Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Living with the End (Mark 13:1-8)

A few years ago, documentarian Ken Burns offered a two part, four hour PBS documentary on the Dust Bowl. In his introduction, Burns reminds the viewer that the Dust Bowl was a decade-long manmade disaster, brought about by over cultivation of land not really suited for the overproduction farming forced upon it by farmers and speculators looking for easy wealth.

Burns claims the Dust Bowl was "an epic of human pain and suffering—a crucible of dust, drought and Depression, when normally self-reliant fathers found themselves unable to provide for their families; when even the most vigilant mothers were unable to stop the dirt that invaded their houses from killing their children by "dust pneumonia;" when thousands of desperate Americans were torn from their homes and forced on the road in an exodus unlike anything the United States has ever seen."

I admit more than a passing interest in this disaster, as the Dust Bowl figures into my family lore, particularly the experiences of my grandmother and grandfather Hugenot. As a young married couple with a small daughter (my father and his brother not quite on the scene yet!), they lived and farmed in “Dust Bowl” country, close to Dodge City, Kansas. My father recalls his parents talking about memories of thick, choking dust and the complications and hardship it brought along.

The Dust Bowl is a story perhaps forgotten today, save the dwindling number of first hand witnesses and high school students still required to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a story of the Joad family, who lose their crops to the Dust Bowl and then their homestead to the bank. Steinbeck’s novel is a fictional accounting rooted in the pain and loss known to many farm families in that era. The Grapes of Wrath is a book I have found far more profound than under the pressure of junior year book reports and the youthful naiveté that I was reading “just” a story.

It was not something my grandmother talked much about in my recollection, yet as I read through Ken Burns’ book that accompanies the film, I felt like part of my family history was being brought back to life in the black and white photos, the newspaper clippings and the chilling stories of farmers drove to despair by financial ruin and livestock killed where they stood in the field if they were caught outside in an unexpected dust storm. Indeed, for those living through the Dust Bowl, Burns claims the experience was “a ten year apocalypse”.

The heavy dread, the great uncertainty, the fear of everything about to come crashing down, all of this figures into such a word as apocalypse. We are given a number of moments in the Bible when the text turns ominous and indeed here we get the oft-quoted phrase “war and rumors of war”.

 Such passages resound with images of absolute chaos, deep fear and unthinkable hardship. In Mark 13, we get nations and kingdoms against one another, earthquakes and famines predicted. While the Book of Revelation is most popularly known for such talk, the gospel, aka the “good” news, is also the place where the Bible turns solemn and frightening.

 The teachings of Jesus include passages where he predicts and pronounces judgment upon the world. He does not skirt around the idea of his followers knowing hardship and persecution. Indeed, the gospel of Mark is thought to be written with the author’s likely first-hand experience of being a persecuted mid-first century Christian. He gathered together the oral traditions being passed around about Jesus among the early churches with the goal of telling “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.

 In the midst of his recounting of the parables and miracles, Mark ensures the reader does not lose sight of faith’s costliness. Love your life, and you lose it. Lose your life and find it. Take up your cross and follow. These words take especial meaning when you realize the challenge of the first decades of Christianity. One could argue the early Christians found the stories of what apocalypse would bring about all too familiar.

 Long before gaining favor and standing in the Roman Empire, the Christians would know great persecution and violence, marginalization and martyrdom. One could also argue that they recalled the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus and also found great hope and joy there as well. For in the midst of these frightening images of dread to befall the world and the faithful alike, the apocalyptic serves also as a reminder that while an ending is coming, a beginning is also promised.

 We hear remarkable poetic language of God bringing an “end to death, to crying and to pain”, bringing Creation to New Creation. Such language may not be overtly stated in Mark: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come”. In Mark 13, we hear of the end bringing not “doom” but this wondrous and poetic imagery of birth pangs, the first sign of new life, rebirth about to take place.

For those who have experienced birth, one might have all manner of terms for birth pangs. For some, the birthing process is graceful. For others, it is a test of endurance. The end result is often the same: an overwhelming sense of joy. Certainly it is mixed with pain, yet the wee miracle before you is worth it all. In that liminal moment between pain and joy, one might even say that in the delivery room, the baby’s not the only one crying. The apocalyptic has this same mixture of joy and pain, chaos and certainty. We live in a world yet to be birthed into this new Creation where all things will be made well. So it is that every generation will deal with challenges and indeed for some, tests of endurance where we think God somehow absent or aloof. Such teachings of Jesus offer the warning of peril and the promise of God’s good End.

Scholar NT Wright observes, "Jesus’ warnings to his followers are to be taken very seriously by those who are called to work for the kingdom today. Many Christians today face persecution every bit as severe as that which the early church suffered; and those Christians who don’t face persecution often face the opposite temptation, to stagnate, to become cynical, to suppose that nothing much is happening, that the kingdom of God is just a pious dream.” (Mark for Everyone, 179-80)

Some questions I ponder when reading passages like Mark 13: Do we read this passage as a long past word, spoken to a situation not necessarily ever like our own? Or do we read this text as the good word, spurring us to take heart when we feel the world crashing down around us? Does the text spur us to care and become involved when we hear of fellow Christians or other religious groups are enduring religious persecution today?

The apocalyptic teachings of Jesus echo down the centuries to us. From generation to generation, we hear these words tinged with sadness and hope, and we ponder the question of how we live out the faith handed down long ago by those who first heard Mark’s gospel. We are here because of Christians who kept the faith in difficult times, not least the Christians who lived in that difficult time of the first century when women and men lived under constant threat for their faith.

Mark 13 reads as a good word for persons who found themselves in unpredictable times with little resources other than their faith and one another. I thought about Mark 13’s predictions of hardship and its affirmation of trust in God when reading Ken Burns’ observations about the Dust Bowl as people struggled through the “ten year apocalypse” experience.

 He writes, " But the story of the Dust Bowl is also the story of heroic perseverance—of a resilient people who, against all odds, somehow managed to endure one unimaginable hardship after another to hold onto their lives, their land and the ones they loved."

May we read the New Testament and likewise discover the stories of a similar resilient people who, against all odds, kept the faith and lived into the fullness of their belief in Christ Jesus.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Last and Lasting Word: Notes on All Saints Day 2018

Stories have a powerful way of shaping our lives.

 Over the years, I still remember my Grandmother Hugenot reading the story of “Button Soup”. I have the book among my books, and I will never part with it. The physical book is precious to me.

The story of “Button Soup”, a tale of a miser who learns to be generous by sharing of his abundance with his neighbors, is one that I claim as a “core story” I retain from my childhood.  And, thanks to corporate marketing strategies, I know it thanks to the Gospel according to Walt.  Daisy Duck outwits champion miser Uncle Scrooge to share his resources with his other Disneyland neighbors.

I remember with great fondness my grandmother reading me many stories over and over, yet that particular story, a variant of “Stone Soup”, is the one that nestled down deep within me. The story makes sense of the world, or the way the world ought to be. As a grownup, I find myself telling people another story, one that I find deep down in my bones just like “Button/Stone Soup”.

The story I tell involves the very end of human existence, aka "the Eschaton" (for those wanting a cool Scrabble winning word).  Where I tell this story as a preacher is less a matter of standing in a pulpit and more when I stand on a hillside. It’s a quiet time when I tell this story. It’s time for that final ritual up there among family and friends. We have been telling stories already, sometimes told with rollicking detail during an eulogy delivered by a friend (clergy sometimes blanche at the stories of the deceased that get told at funerals). Now it’s approaching time for that last word.

What will it be? At the graveside, I tell one story. It’s really the best one for times like these. As the liturgy draws to a close, I am nearing the amen, but I still have this story to tell. I say in the midst of the sadness and as that sense of finality hangs a bit thick in the air: “We look forward to that time, when the one who has made us shall not leave us in the dust. For as scriptures promise, there shall be an end to death, and to crying and to pain, for the old order has passed away”.

The Christian cannot speak of any other last word. We sometimes forget when the anxieties of the day make us think things are otherwise contrary to our knowledge of the promised End. Indeed, there are times when we lose sight of that which is promised, or we let another story take precedence.

Those who are able to stay the course, those who are able to keep “their eyes on the prize”, we have a word for these sort of folks: saints.

The book of Revelation mentions saints quite frequently, the people who live a faithful witness on the earth, even in its broken down state, and once up in the heavenly choirs, just can’t stop praising the Lord. The saints are those who live in this world with the same frailty and fallibility as any other human being, yet they are able to live a faithful and unshakable witness to Christ. It does not happen overnight for these folks: the process varies, yet the result is the same: people who are able to be the faithful and beloved of Christ.

 They take the long view, knowing that God will have the last word, not the powers and ideologies of the day, or the belief that things will end in disarray or without meaning. They see the world as a place where the gospel can indeed take root, no matter how tough and stubborn the soil appears to be.

The Baptist saint Clarence Jordan lived through the difficulties of mid-20th century racism as a witness to racial reconciliation and peace. Only a saint could take the long view, despite the many forces against him. Jordan spoke prophetically when he observed, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change”.

In other words, God shall have the last word, and it shall be one that is glorious and just.