November 15, 2009, 24th Sunday after Pentecost

November 15, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
24 Pentecost, Year B
Daniel 12:1-3, Ps 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

In the name of God, who abides over and around us, the living Word, Christ, who abides among us, and the Spirit that abides within us. Amen.

When you hear the words from Mark, what images, ideas or emotions come to mind? (ask for people to offer a word or description) Would you believe me if I said that today’s readings, particularly the reading from Daniel and the Gospel, are meant to inspire hope? Not just any hope, but a particular expression of it we as the Church call Christian hope? I understand if you are a bit skeptical. These stories are not easy at first reading or perhaps even the 29th to see as hopeful.

There are lots of variations of hope out there. There is hope for what we think will pass with enough effort and determination. For instance, if we do our homework and study with reasonably consistent effort we will move into the next grade. There is apocalyptic-style hope—often met in conversations about passages such as these—that at the end we know we are marked off as God’s special property and the rest of you sorry lot go to the other place. A vindictive kind of hope meant to give security about Mysteries that our not fully ours to know.

There is the hope of emotional longing such as hoping to get the attention of the person with whom we are infatuated or for a long-held dream or goal to come true. Then there is the overly optimistic hope that is determined to find a positive outlook no matter what. I found a quote that captures this rather well: “Erv had a gift for optimism. He believed what he wanted to. Ruth said that if Erv tossed a ball in the air three times, tried to hit it three times with a bat, and three times missed, he would, undisturbed, conclude: Wow. What a pitcher.” On occasion this type of hope helps us find humor and balance. However, if this is the operational understanding on a regular basis, this variety of hope makes it easy to avoid the painful and difficult truth and only seeing what it is that we want to see, no matter how out of touch it may be. This type of hope is present quite often, I think, in political discourse.

Authentic Christian hope, I believe, is none of these. It is something much more demanding and much more realistic. It is rooted in steadfastness to a belief in a loving God that ultimately will redeem this creation for the kingdom no matter how messed up we humans get. And will redeem it not by the means we so often use in our attempts to get the world the way we want it, but by the means we see used by Christ. It is rooted in a deep trust in the importance and life-giving spirit of the Good News. It is a conviction we believe must be held close to our hearts and lived no matter what else is going on around us and no matter how futile it all seems. That’s a big challenge. But it is the challenge of prophetic and end-time imagery.

First of all, we need to get underneath our limited, literal, modern way of reading these texts, and most of us take these literally. In the time, place and culture in which they were written they were not viewed as a form of fortune telling, accurate predictions about specific details of coming events. Daniel was not an ancient Jewish Nostrodamus. Neither was Jesus. These prophetic images were a form of instruction, of teaching. We are given a blunt hint of this in the story itself: When he, Jesus, was sitting on the Mount of Olives… This is the stance of a teacher and Jesus is indeed instructing his disciples.

Such prophecies, such teachings, were a diagnosis of the moral and spiritual health of the people. They were meant to teach, that is to show people how to look at the world around them, in a way that led to understanding. Such prophecies were meant to show that all was not well in the life of the people. It was both a personal and a communal diagnosis for faithfulness to God as given in the Torah was shown very clearly in the common life of the people: caring for the vulnerable, not exploiting workers and slaves, not hording so that others were hungry or homeless, sharing wealth through the practice of tithe, etc. It was also personal for if selfishness, greed, rivalry and lack of concern, etc. for others is strong in our hearts it is shown in the institutions we build.

Jesus reminds his disciples, and by extension us, of this by his image of the great buildings, the magnificent Temple built to worship God in awe and splendour, being razed. Do not place your deepest hope and commitment into these things, he is saying. All human institutions fall short of God’s vision. They are vulnerable to losing their way, and almost always do in time. None of them is or can bring about the kingdom of God. All of them, even the biggest of buildings and the most powerful of institutions or nations, can be overthrown and brought to the ground. It happens all the time and we see it in the wars and famines and chaos that plague our world. All these other things are simultaneously the death throes and the birth pangs, for it is a moment for something new to emerge. But we are called to remain steadfast in our trust in, sharing of, and living out the Gospel. We are asked to be strong in our hope and trust in the Gospel, to bear witness in the midst of the darkest times and to bear witness at all times, even when it seems our witness is insignificantly small and ineffectual.

This is the Christian hope that we are called to hold fast. It is not a guarantee that because we trust in Jesus our life will be smooth sailing or that the world is as it should be. It is rather, that in the midst of the darkest of hours and we are tempted to say why, why continue to struggle for what is good or just or decent when the forces against it seem so overwhelmingly powerful, we keep a steady light shining on the Gospel. We do not abandon it or try to make it support the current status quo, but rather continue to witness to it no matter how few we are or powerless it seems in making a difference. Our horizon is not God’s, but our witness and commitment is essential to keep that horizon and hope alive in the world and to keep true hope alive in us.

I admit that this was a hard and necessary challenge that I needed to hear. It is very hard for me more often than I would like to admit, to keep believing the effort of trying to live out the Gospel is worth it. Perhaps this is something some of you struggle with as well. I struggle with a sense of futility and while I can’t abandon it I find it hard to hope, to give energy to it, to trust that it is worth dedicating my life to. Being the action-oriented and idealistic person that I am, I want to see it making a difference in measurable and profound ways and so often I see nothing of the sort. But that is where Jesus gives me a kick in the pants and says, you follow because it is true and meaningful in and of itself and for the little bit of the world you occupy. Get over yourself and your grandiose ideas of effectiveness. You don’t trust this because of the results given as proof in the life around you beforehand, you trust so you can be a part in ways you can’t even imagine of the future and the presence of the kingdom.

Or as Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings at one of the bleakest, most empty moments when it seems that evil and destruction will win no matter what tells Frodo that they must keep on, they must hope, because they believe there is something good in this world and that it is worth fighting for. For us, that is the Gospel. To live for it and into it against the greatest odds, against all the reasonable arguments why it won’t really work, against all the force and power that can crush our imitation of Christ’s way of being, is the hope and the steadfastness Jesus calls us to. With God there is always a new beginning, a new dawn, a resurrection after the worst of calamity. We can’t avoid the pain and suffering that are part of life, but we can hope in and live for a particular type of birth out of that death—a resurrection and a possibility given to us again.