TRANSCRIPT OF THE NOV. 8, 2020, SERMON
BY REV. JENNIFER AHRENS-SIMS
On the evening of October 30, 1938, Orson Welles, an American actor, director, writer and producer for radio, theatre and film offered a radio interpretation of the classic 1898 science fiction novel The War of the Worlds. It was presented as a fake newscast that had radio listeners in panic – thinking the war drama was actually happening. The way listeners responded to the drama was described as people wailing in the streets and rending their garments.
That might sound extreme to us, and we may even laugh at their gullibility, especially when we hear the fake news broadcasted that night:
Incredible as it may seem, both the observation of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.
There was such an overwhelming reaction from the listening public that Welles showed up the following night, October 31, Halloween, to explain the stunt.
Decades later, some say Welles was having his cake and eating it too – playing his own game of trick and treat:
“It was the trick of giving the listeners this sort of narrative dupe. And then the treat is an awareness – a self-awareness – of how easily manipulated you are.” (Rippy)
For Welles, his radio rendering of The War of the Worlds was art because for the consumer, their disbelief became momentarily suspended so that the unbelievable became acceptable, no matter how outrageous the account being told. According to Welles, that’s what you call a ‘good story’.
Welles closed the October 30th airing with a sermon on being gullible. He concludes by saying, “The terrible lesson you learned tonight: that grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch and if your doorbell rings and nobody is there, that was no Martian – it’s Halloween!”
1 Thess 4 is Paul’s sermon on gullibility. But it’s not a sermon. It’s a letter, the first of Paul’s letters so scholars think. Being a ‘first’, we can read in it Paul’s attempt to articulate a theology of hope grounded in parousia, or coming, Christ’s coming. Verse 16 offers quite a dramatic description of Jesus’ second coming. But if we isolate that verse alone, we’ll totally missed the point of Paul’s whole letter.
Paul has concern for the Thessalonians. They are living in extreme persecution. They are under persecution of the Roman Empire which uses tactics like deceit, impure motives and trickery. Although Thessalonikki was separated from Rome by some 700 miles, the Thessalonian Christians, in particular, experienced Roman persecution because they broke away from the Rome’s influence on their city; they cut ties to cultic practice and veneration of Emperor Augustus. Rome worked on a system built by conquest and domination. The Pax Romana, or ‘peace of Rome’ was achieved through bloodshed. Many of the Thessalonian Christians lost their lives. Those who remained alive were separated from the leaders of the church. They were alienated from family and friends because they did reject the cultic culture. When they honored Christ over Augustus, they risked death as a consequence.
Paul wrote this letter to them to help them deal with feelings of isolation and the demoralizing effects of living under the Roman regime. When Paul writes about Christ’s return, it is to encourage them that the fullness of Christ’s presence is intended for all – the living and the dead. This argument was meant to help them feel secure in Christ, which was not politically innocuous. With Jesus as the Christians’ security and support, there was no need for the Empire’s cults and networks. They had found ways to be self-sufficient, internally harmonious and externally reputable without the state. This, of course, frustrated their non-Christian neighbors because Rome brought tangible benefits to the city.
Paul’s writing was meant to instill encouragement and hope. The Thessalonian Christians needed hope to survive the death, evil and sin which surrounded them in the Roman domination. Paul reminded them that by God’s power, Jesus was resurrected from death, and because of this, they benefitted from the presence of Christ already. In Christ they became a family. They grew together. With constancy and forbearance in suffering, they served and waited through the persecution with devotion to God and one another.
Paul also urged them into to the ‘not yet’ of their moment, which meant they still had work to do. Paul challenges them to not only survive, but also to live meaningful and holy lives amidst the suffering, ambiguity and impurity around them. They were to have a realistic hope and responsible ethics, living in a way that pleases God. Paul wrote to them about the importance of leadership, of being trustworthy, and of teamwork. He warned them about the influence of the past that still impacted their present life. He suggested those influences were not dead, but only wounded and still threatening a strong hold on the community. Because of this – though the church had grown, they still had work to do. Thus, Paul’s words are about inspiring hope, giving comfort and consolation, and providing challenge.
Paul’s words speak to our church today
as well. We are people of hope and agency. We won’t be ‘duped’ by easy peace
and security slogans, or any other superficial changes that leave people
confined to margins of existence. We will work until others feel the same level
of safety we do. We will work until others have share the same degree of
privilege we do. When stories of hate and persecution in our
communities are raised, stories like the ones we’ve seen in the last 8 months,
they confront our hope. There is moral dissonance between the world as is and
the world we hope for. We wail in the streets. We rend our garments. The
reality comes upon us: these stories are not fiction,
they're real. People today and for many generations are already out in the
streets wailing and rending garments because they too have hope.
Jesus has not come back yet! Therefore until he does, the more people we have,
the more our hope is multiplied. It is the
church’s role, that is, our role, to be out there leading the uprising with moral
authority and hope-filled agency.
We want radical transformation that raises the quality of life here and now, in the present. We want mass resurrection and uprising right now. We want all of God’s children raised up from systems that suppress, oppress and depress. We don’t want a partial resurrection! We want a grand and permanent reunion for all God’s children, an uprising of epic proportion. We are hopeful. We have agency. We may be isolated, but we are together. We are family and we are strong. We are standing on the promises of God. We will not be duped, we have the Word of God. Thanks be to God.