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When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. -Mark 13: 7-8
This is not an obvious Thanksgiving lectionary.
Suffering! Death! Destruction! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
The only good Thanksgiving-y aspect to this lesson is that it gives us guilt-free seconds on the pie. Because if the end is really at hand, then who cares about our waistlines?
It’s an odd lesson. It’s an odd lesson in the Gospels, frankly; it’s not what you expect to hear in that context. It’s what you expect to hear in Revelation, which is much more descriptive as narrative than the Gospels tend to be. So I think it behooves us to take a step back from the text, to remember that there are several things going on here all at once. And that if we take this at face value and just freak out, it’s not going to help anyone.
So on the one hand, you have Jesus, who probably did say at least some of this. It’s attested in all three of the synoptic Gospels, in Matthew and Mark and Luke, pretty much word-for-word, which is a little unusual. But you also have to take into account that when this was written down, it was not Jesus writing. It was someone writing about thirty-five years after Jesus’ crucifixion, someone we’re calling Mark for the sake of attribution. And he was not just writing down what Jesus said, he was writing to his own community. There are already two layers here, and I think that’s important to remember, when you’re faced with a text like this one.
We start with the prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And I’m guessing Jesus actually said this part; this is my own little bit of interpretation, but we have, in the passage immediately before this one, a story of Jesus actually sitting in the Temple compound. It’s the woe-to-you-scribes-and-Pharisees passage; Jesus is sitting in this place of worship, this holiest site in Judaism, and he is shaking his head – at best! – probably muttering a few things under his breath and telling everybody that they’re not doing it right. So as he leaves the Temple precinct, that’s where we are at the beginning of today’s lesson: Jesus leaving for the Mount of Olives, with his disciples who look back and say, “But wow, isn’t it pretty?” And Jesus, who just looks at them and replies, “Do you not understand? This isn’t going to last. There’s no way this can last.” Think about it: it’s corrupt, it’s done.
Look as well at the larger context: they’re in Roman-occupied Judea. This is not the easiest of times. And the Temple, more than any other site, is charged. It is charged religiously as a site of intense holiness – as God-on-earth in its very core: it is charged in its corruption of the very Jewish practices that it is supposed to be holding up. But it is also charged politically. Because this is not Solomon’s Temple, it is not the original. This is the one that Herod built – remember Herod? we’re about to start hearing a lot about Herod, these next few weeks. Herod built this Temple. Herod, the Jewish king imposed upon the Jewish people by the Roman occupiers. This is a peace offering between Rome and Judea, to the extent that such was possible.
This is an intensely charged site. And for Jesus to turn around and say “This is not going to last”? Yes, it is prescient, and yes, this is a prophecy, but Jesus was a really smart person, and it probably wasn’t a huge stretch to imagine that the Temple would be the first thing to fall when the Jews rebelled, which eventually, they had to.
So we are in a time of transition, and Jesus knows that. We are in a time of intensely charged meaning. But we are in a similar time thirty-five years later, when Mark is writing. When it is beginning to be disseminated. When Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, but not much has changed in day-to-day life in Jerusalem. Except that there is this new, little group of people, they’re not even called Christians yet, they’re just a sect of reform-minded Jews. The Jewish establishment doesn’t much like them, for what I think are obvious reasons – they’d managed to have the leader of this movement crucified, so the followers aren’t feeling much love. But Rome doesn’t like them either, because what they’re talking about sounds too much like temporal power, like sedition, and they’re thinking, “Hey, if the Jews are starting to act like this, we’re in serious trouble.” These new Christians are getting scapegoated on every side, they’re getting run out of Jerusalem on a pretty regular basis, and into that mess, Mark writes his Gospel. He writes because they are getting run out of Jerusalem. He writes because the message has to get disseminated out beyond this one, restricted geographic location. Writing wasn’t the obvious thing back then, this is a big deal. And as these proto-Christians, as they went off to Antioch, into what is now Turkey, and into Egypt, they brought this Gospel with them. They went because they were scared, and Mark wrote his Gospel as a comfort. As a reminder of Jesus’ message, certainly, but also as a comfort and reassurance to this scapegoated and fearful community.
That’s the context of this passage. This is a passage of comfort and reassurance. Didn’t you get that on the first reading?
This is a passage of comfort and reassurance for a people who are having to flee the center of their religious universe, and who are wondering if Jesus is still with them; who are wondering if they are on the right track, if they’re still doing the right thing. They are wondering if all of this, and all the suffering that they are undergoing, might mean that the end is at hand and they will get, finally, to stop suffering. Comfort and reassurance.
I think this is a scarier passage for us now. It’s scary for us as prophecy, certainly, but it’s far scarier as history. Because it’s true. Two thousand years later, it’s true: Nation will rise up against nation, there will be wars and rumors of wars. Two thousand years: and that’s been true in every single one of them. And so this is a frightening passage to me; it makes me look back and think, “Are you kidding me? When is this supposed to end? What is up with two thousand years of war, and two thousand years of bloodshed?” This passage rings a little too true. It’s a little too familiar to be comfortable, to be comforting. And this is still the birth pangs. A two thousand year labor to give birth to… something. Most of us aren’t even sure what.
We read this passage and realize how easy it is to be led astray. We realize how easy it is to become corrupt, even in the name of good. We realize how easy it is to see, and to seek, signs and symbols of God. We do this even now, in this supposedly enlightened and scientific time. We realize how easy it is – we all know it – to be sucked up into drama. How easy it is to give in to the fear-mongering that is so present – and that has been so present, because this is not a new thing in our day and age. Or on the other hand, how easy it is to become entirely blasé about everything, to become so cynical that nothing retains any meaning anymore.
Jesus and Mark were each speaking to a specific time, and a specific community – the earliest disciples, the earliest Christians. But this is the UCC, so I can easily say that this isn’t just a historical book: God is still speaking to us, in these very words. We are reminded that this discipleship thing that we’ve embarked on is quite the tightrope to walk. We are called to be discerning, and we are called to be mindful, as we negotiate our path. We are called to be in this one moment, yet not alone: in one moment but not in one place; in one moment but still in community.
We are called not to be distracted by war and the rumors of war, but to recognize that war matters. It should matter that there is famine and drought. It should matter that there are disasters – we had a recent reminder of that. It should matter, and it does matter, because suffering matters. Because we are called, as disciples, to love one another. To love one another as God loves us, and as we profess to love God. So suffering does mean something. It does not mean anything in and of itself, it does not mean anything as a sign and symbol of what is to come. It has meaning in how we react to it, and in how we treat one another as a result.
There will be wars, and rumors of war, but God does not, in fact, take sides.
There will be suffering, some of it caused by “acts of God” – be skeptical, please – but God does not rejoice in suffering.
These are not signs that God’s kingdom is any closer to us than it was before. God grieves all death. God Grieves at all suffering. And God calls upon us to do likewise, and to do so not in some distant kingdom future, but right here, and right now.
So yes, this is still the birth pangs. The two thousand year labor that reminds us that God’s time is not our time – it’s nowhere close – and that maybe it isn’t our concern, either. It is a reminder to stop looking ahead, to stop trying to read the tea leaves, and stop trying to predict. It is a reminder to be right here, right now: in a relationship with one another and with God.
The rest? Yes, it does matter. War matters. It demands our attention here and now, not because of the potential of great future suffering, of dirty bombs and chemical weapons and the horrors that human imagination can invent, but because people are already suffering, and have already died.
Climate change demands our attention, not because of the impact that it might eventually have upon millions of lives as the coast changes and droughts become more persistent and habitats shift and shrink, but because of the impact that it has already had upon thousands, many just a couple of hours from here.
The myriad of social justice issues that face us as a nation and as a world demand our attention, not for the sake of future generations, but for the people who are currently without healthcare, without homes, without education, without equality, and without food. Because these are not signs and symbols. This does not mean the end is at hand. This is our call, right here and right now. Because there are no signs and no symbols that matter at all when there are real lives at stake: real people who need our love and our relationship right now.
The future should not be our distraction. Heaven knows we have enough on our plates without worrying about the future, too. It is enough that when the future comes, we might be able to say that we have given ourselves entirely to peace, to love, to God.
And when we can say that, then we’ll know why this was the best Thanksgiving scripture we could have asked for.
Naomi said, “Turn back my daughters, why will you go with me?” But Ruth clung to her. “Do not press me to leave you, or to turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go… Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.” -Ruth 1: 11, 16-17
One of the scribes came near… and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” -Mark 12: 28
And Jesus answered the man, saying, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And the second command is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
It’s a familiar passage, isn’t it? I would bet that a lot of you know this one already. There’s a problem with familiarity, though, as we’ve explored before. You get to the point where you know something so well that you can say it without thinking too hard, and you lose the sense of the words. To the point where they can almost seem just a little bit cliché. The problem with stories and passages like this one – or like Ruth and Naomi – is that they have lives of their own, whether or not we recognize it. And so we don’t always really hear them, and what we do hear is colored deeply by centuries of tradition; by our own experiences. By a Christianity that is mainstream, possibly habitual, that is part of our culture and therefore, to some extent, stripped of its power. It is a Christianity that has been tempered over centuries by a myriad of other forces.
And so we hear, “love”, but receive it not as a thunderclap, not as a lightning bolt coming down among us, but as a sort of nebulous, nice, cozy, warm-and-fuzzy idea. It’s not earth-shattering, it’s love. It’s not revolutionary, it’s just love. We all love, we all have love in our lives and it really doesn’t disrupt much, does it? Which makes it hard, sometimes, to remember just how disruptive love really can be.
And they you read about Ruth.
You read about love that is, in fact, earth-shattering. You read about love that is, actually, disruptive. Because when you read about Ruth, you read about the powerful connection that binds Ruth to Naomi. That makes Ruth follow Naomi despite everything, and at great cost to herself. Because although I am sure that Naomi was a really good mother in law – I don’t see this story working otherwise – but no matter how good she was, this still seems a rather disproportionate return on whatever kindness Naomi had shown to Ruth. Ruth, here, is not choosing the sensible route for the widow to take. She’s a widow. She’s nobody. She’s totally unprotected, totally defenseless. She doesn’t know where her next meal is going to come from, she has no one to provide for her. Do we have any sense, in this time – in this age – what Ruth was giving up by not returning to the house of her mother, not looking for another husband, but choosing rather to live in singleness, as Naomi had been forced to? Choosing to live in solidarity with another widow even more defenseless, even more helpless, because she wasn’t going to find a husband? Ruth is making a choice that will leave her in a state of helplessness. She is making a choice that will leave her dependent upon the kindness of strangers. All to repay kindness.
Would we do as much? Would we repay kindness with this level of devotion? Or would we count the cost? The cost in security, in return on investment, in potential stress level, in the myriad of what-ifs that you know Ruth would be asking herself every single day?
I have one of those, too: What if we turned the equation around? Because the sensible course isn’t always the loving course. Maybe the question to be asked here is what might be the cost of not loving?
We forget, as we read these familiar passages, the revolutionary, the extravagant nature of these so-familiar stories and words. Just, in fact, as we forget that there are other ways to measure.
Cost can be financial. And yes, it is often the simplest measure of what we can and can’t afford. Open your wallet: is there enough there, or not? But it’s become such a standard of measure that the bottom line becomes more important than this greatest commandment, this one that Jesus held up. The bottom line becomes more important than our shared humanity. The simplest measure becomes the common measure.
You hear it every day now, the financial arguments that surround us each and every day. The most recent example, of course, would be Hurricane Sandy. People talk about it in numbers, every time I turn on the radio or the TV. Sixty billion dollars in damage: it’s mind-blowing. This huge hit to our economy – incalculable, although they’re trying. What do you do when Wall Street is forced to shut down for days? When the most densely-populated city in our nation is out of commission?
It’s the simplest measure.
And I think we talk this way because it’s tangible. You can hang on to those numbers, you can calculate them, you can crunch them, you can manipulate them, you can have fun with them. It gets rid of all the touchy-feely stuff that you have to deal with if you actually take a good, hard look at what happened. There’s something really comforting in having that tangibility.
It’s the simplest measure. But in this case, it isn’t simple, it’s simplistic.
Because what amount of money can bring back memory? What amount of money can bring back security to those who just lost their homes? What amount of money can bring them comfort? What cost – what value would we describe to the nurses at NYU or Bellevue who evacuated their patients one by one, off to other hospitals? Who walked them out to the ambulances, often having to manually breathe for them, to “bag them”? What is the value that we would ascribe to that act? What is the value that we would give to the hundreds of volunteers who are already on the ground in the affected areas? How do you assign a value to the Mayor of Newark who drove around, before and during the storm? He drove around his poverty-ridden city, to all the places where he knew the homeless congregated, and talked to them one at a time, and persuaded them to seek shelter?
We can’t assign a monetary value to this standard. You have to turn it around. What would it have cost to those who gave, and to those who received; what would it have cost not to act?
What would it cost us?
What would it cost us to let slip the ties that bind us together in common humanity, in covenant and community?
What would it cost us – what does it cost us, every day – to see human beings simply as economic drivers? To see some of them as costing too much?
What does it cost to calculate a person’s worth by how much he or she makes, or how much he or she costs the system?
What does that cost? and how do you assign those values?
I’m not against money, don’t get me wrong. And I’m not going to say that money isn’t what the Red Cross is requesting. But maybe, how we calculate what we can and cannot afford shouldn’t include crunching numbers.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. I’m used to hearing this as a lead in to the parable of the Good Samaritan. What do you suppose it cost him to do what he did? What do you suppose it cost him to stop for the stranger – beaten, robbed and left for dead by the side of the road? We don’t think about that part very often. The Good Samaritan picked up this man; he knew nothing about him except that he was lying there covered in blood. He brought him to an inn and tended his wounds, and left him with the innkeeper, with payment enough to get him through a couple days and the promise of more: however much more it might cost. How many of us could afford such a promise? If you saw someone lying beaten and bloody by the side of the road, could you take them up to the local Holiday Inn and say to the manager, “Alright, I’ve got him patched up, I’ve payed for a couple nights’ stay, and when I come back, I’m going to pay all of his medical bills. Don’t you even worry about it.”
I think the Samaritan had some qualms. I have to wonder if the Samaritan didn’t go a little hungry for the next couple days to pay for this act of generosity? Maybe he only had crusts for dinner for days on end. Perhaps the numbers, even for the Samaritan didn’t add up. But perhaps the cost of not acting – of not meeting this total stranger’s most basic human needs – of not loving, was too much.
Why isn’t it too much for us?
This greatest commandment holds us. This greatest commandment makes a claim on us.
You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, and all your strength. Not with all-of-yourself-after-expenses. Not with all-of-yourself-after-you’ve-taken-care-of-that-little-thing-over-there-that-required-your-attention. That’s not what it says, in any of the Gospels.
Love with all that you have. Even when you’re scared, even when the numbers don’t add up, even when it’s against the prevailing wisdom and all forms of common sense as we currently understand it.
Love as the Samaritan loved the stranger: knowing nothing about him but that he was human.
Love as Ruth loved Naomi: setting aside common sense and security and coming face-to-face with the power of relationship.
Love as God loved us: taking on human flesh and paying a price greater than any we have ever paid.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.
Love. Because we cannot afford not to.