My living room windows face west. Some evenings I am home in time to watch the spectacular display of colors that can be sunset. I am often captivated by the way the winter-bear trees appear to be etched in the pink-orange hues of the setting sun. It’s beautiful and intricate and different every evening. Watching the changing sky always gives me a moment of peace, of gratitude. It’s a quick moment that gives me hope even when much of my day has been chaotic or difficult.
Sometimes a poem or scripture passages do the same thing for my tired spirit. This week I had an unexpected encounter with just such a text. A couple of days ago I went to my usual text study group. I had decided to use the texts for Thanksgiving Day rather than the lectionary texts for Sunday. The words of Matthew 6:25ff about not worrying were much more appealing for a sermon text than the opening verses of Mark 13. Seriously, who wants to preach about stones crumbling, war, famine, earthquakes, and other such “birthpangs”? Not me. Well, not until I engaged in conversation with my colleagues.
What if Jesus statement about the impermanence of buildings, even sacred ones, was actually good news? It means that no matter what happens to the structure, the community will continue. After all, the Temple was destroyed by Judaism and Christianity continued. All of our social structures will fall at some point, but the Body of Christ (and other faith-filled communities) will endure. There’s hope for all the small, struggling churches today. We might not be able to afford the upkeep of old buildings, but that doesn’t mean the community does not have vitality. Perhaps we shouldn’t try so hard to hold on to buildings that are just going to crumble anyway. Perhaps, there are better uses of our resources.
If there is good news contained in the destruction of buildings, what about the other “birthpangs” Jesus mentioned? There isn’t anything particularly encouraging in false gods, war, earthquakes, and famines, at least not in a cursory reading. What if these aren’t warning about the apocalypse or the Second Coming? What if, hidden in here, is a way to bring about the Realm of God?
Jesus was not predicting or prescribing what would be. Instead, Jesus was describing what already was and would continue. He knew human beings. He knew our weaknesses. We are too easily swayed by those who claim power and divine anointing; we don’t recognize their falsity until it is almost too late. We also have a strong propensity for violence; there has never been a time in human history without war. We allow fear to divide us and greed to rule us, often to the point of one nation claiming superiority over another. Earthquakes have been an unpredictable part of life on this planet and in modern history human activity has been a causal factor for some earthquakes. Famine continues to plague the earth and we have contributed to the severity of famine as well. Jesus knew what he was talking about.
But what of hope? Yes, all these things are birthpangs. When human beings begin to recognize the value of relationships rather than buildings, the power hidden in the buildings of faith communities will only increase. When we seek the truth of our religious stories more often than we pursue facts, we will be less swayed by the fading glamour of false gods. When we pursue peace with the same fierceness with which we have pursued war, all people and nations will know justice. When we put the health of our planet before wealth and convenience, the aftermath of earthquakes and famine will be less devastating. Essentially, when those who claim to be religious embody Divine Love the birthpangs will cease and the Realm of God will truly be here and now. So, yes, there is good news in these strange verses. People, we have the knowledge and the power to put an end to our destructive human ways. If we are able to do this, then we will see that God has been with us throughout history, waiting for us to live lives grounded in unity rather than division.
Jesus embodied God’s vision of love for the whole of creation with the hope of transforming the world. It’s a slow process and easy to lose track of it. Yet,the church is called to be agents of transformation. We would do well to remember that we are not to be part of the birthpangs. We are the ones who prepare the way for new life and embrace it when it arrives. Surely, we do not need to endure these labor pains for a few more millenia…
RCL – Year B – Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost – November 18, 2018
1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25