November 15, 2015 – 25th Sunday after Pentecost
So whatever this sermon was going to be about earlier this week, it took a different turn when I got home on Friday night and learned about the coordinated set of attacks in Paris which now count 129 dead and 352 injured. Those attacks were preceded by suicide bombings in Beirut the day before that killed 43 and a suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed 23 and injured dozens and garnered only four sentences in the New York Times, perhaps because bombings now happen on an almost daily basis in Baghdad. And all of this preceded by murders and shootings and killings with such regularity that often we’re no longer astounded or outraged or grieved.
So far this year in the US alone, there have been 325 mass shootings—that means a shooting where a minimum of four people are shot—325 of them so far in 2015 and today is the 318th day of the year. That’s more than one mass shooting a day.
Honestly, I’ve struggled with what to say this morning. It did not feel faithful to go on as if nothing had happened. On the other hand, for me it feels too soon to know quite what to say.
At a time like this I am more inclined to turn to music or poetry or silence. But I wasn’t sure about suggesting we sit together in prayerful silence for ten minutes this morning. (I would be happy to do that but I’m not sure all of you would be happy to do that.)
So I’ve cobbled together some words, included some poetry, we’ll sing together words of our faith and hear the choir sing the beautiful anthem “Cantique de Jean Racine” by French composer Gabriel Fauré.
In Mark’s gospel we find Jesus leaving the temple with his disciples after being in the Temple through much of chapter 11 and all of chapter 12. We know it’s not going to go down well for Jesus from here on out. The religious authorities are afraid of him and angry at him. Jesus has already predicted three times that he will be handed over to the religious leaders who will condemn him to death and he will be killed. He will rise again he has predicted but before then we know that trouble is coming.
As Jesus and the disciples walk out of the temple, one of the disciples looks up at the huge buildings—the temple and the surrounding buildings—and with stars in his eyes, admires the grand architecture. And it probably was impressive. The temple was perhaps 3 football fields by 4 football fields. Built of huge white stones, with gold and silver on the façade, all of it glistening in the bright Mediterranean sun. Jesus is less impressed and tells the disciple that as grand as these buildings are, they will all be destroyed—all of the stones knocked down.
Historically, the gospel of Mark was written around the time of the destruction of the temple during the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70CE. Scholars are not of one mind as to whether the writer of this gospel wrote before the temple was destroyed or after its destruction. But either way, what we are left with now is commentary on the destruction of the temple. When life as the Israelites knew it was decentered, upended, disoriented, laid in ruins.
The second part of this story has Jesus and the disciples leaving the temple area in the city, walking through the Kidron valley and up to the Mount of Olives. They sit down now looking across the valley at the temple. Four of the disciples want to know when the destruction Jesus talks about is going to happen.
All that Jesus describes sounds like the nightly news: wars, rumors of war, nation rising up against another nation, earthquakes, famines. The disciples hear what Jesus says as the end of the world. But Jesus says, “Don’t focus on that. And don’t be afraid.” (Even though he is talking about frightening things!) This is not the end, it’s the beginning of birth pangs. All the upheaval, all the destruction, all the disorientation, all the anxiety and unknowns, it’s not the end, says Jesus. This is not a death knell, it’s the beginning of something new.
One pastor suggests this chapter in Mark is Jesus preparing his followers for what he knows lies ahead. And knowing what is coming, how will they witness to hope when surrounded by fear, violence, demagoguery and…indifference?”
It’s a good question for the followers of Jesus now. We are surrounded by fear: Who will be next? Am I and my loved ones safe? We are surrounded by violence: There are so many shootings in our country they don’t all get news coverage. Too many of us have witnessed violence in our neighborhoods, in our homes, or have watched it over and over as entertainment. We are surrounded by the noise of demagogues who exploit the suffering of others for political gain or to stir up the prejudices of one group of people against another. And we are surrounded by indifference: the lack of political will to do anything about gun violence; we’ve grown used to another report about a shooting or a bombing that we barely notice unless someone injured or killed is directly related to us. And if we’re honest, aren’t there also times when we hear about another disaster and we say to ourselves, “I don’t want to hear or think about this because it makes me feel bad/guilty/ scared/angry/ helpless.”
So if this bad news isn’t the end of the world, what is this baby that is trying to be born? What are the birth pangs leading to?
Scripture tells us it is the advent of the realm of God. As the prophet Habakkuk says, “When the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.” (2.14) It is when everyone is able to share in the abundant life that God intends. It is when justice and peace will be a reality for everyone—not just something we long for.
That is the promise of the gospel. It is what we set our sights on and wait and watch for, trusting that even as the world seems to fall apart, we will be held, that the world will be held in God’s hands.
Sometimes it takes some stillness to trust that this might be true. There’s a poem by Wendell Berry that speaks to a time like this:
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
We always have a choice: Will we live in fear or open our hearts to trust? Will we retreat into the safety of who and what we already know or will we open our hands to receive something unexpected that the Spirit will bring? Will we seek revenge or walk the long path of forgiveness?
We often sing the words of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
“Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours. Victory is ours.
Through God who loves us.”
On a day like today, in a week like this one, from Paris to Beirut to Baghdad to Missouri University, I don’t hear those words as a warrior’s song of victory. I hear it as a winsome promise. A promise of the way God intends for the world to be. A promise that continues to be born in your life and in mine; in the lives of God’s beloved daughters and sons all around the world.
* * *
 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/14/world/middleeast/iraq-suicide-bomb-and-road-blast-kill-26-in-baghdad.html, accessed 14 November 2015.
 http://www.shootingtracker.com/, accessed 14 November 2015.
 William C. PLacher, Mark, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 184.
 John E. Cole, “Mark 13.1-8 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 398.
 Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Collected Poems: 1957-1982, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 69.
 Desmond Tutu, “Goodness is Stronger than Evil” © 1995.