In the last few weeks many of us experienced a real sense of upheaval and disorientation following the hurricane and the power outages. First there was the fear of living through the storm itself – the sound of the wind, and wondering when a tree might crash through the roof; many people slept in their basements that night, and with good reason. Then there was the stress, frustration, anger, helplessness of being in cold and dark houses, not being able to get to work, having kids home from school, needing to keep generators and wood stoves going, seeing the broken and disrupted landscape all around us, not knowing when life was going to be able to get back to normal. And then, perhaps, there was guilt at having all these feelings while we learned about the even greater destruction and displacement of people living at the Shore, or on Staten Island, or in Breezy Point, Queens. And while it is right to count our blessings, and to keep events in perspective, the greater suffering of others does not negate our own struggles and pain. What we lived through was hard, and it will be a while before things are set to rights again.
Part of the discomfort we may continue to feel comes from the kinds of questions that are surfacing in the offices of elected officials, in businesses small and large, in the media, and probably between friends and family members:
· How can we improve and protect our energy grid?
· What do we need to do to be prepared for the next storm or disaster?
· How long will repairs or rebuilding take?
· Will my business ever recover? What about the state’s economy?
· Does it make financial and ecological sense to build sensitive areas of the coastline back to the way they were in the face of the changing environment and weather patterns?
· What do we do with our sadness on many different levels – from the loss of the hundred year old tree in our yard to a beloved shore house or boardwalk to the loss of livelihood and lives?
These questions are important, and they may have far-reaching meaning about the way we will live going forward. As Christians we are not strangers to important questions that have far-reaching answers or implications.
When Jesus had finished teaching in the Temple, two days before his arrest and trial on the way to the Crucifixion, “… one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"
The disciples were awe-struck by the size and beauty and magnificence of the Temple, yet Jesus cautioned them that even something as solid and as important as the Jerusalem Temple would not stand forever. In fact, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and all that remains is the portion we know as the Wailing Wall, sacred to Jews the world over.
Jesus’ inner circle then got him aside and asked him privately – when will this destruction happen? how will we know to plan and prepare for it? what will the signs be? But Jesus doesn’t answer their questions directly – in fact, he doesn’t really answer them at all. Instead he tells the disciples, in so many words, not to be afraid. Wars, earthquakes, famines, the destruction of the Temple, nations arising against one another – and I would add, hurricanes and storms - are but the beginning of the birth pangs, Jesus says.
This stark kind of imagery that Jesus uses in speaking to Peter, Andrew, James and John – and throughout this thirteenth chapter of Mark – is not unique to this Gospel or to this situation. it comes out of the genre of apocalyptic literature that you probably know best from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament or the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. The word “apocalypse” does not mean some kind of cataclysmic event, despite such films with titles like “Apocalypse Now.” Instead, apocalypse means “revelation” – in the sense of all being revealed, like a curtain on a stage being drawn back fully so that not only are the actors seen, but also the wings, the stage machinery, the props, the lighting crew, all the stage hands. In Biblical apocalyptic literature, the idea is to draw the curtain back on human events so that we can see the spiritual realities behind them and, most importantly, see that God is at work and in charge.
The message of Jesus’ response to the inner circle and to us is: don’t be afraid, and don’t speculate and over-interpret and over-invest all these events with cosmic significance. But do know that God holds the world and its people in his strong and loving embrace. And be assured that God’s kingdom will come – on earth as it is in heaven, just as Jesus taught us to pray. The day will come, in God’s own good time, when the world will be set to rights and God’s mercy, peace and justice will be as real in this life as it is in God’s mind and heart and will. These are but the beginnings of the birth pangs of the coming of that kingdom.
So what do we do now?
We take up the threads of our lives, and in some cases start to pick up the pieces of our lives. We put our faith in God’s goodness and endeavor to live that each day. We reach out to others, when and however we can, remembering that the care we offer may be exactly what they need, but that we may never know it. We offer our work and wisdom for the good of our civic community. We trust that God will continue to shepherd us through life’s trials and tribulations, even if we don’t always feel happy or comfortable. And we stay awake and alert to the promptings of the Holy Spirit so that we do not miss God’s grace and blessing all around us. And we remember always that we are loved to the depths of our being, so much so that Jesus was willing to lay down is life for us.
Let us pray.
O LORD, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen. Scottish BCP, 1929.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 18, 2012