A doorway to hope

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A message for the first Sunday in Advent, shared this morning at Los Altos Lutheran Church.  (The primary texts were Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13.24-37).

We talked about hope last week when Miriam remembered for me the words of Emily Dickenson’s poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” I have to admit that when I heard her recite the poem, it seemed more substantial and profound than I had expected. But the point we were making is that Biblical hope is not a wish or desire for things to get better; it is rather a confidence rooted in a promise.

So when the prophet this morning cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” he is not expressing a wish, he is praying for God to come and deliver the people. The prophet is living in a time when faith has grown cold. Life is hard. God seems far away. And, with God seeming distant, the people have grown callous and no longer bother to call upon God or follow God’s way. It is why the prophet prays for God to come with a new act of deliverance. It is why the prophet reminds God that this people are his people. God is the potter and the people are God’s clay. God needs to claim his people and come make something holy and good of them.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

At the heart of the Advent season is God’s answer to this profoundly human and universal prayer. Advent is about God tearing open the barrier between earth and heaven and coming to reign – coming at the consummation of history, coming to us now in the joys and sorrows of our lives, and coming into the world in the child of Bethlehem.

The color for Advent is blue. The history of why it’s blue is less important than the fact that blue is a color of hope. It represents the darkness of the night giving way to the light of day. And this brings us to the other visual image of this season: the dawning of light into the world – in the full blaze of glory on that day when fear and darkness are forever banished, when the light of God comes to our lives in moments of fear and darkness, and in the incarnation when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. As Advent moves towards Christmas, it moves towards the message in the Gospel of John that we read on Christmas morning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. … 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

These are not just religious words. It is a deep and profound human experience that God enters into the world and into our lives in ways that are radiant with grace and life. It always seems to surprise us, but it shouldn’t, because it is promised to us. God is a god who, however much he may sometimes seem absent, keeps showing up.

God comes in ways that are often unexpected and surprising. He shows up at Cain’s door when he is bitter with revenge towards his brother. He shows up in a burning bush when Moses has fled into the wilderness and is tending sheep. He shows up to Gideon when he is trying to thresh his wheat in secret so that the Philistines who plunder his country won’t take it. God shows up in surprising and unexpected places – to persecuted Hannah when she is weeping and praying at the doorway of the tabernacle and the priest thinks she’s drunk. To childless Zechariah when he is serving in the temple. To Ezekiel when he is standing along the canal in exile in Babylon. To Peter when he is mending his fishnets. And, of course, to Mary when she has not yet gone to live with her husband, Joseph. God keeps showing up.

Advent is about this God who comes. It’s why we have images of doors in the sanctuary alcoves. And over the season, watch the alcoves and you will see doors opening and the light continually increasing until we get to Christmas. (Of course, you have to come on Sunday morning, December 24th, to see all the doors open.)

So the Gospel text that is before us this morning is from Mark 13. We have been reading Matthew all last year and for the next year we will be reading primarily from Mark. Mark is composed during the Judean revolt when armies are marching and Jerusalem will be destroyed. Jesus declares that the temple will be destroyed. The marriage of power and politics and wealth and religious leaders and the use of the name of God at the top of Judean society will be torn down. Jesus warns his followers not to be led astray by those who are proclaimed as saviors or messiahs when that convulsion happens. And he urges us to be awake and watchful like members of a household waiting for the head of the family to come.

(It is important that we understand this about the use of the word slaves waiting for their master. Slavery was very different in the ancient world than in the American experience. Slaves were members of the household. They were understood to be – and understood themselves to be – part of the extended family. These are not hired hands afraid of being caught goofing off, these are household members eager for the head of the house to return.)

When I was a senior at Palo Alto High School there was a student strike to protest the war in Vietnam. There was a grass courtyard enclosed on several sides by buildings and by a colonnaded walkway on the rest. The students were sitting on the grass and speakers were addressing them at the far end of the courtyard. My math teacher from my junior year was standing in the colonnade watching and I came and stood near him. We loved him and, in fact, Deb and I invited him to our wedding. He drank a milkshake every day at lunch and walked through the amphitheater observing the students in ways that would show up as math problems the next day. He seemed to know who was going with whom and what was happening among us all.

As Mr. Parker watched the strike, he turned to me and said something about having a cabin in the Sierra’s. He wasn’t by any means a survivalist, but in that moment I could see in his eyes that he thought the fabric of society was coming apart.

I watched a lot of adults in those years look upon the profound troubles of that era – the riots, the assassinations, the protests, the convulsions in society – and feel deeply fearful about the future. Dad said that flying out of what was then Washington National Airport over the District of Columbia following the riots there, reminded him of flying over bombed out Berlin after the war. Mother called the city in fear when city workers came out and began to dig up the sidewalk late one afternoon, and then left for the day with the rubble still in place. She feared those chunks of concrete could become weapons and, as I remember it, made the city come pick them up that day.

The Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the National Guard being called out to escort children to school as crowds of white adults shouted curses at the children. George Wallace declaring “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and winning five states plus an elector from North Carolina in the 1968 presidential election. The bombings of military recruitment stations and defense contractors. The murder of Medgar Evers by white supremacists. The brutal torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

They were fearful times. They are not the only fearful times in our country’s history. I have heard stories of those who lived through the depression. My father remembers the dust storms in eastern Colorado. We have seen the famous photographs of the displaced persons taken by Dorothea Lange.

And if we could go back, there was the convulsion of the whole country over slavery that ended with a million dead (in a nation of 30 million of whom 4 million were slaves). There were tumults because of massive immigration before and after the civil war. There was the corruption of Tammany Hall, the terrorist bombing of Wall Street in 1920, President Harding sending the Army to fight on behalf of the coal companies against coal miners in West Virginia (The Battle of Blair Mountain), and the Teapot Dome corruption scandal.

Fear comes. We want life to be safe, but it rarely is. Or, at least, it seems like it doesn’t stay safe for long.

It doesn’t surprise me that the convulsions of the 60’s led to Hal Lindsey and the idea that we were the last generation before the coming of the Lord. Social upheaval always begets apocalyptic ideas. At one point Luther thought that he, too, lived in the final generation.

And so did the people in Mark’s congregation. They were living in the midst of war, hostility, and fear. In verse 12, before the portion we read this morning, Jesus says:

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.

Mark reminds his community that Jesus said that the temple would fall and advised his followers to flee the city when the time came. He reminds them that Jesus understood that times of trouble would come. And he reminds them that Jesus warned them not to be led astray. Others would be acclaimed as messiahs and saviors and we shouldn’t be deceived.

These are all helpful words for us when we are in distress: Don’t lose our way. Don’t lose our hope. Remember what he has told us: “Keep watch, I will come.”

Keep watch, I will come. Expect me to show up when you are in fear. Expect me to show up when you are in distress. Expect me to show up in the most ordinary of moments, when you are washing dishes, or doing laundry, buying groceries. Watch for me. Watch for me in the kindness of strangers. Watch for me in the opportunity to be kind. Watch for me in the lonely nights or when trouble seems to surround. Watch for me. Expect mercy.

See not only what is dark, but what is light. See not only what is cruel, but what is kind. See not only confusion, but clarity. Hear not only the harsh and angry words, but the calm and wise ones.

Watch for God to come to you in the bread and wine and the words “given for you.” Watch for God to come in the daily scripture verses. Watch for God to come in the first breath of the morning and the last sigh of the night. Watch for God to open doors to meet you.

Remember God has already opened the heavens and come down.

Remember the door of the tomb has been rolled away.

Remember that the New Jerusalem is a city where the gates never close.

Watch, for God will come.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEmporio_(4494560043).jpg By Klearchos Kapoutsis from Santorini, Greece (Emporio Uploaded by Yarl) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Doorways

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Watching for the Morning of December 3, 2017

Year B

The First Sunday of Advent

I had a profound dream many years ago that involved the discovery of a door. I was living (in the dream) in a small one room mountain cabin that seemed very much like a suburb with paved streets, an ordinary driveway and garbage pick up at the curb. But in the dream I realized there was a door behind the refrigerator which, when I succeeded in moving the refrigerator, opened into a large room with giant picture windows looking down over a sweeping vista of a clear blue mountain lake, surrounded with virgin forest.

Doorways are about discovery. Lucy Pevensie, in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe discovers a doorway into the wondrous world of Narnia in the back of a wardrobe. Daniel Jackson figures out how to open the stargate. Mary opens the door to The Secret Garden. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins counsels his nephew saying “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” And, of course, the women discover angels at the door of the empty tomb. It sweeps the world off its feet.

A doorway to a new world. Advent looks through the doorway into the reign of God to come when the lion lies down with the lamb – and through that doorway Christ comes to us at the consummation of human history, in the present time of our lives, and in the child of Bethlehem.

So Sunday we begin our Advent journey. The sanctuary will be decorated with images of light and the blue of hope, of the night sky turning to day. And there will be photographs of doors waiting to be opened – and opened already that we might find our way to the hope, peace, joy and light that never ends.

On this first Sunday of the new church year we will hear the prophet Isaiah’s plea for God to open the heavens and come down to save. We will sing with the prophet of the everlasting joy of God’s redeeming work. We will hear Paul remind us that “are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And we will listen as Jesus warns us to be awake and aware, like servants waiting to greet their Lord.

Behold I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus. Open it and life will never be the same.

The Prayer for December 3, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts,
and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and bring us to that day
when all the earth is redeemed by your presence.

The Texts for December 3, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” – The prophet speaks the lament of the people in the years after the return from exile, when life is hard and the former glory of the nation is absent. He calls upon God to relent and forgive their sins.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Our parish departs from the appointed psalm to sing this song of salvation from the prophet Isaiah.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1.3-9
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” –
Paul opens his letter to the believers in Corinth referring to the matter of spiritual gifts that has divided the community, setting them in their proper context as gifts of God to the whole body as they prepare for the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 13.24-37
“Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” – Having spoken of the destruction of the temple and what is to come for the community of believers, Jesus affirms that the Son of Man will come to gather his elect. For that day they should be awake, doing the work that they master of the house has entrusted to them.

During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. This occurs on the second Sunday of Advent this year.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASur_le_chemin_cotier_a_cancale_-_panoramio_(4).jpg chisloup [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What large stones

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Thursday

Mark 13:1-8

1As Jesus 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.”

We like to build monuments. From our first wooden blocks, it seems, we have the impulse to build – and to build higher. “Look Mom,” we crow. How deep can you dig a hole at the beach? How high can you build your castle of sand? Humanity’s first construction project was the tower from which to storm the gates of heaven. A tower that will make a name for ourselves.”

And so we have Trump Tower with Trump’s name not only on the building but every sweatshirt for sale in the lobby is artfully folded so that it shouts “Trump” and every book is turned so Trump’s face shines.

We are builders. Big or small we are builders. We want to build a home, a family, a legacy. We build churches. Glorious churches.

I would not give up any of them. I am inspired by their soaring heights, their ancient foundations, their simple beauty. But God didn’t send us into the world to build temples and monuments. God sent us to build communities of justice and mercy.

One of the most profound transformations that happens in Christ is the notion that the community is the temple. 1 Peter writes:

2:4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

The temples we build are temporary things. The temple God builds is a people. And that temple endures into eternity.

19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

 

Image: Водник at ru.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

But there is hope here

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David Roberts, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70

Watching for the Morning of November 15, 2015

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

Year B

The disciples of Jesus are awed by the temple. Rightly awed. It was a magnificent structure that Herod the Great had created, transforming the small temple whose dimensions were confined by those in the Biblical text into a great plaza of concentric courtyards surrounded by porticoes of towering columns. To accomplish this, Herod had to extend the hilltop, building out the huge retaining wall that still stands to support the temple mount. The exposed foundation stones in the southwest corner form the Western Wall where Jews gather today to mourn the loss of the temple and pray.

Herod created one of the wonders of the ancient world. But in 70 CE, four years after the outbreak of the Judean revolt, Rome destroyed it.

The war was devastating for the region and a catastrophe for Judea. Jewish residents of Roman cities who did not flee were murdered. Crucifixions abounded as the Roman army surrounded Jerusalem with concrete examples of the fate that awaited the rebels. No heavenly armies arrived to support the rebel leaders acclaimed as messiahs. The signs in the heavens and the purported miracles on earth did not lead to the liberation of Judea or the dawning of God’s kingdom. All that came was hunger, destruction and death.

Jesus talks about this pending disaster with no glee. There is no joy at Jerusalem’s fall. No delight in God’s judgment on the wicked. Just the sad acknowledgment that this grand attempt to honor God with worldwide renown was not the honor God desired. God desired justice and mercy.

This is the setting for worship on Sunday. It should make us a little weak in the knees. We are drawing near to the end of the church year. In the northern hemisphere it is the end of the harvest season when the grain is winnowed. Winter looms, darkness grows, and themes of judgment and the end of all things echo in our texts.

But there is hope here.

The Book of Daniel faces the devastation of 164 BCE with the promise of God’s ultimate triumph. The Archangel Michael shall arise to deliver God’s people, the grave shall give up its dead, every injustice shall be righted, and the faithful will shine with the radiance of heaven.

The psalmist sings in gratitude of God’s blessing and, when he speaks of God’s healing work, hints at a more profound mystery:

9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
10 For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
11 You show me the path of life.

Jesus acknowledges the coming judgment upon Jerusalem but warns his followers not to be led astray. This is not the end, he says, and compares it with the onset of labor pains – pains that end in joy. God’s reign will come, just not yet. The days are scary but not final. There is work yet for believers to do. Works of justice and mercy. Works of witness and service. Works of joy and life.

The Prayer of the Day for November 15, 2015

Almighty and eternal God,
set our hearts and hands to work,
not in the building of temples that perish,
but in those eternal works of mercy and truth
that serve your reign of grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The texts for November 15, 2015

First Reading: Daniel 12:1-3
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise.”
– The visions granted to Daniel of the persecutions under Antiochus Epiphanes IV come to their conclusion with Israel’s ultimate deliverance.

Psalmody: Psalm 16
“Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” – The poet expresses his trust in God.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” – Having set forth his argument for the superiority of Christ as our true high priest, the author comes to the exhortation that prompts his letter: that we should “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering” and encourage one another to remain faithful.

Gospel: Mark 13:1-8
“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” – When the disciples call Jesus’ attention to the majesty and beauty of the temple, he predicts its destruction. For the disciples, such and event must mean the end of the world, but Jesus tells his followers that “the end is not yet,” and warns them not to be led astray. The conflicts of the nations and the convulsions of nature are but “the beginning of the birth pangs.”

 

David Roberts, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

No one knows

[The second of two posts that belonged to, but weren’t quite ready for] Saturday

Mark 13

Sunlight illuminating the forest floor.  Photo credit: dkbonde

Sunlight illuminating the forest floor. Photo credit: dkbonde

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Okay. Now we have to talk moderately. We do not know when Christ will come. But we live in the light of his coming. We live in the light of his words and deeds, his life death and resurrection, and we live in the light of his promise to gather all things to himself in God’s great act of recreation. Christ is the Alpha and omega, he is our beginning and our end. He is the self-expression of God in whom all things were created and he is the goal toward which all things move. Our beginning was in God and our End is in God – God revealed in the self-giving love of Christ Jesus.

We do not know when Christ will come, when the kingdom will dawn in the full brightness of eternal day, when the New Jerusalem descends like a bride, when the lion lies down with the lamb, when every heart kneels is service and adoration of the perfect faithfulness of God.

We have no schedule, no timetable, no outline, no sequences of steps, just a promise that the risen Christ is “seated at the right hand of God,” is the governing truth of all existence. And that his “kingdom” shall come; he shall reign in every heart.

We do not know when Christ will come, but we live in the light of his coming. We live in the light of his reign. We live under the governing influence of his Spirit. We live in the promise and hope that all things are fulfilled in him.

So we do not know when he shall come; but we know that he comes. And we are called to live as his faithful bondservants. We are called to be awake – not searching the skies for him to come, not searching the earth for the latest tragedies that might point to his pending arrival – but awake and doing the tasks he has given us: to show steadfast faithfulness to God and to all others.

We have seen in Christ Jesus the new leaves of an eternal spring. We have seen in Christ Jesus lives made whole. We have seen in Christ Jesus sins forgiven and enemies loved. We have seen the grave unable to hold him prisoner. We have felt the warmth of that spring in our own lives – mending what was broken, healing what was torn, restoring what was lost. We have seen it in the lives of others around us. We have seen the equivalent of the blind seeing and the lame man in the temple leaping for joy.

We are awake and watchful – not obsessed with signs of the end – but obsessed with the task of living and sharing this Gospel: the news has a come back from the battlefield and God is victorious. Sin and death and the devil are defeated. War and violence and bitterness of soul, despair and greed, these are all thrown down. They will not reign. They will not enslave. They will not bind the earth in sorrow.

No one knows when Christ will come – except that he has come and he continues to come and he will come and my heart and every heart shall belong perfectly to him.

A rant

[The first of two posts that belonged to, but weren’t quite ready for] Saturday

Mark 13

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photo credit: Julian Osley

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Please note: Pastors – at least most pastors – are always trying to be careful not to step on toes. Well put on your steel-toed work boots. I’m tired of being careful about this subject.

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If Jesus doesn’t even know, why do we pay any attention to people who say they do??!!

To claim to know the time of Jesus’ return is to show yourself a false prophet. Period. The members of such a congregation should promptly leave. But we love listening to these schemas. It’s like listening to Oliver Stone talk about the magic bullet. It’s a religious form of the conspiracy theory: we know, you don’t, aren’t we special?

You’re not special! Well, you are special in God’s eyes, special enough to be called to become a servant of God and humanity. But that’s different. You want to be “in the know”. It’s the same seductive power as gossip. I know secrets and it makes me feel special. This is where those who remember should hear the voice of the church lady: “Well aren’t we special?!”

No one knows.

No one knows.

How many times does Jesus have to say it?! He doesn’t even know!

Now about this nonsense of the fig tree (people saying that they aren’t predicting the day, they’re just reading the signs like the greening fig tree): We see the buds because we have seen Jesus, not because we see armies marching in the Middle East. We know spring is coming because Christ has come, not because there are big earthquakes around. There have always been earthquakes since Adam and Eve snatched the apple. Just like there are wars and rumors of wars. No one knows.

I knew a clown years ago, speaking to impressionable teens, who whispered to us on a rooftop as we stared at the stars that Jesus said we wouldn’t know the day or the hour – but he didn’t say we wouldn’t know the month and the year. He told me – it was back in March of ‘72 I think. No one knows!

No one knows. So quit working out your schemas and get back to work. There are people who haven’t heard the gospel. There are people who need the stuff we do know about Jesus, not the stuff we don’t know! There are people who are hungry and homeless. There are people who are huddled in refugee camps. There are children on your block who are neglected and abused. Be the kingdom. And if you want to look for Christ anywhere, look for him in the face of the hungry, the poor, the imprisoned, the sick. That’s where he said he was.

So, if I’ve spoken immoderately, if I’ve stepped on your toes, I’m sorry.

BUT NO ONE KNOWS!!!

Falling stars

Wednesday

Mark 13

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Falling Stars, Mihály Zichy

24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

“After that suffering.” We can’t read the whole Gospel at once – at least not on a Sunday morning. The readings in the liturgy are mere fragments of a story the community is supposed to know. When you hear the piece you ware supposed to remember what comes before and what comes after and how the pieces all fit together. As if you could pick up a small jigsaw puzzle and at first glance know where it fits.

We can’t read the whole Gospel at once, because of the time constraints of worship, but those who have heard this Gospel recited talk about how incredible is the experience. Mark was an oral Gospel, told to the community – preached to the community in the best sense of that word – proclaimed, and only later written down. It is full of the urgency of a breathless witness.   I think of my brother about 10, giving my mother a blow-by-blow rendition of “the best movie ever!” She is struggling to get groceries in from the car; he is oblivious to everything but the story.

“After that suffering.” It is a haunting reference to the struggle the community has endured. Mark’s is not a nice rural or suburban congregation in Middle America. It is like a refugee community on Syria’s border, surrounded by war and its aftermath.

Since the death of Jesus, his followers have suffered violence for their perceived betrayal of communal values – think about Paul participating in the stoning of Stephen, and he himself victimized, including by stoning, for the message he preached. He is nearly murdered by a mob in the temple and escapes an organized plot against his life only by being secreted out of Jerusalem at night by a detachment “of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen.” (Acts 23:23)

Conflict within the Judean community in the city of Rome, apparently involving hostility against the followers of Jesus, led to their expulsion in AD 49. Judeans return to the city, but the Christians become numerous and identifiable enough to get blamed by Nero for the burning of Rome in 64. Among the tortures they endured, some were dipped in pitch and set alight as torches for the emperor’s parade route. Then in 66 the Judean revolt began. The leaders of that revolt were acclaimed as the anointed of God – in Hebrew, ‘Messiah’, in Greek, ‘Christ’. When Jesus warns about false Christs, Mark’s community knows their names. The followers of Jesus are perceived as enemies of Romans and rebels alike. Those who fled Jerusalem were captured by the Romans and crucified in a circle around the city, facing the wall so that all inside could know the fate that awaited them.

In the first year of that war, as Vespasian marched through Galilee, refugees flooded the city. They would later starve or perish in the zealot reign of terror. There is a reason Jesus tells his followers to flee to the hills.

So when Jesus continues his discourse with this simple phrase: “After that suffering,” the crowd listening to Mark tell the story of Jesus knows the suffering of which he speaks. It is the suffering of their community squeezed on all sides.

But Jesus doesn’t offer them consolation; he speaks a promise: “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

The sun, moon and stars are divine beings in the ancient world, spirit beings inhabiting the realm of the air. We would think of them as forces, spiritual realities that drive human existence, like ideologies and isms. We see these forces at work on a grand scale in the clashing and mutually incomprehensible perceptions and experiences of the world between Palestinian and Jew or black and white in Ferguson. Fascism, Communism, Capitalism, Fundamentalism, Racism – these are forces that seem beyond human control, but wreak their wrath upon people and children, communities – even on the earth itself as carbon dioxide levels rise far beyond anything earth has known in 90,000 years, changing not just the weather but ecosystems and the chemistry of the ocean. Polar ice melts and orca now plunder the once protected nurseries of the narwhal and bowhead. Polar Bear are reduced to eating seaweed and trying to learn how to fish for salmon.

Before such transcendent powers Mark’s community seems helpless. But their story doesn’t end with suffering. “After that suffering” these powers will be thrown down. The Son of Man, the crucified and risen one, will come with power and great glory.

It is not pie in the sky. It is very far from pie in the sky. It is faith and courage and hope and continuing testimony in the face of great powers – born of the confidence that they are witnesses of a far greater power.

This is Mark’s urgent and compelling and liberating story. The unimaginable has happened: the true Messiah has been crucified but made alive by God – and he is coming to reign.

Fling Wide the Door

Watching for the morning of November 30

Year B

The First Sunday of Advent:

Doorway

Open doorway at the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission. Photo credit: dbkonde

Sunday begins a new church year. The cycle that runs from Advent through Christmas to Lent and Easter and then from Pentecost to the end of the year resets itself – only now our Gospel readings are drawn mostly from Mark.

The church year does strange things to our reading of the gospels. It means we pick up the next writer’s story almost at the end, when Jesus is in Jerusalem predicting the fall of the city – and the Jerusalem leaders are making plans to arrest and destroy him. We don’t start at the beginning; we start at the end. We start with Jesus speaking about the events when history draws to its close.

Maybe it’s not altogether inappropriate.

In our time and place we generally like narratives to being at the beginning and explain all the complex psychological states of the adult from the traumas and experiences of youth. But we will not find that here. Quite the opposite. From the remarkable achievements of the adult – the ancients’ reasoned – there must have been a remarkable childhood. If you became a great king, there must have been signs in the heavens and wonders on earth to anticipate it.

But that’s not where our reading of these ancient narratives begins. We begin with the promise Christ will come on the clouds and the warning to keep awake. It’s where we ended the year, pointing to Christ as our true king.

Christianity begins and ends not with the manger or the cross and resurrection, but the promise that “The kingdom of God is at hand.” These are the first words of Jesus in Mark and the testimony of the angel at the empty tomb. God is drawing near to reign. God is drawing near to restore the connection between heaven and earth. God is drawing near to raise this broken world from its bondage to sin and death. God is drawing near to establish the just faithfulness of God. And that day is begun amongst us. The dead are raised. Sins are forgiven. The outcasts gathered in. The sick made whole. The possessed set free. Blind eyes opened.

That dawning reign of God began in Jesus. It continues among us. And it will come in fullness. For that day we watch and wait. Our Father is coming; and we are staying awake to jump into his arms with joy and delight when the door swings open.

The Prayer for November 30, 2014

Mighty God,
who stands at the beginning and end of time,
grant us wisdom to recognize the hour in which we live
and courage to remain faithful,
that we may greet you with joy at your coming;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for November 30, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” – The prophet speaks the lament of the people in the years after the return from exile, when life is hard and the former glory of the nation is absent. He calls upon God to relent and forgive their sins.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Our parish departs from the appointed psalm to sing this song of salvation from the prophet Isaiah.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1.3-9
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” –
Paul opens his letter to the believers in Corinth referring to the matter of spiritual gifts that has divided the community, setting them in their proper context as gifts of God to the whole body as they prepare for the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 13.24-37
“Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” – Having spoken of the destruction of the temple and what is to come for the community of believers, Jesus affirms that the Son of Man will come to gather his elect. For that day they should be awake, doing the work that they master of the house has entrusted to them.