Working In Hope

As soon as they (the fig tree and all the trees) have put out shoots , you can see and know for yourselves that summer is already near. The same is the case for you. When you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. Amen I tell you that this generation will not pass away until all things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away. But my words will not pass away.

Luke 21:30-33

In a footnote to verse 31, Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “The obvious tension in Luke’s Gospel concerning this term (the kingdom of God) is again suggested; the kingdom is present in the words and works of Jesus, but it has not yet realized itself fully” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 328). So, in an apparent contradiction, Jesus says that we can know the coming of the kingdom by recognizing its signs, but although we may recognize the truth and coming of the kingdom, we cannot know it fully, as it has as yet not been fully realized.

All human eras are graced and wondrous on the one hand and difficult, painful, and inscrutable on the other. As we who are living now, however, come to the end of the liturgical year 2017, many, if  not most of us, are feeling that the past year has been as difficult as a year can be. The power of the privileged and affluent seems to be reaching its apogee, and the ability of the common person to affect society, nation, and world seems at its nadir. The promise of the evolution of humanity toward a great consciousness and a developing global village or family seems distant or delusional. We long to live in faith, hope, and love, trusting in the promise of the coming kingdom and reign of God, and yet we seem, as a race, to be heading in the opposite direction.

Otto von Bismarck said “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” Yet, to be a person of faith, to live in the reality and the promise of the kingdom is to live and so to practice that art with an eye on the unattainable, if not what often seems like the impossible. To know something of the truth of the beatitudes, of the kingdom that they describe, requires a striving to bring them to life in our world, despite the fact that evil makes their fulfillment in this world impossible.

As I grow older, the temptation to cynicism and nihilism in the political sphere grows stronger in me. It often seems as if it would be quite easy, both in the macro and micro dimensions of my world, to become discouraged, to stop striving and working. “What good does it do, anyway?” is a question that constantly pushes its way to the surface of my consciousness. The temptation is not merely to retire from the daily job, but more frighteningly from an engaged, and in fact caring, life.

One of the capital sins is acedia, which is usually defined as spiritual sloth but which literally means “not caring.” As I suspect most young people, I once believed that I could make a significant difference in the world. Utopianism in both the material and spiritual spheres held real appeal to me. In the personal, interpersonal, communal and political spheres (remember the 60’s?) I would be part of building a new and transformed world. But, no matter how strong our effort, we never succeed in building the kingdom of God on earth. Although, Jesus tells us that the kingdom is near, reading this morning’s paper could well make anyone skeptical of that claim.

So if visible results of our efforts were the measure of the kingdom’s presence, of its coming, it would be very easy to become discouraged and disheartened, to cease to care. This is the sin of acedia, and the pitfall of cynicism and nihilism. In the gospel today, Jesus seems to tell us that the way to remain hopeful, to continue to care is to keep looking until we begin to see differently. Some will see what look like cataclysmic events and know that the kingdom is near and to continue to live and work in hope. Others will see those same events and experience only fear and destruction and be apt to give up.

Reinhold Niebuhr says that “The Christian doctrine of the Atonement is . . . on the other side of human wisdom, in the sense that it is not comprehensible to a wisdom which looks at the world with confident eyes, certain that all of its mysteries can be fathomed by the human mind.” The “wisdom” with which we usually see and judge the world, he says, does not see the world through the lens of the mercy of God, which recognizes the need to see the possibility of good in all of our human incompleteness and evil. It is the mercy of God, he says, “which knows how to destroy and transmute evil by taking it into itself.

To the degree I do my work, by attempting “to build the kingdom” out of my ego alone, I will finally always become discouraged and disheartened; I will tend to cynicism and nihilism. To the degree that I do what little I can throughout my days as a servant of the mercy of God, I shall always be able to glimpse the nearness of the kingdom, even amidst the sound and fury of the social and political realities around me. As I write this I am thinking of Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States. He was a president beset with crises, economic and military, which made him in much of his term very unpopular. The journalist Russel Baker said of his presidency that if it was a television series it would be cancelled. For many he was something of a laughing stock. Yet, he has become perhaps the most revered ex-president in history. Now in his 90’s and living with cancer, he continues to work through the Carter Center to foster peace and justice throughout the world and to help build with his own hands, in his work for “Habitat for Humanity,” homes for those without them.

Jimmy Carter was in the world’s greatest position of power, yet he must have felt at times a painful inability to bring about the good that he carried within and knew to be God’s will for the world. It must have been difficult for him, a true believer in every sense, to leave that place of power having been unable to make the difference to which he no doubt aspired. Yet, since being defeated for a second term, he has done more good for more people than most people of power ever could or would. Despite all the good reasons he could have had to become discouraged, to cease to live and give from his heart, he never did.

T. S. Eliot writes: “Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.” What we are not to care about are results. Whatever strength the cultural, social and political forces of cynicism and nihilism, it is possible for us to continue to live from  within our hearts and to continue to care, not for the results and successes of our actions but for the good of the world and all who dwell in it. It is possible, through prayer and the mercy of God, to give the little that we have in order that God’s kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.

. . . the mercy of God, which strangely fulfills and yet contradicts the divine judgment, points to the incompleteness of all historic good, the corruption of evil in all historic achievements and the incompleteness of every historic system of meaning without the eternal mercy which knows how to destroy and transmute evil by taking it into itself.

The Christian doctrine of the Atonement is therefore not some incomprehensible remnant of superstition, not yet a completely incomprehensible article of faith. It is, indeed, on the other side of human wisdom, in the sense that it is not comprehensible to a wisdom which looks at the world with confident eyes, certain that all its mysteries can be fathomed by the human mind. Yet it is the beginning of wisdom in the sense that it contains symbolically all that the Christian faith maintains about what humans ought to do and they cannot do, about their obligations and final incapacity to fulfill them, about the importance of decisions and achievements  in history and about their final insignificance.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II, p. 212

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