[This sermon was delivered during the Ingathering Worship Service, August 28, 2019]
The world seems to be always coming to an end. Whether fires devour our forests or raising waters claiming dry land, or by unbridled unleashing technological innovations towards each other and nature, the world as we have come to know it will cease to exist. It is very likely that in the future—whether two, three or more generations away, it is hard to tell—our world will be no more. There seems to be very little within our power to prevent this reality, the apocalyptic end of our world. Our efforts may be too few and come at too late a time for survival. What future could this be but no future at all?
These may not be the words you were expecting to hear on a day when you all gather to begin a new academic semester. Perhaps, you were hoping to hear that in spite of the sign of the times, in all manner of things, all will be well. Alternatively, maybe you were expecting to receive a roadmap of sorts to help you navigate your way through the ebbs and flows of uncertainty before you once called a future. But I cannot give you those words; it would be irresponsible of me to do so. Even though we may survive in this world still, we cannot be sure that things will turn out well. We may arrive at our destination still, but the road will be arduous, and the goal might not be what once we imagined, a place to reset from all our labors after a faithful journey on fulfillment of our calling of service.
I will trade neither in falsities nor niceties in an attempt to distract your attention from the hard truth at hand, the needed work of engaging a world coming to an end. There is hunger, and there is thirst in the world that can be satiated if we commit to the world community. There is illness in the world that can be prevented and treated if we but will share resources instead of hoarding them. Everyday women, girls, and trans members of our communities are subject to violence, even unto death, and most of the world still refuses to listen and act on decisively. Many in our community still claim ignorance about the systematic impact of racism. Shall we pause and talk about Social Media and the end of civic discourse and the possible death of the public square? Can we join in saying that it is not ignorance but willful neglect when one refused to be informed and walk decisively in the path of justice, equity, and compassion?
There are two things that I can say with certainty: One, the apocalypse is close at hand, meaning that it is likely that the days and nights of our shared world will come to an end. The other, our shared faith calls us to prophetic witness, meaning that the end will come sooner if we chose not to fight for a future that might yet be. Apocalypse is not just a declaration of the world coming to an end. Facing apocalypse with courage and faith is understanding that it reveals other possible ways of being, of acting, and living in the world while we still have time.
And yet, facing all manners of world-ending challenges, many faith people surrender their voice to the prophetic laryngitis of comfort instead of commitment, self-reliance over communal belonging, and apathy against care. We may take refuge in the false comfort that comes by not rocking the boat—because we instead not make people uncomfortable lest they pull their support on us or rescind their welcome, BUT that boat will still sink. We may opt for self-reliance and jettison the ties that bound us to communities in a misguided attempt to heroic individualism that will see us fail. Worse still, we may turn, in apathy, from those calling on us for help in the vain attempt of self-preservation.
So no, I cannot offer words of comfort. What I can offer is an exhortation to do three things. These are three things that I wish to commend to you as you prepare to minister at the end of the world:
We may not all be there at the end of the world. But some of us, or our children, or their children, may still make it. Talks about the world coming to an end are as old as the beginning of the world itself. If fact, what is the beginning of the world as we know if not also an ending? The event that unfolded into our world, the Big Bang, was both an ending and a start. Sacred stories tell about the epochs that came to an end by waters, by fire, and then the world was made anew.
Through generations—whether through prophecies, natural disasters, catastrophes, or human action—the world has come to an end for civilizations. Such ends not always but often spelled a new beginning. But this knowledge does not make it any less threatening for us. Our times are indeed perilous times. So how are we to make ready for tomorrow?
Equip yourself and your communities with the best intellectual and spiritual tool-kit you can muster. Invest the time in rejuvenating and strengthening your faith along with others. Create new rituals, pray new prayers, sing new songs, move in new ways. Being prepared for the end entails that we stretch our imaginations to dream new possibilities. And then, after dreaming these possibilities, find the cracks in our current realities to work towards making those dreams reality.
One of the lines from the poem Apocalipsixtlán that has stuck with me in preparing this sermon is: “What future is this? We asked. And Those Who Came Before simply shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads.” It stuck with me because of the sting it delivered. Those who came before cannot tell us about the future because it is not theirs to live into; to live into tomorrow, that is our task.
It is when faced with uncertainty that hope should prevail. Not a hope of false dreams, or easy comfort, not a hope that keeps us chained to passivity, but a hope that empowers our journey. Hope is what moves us to action even if we do not know what the outcome will be. We must act in the face of uncertainty because in doing so, we can help shape the outcome. Hope pushes us to look intently through the cracks in the world and see glimpses of a world that might be, even if there is no guarantee this world will ever be realized. It is when we look through the cracks of the world as it is gaining glimpses from the world that it might be that we learn to minister at the end of the world.
I would like to end by sharing with you advice I gathered from a poem by Joy Harjo, For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet. This is a poem that I read as a call to ministry and a life of service to others.
At the end of this poem, Harjo writes:
Welcome your spirit back from its wandering. It may return in pieces, in tatters. Gather them together. They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.
Your spirit will need to sleep a while after it is bathed and given clean clothes.
Now you can have a party. Invite everyone you know who loves and supports you. Keep room for those who have no place else to go.
Make a giveaway, and remember, keep the speeches short.
Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way through the dark.
Even if the end of the world is near, there is ministry to be done. There will be those who long for a word to help them carry on through. There will be those in need of comfort as they grieve through unimaginable loss. There will be communities waiting to join in rituals of healing for a world in tatters. There will be a generation whose imagination might be ignited by the ministry of compassion and action.
In the meantime, your task is to ready yourself for ministry at the end of the world.
“From “Apocalipsixtlán” [5. Signs Of The End Of The World] By Rigoberto González - Poems | Poets.Org”. 2019. Poets.Org. Accessed August 21, 2019. https://poets.org/poem/apocalipsixtlan-5-signs-end-world
“Conflict Resolution For Holy Beings By Joy Harjo.” 2019. Poetry Foundation. Accessed August 21, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/141847/conflict-resolution-for-holy-beings
Dr. Elías Ortega started his presidency in July 2019. He is an interdisciplinary scholar, educator, and a UU lay leader. He currently serves the larger Unitarian Universalist movement as a member of the UUA’s Commission on Institutional Change.Read more about Dr. Ortega