Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, November 18 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Sam 1:4-20; 1 Sam 2:1-10; Heb 10:11-25; Mk 13:1-8

There are times when the gospel hits entirely too close to home. What is known to scholars as Mark’s “little apocalypse” is perhaps always quite so immediate; but right now, wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes and famines, are the reality we see every time we look at any kind of news, or even, some days, just look out the window. Entire towns eliminated from existence by wildfires in California. Gang murders, hate crimes, mass shootings. A political climate which seems to represent the collapse of rationality, civility, or any concept of community. A scientific consensus that if we don’t change our ways of living and doing business massively within a very few years, we could see climate change which could make this earth unable to sustain human life. It is not in any way unrealistic to feel like we are living in the end times.

But Mark’s gospel speaks out of a community which was also living in the end times, a community which had just experienced, or perhaps was still experiencing, the catastrophic Jewish war with Rome, massacre and famine, siege and social breakdown, the complete levelling of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, the scattering of the Jewish people across all of what was to them the known world. Mark’s gospel, as I’ve sometimes said, could just as well be titled “Instructions for the end of the world.” It is, in part, a strange sort of guidebook for how to live when it all falls apart; and as such, we need it now perhaps more than ever.

The instructions are not perhaps the most reassuring—to sell all we have and give to the poor, to accept for ourselves the helplessness and low status of children, to violate social boundaries and go to the margins in search of those who seek healing, to overturn the tables of commerce and yet to be quiet and steadfast in the face of violence—and to go into the world, vulnerable and without resource, to proclaim the kingdom. None of it is advice likely to lead to a comfortable or successful life.

And what this particular reading tells us is even more counter-intuitive, almost absurd. In the time of the apprehended end, Jesus says, don’t look for the end. Understand that the wars and the rumours of wars are real, understand that it is all falling down—but do not assume that you can chart the course of this, and do not treat it as the end. Do not be afraid. Something is being born. We may not even be able to understand now what it means, but this does not have to be death, or, at least, not death only. We may also be at the beginning of a birth.

For the actual title of Mark’s gospel is, impossibly, ridiculously, “the beginning of the good news.” It starts here, it starts now, it starts among us; and it ends, we are told, with the fulfillment of a promise so great we cannot express or imagine—never forget that Mark’s gospel actually ends with the first witnesses to the resurrection running away in terror and saying nothing to anyone, the event too great and strange to articulate. It is a promise which nothing in this world should lead to, and yet it does. It is a promise which must pass through death, and yet persists beyond. In the fullness of time, we pray each week, reconcile all things and make them new. We have no idea, really, what this could mean, or what we are asking. But we are pledged to continue in this prayer.

We are pledged, in the most fearful of times, to be the people who are not afraid, or at least the people who strive to live past the fear. To refuse to be controlled by the fear of the stranger, the fear of risk, the fear of change or loss, even the fear of death; to live as the people who can walk freely through the storm. The people who, because we live as if we were not afraid, are released to love.

Because this is the most fundamental instruction for the end of the world—to go out into it and love, with a love which is humble, vulnerable, and persistent. It is a love which will reach out, when all things to fall down, to care for the wounded; a love which will, as Jeremiah told the children of Israel in another end time, plant gardens and build houses in a strange land; a love which will fight through terror and inarticulacy, through silence and confusion, and tell the story of resurrection, tell it over and over in the face of all the evidence and all those who would deny it, to insist that love is stronger than death. A love which, no matter what comes, will go on making space for kindness, for care, and for the voices which deny the powers their victory.

In a time when governments are increasingly trying to deny to trans people even the right to exist, we must be the voices which stand against this, and the bodies which create, at the very least, safer space to be. In a time of climate change, we must take whatever action we can to call the powerful to account—like the many people who blocked the bridges in London, England yesterday, or the many blockades led by Indigenous people on the west coast—and also stand ready to help those who are displaced or hungry or afraid. Offer what help you can to the need which meets you, build in the ruins if that’s what’s left to you. But also, in the midst of it all, do not forget that there is beauty. Do not forget to make music and write poetry and bake cakes and cook soup, do not forget to walk beside rivers or listen to birds, to take time for silence and meditation, do not forget to play with children. Be small, be as kind as you are able—and even in the darkest times, insist that death will not prevail.

None of us are strong enough to do this alone. But perhaps, as a community, as a strange chosen family, we can do some small part of it together. We can hold each other up when we are failing, and what we find impossible, we can allow someone else to do. Of course, it’s not really much easier to live out community than it is to live out resurrection—we are each other’s burdens as well as each other’s safety, and we are all hurt and spiky and prone to get things wrong. But we have to keep turning to each other still.

And we can do all this because we are finally, even if we hardly know it, loved ourselves. Loved and held, saved and forgiven for all our foolishness, reconciled and made new, eternally safe. Not safe from this world and its pains and disasters. But safe as a name written on the hand of God. In this mystery is our strength. In this mystery is the possibility of birth, of a new life, written off as impossible, longed for by lonely ones in the corners, promised to us from eternity.

We do not need to watch for the end times, or try to chart the course of the future. It is always the end times; this moment is the only one we have, and it is always the decisive moment. This day, this minute, this time in which we live, is the only time we have to choose love, to choose healing, to choose justice. We do not know what may come of it, and we may never know, but it is the choice we must keep on making. Of course, we will often fail, and we will have much every day of which we must repent, and we are always beginning again. But the end of time is both never and now, and it is to this reality which we must answer.