The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – Sunday, November 15, 2015 – Proper 28, Year B: Mark 13:1-8
So connecting with the gospel won’t be hard for us this morning. In some ways the timing is too good, too true, the connections too obvious:
“As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” And Jesus asked them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Then when he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew (who apparently couldn’t stand not knowing more details) asked Jesus privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Presumably so that they could prepare themselves and recognize the moment when it arrived.) Then Jesus said to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
This morning we are grieving that nation rises against nation everyday and that kingdom is at war with kingdom even though most of us live at a safe distance from that reality. This past week there have been experiences of mass violence in Paris, Beirut, Syria, Bagdad, Nigeria, and gun violence claimed young lives in Chicago and other places in the United States. On the famine front, World Hunger Education reports that last year there were 17million severely malnourished children in the world. And just in the past week there were earthquakes in Japan and Mexico.
And so if end times were like checklists, I could easily become one of those people who makes the front page of the Enquirer, “those people” about whom I joke who say that the end is near and then are able to prove it with their lists of signs that say that it is so. But this week, rather than mocking those people I wondered if perhaps they were on to something, perhaps they had some bit of truth that we need to hear. Maybe even a bit of truth which we need to accept and to which we are called to respond?
What if every day it is the end time somewhere? We could start small and acknowledge that simply among us there is someone for whom the end is near every day. We are a congregation of over four hundred and fifty active members among whom are people who have recently received a life-changing diagnosis, or experienced a loss of some kind that hit at least their lives like an earthquake. Last Thursday in the midst of wind gusts approaching fifty miles per hour and rain that at times was moving sideways people lined up at our doors. We filled plates with warm food and distributed over 8000lbs of food to people who were hungry enough to show up even in that kind of weather, tying their empty baskets to the doors so that they wouldn’t blow away before the truck came. Not famine – but hunger for sure.
And in our world – Friday was end times for many in Paris, the lives of families and business owners, college students, and concert-goers if not lost, changed forever. It was the continuation of end times for many in Syria or those refugees who fled the violence we can no longer pretend not to see. And in Chicago a family mourned the life of a child, the latest victim of violence that found him while he played outside. Truth is that there innocent victims everywhere everyday. Victims of everything that Mark named in his gospel.
And so maybe the challenge isn’t the WHEN of this whole end time scenario. To focus there, like Peter, James, John and Andrew did leaves us with either pretty obvious conclusions, or people to mock if we take the high-road, the sophisticated and non-literal approach to it all.
What if what’s being challenged in all of this is the distance we keep, the fear that keeps us aloof from this kind of conversation at all and that keeps us distant from our neighbors who hurt, who are living one kind of end or another. Maybe “Of course it’s the end times” should be our starting place, seen as an invitation to us rather than a theological conclusion from which to turn away.
Because starting with “this is the end times” means we look for it. And so we ask “Where” and “for whom.” And looking for it draws us to those places, those people. And the distance becomes smaller merely with our being aware. And I think that’s where we’re supposed to be. “Don’t be alarmed,” Jesus said. Part of the truth is that for people who are living such horrors the fact that they will end only comes as good news. Which is what Jesus meant when he went on to say something more.
“These are birth pangs,” he told them. And at first that can sound absolutely innapropriate to say in the midst of deep grief. But what if our work in these times is to help ensure they are birth pangs, rather than simply continuing-on-as-we-have-been-pangs?
What if presence with those who are at their end is the key to new beginnings for us all?
That’s what Jesus did, right? That’s what incarnation is all about. God surrendered distance in favor of presence in order to initiate the breaking in of a new day. God had heard the cries of the people and “being among” them with compassion, with forgiveness, with love, with food, with care was the means by which a new day could come. Even if for Jesus, it meant facing an end of his own.
And so, people of Grace, here we are at the end times. There are earthquakes and wars and violence. This is not what God wants or hopes for humanity. And so the question isn’t when. Our call is to be present now with something that looks like birth, surrendering our distance through offerings of genuine prayer, compassion, forgiveness, love and food. Anne Lammott put it like this yesterday in her Facebook post,
“So after an appropriate time of being stunned, in despair, we show up. Maybe we ask God for help. And we do the next right thing. We buy or cook a bunch of food for the local homeless. We return phone calls, library books, smiles. We make eye contact with others, and we go to the market. This is a blessed sacrament. Tom Weston taught me decades ago that in the face of human tragedy, we go around the neighborhood and pick up litter, even though there will be more tomorrow. It is another blessed sacraments. We take the action and the insight will follow: [truth is] that we are basically powerless, but we are not helpless.”
We are powerless but never helpless. We are powerless over much of what we watch, most of what we see, much of what we experience. End times are like that. Which is why they are scary and it’s only human to want to turn away. But here’s the thing, we are not helpless, ever. And our help, our presence matters, to those in Paris, to those in Lebanon, to those refugees who don’t feel like they are anywhere, to those in Chicago. Together through prayer and action, new days come.
May we be those present at the end who, with God, help birth a new day.