Sunday, November 18, 2018

Pentecost 26-B: Birth pangs as gift

Lectionary: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Unlike last week, the Collect for this week is one of my favorites. In this common prayer we are encouraged to enter into Scripture for the purpose of holding fast to our hope in the face of a world where hope isn’t always plentiful. And our hope is life in Jesus Christ: eternal life, everlasting life.

As Episcopalians, we engage Scripture as a love story, a long, continuing love story between God and God’s people. While it tells us something about the lives of our forebears in faith, we don’t hold Scripture to be a historical narrative, but rather an experiential one.

For example, in the reading from Daniel, God spoke to Daniel in a vision, telling him that there would be times of great anguish, and in those times those with good judgment, who can see and understand what’s happening in the context of God’s overall plan of salvation, along with those who continue to build right relationships, will be lights in those times of darkness.

Jesus is telling his disciples the same thing… The world is impermanent. Everything that seems strong will eventually come undone. What is permanent is God’s plan of salvation for the whole world. So when you see things coming undone, when you experience times of great anguish, fear, destruction, and hunger, remember that this is just the beginning… God is already redeeming all things. Those are just the birth pangs – the signs that new life is being formed.

The letter to the Hebrews informs us that as followers of Jesus, we have a new way to live while we are on this earth – with true hearts and the assurance of our faith. That doesn’t mean no anguish will happen, it means we have a different way to respond when it does: by provoking one another to love and good deeds.

That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? We are to provoke one another to love. When we do, however, it helps to remember that provocation often leads to anger. We must, therefore, rely on our righteousness that is, our right relationships with God and with one another, to carry us through the provoking. We are being provoked right now to love and good deeds. We know this because we can see the anger and anguish that is present in our community.

Our hearts, therefore, must remain true in full assurance of our faith, that when the stones of our earthly structures begin to crumble, we remember that, for the people of God, the end is always the beginning. Death always leads to new life.

We are a resurrection people. This is our faith, our hope - the one thing to which we cling without wavering, for we believe that Jesus, who promised and delivered this to us once for all and for all time, is faithful even now, leading us always as we pass through our earthly cycles of death to new life.

So when Jesus says to us, ‘not one thing you have built will survive… all will be thrown down’ we receive that as a gift, not an indictment. It isn’t that we built it wrong, or that it wasn’t good or holy or important. We know that anything we humans can build, no matter how faithfully we build it, is incomplete and impermanent in the divine reality. The Good News is that God will always lead us to that completeness – to a fullness of life, of love, of relationship, of purpose. As God does that, it will look like the end of what we built, but it isn’t. It’s just the beginning, the birth pangs, the signal that new life is coming.

Anyone who’s ever had or witnessed birth pangs knows they are uncomfortable. And the closer the birth comes, the worse the birth pangs feel. Right before the birth, the pangs feels like crisis. Hearing the wise, experienced, assuring voices of the community of doctors, midwives, doulas, and family who have been there before, gives the new mother the strength to persevere through the crisis. Imagine if they were to cut off their relationship with her at that moment! That would be awful! Relationship matters.

The wise know the mother is in a moment of crisis and that new life is about to come. So, no matter what she says or how she yells at them, they stay near, being lights in her darkness, speaking words of comfort and assurance through the crisis.

Then suddenly there is new life and it is miraculous to behold. Everything that went before melts into the fullness of joy the presence of this new life brings.

If we’re awake and paying attention to our world and even our church, we’ll find plenty of evidence of birth pangs. As wonderfully made humans, our suffering, our stress is expressed in our bodies as well as in our thoughts. Some of us get headaches or stomach aches or tightness in the chest. Some of us lose our appetites, others are compelled to comfort eating or drinking. Some get angry at the one or ones they see as the cause of their distress, others turn the feelings inward and get depressed.

This is the human experience and it is a gift from God. Speaking in and through our bodies, our embodied spirits, is God’s way of alerting us that the cycle of death to new life is underway and that we need to reconnect to the source of life and embrace our hope to make it through. Thankfully, our Psalmist shows us how to pray ourselves there: ‘Protect me, O God for I take refuge in you; You are… my good above all other… my portion and my cup… I keep you always before me… my heart therefore is glad and my spirit rejoices, my body shall also rest in hope… for you will not abandon me in death… you will show me the path of life and in your presence there is fullness of joy.’

When we pray this together, we are made one by the prayer and the Source to whom we pray it. Our relationships are made right and true, and able to carry us through any moment of anguish, any experience of crisis as God births new life in us. That’s why the author of the letter to the Hebrews advises us to not neglect meeting together during the time of our provocation; but to persist in being together, encouraging one another all the more as the pain increases and the birthing nears.

Let us close by praying together today’s Collect (in your reading insert). Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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