November 27- sermon- Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text...


November 27, 2022                                      Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

Matthew 24:36-44                                         The Federated Church, UCC


     One of the joys of my boyhood was sports, including Little League baseball. My coaches used to regularly exhort my teammates and me to be prepared for whatever might come our way. If I were in the outfield, I was not to pick dandelions or watch the bugs in the grass! No: lean forward, look around, watch the batter carefully, know how many outs there are, anticipate where the ball might go, be aware of who was on base and where you might throw it if the ball came to you. At the heart of my coaches’ advice was the admonition to be ready.


     I think of those coaches and their advice when I read today’s passage of scripture. Jesus is speaking to the disciples about something they couldn’t possibly conceive of. He says that after he’s dead and gone, he’s going to come back to them. And if they’re smart— if they’re spiritually mature—they will be on the lookout for him. “Keep awake,” he tells them; “be ready” (Matthew 24:42, 44).


     Keep awake; be ready. And what most of us hear in those words is an implied threat. That sort of warning was what was behind the advice of my baseball coaches, after all. If you’re not ready, the ball may get by you. Or you may throw to the wrong base. And if you make a mistake, the other team will likely score. Keep awake. Be ready. Or else.


     This is something like what Jesus is apparently doing with the disciples, as well. He seems to be warning them not to make some gargantuan mistake. Only Noah and his family, after all, says Jesus, are saved when the floods come—not all the people who are obliviously going about their lives eating and drinking and getting married. And what about the alarming warning that comes to those out in the fields? “One will be taken, and one will be left” (24:40). Or the two who are grinding meal together in the house? “One will be taken, and one will be left” (24:41). If you’re not paying attention, in other words, you’re out of luck and there will literally be hell to pay. What else could those words mean—one will be taken, and one will be left? Aren’t these words and images letting us know that we had better be incredibly careful in the way we live, or we’ll just be thrown into the outer darkness, damned for all eternity? That’s what Jesus is saying, right? And there’s certainly a long history of Christians conveying just that message: Be ready, or else! Keep awake, or else! If you asked most people what they thought about the basics of Christian morals, I suspect that, in the heart of many hearts, what you would get is just that sort of sense of God: you have to be good, or you’ll be punished, perhaps eternally.


     And I don’t think God doesn’t care that we act responsibly and lovingly. I think God wants that with every fiber of God’s being. God wants us to care for the person who’s hurting. God wants you and me to find a way to reduce or eliminate gun violence. God wants the human race to drastically lessen its dependence on fossil fuel. God wants us all not to lie and cheat and steal, and especially not to go to war. I think God pines for just such behavior from you and me and everyone.


     What I don’t think is that God is hanging some sword of Damocles over the head of each one of us. I don’t think God walks around with a big set of jailer’s keys hanging around the holy belt loop, just looking for us to make a mistake so we can be locked away forever.


     And you may well be thinking, ‘Oh, nice of you to think that! Very pie-in-the-sky of you. But,’ you might go on to say to me, ‘that’s not what the scripture passage says. Look at it: one will be taken, and one left; keep awake, be ready. Wish all you want,’ you might say to me, ‘but the Bible is pretty clear on the subject: don’t mess up or you’re in trouble. You’re just making stuff up because you don’t like what it says,’ you might well say to me in your drop-the-mic moment.


     And I hear you, I do. Countless Christians have, of course, advocated just such a dire, punitive approach to the gospel. Some of you may have encountered Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the biggest-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s, or Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series from the 1990s and early 2000s, both of which feature an image of the culminating rapture of true believers—the good ones taken by God, the rest of us left behind. This threatening, vindictive theology has regularly grabbed the popular imagination, and it seeps into many of us, maybe even against our wills. We so easily become judgmental dualists, whether we like it or not. We divide the world into good and evil—the “normal” ones and the troublemakers; special Aunt Ida and weird Uncle Stan; straight white males and all those lesser off-shoots; the U.S. and every other country; The Ohio State University Buckeyes and The Team Up North—a dualistic notion of good and evil abounds: be ready, or, like all those reprobates, you will be punished!


     Or at least that’s what we imagine when we hear these words. I suspect, though, that there’s something else going on in this and other passages like it. If we look at the dominant arc of the Bible’s story, what do we see? We see grace that is showered on the just and the unjust. We see love that is poured out on everyone. We see affection that is not the slightest bit conditional. We see divine covenants offered again and again in which God promises simply to love us, no matter what we do or don’t do. In the gospel of Matthew in particular, we see a God who promises, at both the beginning of the gospel and the end, that God will always be with us (1:23, 28:20). We hear a parable of the workers in the vineyard (20:1-16) in which everyone is paid the same, whether they’ve labored all day under the hot sun or simply coasted in at the end of the day and done zero work. All are paid the same. God’s love is never stingily meted out as though there’s only just enough for a very few people. No, God’s love is more like a fire hose brought in to fill our empty glasses. There’s way more holy love showering us than any of us could possibly drink up. That’s the predominant story of the Bible: unmitigated, unending love.


     Nevertheless, if we take the Bible seriously, we’re still left trying to make sense of these apparently harsh words when we encounter them. Jesus speaks with some urgency here and is clearly alerting us to something that matters to him. We can’t just dismiss these words. The clue to hearing what Jesus is saying here, though, I suspect, is to focus on those words of preparedness: keep awake, be ready. It’s not punishment that Jesus is emphasizing here. What he’s underlining is the need for us to do just what he says to do: to keep awake, to be ready. He’s exhorting us to pay attention. And he does this in this parabolic, hyperbolic way so that we will take his words seriously. It’s paramount, he seems to say, that we pay attention to the movement of God in our midst. We’re to stay awake and stand ready not to avoid punishment, but rather in order to take in the richness and wonder of the God who is gracing us at every moment. Pay attention to that grace. Be ready to receive and pass on that love. Keep awake. Be ready.


     When I was a young man and returning regularly to my family home in Maine from college or the jobs of my early adulthood, one of the great joys of driving up to my parents’ house was the greeting I would receive when I arrived. Often they would be out in front of their house, maybe sitting in a folding chair, maybe just walking up and down the driveway. And when they would see me, they would walk eagerly to the car, with smiles lighting up their faces, and greet me as though I were the long-lost prodigal returning home. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but it’s now one of my fondest memories. My parents were waiting. They were watching. They were looking forward to my arrival. Not to escape punishment, but because they delighted in what they expected.


     This, I suspect, is what Jesus is inviting in us. He implores us to look for God with an even greater urgency than that with which my parents waited for me when I would return home. And this sort of eager expectancy can be difficult. We live in a world in which life’s struggles and challenges are legion. Many of us are worn down by the sniping and the bickering, the endless shootings, the personal health challenges, the degradation of the earth. Sometimes we’re like the main character in Judith Viorst’s children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. If you’re the parent of a young child, you almost certainly know the days that try every bone in your body. A couple of weeks ago, our son Alex was caring for his two-year-old daughter Riley as she was felled by a double ear infection and croupe. He was holding her for hours as he tried, at the same time, to do his work. And she, in her agony, wailed the whole time. She cried so loudly, in fact, that Alex’s Apple watch sent him a message that if he was exposed to that decibel-level for more than twenty minutes it posed some danger to his hearing! It’s hard to be vigilant and attentive when nothing seems to be going right.


     And yet, that’s just what we’re called to. Being ready and keeping awake in this challenging world entails a thousand ways of paying attention. We’re beckoned to be awake to the gun-violence that continually shakes our world and to value life and safety more than we value the freedom to bear arms. We’re summoned to be ready to counter the forces that seek to steal the self-respect and uniqueness of those who are dismissed because of their gender-identity or the people whom they love. We’re called to hear the cries of our planetary home that is groaning under the weight of poisons and gases and chemicals that suck the vitality from the earth’s verdancy. This is certainly some of how we’re to be ready and awake.


     Such readiness and wakefulness is asked of us, as well, in our everyday relationships with those we love. The eloquent columnist Michael Gerson died ten days ago. When I heard of his death, I was immediately reminded of a column Gerson had written some nine years ago after he dropped his older son off at college, a column I had vividly remembered. In it, Gerson lamented the searing pain of his son’s leaving home, a loss with which I readily identified.


     As Gerson dropped his son off, he says, “I put on my best face. But it is the worst thing that time has done to me so far. That moment at the dorm is implied at the kindergarten door, at the gates of summer camp, at every ritual of parting and independence. But it comes as surprising as a thief [hints of this morning’s scripture reading (24:43)], taking what you value most.”


     Gerson says that, for him, the time we have with our children is too brief. “Eighteen years is not enough. A crib is bought. Christmas trees get picked out. There is the park and lullabies and a little help with homework. The days pass uncounted, until they end. The adjustment is traumatic . . .”


     “I know this is hard on him as well. He will be homesick, as I was (intensely) as a freshman. An education expert once told me that among the greatest fears of college students is they won’t have a room at home to return to. They want to keep a beachhead in their former life.


     “But with due respect to my son’s feelings, I have the worse of it. I know something he doesn’t—not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young. He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go. Put another way: He has a wonderful future in which my part naturally diminishes. I have no possible future that is better without him close.


     “Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice. But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story. And it is enough. . ..


     “But that hasn’t stopped the random, useless tears. . ..


     “The cosmologists . . . offer some comfort. They point out that we live in the briefest window—a fraction of a fraction of the unimaginable vastness of deep time—in which it is physically possible for life to exist. So we inhabit (or are chosen to inhabit) an astounding, privileged instant in the life span of the universe.


     “Well, 18 years is a window that closed too quickly. But, my son, those days have been the greatest wonder and privilege of my life. And there will always be room for you” (The Washington Post, Aug. 19, 2013).


     Michael Gerson has paid attention—he has been ready, he has been awake—to the sublime beauty and wonder of his life, and of his relationship with his son. As the season of Advent begins, may we, too, be so blessed with noticing, and treasuring, and living in gratitude. And may our readiness and wakefulness be embodiments of the hope that God gives us, a hope that holy radiance overshadows the grimness and struggle, and makes of our lives something radiant and gorgeous and charged with the grandeur of God. Keep awake. Be ready. For God is coming. And is here. May it always be so.