Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold — a Sermon

Friend and ministerial colleague John M. Miller spoke these words following the January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol.

A sermon by John Miller, Chapel Without Walls, Hilton Head Island, SC – January 10, 2021

Text – “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” – Matthew 24:29 (RSV)

Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold

    January 6, 2021, like December 7, 1941, is a date that shall live in infamy. Four days ago  American democracy was shaken to its very foundations. It happened in the United States Capitol building, the seat of government of a nation which proudly proclaims itself the strongest democracy in the history of the world. But on January 6, our democracy endured its most damaging test since April 12 of 1861, and it was prompted by the nation’s president.

    In 1919, after the War to End All Wars had finally ended, and the foolhardy Treaty of Versailles was being thrust upon the barely-defeated nations of World War I, William Butler Yeats wrote what is perhaps his most famous poem. It is called The Second Coming. For his whole lifetime, the Irish poet had lived through injustices forced upon his fellow countrymen by the English. The people of the Emerald Isle had been kept in British bondage for centuries. In 1919 the world was in the grip of a major pandemic, the worst one in six centuries. Life could have not been more bleak for a brilliant, sensitive, and mystical bard.

    The Second Coming is a dark and ambiguous poem. Nonetheless several lines from it have been used to describe events around the world ever since Yeats wrote the poem. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” We feel ourselves being drawn into a metaphorical swirling whirlpool or tornado, and we become severely disoriented.

    “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

    In the late morning of January 6 the head of state of the American government addressed several thousand of his most avid supporters near the White House. He had been carefully cultivating his cult for more than four years. (The two words are linguistically yoked.) Since November 3, 2020, he had been telling them that the election had been stolen, and he instructed them that they must try to stop Congress from counting and affirming the votes of the Electoral College. Taking him at his word, they began their march to the capitol as both Houses of Congress were in session, doing what the Constitution requires after every presidential election.

    “The best lack conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Most of the people then meeting in the Senate and House of Representatives intended to approve the electoral count that would affirm Joseph Biden, Jr. as the next President of the United States. However, ten Republican Senators and a hundred and thirty-nine Representatives objected to the tallies sent to Congress from a few states whose citizens had chosen Mr. Biden. These were politicians who by now should clearly have known that Donald Trump would stop at nothing to avoid having to leave the presidency. Shortly after the process was begun, the capitol was breached by force, and the excited hordes stormed into it, streaming out in every direction. The Members of Congress were told to shelter in place, a new phrase in our ever-changing lexicon, usually reserved for another matter altogether. Most of them quickly went to their offices and locked the doors.

    Those of us who saw these events live on television watched the beginning of the formalities in the two chambers. But soon the networks were displaying videos from outside the capitol building, with growing crowds pressing forward, then breaking through the barriers and rushing into the capitol. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ …The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ …The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Though the electoral numbers were unassailable, the congressional objectors stood ready to make their case, until the mobs appeared at the doors of the House and Senate. We looked on with increasing dread, fearful of where the chaos was leading.

    Three or four days before Jesus was crucified, Matthew tells us he gave a lengthy monologue to his disciples. In it he very obliquely focused on what he perceived would be his imminent death and its aftermath. Matthew, chapter 24, is highly apocalyptic. The Greek word apocalypsos means “to uncover.” The meaning of an important future event is inevitably hidden, and the cryptic apocalyptic words are supposed to uncover their meaning to those who have eyes and ears to understand them. Apocalypticism was familiar to the people who wrote and who were the first readers of the Bible. Unfortunately, most of us find such words merely bewildering.

    “So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)” [except most of us who read this don’t understand much at all of what Jesus was saying] “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Mt. 24:15-16).

The problem for us is that we are far too removed from first-century Judea, and we don’t understand. In several places in the Gospels, Jesus spoke of what would precede his Second Coming after he had died. Matthew 24 is an example of that. For us 20 centuries later it may be too cryptic, too veiled. Furthermore, Jesus likely didn’t say everything Matthew said he said.

    Jesus hinted in several places in the Gospels that he would return again to the earth after he had died. Yeats took that imagery and wrote a very ambiguous and foreboding poem, but with no religious meaning at all. I am using both the Yeats poem and the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus as the basis for this sermon. No Christians can be absolutely certain about what Jesus meant by the Second Coming, but millions have been drawn to it like moths to a flame, with a great variety of interpretations regarding this phenomenon. “And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (Mt. 24:22). (Calvinists love that and all other verses which contain the word “elect.”)

    Did Jesus actually say all these things? I am convinced  he said some of them. Whatever else he was (and he was many other things), he was surely a first-century Jewish apocalyptic preacher.

    Jesus told his disciples, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Mt. 24:19). When Jesus said that, was he predicting January 6, 2021, or Dec, 7, 1941, or April 12, 1861? Absolutely not. But he was predicting that things like that would occur. If we live, we will all experience wars and riots and plagues. It cannot be otherwise. Apocalyptic teachings proclaim that truth in their own uniquely strange manner.

    It is a certainty that millions of supporters of the president, as well as many Members of Congress, will not change their minds one scintilla about the best direction for this nation to follow as a result of what happened on January 6th. Fierce opinions don’t change readily.     

Many of the talking heads on television were aghast that there were not more police to prevent the mob from breaking into the capitol building. In the providence of God, we can be very grateful it was mainly the Capitol Police who were there to try to stop them. Had it been the DC police or the DC National Guard, it might have been a disastrously different story.  The capitol police are more like guides than they are like guards. They are not trained to quell riots, and fortunately, they didn’t stop the invasion. Put lots of guns into the hands of lots of males, and you’ll get lots of people shot. Had the capitol police fired many guns, instead of five deaths (only two caused by firearms), there could have been hundreds  injured and scores killed if armed police and National Guardsmen and armed demonstrators had  started blazing away at each other. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate Second Amendment intensity. As awful as it was, it is amazing there was not far more bloodshed and vandalism within the nation’s seat of government. Most of the people on both sides of the conflict were relatively peaceful, considering how volatile the situation actually was, and who the assailants were.

Elections may be mocked, voters may be mocked, and democracy may be mocked. All of that happened on January 6. A tragically lifelong narcissistic president cannot do what our president did without severely damaging the body politic. For six years (two years of campaigning, nearly four years of being in office, and two months of incessant attempts to undermine the validity of a properly conducted election), he did what was natural to him. He attempted to expand his political base to support his “governance,” such as it is. That is all this tragic man knows how to do. He has shown himself incapable of being presidential, but he is extremely capable of being Donald J. Trump. Now he is being widely discredited, but most of all he should be pitied. He is not the worst person in history by any means, but he is obviously full of passionate intensity.

Though elections might be mocked, God is not mocked, even though on January 6 God and Jesus appeared to be mocked. One demonstrator carried a hand-written sign saying, “Jesus Saves.” Another carried a flag which said “Jesus 2020.” You may not have realized it, but Jesus also apparently was up for election in 2020, and in the Capitol Assault of January 6. Many of these people truly believe they represented Jesus in their actions. That is as sad as it is dangerous.

In my opinion, most in the mob were not intentional terrorists. They didn’t mean to terrorize Congress as such. They were simply duped by their leader into thinking their unruly presence would somehow nullify the Electoral College vote. That tells you how well the leader understands and respects the Constitution. But it also shows how brilliant he is at duping people.

Millions of Americans and thousands of Republicans elected to various offices throughout America, plus many Democrats as well, have doggedly supported President Trump up to and beyond January 6. When upcoming elections occur, remember the names of any such people. “Fool me once, and shame on you. Fool me twice, or indefinitely, and shame on me.” Donald Trump is not a monster, although he is a man with a severe personality disorder and/or mental illness. All of us should have realized and admitted that before now. The man should have been convicted of the articles of impeachment by an overwhelming vote in Congress last February, but it didn’t happen. Shame on the members of the party which kept him in office. As it was, January 6 turned out to be Three Cheers for the Democrats Day because of the president’s failed attempt to sway the voters of Georgia. He didn’t; it backfired. If Mike Pence had been the President for the past ten months, the Grand Old Party might have averted a very slim Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. A Republican president still in office became the Republican downfall.

However, the Democrats have little to crow about. Both parties have rendered it almost impossible to work with the other party amicably, and they are equally guilty of allowing this deadly impasse to have evolved. Democrats may think they stand on the moral high ground, but they have an uncanny knack of regularly cutting the ground out beneath their clay feet. Bernie Sanders and the now-famous AOC are examples of how they allow that to happen. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have an immense job on their hands, though they may be the two Democrats most capable of uniting us once again. Let us hope and pray it may come to pass.

Does January 6 represent the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ? Certainly not, although probably many fundamentalist Christians think so. But it will go down as one of the darkest days in American history. An assault on the nation’s capitol building was incited by a president who imagined a mob somehow could overturn an election whose results he refused to accept. Had he succeeded in his ploy, democracy would have failed, with incalculable chaos. 

However, that surely was not what Jesus was talking about on a spring day in the first third of the first century of the Common Era. Apocalyptic words can be interpreted in a wide fashion, but January 6 was not apocalyptic, either via Jesus or William Butler Yeats.

Nonetheless, Jesus does return to us in a continual Second Coming. We encounter him in the form of exhausted health care workers toiling on behalf of people dying from COVID-19. He is a poverty-stricken mother feeding her children all the food she has, saving none for herself. He is a demonstrator for the civil rights of oppressed people, and a policeman trying to maintain order among the demonstrators. Jesus comes back as a bricklayer, a minimum-wage child care worker, a fast-food worker, and a street sweeper. He can be seen in Members of Congress from both parties, carefully striving to do the nation’s business, clearly knowing that they can never achieve widespread acclaim among all the people.  

A chastened nation needs to emerge from January 6.The best lacked conviction on what to do when it should have been done five years or ten months earlier. Those who were the worst-equipped to do anything positive seized the January 6 headlines. The Georgia special election should have made January 6 a totally different kind of news day, but an out-of-control president and an uncontrolled throng of his supporters prevented that from happening.

A great American once said, “It’s never over till it’s over.” January 6 is not over. It will take years before it’s over. Even after order was restored in Congress and the Electoral College tallies were approved, there were still one hundred and forty-nine Republicans who voted against doing what Congress was required to do. This isn’t over. The Trump Phenomenon existed long before Donald Trump existed. It was there is the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Massachusetts during the Articles of Confederation period. It was there at Fort Sumter in 1861. It was there is the obliteration of Reconstruction in the truly rigged election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. It was there is the Tea Party movement of the 1990s onward, and it may even have been the precipitating factor in the Boston Tea Party of 1773. It will require all the wisdom, courage, perseverance, and forgiveness the American people and their elected representatives can muster for one another if we are to emerge from the political nightmare we have endured for the past four years. As Lincoln said, “with malice toward none, with charity for all”, we must move beyond the partisanship we have so perversely allowed not only to exist but to cultivate among ourselves. 

America has become two giant tribes with two very different concepts on how to govern the third most populous nation on earth. There shall be no earthly messiahs to bring us together. But we must hope and pray that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the two ordinary humans who become the greatest unifiers we have available to us. That, after all, is what elections are about. 

“Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Mt. 24:20). Not literally, not visibly, but metaphorically, poetically, yet visible to the eyes of faith. Maranatha; come swiftly, Lord Jesus. Amen.

2 thoughts on “Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold — a Sermon

  1. It makes me so sad to say, but I don’t believe “unification” is possible. We are mow too divided and too angry to see straight- which are probably two things we-the-people do have in common. After watching a man beaten to death by that mob, i have no love in my heart. And that is what makes me most disturbed and angry about what the last 6 years have accomplished. And maybe after 4 years of Joe and Kamala, i will feel differently and we will all feel that healing is possible. That’s my prayer.

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    • I resonate with your feeling that it’s not possible. I’m watching MN Governor’s press conference. The governors were lied to by Azar and company who assured them they were holding covid vaccines in “reserve.” No the governors have been told there is NO reserve! Meanwhile publicans criticize Gov. Walz for tramping on people’s rights. They refuse to mask and paint him (a centrist Democrat) as a dictator. No one could make this stuff up. But we’re here in a hall of mirrors built by a Narcissist whose Echo will continue promoting his alternate reality until after you and I evaporate. Even so, I pass on to you the closing word of my courage Old Testament professor (now bedridden): “Be of good cheer!”

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