Thursday, November 19, 2009

Birth pangs

My friend, Bruce Coggin, is one of the band of heroic retired priests of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth who have stepped in to take care of the Episcopalians displaced temporarily from their buildings by people who have left the Episcopal Church but want to keep using Episcopal Church property.
Among those parishes he serves is a bunch of happy Episcopalians up in Wichita Falls led by the fabulous Owanah Anderson, senior warden and spiritual mother of the entire Diocese of Fort Worth. Owanah really liked this sermon, as did the rest of the Saints, and asked Bruce to write it down, something he almost never does with his sermons.
But when Owanah asks one to do something, one does it. That's how I came to read it. I agreed with Owanah, and wanted you all to see it too. Here it is.
A Sermon Preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Wichita Falls
November 15, 2009

Did you notice that today’s lessons from Daniel and Mark are all about something that’s all over television these days? Did you notice too that the collect for today thanks God for the scriptures, urges us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them? and then tosses us a couple of really knotty, gristly chunks to gnaw on! All that in Daniel about the time of troubles and the end of time and all that secret, and then Jesus talking about the temple falling down and wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and birthpangs? Daniel’s one of the scariest books in the Old Testament, just as full of booghers as an old root cellar. Mark is long on predictions about the end of the world. And they’re both smooth in synch with what’s on the public’s mind these days, if you can judge from television, because you can’t turn it on these days without hearing something about A.D. 2012—Nostradamus predicted it would be calamitous, and the Maya calender flat ups and ends there. Just check out the History Channel or Discovery or maybe even National Geographic, and you get 2012. And now there’s a movie about it all. Evidently in 2012 the earth and the sun and the center of the Milky Way get all lined up, and that’s going to make fierce and terrible things happen, none of it any fun. Astonishing how the lectionary today really hooks us into what’s going on outside the church. And inside us.

Lessons like today’s make sense in our liturgical cycle where we tell out the story of Jesus’ life every year, and since this is the next to last Sunday of this liturgical year, it’s natural the lessons turn to the Last Things, all of which are kind of scary. Next Sunday, the feast of Christ the King at least puts a triumphant face on it all. Before we got the prayer book we use now, the season just sort of petered out on a ledge over the abyss. At least now our prayers make it all good—but not so much in the popular culture. The End is Near! Brace yourself!

As you know, I grew up in Montague County in the Methodist Church, and we didn’t pay all that mess much attention. Oh, every now and then we’d be eating breakfast with the radio tuned in to KWFT, and after the Stamps-Baxter Quartet, Martin Agronsky would come on with the news and tell us about some bunch that had wadded up on a hilltop outside Waco somewhere to wait for the end of the world. And then the day would come and nothing happened, and we’d all have a good laugh about it. But sometimes it wasn’t funny. When the Koresh bunch tried it, the whole thing ended in a holocaust, and there wasn’t a thing funny about it.

As a young priest, I got more aware of all that one day in a “Christian” bookstore in Dallas. On the wall, and for sale, was a big oil painting, not a very good one, but a mighty arresting one. It was a cityscape of the intersection of Stemmons and I-30, the viewpoint somewhere about where the Anatole is now. And it was just Hell on earth! The Trinity was flooding, trains derailing, cars piling into each other on the freeway, airplanes crashing in mid-air, one slamming into the Republic National Bank tower, the tallest building in town back then. And the sky was full of people being swooped off up into Heaven, while the maw of Hell flamed below, sucking down others less fortunate. Well, of course, it was the rapture, an event the charismatic tumult of the 1980s dwelt on and that still fuels sales of that Left Behind series. And the kicker: there in the middle of the sky was Jesus, arms open wide, taking in all the mayhem below—and grinning like a worm eating wire! I didn’t think that was very becoming of Jesus myself.
There’s a world of I’m in but you’re out in all that, a real need for self-vindication and the assurance of punishment for everybody I don’t like. Not a bit pretty.

It’s all pretty unsettling, all that talk about wars and earthquakes and Katrinas and lots of destruction and punishment, but it’s not necessarily a Christian monopoly. Lots of religions include stuff like that in their make-up, and even not very religious people are way into it. This kind of writing, the stuff we get today in Daniel and in Mark, is called apocalyptic literature, and that’s Greek for telling secrets, showing it all, finding out what’s behind Door Number Three. Revelation, the New Testament calls it, and it’s not just a religious phenomenon at all but rather a religious projection of a pretty universal human concern: How much time do I have? Isn’t that one of the basic human questions, like Where did I come from? Where am I going? What am I supposed to do? What’s going to happen to me? How much time do I have? I think we all ponder those things if we get a chance, and it’s no surprise such universal human curiosities—or are they anxieties?—find their way into our religious constructions. And they get more acute at very specific times. We all know we’re going to die one day, but when we’re young we don’t really believe it, and sometimes we get a pretty long way down the road before we come face to face with our own mortality; and on that day—say we get an execution date or a bad medical report—all at once the scope of our vision, previously so wide and ambitious and grand, shrinks right up, willy nilly. Sometimes the walls close in so fast, we can all but see the corner we’re marching into right in front of our noses. The same happens with nations and societies. When we en masse are in our prime and our pride, in the full bloom of our vigor and urgency, we think the future is all ours. And then all at once things change, history starts those walls moving inward—and apocalyptic yearnings surge. Where are we going? Who’s in charge? How much time do we have? It’s all very human, very natural, and very unsettling. And none of it looks like much fun. As my Mamaw Yeager said when she saw herself heading straight into the knothole, “You know, I’m not so much afraid of being dead. I just don’t look forward to doing it.”
Well, well. As I get older I think about those things too for myself, and I sure can’t avoid the public hooraw, the 2012 boom, and so I ponder it. And I think I know something about it, namely that there’s a sin at the bottom of all the anxiety and the hooraw and the wicked profiteering about what’s gonna happen to us. That sin, as is often the case, is pride and specifically the pride of certainty. I mean that panicky, aggressive rush to know and to know without any shadow of doubt or turning. I don’t know about you, but I run into people all the time who are absolutely certain about things, no options, this way or no way—and they know it. They’re certain. And they scare me to death, most of them. Think back to the Garden. What was it that made Adam and Eve just break a leg to disobey the only rule they had, which was to leave all that good and evil stuff up to God? Nope, they wanted to know. Well, they found out, and it didn’t work out so well for them. Or us.

Yet we seem to have an overweening need to know, to be certain, to leave nothing to chance. Or to God, for that matter. We fight off ambiguity with both hands and a chisel. Yet . . . if we’re certain, if we know, how do we ever learn to trust? How do we ever learn to dare? How do we ever learn humility? All those qualities—trust, daring, humility—vanish in the face of certainty. If we’re certain, why do we need to trust? If we’re certain, nothing is particularly daring. And if we’re certain, we sure ain’t humble! Our old buddy pride engines our need to know and to know when others don’t and to lord it over them because we do, to do things to them we shouldn’t because we know better than they do. And you know and I know where all that gets us. Just switch off the History Channel and turn on the news.

Certainty set us up to fail. I recall a woman in a town where I was rector. She flirted with the Episcopal Church, but she just couldn’t handle our ambiguities. She was certain about things—until the day came when the doctor told her about the cancer in her. I remember her saying to me one sad day, “God promised me that if I obeyed him, he would give me a long life. And he hasn’t done it!” The poor thing, I think she died a miserable soul, and somehow I don’t think anybody deserves a miserable death. The need for certainty, though, it did her in. Well, she’s happy now anyway, and thank God for that.
So, how should we think about those things?—because we’re going to think about them. Seems to me that question applies to us both as individual people, as humans, and as Christians. We all know the end is coming, both our end and one of these days the End of It All—or at least the end of it all as we know it. How should we think and pray about that? Judgment Day. The End. That dreadful day when the secrets of all hearts are disclosed. Does it have to be scary like that? Or can it be something wonderful?

I’m glad to report that there’s at least one feller, an expert in pre-Columbian cultures and myths, works a lot down in Oaxaca and Chiapas, who says the Maya calendar ends in 2012 but that it’s not a horror show. Rather he says it’s just part of the Mayan concept that time is cyclical, and in 2012 everything starts over. That’s not much scarier than New Year’s Day, actually. So there’s at least one hopeful voice among all the doomsayers. But I think we get even better advice from Jesus about All That.

When All That came up to Jesus, he usually did one of three things: he fudged, he said it was none of our business, or he told us to lift up our heads and rejoice. He fudges in today’s gospel lesson. The disciples got him off into it when he made light of their awe at seeing the temple. “Just you wait,” he says, “the day’s a-comin’ when all this will be dust.” Naturally, they want to know just when and how and what, so he fudges. “Oh, wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes. Stuff like that. You know.” Well, when haven’t there been wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and stuff like that? He fudges. In a good many other places, when people get pushy about the what and the when and the who and the where, he’s testy: “Yours is not to know,” which is a nice way of saying Nunna yer beeswax, Bub. But just as often he tells the anxious to “lift up your heads and rejoice.” Goodness. Is it not gonna be as bad as we thought? Well, I guess that depends on how you look at the experience, and in today’s gospel we get a pointer: “These are the beginnings of the birthpangs.”

Now. That’s a help in my book. Just like we all got born through our mother’s birth canal—and I don’t think foetuses much enjoy all that—we’re all going to have a similar experience—except this time the birth canal is God’s way, about which we know very little at all, of pulling us from the womb of this life into the larger life Jesus promises we’re all going to share with him for eternity. Foetuses in the uterus don’t know what’s happening, and neither do we really as death approches, despite all our need for certainty. Death—the end of my time anyway—is another birth that requires just what certainty denies: trust, daring, humility. And there is absolutely no way on God’s good green earth to be certain about what’s on the other side. What we have rather is Jesus’ promise that where he is, we will also be, and no matter if we die in our beds surrounded by our progeny and friends or alone and cold and busted up, when we have come through the birthpangs, things are going to be . . . well, like God promises.
So in the light of all the scary stuff, past and present and no doubt future, Christians can lift up their heads and rejoice—and just give up on certainty, give it up, let it go, fling it away from us—so trust and daring and humility can grease the chute for us, help us pupate, become, get born into whatever glory God has in store for us. That’s a way I’ve been given to think about it, and for me at least, it helps. I recommend it to you.

1 comment:

Barbi Click said...

Throughout the reading of this sermon, I could see and hear Bruce.
Thank you Katie for posting this. I almost felt as though I heard it in person.