The first Sunday of November, the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, falls two days before we elect a new president. I don’t anyone who is enthusiastic about our choices. I don’t know anyone who isn’t worried about the future of our society and our communities. Our parents and grandparents may have liked Ike, but we don’t like anybody. Our choice is “none of the above,” and a sense of foreboding and discouragement prevails.
I turn to the November lectionary. It’s proclaimed at the close of the Church year when we are asked to consider last things. For 21st century Americans this is a radical act. We are part of a culture which promises no last things, because the right diet and exercise will keep us alive and sexy and vital for a long time, perhaps forever. Just buy this supplement, book, treadmill, injection! Guaranteed!
The Church reminds us that we will die, and that all we have built will someday turn to dust. It asks us to consider what remains, what endures. On the first Sunday in November we hear part of Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. He is writing to a community in turmoil. There is persecution. There are evangelists of one sort and another peddling false religion. And, in a curious inverse of our time, there is such intense focus on the end of days and the Lord’s return that some of the members have given up on work, leaving it to others to provide for the bodily needs of the community. Paul writes against those who refuse to work with these harsh words,
If anyone does not want to work, let that person not eat. (3:10)
But he tempers his judgment a bit later in the letter,
That person is not to be regarded as an enemy, but warned as a brother. (3:14)
There can, and perhaps must be, strong disagreements, but the person with whom one disagrees is to not to be regarded as an enemy, but as a brother, a sister. For most of my life I have focused on verse 10. In these days when those with whom we disagree are regarded not just as enemies, but enemies who must be killed, I focus on verse 14.
Perhaps, Paul knows he can, and must, be merciful because he serves the One whose name is Mercy. And it is Mercy that will endure, that will stand when all else is fallen. So I turn to the reading for this Sunday, II Thessalonians 2: 16-3:5, and I find myself reading it with the need of a trekker taking long draughts of fresh water. My body and spirit are thirsting. I am dry, and I wander in a dry land.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word. (2:16-17)
Everlasting encouragement and good hope seems far from us now, even as we need — how we need — to be strengthened in every good deed and word. But perhaps encouragement and hope seem far away because we are looking for them in all the wrong places: in a president who will set all things right, in a party that will bring the changes that encourage justice and peace.
That does not mean we should not vote or work for the election of a candidate or serve on civic boards or take part in civic actions. But we can never take the trust that belongs to God alone and place it in human hands, or in human institutions. So, as the Church asks us in this month to reflect upon last days and last things, it also asks us to reflect upon the source of our hope. In the midst of the ephemeral, we are asked to meditate on the everlasting. Confronting our mortality, we are asked to bow down before the immortal.
Paul knows well our sad and sorry state, praying that “we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people.” (3:2a)
Who will deliver us? Paul writes strong words for a weak and wavering community,
But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. We are confident of you in the Lord that what we instruct you, you are doing and will continue to do. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ. (3: 3-5)
God alone is the source of our strength. So may the Lord continue to direct our hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ. Whatever may come, God abides and we abide in God.