The End of the World?

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 23rd 2012.)

A couple of weeks ago this sermon was going to be very different.  I was going to begin by noting — with feigned amazement — that the world hadn’t ended.  The thirteenth b’ak’tun of the Mayan “long count” calendar had ended on December 20th and the fourteenth b’ak’tun had begun on December 21st, apparently without much in the way of cataclysm.  Rather, as Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies in Crystal River, Florida notes, to claim December 21st 2012 as doomsday is “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.

I was going to continue by talking about our apparent fascination with the end of the world, and the popularity of predicting when it will take place.  One of the more publicized predictions in recent years was made by radio broadcaster Harold Camping, who predicted that Jesus would return to earth on May 21st 2011, with Judgment Day to follow after precisely five months of fire, brimstone and plagues had been visited on whoever hadn’t already been taken up bodily to heaven.  It’s easy for most of us to laugh about such things, though it’s sad that there were people so convinced of Camping’s prediction that they sold everything they owned in order to devote themselves and their families to being ready for the Rapture.

I was then going to talk about how the pseudo-Christian theology of the Rapture has become big business for some who have figured out how to make money out of it.  As Mary Luti, a minister in the United Church of Christ who now teaches at Andover Newton Theological School, criticized that business recently: “[T]here are the end-time movies.  And books.  And T-shirts.  And action figures.  Even a video game.  For only $39.95 and a little manual dexterity, you can join Christ’s well-armed angelic army on Judgment Day and mow down as many of God’s enemies as you can manage to locate through the thick smoke rising from the bodies of burning homosexuals and women who have had abortions.”  I’m taking Luti’s word for it that there is such a video game, by the way; I have no particular interest in finding out its name.

I was going to talk about how the Second Coming has been part of the culture of Christendom since the beginning of Christianity, though I remember from one of my seminary classes that, if you put Paul’s various books in most Biblical scholars’ best guess as to the order in which he (or his followers) wrote them, from his First Letter to the Thessalonians as the earliest to the letters to Timothy and Titus as the latest, you find that Paul goes from being wholly confident that Jesus will return any day now to instead advising his followers to be patient and to settle in for the long-haul.  So while faith in the Second Coming is a sincere — and not, I want to stress, a necessarily triumphalist —part of Christianity, and is, in fact, a valid part of the Christian practice of Advent, there’s a mutant strain of militant quasi-Christianity that has taken the idea way beyond anything reasonable, or, actually, anything Christian.  As the late and undeniably great homiletics professor and Disciples of Christ minister Fred Craddock once put it in one of his own moments of exasperation, “Maybe people are obsessed with the Second Coming because, deep down, they were really disappointed in the first one.”

I was going to talk about how the end of the world has caught on in secular circles, too.  After I’d mentioned this sermon to my grandmother-in-law when visiting her in Philadelphia at Thanksgiving, she sent me a clipping from the very next day’s newspaper about college classes being taught at Rutgers-Camden University, Temple and Penn State on such topics as “Media, Culture and the End of the World”.  Even the federal government found within our cultural obsession a clever opportunity to teach Americans about emergency preparedness, and my pre-sermon reading was going to be an article from Discover magazine about how “The Centers for Disease Control Has a Plan for the Zombie Apocalypse”.  You can check it out yourself: it’s on the CDC website, which offers a zombie blog, zombie posters and even a zombie graphic novel that, the CDC claims, “demonstrates the importance of being prepared in an entertaining way that people of all ages will enjoy”.  As United States Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Ali Khan explains, “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will [also] be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack.

And I was going to talk about how, while we’re so entranced with these various over-hyped scenarios for the end of the world — not to mention this absurdly self-inflicted calamity of the “fiscal cliff” that The Daily Show’s John Stewart dubbed “Cliffpocalypsemageddonacaust: Our Totally Solvable Budget Problem” — we’re completely failing to talk about very real disasters such as global climate change.  Some people, such as journalist Glenn Scherer and public commentator Bill Moyers, seem to blame that on the Christian right — “Why care about the Earth,” Scherer writes, for instance, “when the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought [on] by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible?” — but it’s just as much about the ever-growing influence of special interest money in government as it is about the ability of the rest of us to distract ourselves with more manageable problems.

That, as I say, is what, up until ten days ago, I had in mind for this sermon.  That’s what I was planning to talk about before I heard the news about the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, before I heard about the literal massacre of twenty first-grade boys and girls as well as the six women who died protecting the children entrusted to their care.  After that, well, a whole sermon joking about the end of the world doesn’t seem so appropriate.

In the last week and a half, I’ve been trying, like most of you, to come to terms with what happened in Newtown.  It’s not a matter of trying to make sense of it, since I don’t think it’s possible to make sense of it.  That’s what “senseless” means.  There’s a natural desire to try to find out more about what happened, of course, something that the media is only too willing to feed, so it’s not surprising that some of what was said about the day’s events early on turned out, once actual facts were available, not to have been the case.  Still, in some ways I’ve actually developed a grudging respect for how some reporters have handled this.

I’m impressed with Anderson Cooper’s refusal to focus on the gunman, for instance, something that I believe he started doing in response to some of the pleas by the survivors and bereaved of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting in July.  Instead, he’s been celebrating the lives of all those who died at Sandy Hook, whether six- or seven-year-olds or full grown adults, grieving for them, to be sure, but emphasizing the joy they experienced and brought to others during life, much as we UUs try to do when we hold memorial services.

And though I’ve often thought Piers Morgan to be a condescending ass — and, since I’m also British, I should know — I’m impressed with both the passion with which he’s challenged the facile claims of those who make and market guns and the compassion with which he’s spoken with the survivors of all too many shootings in recent years.  You can probably tell that Allison and I primarily watch CNN for news, at least when The Daily Show isn’t on, though we’ve done our best to remember the advice passed on by Joanne and others to turn off the television when the coverage starts to get too much.

But what to do with this mixture of sadness and rage that I know so many of us have been feeling?  How do we respond to something that is so awful that words fail us, that boggles the mind as to how anyone could ever commit such an atrocity?  How do we come to terms with the fact that this is just one example, albeit a particularly horrific one, of the violence that people do to one another on a daily basis in our society?  Well, I don’t have many good answers to those questions, but let me share with you a few things that are encouraging me right now.

A few weeks ago, I saw on Facebook a graphic that someone had made that included comments by Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, from his speech to this year’s session of the United Nations General Assembly.  “And I would like to say,” he said, “that according to the Mayan calendar, the 21st of December marks the end of selfishness and the beginning of brotherhood.  It is the end of individualism and the beginning of collectivism.  [It] marks the end of an anthropocentric life and the beginning of a biocentric life.  It is the end of hatred and the beginning of love.  […]  It is the end of sadness and the beginning of joy.  It is the end of division and the beginning of unity.”  Well, I don’t know if I believe that such things are going to happen all by themselves, any more than supernatural forces will bring about the end of the world, but to be fair it looks like President Morales did end this portion of his speech with an invitation to people everywhere to try to make this vision of a better, kinder, more joyful, more loving future a reality.

Then there are the words of the missing verse from “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” as it’s printed in our hymnal.  Yes, Edmund Sears actually wrote five verses, and for some reason his original verse four didn’t make it into Singing the Living Tradition.  Here’s that missing verse:

And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow:
look now!  For glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!

Angels are a popular part of what might be called American folk culture, though perhaps they’re not as popular as zombies, and for all I know Sears didn’t literally mean that there’s a heavenly choir floating above the sky, but that doesn’t negate the importance of their good news: “Peace on Earth, to all good will.”  Again, that’s not something that I believe will happen all by itself, any more than I believe that those angels are just itching to come to Earth with swords aflame, ready to engage in a final battle with the armies of hell.

Rather, if we are prepared to believe that peace on Earth, that a turning from division and selfishness to joy and fellowship is possible, no matter how we might feel the crushing load of bad news, no matter how it seems that our efforts to overcome the status quo of entrenched power are painful and slow, then we might also be encouraged by Victoria Safford’s reminder that “we already possess all the gifts we need; we’ve already received our presents: ears to hear music, eyes to behold lights, hands to build true peace on Earth and to hold each other tight in love.

Now at some time you may have heard the question, “What would you do if you only had one day left to live?”  The intent, of course, is to find out what is most important to someone that that’s what they’d spend their time doing, rather than engaging in petty, meaningless things.  Perhaps a better question for our time, though, is the one that Joanne asked the children this morning: “What will we do with our ‘New World’?”  What if, rather than the world ending last week, we have, in effect, been given another chance?  What might we now do differently, to make the world better?  What could we do to help bring about peace on Earth and good will to and by all?

Well, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, there’s been a call to do more to help one another, not necessarily people in Newtown, Connecticut, but wherever we encounter each other.  One specific suggestion offered by Ann Curry of NBC News is to do twenty acts of kindness, in honor of the twenty children who were killed, while others have suggested twenty-six good deeds, to honor the adult victims, too.  Erin McHugh, whose book One Good Deed: 365 Days of Trying to Be Just a Little Bit Better was published earlier this year, offers some simple suggestions for what those acts of kindness might be: “a good deed is any situation where you can change someone’s life for the better, if only for a moment,” she writes.  “The simplest thing is to just give: a shoulder to lean on, time, sound advice, a helping hand, some pocket change — it doesn’t matter what,” she explains, “it just has to be from your heart.”  Perhaps more important than what to do, though, is her advice as to when to do it.  “Never, ever assume it’s too late,” McHugh says.  “When you find yourself hesitating about doing something — thinking ‘I missed my chance’ or ‘It won’t matter anymore’ — just plunge ahead.  A sincere good deed is timeless.”

Then there’s the inspiring story and work of Hannah Brencher.  Two years ago she was riding the subway in New York City, fresh out of college and feeling at a loss for what to do with her life, unable to come to grips with her place and purpose in this world, feeling alone in one of the most crowded places on Earth.  So she began writing letters — love letters, in fact — to the other people on the train, people she didn’t know but who seemed like they could do with the encouragement of knowing that someone, anyone, cared about them, even if anonymously.  Brencher started leaving her letters all over the city — on café tables, between books on library shelves, even slipped into people’s coat pockets — and as she blogged about what she was doing, she started receiving requests for her letters from all around the world.  In just nine months, she realized, she had written over four hundred love letters to people in need of reading them, and she found that they healed her, too.  “This journey has taught me so much in such a short amount of time,” Brencher explains.  “I’ve discovered that no matter how tough we act, we all still need a love letter from time to time.  That even in a world crammed tight into one-hundred-and-forty characters and constant status updates, there is still a great craving for the handwritten note.  But most of all,” she observes, “I learned with certainty that the world needs far more than just my own love letters.

Though the people of Newtown, Connecticut will soon have finished burying their dead, they will continue to face the task of healing their shattered community.  When the school year resumes next month, Sandy Hook Elementary will remain closed, the students going somewhere else for classes.  We can hope that the media will not forget them, that politicians will not forget them, that our nation has the courage to hold the hard conversations that we have been putting off — that we have been bullied into putting off — for far too long now.  But when the new year arrives, and the camera crews have left, and the people of Newtown try to adjust to what all too glibly is being called their “new normal”, I want them to know that we are thinking of them.

So I’m asking you, during the next few weeks, as we make our way through the holidays and into the new year, to write a note, a love letter to the people of Newtown.  It doesn’t need to be poetry.  It doesn’t need to be brilliantly eloquent or even more than a few sentences.  It just needs to be from your heart.  Seal it in an envelope and bring it here or give it to me sometime during the month of January, and I’ll send your notes to Newtown, to give them some encouragement as they face the future, as together we build a future in which such violence is merely a sad memory.

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Will you do that?  Will you write, by hand, a love letter, a unique note of thoughtfulness and encouragement, something from your heart to the people of Newtown?  Will you bring it here next month so that it can be sent with the other letters written by the people sitting around you?  Will you do that?

Thank you.  This is a beloved community.

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5 Comments »

  1. Mary Luti said

    What a marvelous sermon! I am moved and challenged by it. Thank you!

    • acmillard said

      Thank you, Mary! I very much appreciated your sermon/blog post, too!

  2. Best advice I’ve heard all year!

  3. […] the end of the world, whether that’s a religiously ordained judgment day or a zombie apocalypse, as I mentioned last week.  After all, if you believe the Rapture is coming, you now have a very clear purpose: to be ready […]

  4. […] a sermon just before Christmas, I grieved for Newtown CT following the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.  I talked […]

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