Endings and Beginnings

Shadows lengthen.  It’s now dark at quitting time.  Temperatures are dropping, absolutely chilly when our intrepid band of cyclists leaves my house on Wednesday mornings at seven o’clock.  I keep saying, “The heat’s in the pedals.  Faster, faster.”  Who am I fooling?  It’s still freezing.

As the year draws to a close, we get those apocalyptic passages of impending doom from Luke on the end-time.  A warning about frightened folks, or charlatans, running hither and thither yelling about the end – the Roll-is Called-Up-Yonder END.  Tha…tha…that’s ALL, folks.  It’s enough to scare the socks right off you. 

I met an older couple the other day at Pilgrim Festival, our two-day money raiser we do at my retirement community and they got to talking about all our problems.  “These are the end-days,” the woman asserted as her husband nodded.  Such terrible times that we can’t go on.  God can’t go on.  In Luke, Jesus counsels his band of followers not to be fooled.

Do you remember Hal Lindsey, the author of The Late Great Planet Earth?  He was an itinerant preacher of the end of days who got his start at UCLA.  He even had the arrogance to actually set a date for when God would call the roll up yonder.  Such arrogance to usurp the prerogative of God!  Yes, you guessed it.  The date came and went…and we’re all still here.  Nothing happened.  No end-time rapture.  Poor Hal, he had to move to UC Berkeley to continue his ministry after he was laughed out of Southern California.  Listen to Luke.  Don’t be fooled by Chicken Little.

“Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and “The time is at hand!”  Do not go after them.  And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified…Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various paces famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven…”[1]

My Mama said there’d be times like this.  What has always puzzled me about these radio prophets pushing this theology is, why do they need my money?  If the world is ending on very short notice, what could they possibly do with the money?  Unless it’s to get even more money?  Don’t be fooled!

You remember Flint, Michigan?  You remember that great plan by Governor Rick Snyder to save money by changing the source of the town’s drinking water?  You remember how this new supply corroded the coating off the lead pipes serving most of the houses in the older part of town?  How lead got into the water and poisoned folks, especially growing children?  You remember all that, don’t you?  And you remember how he and all his partisan toadies covered up that disaster?  Covered it up for months as people got sicker and sicker?  Nothing to see here, folks.  Just move along.

Well, these chickens have come home to roost.  The public-school system in Flint is now having to deal with some thirty thousand special needs children who are developmentally impaired.  Due to lead poisoning.  For those children and their parents, it would seem like the end days.  What is the future for these families?  “…neurological and behavioral problems – real or feared – among students are threatening to overwhelm the education system.”  Thirty thousand children have been “exposed to a neurotoxin known to have detrimental effects on children’s developing brains and nervous systems.”[2]  Thirty thousand children permanently brain damaged!

Knowing that your child is going to be permanently impaired – how would that make any parent feel?  And who’s going to pay for the life-long care?  And who’s going to provide that care once you’re gone?  And what do you tell your disabled child?  “Well, at least the water bill was lower?”  Right!  For these families this catastrophe must seem as drastic an end as any the writer of Luke could possibly conjure up.  How does a family go on?

God weeps.

As if we were not short of disastrous news, this week eleven thousand climate scientists issued a call to the leaders of our world to declare a “Climate Emergency.”  Global warming is happening far more rapidly than scientists have reported.  Exponentially faster.  With the warming comes enhanced positive feedback mechanisms. 

For decades, most scientists saw climate change as a distant prospect. We now know that thinking was wrong. This summer, for instance, a heat wave in Europe penetrated the Arctic, pushing temperatures into the 80s across much of the Far North and, according to the Belgian climate scientist Xavier Fettweis, melting some 40 billion tons of Greenland’s ice sheet.[3]

As more ice melts, ice that reflects the sun’s rays back into space, heat-absorbing blue ocean is left, which melts even more ice.  And on it goes.  Just ignore that burning smell. That’s Australia.  That’s California.  As more trees burn, more CO2 is emitted, causing yet more warming, more drought, more fires.  And so it goes.

God weeps.  Those who care for our fragile, blue-green island home — they weep.  For those caught up in the maelstrom of flame and smoke, for some it was indeed the end.  For them and for their families, we should all weep.

The temptation is to throw up your hands and say, “Why bother?”  Turn off the news and cancel the paper.  Or “Tune in, turn on and drop out,” as Timothy Leary counsels.

St. Paul writes to a community also beset by such calamity and fear.  Apparently, there were those who just plain gave up.  They were idlers and lay-abouts.  They contributed nothing to the common good.  On the other hand, that was not the example of Paul and his companions.

“We did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you…we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.  Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in well-doing.”[4]

Do not be weary in well-doing, indeed!  No time to mope about with long faces and cry in our beer, St. Paul would tell us.  Yes, we may end up with what Bill McKibben calls a “tough new planet.”  We’ll end up with many of our fellow citizens damaged through such unbelievable folly.  We’ve got some ‘splaning to do,” to paraphrase Desi Arnaz’s charge to Lucy.

But when the going gets tough, the tough do not go shopping.  We “sing to the Lord a new song” through our prayers and our labor.  Rolled up sleeves and marching feet are our prayers.  It is through our hands and feet, hearts and minds, credit cards and checkbooks we make a “joyful noise unto the Lord.”  What’s the alternative?  To pout and sulk like a two-year old?  St. Paul says we get to work.  Do not be weary in well-doing.  And in the work is ineffable joy, “joy of heaven to earth come down.”  Joy in the morning! 

As my friend Ed Bacon would sometimes shout from the pulpit, “Wake up!  Get up!  Get involved.  And don’t be attached to the results.” This is how we turn the Jesus Club into the Jesus Movement.  This is how we roll.  Jesus doesn’t need simpering, moony-eyed admirers.  He needs followers.  Remember, as he emerged from the baptismal waters, the charge to all who heard, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”  He needs doers, not legalistic partisans arguing over who he is.  A service of beauty has its place, but only as it moves us back into the streets and lanes.  Only as it returns us to a world in need.  Doers!  That’s what our Lord needs.

Addiction is hard.  It destroys individuals and families, but in the community of recovery there is Hope.  And in Hope there is Life. In my reading I came across a very rare high school.  Virtually every student in this school is in recovery.  The greeting every day is, “Hi.  My name is ________, and I’m an alcoholic.”  Or “I’m a drug addict.”

There is a new movement for recovery afoot.  It is “Recovery High Schools.”   These are safe spaces for students who are struggling to acquire sobriety.  Seattle Public Schools have designed such a recovery school, a campus wherein along with math, language arts and PE, students may learn to lead lives of sobriety and earn their diploma.  There is now a nation-wide organization of recovery schools.

A study by Vanderbilt University professor Andy Finch found that students in such schools were “significantly more likely than those not in such schools to report being off drugs and alcohol six months after they were first surveyed.”  Absenteeism declined significantly. 

How did Seattle develop this program?  The idea and motivation came from a parent whose son had died from a heroin overdose.  There was a devastated father who by any rights would not have been blamed for sinking into his grief.  Don Keister, however, organized an advocacy group, “Attack Addiction”, and pushed the school district to provide space.  The group came up with the $2 million needed to cover staff and other costs.  These parents rolled up their sleeves and did a great gospel work.

One student shared his story after being on any drug he could get his hands on – OxyContin, Xanax – it was all for sale on school campuses.  He, himself, was finally suspended for selling drugs at his school.  Marques Martinez had been sent to an in-patient rehab facility and found his way to this school through an alumnus.  He knew it might be his last chance. 

What was different about this school?  He felt safe here.  “It’s the last class period of the day.  The students lean back on couches and take turns describing the most important day of their lives:  the day they became sober.”[5]

Every day sober is another gift on the journey of new life for these students.  It takes a very special teacher to teach at such a school.  It takes a special community of recovery to make such a school even possible.  It takes special administrators to make space in a school district’s educational program for such a school.

What is it like to teach at such a school?  Most teachers might rarely witness a dramatic change in one of their students.  Hear the witness of Sonny Sanborn, a social studies teacher, at Archway Academy in Houston, Texas:

Sanborn says he’s taught in other schools where he might have seen one or two students go through a major transformation during a school year.

“Here, I see it almost 30 times a year. I’ve seen so many teenagers come into Archway with such serious issues that earning a diploma is the last thing on their minds. Their parents would tell you—two or three years before they graduate—that their kids have no shot of walking across the stage,”

Sanborn reveals. “I’m often asked why I keep coming back to a tough environment, and I counter with a better question: Why doesn’t everyone else want to teach here?”[6]

I’m reminded of the story of a country preacher encountering a farmer out in his field plowing.  The preacher yells over to him, “Farmer, if you knew that the world was ending tonight, what would you do?”  Without a pause, the farmer answered, “Finish the row.”  No matter what calamity or terrors might await, we are called to finish the row.  Sonny Sanborn will persist in finishing his row.  Would that we all.

These days are tough, not for sissies, not for the people without an anchor.  It is a “tough, new planet.”  No escape through instant rapture.  We and our children face challenges unlike most any other generation, with perhaps the exception of nuclear annihilation.  It’s enough to lead to complacency and resignation.  But now is the time God needs us most.  Jesus stretches out his hand and bids us, “Come, follow me.”  Do not be weary in well-doing.

As shadows lengthen and a blazing orb dips below the western sky, one of my favorite hymns comes to mind, “Come, Labor on.” 

Come, labor on. 

Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain,

while all around us waves the golden grain? 

And to each servant does the Master say,

“Go work today.”

Come, labor on. 

No time for rest, till glows the western sky,

till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,

and a glad sound comes with the setting sun,

“Servants, well done.”[7]

When we contemplate what St. Francis has accomplished these past few months in bringing to birth House of Hope – San Bernardino, the resounding, well deserved echo is indeed, “Servants, well done.”


[1] Luke 21:5 ff, RSV.

[2] Erica L. Green, “A Legacy of Poisoned Water: ‘Damaged Kids’ fill Flint’s Schools, New York Times, Thursday, November 7, 2019.

[3] Eugene Linden, “How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong,” New York Times, November 8, 2019

[4] II Thessalonians, 3:6 ff, RSV.

[5] Anna Gorman, “Inside the Specialized ‘Recovery’ High Schools Designed Just for Teens With Addiction, Kaiser Health News, January 23, 2019.

[6] Shasha Mclean, “Recovery High School Teachers: Behind the Scenes Recovery,” Project Know, American Addiction Centers,

[7] Jane Laurie Borthwick (words), The Hymnal 1982 according to the use of The Episcopal Church, The Church Hymnal Corporation, New York, 1985. 541.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach, San Bernardino

Malachi 3: 13-4: 2a, 5-6; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

All Saints Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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