“I Have Already Told You Everything”

Mk. 13:14-23

When I was a boy, growing up in Illinois, I learned that there were three things you didn’t talk about: religion, politics and sex. You stayed away from talking about politics because in Chicago it was crooked. You stayed away from talking about sex because you were too young. You stayed away from talking about religion because it was too volatile a subject. Too many families and nations and peoples have been split asunder by controversies over religion. I did not follow my parent’s admonitions. I got married, avidly followed national politics and went into the religion business. So much for the power of the mores of Midwest Protestantism!

I want to talk a little bit to you this morning about religion in general. Then I want to mention the function of myths, language and folktales. Finally I will tell you a story. My wife says that like Jesus, I will “have already told you everything” when I’m done.

First about religion. Religion is a very serious matter. Religion is about our worldview, our view of life. It shapes, defines and motivates our behavior and our ideas. Religion includes our beliefs, practices and faith. Religion is about man’s eternal quest for God; or, if you prefer, Gods eternal quest for man. Often we tend to underestimate the power and scope of religion. We think that the secular worldview, the scientific worldview, the agnostic’s worldview and the worldview of atheism are non-religious. They can, however, function very much like traditional religions in that they make ultimate claims about the ultimate nature of reality and man’s relationship to the principles of the universe. The secular man worships at the altar of success, power, prestige or some other ultimate good. For a common everyday example of an idol, take a look sometime at the Oscar statue in the motion picture industry. The so-called non-religious world has its messiahs, idols and gods, but is often more circumspect in naming them than is the overtly religious world.

We ignore religion and its power at our peril. Mainline churches discount the Pentecostal, charismatic and fundamental churches. Orthodox, confessional and sacramental churches are smugly tempted to discount the power of animism, mysticism (the Sufis), oriental and major world religions. I have for a long time felt that our state department has underestimated the tremendous power of religion in third world countries (such as the Whabbis in Saudi Arabia). Sometimes, it seems to me, there is an attitude in institutions of a false sense of progressive perfectionism and evolutionism. “Those poor people in Africa, with or without their bishops and imams, are simple naive and childish. Wrong. They are far more tuned in to things in a way in which the cultural elite often totally underestimates. Often they are keenly aware of the over-powering force of the mysterium tremendum, the Holy Other, which Judaism celebrates in its story of Moses on the Mountain and Christianity in its Passion narrative. Sometimes it takes a book like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or a movie like Apocalypse Now to remind us of the power of evil and the existence of what St. Paul calls “principalities and powers.”

Now to speak for a moment about language, folktales and myths. We make sense of our lives through telling stories. All cultures, societies and families do this. “When I was a child we used toŠ.” These are the introductory words to what you and I recognize is going to be a short tale told by an older person, an aunt, uncle or parent. Every society and every religion generates folktales and myths, which contain observations, principles and truths. So myths are about truths, but they are not necessarily always logically true or scientifically demonstrable. For example, “the Chicago Cubs live under the curse of the man who could not bring in a goat.” The truth in that myth is that there seems to be some inexorable reason why the Cubs are congenitally incompetent. In the broader realm the religion of secularism and agnosticism will often posit that “all religions are alike.” Not true. There are huge differences. But the point is being made that there are commonalities among religions. I’ve heard intellectuals and people of good will say, “We ultimately all worship the same god.” No we don’t. There may be a force of energy and will in creation, but we don’t all worship that. Some worship idols and some mammon (success or money).

The Old Testament is full of myths and folktales. Genesis presents the story of creation. The stories of The Flood or of Sodom and Gomorrah combine both mythological and folk elements. You will find in the Old Testament that there is a constant struggle by the Hebrews against false gods, values and religions which exploit individuals, society and the piety of religious people. Hence we have Elijah railing against Ba-alism, which encouraged temple prostitution and human sacrifice. Not without their own faults, over and over the Jews struggled against the temptations of apostasy and hedonism. Hence we have prophetic literature and the constant warnings to Israel and Judah to keep the commandments and to stay on track. Specific truths are presented in the prophetic literature about the nature of God and the nature of faithful obedience. Justice and mercy must kiss each other, as the psalmist notes. False messiahs bring pyrrhic victories.

When Jesus preached to the people of Israel, He was speaking to a people who had lived under the occupation of the Greco-Roman empire. Previous conquerors had been driven out and replaced by the Romans, who brought their gods and their religions. The Book of Daniel uses mythical and apocalyptic language to describe the travails of Israel, to urge the people to be faithful and to offer a vision of hope. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus uses the same kind of language to bring a sense of urgency. Jesus speaks of the last days, of cataclysmic events and of false messiahs. He is pointing to specific truths which are central to his message. They are these: God has acted. God is present in His life. Salvation is to be found in following Jesus. Pay attention. Enough said.

Those are the same truths which the Church proclaims today. God has acted. God is present in the life of Christ (and in the life of the Church which is His body). Salvation is found in following Jesus. Listen up. Be alert. Work it out. Enough said.

You and I do all of that. We proclaim the Gospel in our lives, in our sacraments, in our teaching, in our song, in our stewardship and in our charity. Through our lives and through the stories we tell and the myths that we uphold in our lives, we praise God who is our help in ages past and we stand up for Jesus. We stand over against the false gods of mammon and success, of secularism and nihilism. We stand for a faith in a creator and redeemer God who cares for each and every one of us. That is our message.

Time for a story. My wife is the executive director of the Connecticut Writing Project. That organization teaches teachers to teach writing. Its goal is to get kids writing at all grade levels. Faye has been working with the teachers in Groton, Connecticut. Many of the children are from the Navy base there. The schools are poor and there is a turn over each year of one third of the students. Even so, the teachers soldier on, trying to inspire and to get the children to write. Here is a story written by a seven year old. Angles Story. (Note the spelling.) Once long long ago, there was an angel who love God more than the others. Her name was Moira. She prayed to God every morning and every night. But her sisters did not. If they did not they would be punished. So she need to help them! She begged them to pray, but they would not! She was the wrongest person, no wonder they would not listen to her. She was doomed! Find out what happened to her on Moira 2! Remember when Moira was ignored? Well one day she went to God. She said, “God, I’ve come to tell you my sisters will not pray to you!. Please don’t hurt them.” But God did not do anything to hurt my sisters. He just said, “This is the girl who loved her sisters even if they did not pray to me.” Here is God picking me up! He said, “You and your sisters are free! You no longer need to be in my presence. Remember me.” I will. So I jumped in a hole. I was on land. I found a man. I said to be friends. We lived happy ever after. The End.

Through story telling and myth making this seven year old articulated some profound truths: love, compassion, forgiveness, charity and hope. She added the American dream of a happy family and a happy life ever hereafter. But isn’t that the dream of people in every society and every country? The seven year old had grasped the central truths of our faith. What a blessing! And now, “I have already told you everything.” Amen.