Saturday, November 17, 2012

Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: Fear, Hope and Birth Pains

Readings for this Sunday:  Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8


I’m just going to say it.

We’re afraid.

We’re very, very afraid.

We’ve been in a recession that doesn’t seem to want to quit.  We’ve seen the stock market dive, taking our life’s savings with it.  High paying jobs were replaced by lower paying jobs with fewer or no benefits. 

We’ve watched our leaders become more and more divided - to the point Congress can’t work together at all.  We’ve watched our country become polarized - to the point where even though the President won both the popular and electoral vote, people are so upset there are petitions from several states to secede from the union.[i]  The division has turned our civility to rancor and we resort to demonizing people who disagree with us.  Instead of working for the common good, we’ve settled into an ‘us versus them’ mentality.

We’ve seen our churches decline in membership.  We’ve seen a drop in participation by members.  We’ve heard the news reports that the fastest growing religious group is those who claim no religious affiliation at all.

The census shows that there is no longer one single religious group that has a majority – Protestants used to have it, but we’re down to 48%.  Projections bases on the census speculate that in 10 or 15 years no single ethnic group will have a majority either.  The United States is quickly becoming a religiously and ethnically pluralistic society – truly a melting pot.

But it scares us.  Our way of life is changing. 

“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 

Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

We understand the panic the disciples felt at Jesus’ words. 

The Temple – this was the icon of Jewish faith, the foundation of Jewish society.  The Temple was the heart of religious practice – the very home of God on earth.  The Temple was the center of their identity as a people.  Oppressed by Rome, denied self-government, the Temple became the symbol of their national identity.

If the Temple fell, if it was thrown down with not one stone remaining upon the other, the very foundation of their lives would crumble from under them!

It’s such a disturbing idea that Peter and company come to Jesus privately and ask when this will happen, how can they be ready?

We too are disturbed.  We come to Jesus as well, with a slightly different question - when this will end, when will it get better and how can we cope in the meantime?

As it turns out Jesus’ answer is the same to both the disciples’ question and ours.

Jesus never actually answers the disciple’s first question – When?  He completely disregards it to go on to talk about wars, rumors of war, of earthquakes and famine and leaders who will come promising to be the savior to lead us out of our current trouble.  In fact, Jesus goes on to say that we cannot know the timing (Mark 13:32), that even he does not know the timing.  Only the Father knows.

It’s all in God’s hands.  All in God’s timing.

And God’s timing is not ours.

So now what?  What do we do in the meantime with our fears and anxieties?  How do we live?

Jesus does answer that question.

First he reminds us to beware – be aware.  To look for signs of God’s kingdom coming.  To look for where God is working in the world.  It’s really easy to get caught up with the panic-mongers, the rumor-spreaders.  To allow yourself to be led astray, to be led away from looking for signs of the kingdom of God.  It’s was too easy to put your trust in rulers and leaders who promise to save us and forget that our trust belongs to God alone to bring salvation.  We just read/prayed Psalm 146 last week – a timely reminder for us:

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish[ii]

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;  who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.[iii]

Next Jesus comforts us.  “Do not be frightened.  Wars, rumors of wars – these things are going to happen – it is a natural result of the coming of the kingdom of God.  The forces of evil do not go down quietly.  Stay calm and keep focused on God.”

The Greek phrase that the NRSV translates as “this must take place” is two words.  The first means “it is necessary” and the second most often means “to be born.” 

Something is being born…which brings us to the birth pains. 

Jesus likens the coming of the kingdom of God to birth pains.  It’s not easy – sin and evil have a strong hold on us and institutions of power, wealth, and oppression will not easily give way to God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness and peace. 

Yeah, the pains of labor are coming. The beginning of birth pains – birth always means that an old way of life ends and a new one begins.  A couple goes from 2 to three.  The only child becomes a sibling.  The baby of the family becomes an older brother or sister.  Life is never quite the same again. 

And sometimes, changing from one way of life to another is very frightening:  

Did you hear the murmurs that things are going black
         and lockstep war is coming that will horrify and crush
         and there’s nothing you or the generals can do about it?

Did the gossip train roar by your way today
         and Doppler-shift whistle that stars are disintegrating
         and temples and towers falling while we watch with small eyes?

Did the word mushroom to your state that a virus leaked
          and the military lost control of containment
         and soon North Dakota will be silent and then South?

Listen: It’s all true, or it’s freaked out fearful chatter, or who knows,
          but then what anyway? All is prologue and prelude, lift up your
         heart to the universe: the ultimate word and song are yet to come:

sonnets of peace, grace notes of lovingkindness, rumors spreading
         of Spirit filling up the desolate space between when all this
        cosmic crucifixion will rest and then rise a sanctified singularity[iv]

 This is how we cope, how we live in these times:

 We trust in God’s grace and loving-kindness.  We live in the prologue of what’s to come.  We are hearing the prelude of the song of God’s kingdom.

 The rumors we pay attention to are the rumors of the Spirit hovering
·         over a food pantry,
·         or hurricane relief efforts
·         or anywhere God is bringing comfort and healing and mercy.

We listen for God’s voice in the comforting words of a friend.  We see God’s face in the neighbor.  We feel God’s grace in the gathered community.  We touch God’s hands when we use our hands in God’s service.  We taste God’s goodness in the bread and the wine, and a meal shared, or a meal given to those who hunger.

As we watch for the coming kingdom of God, we discover God at work in the midst of the trouble and turmoil, in the midst of our fears.  We discover God working for us, in us, and through us.

We discover hope. 

And expectation.

What might God be birthing in the labor pains we hear around us – in the wars and rumors of wars, in the fear and uncertainty in a time of change and unrest and financial insecurity and political divisiveness, and declining church attendance?

[i] Fortunately, after the last inter-state tiff (the Civil War) calmer head approved the 14th amendment which doesn’t allow states to secede.  So these efforts are largely symbolic, and signal the deep hurt and division felt in this country.
[ii] . I would personally paraphrase this as ‘do not put your trust in Republicans, in Democrats, in whom there is no help.  When their term ends and they return to their home states, on that day their plans are voted down.’
[iii] Psalm 146:3-10  
[iv] Poem by Pastor Michael Coffey, First English Lutheran Church, Austin Texas, used by permission:!/2012/11/rumors.html

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