Sermon by Wilson Hood MDiv '19, Hospice Chaplain at Hope Health in Providence, R.I, November 15, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Wilson Hood.)
I want to begin this morning with my gratitude to Dr. Stephanie Paulsell, Rev. Alanna Sullivan, the entire Memorial Church staff, and all of you out there listening, for welcoming me into your virtual pulpit. MemChurch played a special role in my time as a student at the Divinity School, and it is such an honor to receive the opportunity to return and share this time with you today.
Also, selfishly, I’m really glad that MemChurch decided to keep things light and breezy by inviting a hospice chaplain to speak.
So, on that note, I do have something I want to warn you all about up front: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the end of the world. I doubt that I’m alone here.
In the past year so far, we have witnessed an outbreak of a deadly pandemic, catastrophic climate-fueled wildfires, the largest mass protest movement for Black lives in our nation’s history, an economic crash, the impeachment of a sitting president, an election with record-breaking voter turnout, and the looming possibility of a constitutional crisis.
Oh, and don’t forget about the murder hornets. Yep. Remember those?
Our laundry list of momentous events could go on, but it may be better for us to just stop and ask: who wouldn’t have the end of the world on the brain right now? Sure, we may not let ourselves think about it for too long. But in those increasingly rare moments of quiet in our days, we can feel that insistent nudge of intuition: The world as I knew it is ending.
The bad news is that our Gospel reading for this morning is not going to be a distraction from all of this end-of-the-world talk. Far from it. The bright side, however, is that we are in good company.
Today’s reading is an excerpt from Jesus’s final discourse in the Gospel of Matthew, the last long teaching he’ll give to his followers before his eventual arrest and execution.
The content of the lesson is apocalyptic, to be sure, with all its talk of angels, last judgments, and thrones of glory.
But we can imagine the mood among Jesus’s audience in this passage was equally heavy that morning. Those gathered to hear Jesus speak would be familiar with the growing chorus of country preachers and cosmopolitan elites alike talking openly of chaos, revolution, the end of time. Violence is common in the streets, as is rampant disease, as is the not-so-distant suspicion that everything is simply about to fall apart. It is a world in transition between ruling regimes, between generations and cultures, between all the old assumptions of the past and the uncertainties of the future.
It is a threshold world, a world teetering on the brink.
We can imagine those gathered to listen to Jesus that morning would have many of the same private fears and desires that we might have right now. Like us, they probably craved certainty, stability, a bright line telling them exactly what to believe and how to make it all make sense. They wanted systematic statements of faith and party platforms. Staring down the void of the future, they probably struggled to answer their children’s questions. They probably felt fear deep in their bones.
When we let our historical imaginations run wild in this text, we can see that, contrary to every well-meaning mass email that has landed in our inboxes since March, our times are not “unprecedented.” They are, indeed, precedented, emotionally and spiritually, even if the facts of our situation are unique. Jesus knew what it meant to feel like your world was ending, and it concerned him enough that he devoted his final meaningful public teaching time to thinking through what we should do about it.
So what guidance does Jesus offer his listeners, this scared, lonely, exhausted crowd hungry for a point-by-point explanation of what is going on? Does he offer policy analysis, a scientific theory of everything, advice for securing the best doomsday prep bunker at a reasonable price?
Nope. He talks, instead, about cooking, laundry, and small talk with friends and strangers.
“Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” Jesus says, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'”
Many of us have probably heard Jesus’s words here repeated countless times. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Care for the sick and visit the imprisoned. But rarely do we remember the context in which these everyday acts of care are presented: in the last judgment, at the end of the world. When we look at them this way, we have to ask: What is all this boring everyday life stuff doing smack dab in the middle of the apocalypse?
As I was chewing on Jesus’s lesson for this morning, I decided to revisit one of my favorite movies, Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders. Like Jesus’ lesson from this text, Wings of Desire is set in a world beset by apocalypse, both past and present. Our main characters, two angels named Damiel and Cassiel, wander the streets of a still-divided Berlin in 1987. Unseen and unheard by the many human beings they encounter in the city, and yet able to telepathically hear their deepest thoughts, Damiel and Cassiel bear quiet witness to the inner lives of Berlin’s lonely mortal inhabitants.
The weight of the 20th century bears heavily on the humans Damiel and Cassiel follow. The horrors of Nazi and Soviet rule are still within the living memory of the people they observe, and the promise that the world can fall apart once again seems to hang in the air. In the midst of so much uncertainty and fear, Damiel and Cassiel watch and listen as most of the humans continually respond by choosing to distance themselves from one another, to withdraw into bouts of private terror and anxious preoccupation. Mere eye contact between humans is rare in the film, and acts of true friendliness or love are rarer still.
Given all of this, we may expect Damiel and Cassiel to be focused on the philosophizing of these humans, their endless attempts to gather the facts of their lives into tidy piles of black-and-white answers for everything. Instead, what delights and fascinates the angels are the simple, joyful moments of human experience: children gathered in wonder and delight at a circus, strangers huddled together by a coffee cart on a cold night.
In one scene, Damiel encounters a motorcyclist who has just gotten into an accident and is in critical condition. This dying man’s world is, quite literally, ending- for him, the apocalypse is not a grim social or political possibility, but an immediate lived reality. Damiel lovingly holds the man’s head between his hands and listens as the man speaks aloud his final thoughts as he loses consciousness, a litany of what really mattered in his life: “The boathouse floating in the lake. Stromboli. The morning light. My child’s eyes. The spots of the first drops of rain. Bread and wine. My mother. My father. My wife.”
As viewers, we never learn if the man survives. But it doesn’t matter. In this scene, Damiel bears witness to a truth at the heart of the film and a truth at the heart of this morning’s lesson. As mortal beings who will all eventually die, every single day is an apocalypse for someone. Every death is the end of someone’s world, and, when it comes for us, it will be the end of our world too, both mine and yours. What really mattered at the end of the motorcyclist’s world was not the fact that he had an answer for everything. What mattered instead, what truly imbued his life with dignity and divinity, was the simple, ordinary work of being human: the people he loved, the natural beauty he witnessed, the acts of kindness he performed, the meals he shared. That’s it.
By talking about feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger in the same breath as he talks about the end of time, maybe what Jesus is trying to point us toward here is a reminder that none of us can weasel our way out of our worlds ending when our lives end, no matter how much we might try to beat this fact back with our delusions of certainty or control.
We are called to prevent suffering whenever and wherever we can, to be sure, and to engage in collective action to stop the destruction of our fellow human beings and the planet. But we can’t do this work with the illusion that any of us, ultimately, are making it out of here alive. We will die, and to live with that knowledge is to know that the apocalypse is already among us and around us. What really matters is not how we will think or worry our way out of the end of our world. What really matters is how we will live into it in the meantime.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I was still working as a chaplain in a hospital, I received a phone call from a patient’s husband. The patient, his wife of nearly fifty years, was rapidly declining from the virus, and her husband knew that he would likely be unable to see her before she died.
As I stood by the glass outside his wife’s pressurized isolation room and listened to him on the other end of the line, he did not tell me about the meaning of the universe. He did not present a statement of faith, a manifesto, a policy paper, a hot take on the pandemic. He didn’t win an argument in the comments section.
He told me, instead, about washing his wife’s feet. He told me about humming her favorite songs, cooking her meals, tucking a lock of grey hair behind her ear. He wept and said “thank you.” Whether he was talking to her spirit, or to me, or to God, I’m not really sure. But it doesn’t matter. In that moment, he knew what really mattered. He spoke it aloud. He shared what he had done and seen in his life spent with her.
Our lives are so fragile. They always have been. We are always living on the brink, on the edge, at the threshold. Every single day carries the possibility of our last judgment. Every breath is a prelude to the apocalypse. As the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil once wrote: “Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.”
And to this Jesus says: keep loving, even if you are trembling. Keep feeding and being fed, even as your world feels like it is spinning out of control. Keep clothing the naked, keep calling the sick. Keep welcoming the stranger. Keep checking in. Keep loving your child, and your professor, and your students, and your grandmother, and the tired woman at the drugstore, and the annoyed man behind you in traffic. Keep dancing, keep kissing, keep making art, keep noticing the morning light. Keep making your husband laugh. Keep washing your wife’s feet.
These things matter. They are, in the final calculation, the only things that really matter.
This is how our lives will be measured, and our world is far too fragile and too precious to let any single moment be wasted.
So: get to work. The angels are watching.