Awake Until the End

Awake Until the End

Mark 13:1−11, 27−33

“The End is near” – brings to mind, for me, Homer Simpson, walking up and down the streets, mumbling in his usual incoherence, telling the local reporter, “Jesus loves you; he’s going to kill you.” It’s a caricature, but of the way theology becomes distorted.

 

This idea of the world ending, while it uses cosmic imagery, is more about the ways worlds end all the time: not just places of worship coming down, or even governments being overthrown, but tragic accidents, the loss of loved ones, the death of dreams of the world you hoped you’d see.

Jesus would have known this feeling, not just because of his long road to the cross, but because of the end of a Jewish world of sorts, because of the way the Roman empire had chosen to rule. The Romans took down all sorts of temples and used them for their own good; it was just a matter of time before took down the Temple in Jerusalem. For those in Jerusalem, this was more significant than even bombing the White House, or striking the World Trade Center: the Temple was the iconic center of the world, the place where God deigned to meet humanity. Anxiety about the Temple was anxiety about the world.

Jesus would also have been familiar with the Jewish concept of the Messiah, the One who would come to save Israel, the whole world. And that many thought the Messiah would be some sort of magical divine intervention, making everything right.

Somehow Jesus has realized that the Messiah’s road is difficult. In the face of anxiety about the end of the world, his response is neither caricatured nor easy. Jesus doesn’t mince words. No stone will be left.

Jesus knows that people anxious about the end of the world are vulnerable to manipulation by those who would use scapegoats, empty promises, or threats of violence to restore their feelings of power. Jesus makes no promise to “make Jerusalem great again.” In fact, Jesus is clear that things are going to get worse.

Why does Jesus say things are going to get worse? Is it some trick to lower expectations as much as possible, so that anything that comes is going to be better? Why would a savior prophesy destruction? Why would God’s peacemaker talk of war? Why earthquakes and famines – the worst disasters conceivable in his time?

While you ask yourself that question, also consider the anxiety of our time: not just the anxiety manipulated by one who says he will “Make America Great,” but the anxiety he causes. Last week’s Post described the phenomenon of Trump anxiety, as reported by therapists and those experiencing it themselves. According to one young Democrat, “[the prospect of Trump’s election] is like a hurricane coming at us, and I don’t have any way of knowing which way to go or how to combat it. I feel totally powerless.” And this from a Republican: “All he does is tell other people to shut up. If he were to become president, I fear that our world would come tumbling down.” She says she’s hoping for divine intervention, although she knows things don’t work that way.[1]

After this week, we know Trump’s rhetoric is much more dangerous than “shut up,” and I would suspect that many more feel the same way as these two women. The only way to describe him is a natural disaster, the end of the world. Very similar in some ways to the language the one we call Messiah used, yet here we are, and the earth is still spinning on its axis.

Jesus was doing something else when he talked about the end of the world. He was talking to people in the same throes of anxiety as these two women. Instead of saying it would go away, in Mark, he speaks into it. Jesus doesn’t tell them everything will be fine; Jesus uses the language of their worst fears – violence, earthquakes, famine – to point to something larger, more powerful – and calls these birth pangs. Something new is coming, new life is on its way.

If we take his words literally, they seem ridiculous, empty. But we don’t read the bible literally, friends. Jesus was doing something much more interesting, much more powerful here. Jesus was inviting his hearers and disciples, through their anxiety, to wake up, to look for the new things God was doing, to stay awake until the end and be part of them. Jesus uses the Messiah imagery his people know well, to help them understand that God is still at work.

 

You may have heard people talking once again about where they will leave to seek citizenship should Trump win. Jesus reminds his followers that their primary citizenship is already elsewhere, in this new reality that is coming, although no one knows when. Any time, any moment is pregnant with possibility.

It’s not that we are supposed to sit passively and wait for birth to happen, either. Each person has work to do, each must stay awake. It’s clear Jesus is talking to everyone.

Now, I don’t want to sound facile here “All you have to do is stay awake.” It’s not easy given what the end of the world sounds like… or his haircut… but that’s too easy of a target. But what we’re up against is psychological and spiritual pathology, and we need some spiritual sustenance.

Helpful hints for staying awake to what God is doing, for grounding ourselves in God in a way that keeps us from disengaging:

  • Find your center. Address your anxiety! You need good sleep to stay awake. If your anxiety is keeping you physically awake at night, see a professional counselor or psychologist. Therapists have made it their lives’ work to see people going through what you are experiencing; I say this as a beneficiary of good therapeutic work myself. Short of therapy, turn off the TV, take a sabbatical from the web, and go for a walk, meditate, do yoga, pray, practice breathing – however you reconnect with God’s larger reality in a manner that helps you address your anxiety.
  • Connect: Talk with others who share your feelings – and who can diffuse your anxiety, whether with their sense humor or perspective. Be part of groups – not just on-line, but real live meet-ups of folks – who are similarly grounded and working for change, but also do something that connects you with people who see the world differently in some way, whether because they look different or believe differently or read different books or list.
  • Commit to change, to that new thing God is doing, on the other side of the end, knowing that you may not see the full change in your lifetime. I think of how some of you have responded to the Free Minds Write Night, to the energy you received in sharing the poetry of those incarcerated. But the thing that keeps coming to my mind is education, the kind that frees the minds of others to live equipped to face the anxieties of our day. Support the education of someone else, who might not receive it otherwise.

 

I could include all kinds of tips to stay awake. Come to church. Be part of what is happening here. Know that the faith we practice is not to look for some pie-in-the-sky wonderland, but to equip ourselves for all the things that feel like the end of the world. We have a faith in God who understands our fears and who gives the energy to work through the end of the world anxiety, who calls us to live centered in a vision far greater than the greatness of our nation.

Parker Palmer book from several years ago: Healing the Heart of Democracy. Palmer has far greater faith in democracy than I do, but so much of what he describes here involves learning to stay awake, making hope a habit. Story of going on a civil rights pilgrimage with John Lewis, a retracing of the steps of the march to the Edmund Pettus bridge that happened 51 years ago, this week. Palmer overheard the story that some of you may know of another time John Lewis was beaten in 1961, while at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Lewis and his friend did not fight back, nor did they press charges. They simply treated their wounds and went on with their work.

In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man walked into Lewis’s office, not far from here, and introduced himself as Elwin Wilson, saying he was one of those people and that he was sincerely sorry. You may have seen him appear with Congressman Lewis on Oprah or elsewhere. He was the first, and perhaps the only, person to ever apologize to John Lewis for the numerous incidents of violence and racism he encountered. Lewis will tell you, though, that it’s part of the strategy, part of the reconciliation that nonviolence makes possible.

Palmer says that as John Lewis told the story that day, he began gazing out the window, speaking softly almost to himself, “Change is possible… Change can happen…”

Change happens. With God all things are possible, all moments are pregnant with possibilities, and with whose hearts are grounded in God’s possibilities, who work for them, the end is near. Stay awake, church, stay awake.

[1] “Psychologists and massage therapists are reporting ‘Trump anxiety’ among clients,” by Paul Schwartzman. The Washington Post, March 6, 2016,