Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

The end of the world?

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 15, 2015, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George. This Sunday was the first Sunday following the series of coordinated ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris which killed well over a hundred people. There was a baptism at the 9:15 service. Music included one of my favorite hymns, “All my hope on God is founded,” which was also sung at my ordination to the priesthood.

Collect: Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such use hear them, read, Mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

There will be wars and rumors of wars, but the end is still to come. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes: the end of the world. Do you remember the supposed Mayan apocalypse from a few years ago? Or the apocalyptic preacher in Times Square a year after that? People were so taken in by these predictions of the world’s end that they quit their jobs, got married, got divorced, moved overseas, or racked up enormous credit card debt with crazy purchases. Who cares how much debt you’re in when the world is ending? Who cares how many people you hurt if you’re not going to be there to pick up the pieces when it’s over? There are plenty of cults — and whole religions too — which play off our fascination with the end of the world. And yet the one common denominator of our life here on earth is that the world seems to go on, time keeps on ticking, no matter the predictions of when it will end.

On a darker note, there are also plenty of times when you and I might start to feel as if the world were ending, or at least when we realize that it cannot carry on this way much longer: events like this Friday’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, or the breakdown of common life in our own country, or the establishment of vicious foreign societies like ISIS bent on the world’s destruction. If the world isn’t ending, it can sure feel like it at times; or at the very least like maybe it should.

The truth is, that despite both the silly and the sad ways the end of the world presents itself in our culture, there is something in us — an instinct maybe — which is fascinated by the idea of The End. Of course you and I will never pay attention to a street preacher, we will never be hoodwinked by the books which predict an end in our time, we are much too sophisticated for that. But, somewhere far back in our minds, there is an instinct that suggests there might be something to it after all. Like children reading a story book, we are convinced there must be an end to the story: something that will make everything that’s happening make sense, something that will prove that good guys actually do finish first, and that evil doesn’t go unpunished. When we hear the radio commentator predict the end of the world — yet again! — we laugh. But something in us hopes it might be so, if only so that everything might finally be set to rights.

Our Gospel reading this morning is one that is constantly used in predictions about the end of the world. There are people out there who make vast fortunes tracking famines and wars and earthquakes, selling books updating their fans on their latest assessment of creation’s progress towards the end times. Of course none of these authors quite realize that nowhere in this passage is the end of the world even in question. Jesus says nothing about the world’s end. He makes a very specific statement that the buildings of the temple will be thrown down, and in response to his disciples’ question, he offers some reflections on his own coming again. This isn’t the end of the world.

But for the disciples, like so many families in Paris today, it is the end of their world. The temple, thrown down? Jerusalem, in ruins? Wars and famines and earthquakes? It’s not the end of the world, but it is certainly the end of everything the disciples had understood to be permanent, and Jesus insists it is only the beginning. It’s not a happy picture. And so they ask him, ‘When will these things be? When we will we know the end of the story?’

Jesus answers them not with a date or a time, not with any suggestion of what to look for when he returns, but instead by saying, “Do not be alarmed,” Do not be afraid, “These things are but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Do not be afraid. These things are but the beginning of the birth pangs. With his answer, Jesus deflects attention away from the kind of ends we’re used to imagining: do not be afraid, these are the beginning of the birth pangs. It’s the end of the temple, the end of life as they knew it, but there’s really no threatening language here: no sense of any final annihilation, no suggestion of a final moment in which all of them must decide. The earth doesn’t open and swallow the wicked, fire doesn’t rain down from heaven, judgement is nowhere to be found. Rather the command, “Do not be afraid,” and birth pangs.

Jesus reveals that the operative question here is not “When will we reach the end of the story?” but “What is God doing in the world, and when will it finally be ready to begin?” Think of the other times we hear “Do not be afraid” in Scripture: when Moses trembles before the burning bush, and receives the news that God will bring his people out of Egypt. When the archangel Gabriel visits Mary, and tells her that she will bear the Son of God. When Jesus at the last supper tells his disciples that he will be taken from them on the next day, as he goes to the cross to work their salvation.  

Do not be afraid. This command always heralds something new and wonderful that God is about to do in the world. Do not be afraid. These are only the beginning of the birth pangs.

If we are stuck thinking about the end, we are asking the wrong question. God is actually not all that interested in endings to begin with. In fact his chief purpose is to put an end to all endings. We read in the Scriptures, the last enemy to be destroyed is death itself, and in Christ’s resurrection from the dead he breaks the grave’s stranglehold on life and opens the way for us to eternity. When he comes again it will be the final end to death, the final end to all endings, and the beginning of eternity with God.

If our world is still rocked by wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, and violence, it is because death still struggles to have the last word. But we who are baptized are born anew, born by water and the Holy Spirit, into Our Lord’s deathless life. We do not have the luxury of sitting idle and waiting for the world to end, waiting for Christ to come back and fix it once and for all. We, the members of his body, are the vanguard of his kingdom. And it is our task not to wait for the end, but to be busy about the beginning: the beginning of the kingdom of God.

We have work to do. We cannot buy into the culture of fear that assumes everything is a zero-sum game of win or lose, eat or be eaten, have or have not. It is tempting, because that culture can build great monuments, great temples to human industry that people admire and aspire to imitate. But there is a hidden cost to monuments to human achievement, there is a hidden cost to the pursuit of power and dominance, and that cost is always human blood. Instead our work, as members of Christ’s Body, is to cultivate love in the midst of ruin and failure and despair. Our work is to cultivate humility in a landscape planted thick with competing prides. Our work is to go, with our Lord, willingly to our deaths, even in the face of injustice and false accusation, so that innocence might shine all the brighter.

Make no mistake, this work will make us all look like fools, and no one will build great monuments for its achievement. But ruin and despair and failure and even death are the places where Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”  

Even though the stones of the temple fall, even though every monument be pulled down and all is devoted to destruction, He is there. And where He is, there the Resurrection holds sway, the forgiveness of sins, the raising up of what had fallen. Where Jesus is, there creation meets its appointed end: eternal life in the glory of God forever.

In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.

Blind Bartimaeus

This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 25, 2015, at the Church of St. Michael and St. George.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Readings: Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen:

Blind Bartimaeus. This is one of the shortest of many short miracle stories in Mark, and it’s often cited as a perfect example of Mark’s style: short, and to the point. But don’t be fooled. The brevity of Bartimaeus’ healing masks a much more profound meaning. Even a profound series of meanings.

The early church fathers, along with monks, nuns, theologians, and all sorts of others, found a great deal to ponder here. For some, Bartimaues is a commentary on the Gentiles, and the way they come to faith. For others, Bartimaeus is a commentary on the people of Israel, and how they will come to know the Messiah. For still others, Jesus’ encounter with the blind beggar is an important step on the road to his passion and death.

My own task this morning is to say something about stewardship, in the midst of all these meanings and more. But before we get there, I’ll take just a few minutes to observe how Bartimaues teaches us about prayer.

First, Bartimaeus is blind. This is important, because it forces him to listen, to use his hearing as his chief sense. You and I may flatter ourselves that we can see better than Bartimaeus, but when it comes to prayer we are all just as blind, if not more so. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me that they have a difficult time seeing the presence of God in their prayer life, I’m sure I’d be able to triple the parish endowment instantly. It’s hard to see the presence of God, especially when life has brought so many challenges this last year or two, both here in St. Louis and around the world. Some of you have known recent tragedies, others bear the scars of old wounds. Our experience and our memories both tend to obscure the presence of God, and we find it difficult to see his peace or his love at work.

That’s where you and I can take a lesson from blind Bartimaeus. In those kinds of scenarios, our chief task is to listen: listen for the assurance of what we cannot see ourselves. Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is coming up the road, he has heard that this Jesus of Nazareth can heal the sick, that he has healed the blind. Bartimaeus hears the crowd shouting Hosanna. And even though he can’t see them, even though he is a beggar, destitute, he believes: that this Jesus is his Savior too.  

You and I, our first task in prayer is to listen like blind Bartimaeus. We cannot see as we would like. But if we listen to the crowd, if we listen to those who have witnessed what Jesus has done, we will know that despite our blindness, he can heal us too.

Second of all, Bartimaues makes a nuisance of himself by shouting, louder even than the crowd, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus has heard the crowd shouting Hosanna, and he knows that this is a royal antiphon: this Jesus is the Son of David and the rightful king of Israel. Bartimaues calls out to Jesus with wild, almost crazy abandon. And despite an earnest attempt by more respectable people to make him be quiet, he shouts all the more, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

Bartimaeus’ words, despite coming from the lips of someone you and I might consider deranged, are at the heart of all our praying. We cannot see as we ought, and our blindness prevents us from even the right kind of polite response to Jesus. You and I can do nothing but cry out with Bartimaeus, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ Sometimes we embarrass ourselves with how silly we feel when we pray, and sometimes we are driven to it as if we can do nothing else. Sometimes it’s both at the same time. We don’t know what to say, but we say ‘Have mercy on me,’ and hope that God will respond with kindness.

Lucky for Bartimaeus, and for us, Jesus does exactly that: hearing Bartimaeus calling wildly to him, Jesus stops and calls back, calls for Bartimaeus to be brought near. This is the third comment I’ll make about prayer: that Jesus always responds to our prayer by calling us closer to himself.

No matter how wild our prayer, no matter how desperate our need, the first thing he does on hearing us is to call us to him. Bartimaues hears, and the people who had scolded him now help him answer Jesus, bringing him to the Lord. What about you and me? From where we sit, where does Jesus stand? And how might we respond to his call? With Bartimaeus we may stumble, we may need help to get to him. But when we pray, he always calls us closer to himself.

However difficult it is to get there, when we respond to Jesus’ call to draw nearer to him, with Bartimaeus we find our eyes opened, and we notice all of a sudden that we are in the middle of the road. Bartimaeus, with his sight restored, does nothing else but follow Jesus. At this point in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is traveling the last leg of his journey, into Jerusalem for the last time, where he will be betrayed and crucified, and where he will rise from the dead. Bartimaues can see now, and the first thing he does is follow Jesus on the road to Calvary. This is my fourth and last comment on prayer: as we draw near to Jesus, responding to his call to us, we find our sight restored, we can see him; but he is on the road going beyond us even further, and we must follow.  

Having our sight restored, and our souls healed — like Bartimaeus’ eyes — is almost beside the point. His sight was restored and he followed Jesus. The same goes for us. However it is that God heals us, it is only so that we might follow all the more clearly, all the more intently, on Jesus’ road to Calvary.

This is prayer: to listen for what we cannot see ourselves; to cry out with whatever abandon we can muster for God to have mercy on us too; to answer Jesus’ call closer to himself; and, our soul healed, to follow him to the cross and behold him resurrected in glory. This is prayer, to have our senses healed and our hearts brought to the knowledge and love of God. This is but one of the many things which Bartimaeus teaches us.

So what about Stewardship? When Jesus calls Bartimaeus, the beggar throws off his cloak as he rushes to answer him. Bartimaeus did not have a penny in this world, he had only a cloak to keep him warm. And in the rush of responding to the Lord he drops even that to follow his Savior. You and I must do no less. We are just as blind as Bartimaeus, unable to see as we ought or as we’d like. What comforts do we cling to, and what must we drop in order to respond to Jesus?  

We often think of stewardship as being responsible with all the things that God has given us, careful and measured in every exchange, every transaction. And that’s true as far as it goes, Responsibility is a good thing. But until we are willing to give away our possessions with as reckless an abandon as Bartimaeus throws off his cloak; until we can call to God with as embarrassing an intensity as this blind beggar on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem; until we can follow Jesus to death and beyond, our prayer will always come up short of its goal.

Let us call to Jesus with every fiber in us, let us give up everything which clings to us, and follow him to his passion and cross. So might we share with him in the glory of his resurrection; so might our vision rest always on the goodness of our God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.