semblances of a Jewish Nation. Luke records Jesus’ prophecy from the other side of the actual historical experience. It is tempting to draw parallels between this period and our own national situation in the second decade of the 21st century.

Mid to late 1st Century Jewish society had fragmented into conflicting factions -violently opposed to one another because of their disagreement over how to respond to increasing Roman oppression. As the increasing impossibility for religious accommodation to the political order mounted, different groups found different solutions[3].

Instead of Roman Oppression, today we divide along similar lines in response to a new imperialism of globalization with its propensity to favor technology and transnational capital flow over the human and societal interests of labor.

We have an urgent need to learn how to walk in one another’s shoes. Our differences reflect the way our own personal experience colors the way we see the world. Personally, I find the best way to do this, is, to be honest about what scares me and to invite others to do likewise. We all fear the experience of  the underdog in a culture where abundance is masked by anxiety and a general assumption of scarcity. Hense the rich get richer while everyone else stagnates if not become poorer in real terms. We all fear being oppressed and discriminated against by the imposition of someone else’s rulebook.

Consequently, there is an underdog experience somewhere in all our lives. We hide from this experience by uber-dogging one another. What if we begin to relate to one another across the seeming chasms that divide us with the assumption that what unites us is the shared underdog experience?

V

Despite the time it takes, Jesus’ message is that the Kingdom even when it is attended by the rumor of war, civil conflict, and familial betrayals, is one of assurance for God is a God of liberation –I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt– and his purposes cannot long be delayed.

In the meantime, we have work to do as we daily fulfill the five promises of our Baptismal Covenant. These commit us to redouble our fight for justice, equality, and freedom from the oppressions of racism, homophobia, and misogyny. In the meantime, let’s hope Mr. Trump does mean what he says about breaking open the Washington logjam by challenging the corruption of political and vested interest privilege. If he does this we might hear Jesus speaking through Mary Oliver’s words:

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry! How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine? 

So we pray for President Elect Trump. We pray that God will shape him in new ways as he takes on the mantle of leadership. As we do so we continue to sing songs of expectation, marching to the promised land!

[1] Americans need to be reminded that British Socialism grew not from the root of Marxism but from the Gospel imperatives as championed by Christians especially Methodism and other ‘Non-Conformist Protestant Traditions and by Anglo-Catholicism within the Church of England.

[2] Cited by Christopher Howse writing in the Telegraph, Sept 12th 2015

[3] The Essenes retreated into wilderness regions where they kept a strict separation from everything outside their communities, hunkering down to wait for the end-times. The Zealots took up armed conflict and took the fight to the Romans, at one point driving them from Jerusalem for a period of time. The Sicarii carried out street-level guerilla warfare assassinating Roman officials and Jewish collaborators. The Sadducees, the ultimate accommodationist party, fared poorly at the hands of the Zealots. The Pharisees suffered also as their ability to hold a middle way of fidelity to God and obedience to civil authority became less and less tenable. Those who did not take up arms found solace in an apocalyptic vision of their present suffering portrayed in future language and images of the immense final conflict that would usher in the reign of God and the vindication of the persecuted.

 

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