Preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA on Sunday, November 15, 2015
READING FROM THE GOSPELS (Mark 13: 1-8)
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say 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 birthpangs.
SERMON “Stay Awake”
My friend Shari, who is one of my best friends from high school, and a devout Muslim, quoted the Q’uran yesterday: “Whoever kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity.”
It is as if all of humanity was killed this weekend. 129 people died in six separate bombings and shootings all over the city of Paris France. It is the worst terrorist attack in Europe in 11 years. An Islamic militant group has taken responsibility. On Thursday, more than 40 people were killed in Beirut, Lebanon in a bombing. Dozens were killed at a wedding in Baghdad this week, as well, in a bombing. All acts of terror. The Islamic state has claimed responsibility. And Syria has produced the largest refugee crisis since World War II—the U.N has called it the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era. 140,000 Syrians, 7,000 of them children, have died in the Syrian war. The refugees are fleeing the terrorists in Syria that they are now accused of being in Europe.
It is as if the world is ending.
I don’t know any more what to say about Paris, Beirut, Syria than you do. And yet my job is to somehow help us to make sense of the senseless.
While this is an impossible task, there is no better reason for the church to exist. So for those of you who have joined us officially as members today, this is our reason for existence. Coming together to find hope in the face of terror and collective suffering. To find God somewhere in there.
And sometimes it’s hard to find God amidst so much destruction, which is why we need one another. Mostly our job is to wait, to watch, and pray. To stay awake. Our job is not to have the answers. No answers, just love.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
In this week’s lectionary text from Mark, Jesus sounds a lot like a character in a scene from “Apocalypse Now” instead of the Jesus who brings us comfort and peace. This Jesus we encounter today is warning us of the demise of the world. Don’t get so used to your perfectly placed temple stones, because they will be tossed down. The world is going to end, he says. Get ready. And perhaps this text is appropriate for today, given that it feels like the world is ending again.
“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 birthpangs, Jesus says.”
This text brings little comfort to me, truthfully. I wanted to avoid it this week because apocalypse Jesus isn’t my favorite, especially not now. This chapter is a rather uncomfortable reminder for some Christians that our Jesus was often telling everyone that the world was about to end. Much like other prophets of his day, and modern day proponents of the Rapture on the religious right, and climate scientists on the secular left, Jesus spent a lot of time warning people ominously of the world’s imminent demise.
Most mainline Protestants don’t know what to do with Jesus when he talks like this, never mind the entire Book of Revelation with its beasts and its marks of the devil. I think we find it a little bit embarrassing. Like, sometimes our scriptures sound like a horror movie you saw once, and Jesus sounds a little, well, irrational.
In order to understand our text from Mark, we need to understand apocalyptic literature, which has been prevalent throughout human history, from the writings of the ancient Greeks to the Left Behind series.
David Lose says that “in a nutshell, apocalyptic literature stems from a worldview that believes that everything happening on earth represents and correlates with a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil. It therefore reads into earthly events cosmic significance and anticipates future events on earth in light of the coming battle between the forces of God and the devil. Hence, it often tries to make sense of current events and experiences by casting them in a larger, cosmic framework and in this way give comfort to people who are currently suffering or being oppressed.
Because of this dualism, and because apocalyptic literature tends to be highly symbolic, it’s ripe for reading all kinds of things into it – like predictions about the end of the world! But this chapter in Mark – and other passages, notably the book of Revelation – were not written so that we could ferret out signs of the end. Rather, they were written to offer comfort to first-century believers struggling to make sense of their world and lives. For this reason, it’s way more helpful to read this and similar passages in light of the challenges its original readers were facing, challenges that might be akin to some of our own.”
And those challenges included religious persecution and martyrdom for first century Christians; the people that Mark was addressing in this chapter from our scripture. The world certainly seemed like it was ending soon for them.
And those challenges feel akin to some of our own right now; or at least akin to the world’s.
The world seems like its ending for us, too, every day.
Our world seems like it’s ending when a loved one dies. When twin towers crash to the ground. When a car accident causes injuries so devastating we can never walk again. When a marriage ends. When a child dies, or a dream of a child dies. When a terminal diagnosis is given. When an idea of who God is dies inside you, or when an idea of what America is dies inside you, or when an idea that humanity is inherently good dies inside of you. When terrorists systematically kill 100s of people in the name of a distorted version of our God whom we know as Love and we no longer feel safe, or at peace. Wars and rumors of wars.
The world seems like its ending every day.
The poet Warsan Shire writes:
“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
So perhaps reading this apocalyptic text from Mark on a day like today is exactly the right thing for us to hear, I don’t know. As it did for first century Christians in the Markan community, at least it names what seems like a battle between good and evil in our own context--which is sometimes all that our scriptures can do. Name what’s true.
And remember, Jesus is always reminding us that after the end of the world is a new world waiting to be born—a new heaven and a new earth. “Behold, I make all things new!” he says in Revelation.
Later in the same chapter that we read this morning, in verses 32-37, Jesus tells us more about the day the world ends. He doesn’t tell us we can stop it from ending, but he does tell us to keep alert, keep watch and stay awake.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
And here’s what I think he means. Every time our world ends, we need to stay awake and look for glimpses of the new world amidst the rubble. We need to see where God comes suddenly. We need to look around for God everywhere we are—in the evening, or at midnight, at dawn. Don’t stay asleep to how God is going to redeem suffering, Jesus is saying. Look for glimpses of God amidst the destruction, how God is making things new. Pay attention, stay awake, stay alert, and you can see it.
So here is what I see.
In Paris on Friday night, in the wake of the terror and fear and not knowing what was next and whether their lives were in danger, people were opening their doors. Did you know that?
The Twitter hashtag porte ouerverte or “open door” started on social media yesterday for people in Paris who were looking for a place to be safe from the violence, when police were ordering everyone off the street, to take shelter immediately. Parisians posted on Twitter: “Do you need a place to take shelter? Are you afraid with no place to stay? I have a warm bed and some food. My door is open to you.”
Wasn’t that dangerous, all those people opening their doors, with terrorists still on the loose, not knowing where new attacks were planned? People asked.
The answer from those open door Parisians was “we will not be afraid.”
Stay awake. That’s a glimpse of God.
Parisians left the football game that was bombed where three people were killed, defiantly singing the French national anthem on their way out.
Stay awake. That’s a glimpse of God.
That’s a glimpse of the new heaven and new earth—people throwing open their doors, people singing--in the face of fear and refusing to cower in the face of terror.
So what do we do, knowing that the world is ending? Ann Lamott says: “after an appropriate time of being stunned, in despair, we show up. Maybe we ask God for help. 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 and flirt with old or scary unusual people who seem lonely. 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: that we are basically powerless, but we are not helpless.”
We are powerless but not helpless. That is Jesus’ message to us. Let's live that together.
I want to close today with a
Blessing When the World is Ending by Jan Richardson
Look, the world
is always ending
the sun has come
it has gone
it has ended
with the gun
it has ended
with the slammed door
the shattered hope.
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone
the hospital room.
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
this blessing means
to be anything
It has not come
to cause despair.
It is simply here
because there is nothing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.
will not fix you
will not mend you
will not give you
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.
It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
as the world begins
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org