The Darkened Sun

For Sunday, 27 November 2020: Mark 13:24-37

[Jesus said to his followers:] 24 “But in those days, after that suffering,the sun will be darkened,and the moon will not give its light,25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

A solar eclipse is oftentimes a surreal occurrence for those who have experienced the phenomenon. Even if one scientifically understands it as the moon casting its shadow upon the sun, there is still an air of unreality as the sun appears to dim and vanish for a few minutes and the sky turns dark in the middle of the day. Understandably, this was a frightening experience for ancient peoples and their stories reflect as much. The Pomo, the indigenous people of northern California, tell a tale of a bear fighting with the sun and taking a bite out of it. As a matter of fact, the word for a solar eclipse in the Pomo language is Sun-got-bit-by-a-bear. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus also prophesies and warns his followers about a time when “the sun will be darkened.”

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Joel prophesied that one of the signs of the expected “day of the Lord” was the darkened sun: “The sun shall be turned to darkness … before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:31). As a familiar theme, the “day of the Lord” is both eagerly anticipated and dreaded by the chosen people for it is a day of God’s justice as well as a time of  God’s judgment, a day on which evil will be defeated and the righteous will be vindicated.

This understanding by the twelve tribes of Israel about the Day of the Lord was carried over into the New Testament as the day of the return of Christ or his second coming, one of the themes of the church season of Advent which begins today. I am reminded of the words of one of our Eucharistic Prayers when we pray: “Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father, we thy people do celebrate and make, with these thy holy gifts which we now offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make; having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; andlooking for his coming again with power and great glory” (BCP p. 342).

There is another time in the Gospel of Mark when the sun is darkened. When Jesus is nailed to the cross and in the process of dying a painful death, it is written: “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Mark 15:33). As we wait for the Day of the Lord, we do so in the shadow of the cross, giving heed to the Apostle Paul’s words to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation, for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-9).

Even though we do not know when the time will come, as we wait for angels to gather us from the four winds, and the vanquishment of evil and the triumph of God, we are not to live in fear. Rather, we have work to do, a mission to accomplish involving acts of faith, hope, and love using the gifts God has given us.  Let us encourage one another with these words.

 

Sheep and Goats

For Sunday, 22 November 2020: Matthew 25:31-46


[Jesus said to his followers]:  31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

 

I have a Navajo friend who inherited from her family the honor of overseeing their traditional sheep camp. On a visit to this site in a remote part of New Mexico one time, she gave me a tour and shared some of the wisdom of her Diné people. Sheep have long been an important part of their culture, not only providing food and wool for weaving, but also spiritual lessons of humility, gratitude, and generosity.

At the sheep camp were also some goats. Curious, I asked my friend about the difference between sheep and goats. She responded that the goats also teach lessons to people, but they were more about what not to do or be: mischievous, rebellious, a wanderer. She observed that while the sheep generally stayed together with the flock, the goats tended to roam about independently, increasing their chances of getting into trouble or danger. She also added that sheep were hardier in their environment thanks to their wool and thick skin, while the goats were more thin-skinned and vulnerable to the cold.

Sheep and goats are important creatures in the pages of the Bible as well. Both animals were used in the sacrificial system of worship by the Jewish people in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, on the Day of Atonement, a “scapegoat” was driven away from the community into the wilderness, ritually bearing the sins and iniquities of the people (Leviticus 16:21-22). A “paschal lamb” was part of the annual observance of Passover, the remembrance of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery to freedom (Exodus 12:1-8). In the New Testament, Jesus himself is identified as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus uses a story about sheep and goats to teach his followers. He tells us that one a day an accounting of what we did or did not do must be made by all the nations of the world, all the peoples of the earth. His reference to “the least of these who are members of my family” is a reminder that just as the Creator sent Jesus on a mission, Jesus now sends his followers through the ages to continue that work: “Whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives [the One] who sent me” (John 13:20).

In short, we will be judged by how we treated those whom Jesus sends and the message they carry. Do we treat them with mercy, kindness, and compassion or with cruelty, hostility, and indifference? Have we accepted or rejected the tidings they shoulder, which is tantamount to receiving or refusing Jesus himself? Jesus is clear here. I believe his desire is for all people to be sheep, rather than goats, for it is the sheep who will hear the words, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” If a species transformation is necessary, it can begin today.

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The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.