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If It Were One Minute to Midnight

May 30, 2017

“If It Were One Minute to Midnight” 1 Peter 3:8-9, 13-15a; 4:7-19; 5:5b-11 © 5.28.17 Easter 7A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In 1945, a group of Manhattan Project scientists founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, saying that they “could not remain aloof from the consequences of their work.” In 1947, their famous Doomsday Clock first appeared on the cover of the magazine. As the Bulletin’s website says, the clock symbolized “the urgency of the nuclear dangers that the magazine’s founders—and the broader scientific community—[were] trying to convey to the public and political leaders around the world.”

The clock has varied between 17 minutes to midnight in 1991 and two minutes to the final hour in 1953. For the past two years, it’s been set at three minutes before 12, the closest it had been since the early 1980s. At the beginning of this year, the hands were advanced 30 seconds. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board warned that the danger of global catastrophe had increased from even the dire situation of 2015 and 2016 (http://thebulletin.org/timeline; http://thebulletin.org/sites/default/files/Final%202017%20Clock%20Statement.pdf).

The author of the late first century epistle known as 1 Peter would find the scientists to be too optimistic. For him, the end of all things is imminent, just around the corner, approaching at warp speed. It’s one minute to midnight, and he wants his readers to be ready.

Things in our day are bad, as evidenced by the closeness of the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to the hour of catastrophe, but we have a hard time accepting that everything we know is going to blink out, be extinguished in the next day or week or month. We just don’t live with that sort of apocalyptic expectation, unless we’re some fringe Christian group gleefully anticipating the Rapture and the destruction of all the alleged enemies of Jesus.

But let’s do a little thought experiment and try to enter into the world of the epistle for a bit. Suppose we knew an asteroid was hurtling toward the earth, and was surely going to hit, causing devastation such as had not been seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Or what if, as in a sci-fi movie I once saw, our world was scheduled for demolition by aliens to make way for an trans-galactic shipping lane? Or maybe, several billion years too early, the universe began to collapse into the singularity, the infinitesimal dot, from whence it sprang? More likely, what if you or I, individually or together, saw with prophetic precision that a perfect storm of power plays, violence, climate change, cyber-threats, and plain old human stupidity and hubris would soon spell the end of the planet? What would we and/or our neighbors do?

One possibility is to be deer in headlights. We might be frozen in place with fear, so intimidated that we cannot act. We can’t do anything to stop the cataclysm, so why even try? A similar response could be what I call “the Fogerty fallback.” By that I mean the withdrawal from society recommended in the old Credence Clearwater song by John Fogerty called “Bad Moon Rising.” One of the lyrics advised: “Don’t go ‘round tonight; it’s bound to take your life. There’s a bad moon on the rise.” In this scenario, we would shun all human contact for the sake of our survival, cocoon, become hermits. Or we could go out on a mountain somewhere, as some have done in past centuries, and wait for the end in resignation.

Another way to meet the final hour is to laugh in its face. You may recall the old song by the late rock star Prince. “”2000-zero-zero/Oops! Out of time!/So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999!” If we know we’ll all be dead soon or at least anarchy and want will be the order of the day, then why not get all we can, grab and hoard, and surround ourselves with possessions, from food supplies to luxury items? Why not mock the Grim Reaper to his face? It’s the mentality of people who throw hurricane parties. Do you know that practice? The storm is bearing down on the Gulf or the Atlantic coast, full of nature’s fury. Most folks have evacuated, gone inland. But not these foolhardy souls! They get a place on the beach and imbibe mass quantities of alcohol, daring the storm to destroy them. Get, grab, deny, pretend. It’s one way to face an imminent threat, an inevitable end.

But when it’s one minute to midnight, whether for an individual or for a planet or the whole cosmos, the author of this epistle suggests a very different approach that is quite the opposite of fear, hoarding or denial. It has three components.

First is a refusal to give in to the fear that grips and debilitates everyone else. “Do not fear what they fear,” the writer advises, “but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” Fear enslaves us. And it’s the opposite of love. It leads us to hate, especially those whom we believe threaten our security. It can keep us from action or on the other hand, lead to irrational acts which we would not consider if we were in a different frame of mind. It grips us and turns us into creatures with nothing but a primitive brain stem whose options are fight or flight.

Years ago, Methodist bishop William Willimon was chaplain at Duke University. He was in a meeting about the school budget where tempers flared, and everyone was very emotional. Consensus was nowhere on the horizon. Through it all, the university librarian, named Jerry, sat unfazed, watching the uproar. Finally, the man spoke in a calm voice, offered an analysis of the problem, and suggested solutions that carried the day. The meeting ended peacefully at last, with all present shaking hands.

On the way back to the library, Willimon asked Jerry how he could possibly be so still and calm in the midst of such shouting and emotion. “I had open heart surgery two years ago,” Jerry replied. “You know, they stop your heart during that type of surgery. I died for about five minutes on the table. My heart stopped beating, and I heard a voice saying: ‘Peace! Be still!’ When you’ve died and been raised, they can’t do anything to you” (“Lazarus Alive,” sermon at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, March 8, 1993).

Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed that no one can be free as long as he or she fears death. But the instant we conquer such fear, at that moment, we’re free (Birmingham, April 1963). Do we realize how much control others have over us because we fear death and loss, whether the end of all things, the dreaded global catastrophe or our individual demise, even the small losses and disappointments we face every day? Someone once said all manipulation is based on fear of death. Do we want to be so in thrall to forces beyond us, that care little for our welfare?

A second component to the author’s plan to face an imminent end is discipline. In just the brief passage we heard, he urges such self-control twice. He’s telling his readers to take charge of their own lives rather than letting others manipulate or influence them. They ought not do anything that impairs their decision-making, that might bring them to ruin due to the consequences of foolish actions. The Greek word we heard translated “discipline” means “be sober,” and is intended to remind the readers of their old life before they came to Christ. There was a trope among Christians about pagans that their non-believing neighbors spent their time drunk and disorderly, engaging in all sorts of sordidness and excess. The people of God were to shun all that, to think wisely, to stand out from the crowd by their behavior.

What does discipline have to do with preparing for a rapidly advancing end, a careening catastrophe? Perhaps this: a crisis makes us sort out the important from the unimportant, the essential from the frivolous. We have to think clearly, without impairment, and make decisions based on sound reasoning. For example, suppose you were forced to leave your house suddenly and go to a shelter from a storm or a flood. What would you take? Would you already have a plan in place, because you have thought about such things with sober judgment? What skills have we acquired that would be good to have when we and our families and neighbors are in dire straits? What qualities do we display that might lead others to trust us, to turn to us for guidance?

Finally, not only does the author commend discipline and courage; he also urges love in the face of an urgent need, the tolling of midnight. Love is the glue of community. It expresses itself in forgiveness, the “covering” of sins, the refusal to hold grudges, the commitment to let the past go and focus on present possibilities. It’s serving each other, contributing to the needs of the community by one’s gifts. It’s humbly offering help to each other in words and deeds, as if one is speaking with the voice of God, aiding with the strength of God.

In the wake of the Manchester bombing last week, there was a meme that began circulating on social media. It featured a photo of the late Fred Rogers—Mr. Rogers—and a quote. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” A PBS publication about what to say to children when there are tragic events in the news expands on the meme. Rogers said: “I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world” (http://www.pbs.org/parents/rogers/special/scarynews-thoughts.html; http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/5/23/1665333/-A-man-s-personal-story-of-meeting-Mr-Rogers-moves-millions-in-reaction-to-Manchester-tragedy).

This epistle encourages every believer to be one of those helpers, in any way he or she can. Each of us has gifts to share, insight to give, experience to build on. If it were one minute to midnight, what would you or I offer?

Another way love is shown is by hospitality, which is simply another way of serving others. Community is impossible without it. It turns a scary, hellish situation into something bearable. It affirms connection and life in the face of brokenness and death.

There’s an old Korean fable about a man who died and went to heaven. When he got there, he asked an angel if he could see hell before he went into Paradise. “Certainly,” the spirit said. “Follow me.”

Hell, was of course, a horrible place. Everyone was starving and miserable, even though the tables were piled with food. He wondered aloud why everyone was so hungry, even though there was such abundance. The angel told him that in hell everyone has to eat with six-foot long chopsticks. Appalled, the man asked to be returned to heaven.

Back in the Holy City, everyone was happy, healthy, and well-fed. “It’s easy to see there are no huge chopsticks here,” the man observed. “Oh, but there are,” the angel corrected. “But here the people feed each other.”

That’s what community is about. And that’s how we could face life if it were a minute to midnight, how we can face it in those very real times of personal and societal crisis and hurt and loss. John Paul Sartre once said hell is other people. A colleague once quipped that indeed that’s true, when people are selfish. But heaven is also other people, heaven right here when we care and share, especially in the midst of difficulty.

There’s one intriguing possibility in the text that I haven’t mentioned. We can read it to say “the end of all things,” when not just clouds but time and space roll up like a scroll, when the Big Crunch comes. But the Greek word teloV (telos) in the passage can also be translated to mean “goal, outcome, aim, fulfillment,” as in when we say “To what end?” It’s related to words like “perfection, completion, maturity, accomplishment, success.” The author could be saying: “The work is almost done; it’s just a little longer until we rest. The goal, the finish line, is in sight.” The epistle may not be talking so much about destruction of creation but rather its restoration. Not the blinking out of every source of light, but illumination from God’s face. Not despair and brokenness, but wholeness and homecoming.

So the writer may be inviting his readers and us to think about how we may hasten the accomplishment of God’s good purposes for “all things” by our lives of courage, sobriety, love, service, and hospitality. How might we contribute to the fulfillment of God’s dream, the completion of his creative project with humanity and all other creatures?

Whether it’s one minute to midnight or two and a half or seventeen or a million, we are called to live with honor and humility, hope and helpfulness, grace and goodness, wisdom and willingness to help others in need. We are people following the risen Christ, looking for the day when God restores all things.

We’re nearing the end of the Easter season, these Great Fifty Days of rejoicing. It’s fitting as we have reflected on God’s purposes and bring this time to its telos, its close, that we hear the words of John Geyer’s dynamic baptismal hymn: “We know that Christ is raised and dies no more. Embraced by death he broke its fearful hold; and our despair he turned to blazing joy. We share by water in his saving death. Reborn we share with him an Easter life as living members of a living Christ. The Father’s splendor clothes the Son with life. The Spirit’s power shakes the church of God. Baptized we live with God the Three in One. A new creation comes to life and grows as Christ’s new body takes on flesh and blood. The universe, restored and whole, will sing: Alleluia! Amen” (“We Know That Christ Is Raised,” 1969).

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