Saturday, April 18, 2020

“The End of the World As We Know It” - March 29, 2020

Text: Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

I don’t know if you have noticed, but Lent has kicked it up a notch in the last few weeks.  It has taken it to the next level, as they say.  This has become the Lentiest Lent in our lifetime because basically, whether we chose it or not, we have given up people for Lent.  We have given up handshakes and hugs and hanging out.  Who would have thought that we would give up going to church for Lent?

Our scripture reading long planned for this morning is either terrible timing or perfect timing.  Mark chapter 13 is sometimes called the Little Apocalypse.  You’ve got devastation, you’ve got suffering, and the world goes to hell in a handbasket.  It’s the end of the world as we know it.

To be real honest, this is not my favorite kind of scripture.  You may remember that we did a series on Revelation a few summers ago.  It was kind of fun - we played a Johnny Cash song and dug up some old hymns based on passages from Revelation - but when we finished, after about 7 weeks of it,  I said, “That went really well, and in 25 years I might want to do that again.”  I was being just a little facetious, but this is hard stuff.

And it is doubly hard this morning, because we have read about an apocalypse when it feels like we are living in the midst of an apocalypse.

Jesus’ disciples were not big city people.  They were mostly common folks from Galilee – from the sticks, as they say.  They were wowed by the sights and sounds of Jerusalem.  The disciples see the temple complex and comment on the massive, impressive structures.   And Jesus says, “You see these great buildings?  It’s all coming down.  The place is going to be leveled.  Nothing will be left standing.”

This theme continues throughout the whole chapter.  There will be false prophets.  There will be persecution.  There will come a time to flee and head for the hills, say Jesus. 

The immediate situation had to do with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which took place in 70 AD.  This had to do with the persecution and suffering that Christians were facing and would have to face.  It is a vision of a world turned upside down.

This morning, that feels a little too close to home.  It feels like our world has been turned upside down.  This is not a normal time.  This is a frightening moment.

But I find comfort in knowing that we are not the first people to live through challenging times.  The disciples and the early church lived in fear that Rome would destroy the church and destroy their society.  People lived through the devastating plague in the Middle Ages.  I have an ancestor who like others was hunted down and arrested in Switzerland because he was an Anabaptist. 

We survived World War I and the flu epidemic of 1918, which took more lives than the war.  My grandparents lived through the depression – my grandfather had a WPA job to help feed his family of 10 children, and my parents were born in the depression – as were some of you.  People have endured brutal racism, even in what many may have thought to be prosperous times. 

Challenge, upheaval, and disruption are not new to human experience.  We can take some comfort in knowing that, but that does not lessen the reality of the moment we are in. 

If you are like me, it is hard to keep from just checking on the news all the time.  And a lot of news is heartbreaking.  A 12-year old girl fighting for her life on a respirator.  A 48-year old nurse dying in a New York hospital that was reduced to using Hefty trash bags as protective gear.  Children unable to be with seriously ill parents and parents unable to be with seriously ill children.

Meanwhile there are numerous photographs of large cities – Chicago or San Francisco – where major thoroughfares and popular tourist destinations are completely empty.  The images are surreal.  We are in what feels like an apocalyptic time. 

In the middle section of Mark chapter 13, which we did not read, the text warns about siblings betraying one another, about parents turning on children and children turning on parents.  I would think that families who have been cooped up in the house together day after day are probably starting to understand how that might happen.

Now what may not be obvious is that apocalyptic passages in the Bible such as Mark 13 are actually meant to bring hope to beleaguered people. 

Where is the hope in this?  Where is the gospel in this?  Well, for starters, Jesus does not sugar-coat the situation.  It can help enormously to name things as they actually are.  Jesus speaks about “wars and rumors of wars.”  Why do rumors get equal billing with wars?  Maybe because there is so much false and misleading information circulated out there, and the rumors – the false information - can be dangerous.  Keep in mind that Twitter was not a thing in first-century Palestine, but they still managed to get rumors out.  Jesus lays out in no uncertain terms the depth of what lies ahead.  He is honest and direct about it.  While “hopeful” may not exactly be the right word, it is at the very least helpful.

And then there are Jesus’ words to “Be awake.”  This is an admonition to live each day faithfully because we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.  In the midst of uncertain times, there are things we can do.  We can choose to pay attention.  We can choose to act compassionately and faithfully.  We can be faithful.  That is hopeful-ish, at least.

But where I really find hope is in Jesus’ words in verse 8.  After speaking of the difficult times to come, he says, ”This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Jill and Dale Grauman and Fern were in worship with us last Sunday from Chicagoland, and on Thursday evening Jill gave birth to Clara Ilene Grauman.  Labor was induced in order to get in and out of the hospital before the pandemic gets worse.  What a joy and what an answer to prayer.

Now I cannot speak personally to this as many of you can, but giving birth is painful.  But through that pain comes new life.  The moment we are facing right now is painful, but it can lead to new life.  This time of upheaval and anxiety and worry can lead to new and life-giving things.

We may be seeing the beginnings of this.  On Thursday afternoon, a teacher parade drove by our house.  Teachers from Fellows school, just down the street, formed a parade of vehicles.  They drove by with signs on their cars, waving and honking to let students know that they missed them and cared about them.  Before this pandemic, we would not have fathomed the idea of a teacher parade honking its way through town. 

This year, I decided that for Lent, I was going to tip double what I normally would as a way to remember those working in service industries who really depend on tips for their livelihood.  When this started, I had no idea of how the importance of such work would be brought home.  God bless the restaurant workers and barbers and hair stylists and dog groomers.

We are realizing how important grocery employees are – along with day-care workers and truck drivers and folks who fulfill orders at Amazon and garbage collectors.

And then, of course, there are health workers, serving on the front lines, putting their own lives on the line to care for others.  God bless them.
In routine email exchanges I have had with people I do not know – customer service people and the like – we have replied to one another with messages expressing care and concern for each other.  Maybe you have had that same experience.  The sense that we are all in this together is just in the air.

Maybe, the time we are in will awaken us to the worth and the value and the contribution of every person.  Maybe it will help awaken us to our shared humanity, as we realize that we are truly all in this together.  Maybe it will awaken us to Jesus’ teachings to love our neighbor, to be servants to one another, to care for the least of these. 

Such a challenging and destructive time can help bring about the Kingdom of God.  As our comfort and security are challenged and we lose the illusion of control over things, we are seeing new empathy and openness and compassion and sharing.   Perhaps a deeper sense of community is being born.

The pain we are feeling can the beginning of birth pangs.  And as the prophet Bob Dylan once said. “Whoever isn’t busy being born is busy dying.”

In these difficult days, we find hope in knowing that God is God and we are held in God’s hands.  So I invite you to look for how God is at working birthing new ways of being church, birthing new ways of being in the world, birthing new life in us.

My hope and prayer is that the birth pangs we are feeling in this uncertain and unsettling time might bring forth new life.  May it be so.  Amen.  

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