What are the signs of the end times?
This is a question the disciples ask Jesus in the last week of his life. Each November, in the final three weeks of the church year, the Gospel readings draw our attention to Jesus’ response, his teachings about the end times, also known as the eschaton. And each year, for as long as I can remember, I have poo-pooed the relevancy of the question to us. I have viewed folks who have embraced apocalyptic movements, like “preppers” living off the grid in Idaho or those who have embraced the theology of the “Left Behind” books as misguided, alarmist, even dangerous.
After all, the early followers of Jesus expected him to return in their lifetimes and he didn’t. Most scripture scholars understand that the point of Jesus’ teachings about the eschaton is more spiritual than physical – about how we should live with the end in mind. This makes sense to me.
But, this year, the Gospel reading we just heard lands differently for me. What if we have reached a tipping point with the climate crisis and human life as we know it on this earth is nearly over? What if we really are in the end times?
In a Pew Research poll published last December, a whopping 39% of Americans said they believe that we are, indeed, living in the end times. Pope Francis, in his first encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si (about which we will be showing a moving film this afternoon at 3), wrote, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.”
And in his second encyclical on the environment, Laudate Deum, published in October, the Pope expresses his alarm: “We know that at this pace in just a few years we will surpass the maximum recommended limit of 1.5° C and shortly thereafter even reach 3° C, with a high risk of arriving at a critical point. Even if we do not reach this point of no return, it is certain that the consequences would be disastrous and precipitous measures would have to be taken, at enormous cost and with grave and intolerable economic and social effects. We must move beyond the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes.”
He then calls us out. “If we consider that emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries, we can state that a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact.”
In the context of our global climate emergency, the call in today’s gospel reading – to be ready and awake – takes on a new resonance. What does it mean to be prepared for the end in a climate-changed world?
The poet, Lynn Ungar, asks the question this way:
“What will you do with the last good days?
Before the seas rise and the skies close in,
before the terrible bill
for all our thoughtless wanting
finally comes due?
What will you do
with the last fresh morning,
filled with the watermelon scent
of cut grass and the insistent
bird calling sweet sweet
across the shining day?
Crops are dying, economies failing,
men crazy with the lust for power and fame
are shooting up movie theaters and
engineering the profits of banks.
It is entirely possible
it only gets worse from here.
How can you leave your heart open
to such a vast, pervasive sadness?
Every generation since the time of Jesus has felt threatened by people and events beyond their control. When Jesus walked the earth, his Jewish community feared annihilation by the occupying forces of Rome. Future generations have contended with war, famine, deadly disease and more. We tend to look at the past with rose-colored lenses, forgetting or dismissing the very real threats that previous generations have faced.
The ultimate challenge is to be awake to both the peril and the grace of this moment.
Ron Rohlheiser writes, “The distractions and worries of daily life tend to so consume us that we habitually take for granted what’s most precious to us, our health, the miracle of our senses, the love and friendships that surround us, and the gift of life itself. We go through our daily lives… with a lack of reflectiveness and lack of gratitude…. We are very much asleep, both to God and to our own lives.”
For some of us, it’s the heart attack or cancer diagnosis or loss of relationship that wakes us up to the preciousness of life. For others, it is sea level rise, wildfires, and extreme weather events that wake us up to the peril of the climate emergency. And, still, it is so easy to be on auto-pilot, to go back to sleep.
What hope might the parable of the ten bridesmaids offer us in this time of peril? It is tempting in a climate-challenged world to give in to dread, despair, and hopelessness. The political leadership needed for massive changes to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis seems far off. The overwhelming nature of the issues facing us may make us want to climb back under the covers, to think that there is no reason to bother “filling our lamps.” How many youth are riddled with climate anxiety.
Today’s parable points to a way of being awake in the world: prepared and expectant, mindful and perceptive, patient and ready for the arrival of the good. A sense of dread only depresses and paralyzes us. The Gospel invites us to prepare not simply for the worst, but for the best, for celebration with God and others.
In a climate changed world, the spiritual practices necessary to help us do that, to keep our lamps lit, are different from previous generations. Gail Straub recognizes, “An understanding that our destiny is forever linked with the fate of the Earth, that the health of our souls is inextricably related to the health of our planet, is at the heart of (earth) stewardship as a spiritual practice. Each conscious earth-friendly act–composting, reusing, recycling, repairing, carpooling, eco-wise shopping, and conserving water and energy–is also an act of spiritual mindfulness…Gently, inexorably, both our spiritual practice and our (earth) stewardship are changing us and changing the world.”
The fundamental attitude that is required to address the climate emergency with hope is to trust that as we engage in the spiritual practices that are needed to fill our lamps, God, like the bridegroom, will show up. As we meet the challenges of these days, as we shine our lamps, we will see God.
We can not know whether our earth stewardship will make the kind of difference that is needed to save us from climate catastrophe. We can not know whether or not these are, in fact, the end times.
But, in the meanwhile, we can be like the bridesmaids: light-bearers. Our bright lights can help us recognize the presence of God in our daily lives AND help others recognize hope and God through our actions. (The efforts of our Creation Care team include demonstration projects, like solar panels, ridding invasives and replacing with native plants to inspire others.)
Today’s reading proclaims that our God has prepared a celebration for us. Maybe, just maybe, future generations will look back on this time in history and be able to say that we were the ones who turned this crisis around, that we were the ones who woke up “to a new reverence for life, to the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, to the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and to the joyful celebration of life”. (The goals of the Earth Charter created 20 years ago.) Maybe we will evolve beyond the Anthropocene Era (this geologic time when humans have altered life on earth) to a new Ecological era, an era where humans live in harmony with the earth. This is a vision that can sustain us.
But, what if we don’t evolve? What if these really are the end times? Listen again to Lynn Ungar, as we hear the conclusion of her poem, “The Last Good Days.”
It is entirely possible
it only gets worse from here.
How can you leave your heart
open to such a vast, pervasive sadness?
How can you close your eyes
to the riot of joy and beauty
The solutions, if there are any
to be had, are complex, detailed,
demanding. The answers
are immediate and small.
Wake up. Give thanks. Sing.”
The ultimate challenge for us is to be awake to both the peril and the grace of this moment. Will we be wise or foolish ? It’s up to us to decide. Amen.