Sermon: What Are We Called to Do and Who Are We Called to Be?

I Thessalonians 5:1-11

“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters and siblings, you do not need to have anything written to you.” (I Thess. 5:1) 

What is the time we are in right now? What is our season? The answer is not winter. Even though it really feels like winter. And yes, everybody I know back in the Midwest is laughing at me as I say that. Paul — the author of this passage— is not referring to seasons of the year when he talks about the “times” and the “seasons.” Paul is using the Greek word kairos for both of these words, and kairos has a very different meaning than the other word ancient Greeks used for time, chronos. Chronos, as is probably obvious, refersto chronological or sequential time. Kairos refers to a proper or opportune time for action. Kairos time means the right time, the crucial time to act. When someone in our culture says, “It’s go time,” that might capture some of the meaning of the word kairos.

So, what time are we in right now? What is our season?  Here’s what I’ve been hearing from you: Many of us are breathing a huge sigh of relief. With this last election, we feel that we have dodged a bullet, pulled our country back from the brink. We have a better chance now of making progress on climate change, on racial justice, on wealth inequality, on the pandemic. It is also true that addressing any of these problems will not be easy. But now is the time — the kairos time — to be doing so.

And now is also the time — the kairos time — to defend and repair our democracy. Many of us are concerned that Trump is attempting the equivalent of a coup. Will he really leave office? And, even if he does, how will the 72.5 million people who voted for him react over the next four years if some of them believe, as they do, that this election is a fraud and that a Biden-Harris government is illegitimate, even evil? Some of us believe that we are still creeping, as a country, toward authoritarianism, no matter the election results, and that the next wannabe demagogue may be more skilled and stable than the present one is. 

“For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!” (I Thess. 5:2-3)

The “day of the Lord” is the day of judgment. Whether you believe that “the day of the Lord” is when Jesus will return and judge the nations or the day when our economic, social, political and ecological systems falter because of all the greed, all the inequality, all the exploitation, all the degradation of the earth — whatever you believe, the “day of the Lord” is the day when the chickens come home to roost. It’s the day consequences of all that green and inequality and degradation come home to all people, not just some. Some argue that this day is already here.

Ruling authorities often respond to the reality of this reckoning just as they did in Pauls’ time — with propaganda, with misinformation. Roman Imperial coins had the words “peace and security”  imprinted on them. That’s why Paul makes reference to that phrase in the verse you just heard. It was propaganda — a way to soothe the populace that the Roman Empire was in complete control and that that control was going to result in peace and security for all, despite much evidence to the contrary. What are the words used in our time to soothe us? To lull us into believing that things are OK when they are not?No matter, Paul says in his letter to the church in Thessalonica. The day of the Lord — the day of judgment, the day of consequences coming home —  is coming. It’s inevitable and will come suddenly, the way labor pains come upon a pregnant woman.

“But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.” (I Thess. 5:4-5)

“Children of the day” is a metaphor that signifies someone who has been enlightened, awakened to the true reality of the world. Who can now see what had formerly been unseen, who can see what may have been obscured by propaganda and misinformation, by the worldview of the dominant culture, by socialization.

We, beloved, have been working on waking up for some time now. For starters, I think of the many recent series we have done on systemic oppression — exposing and really trying to see the kinds of injustices that are baked into our systems and that are often invisible to those not on the receiving end of the injustices (and sometimes not even then). You have to wake up to them to see them. Sarah, a Native friend of mine, says she didn’t realize the poverty and violence in her family was anything more than the result of two individuals — her parents — making bad choices until she was well into adulthood and  realized that the poverty and violence in her family were actually the direct result of U.S. Indian policy. The dysfunction was planned, not the result of personal failures. But it took awhile for her to wake up to that reality.

We have also been waking up to the reality of multigenerational trauma and how it impacts us and others and how it must be healed for us to move forward together. We have been learning about emotions and how to tap them for their wisdom while not being overcome or overly controlled by them. We have been learning how to speak the truth in love. We have been learning how to faithfully claim power — how to act in the political sphere as nonviolent followers of Jesus. We have been learning about the activity of the Spirit and prayer and discipleship.

We are awakening. We still have more awakening to do. We always will. But, beloved, we are children of the day. We desire to be children of the day.

“So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Thess. 5:4-10)  

We are waking up and we must remain awake. We must not be lulled back to sleep, which is more possible now that we will not be getting hourly shocks to our system from the President’s Twitter feed. I could make the case that even more vigilance is required now. And we must be disciplined morally and spiritually. I think that’s what the metaphor of drunkenness means in these verses. When we get drunk, we lose discipline, we get sloppy, we lose focus. We forget the day and fall back into nighttime habits of mind and heart. 

And if we can stay awake and stay sober, then we will need to warrior up. We warrior up not through violent means, of course, but by putting on the breastplate of faith and love and, for a helmet, the hope of salvation — the hope that God’s dream for creation will be fulfilled one day. This faith, hope and love protects our thoughts and hearts as we go into battle. To what kind of battle are we being called? 

I think that’s a question for all of us to reflect on. But I will offer some of my first thoughts. As always, we are not in battle against people. We are not battling Trump or his supporters. We are not battling Republicans or Democrats. We are not battling corporate CEOs or Proud Boys. As Paul says in Ephesians 6: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the… spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, we are battling the “powers and principalities,” the impersonal forces that influence us to choose systems of death over systems of life, the impersonal forces that influence us to be in rebellion against God’s ways and God’s dream for creation. In this polarized time, where half of the electorate sees the other half as misguided, deranged and even evil, we need to remember that we are battling the powers, not human beings, each of whom are made in the image of God — yes, even Mitch McConnell. That was hard to say.

In fact, seeing other humans as “the other,” as the evil to be conquered or resisted is one of the death-dealing forces we need to battle in ourselves and in the world. It is one of the principalities and powers. It is so easy to “otherize” people. Someone I know told me that in the days after the election, people were calling Trump voters “scum” on his Instagram feed, and he was disturbed by it. It is so easy to just get outraged at “them” and see them as (fill in the blank) ignorant, racist, brainwashed. Maybe there’s some truth in some of those adjectives — but those adjectives can become the totality of how we see the other person. Can we also see them as beloved, redeemed, sacred?

The philosopher Charles Eisenstein talks about the necessity of having an attitude of reverence toward each other, of being aware of the other as another sacred being. To maintain this stance of reverence, he says, we need to notice habits of polarization and judgment that arise (in us) in the presence of difficult information or difficult emotions (or difficult people, I would add).” We need to notice when we get lit up and start “otherizing.” And we practice that reverence in community, he says. He says that “even a community conceived as a sanctuary will inevitably mirror the divisions and conflicts of the outside world. The answer is not to avoid them or to plow them over with positivity.” Rather, he says, we help each other:

to express anger without diverting it onto hate

to hold grief without diverting it onto despair

to share compassion without diverting it onto pity

to interpret each other’s words generously

to let go of being right and seeming smart

to value each person’s unique window on the world

to be willing to see each other fully, shadow and gold

to be willing to be truly seen ourselves   

Maintaining reverence, of course, doesn’t mean that we go along with what we believe is wrong. It doesn’t mean we don’t get angry! Remember the nonviolent stance that some MVSer whose name now escapes me taught us years ago? With this hand, I resist what I believe is wrong; I say no. But with this  hand, I extend the hand of friendship to you, my adversary.  I also want to say that when our adversary is also an abuser,or when the adversary is a sociopath, or when we need to protect ourselves in some way, then we may need to extend a symbolic hand and say — “You, too, are a child of God, underneath the wounding that has made you who you are — and I also need to protect myself from you.”

People who can maintain reverence, who can maintain a spirit of nonviolence in this way are so necessary right now. And, of course, nonviolence is the historical charism — or gift — of Mennonites. What would it mean for us to go into action using this gift in this kairos time? Some of us are going to be taking de-escalation training, so that we know how to defuse tense and potentially violent situations during street protests or in other settings. And, ever since the election, I have been thinking about those 72.5 million people who voted for Trump, some of whom, I fear, are embracing authoritarianism, even fascism. What would it be like to try to reach them, to understand their fears and their traumas, to not just give them up to the powers and principalities of authoritarianism and white supremacy?

It turned out that Claire Haas was also thinking about these folks. She wrote to me in the days after the election: “I think we need to figure out how we understand the traumas that make people side with the oppressor. And deescalate that trauma to be able to engage in the transformation needed. And we have to do our own work on our own traumas in order to be able to be less triggered in general. That’s important for us holding Biden to the standard we need for a vision that we really have. It’s important for healing everyone. We have to see how our own internalized oppression gets in the way of our liberation. (And all of us, she said, have internalized oppression, no matter our gender or skin color.) I think this work is important even when not directly talking to conservatives. In fact think most of us shouldn’t have those conversations. Only some of us should. But the release of our trauma is important for everything we need to do. We have to build deescalation in general, ground ourselves so we can be creative and visionary.”

As Claire’s quote suggests, maybe the call is not only to do something, but to also be something wherever we are. To bring this spirit of reverence, this gift of nonviolence to any setting we are in. To our workplaces, to politically charged conversations, to protests, to family interactions, to social media. To bring our grounded bodies and regulated nervous systems and released traumas and attitudes of reverence to places of hostility and conflict. 

“Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” (I Thess. 5:11) 

Indeed, we are doing this. We are building up capacity in each other. And we are encouraging — giving courage to — each other. In short: We got this. We are here together, we children of the day, in this kairos time, this right time, this crucial time to act. We have been training, and we are ready. Let’s put on that breastplate of faith and love and that helmet of hope. Powers and principalities: Here we come. It’s go time. Amen.