Sunday, November 18, 2018

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 13
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

When it comes to sacred sites with plumbing problems, we are not alone.

But in the case of the sisters of the Sacred Family Institute in Rome, it wasn’t a steampipe but a burst water pipe that caused general alarm, then astonishment, and now speculation among archaeologists around the world. The burst water pipe lead to a sinkhole, which opened up into a hidden chamber, which revealed several hundred non-Christian burials in an area of the catacombs that are known chiefly as an ancient Christian burial site.

So I’m waiting for some future steampipe mishap to reveal ancient catacombs beneath Weston. Actually, it’s not far from a vain hope, since we know that each building project on this site brings up the bones of the Methodist faithful who used this site as a cemetery for more than a century. Dip into our history books and you will learn about ceremonies of dedication and rededication as the same faithful were given an final final rest on the other side of the river.

I say final final rest, but maybe I should add a caveat to that, since the Christian hope is never one of eternal earthly rest, but a great and glorious day of return. We sang about it just yesterday, at the service for our beloved Dorothy, when we sang the old Methodist spiritual that explains the time to come:

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,
and time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Our history, of course, is rife with speculation about that great and glorious day. When will to come? What will be the signs? Mark 13 reminds us that the conversation and the speculation is happening around Jesus, among his followers, locating him and them in the apocalyptic themes found throughout the Bible Jesus read. All the prophets, major and minor, lift up this theme of new age, the new order that will follow when God moves to make all things new.

But something else is happening in Mark 13, a kind of back-to-the-future event that only reveals itself when we look at Mark’s context. It’s about AD 70. Mark sits down to write a gospel, collecting what is known about Jesus, his ministry, and most importantly, his death and resurrection.

And while he’s busy writing, he is surrounded by the most dramatic events since the ancient exile. The Jewish revolt, the Roman intervention, first seeming to fail and later to succeed in the most dramatic fashion possible, form the backdrop of a gospel to can barely conceal this context. In Mark, Jesus describes ruin of the great buildings of Jerusalem, not one stone left upon another, the temple destroyed in just three days as attested in each of the gospels.

But for Mark, it’s happening. He has taken his day and read it backward into the gospel, using this event to remind his readers that this terrible event was predicted, that it is but one sign of the new age, and that such destruction will the harbinger of that morning, ‘eternal, bright and fair.’ But there’s more.

As Mark sits down to write, Jesus has been gone for 35 years. And one by one the disciples have gone, along with many of the early believers Paul mentions in his letters. Even the great Paul has died, maybe four or maybe five years past. Some from natural causes, some caught up in the earliest persecutions, but nonetheless at rest.

The problem for Mark and the others in his era is the waiting. Jesus promised to return, to “take them to himself,” to call them home in but a little while. The “when” was not revealed, it could come even as a thief in the night, but they would not be left orphans, and he would soon return.

Well waiting, as any child will tell you, is difficult. Time seems to slow and the promise that follows the waiting begins to seem more and more remote. Some even doubted the promise, and so Mark and others feel compelled to remind them. Members of the twelve ask, “When will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” but we know this was a question in Mark’s community too, likely asked the day he put pen to paper.

So what is it and what is it not? What are the signs, and what can we expect? Whenever I’m confronted by questions that cannot be easily be answered, I retreat to the comfort of the greats, Barth and Moltmann, to name just two, towering voices of twentieth century theology. And picking up the topic of the age to come, I found this:

To apprehend the Beginning in the End (this is how Barth describes the end times)...neither should we join the sentimentalists in expecting some magnificent or terrible FINALE, nor should we comfort ourselves for its failure to appear by embracing the confident frivolity of modern protestant cultured piety. (Romans, p. 501)

With this the kids might say “oh, burn.” Barth says, in effect, ‘you’re both wrong.’ The conservative Christians who have made an industry out of the end of the world, or who neglect every problem the world faces since it will soon end anyway, you’re wrong! Likewise we, playfully dismissed by Barth for the modern protestant cultured piety that defines us, have turned away from the new age.

Instead, we think we can create heaven on earth with the latest issue or consciousness raising exercise, heaped upon the last. We should not forget that “modern protestant cultured piety” led to Indian residential schools, cultural hegemony disguised as global missions, and the folly of temperance, imagining that we could force all of society to our way of thinking and expect that they would thank us for it.

So if it’s not column A and it’s not column B, what is it? What will be the signs? Moltmann wants to back up even further, to remind us that even the topic itself is little understood. What is “the mysteries of the end-time” he says, “God’s future and the righteousness of his kingdom...are concealed and cannot be known under the conditions of the present age.” (Crucified, p. 167)

In other words, we have to be satisfied with signs. God will only be fully revealed “at the end of the old age and at the beginning for the new” and until then we wait. We can read the signs, and we can wonder at the promise of the age to come, but we cannot fully know its measure.

So we are left to locate our hope in the signs we have. And what are they? Well, we look around us and we find hope in each other. We are the hope of the Risen One, alive as his body, doing his work in the world as we tend to each other and those beyond these walls. Next, we see hope in the Advent of our Lord, the days of waiting that reveal God’s willingness to enter the world in a new way. And, of course, the cornerstone of Christian hope, the death and resurrection of Jesus, commemorated every Sunday in this place.

But this isn’t just theology of philosophy, nerds with books like me who read and reread looking for insight. It’s a living question that begins in the catacombs and other sacred sites, to churches surrounded by cemeteries with loved ones long past. It weighs on us because it finds the heart of the Christian message and the answer to the questions “what are the signs?” and “how long will we wait?”

Here is Jurgen Moltmann’s answer:

For the Easter hope shines not only forwards into the unknown newness of the history which it opens up, but also backwards over the graveyards of history.(p. 163)

We are at the intersection of a faithful past and a hopeful future, and the answer becomes “now is the time.” Now is the time to show others the compassion of God in Jesus, now is the time to express God’s hope for the living and the dead, now is the time to remind everyone that this reality is not all that is, now is the time to point to our future hope, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. Now is the time we see glimpses, but soon we will see God. Amen.


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