Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
When I was 25 years old, I was living in New York City and had just been promoted to Account Executive as part of a team managing a $60 million advertising account for the agency that employed me. I had a window office on the 12th floor looking out on Madison Avenue. I had a wonderful apartment in Gramercy Park. I had friends, and enough disposable income to enjoy living in New York. Then, on a hot summer day in July of 1988 I went to a doctor’s appointment at which my surgeon informed me that a tumor, which he had removed from my left leg the week before, was a malignant bone cancer. Within two months I had gone on long-term disability, moved out of my apartment and back to California. I had started a series of weekly and bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments that lasted for more than a year, and I began to prepare for what would eventually be a 14 hour surgery to remove 50% of the tibia in my left leg that contained the tumor, knowing full well that I might wake up with an amputation, depending on what the doctor found when he went in.
One of the things I learned during that year and half of my life is that it doesn’t take the end of the world to feel like the world is coming to an end.
We each experience our own little apocalypses in this life. Our own personal losses or disasters that cause us to wonder whether our world is coming to an end. And when we face those times, the question always becomes, how do I handle the challenge or the loss that comes with it? How do I handle the feeling of devastation? And do I let these things defeat me – or, do I take them as opportunities to remind myself of some spiritual truth that perhaps I’ve forgotten and to which I can turn for solace and courage?
Jesus often said things to the disciples to startle them and to wake them up to remind them of the spiritual truths he tried to teach them. And in this morning’s reading from Mark, Jesus tells the disciples about the end of the world, saying, “in those days there will be suffering such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.” As you would expect, the disciples became pretty anxious and asked, “When? When will this happen? How will we know when it’s about to happen?” And, like so many other times, Jesus simply gave them no answer. Instead, he made reference to vague signs and wonders that they could look for to warn them of this impending time of trial. Which, naturally, led to speculation on the part of both the disciples and eventually us about just what Jesus meant and to what time he was referring. And, frankly, to wonder, how on earth is this supposed to be helpful anyway?
Unfortunately, what the disciples discovered and what we have confirmed over the centuries is that trying to make apocalyptic texts relevant for today by reading them as literal “predictions” simply never works. How many times have you heard predictions about the end of the world? As I understand it, there is an independent church in Amarillo, Texas that only a few years ago decided that the end of times was here because they had discovered the true identity of the anti-Christ – and it was Prince Charles! Personally, I’ve always been convinced the anti-Christ is either Kim Kardashian or Mark Zuckerburg, but that’s another matter. The bottom line is, using apocalyptic texts as literal predictions of the future of our planet—and trying to match up symbolic language with actual people and events—only leads to abuses. Abuses of power and destruction of real people’s lives. Remember Jonestown? Or how about Waco?
There is, however, another way to think about Jesus’ apocalyptic texts. A way that just may actually be helpful. It’s what scholars call “theopoetic text”. Theopoetic text is poetic language used to make a theological point. As a theopoetic text, the point of Jesus’ description of the end of time is not to convince us to go sit up on a mountain top and wait for signs of the second coming. Neither is it to roll over in bed and go back to sleep because life is going to end in a cataclysm has no real meaning anyway. Instead, a theopoetic text, like that which Jesus used, is as a poetic text that is meant to make a theological point. Looked at in this way, Jesus’ description of the apocalypse can actually be a way for us to put our suffering into a context and to perhaps if not understand suffering to, at least, have the strength to endure it.
In his book “WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE,” Rabbi Harold Kushner talks a lot about putting suffering into context. In one chapter Kushner tells about a Jewish legend that puts a different spin on the story of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. In the biblical version, Moses sees the Israelites worshiping a golden calf and is so furious he throws down the stone tablets to shatter them. According to Rabbi Kushner, an old Jewish legend tells the story a little differently. According to the legend, while Moses was climbing down the mountain with the two stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments, he had no trouble carrying them, even though they were large, heavy slabs of stone and the path was steep. This was due to the fact that the tablets had been inscribed by God and were, therefore, precious to Moses. But when he came upon the people dancing around the golden calf, the legend says, the words disappeared from the stone, and at that moment they became too heavy for Moses to hold up. “We can bear any burden,” Rabbi Kushner says, “if we think there is a meaning to what we are doing.”
Finding meaning in life is, I believe, our ultimate purpose. That is, in fact, a significant part of what Rabbi Kushner points to in his book. Tragedies, in and of themselves, do not have meaning at the moment they happen to us. Tragedies do not happen as part of some grand scheme of a God who has a master plan that simply requires that some of us suffer. To believe that would be to believe that God not only allows suffering but actually participates in it by not preventing it. But what Kushner says is that what happens in the face of tragedy is that we can give meaning to our suffering by learning from it, by growing from it, by finding ways to help others not have to experience the same loss or pain. And, he affirms, that most certainly God is there with us to support us in that process.
You see, the truth is our world has never been, and never will be, without suffering. War, famine, mass murders, holocausts, and natural disasters have always been a part of the human experience, and they likely always will be. And when events like these—or even when smaller, more personal events—strike our lives or the lives of people we love, for us, that is the great tribulation – it is the end of the world as we know it. Who needs the apocalypse. In 1988 my life was falling apart! And the question for me was and for all of us is, when these disasters hit us, are we going to be prepared to face them with a knowledge of God’s love and care that can give us hope and the strength to endure them? Or will we face those trials as casual or nominal people of faith? Do we want to live our lives with commitment and trust in God? Or do we want to resign ourselves to the forces of this world that, as we (hear) (heard last week) in the baptismal covenant, “destroy and corrupt the creatures of God?” Do we come with the willingness to take on responsibility for our lives? Or do we use tragedy as an excuse to abdicate our responsibility and simply blame God for our troubles?
You don’t have to wait for the end of times. The apocalypse is here now because it happens to us daily, if not to us personally, then to someone we know or someone they know.
To someone who has lost a loved one.
To someone who has lost a job or whose home has been destroyed by fire. To someone who is diagnosed with a fatal illness.
Or to someone whose family is breaking up.
And for that reason, it’s important for us to remember that in this life we walk together in faith. We walk together in a faith that gives meaning and purpose to our lives. In the face of tragedy, we walk together in a faith that proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ. Because by doing so we remind not only ourselves, but we remind others of all the blessings with which God has richly blessed us. And it is from that position of gratitude that we can choose to live our lives not always wanting more, but by giving back out of gratitude.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus wants us to wake up to the fact that the decisions we make today do have ultimate meaning. The spiritual realities we choose to see will decide whether or not we will confront the apocalypses in our lives or be turned back by them. We can decide to ignore them and risk being defined by them. But we can also choose to confront them and to discover that we not only have the capacity to overcome them, in the process we can learn that there is purpose in this life. There is meaning in this life. And sometimes, learning more about who we are as children of God by making it through those struggles is the meaning in life.
As disciples of Jesus, we have a job to do that the world desperately needs to be done. A job that requires each of us to be agents of God’s love in a world that desperately needs to hear a message of hope. This morning, my prayer is that we will all listen to what Jesus is saying to us. That we will listen to what he is saying not about the trials and disasters of life, but of our response to them. And then, that we will get up and make a difference in the world. In Jesus’ Name.