Preaching to You, Choir
St. John of Patmos, the Dragon, and the Beast
Yes, I'm talking to you: the faithful few who are here every Sunday, come heaven or high holy water, up there in the loft waiting for your special moments to shine. You're the glue that holds this congregation together. Your nods, smiles, scowls, "Amens" and "watch yourself, preacher" are the applause sign on this variety show. You've seen it all, heard it all, since long before I entered this pulpit, and you'll be here for whoever fills it once I'm gone, and the next one after that, on and on until this church is no longer here.
As reliable a core constituency as you are, you're still human. Sometimes you shine, sometimes you fall hard on your face, most of the time you're just normal folk like anyone out there in the pews. You need the magnifying glass of scripture too, convicting you of your shortcomings; and you need the word of grace, releasing you from the burden of guilt. Even so, there is a reason I turn to you more than anyone else in this room: you keep me true to the faith.
Yes, brothers and sisters, you hold me up to the standard of our identity as a congregation and, more than that, a church. Oh, you give me license, too: you let me wander and explore, checking out highways and byways that could lead us on some fascinating adventures; but if I don't ultimately bring us home, I know you'll hold me accountable. "You went too far, preacher," you'll tell me in the fellowship hall. "That's not who we are."
So when I turn to you, I'm looking for more than just a rote recitation of "Amens" and "mm-hms." I'm looking to see if what I proclaim is valid, if it follows from the heart of our faith as you veterans know it. Can you do that for me? Can you let me know I'm preaching to you, choir? Can you tell me when I'm not?
So much for the preamble. Here comes the proclamation:
Is it just me, or is the president of this country hellbent on becoming the very embodiment of the Beast from the Sea?
Easy now, choir. I see the puzzlement on your faces reminding me I don't often reference the book of Revelation; in fact, this may be the first time I've done it in this pulpit. It could even be the first time any preacher has brought out a passage from Revelation in this church--am I right? Not too surprising: this has always been a church of deeds more than words, a church that works at building the Kingdom here on earth, rather than hoping for God to charge in do it for us. But friends, there is no getting away from this truth: we are staring down the barrel of Armageddon. Climate change is upping the intensity of all our old prejudice and paranoia, demographic shifts are turning gentle white folk into bug-eyed bigots, and Beasts are coming out of the sea to contend for or win occupy the bully pulpits of every nation. Like Nero, the first Beast, the one allegorized in Revelation, these beasts are attractive, seductive, holding previously rational people in their spell, building a cult of personality that ignores and defies the ethos of those who elevated them to their powerful seats; for their God is the belly, and all they want is the pure, undivided attention of all the media, all the time, even as the world around them goes up in flames.
Do you see it, choir? Can you hear it in his voice? Read it in his tweets?
Two days ago, one of the Beast's congregants took the words he's been proclaiming and acted them out with a rifle. He killed twenty people in a Wal-Mart in El Paso. Soon after that, another man with a gun killed nine more people in Dayton, Ohio, and would've killed many more except the police were close by and finished him off. This one wasn't a Beast believer per se, but his tools and methods came out of the playbook of the Beast's militant fringe. A columnist I like to read, though I rarely agree with his views on most issues, wrote that the two incidents were linked by narcissistic nihilism.
The Beast's handlers gave him a script to read last night that said all the usual platitudinous hand-wringy things a president is expected to say, even condemning racism. But then this morning, he was back at it on Twitter, attacking his predecessor for doing just that: blaming the crimes on the climate of intolerance the Beast has fostered with his own satanic rhetoric.
Can you see it, choir? See how the words and deeds and policies and public face of this president are a full-on embodiment of the Beast of the Apocalypse, up to and including his co-opting of the very community that has been on the lookout for signs of the times, and have now become his minions? Has the Number of this Beast become a red R, so that the only good Republicans left are ex-Republicans? Come to think of it, this whole apocalyptic movement began with red hats emblazoned with a slogan. (Add up the number values of the letters in "Make America Great Again" and you get 162--not 666 or 616, the Biblical numbers of the Beast, but hey, this regime is all about disrupting old beliefs and repackaging them as something new, so why not have your number be 162?) All over America, but especially in the rural areas of the Heartland, people are walking around proudly wearing those red hats on their heads, graphic t-shirts proclaiming their allegiance to the Beast, and stickers on their pickups. Why, when I went to visit my grandchild in Boise last month, I saw a huge sign on a bluff proudly announcing the owner of the property was on the Trump Train. And that's the last time I'll mention the Beast's name in this sermon, because I know that's what he wants most: to have his name on everybody's lips, all the time.
The irony of saddling yourself to a disruptive horse is you find yourself going anywhere but where you always claimed you wanted to go. All your principles go out the window because this Beast has a mind of his own. He's not there to serve the people: he's there to devour their attention, to suck it into his ravening, bottomless maw, and he'll keep doing it as the nation burns up in ever hotter summers, and is flooded in ever stronger weather events, until there's no nation left to govern, but what does he care, it's not about governing, it's about attention.
That's the predicament we're in, choir. These really may be the End Times for us as a nation, perhaps even as a world. Our heedless rush toward nonstop consumption is using up the planet, and now we--and by this I mean the global we, the we that is the whole human race--are electing, appointing, and tolerating leaders who embody our appetite rather than our vision. In the end, the Satan who triggers our final Apocalypse will not be some supernatural monster rising from the depths, but the lowest common denominator of our collective sinful humanity. We will continue to be the Destroyer of this World, as we have been since we emerged from the Garden, until there is no world left to destroy, and the Beasts will happily facilitate that destruction.
I know what you're thinking, choir. I see it on your faces, hear it in the murmur of your voices: you think I'm going too far. Where's the word of grace? I've taken you to the cross, pinned the blame for the Savior's death on every one of you; how am I going to get you past it, to the empty tomb? What will be the redemption, the resurrection, the divine intervention that frees us from the mortal sins being committed in all our names?
And here it is: if it's to be, it's up to me. You know that by me, I mean us. You've heard me preach many times that the real miracles happen when every one of us decides to build a little corner of the Kingdom right where we are. I know you do it. I see it in your works, the little things you do to mitigate the destruction all around us: taking reusable bags to the grocery store, commuting by bus and bicycle, putting solar panels on your roof, calling people by their preferred pronouns, keeping your hand off the horn even when you're cut off by some monster truck with a tattered flag posted in its bed, banding together to march against xenophobia and sexism, staying friendly even in the midst of hateful expressions, holding onto your faith that somehow, it's all going to work out--I know you're walking the talk every day, everywhere you go.
And now I'm going to tell you another thing you don't want to hear: it's not enough. There has to be more. Brothers and sisters, we have got to evangelize. It's not enough just to witness with our actions, so that others may see our good works and be drawn to the gospel we're living. We need to tell them. I don't mean railing at them from street corners, badgering them with truth, scrawling it in chalk on public paths, forcing them to see and hear the literal words of conviction. They've seen and heard plenty of that, but they've tuned it out, just as I have begun to tune out the excruciating words of the Beast whenever I hear him quoted on a podcast or television show. To truly convict the minions of the Beast, we have to engage in the work of engagement, entering into conversations with them that go there.
I know this goes against the common sense I have almost certainly shared with you before, out of my own experience. I've told you how hard it is to talk with true believers about the contradictions and untruths of their beliefs, because they don't want to hear them. I've hit my head against the wall of trying to debate them. But it's not debate I'm talking about here: it's engagement. You have to get to know these people before you can hope to convert them.
And yes, I know there's danger in this. To really enter into dialogue is to take the risk of being transformed by it. If you open yourself up to the world of other human beings, if you listen to their hopes and fears, you may very well find your own worldview shifting to accommodate theirs. You may find yourself empathizing with the experience of seeing the world around them evolving into something they don't recognize anymore, a place filled with people who look different and sound different, a place that moves faster and uses technology they don't understand and don't want to learn, a place in which the jobs handed down to them by their parents and grandparents are becoming obsolete, a place in which their children speak in an ever-changing dialect they can't keep up with, a place they want to make "great again" by shrinking it back down to what they imagine it was like before they were born.
It's a lot to take in, a lot to wrap your mind around, and a lot harder to do than it was for me to just rattle it off. But if we're going to pull our nation back from the brink of this apocalyptic battle; if, much more than that, we're going to leave a habitable world for our children, let alone our grandchildren, to be able to survive and even thrive in, we've got to start on it now.
Speaking for myself, two and a half years into the Beast's regime, I'm barely holding on. If he gets another term, I don't know if I can stay American. I might have to make an expatriate of myself.
And now, finally, here's the good news, choir, the payoff for patiently hanging on with me through all this doom and gloom: we really can turn it around. How do I know this? Because I remember a night in 2008 when we did just that: after eight years of war-mongering, rationalized torture, wholesale slaughter of people whose only crime was having the misfortune to be born in Iraq, and deceitful incompetent governance by an accidental president, we as a nation voted for hope with a true majority. We even managed to hang onto it for several months before the Beastly backlash kicked in.
Knowing that it did happen then, I trust it can happen again. Strike that: it will happen again. This is the hope I hold onto, the hope that does not disappoint: this nation, this world will have a new birth in community; and this people, this human people, will not only not perish from the earth, but will save it from destruction, remaking it into the Eden it was always meant to be.
Are you with me, choir? Can I get an amen?
Did you hear them, church? Now it's your turn: let the church say...