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"The Present Apocalypse," by Claire Helton

Genesis 1:26-28 (Inclusive Bible)

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.”

Humankind was created as God’s reflection:

in the divine image God created them;

female and male, God made them.

God blessed them and said, “Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth – and be responsible for it!”

Jeremiah 10:1-6 (Inclusive Bible)

Listen, Israel!

“Don’t adopt the ways of the nations.

Don’t be terrified at heavenly signs –

let the nations be terrified of them.

For the carved idols of the nations are frauds:

a tree in a forest is cut down

and worked with a chisel

by the hands of an artisan.

Workers adorn it with silver and gold decorations

and fasten it down with hammer and nails,

to keep it from tottering.

Their idols are as silent

as scarecrows in a melon patch.

Because they cannot walk

they are carried about.

Don’t fear them,

for they can do no harm

nor can they do good.”

No one is like you, YHWH!

You are great, and great is your mighty Name.

This week I encountered the first of what I’m sure will be many online posts describing the coronavirus as a sign of the end times. I’m not going to give airtime to that theory and if you encounter it, I hope you engage it with a healthy suspicion. But I do want to talk about this apocalypse we’re living. And I don’t use that term lightly, though it may not be in the way you expect.

In her book Shameless, Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber talked about how, at the time of her writing in 2018, our nation was in the midst of a different kind of upheaval – the #MeToo movement, which she called the “#MeToo apocalypse.” You see, there’s a reason the book of Revelation is the go-to example of an apocalypse. Its name, “Revelation,” is just a direct translation of the Greek word “apocalypse – the revealing.” But it’s not the only one. Revelation is part of a whole genre of apocalyptic literature, a genre whose function is to tell a story that reveals something about divine reality – something that would have otherwise remained hidden. Often the story does have something to do with fire and death and the end of days…but that’s never what it’s really about. So an apocalypse has this connotation of revealing, it’s about uncovering, peeling back, showing what’s underneath. I can think of no better metaphor for what happened in our nation with the onset of #MeToo. Bolz Weber wrote that it was like “the corner has peeled up on our culture, and now there is a little cat fur and dust on it, and we can’t get it stick back down.” She suggests we have to take that peeled-up corner and pull, even if it hurts.[1] When that happens, when we pull the veil away, it can feel like death. It can feel like the end. But the whole point of John’s apocalypse is that even when it feels like it - this is not the end.

We’re in another season right now where it feels like death – maybe more like a thousand small deaths throughout the day. I told some friends this week every time I have to change out a roll of toilet paper it feels like a part of me dies. It’s different for each of us. Usually in preaching I can draw on my sense of our collective experience but we’re in such uncharted territory here that I can’t begin to imagine what your life is like right now, the specific ways that your life has been turned upside down. I can share a little of what this has been like for me. For one, it’s been the death of my ability to control my working environment – to create the exact conditions I “need” to be able to focus enough to write a sermon. It’s the death of the illusion that I ever had control over what my tomorrow would look like, that sense of control that enabled me to feel confident going into the new day. As if that confidence were dependent on something that never existed in the first place. It’s the death of my ability to compartmentalize my life, to draw imaginary boundaries between my pastor-self and wife-self and mama-self and Claire-self, because right now they’re all clamoring for attention and filling the same very limited physical space, the same handful of rooms day in and day out. I could go on. I’m sure you could, too.

But what I’ve realized in reflecting on this present apocalypse is that – well, first of all, it’s not an apocalypse in the sense of the end of days. I don’t think the coronavirus is a sign of anything other than a reminder of our human frailty and how much we depend on one another. But if this is an apocalypse (in the way that #MeToo was an apocalypse) then it’s revealing something. This sudden upheaval of society, this overturning of our daily lives almost overnight, has revealed for me something about idolatry. I’m not talking about a golden calf; I’m talking about whatever it is we’ve really been worshiping instead of God all this time. The chaotic disruption of our daily rhythms on a global scale – and the unique way it’s affecting each of us most deeply – is the peeling back of the veil to reveal the idols we’ve all been worshiping, individually and collectively. For me, it’s actually a neat little pantheon of idols with names like Certainty; Control; Predictability; Ease.

I would wager that we all have a tendency toward idolatry somewhere in our hearts; if it weren’t a universal inclination, I doubt it would have made it to the number one slot of the Ten Commandments. And if it’s hard for you to identify your own idols, you’re in good company. It’s easier to recognize the sins of others, this we know for sure. So we can start there. This past week the nation watched as economy-worship took center stage, as the lieutenant governor of Texas and the president of our nation prioritized finances over the lives of the human beings who will die of this virus if we do not act in their interest.

And let’s be clear – these men would probably identify as Christian, might even faithfully recite the same scripture from Jeremiah that we read today. I make no claims about their intentions. But the story of the people of God reminds us time after time that worship is not about what we say, but how we behave. Our worship is defined not by what creeds we recite but by how we organize our lives, by where our behavior indicates that our ultimate concern truly lies. Prioritizing the economy over human beings made in the image of God is sin.

So if money is their idol; how about ours?

Four years ago, during Lent, when we had a 3-month old baby, for some reason Zach and I decided to embark on the most stringent Lenten fast either of us has ever participated in. We gave up most foods; we had a list of 12 foods we could eat because that seemed like a nice biblical number, and the most significant truth I uncovered in that fast was how deeply I relied on a well-placed Coke Zero to make it through my day in that difficult season. Ever since then that’s been my go-to experience when I think about idolatry not because I was praying to a can of Coke Zero but because I was behaving in such a way that gave it more power than I ever would have said I believed it should hold.

The last couple of weeks have felt, to me, a lot like that Lent four years ago – except that four years ago I chose what I would give up. Most of us have now given up most of what used to make up our days, and even if we did it before it was mandated, it was certainly far from voluntary. So, rather than choosing to cautiously lift the veil to slowly come to terms with our own idolatry, this is a veil that has been ripped away like a band-aid and the wound underneath is still raw. It is hard to sit still in our bodies, in our homes, and confront whatever it is we’ve been using to self-soothe. Especially if it’s something we can’t get our hands on right now. And there are plenty of things we can’t get our hands on right now. You probably weren’t finding your identity in your stockpile of toilet paper, but maybe you were finding it in the satisfaction of doing good work…and having other people around to see it, or maybe you were finding it in the high of doing something concrete to help someone else…because it made you feel needed. These things are good in themselves – just like a Coke Zero is, arguably, good in itself – but it’s how we use them that makes the difference. The allure of an idol is that in placing it on our altar we maintain the illusion of piety, deceiving even ourselves.

I don’t know if what I’m saying is hitting home for you but if it is, it’s likely to sting. And so there’s an important follow-up I want to offer. In fact, maybe the truth we all most deeply need to hear right now as we wrestle with our inner demons that pop up in isolation (which, I would argue, are our idols begging to be worshiped) is this: Whoever and whatever we’ve been worshiping all along, God has been here too. And God’s not going anywhere and has nothing to offer but grace.

The ancient Israelites lived through plenty of seasons that felt like death, that felt like the end. Why else would they have needed to write apocalyptic literature in the first place? It was in one of those seasons, after their kingdom had fallen and the people had been carried off into exile that they began to reflect on what got them there. They looked back on the words of Jeremiah, his warnings about their idolatry, not just about worshiping gods carved from stone but about idolizing security, pleasure, and power at the expense of the wellbeing of the poor and the vulnerable. They looked back and they saw that in the end, their idols had served them as idols always do: poorly. And they realized they needed to become part of a better story.

And so it was that during the exile the people of God began to write down the stories that had shaped their identity for generations. Stripped of their homeland, their government, their security – stripped of those familiar idols: control, predictability, ease – they turned to the stories that grounded them in God’s presence. They began to compile the literature that would come to us as scripture, passages like the lyrical poetry of the creation narrative in Genesis: “Humankind was created in God’s reflection, made in the image of God; female and male, God made them.” It is from these central verses in Genesis that we draw our theology of the imago dei – the idea that we are each created in the image of God. These verses emerged as a direct response to the bankrupt idolatry that landed the people of God in exile in the first place. In other words, all of these idols – these lesser images of the divine fashioned out of our own insecurity and fear – are knock-offs. The only true idol, the only true face of God we can see in this world…is each other. Humanity is the image of God.

We are living in an uncertain time. The curtain has been drawn back, revealing truths about ourselves we are not likely to want to face. Fear is a natural response. But we cannot allow ourselves to dress our fear up as an idol and place it on the altar. Neither can we turn inward and hide – there’s too much time to sit with ourselves. Our task in this season is to be brave enough to look this revelation, this apocalypse, in the eye, to face the falseness of the idols we’ve been worshiping, and to be willing to cast them down for the sake of our fellow human beings, the actual images of God all around us. Beloved, God pardons you for having worshiped other things all this time. In truth, God was there the whole time, saw it all unfold, understands, and offers grace. And the best part is: you still have the opportunity to be a part of a better, hope-filled story. The economies of the earth will fail. Political systems come, and they go. God has not crashed, will not tank, is not going anywhere. So take a breath, look deeply into the faces of God in this world, and take heart. Amen.

[1] Nadia Bolz Weber, Shameless, 41

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