Sunday, November 14, 2021

Recognizing Labor Pains


November 14, 2021 – The 25th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 28B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the gospel and sermon beginning around 20:20. 

I was in the fourth or fifth grade when my mother took me to Washington, D.C.. I had never been on a trip like that—just me and one of my parents—and I knew it was special. We saw some amazing things, including the National Cathedral on Easter morning. I had never been in a church that big, that grand, that amazing. The music was concert-worthy, and the liturgy was sublime, but the sheer volume of the space—a seemingly boundless expanse—transported me to another spiritual plane. In that Holy Communion, I experienced, as John Calvin might describe it, a heavenly encounter with the real Christ as my soul was transported above even the lofty heights of the cathedral’s ceilings into the divine presence.

A dozen years later, I went to Rome for the first time and again felt my soul ascend into the heavens as I stepped inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Feeling beneath my feet the place where centuries of innumerable pilgrims had made their way to the center of western Christianity, I looked up and admired the dome that had funneled their prayers to God. But in Rome I also visited the ruins of religious shrines where prayers to Castor, Pollux, Saturn, and various deified emperors long ago fell silent. I saw the relics of a fallen empire and perceived within the fractured columns and broken arches the same architectural features I had seen boast of imperial might in our nation’s capital. What a difference two thousand years makes!

Jesus didn’t need to look that far into the future to behold the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, which fell during the city’s siege in 70AD, but his words about not one stone being left on top of another were aimed as much at institutional powers as the structures that enshrined them. 

On their way out of the temple, one of Jesus’ disciples remarked how large and impressive the stones and structures of the temple mount were. Indeed, they were impressive by any measure. An ancient rabbi wrote that “one who has not seen the temple in its full splendor has never seen a beautiful building.”  Imagine, then, what that marvelous expanse of white marble and gold looked like to a Galilean tradesman—a country boy from a fishing village up north. Imagine how easy it must have been to stand in that place and feel God’s Spirit tugging your heart and mind and soul upward. Yet, in Jesus’ mind, those magnificent stones were already scattered, lying crumbling on the ground. 

It is the prophet’s role to stand in the courts of power and declare their emptiness and inevitable decline. It is the prophet who brings the sharp truth of God’s word that the structures and symbols of earthly power must always give way to divine strength. And it is the job of the faithful to discern within those difficult proclamations a message of transcendent hope.

Today’s gospel lesson is a transitional passage in Mark’s account of the good news. It comes after Jesus’ lengthy teaching about the role of the temple in contemporary Jewish life. He had turned over the moneychangers’ tables and openly questioned the authority of the religious leaders. He had used barely disguised parables and clever scriptural techniques to expose the hypocrisy of the temple’s authorities. As the disciples listened on, Jesus had laid out a host of reasons why the institutional religion of his day had let God and God’s people down. And, now as they left the temple precincts, one of those disciples couldn’t help himself. “What large stones and large buildings!” he remarked, overwhelmed by their splendor. “Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus asked in reply. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Those words were more than a prophetic rebuke. To announce the impending destruction of the temple was not only to threaten the structure itself but also everything that it represented. This was the home of God. This was the place where God met God’s people here on earth. To declare that one day it would lie in ruin was more than a critique of the religious leaders. To those who felt in that holy place an irreplaceable connection with their Creator, it was like announcing that God would abandon God’s people. Rebels and heretics had been killed for less.

But what happens to God’s people when those generational symbols of strength and comfort are threatened? What happens when the foundations upon which we have built our faith in God are laid waste? That’s what we hear about in the second half of this gospel lesson, which links the destruction of the Jerusalem temple with even greater forces that seem to threaten us. This is where Jesus offers hope to those who have felt the sting of existential threat and corporate loss.

The disciples asked their teacher, “When will this be? What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” And Jesus replied with terrifying language about wars and rumors of wars, nations rising against nations, earthquakes, and famines. But all of those things, he told them, are just the beginning of the birth pangs. What an important image Jesus used to describe all that conflict! To him, they are not the last gasps of a dying people whose best days are behind them but the sharp labor pains of a people whose hopes are just being born. This is the future of a people whose broken symbols of earthly might are being torn down so that a new way of knowing God’s power and presence in their lives might take shape.

“Do not be alarmed,” Jesus says to us. “These things must take place, but the end is still to come.” Sometimes, when those symbols of power and strength begin to crack and crumble, it feels like God is abandoning us. Haven’t all of us, in recent months, discovered new fault lines in even the most basic building blocks of our lives? But Jesus teaches us to recognize that they must all fall away if God’s reign is to take hold in our lives. We cannot know the salvation of God until we have been emptied of the pretense of our own security. 

Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, we tend to confuse symbols of earthly strength, beauty, and majesty with the One into whose presence they are supposed to draw us. And, when those institutional structures are called into question by contemporary prophets, it feels as if everything we’ve built our lives upon might come crumbling down. Oh, that it would! Jesus tells his followers to look forward to that day. That’s because, if our hope is in anything of our own making, our future destruction is assured. Only when those symbols of earthly might have fallen away can God build in their place a new hope, a new possibility.

We are surrounded by signs that that transformation is taking place. Jesus is the one who teaches us how to move beyond the comforting symbols and structures that are familiar to us in order to know the power of God and God’s love. His death and resurrection have shown us how to recognize in our losses and struggles signs of new life being born within us. As with any birth, that new life comes with pain and great difficulty, but it brings with it hope and promise. In the midst of conflict and strife, we stand at the cusp of something new and glorious. “Do not be alarmed,” Jesus tells us. These things must take place, but the end—the fulfillment of all things—is still to come.

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