Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sermon: Birth Pangs

A Russian airliner blown from the sky, 224 dead.
         A Suicide bombing at a funeral in Baghdad, 26 dead.
         Twin bombings outside of a mosque in Beirut, 41 dead.
         Coordinated attacks on restaurants, a concert venue, and a soccer game attended by the president of France. Well over 100 dead.
         Kids hanging from nightclub windows, mourners and worshippers turned into victims, a plane full of people… gone.
         For that matter, an earthquakes and a Tsunami is Japan and Earthquakes in Mexico and California.

         So too, around the time of Mark’s Gospel
—Saccari in the street stabbing soldiers,
the siege of Jerusalem,
the destruction of the temple—those large stones ripped away
And the dispersion of the residence of Jerusalem.

         The good news, in a strange way, is that this is only birth pangs. That we are living in an already-not-yet time.
         In the face of world ending actions, we know the End of History is found on the cross and enfolded in the loving arms of Jesus.


         Terror and wars, and earthquakes and famines—these apocalyptic events. They destroy the body and weigh on the soul.
         But, these large, newsworthy events, are not the only ones that feel like the end of the world.
         There are personal tragedies too—Cancer attacking the body, Alzheimer’s the mind, the death of a loved one or end of a relationship, depression and despair eating at the soul.
It can feel like the end of the world.

         For that matter, there are times when a community comes to an end point.
         I think of our discussion at Pub Theology last Tuesday—the topic was the South Plainfield, Plainfield, Edison United Parish (SP/P/Ed-UP) and how we can work together to further the Gospel in our respective towns—but quite quickly the consensus became closing down St. Stephen and merging with either Our Saviors or St. Paul’s.
         Talk about Apocalyptic—end of ministry, end of community. (Me that evening)
         And these experiences that feel like the end of the world, can cause us to act like the end of the world is upon us—to buy into a story that says join those wars, respond in such a way that you can end the world on your terms!
         Yes, the danger is apocalyptic thinking
—making every move a saving throw,
every excursion in life a battle of good against evil.
         It’s easy to be co-opted by such messages
—Just do this one last thing and everything will be alright.
         Think of the variety of culture wars and political programs the Church has put her name to
—assuming if only this law was passed,
if only this person would be elected,
 if only we did this one thing, then it all would be better, we will have saved the world.

         For that matter The First World War was fought as the war to end all wars—but it only gave rise to an even greater war.
         The Cold War was fought with the belief that a win would be, to quote one of the great thinkers of that generation, “the end of history,” that liberal capitalist democracy would be the utopian end—no other power or ideology could possibly arise, if only the Soviets were defeated… How’s that working out for us so far?
         Provocatively one expert on the current so called “clash of civilizations” suggests that the best way to win an apocalyptic war, is not to fight one.
         That is, if your opponent sees themselves as noble religious knights and martyr of old, but you treat them as common criminals, you refuse to validate their story or sink down to their level
—after all the best way to slaughter a pig is to be a human and treat it like a pig, not get down in the mud and wrestle with it.

         Similarly we Christians must see all these things
—all the world ending experiences, be they global, local, or personal
—and understand them as the birth pangs. To not get caught up by them, to not let them get in the drivers seat of our souls, but instead to:
cling to the cross,
to hope,
and to each other.
         If we read Jesus’ words today in the larger context of Mark’s Gospel, we realize he is constantly pointing toward the cross
—he tells us we’ll find all these signs and the Son of Man himself—at the Cross.
In a strange way, history curves and finds its completion on the cross, even as it continues on.
         Yes, these horrors, war, earthquake, famine, were all historical realities in the life of the early Church, but they were all simply birth pangs compared with the birth of the Son of Man and the birthing of our freedom and adoption through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  
         This curve of the arch of history swoops towards our savior even as it still continues on.

         No lie, it’s a strange place along its path that we find ourselves. We find ourselves at the goal of life, Jesus Christ, and yet also still along the way toward that same goal—filled with hope that our end is the same as our beginning of the faith, caught in the embracing arms of Jesus.
         We find ourselves in between the already completed movement of history and the not yet completed reality of history.

         Found in this in-between space
—this already-not-yet place
—we cling to the reality being birthed, that we already know is ahead of us, because it is also behind us and with us now, Jesus Christ, in whom we find our confidence and our hope in all times, and even when it seems to be the end of time.

         We find him in the past, and as the goal of our future… but we also find him here and now. In this community, the Church, where at our best we poke and prod one another to the good
—we can encourage one another in our weakness, and provoke one another to love.
         Yes, in this particular community
—in the physicality of it
—in the down and dirty reality of it
—Here being birthed in our brotherhood, is Christ Jesus.
         In the clamoring complications of community, the ongoing physicality of just showing up, so we can be gracious burs in one another’s saddles, bees in each other’s bonnets to quote one late great saint here.
         What I’m getting at is that story I’ve told too many times already—after my first horrible, rotten, no good week of internship
—witnessing a murder, getting mugged, getting my mail stolen
—that the Sunday after all of that, when I knelt at that communion rail there at St. John’s Pimlico
—I finally understood why we Lutherans make a big deal about the real presence—about the physicality of it—because there are so many physical things that can cause us harm, that can end our world
—and so, that fleck of bread, that sip of wine
—that too is the end of the world, a physical reminder that all the rest—it’s birth pangs!
         So too, this community meeting together, a physical reminder of the limits of all those world ending things, a reminder that the end has been birthed, is birthed, and will be birthed again. We are a reminder to one another that: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.