Sunday, November 18, 2018

We can’t live without it (A sermon from Mark 13:1-8)


Ann Lamott tells about the time she and her two year old son were staying in a condominium at Lake Tahoe. Because the area around Reno is such a hotbed for gambling the rooms come equipped with curtains that block out every speck of light so one can sleep during the day. One afternoon she put her son to bed in his playpen in one of those rooms where it was pitch black. He awoke, crawled out of his playpen and was at the door knocking. Somehow he managed to push the little button on the doorknob and locked it from the inside. He was calling out to her, “Mommy, Mommy” but she couldn’t open the door. She called out to him, “Jiggle the door knob, darling.” It soon became apparent to the little boy that he could not open the door and panic set in. He began sobbing. So his mother also in a panic ran around like crazy doing everything she could think of trying to get the door open, calling the rental agency where she left a message, calling the manager where she left another message, and running to check on her son. And there, in this pitch dark room was her terrified little child. Finally, she did the only thing she could do, which was to slide her fingers underneath the door, where there was a little bit of space. She kept telling him over and over, to bend down and find her fingers. And somehow he did. So they stayed like that for a long time, connected on the floor, her little boy feeling her presence, feeling her warmth, feeling her love. The sense of her presence calmed his fears and gave him hope that the nightmare would end. He could feel his mother with him.

But what happens when you can’t feel another calming presence? How do you find hope that the darkness will end? Reading between the lines in Mark’s Gospel, I get the sense that Mark’s church, the people to whom this Gospel was written, were not feeling Christ’s presence and were struggling to keep hope alive. Why do I say that?

According to mainline biblical scholarship this Gospel was most likely written in the late 60’s or early 70’s just before, during, or after the Roman siege of Jerusalem. It was, most likely, the first Gospel to be written. Matthew and Luke followed some two decades later. Mark gives us one saying of Jesus from the cross. Jesus only says one thing from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Jesus, echoing the words of the Psalmist, expresses his sense of the absence of God during the dark, lonely, painful, and torturous hours of his execution on a cross. Now, I have made the point numerous times, and will once again, that God was not absent. God was with Jesus on the cross. But Jesus had no sense or feeling or awareness of God’s presence. God’s presence felt like absence. I have little doubt that this was what Mark’s church was feeling. Jesus’ cry of forsakenness on the cross expresses the cries of Mark’s church during a time of great suffering and trial. Mark’s church was caught in the middle of the Roman war against the Jews.

The way Mark’s Gospel ends substantiates this. If you have a NRSV of the Bible and turn to the end of the Gospel of Mark, you will notice at the end of 16:8 there is a footnote. And the footnote reads: Some of the most ancient authorities (some of the most reliable manuscripts we have) bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. The original version of this Gospel, which we do not have by the way (we have no original version of any NT book, what we have our copies) ends with verse 8. Later, in the copying and transmission of the text, as this Gospel was hand copied by scribes to be preserved and passed on, a longer ending was added to the story. Why was a longer ending added? Because of the way the original version ends. The Gospel ends on a note of fear. It’s easy to imagine how a scribe copying the text might think that the original ending had been lost, and so he adds an ending giving it a conclusion more in keeping with the other Gospels.

In Mark’s Gospel we have no resurrection appearance stories at all. The only story we have is the story of the empty tome, where the women are assured that God raised Jesus up and then given the promise that they will see Jesus again. So, he doesn’t appear, but they are given the promise of his appearance. Why is that? Because unlike the folks in Matthew’s church and Luke’s church, who experienced the living presence of the Christ, Mark’s church felt Christ’s absence. In Mark’s Gospel the angel, God’s messenger, who is simply described as a young man dressed in a white robe, says to the women who had come to anoint Jesus’ body, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised . . . Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Then Mark says, which is how the Gospel actually ends, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s how the Gospel ends and that describes the state of Mark’s church living through the horrors and suffering of war. They had not experienced the living presence of Christ. Like Jesus on the cross, they felt forsaken. But they had this promise. The promise that Christ would appear to them again. And even though they were hurting and suffering and full of fear, the hope that Christ would come again, that they would experience the presence of Christ in the future, sustained and strengthened them and gave them the grace to endure.

What is it that compels us to endure? What is it that that would compel people to embark on a treacherous journey traveling to another country by foot facing the danger of robbers and criminals preying on them and whatever other terror or hardship they might encounter on the way? What would compel them to embark on this long pilgrimage, knowing that the president of the country where they are headed could care less what happens to them, and is doing everything in his power to turn them away and keep them from seeking asylum here? What would give people facing all those challenges and barriers incentive to make this journey? One thing. Hope. Maybe you would not see it on their faces, but it is in their hearts. Hope that things can be better. These are folks desperate to find a better life. Life was so bad where they were, that just the least bit of hope that their lives could be better inspired them to join this migrant caravan in hope against hope that their families might have a better life. And you and I would do the very same thing wouldn’t we? If we lived in desperate lose/lose conditions, and there was the least bit of hope that our families could live in safety free of gang violence, that our children could get an education, that we could live where we would have opportunity to better ourselves, we would cling to and pursue that little bit of hope wouldn’t we? Of course, we would. Hope keeps us going. Hope keeps us pressing forward on the journey.  

This is what our Gospel text in Mark 13 is about today. It’s the hope that even when our world is falling apart all around us, the Christ will someday put it all back together. It’s the hope that a day of healing and redemption lies before us somewhere. The part of the text we read at the beginning of Mark 13 sort of opens up to include all of Mark’s readers at any time in the future. In the course of the development of human life there are numerous challenges – there are conflicts and wars and natural disasters and famines that can make life hardly bearable. What can possibly get us through? It’s the hope that Christ will come again into our lives, that at some point we will sense and feel and be aware of the presence of the love of Christ once again.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way, “When Jesus died, his disciples believed the world had ended. When Jerusalem fell and Nero swooped down on the young church like a mad vulture, they believed the world had ended. In a manner of speaking, the world can end any day of the week with a declaration of war, or the death of a child, or a grim diagnosis, and watching for Christ’s coming again in power and great glory can become the only light in such time, when sun and moon and stars have been snuffed out.” When our world collapses, when the stars fall from the sky and the earth shakes and the moon turns to blood, what is our still point? What is our ground of being? What holds us together and sustains us and gives us the inner strength and courage and hope to go on, to “endure to the end?” For followers of Christ it is the hope that we will feel and experience and know in our hearts the love of Christ once again. So we wait and trust and pray and hang on, because we have this promise that Christ is going ahead of us and will appear to us in our personal Galilee’s. We have the hope that Christ will not abandon us. We have a future.

For some of Mark’s church, and perhaps for some of us, we may not experience the appearance of Christ, the coming again of Christ into our lives in power and glory until we leave this place, this world, where we are pilgrims. A little story that I like to tell at funerals is about a woman who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given just a few weeks to live. As she was getting things in order, she called her pastor and asked him to come to her house to discuss her funeral. She told him the songs she wanted sung and the scriptures she wanted read. And as the pastor rose to leave, she said, “There’s one more thing.” She requested that she be buried with a fork in her right hand.” Then she explained, “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part of the meal because I knew something better was coming—like velvety chocolate cake or deep dish apply pie. So when people see me in that casket with a fork in my hand and they ask, “What’s with the fork?” you tell them, “The best is yet to come!”

We believe that don’t we? Even when all hell breaks loose and it seems like the whole heavens are being torn asunder we have hope that the best is yet to come. We believe in a future beyond the present. We believe that love will have the final word. We believe that all injustices will be made right. That all things sick and broken will be healed and made whole.

A few years ago I watched a film simply titled “Ride.” It’s an independent film that Helen Hunt both produced and starred in. It tells the story of an overprotective New York mother who follows her son to Los Angeles when he drops out of college to surf. He goes to visit his father and decides to stay. She can’t stand it and jumps on a plane. She gets fired from her job as a prominent New York book editor and decides to stay in Los Angeles. She develops a relationship with a surfing instructor who teaches her how to surf and eventually she opens up to him and shares the story of having a son die when he was young (which was of course a major factor in her trying to manage her other son’s life). He tells her that when he was young and lived with his mom she went through some tragic stuff also. So she asks him, “What did you want from your mother?” His response is a great line that I hope you will remember. He says, “I wanted her to enjoy life anyway.” In spite of all the bad stuff that happened to her he wanted her to find a way to embrace life, to say “yes” to life.

Sisters and brothers, that’s what hope can do for us. No matter how bad it gets, hope gives us the energy to get up again and face the trials and struggles of today. It inspires us to keep trusting, keep praying, and to keep loving and caring because love will ultimately win. The Christ, the God of all creation, the father and mother of every person who has ever lived, will have the final word. Evil will be vanquished, the common good will prevail, and the law of love will be written on our minds and our hearts.      

Our good God, many of us have never had to face the kind of desperation that those who are part of this traveling caravan have had to face in life, and we hope we will never have to, but if we do, may we find the hope that gives us the strength and courage and will to not give up. And when our world starts to crumble and we face real suffering and trials, give us the grace to not lose hope, and help us to say yes to life regardless. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.  

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