TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, your sovereign purpose brings salvation to birth. Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world, trusting that your kingdom comes and your will is done through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Mark 13:2
Every time a read these words I recall the first time I came into New York. It was the winter of 1977 and I was traveling on the Amtrak from Indiana where I was going to school to visit my brother, a pastor who was then serving a church in Brooklyn. I arrived at Penn Station in the early afternoon. Upon my brother’s instructions, I took the subway down to World Trade Center Plaza where we were to meet. I remember coming up out of the subway station and staring up at the Twin Towers like a typical tourist. They were so overwhelmingly big and tall that they nearly blocked out the sky. I wonder what I would have thought had someone said to me, “Hey kid, see those sky scrapers? In twenty five years these buildings, their steel beams, their sheer glass windows and the offices they host will be rubble.”
The Temple that stood during the time of Jesus was a magnificent piece of architecture. It would undoubtedly be considered one of the monumental wonders of the world, were it still standing. I expect it would have been as hard for the disciples to imagine the destruction of that temple as it would have been for me to foresee in 1977 the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. For that reason, the disciples and Jews generally believed that the end of the temple meant the end of the world as we know it. Its fall would be a prelude to the dawn of a new heaven and earth.
Given the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to for us to conclude that Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction hardly required much in the way of clairvoyance. Anti-Roman sentiment was strong among the people of Judea and Galilee. Tensions were particularly high during the feast of Passover, a celebration of the liberation of enslaved Israel from imperial bondage in Egypt. The people in Jesus’ day longed for another Exodus from the bondage of Rome and were ready to follow any leader who promised to deliver one. In reality, the chances of a military confrontation with Rome ending well for the Jews were less than slim. Hence, Jesus’ warning against believing such promises of deliverance and following self-proclaimed messiahs. But people are bound to see only what they want to see and believe only what they want to be true. All the ingredients for a suicidal insurrection were present.
The destruction of the Temple took place just as Jesus warned, but it was not the harbinger of the messianic age. It turned out to be just one more instance of blood letting and destruction along the violent path of history. There would be more such events. Kingdom would rise up against kingdom; there would be wars, earthquakes, wild fires, terrorism and mass shootings. Great skyscrapers would fall and countries once beacons of democracy would slip into the abyss of fascism-but the end was still to come and there was no word on when that end could be expected.
Whatever else this gospel might have to say, it reminds us that the ground under our feet is not as secure as we like to imagine. The gains we have made in furthering the civil rights of racial minorities, women and LGBTQ folk are in danger. The constitutional freedoms of speech and due process are under attack as never before. Even the seasonal rhythms of our climate are becoming increasingly unstable. The church, that one rock of sameness and stability in our lives, seems to be bleeding out-at least in North America. Still, Jesus urges his disciples to live faithfully in a world that is coming apart at the seams and look for the signs of his coming.
More than that, Jesus assures us that the violence of the world’s unraveling is not a vortex into oblivion. The death throes of the old order are the “beginning of the birth pangs.” Those of us who have either given birth or witnessed one know that it does not happen without the rending of flesh, the shedding of blood and a good deal of pain. In the midst of all the violence, loss and chaos God is at work doing a new thing. In fact, it is precisely here that God does God’s best work. This is not an easy word to hear for those of us who are comfortable with the old order and enjoy the privileges that come with being white, male, heterosexual and wealthy relative to the world’s millions of poor. Our natural inclination is to hang on tight to the familiar features of the doomed world in which we feel safe and comfortable. But in so doing, we render ourselves incapable of taking hold of the new life God longs to give us. We need finally to decide whether we will surrender to the gentle reign of God or cling to the dying structures of injustice and oppression.
There are signs of new creation for all who have eyes to see it. The latest election has brought into our congress the voices of women, people of color, Muslims, sexual minorities and other voices that have been ignored for far too long. The church is experiencing an injection of youthful leaders more concerned with mission and ministry than erecting buildings and preserving institutions. If the administration of Donald Trump has uncovered the worst in American culture and history, it has also called forth the best in us and forced us to confront injustices with which we have become far too comfortable. “A terrible beauty is born” of these trying days. None of this is to say that the reign of God is any closer to fulfillment than it was two thousand years ago. But make no mistake about it. The new creation’s birth pangs began with the resurrection of the crucified messiah and they continue. God is a faithful midwife and can be trusted to see this delivery through.
Here is a poem by William Butler Yeats memorializing the Irish uprising of 1916 brutally suppressed by the British within weeks of its inception. Though a disaster for Ireland in military terms, this tragic and violent event gave birth to a vision of and determination to achieve freedom that ultimately prevailed. Yeats skillfully weaves his ode to the rebellion and its aftermath with allusions to the events of Holy Week.
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Source: This poem is in the public domain. William Butler Yeats (1865 -1939) was an Irish poet. He was born in Sandymount, Ireland and spent childhood holidays in County Sligo. Yeats studied poetry from an early age when he became fascinated by Irish legends, spiritualism and the occult. He later abandoned his pursuit of spiritualism as he became increasingly drawn to the Irish struggle for independence. Yeats served two terms as a senator of the Irish Free State. He was a leader in the Irish Literary Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and others. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. You can read more about William Butler Yeats and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.