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 Giving Thanks for the Pain

Sermon - 11/18/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 13:1-8

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 low-lit room
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 that choice.

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 task.

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 beautiful thing.

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.

 


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