The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
Canon Richard T. Nolan
I welcome this occasion to worship with you. I have been privileged to officiate in parishes from Clewiston to Palm Beach to Key West. Last month I returned to my cathedral in Hartford for a Sunday, and last May I was welcomed at a north Georgia parish separated from the Episcopal Church. Perhaps all this visiting during these retirement years allows me to be rightly called a “loose canon!”
In today’s Readings our attention is directed to matters related to the end of the world. You and I are encouraged to pay attention to what’s going on around us and to be prepared to be accountable to God for our choices, individually and as a human family. Similar biblical readings often include “Signs of the End” warning us about false teachers, wars and insurrections, nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines and plagues, deterioration of families, and hatefulness. Human accountability to God at the End of the World is a familiar biblical theme.
Many commentators throughout history have observed the gloomy side of life without any reference to God. About 500 years before Christ the Chinese philosopher Confucius remarked, “There is in the world now really no moral social order at all.” Elsewhere he deplored teenage behavior. A hundred years before Christ the Roman orator Cicero began an address with the words “O, what a time, what a state of things!” About seventeen centuries later we hear the cynical Shakespearean lines, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Historians remind us that early 19th century England was a time of well-known disrespect for authority. The monarchs were laughingstocks, exposed by a sensational divorce that certified their uselessness. The political system was distrusted as corrupt, and the Church of England was widely regarded for its clergy abuses rather than religious devotion. Cultural heroes were artists famous for their rejection of customary standards of family life and morality. The country was in the midst of widespread opium addiction. No wonder that Dickens characterized those days with his words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Perhaps Dickens’ characterization is relevant for us here today. Flaws in our election process have been dramatically exposed, and political graciousness is all but absent. Observe the front pages of our newspapers; notice radio and television newscasts! Consider a narrator’s concluding remark on a television documentary on catastrophes; he proclaimed: “Disasters are the events by which we remember and measure all events!” It would be easy for us to conclude that gloomy biblical “Signs of the End” typify the human condition!
I am not suggesting a “Well, what can you do” attitude about the perennial, global bad news permeating human history. I believe firmly that suitably positioned women and men of good will must rise up and develop remedies for our persistent ills. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, humanistic and other policy makers in both public and private sectors are in unique positions for prodding their institutions to transfigure dehumanizing processes. Moved by the Holy Spirit’s power, courageous Christian lay ministry is essential for guiding humanity along a path toward truly honorable and godly enterprises. Merely labeling oneself a Christian is insufficient.
But where does all this leave you and me as individuals? Should we accept the woes of personal and communal life as inevitable? Ought we just hope that “someone will do something”? Certainly you and I know well that most of us occasionally suffer troubles and injustices: our personal earthquakes, including family and friendship crises, money and employment worries, and, illnesses and losses. During the past six thousand years of civilization, darkness, despair, indeed – biblical “Signs of the End” – have engulfed not only nations, but also many individuals. Many of us have learned to view life pessimistically whether in regard to family life, our jobs, or just about everything else.
To overcome this darkness, some forms of religion simply pretend there are no shadows. Ever-smiling preachers imply that if we’ll only follow their ways, life will become a bed of roses. The Gospel of Christ acknowledges the darkness! Nonetheless, Christians are persuaded that Jesus’ life and teachings disclose God’s own Word, God’s very purposes enlightening all people and institutions who will truly heed the Word. He is the true Word of God – alive within scripture and among his disciples, past and present and future.
No smiling preacher this Jesus! No bed of roses for him! He experienced human darkness and the “Signs of the End” from birth to death. He was persecuted and ridiculed, but grew in inner strength and peace. He was economically poor, but yet so very rich. He was humiliated and executed for his preaching, and even overcame that! While experiencing darkness, Jesus’ life and ministry revealed shimmering Light amidst the evils of his day.
Perhaps more fitting words for today than Confucius, Cicero, or Shakespeare, were Dickens’- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, …” Frequent darkness and despair, yes, but also Light and hope in Christ. To those who accept Christ’s invitation to true Life, there is Light and hope amidst woeful realities. In Christ, the true and only Light, each day becomes the beginning of the rest of our lives, not merely a day nearer a disastrous End of the World. Our present hills and valleys may offer modest and sometimes exceptional occasions to grow in wisdom and share in affection. You and I can choose to walk wisely in that Light, or we can choose to surrender to hopeless darkness while dwelling unproductively on the Signs of an unspecified End. We can accept today’s defects as powerful motivators for the graceful transfiguration of our institutions and ourselves. God will hold us accountable for our responses; in the End his will shall be done. Along the way, as we struggle for righteousness, we can endure with such prayers as: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
My fellow worshipers, contrary to a commentator’s cynicism, disasters are NOT the events by whichChristians remember and measure all events. Instead, life is comprehended best in the victorious event of Jesus Christ. A poet has summed up God’s Light in Christ beautifully:
God hath not promised
Skies always blue, Flower-strewn pathways
All our lives through;
God hath not promised
Sun without rain, Joy without sorrow,
Peace without pain.
But God hath promised
Strength for the day, Rest for the labor, Light for the way,
Grace for trials, Help from above,
Unfailing sympathy, / Undying love.
—Annie Johnson Flint
For these promises, you and I can be deeply thankful! As we pray together this morning, as we share the holy bread and wine, let there be Light enkindled within our hearts and minds, shining forth in our words and deeds, this day to the End of the world! Amen.
Copyright 2008, Richard T. Nolan. Used by permission.