Sermon: Apocalypse When by Ethan Loewi, Intern Minister

2021 January 15
by DoMC

Apocalypse When?

First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn

November 29, 2021

Ethan Loewi, Intern Minister

Friends, it is good to be with you on the first day of Advent, and to move with you into the sacred days of the holiday season. Though many of us, myself included, are missing holiday traditions as they were a year ago, these days still matter. Hanukkah still matters, Kwanzaa still matters, Diwali, and Christmas, and Yule—none of these are cancelled. But even more than those, there’s one day that shines in my thoughts. A profound occasion, that for me epitomizes the true meaning of the holidays. I’m talking, of course, about the 21st anniversary of Y2K.

          I don’t know what your family does to celebrate Y2K, but the Loewis like to gather around a turquoise iMac G3, the ones that looked like gummy bears with screens. We like to crack open some cans of New Coke, and sing our favorite Y2k carols—a little NSYNC, a little Destiny’s Child. For those who don’t remember, Y2K was the supposed digital apocalypse: millions feared that at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, when computers worldwide changed their date, the double zero at the end of the year 2000 could cause software to think the date was 1900, leading to catastrophic system failures. Power plants could overheat, banks could lose all their data, planes could fall out of the sky.

And Y2K was not without some tragic impacts: in Australia, certain bus ticket machines went haywire. In Japan, cash registers at the post office were temporarily jammed. And…that was about it. Countries that spent close to nothing on Y2K prevention, like Italy, were just as unaffected as countries that did, like the US—which spent around $100 billion. And with that classically American spasm of wasted cash, which probably could have ended world hunger for two years, another mythical doomsday came and went.

People have been trying to predict the end of the world for quite some time, and I’m happy to say none of them have gotten it right as of today. Martin Luther, who lives on a stained-glass window in our beloved sanctuary, thought 1600 was the magic number. Rasputin, the famous Russian mystic, and subject of a surprisingly catchy song, went with 2013.  And many people, like the great preacher Jonathan Edwards, thought it was 2000. I was 8 years old at the time, and I also thought 2000 was a likely candidate—it’s just such a nice round number—so I bet one of my older brothers five bucks that the world would end. Not only did I lose the bet, if I’d won it’s not entirely clear how I would have collected. 8-year-old Ethan might have gotten played on that one. Frankly, at the time I was hoping that the world would end. I had asked for a Gameboy Color for Christmas, and my parents just got me books again, so it was kind of an angsty period for me.

          The Y2K story is a fun one, but it’s on my mind for un-fun reasons. Apocalypse discourse is on the rise, I can’t be the only person who’s noticed that. While it’s mostly used in jest, I do hear the word “dystopia” get thrown around a lot lately. Some days, when I read a particularly grim headline, I find my thoughts echoing those of Emil Cioran, the great Romanian pessimist, who wrote that “To hope is to contradict the future.”

So let’s talk about it—let’s talk about the end of the world. In particular, the risk of ecological collapse—the number one contender, if you will. Every single prediction of doomsday, for thousands of years, has been wrong. But could we be to be the lucky bunch that breaks that cycle?

          I know that some of you are about to type in the chat “Ethan, this is the LAST thing I need right now. This is an awful topic, that I have no room for in my brain. Couldn’t you do a nice, normal sermon, just one time? Couldn’t you talk about Advent season, or something?” Well…no, I couldn’t. And I have only one thought about Advent—which is that the pieces of chocolate they put in those calendars are disappointingly small. I know the apocalypse is not an inherently uplifting subject—but it can be calming, and grounding, to deal with a frightening subject head on. We all have some fear in our lives, and that’s ok—as we saw in our wisdom story, it can be a helpful friend. The problem is when it gets to be a massive white blob that overpowers us. But by talking about it, we can cut it down to size.

          Let’s look at a seminal piece of apocalypse literature, the Book of Revelation. There’s more than one apocalypse in the Bible—it’s a genre, a rich and fascinating genre. Fun fact: apocalypse doesn’t actually mean “end of the world.” That’s what we’re taught, and what we assume from pop culture. But the Greek word actually means to uncover, or unveil. An apocalypse is a revelation: a moment of divine clarity, when God pulls back the curtain, and shows us how the future might unfold.

As a reading experience, the Book of Revelation is just—and there’s no other way to put it—an acid trip. It has dragons and sea monsters; a beast with seven heads and ten crowns, locusts with the faces of humans. It makes any Iron Maiden music video look tame.  The titular revelation is revealed to the author, John of Patmos. John sees a titanic battle between good and evil: the triumphant return of Christ, and the defeat of all demonic forces. The sun turns black, the earth is ravaged by earthquakes and fires, martyrs are raised from the dead to live with Christ, and Satan is cast into the lake of fire.

I don’t know if anyone in our congregation has a literal reading of the Book of Revelation—if you do, I mean no offense, but I think we’re dealing with metaphors here. This scripture isn’t saying “these exact events will take place”: rather, the text is showing a symbolic vision of what might happen. By showing that the wicked will be punished, and the virtuous rewarded, Revelation challenges us to change our ways.  

          Consider Revelation 8:6, which describes the blowing of the angelic trumpets that bring down divine judgment. The result is ecological catastrophe: trees and grass burn, ocean life dies off, and our water becomes poisonous to drink. The book was written around 96 AD, when needless to say we didn’t know much about climate science. But even so, there is a clear link drawn between human misdeeds and the destruction of nature. Today we can read this allegorically. We don’t need an angelic trumpet blast to destroy forests, or poison our water; we’re doing that ourselves, day after day. The forces of global consumerism, like the beasts of revelation, are insatiable, many-headed monsters, burning and poisoning our planet as we speak. When we think of the apocalypse in a literal way–or watch too many movies–we get entranced by a fanciful, cartoonish picture of doomsday. A single 24-hour stretch where every disaster strikes at once. But friends, I say to you there will be no doomsday. Apocalypse literature isn’t telling us to cower in fear of some terrible far-off event—it’s telling us we need to live differently right now.

          So let’s step away from Revelation, and talk about today. Are we living in the end times? One can make a pretty strong case for the awfulness of the present moment, and you can do it in just five words: Donald Trump, pandemic, global warming. But in the Historical Misery Olympics, 2020 has strong competition, even if you stick within American history. Let’s do a few more three-item lists. Andrew Jackson, Trail of Tears, slavery. Hoover, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl. Nixon, Vietnam, the Cold War. Sadly enough, I could do this all day.

When we feel like doomsday is just around the corner, what may be at work is a psychological effect called recency bias, that causes us to give far more weight to recent events than distant ones. Maybe every generation thinks theirs is the worst time to be alive. I have friends who are comfortably middle class, in 21st century America, arguing that this is a worse time to be alive than, say, 1850, when the average life expectancy was 39.

I know a lot of young people, in my generation and those after, are terrified about the future. And I don’t mean to minimize that in any way. But we are not the first or last cohort to face the unthinkable, and I know this from my own family history. Imagine growing up Jewish in the 1930s, watching the Nazis rise to power. That was my own grandmother–and my great-uncle, who had to hide under a bed to escape Nazi police. If they hadn’t managed to get out of Germany, my whole family line–gone. Or imagine growing up during the Cold War, like my dad. When he was nine years old, living in Stuyvesant Town, he’d have nightmares where he saw his apartment building bombed–his whole world gone in a flash of nuclear hellfire.

Every generation has its terrors. The statements “the world is a disaster” and “the world is astonishingly beautiful” have never not been simultaneously true. The question is how do we live, how do we take action or not, in the midst of these seemingly paradoxical conditions. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

Now, you might say—”Ethan, that’s all well and good. But past generations weren’t facing climate change like we are.” And ecological collapse is no doubt a DEFCON 1 matter. James Perkinson, a climate scholar, says he has “a growing intuition that civilization itself may have been a wrong turn for our species, 5,000 years in the making, now emerging in all of its hell-bent fury to put an entire planet of life and matter up for sale.” Along with countless scholars, and scientists, he is correctly naming the greatest threat we face today. When we list things that worry us about the world, we tend to do so in lists: politicians, global warming, social media, income inequality, the prison industrial complex. All of these things are hugely important, and of course they intersect. But climate change deserves a tier all to itself. When we mash all these crises together, when we make an amalgam of every worrying force we read about in the news, of course we feel like we’re living in the end times.

Here’s another thing we deal with today that is historically unique: we drink from the most invasive, alarming, inescapable media firehose of all time. Fear and anger get clicks, and they sell ads. This is a whole different sermon that I won’t get into, but simply put: our anxiety is monetized. So of course we feel hopeless and helpless. We turn on the news and we’re hit with this deluge of misery, as chaotic and unstoppable as the beasts of revelation.

          But friends, the threats we face are not supernatural seven-headed monsters. It is not angelic trumpets that will destroy our forests—it is human short-sightedness and greed, our addiction to consumption without consequences. As Pope Francis puts it: “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle can only precipitate catastrophes.” I say again: there will be no doomsday. No mythical Y2K, that brings down the wrath of God all at once. Instead, we will walk towards ruin on our own two feet, over a period of decades. Without spiritual transformation, and profound changes in the way we live, we will keep trudging towards that outcome. In his essay “Compensation,” Emerson writes that ““A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life. [. . .] Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty.” And “Every act rewards itself.” Or, to quote Galatians, “A man reaps what he sows.” As we treat our planet, so shall we be treated. If we exploit and abuse our environment, in time it will repay the favor. I’m not saying the trees will come to life and beat us up—simply that their life-sustaining presence will no longer be there to sustain us. That’s just Newton’s Third Law, working as surely as it always does.

          We don’t have a great deal of time to change—but we do have time. The spiritual emptiness of global capitalism can still be challenged. I’m not saying don’t be afraid. Being completely without fear is neither desirable nor possible, as we were reminded by that wonderful kid’s book. But let’s be afraid on our own terms. We can be calm and scared at the same time—that is not, in fact, a contradiction. And let’s use our fear to spark change—within ourselves, and our workplaces, and government.

Climate change cannot be one issue among twenty, that we pay attention to once every six weeks. I’m indicting myself when I say that. Recycling our yogurt cups is not going to cut it; we must learn to live with simplicity, and restraint—tending to the interconnected web of life, our 7th Unitarian Universalist principle. Consumerism has taught us from our infancy that every American should have a big car, a big house, a big green lawn, and eat all the beef we desire. We now know the cost of these luxuries—and we need to deeply shift out patterns of consumption. Theologian Sallie McFague observes that consumerism has become “the newest and most successful religion on the globe,” making the reckless consumption of material goods a substitute for spiritual fulfillment. We face a dominant cultural paradigm, that needs to change far faster than it wants to. So let me say something you’re unlikely to ever hear again in a Unitarian Universalist sermon: we need apocalypse.

          We need apocalypse—in the sense of unveiling, show us the cost of our current way of life. Again, apocalypse does not mean destruction or calamity—it means a vision of holy truth, that will allow us to begin again. And we will begin again, God as my witness. In perhaps the greatest of all apocalypse anthems, REM sings “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” That is a lyric for our time, friends. Because the world as we know it—needs to end. A sustainable future demands that we move past our destructive present.

I’ll close by turning to the end of Revelation—which doesn’t actually show the end of all things. Its finals chapters show the beginning of a new world, where we will gather in love, beside a crystal-clear river and the Tree of Life. The message of Revelation is not one of hopeless annihilation. Rather, it is a challenge to change ourselves, to grow in spirit. For if we do, there will be no end times—but more life, and greater life, than we dare even to imagine. I’ll end with a quote by the writer H.G. Wells. He was often called the father of science fiction, so this is someone with a gift for visions of the future.

“It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.” Amen, ashe, may it be so.

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