Keep ya head up

In 2011, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the songs that in shaped rock.  The Guardian has called it one of thousand songs that everyone must hear.  And it has been running through my mind all week as I’ve read the Gospel lesson from Luke that is appointed for Advent 1C.  Tupac Shakur’s “Keep ya head up” is a song dedicated to black women, an anthem for the many who have been subjugated, violated, and treated as less than by men.  The album from which it comes is not a title I can share on this blog, but the song itself is quite clean, so I offer you the music video, should you be interested.

While it is the chorus, which features a sample from The Five Stairsteps “O-o-h Child” that has been my earworm for the week, the verses actually have something to say about apocalyptic vision that Jesus offers the crowd in Sunday’s lesson.  I’m especially drawn to these words:

It’s hard to be legit and still pay your rent
And in the end it seems I’m headin’ for the pen
I try and find my friends, but they’re blowin’ in the wind
Last night my buddy lost his whole family

It’s gonna take the man in me to conquer this insanity
It seems the rain’ll never let up
I try to keep my head up, and still keep from getting wetter
You know it’s funny when it rains, it pours

They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor
Said, there ain’t no hope for the youth
And the truth is, there ain’t no hope for the future

And then they wonder why we crazy
I blame my mother, for turnin’ my brother into a black baby
We ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setup
And even though you’re fed up

Huh, ya got to keep your head up

Read more: 2Pac – Keep Ya Head Up Lyrics | MetroLyrics

The world of East Harlem in the 1970s, the world in which Tupac was raised, was not that far removed from the vision that Jesus offers for the end times.  Fed up with racial profiling and police violence, the Black Panther Party, of which Tupac’s parents were both active members, was, at times, at war with the powers-that-be.  Much later in life, and now on the other side of the continent, Tupac wrote “Keep ya head up” in a situation in which not whole lot had changed.  The deck was still stacked against young African-Americans born into the poverty.  The men often took to the hustle to make enough money to eat and pay the rent.  Violence was a daily part of life.  Women, especially as featured in this song, were often left to raise children all on their own, either because the father was dead, could’t afford a baby, or had moved on to… less fertile pastures.

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Having come out of a world that seemed like the future was absolutely hopeless, Tupac Shakur chose to write a song about keeping your head up.  As Jesus looks upon a world that seems hellbent on its own destruction, where power and might are the only things that seem to actually mean anything or hold any value, it seems just as odd that he too might tell the oppressed and the downtrodden to, in the words of Tupac Shakur, “keep ya head up.”  Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus does.  For neither of them are these words meant to be platitudes, but rather, they speak to a deep truth that even when all hope seems lost, even when you’re fed up, the only real option is to keep your head up.  Keep striving for justice, for mercy, for righteousness.  Keep speaking truth to power.  Keep claiming your own dignity and worth.  Keep your head up, because the redemption of the world is drawing near.

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The Signs of the Times

As I looked outside this morning, it was well past time for the sun to be up, but a lower, lingering gray continued to hold court in the sky.  Snow flurries were dancing along the tops of the leaves that are begging me to rake them toward their final resting place.  The trees, through which I’d normally see the sun coming over the horizon, are mostly bare, with only the last few holdouts just barely hanging on.  Looking outside, it wasn’t hard to tell that today was going to be a cold, wet, and dreary kind of day.  No matter how much I might wish for a sunny day in the mid-50s, it isn’t going to happen, and this morning’s snapshot out my front window betrays that reality.

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As a new Church Year begins, we move the focus of our Sunday Gospel lessons from Mark’s brevity to Luke’s more expansive theological story-telling style.  On this First Sunday of Advent, we jump deep into Holy Week for another foray into apocalyptic literature.  Unlike in Mark, where Jesus offered his eschatological reflections from the Mount of Olives to only a select few hearers, here, Jesus is in the Temple, talking to whomever will listen about what is to come.

“When you see the fig tree come into bloom, you know summer is at hand,” Jesus tells the crowded Temple court, “so pay attention, for you will see the signs of the times for the coming of the Kingdom of God.”  As with most visions of the End Times, Jesus’ imagery is full of war, famine, fear, are foreboding.  He tells the audience that in those moments, they shouldn’t cower in fear, but rather, “raise up your heads because your redemption is drawing near.”

In the 2,000 or so years since Jesus said these words, there hasn’t been a time without war, famine, fear, and foreboding.  If one were watching out the window for the signs of the times, it might always look like Jesus is getting ready to hop on that cloud and enter with power and might.  Many a charlatan, of the sort that Jesus warned the crowds about earlier in Luke (a version of which we heard from Mark two weeks ago), have made themselves rich and powerful by a false reading of these signs.  Many have been made to shrink in fear that the end is nigh, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to.  In a world that constantly looks like it is coming to an end, and most often so due to the sinfulness of humanity, are we able to read the signs and raise up our heads?  Will we be willing to stand up and invite others to join in the work of restoration to which we are invited?  Are we able to see that the great revealing that will take place isn’t meant to harm and destroy, but rather, to build and restore?

Let’s be honest, the times don’t look that good these days.  Signs of the end are as prevalent as they’ve ever been.  Will we cower in fear?  Will we resign ourselves to anger and sadness?  Or, will we raise up our head, roll up our sleeves, and join with God’s redeeming work?

Reading the Signs

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This is, by far, one of my favorite signs to see.  Despite the well worn jokes about its cleanliness and the decidedly unhealthy amount of butter they use to keep the scrambled egg pan lubed, I can’t help myself.  When I see a Waffle House sign, I know I am going to be in for a good meal at a reasonable price.  There are times when that is what I’m looking for, but more often than not, the Waffle House sign serves only as a temptation.

I think the same is true of the signs that Jesus describes in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  After three Sundays of apocalyptic parables from Matthew’s Gospel, Advent 1B opens a new Church year, and we begin our every-three-year journey with the Gospel according to Mark.  The themes are similar, as one might expect in a season devoted to being prepared for the Advent of Christ, both his first one on Christmas, and his second Advent at the day of judgment.  It seems reasonable, having heard about it week after week, that we might begin to see the world through eschatological glasses – seeing signs of the end at every turn.

Many a “prophet” has made a lot of money off humankind’s tendency to be tempted by signs.  They’ll point to wars and rumors of wars; earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters; the United Nations and the World Bank; whatever they can cram into the scripture passage they’ve pulled out of context, to convince us that the world is coming to an end, and because you won’t need money after the coming of the Son of Man, you should probably send yours their way.

Like a Waffle House sign on the interstate at 2:30 in the afternoon, nothing good comes from following these temptations.  Jesus is clear, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  When he invites his disciples to “keep alert,” the Greek is more simply, “stay awake.”  When we are looking for signs, we will always find them.  Rather, Jesus is inviting his disciples, and us, to keep at the work of the Kingdom: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, proclaiming the Good News; because the signs will trick us, we do not know the day or the hour, but when he comes, like a thief in the night, our laziness will not be rewarded.

Reading the [fig] leaves

 

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is chronically difficult to deal with.  What did Jesus mean by signs in the sun, moon, and stars?  How do we handle Jesus’ promise that the generation would not pass away before these things took place?  Is Jesus suggesting that if we pray hard enough, we can be saved – isn’t that works righteousness?  What the hell does any of this have to do with Christmas?  I’m not preaching this week, and I haven’t done my homework on this difficult text, so I can’t really help you with any of that, but I have become particularly interested in Jesus’ mention of the fig leaves.

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In my neck of the woods, the harbinger of summer isn’t the fig tree; it is the pecan tree that tells us that winter is over.  I’m not sure how it knows, but the locals say that the pecan tree never buds before the last frost/freeze of the season.  When the pecan tree finally begins to bud, it is time to put away the winter gear because warmer weather is on its way.  Like I said, I’m not sure how the pecan tree knows, but we know from years and years of experience.  The data tells us, and so it has become a sign.

The problem with the second coming, which along with the annual remembrance of Christ’s incarnation, is part of what we long for this Advent season, is that there is no data.  There is only speculation, and any number of foolish souls who are eager to read the leaves: fig, pecan, or maybe even tea; and try to know something that Jesus told us will come unexpectedly.

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Rather than reading leaves, Jesus tells us that we should be about the work of the Kingdom.  This only makes sense, since it is the Kingdom we are waiting for anyway.  Wouldn’t it be better to be reaching out in love for our neighbor when God comes to bring about his reign of love full-time?  Wouldn’t it be better to better to develop a strong prayer life in preparation for the coming of the One to whom we pray?  Getting about the work of the Kingdom will take away from our ability to read the leaves, but it will make us all the more ready for when our prayer, the prayer that Jesus taught us, that the Kingdom might exist on earth as it does in heaven, finally comes to pass.  So, quit looking for signs in the heavens or for buds on the trees, roll up your sleeves, and get busy with Kingdom work.

Jesus’ Apocalypse

In this week’s “Sunday’s Coming” lectionary post at Christian Century (which I cannot link to, but you can subscribe here – update, you can now read it here), the brilliant Rev. Dr. Kathy Grieb invites us to think about whether or not we are living in apocalyptic times.  She points out, rather helpfully, that the word “apocalypse” doesn’t mean “the end of the world” or “the great cosmic battle between good and evil.”  Instead, it simply means “revelation” or “unveiling.”  While it may be tempting to think, and popular culture has jumped upon the idea, that the book of Daniel, the Revelation of John, or any number of Jesus’ sayings are specifically dealing with the eschaton (the last), they are apocalyptic texts, unveiling that which has been previously unseen.

Take, for example, Jesus’ apocalypse in Sunday’s gospel lesson.  Having spent the better part of half a week arguing with the Temple authorities, Jesus and his disciples retreat to the Mount of Olives.  Jesus must be deep in prayer for the city and people he loves so much, but his disciples are more like tourists, oohing and aahing over the sites in the city down below.

As they sit, the can see before them three very impressive structures.  In the foreground is the Temple, built around 516 BCE, but recently updated by order of Herod the Great.  Just behind it, and probably standing just a bit taller than the Temple itself was Antonia’s Fortress, also built under the reign of Herod the Great, and named after Mark Antony.  Finally, toward the Upper City section, there was Herod’s Palace, built by, you guessed it, Herod the Great.

Each of these buildings was impressive, built of huge stone, standing taller than anything else in the city, and each served as a symbol of Rome’s power and might.  As the disciples gawk at their magnitude, Jesus opens the curtain to show them that despite their beauty, these buildings are not what God had planned for Jerusalem.  “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Jesus was not interested in Rome’s symbols of power.  He was especially distressed that even God’s Temple had taken on the trapping of Roman influence.  It was no longer a house of prayer for all people, but a place where money and influence were the name of the game.  God’s desire wasn’t for big buildings and elaborate worship, and so Jesus opened the veil to show the people what God really desired: that his people would follow his will through prayer, study, and loving service.

As we know, he wasn’t talking about the end of days either.  When his disciples pushed him on the when question, he was quick to say that these things were only the beginning.  Some three decades after his death, most of Jesus’ apocalyptic vision would take place.  During the Jewish Revolt of 66-73CE, all three of Herod’s monuments to Roman power would suffer significant damage.  Herod’s Palace was nearly burned to the ground by Jewish revolutionaries in 66AD.  The Temple and Antonia’s Fortress were both destroyed by Roman hands during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70AD.

Not one stone would stand upon another, yet the power of God would continue to work in the lives of the faithful.  Through the diaspora that resulted from persecutions following Stephen’s stoning, Nero’s fire, and the Jewish Revolt, the Good News of Jesus Christ spread throughout the known world.  What was seen as an end, really was only the beginning.  So let’s not worry about wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and flood, but rather, let’s be about the business of sharing God’s love for a suffering world.