Many years ago, when I was working at Catholic Charities in the Twin Cities, we had an annual summer event for all the employees—about 300 people. That year, we were invited to the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul. It was a beautiful June day. We had lots of time to wander through the trails and see dozens of animals in special habitats. Plus, a conservatory with exotic flowers and plants. And amusement park with lots of rides. We also had a free picnic lunch. A lovely, relaxing afternoon.
After a few hours, people started to leave, so I walked back to the parking lot with a couple friends. When I got to my pickup, I discovered the door was unlocked. Inside, it was obvious that someone had rummaged through the glove compartment. My gym bag was open, with my clothes pulled out and left behind. Then I remembered that I’d put my checkbook in my bag. Back then, everyone carried one wherever you went, just in case you had to pay for something. Of course, my checkbook was gone.
As it turned out, the cars of several coworkers were also hit. We called the police, who sent a squad car. When the officer arrived, he told us that kind of theft happens frequently there. Thieves often sit and watch groups like ours arrive in the morning—knowing that most people spend a few hours at the zoo. Then they break into their cars when no one is watching. Clever thieves, right? But what the policeman said made me angry. I thought, shouldn’t you put up signs, or station a guard in the parking lot, or tell zoo staff to warn everyone that they could become victims of theft?
Our Gospel lesson seems to provide that kind of warning. In today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus says, “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and… let his house be broken into. Therefore, you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Many Christians interpret this passage as referring to “the Rapture.” Based on prophecies from the books of Revelation, Isaiah and Ezekiel, the Rapture is an event some believe will happen before the second coming of Christ. A lot of people are interested in the Rapture. I Googled those words and got 39 million results.
You may have heard of Left Behind, a series of 16 novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which has sold more than 90 million copies. The novels tell the story of how hundreds of thousands of Christians are suddenly raptured and disappear from the face of the earth.
I remember being part of a conservative Christian youth group in high school. Where we used to sing a song by Larry Norman about the Rapture, which went like this:
“A man and wife asleep in bed,
she hears a noise and turns her head, he's gone--
I wish we'd all been ready.
Two men walking up a hill,
one disappears and one's left standing still--
I wish we'd all been ready.
There's no time to change your mind,
the Son has come,
and you've been left behind.”
The point of this song is to make sure that you’re not one of those left behind. Yet, I would guess most of us in this congregation, aren’t overly concerned about the Rapture. Though some of us grew up with those beliefs. Maybe even scared silly into believing with the threat of God’s future punishment. However, I believe that if you read this Gospel lesson more carefully, there’s another way to look at these words. Jesus refers to the story of Noah and the ark. When the floods came, everyone was swept away. Only Noah’s family was saved. But that order is a complete reversal from Rapture theology, which says that true believers will be taken, while nonbelievers stay to suffer the final tribulation. In the story of the Flood, it’s the other way around. The bad people drown and Noah—who’s called righteous—is left behind.
The same is true in other stories from Hebrew Scriptures. For example, in the story of Moses and the 10 plagues of Egypt, when the angel of death passes over the land, the first-born of the Egyptians die. But the Israelite children are left alive. Or like when the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem in 586 B.C., the city’s wealthiest families and political leaders are carried away as refugees. So, it was up to the remnant of Jewish people left in their homeland to continue their faith. The prophet Isaiah in our first reading is speaking to those people—offering the hope of regaining freedom from oppression and rebuilding the Temple to those left behind.
Similarly, three weeks ago during our intergenerational event, we discussed the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. Where the unwelcoming citizens of Sodom are destroyed by fire and brimstone. But Abraham’s nephew is deemed righteous—Lot and a few of his family members are left behind. During our time together, Rabbi Janeen from Temple Beth El Synagogue talked about the Jewish definition of a righteous person. She told us that in their faith tradition, a righteous individual was usually not much better than the bad people. What’s set them apart is that the righteous are the ones chosen by God to carry on the covenant.
In our Gospel reading, I believe that Jesus is telling us the same thing. Just like the Great Flood left behind the faithful Noah and his family, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. One will be taken. And the remaining person has a righteous calling. Life can be like that. When someone we love dies, those who have been left behind have to find the faith and courage to live through our grief. And figure out what it means to live without them.
Today is World AIDS Day. A day to remember those who have died of AIDS and those living with HIV. I lost my boyfriend Steve 31 years ago to AIDS. Since then, I’ve known many, many others like him. Gay men and straight women. Young hemophiliacs and older drug users. African Americans and Latinos and Native Americans. Countless intelligent, gifted and righteous ones. At times, like anyone who has lost a loved one in an accident or from cancer or by suicide, I wonder why I was left behind.
Some people like to say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” And while I agree that I am still here because of God’s lovingkindness, I don’t like the implication that those other people might be less righteous than me. Reflecting on that, I also see a deeper meaning in today’s Gospel. I believe Jesus is calling us to work and pray for the Kingdom of God to come among us. And to make that happen, we have a holy calling in this world. A calling to be the living Body of Christ with-and-to others who just need a moment of grace in their lives right now. I believe that’s the meaning of these words of Jesus.
For today, on this first Sunday of Advent, Christ is quietly entering our hearts and minds—like a thief in the night (or at a zoo)—waiting for a time when we least expect. And suddenly, BAM! We come face to face with unanticipated righteousness and undeserved grace. Grace that’s greater than the love of a mother. More persistent than the cleverest criminal. More surprising than the best Christmas present you ever received. Which is exactly what we need on those dark nights when we feel lost and lonely and hopeless. As we long for redemption. For a brighter day. A better world with less hatred and more love.
When together, we will walk hand in hand in the light of God. For Christ is coming soon. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 24:36-44
Jesus said to the disciples, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”