THE WAY OF FAITHFULNESS
The Rev. Helen Havlik
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 18, 2018
When Jesus called his first disciples, he began a “building project” that continues to this day. Starting with that group of 12, in every generation he pulls together communities of believers to share the good news of God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus says some things are necessary for such a community to thrive: sticking with each other, living simply, serving humbly, trusting and loving God and each other, giving generously—all of these are the foundation for who we are as God’s people in this place and time. And one more thing is needed: courage. In our second reading, we’re nearing the end of Jesus’ life and he has some parting words for his friends, to encourage them for the days and years ahead. He puts the coming events into the larger context of God’s purposes so that no matter what happens to him and to them, they can have hope. I’m reading from Mark, Ch. 13, beginning with vs. 1. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
Weather forecasters really blew it this week. They predicted that New York City would have two inches of snow at most—and they ended up with more than six—and all the headaches that go with the unexpected dumping. Even with all the algorithms it seems that the weather people might as well be looking into a crystal ball for signs or clues to what lies ahead. I learned in Girl Scouts that mare’s tails—those high wispy cirrus clouds—are a sign of rain within 24-36 hours. That has some scientific basis. Less scientifically speaking, check out the black stripes on a woolly bear caterpillar. That won’t predict tomorrow’s weather, but might point to the long-range trend. Probability and possibility and predictability don’t always coincide—but displays of green and red and little white lights have taken over the stores—and we can be pretty sure what those signs point to!
Peter, James and John and the other disciples live in an apocalyptic age. We often hear that word referring to zombies, as in “zombie apocalypse,” but apoca-lyptic actually means something being revealed or disclosed. The first century AD was a time of great turmoil for the people of the Middle East. A fresh word from God hadn’t been heard for centuries and people were squinting their eyes looking for signs that God was still present, that God still cared about God’s people. Something was about to be revealed, the air was electric with the anticipation. Of what no one knew for sure and then into the discouragement and the longing came the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
Like the first disciples, we live in an apocalyptic age ripe for revelation. We’re eighteen years into the 21st century, 17 years past September 11, 2001; we’re still at war in Afghanistan, our recent election’s sending many new people to Congress. Employment is great, the stock market is nervous—and we yearn for a fresh word from the Lord as we obsess about the future. We are a people living in fear. The air is electric with anticipation and discouragement and longing as life as we’ve known it tears at the seams. Many people are scanning the signs, looking for anything that will tell us what’s to come. If we can just read the signs correctly, if our intelligence data is good enough, then we can be prepared, the thinking goes. We’ll have choices, we’ll have control—that’s the best way to cope with uncertainty—right?
Gee thanks, preacher, for your uplifting message this morning! I imagine the disciples aren’t all that happy with Jesus for bringing up the topic of the end of the world. The great Temple in Jerusalem is an awesome place. It was one of the most beautiful and grand buildings ever built, and part of its beauty and fascination was the belief that God’s presence on earth was centered there. Though the disciples have seen the Temple before, I imagine it never ceases to awe them. And now they’re seeing it with Jesus, their teacher and friend. Is he as impressed as they are? Apparently not so much. See that big beautiful building? See those magnificent twin towers? Now imagine it knocked to the ground, is how he answers their awe. I doubt they really are ready to hear what he says—about the walls coming down and the wars and the famine and all the rest. It’s almost Thanksgiving and Christmas is coming! We don’t want any more bad news—can’t we just relax and enjoy the holidays? What happened to peace on earth and good will toward our fellow human beings. Isn’t that why Jesus came—isn’t that our legacy as Christians?
We also live in an apocalyptic time for the church. Do you know that the median age in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is 59? And that while about 30 percent of the US population is in their 20s and 30s, only seven percent currently find their way to church—and it’s usually not a PC(USA) church? This might be due to people marrying and having kids later—and typically people think more about church when they start raising a family. Maybe. We just know the church as we know it is changing and we don’t much like it. But Rodger Nishioka, a professor at Columbia Seminary, has said that God’s message to us through Jesus Christ is that you and I are here for one reason: to preach and teach the Way. And what is the Way? Living, dying, rising. The glitch is we’re afraid of dying. And we’re afraid of living with all the little deaths that come to us, yet dying must come before rising happens. And all of this requires faithfulness and courage.
The end times are upon us, just as they were upon Jesus and the disciples. As he sits on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple, Jesus is talking about the end of the Temple—which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and never rebuilt. He’s also talking about events that will lead to the end of the world at some unknowable point in the future. But mostly Jesus is speaking about himself, about the end of his life and the agony to come, for him and for his followers. In just a few days their lives will change forever and he’s putting it all in the context of the bigger plans of God. The birth pangs of a kingdom being born that is more magnificent than any Temple, any towers built by human hands, more intimate than any being born of flesh and blood. For Jesus to rise again, he must die. For the disciples to gain their lives, they must lose them. For the church to rise again, the former things must pass away. In God’s way, for there to be winners we must be losers. And it won’t be easy and it will seem that the very foundations are crumbling. Yet God promises a winning outcome—God promises to do a new thing. And for the new thing to come, the former thing must pass away. And all of this takes courage.
On Sunday, August 13, 1961, the end time came for the people of Berlin. After World War II, Germany was split in two, with the Eastern part controlled by the Soviet Union. Eventually an “Iron Curtain” crashed down and the Cold War began. With half of it controlled by Western forces, Berlin was an island in the midst of East Germany that became a place for disillusioned East Germans to escape communism. According to one website, by 1961 1,500 people a day were fleeing to the West, causing a public relations problem and draining needed workers. The solution? Build a wall. For the next 14 years, starting with 96 miles of barbed wire, the East German government eventually built a wall made from 45,000 sections of reinforced concrete along with more than 300 watchtowers. Everyone expected the Berlin Wall to stand forever. No one expected anything short of war to bring any change for the people of East Germany and the other Iron Curtain countries. But by 1989, the signs were clear: the Soviet Union was crumbling, communism was failing, and 29 years ago this month, that Wall fell without a shot fired. It didn’t come down with tanks and guns—it couldn’t withstand the courage of the East German people and others all over Eastern Europe who worked behind the scenes to make freedom happen.
Someone figured out that “fear not” or its equivalent is found in the Bible 365 times—apparently we need to hear it at least once a day. Courage isn’t the absence of fear—it’s what happens when we stick with each other, live simply, serve humbly, trust and love God and each other, give generously—and follow the way of faithfulness. “Don’t be alarmed,” Jesus says to his friends and yet they must have been alarmed anyway. Such signs and signals and warning sounds have a way of making most of us fearful and anxious. But his message is one of hope that all our times are in God’s care and keeping. It’s through Jesus the Christ that we see God and God’s purposes for creation. It’s through Jesus that we come to know God in a way that wipes out our fear and replaces it with love. When all around us crumbles, the empty cross, signifying God’s win over suffering and death, still stands. The question always is what will we do? How will we live? Are we in this together?