Apocalypse, Now

Good morning, all!

Many of you asked for a way to read the message from this morning. Here you go! The scripture lesson is first, NRSV. Stay safe. Stay connected. Fear not.

Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. 24 "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

May we hear wha the Spirit is saying to the church.

If there was a week when we might leap from the headlines into the Scriptures, I suppose this would be it, and we are going to do that, just maybe not how you think.

First, let’s remember that Mark himself was most likely writing his Gospel during a time of extreme stress. The world was changing in ways he couldn’t fully grasp. Rebel Jewish forces were gathering for a showdown with the Romans, which indeed ended with not one stone of the temple being left upon another.

As often happens during such discordant times, like Daniel during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes or John of Patmos writing his Revelation while suffering under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Domitian, Mark writes here in the genre known as apocalyptic.

Now before we leap to some connection between the virus currently afflicting our world and someone’s dark twisted fantasy of God’s judgment and the end of days, let’s stop, breathe, and remember that apocalyptic simply means this: “to uncover what is hidden.”

Mark is using these words of Jesus to try to tell his community that yes, some hard times are coming, but if you look through those times, in the end, the powers will be shaken, and Jesus will return, collecting people up from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven, which is to say, everyone, because if grace really is grace then no one gets left behind.

The admonishment to keep awake and to watch wasn’t to be on guard for death and destruction, it was to watch for Jesus’s return, which would bring the end of violence and injustice and usher in God’s blessed reign of shalom. It was meant to be a call to vigilance in service of hope, that the times Mark and his community were suffering under would come to an end, and that Jesus would be powerfully present during that time, and so they should be prepared and ready for the good things God would be doing, watching and waiting with hope, expectancy, and anticipation.

A few months ago now I was clued in to a daily article written by Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson, someone who is herself, perhaps unknowingly, writing apocalyptic pieces, helping to uncover what’s happening in our world right now; lifting the veil. Responding to a moment last week when it appeared our Attorney General would try to forcefully curb legal dissent under the guise of keeping social order, Richardson wrote these words, quote:

“But while it is imperative for citizens of a democracy to watch for and resist the rise of such authoritarian power during a crisis, these times are also open for a redefinition of the nation, not only of our government, but also of how we live. We are learning that many of us can work from home—how will that change our urban and rural spaces? We are learning that our lives depend on a strong government response to pandemics and economic dislocation—how will that change our government? We are learning that our families and friends are even more important than even we knew—how will that change our priorities? The questions raised by this life-changing crisis are open… and so, suddenly, is America’s future.” End quote.

The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing things about ourselves and our country; it is shining a light on things that have, for many, remained hidden, it is apocalypting our lives.

For instance, this week revealed some in our government and in industry will put their elders’ lives in jeopardy just so the stock market will rise again; that commerce is an altar that many are prepared to sacrifice lives on. Not their own lives, of course. As with any war, the sacrifices aren’t borne by those who demand them.

It was revealed that a religious advisor to the White House, predictably and sadly, tried to pin this virus on God’s judgment against the gay community. Doing so is not only wrong, but evil. It was revealed that some in power knew the virus was coming, understood its existential threat, and then downplayed that threat in public while selling their stocks in private, personally profiting before the market tanked.

We learned that a senator who is also a physician thought he was somehow exceptional, didn’t follow precautions, and may have infected his colleagues.

We learned this week that the federal agency tasked with protecting our environment abdicated its basic mission, again, allowing polluters to pollute more in the name of commerce, so long as the polluters responsibly police themselves. I’m sure they will.

We are learning that in Maine and elsewhere, there’s a huge disparity, inequality, and inequity in access to broad band internet, government programs, health care, and the privilege to work from home.

Staying at home is showing us just how little we know about ourselves, and others; how busy-ness has been the veil that has concealed how unenlightened and devoid of substance much of our lives are. We are turning to the artists, the poets, the authors, the actors, and, I pray, to our faith traditions, to help us make sense of all of this, to entertain us, to connect us, making this time more rich, productive, and full.

The virus is revealing just who is the backbone of our product supply chain: the warehouse workers, truck drivers, and retail workers, most of whom are not being paid a living wage or receiving benefits.

The virus is revealing how fragile our economy is, and how dependent it is on the spending of people living paycheck to paycheck. We are learning that consumers are actually the ones with the power in this economy, and that business is dependent on us, not the other way around.

The virus is revealing immigrants and prisoners are still being kept in inhumane cages, and their vulnerability to the rapid spread of the virus exposes our vulnerability, too. We’re all in this together. The virus doesn’t care who you are. It only wants to replicate and stay alive, like you. It may kill you.

The closure of our schools is showing us that maybe it wasn’t the teachers, after all. And just how much we and our children depend upon our chronically underfunded schools not just for education, but for community, basic nutrition, and health care, both physical and mental.

Speaking of health care. The virus is revealing what, we thought were the large stones and large buildings of our health care system turned out to be castles made of sand. Even with the heroic efforts of our health care providers, this crisis is revealing what many have been saying all along: that we actually do not have a fully functioning health care system in this country, including a basic system for mental health care. People are knitting masks for nurses. At Bowdoin College this week, the biology and chemistry departments collected up their unused gloves and masks to donate to our local hospitals. Here in Waterville, the discount store Mardens donated tens of thousands of gloves to Maine hospitals, bless them.

Again, the virus isn’t causing this injustice, inequity, and inequality, it is showing, it is apocalypting it. All of this begs the question: who are we? Certainly not who we thought we were, or who we’ve been led to believe we are. Beware, Mark’s Jesus told his community, many will come and will lead many astray.

Be aware, but do not be alarmed. These things must take place, but the good news is the end is not yet. Apocalyptic prophecies assure us that these times don’t get the last word, God does. Let us remember that Jesus is saying these things on his way to Jerusalem, and to the cross. If the cross and Jesus’s resurrection teach us nothing, they teach us that death doesn’t have the final say, life does; that judgment doesn’t have the final say, love does; that injustice doesn’t have the final say, mercy and forgiveness do.

The powers of this world are going to be shaken, the unjust structures that have kept this house of cards up for far too long are going to be revealed for who and what they are. It may well be that not one stone of this old world will be left upon another. And that might not be a bad thing, for we can rest assured God is going to be in the midst of it all, which means good things are going to happen.

After this suffering, the hope, the hope that was Jesus’s hope on his way to the cross, is that we will see what has been revealed to us, and change our lives. We are but in the beginning of a time when something beautiful is going to be born. As Richardson wrote: “The questions raised by this life-changing crisis are open, and so, suddenly, is America’s future.”

Soon, we are going to have the opportunity to redress many wrongs. For instance, we can rebuild our economy on a model not of consumption, but sharing; not factory farms, but family farms. We can use our power to make more impactful decisions with our spending. The new maps that show the decrease of greenhouse gas pollution during this time point us toward a new future built on good stewardship of God’s creation. Seeing the the value of formerly invisible workers, we have the opportunity to push for better wages, working conditions, and benefits. We can easily see now the benefits of universal, single-payer, health care, which includes lifting up the importance of good mental health. We can see the gifts our schools and educators are to our communities and give them the resources they need, paying our educators in a manner that is commensurate with their high value to us. We can end unjust immigration policies and the inherently racist practices of the school to prison pipeline. And maybe even the phrase “starving artist” will be a thing of the past.

If the end is nigh, let’s be honest, a lot of our world wasn’t working for most of us anymore, anyway. And now that all this has been revealed, like the lid off a tin can of peaches in my fridge, what has come down may be built up in a new way. Destroy this temple, Jesus said, and in three days I will build it back up again. If you’ve never really understood the power and import of those words, may you be given ears to hear them now.

The end is still to come - and that’s a hopeful thing - something to watch for, to pay attention to, to be a part of. A new life is not only possible, we are being told to expect it. Our future is going to open up. Death has been unleashed, which means that life has, too. The cross awaits him; and it awaits us.

After these deaths, let us pray the resurrection means we won’t go back to the same old normal. The greatest perversion of this week of many perversions was somehow tying Easter to the world going back to business as usual. If there is one thing I know about Easter, it is NOT about the world going back to the way it was before! After everything that happened, Peter wanted to go fishing again. Let's not be like Peter here.

We’re going to have the opportunity to transform our world, to make it more just, more humane, more loving, healthier, more resurrected. Heaven and earth will pass away, but these words will not. I say to you what I say to all: keep awake. Let us make of ourselves a people prepared to welcome the liberating reign of God’s new age. Let us watch for the end of injustice, the death of death, the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit, and the revealing of God’s blessed, eternal, reign of peace. Amen.

Benediction

Children of God

Go in peace

Have hope

And stay awake

For Jesus is coming in great power and glory

To reveal the powers which shall be thrown down

When he is resurrected.

Stay safe. Stay connected. Fear not.

Amen.

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