We get to carry each other
When I was in high school, in English class, we read a lot of dystopian novels. Classics, like Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and 1984. Books of prophecy that told tales of a disturbing future: control by oppressive governments, environmental destruction, conflict and survival, the loss of human dignity. And yes, 1984 was still in the future back in my high school days.
But even now, we still have an appetite for dystopian literature. Witness the enduring popularity of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or the Hunger Games. And of course there is the latest sensation, Squid Game, which is right now the number one show on Netflix. We read, and watch, a lot of dystopian stuff.
The words of Jesus that we just heard from the 21st chapter of the gospel of Luke fit right in:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
Ominous words. But why? What is the purpose of dystopian literature? Is it just meant to scare us? Is it written simply to indulge some sort of morbid fascination we have with death and destruction?
For insight into the purpose of dystopian literature, I thought I’d turn to Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel, The Testament. Atwood teaches one of those masterclasses on The Dystopian Novel. As part of that class, she teaches that one reason for writing these disturbing tales about the future is to challenge us as readers to see the present more clearly. To challenge us to think differently about current social, environmental and political climates, and, in some cases, to inspire action. So if you’ve been watching Squid Game, and you’re disturbed by the prospect of a violent, murderous game that preys on desperately indebted people, maybe you want to start thinking more about the economic inequality in our own society and start to work for economic justice and to fight against inequality.
In that way dystopian literature functions not as a self-fulfilling prophecy, but rather as a self-unfulfilling prophecy, by challenging us to stand up, to see more clearly and to take action to prevent dystopias from becoming reality.
But what if the disturbing vision is not just about the future? What if it’s painting a picture of what’s happening right now?
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel were not just about the future for his listeners and for Luke’s readers a generation later. The oppression of the Roman Empire in Palestine was a present reality. Crosses dotting the landscape were clear signs of how Rome dealt with rebellion. Many suffered from food insecurity as a result of excessive taxation. And the war that Luke’s readers endured in the 60s and 70s resulted in utter devastation and the destruction of Jerusalem.
In times of suffering and devastation, dystopian writing, or as we can also call it, apocalyptic writing, takes on new meaning and purpose. It becomes a way of acknowledging and expressing a community’s trauma while offering hope in the midst of these experiences. “Yes,” Jesus says, “you will faint from fear. But then you will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, with power and great glory.” Jesus is telling a suffering people that even in times of struggle, God hears their cry, God cares, God is with them and that ultimately it is God’s way, not human power and dysfunction that will prevail. The fig tree will sprout leaves, the summer is already near, and you will see the Son of Man. There is hope.
Hope matters, and this year as we enter Advent, perhaps hope matters more than ever. You know, I’ve heard today’s reading before, but in previous years, it always seemed to me that it was talking about the future. This year though, maybe for the first time, I feel like Jesus’ words really relate to what’s happening now.
There is the pandemic that we are living through, that we continue to struggle with. And when I hear about the roaring of the sea and the waves, I can’t help but think of what’s going on in BC, the wildfires, the atmospheric river, the flooding, the landslides, and now the flooding that’s happening in the Atlantic provinces. This year we have seen with our own eyes what a 1.1 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures can do. And the latest projections tell us that we are on a course that will more than double that temperature increase during the lifetime of a child born today.
So I take to heart what Atwood has to say about the power of a dystopian vision of the future to challenge us to think and act differently today. Yes, when Jesus talks about the roaring of the seas, and when we see what that means with our own eyes, by all means let it inspire us to take action to reduce climate change.
And yes, hope matters. In times of trouble, in the face of environmental disaster, I share with the poet the words of today’s psalm:
“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.
Show me your ways O Lord,
and teach me your paths.”
There days when I choose to hope, when I choose to pray, when I am inspired to act differently. But there are also days when I simply want to ignore what’s going on, to be distracted, or even to crawl away and hide.
Which is the opposite of what Jesus tells us to do.
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Raise your heads? Redemption? What’s that all about? What does any of this have to do with redemption?
Our redemption is found in our relationships with each other and with God. In times of trouble, when we suffer loss, when we struggle - stand up, bear witness to the struggle and find redemption in it - if only in the way that the struggle connects you to others and to God.[i]
Or to put it another way: even when things go bad, even when there is conflict and division and natural disaster, God is with us, and we get to carry each other[ii].
This is our hope and this is God’s promise. In times of trouble, God will draw near. Even when human ways fail, even should the earth itself fail, God’s way will endure.
And what is God’s way? It is this: we get to carry each other, and we are carried by God. In all times, but especially in times of trouble.
When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
The kingdom of God is a movement of love and service and grace, animated by the power and presence of God. A movement that we often see more clearly in times of trouble. A movement that we sometimes experience more fully when we are struggling. A movement that invites our participation at all times. A movement in which we get to carry each other.
Because the flip side of the heart-rending images that we have seen lately in BC are the heart-warming images of neighbours helping each other, of rescue teams working 24/7 to save people, of people pulling together, of the commitment to rebuild, and to reduce carbon emissions.
In difficult times, we bear witness to the struggle and find redemption in it. In times of trouble, we get to carry each other. And throughout, we are carried by God.
Homily: Yr C Advent 1, Nov 28 2021, Trinity
Readings: Jeremiah 33.14-16; Ps 25.1-10; 1 Thess 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36
Image of Colquihalla Highway by Matt Steberl (posted on Facebook)
[i] Danny Alexander, Real Love, No Drama: The Music of Mary J Blige. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20211117-why-u2s-one-is-the-ultimate-anthem [ii] U2, One.