Picture above entitled "A Bird Called Hope" depicts a bird perched on the edge of a teacup and has the text of the Emily Dickinson poem.
"Future Hope Now"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
November 18, 2018
1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8
“The Postman” is a 1997 movie that is set in a post-apocalyptic America of the then near future – 2013 to be exact! The country has come through a major war and has been broken up into small, isolated, and frightened communities. A private army terrorizes the communities. Into this scene a wanderer stumbles across the uniform of a US postman and a mail bag. He starts to deliver mail and pretends he is the representative of a new government. Along the way, he begins to tell stories that give beleaguered survivors a sense of future hope. A whole new postal service is started that gives people real hope as they reconnect with loved ones in other places. Of course, like most of what happens in Hollywood, it all ends in violence – as if violence could beget anything but violence.
Part of what gives the Gospel of Mark its driving, breathless, forward momentum is that there are really only two places where Mark reports any kind of extended teaching – the fourth chapter and the thirteenth. Both of these chapters include deeply apocalyptic themes, and it’s no wonder. They allude to events in Mark’s own historical context – the Judean revolt of 66-70 C.E. In June 66, an insurrection against Roman rule began in Jerusalem, the culmination of decades of widespread social unrest and brewing armed insurgency.
Temple sacrifices to the emperor were halted, both the Judean aristocracy and Roman cohorts were driven out of the city, and public archives including records of debt were burned. The rebellion spread to the surrounding provinces. In November 66 the Roman counterattack began. But the imperial forces were successfully repelled by the then indigenous fighters, and for a few short years many parts of Palestine were liberated from Roman rule. A provisional government was set up, despite fierce internal power struggles, and the rebels began preparing for the next siege of Jerusalem, which would surely come. A massive Roman counterinsurgency commenced in the summer of 67 CE, immediately taking most of Galilee and moving slowly toward Jerusalem in a vicious scorched-earth campaign. Because of civil war back in Rome, however, the military campaign stalled, so the final assault on Jerusalem was not begun until the spring of 70 under the general Titus, who would return to Rome in glory, eventually becoming Emperor – the so-called beloved leader who would make the empire great again.
As the war machine slowly approached Jerusalem, coups and counter-coups between the radical anti-clerical and moderate rebel factions brewed. To the Palestinian Jews loyal to the Temple/state, the terrible social and political upheaval of the war with Rome no doubt portended “signs of the end.” But from Mark’s perspective, the rebellion merely represented the “beginning” of yet another cycle of violence. With the Roman siege of Jerusalem immanent, rebel recruiters were going throughout Palestine summoning patriotic Jews to Jerusalem’s defense. For Mark, only one voice could compete with their persuasive call to arms – that of Jesus. His apocalyptic sermon, with its cautionary refrain to “Watch out!” suggests that Mark’s community was critical of both the imperial collaborators and the nationalists.
Its nonviolent stance, refusing to cooperate with either the Jewish guerillas or the Roman counterinsurgency, earned it persecution from both sides of the war. The disciples, representing the anxious concern of a community caught in a war, pose a double question to Jesus: “When will this be and what will be the sign that these things will be accomplished?” Jesus responds, as usual, enigmatically, but about the signs first, and then as to the “when” part of the question – no one but the Father knows.
What does it mean for us to discern the signs of the times today, and to retain hope in the face of so much violence and discouragement? War, famine, refugees, debt, environmental devastation, poverty, the arms trade, the drug trade, and economic instability surround us. Imagine a map of the world overlaid with words or symbols indicating the reality of life in different countries or regions.
It looks a lot like the world of Mark 13!
Every continent of the earth except antarctica is racked with desperate hunger, poverty, violence, and strife. And even there one can find conflict and rivalry. In our own time and place we witness the growing disparity between the rich and the poor –while a very few live in comfort, the world is becoming uninhabitable for a majority of the human family. The environment itself reflects this human upheaval with pollution, despoliation, and cataclysmic change. What kind of future are we leaving for our children and grandchildren? It’s hard to believe that history has any redemptive purpose at this rate. Things seem to be getting worse, not better. The emotional cost of living in such a chaotic world is enormous. Sadness, awe, rage, fear, and a feeling of overwhelming powerlessness are the constant companions of thinking people.
Because we so often find these negative feelings intolerable, we are constantly tempted to displace them with aggressive behavior toward a perceived “enemy” who becomes the object of all our fear and rage. Or we turn our frustration inward in self-destructive behavior – deadening the pain with alcohol, food, drugs, or worse. Not so long ago there was an email to parents in a nearby school district, warning about “The Eraser Game” in which teens rub their skin with an eraser while reciting the alphabet, leaving burns, abrasions, and permanent scars. It’s a kind of flirtation with self-annihilation at age twelve or thirteen.
Or we respond to the complex and disturbing challenges of our world with panaceas, simplistic solutions that excuse us from deep or nuanced analysis. But the most dangerous temptation of all is not to look, to narrow our awareness, to enter into psychic numbness, to become passive and withdrawn.
The pervasive habit of our culture is to take refuge in denial, to hide from the world in the “business as usual” of our private lives. We close our eyes to avoid facing the reality around us by surrounding ourselves with the mind-deadening escapes of modern society. Yet the gospel calls us to look at reality and to acknowledge our feelings of sadness and despair that surface when we feel the pain of the world.
Nearing the end of the Gospel of Mark, its major themes – faith, sacrifice, and discipleship – begin to coalesce. Jesus has declared that his own end and the end of oppression are bound together, but the disciples, clueless and oblivious as ever, only want to know from Jesus when it will be and how will they know. Woven into his response – though it does not really answer their question – Jesus reiterates the themes of Marks gospel.
First: See! Watch out! Beware! Be aware! Do not be led astray! Follow my way!
Then: Fear not! Worry not! Do not be alarmed! Trust me!
Then in the next verses: Hear! Listen for the knock at the door! Be ready! Travel light! Be nimble!
And finally, the chapter ends with the words that began this lectionary year the first Sunday of Advent fifty weeks ago: Stay awake!
See. Fear not. Hear. Pay attention to what is going on around you and don’t be taken in by those who promise an easy salvation – a quick escape. Discipleship will certainly be accompanied by suffering. But suffering by choice for the sake of the common good – again Jesus’ way of forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice – is blessed. Suffering for the sake of power – again for the empire’s way of control, hierarchy, vindication, and privilege – is literally a dead end. Discipleship is not the golden ticket. It does not gain access for everyone into the chocolate factory known as salvation – nor is discipleship required for entry. But if we are faithful disciples in the face of the trials and tribulations that threaten to overwhelm us, we might just open up the factory, turn it inside out, and make its treasures available to all in the here and now.
The latter day prophet Jerry Garcia – yes, that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead – said:
“Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.”
But the disciple is the one who says:
“I see and I do not fear. I hear and I understand. I am awake and I follow. Let me be the one who carries the story of hope from place to place in the world.”
From the perspective of the gospel, to experience the pain of the world and its sadness is to enter into the agony of Christ. In communities of faith these feelings can be validated and channeled. Together we name the pain of the world and offer it to God in prayer. By finding the strength together to face the brokenness of our world we encourage each other to move through it. In prayer we rediscover that the human family is connected by more than just currents of matter and energy; by more than just electronic networks, information systems, markets, and policies; by more even than our common human instincts and longings. As children of God, we are intrinsically connected to Holy Being who created us and who is moved with compassion in the face of our suffering.
But the reign of God will go far beyond a revolution of the soul. The reign of God will bring about a radical transformation of the social order itself. All hierarchies of unjust privilege will be overturned: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The gentle will inherit the earth; those who mourn will celebrate. The margin becomes the center: the despised outcast now sits at the seat of honor at the divine banquet. The crippled and sick are healed; the homeless and the stranger are home; the orphan and widow are reunited. The abused child will dwell in safety; the poor and the hungry will experience abundance. The oppressed will taste the precious freedom of God. And the rich, the indifferent, the powerbrokers, and the oppressors of the world will weep and gnash their teeth.
Yes, even today there are signs of crisis – and there are also signs of God’s inbreaking reign:
· people choosing to value relationships and family over material goals;
· small active communities where the undergirding of faith sustains principled actions for justice;
· young urban leaders dedicating their lives to ending violence in our cities;
· neighborhoods and families accepting responsibility for rebuilding and sustaining principles of personal, interpersonal, and social ethics;
· a continuing, vigorous anti-racism movement;
· new and vibrant theologies arising from the experiences and life stories of people of color, women, and other marginalized or outcast communities;
· the movement of First Nations to reclaim land, culture, and sovereignty;
· the struggles of GLBTQ Christians who testify to the church that they too thirst for the living waters of God’s love, affirmation, and grace;
· efforts to link demilitarization with economic justice;
· the rising call for a modern-day Jubilee to break the cycle of poverty and indebtedness through practices of reparation;
· the growing concern over environmental issues and alliances forming to counter environmental racism, and more.
Even as God created once out of self-giving being, so still God reaches into the nothingness of death and retrieves the entire world. The no of divine judgment gives way, continually; to the yes of divine grace that fills the creation with joy and laughter. This yes floods the universe with healing and unifying light. Negation yields to the expansive affirmation of being itself. All the distinctions that define history – barriers of wealth, pigment, and power – dissipate as life is swept into the divine embrace. In the midst of our historical crisis, then, we are called to watch and wait for this promise.
We do not know when the end will come. Jesus could not tell us. Bet we trust that the “end” we await is not annihilation, but reconciliation. We are called to be prepared, to accept the risk that comes with true discipleship, to read the signs of the times. This is what it means to live in the end times: to put our faith in that reality which is as yet hidden in history, yet which breaks out in the most unlikely places, like the here and now.