The text for this morning comes from the gospel
of Mark, the 13th chapter, verses 1 through 8:
As he came out of the
temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large
stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then 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?’ 5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one
leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and
they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of
wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still
to come. 8For 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.
So this may strike you as a little bit of an odd
text to use for the Sunday before Thanksgiving, right? I mean, isn't
this Sunday supposed to about the bountiful harvest, and all those
things we give thanks for -- families gathering together for the
holidays, and religious liberty, and the pilgrims coming, and Native
Americans sharing with them of their harvest, all those things we give
thanks to God for that we enjoy in life. So who wants to hear about wars
and earthquakes and famine? On this Sunday, of all Sundays?
On the other hand, being the Sunday after yesterday's football game [the
Ducks lost to Stanford], the end is come! That's the way it feels this
morning. So maybe it's the right passage. Someone asked me in the first
service if I was being prophetic with the sermon title "Giving Thanks
for the Pain".
Bono, one of my favorite theologians, takes the
part of Judas in one of the songs of U2 (the Irish rock group), entitled
"Until the End of the World", and he sings:
"Last time we met, it was a
We were as close together as the bride and groom
We ate the food, drank the wine,
Everyone having a good time
Except you, you were talking about the end of the world".
You know, no one likes a doomsayer in the midst
of a party, when you're in all the festivities and someone comes and
starts casting all this doom and gloom throughout the room. Well,
chapter 13 in the Gospel of Mark is rather unique in its style and its
content. Biblical scholars call it the 'little apocalypse' because it
talks about these so-called "last days". And it's one of those texts
that has led to all kinds of speculation and mis-information. Authors
like Hal Lindsey in the 1970s and Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in
the 1990s have made millions of dollars distorting its message to fit
their end-time scenarios.
And even more tragic is when delusional self-proclaimed prophets like
Jim Jones of Jonestown, David Koresh in Waco Texas create their doomsday
cults around such scenarios, creating doom not just for themselves but
for all those innocent victims that get sucked into that delusional
thinking. And the irony, of course, is that the message of Jesus is the
exact opposite of such doom and gloom. The whole point of these kinds of
texts is not to predict some future calamity thousands of years away
that will bring unimaginable suffering upon the world. But rather to aid
those with very real, very imaginable suffering in the present world.
In other words, Jesus is not talking about the timing of the last days,
he's talking about the living of these days when people need hope that
not all is lost. That an end is in sight, that there is a new day, a new
beginning is still possible. You hear me Duck fans?
During the Bush era, all the Democrats were all "Oh, the end is here".
Now the tables have turned, and it's the Republicans saying "Oh, the end
is here, what are we going to do?". C'mon, get over it! Right?! You will
get through this. There's always another election coming (God forbid :),
to the delight of ad makers and to the horror of everyone else :)
This is, you see, the message of Jesus to his followers: you can survive
the present calamity. Yes we are in a world of hurt, times are tough.
The question is, how are you going to deal with those tough times? When
the chips are down and life gets hard, what is it that sustains you?
That keeps you grounded in your faith? That's the issue.
One of the things I've learned in this life,
with all of its challenges, is that among all the choices that we face
in life there is one choice we don't get--no one says to us, "Would you
rather have a life full of bliss and joy, or do you want a life full of
misery and pain?" Huh, let me think about that for, which do I want. . .
. define misery and pain? We don't get that choice. The hard truth is,
pain and suffering is simply a part of life. When you are hurt, you feel
the pain. When you are grieving, you weep. That's the joy of life that
we get to experience those things, as painful as they may be.
So we don't get to chose whether or not we are going to suffer in this
life. Here me though: we do get to choose how to respond to it. We have
If I were to accumulate all the suffering that I have witnessed, just in
this congregation in the last 21 years, and put it all together, it
would be unbearable. People who have lost jobs and homes. People who
have been victims of sexual assault and convicted of crimes. Parents who
have lost children to drunk drivers. And families split live apart by
alcohol abuse. Those who have lost loved ones to terrible disease, and
even horrible acts of violence. I've been present at the death of
parents and at the death of infants. I kept a gun for one member for
over a year because he was suicidal, until he got through that period
and the crisis passed and he was able to take it again. I've counseled
those after failed suicide attempts.
And through it all I have come to realize that the good life is one not
free of pain, the good life is one that responds to pain with endurance.
To tragedy with hope. To fear with courage. And to grief with
thanksgiving for life. The good life is one that looks death and
disaster in the face and says "This is not the sum-total of my life",
that I can overcome this, there is more. For any suffering is bearable
so long as there is hope, any pain is durable so long as there is the
possibility of greater good.
Now, note when Jesus talks about all these calamities and all this
suffering, he says that it is the beginning -- not of the end -- it is
the beginning of something that no mother enjoys, but eagerly
anticipates, of birth pangs. It's the beginning of something wonderful
that you have to go through.
This image of a woman in labor is one used by the prophets to describe a
period of painful transition used by God to bring about a greater good,
the coming reign of God. For instance, in Micah 4:10 we read: "Writhe
and groan, O daughter Zion, like a woman in labor, for now you shall go
forth from the city, encamped in the open country, you shall to go
Babylon". The people were probably thinking "All is lost! Oh no!
Babylon, exile! That's terrible, the end has come!". Read the next
verse: "There, you shall be rescued. There, the Lord will redeem you
from the hands of your enemies". This is the beginning of something new.
Now, granted, I know I'm not exactly an expert
on birth pain, I'll give you that. My experience is limited to one
attempt to give birth to a rapidly growing appendix :) It did not work,
they had to deliver the little bundle by C-section. And it was not a
joyful experience, there was no joy at the end of it. Although I did
discover the wonderful miracle of morphine :)
But think about the significance of the image here: the normal result of
birth pangs is new life. Labor pains are not just the precursor to
birth, they are a necessary part of the birthing process. So by
associating this image of birth with the calamities of the world, when
everything appears to be coming to an end, Jesus is in effect saying
"Don't be discouraged. Don't be fooled. Don't be dismayed. God is not
finished with you yet". There is another day, there is still hope, there
is no evil God cannot transform into some good. There is no labor that
does not result in a birth.
One of my really favorite theologians is Alfred North Whitehead, and he
calls this "tragic beauty". This seed of the giant Sequoia, that can
only be released in the scorching heat of a forest fire. Mt. Volcano,
you all remember Mt. Volcano in Oregon, remember what all the scientists
said, from this massive explosion that was going to destroy all life,
that it was going to take years, maybe even a decade for that mountain
to recover? And the next spring, what did we see? Wildflowers, like
we've never seen before. It was an incredible thing of beauty.
The Interfaith Service, here, that emerged out
of the horror of September 11th, it has become a thing of beauty and
wonder right here. That terrible death of Major Thomas Egan on the
streets of Eugene on a cold winter's night, that gave birth to the Egan
Warming Center that probably has saved many lives. Women who survived
breast cancer, men who survived prostate cancer, willing to share their
stories of recovering and healing to give hope to others and in the
process to remove any shame that used to be associated with the disease,
no longer so (fortunately).
We've all been, I think, rather dismayed by the outbreak of violence
once again in Israel, and the renewed conflict between Hamas and Israel.
When I was there in 2008, I was actually in Jerusalem in the spring of
2008 when a rocket attack began, for the first time after a couple of
year, as Hamas launched some rockets, as they're doing now (fortunately
did not reach Jerusalem at that time, as they are now). The tension in
that city was so thick you could just cut with a knife. I can't imagine
what it is like there right now.
One of the experiences that I had on that trip was a meeting with the
group known as The Families Forum, for bereaved families, both Israeli
and Palestinian, an equal number of each. In 2008, they had 500 hundred
members, 250 Palestinians and 250 Israelis, all people who had lost
loved ones in the conflict. What I don't know if I shared before is that
this group was founded by a very devout Jewish man after his son was
kidnapped by Hamas and executed, specifically to disrupt the peace
process in 1994. After he got over his grief and anger, he went into
Gaza to find families who had suffered similar fates. And sharing
together in the living rooms of these Palestinian homes, sharing his
story of the death of his son, as they shared their stories, and weeping
together. And then he, with some of those family members reaching out to
other Jewish families, began to build this organization. After they
began bringing people together, they began going and speaking to groups
-- always in pairs, always together, so that they share equally in that
And in that process, they said a couple of things happened. First,
countered the consistent demonization that occurs of the other side, and
they humanized the so-called enemy, so that people began to see each
other differently. Secondly, they demonstrated, counter to the claims of
the Israeli government, that there are Palestinians interested in ending
the conflict, who they can engage in dialogue. Indeed, they found, from
their experience, that the Palestinian bereaved families were more open
to this kind of experience that many of the Israeli families.
As tragic as the story of these families are,
and the losses they have endured, the way they are coming together to
show a different face to the conflict, and the way out of it, truly is a
So how should we respond to tragedy and evil in our midst? Here's what I
see: first, by refusing to accept it as the final word. By challenging
the purveyors of doom and gloom, not letting them spread that doom, but
to counter it with messages of hope, by saying 'no' to the evil and
'yes' to God. By standing up to the wrong and defending the right. By
allowing Christ to birth new life in us through our own pain.
By making disasters, whether natural or human-made, not into occasions
for despair, but opportunities for hope, and to believe that in the end,
God's love will triumph no matter what we suffer.
By choosing to respond with hope, we indeed can give thanks for pain.
The Temple is gone. The stones have been carried away from the Temple
Mount. And when we come to the end of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus too is
gone. His body has been taken away from the tomb.
And if God is going to present in this chaotic, troubled world, then God
must be present in us. The body of Christ, crucified, transformed,
arisen, and alive!
Thanks be to God.