Sunday, November 15, 2009

Proper 28

Mark 13
1As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ 5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!”* and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For 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.

Sarah Palin is “Going Rogue.”

Perhaps you already knew this, if you are among the 40,000 people who have pre-ordered her book before Tuesday’s launch. That’s two more sleeps, as the kids like to say, before the real dirt about the 2008 US election is dished out, before we learn about “An American Life” as the sub-title promises, and maybe her intentions for 2012. The world waits.

Perhaps you are in the camp of people to think you have to actually achieve something before you get the number one bestseller in the pre-order category at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Maybe you have the old-school belief that you should have something sensible to say before you put pen to paper. Foolish reader. Sarah’s book is ghostwritten by a talented writer named Lynn Vincent, with several book credits, including her 2006 title “Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party.” Sarah is in good hands.

Looking beyond future Presidents such as Sarah Palin, the genre of ‘political memoir’ is alive and well. Looking over a few lists, they range for former Presidents and Prime Ministers, upper level politicos such as cabinet members or ambassadors, and even underlings like speechwriters and “fixers.” They promise an accurate look at the recent past, some justification, or the ‘real story’ behind the headlines. More often than not, the memoir serves to correct public perception, or defend a set of ideas, or launch a program (or career) while pretending to look back.

The classic Canadian example is “Straight from the Heart” by Jean Chretien. Published in 1986, the book had everything: fond memories, a sense of conviction, and (surprise!) an outline of ideas for the future. To be fair to Jean, by 1986 he had already accomplished more than most politicians. But timing is everything, and the future was waiting for “The Little Guy…”

Stealing from painter Paul Gauguin, these books ask the question, “Where do I come from? What am I? Where am I going?” They will sometimes recount the inner struggle that comes with the exercise of power, but most often they tell stories of being witness to the use of power. The memoir is useful in offering early encounters with the truly powerful: to offer insight, to affiliate in some way, and to discern the most important moment in a story from the past.

This week St. Mark is “going rogue.”

He’s writing an important memoir, a recounting of his life with Jesus, and while he seldom enters the story himself, we know that he does all the things that memoir writers do. We know that he is trying to answer ‘where do I come from, who am I, and where am I going’ not so much for himself but for Jesus. He is attempting, in his years beyond the hurly-burly of direct discipleship, to write a memoir that will offer insight, affiliate in some way, and identify the most important moments in the story.

Mark is going rogue this week in the telling of what most scholars call his “little apocalypse.” Later in the chapter come predictions of arrest and flogging, the sky will darken, everyone will betray the people around them and there will be general examples of mayhem. In chapter 14, Jesus is arrested. So 13 is really a hinge moment, the moment before the true action begins, and Mark is saying ‘get ready.’

On Friday night we were privileged to travel downtown and see the Dead Sea Scrolls, along with lots of interesting antiquities, and more than a little explanation. Apropos to today’s reading, we saw bits of the destroyed Temple. I have to say I went prepared to be under-whelmed, having seen the great Isaiah scroll in its special home in Jerusalem. But seeing parts of the destroyed Temple, including carvings from the entranceway that Jesus likely walked through, was a very powerful moment. I’m a bit shocked they lent them out at all.

So, ‘not one stone was left here upon another; all were thrown down,’ and some are here in Muddy York. Incredible really, and incredible that Mark highlights Jesus’ prediction at the very moment the story turns, and the destruction of Jesus’ body is set to begin.

What I think we are seeing here is ‘conflation,’ the joining of two stories of equal import in the life of Mark. I think it would be fair to say that someone writing a memoir might look back and confirm that the death of Jesus and the destruction of God’s dwelling place on earth were two of the most dramatic things they witnessed. Assuming, as we do, that Mark wrote immediately after the Roman siege in 70 AD, we can imagine the powerful way these two events might mingle in the imagination.

Mark would even be inclined to remember, of all the things Jesus said on earth, the connection between the two. So he recounts Jesus words and lets them hang there, trusting us to make the connection. And John (in ch. 2) doesn’t even do that, writing “the temple he had spoken of was his body.”

So Mark 13 recounts the destruction of the temple (in his way) and creates a parallel to the world-ending drama of the death of Jesus. The events of 70 AD could accurately be called the 9-11 of the early church period, where the earliest followers of Jesus (still mostly Jews) imagined that their world was coming to an end. As Mark tries to answer the last of our three memoir questions (‘and where am I going’) we can trust that he found the answer in the words of Jesus: do not be led astray and try to stay calm.

I know I’m jumping back and forth in time, but it’s hard not to look for contemporary parallels. The whole “wars and rumours of wars” thing has been a popular source for biblical prophecy since the church began, and in our age seems to have new vigour. Think of the most popular Christian books published (aside from the Bible), the “Left Behind” series. It’s all based on the notion that the “little apocalypse” stuff is happening in our day, and we need only see the signs.

I’m a little dubious. I am willing, however, to search the signs and take the advice when I consider the state of the Christian church. Mainline churches in Canada are in steep decline, we seem to have lost any sense of direction, we see signs of destruction and mayhem all around us, and we are at a loss what to do. Quick facts that keep me up at night:*

Based on current trends, in 15 years we will have experienced a 75% drop in membership across Canada from the peak in 1965.

Based on current trends, in 15 years we will have witnessed a decline in weekly attendance in worship of 90% from the 1984 number.

Based on current trends, the last baptism in a United Church will happen some time in 2019 and the last Sunday School will close in 2018.

So back to Jesus, always back to Jesus. Jesus said “do not be led astray and try to stay calm.” The numbers are real, insofar as they represent the future based on our immediate past. But that doesn’t mean it will happen that way. It simply means that if we insist on doing things in exactly the same way, the outcome is fairly certain. Do not be led astray and try to stay calm.

People are going to try to bring all sorts of theories and pet projects to us as the future begins. All sorts of false prophets will say “less of this” or “more of that” and we will need to trust in the Holy Spirit to give us the gift of discernment. We will need to cling to Jesus and his story of redemptive suffering and know that even in the face of death we have hope. We will need to stick together.

And stay calm. Jesus said “do not be alarmed…this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Here, at Central, I like to believe that something new is coming to birth, and in the midst of denominational malaise we can keep our heads, we can act in great faith, and we can do what we always do: care for the most vulnerable, love each other, and remind the neighbourhood that Jesus is present in their midst. “God is in the midst of the city,” the psalmist says, and we can trust these words. The end of our memoir remains unwritten, and we may not know exactly where we’re going, but we know we never go alone.


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