Rev. Rebecca Migliore
November 14, 2021
I have to admit that as we come to this particular time of year, I often sigh. In the outside world, the holiday season is ramping up—Christmas music is seeping from radios and store PAs, holiday lights are popping up, people are getting excited about finally gathering together for Thanksgiving with family in-person even while they fret about what to serve and how much it might cost, and Christmas shopping is in earnest.
But we (or at least I as the lectionary preacher) have only one foot in what is happening “out there.” For “in here” the church year is wrapping up, and we will soon be into Advent (the beginning of a new church year), preparing ourselves for the birth of the Messiah. The readings at this time of year have an apocalyptic (that is “end of the world”) feel—as does this morning’s reading from Mark. We hear about the Temple falling, about kingdom going up against kingdom, and even the techtonic plates get into shift mode—all the while, lifting up the picture of Jesus as Christ the King—a King over any change from one world to the next.
That’s a lot of tension—between the secular “holy/jolly” and the sacred focus on endings and beginnings. What a drag to have to preach on something that sounds like such a downer? Especially in a year when we all have had it up to here! And yet, I must admit, I found the Markan reading, and my forced musing on it, surprisingly reassuring.
If I let myself be honest, I could really be depressed about the state of our country and our world. But as I listened to Jesus’ words about the temple, I felt like he was saying to me, “Whatever is the worst thing you think can happen, whatever you think is the ‘end of the world,’ –something on that order has already happened, and people survived.”
True, the world may not continue as it was in our past. (I think of that final scene of the first Planet of the Apes movie, where we are shocked to see the tip of the Statue of Liberty poking up out of the sand and realize this was a story about our world in one possible future!). Now I’m not wishing the end to this experiment called the United States of America, far from it, but other great civilizations have risen and fallen and time has moved on. Yes, the world may not be what it was, but turmoil can bring change, and God is bigger than any mess we might make.
So when Jesus talks about “the beginning of the birth pangs”—I’ve always heard that statement as “wait until you see the rest of the horrible things that are in store.” But some of the commentators suggested that instead of focusing on this as the beginning of the ENDING (instead of lifting up the ‘end of the world’ scenario) what Jesus really does is point to a BEGINNING. Let’s use Jesus’ own words—“birth pangs.”
We all know that the process of birth is difficult and dangerous, even in this day and age. But “birth” is the only way to get to that new life, that new beginning. All this upheaval, all this angst, all this disquiet, just might be needed to wrench into existence a better world, a new structure, a place of Shalom (justice and peace). We aren’t there yet—we all know. But we shouldn’t throw up our hands and give up when the going gets rough. The kingdom, the reign of God, is poised in the birth canal, and needs some extra coaxing and some hard pushes to bring it into the sunlight.
The message of “it’s happened before” and “think of this as a beginning not ending” might be jarring, if we have strayed from remembering that the focus of life is not solely about us, but about God and our life with God. Often we are able to side step this reality, especially in a culture that increasingly thinks being religious is something to avoid or mock. Who’s to stop us from “looking out for number one”? In fact, aren’t we counseled to “get everything we are due;”? Don’t we see examples everywhere that it is all about what is best for me and my family and my friends?
It may be that if we have to face our own mortality, or have to face the destruction of all that we say we hold dear (like democracy), we will be shaken into a different frame of mind. I keep hearing Jesus saying to the rich young man, “Go and sell all you have… and come follow me”—and hearing the subtext “maybe you need to let go of more than just money—maybe you need to let go of life (a self-absorbed life) as you know it?” That sure feels scary, and we certainly understand how you could turn away from that advice (like that rich young man). We don’t like to see life as out of our control, and it requires us to give up something to put our trust in God, to take a large measure of faith, to grip tightly to hope.
But that is what Jesus asks of us. Jesus asks us not to listen to false prophets who offer fake promises. Jesus asks us not to judge God by the steadiness of earthly stones upon stones (like the temple). Jesus asks us to see beginnings in what might seem like endings. Jesus asks us to have faith. Not a blind faith, not a faith that sits on the side-lines waiting for the kingdom to pop up fully formed, but a faith that strengthens the faint-hearted, a faith that supports the weak, a faith that helps the suffering, a faith that honors all people, a faith that stands on our love of God and our commitment to serve in our world.
A faith that might have us pray every Friday, as do the people of Coventry, England, in their “new” church built alongside the ruins of the cathedral bombed in 1940,
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
The lust which dishonors the bodies of men, women and children,
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
[Help us to] Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave [us].
From the Coventry Cathedral website:
Do our readings for this morning have anything to say to us as the United Presbyterian Church of West Orange? I think they do. We are invited to acquire a faith like that of Hannah (whose song will be echoed in Mary’s Magnificat in just a few weeks)—for Hannah knows God is a Rock, a strength better than buildings, a provider
for the poor— the One shaking the ground of “the way things always have been” to make way for a more just world.
And I hear in the message of Jesus a call to be partners in bringing in the reign of God—by strengthening our UPC community, this special place we have been given, that can be a gathering ground, a way for us to “hear ourselves into speech,” a time for being vulnerable with one another, a place where we can move toward creating what God wants us to be.
I also hear Jesus saying to us that we are to do this internal work even while we tackle big societal problems—and the ones named in PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 pledge, to dismantle structural racism and eradicate systemic poverty are monumental!
I think we are taking steps in the right direction—but more has to be done. We have to continue to ask “How do we make sure that our worship includes aspects that make each of us feel welcomed and honored? We should push forward in discerning “What is God calling us to do in the field of poverty—most especially hunger ministry?” And we can dream and implement a widening of our conversation about how to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”—in ourselves and in our world by working on “Who do we partner with to make needed changes in our town, in our state, in our country, in our world?
I know this might seem like too much. I can hear a part of your brain saying (because it’s a little voice in my own) We are already tired. We sometimes feel defeated. We are so small. We are so few. We don’t really know what to do. It sounds like so much work—so much asked of us. And really, what is the point?
We must fight that little voice, with God’s promises.
Too small? Remember the mustard seed. Size is not the end all and be all.
Too few? Remember the numbers of the early church. Faith allows us to do the
impossible for all is possible in God.
Does it make a difference? Remember the stories of the civil rights movements, of the conductors on the underground railroad, of all those “firsts” (including our Biblical ancestors, Moses and Esther, Daniel and Deborah, Zacheus and Lydia)—they are whispering that every step we take towards the kingdom is important. Some workers we know by name because they had been gifted with courage and strength beyond what we can imagine. But so many of the faithful servants we do not know by name. And yet, they kept the faith, walked the path, followed the call, and have made a difference. The work of Shalom is not done, by any means.
But we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. We provide a stepping stone for those who will come after. And we rest on the bedrock of our mighty God.
God is the pillar of cloud leading us forward. God is the pillar of fire protecting our back. God is the One we meet in the heat and the light and the flame—the One who declares “I Am who I Am” which also means “I Will Be Who I Will Be.”
God is the One singing a lullaby to the world with the birth of a baby. God is the One who listens most deeply to the outcast, the vulnerable, the forgotten. God is the One who heals. God is the One who knows the darkness of despair and grief and death. And God is the One who turns the tables so that death becomes life, weeping turns to joy in the morning light, and “My Lord, what a morning” we are promised that will be.
So as the days get shorter and we yearn for the coming of the light;
As the hustle and bustle of Thanksgiving and Christmas sweeps us into its grasp;
As we count down the days of our old year towards a new one, may we remember to:
--link hands with our ancestors,
--hold onto the promises made about a new beginning
(even within the ending of the old),
--and take our own steps forward,
held always in God’s hand,
trusting always in God’s word,
surrounded always by God’s love.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.