When Bad News is Good

TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Daniel 12:1-3

Psalm 16

Hebrews 10:11-25

Mark 13:1-8

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.

“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” Mark 13:1-2.

It was November of 1976, right around Thanksgiving, that I visited New York City for the first time. My brother was serving as pastor to a congregation in Brooklyn at the time and I was to spend the holiday with him. I was coming into Grand Central Station on Amtrack from Valparaiso, Indiana and he was returning from a meeting in New Jersey. We planned to meet at the World Trade Center stop-a place I had never been and was hoping to high heaven I would be able to find.  My fears on that score were soon allayed. The maps and signage were clear and direct. Within no time I was on the A train speeding south. When I got off at “WTC,” my brother was waiting for me. We took an escalator to street level and passed out of the station into the street. That is when I first saw them-the Twin Towers. Standing directly beneath them, it was impossible to get a full appreciation of their true height. But I knew I was standing next to a marvel of human architecture, the magnitude of which made me feel like an ant. It surely would never have occurred to me then that not a shard from these great monoliths would be standing in just over two decades hence.

I expect the disciples, who grew up along with Jesus in the hinterlands of Galilee, were about as awestruck as me and the rest of the tourists standing under the Twin Towers all those years ago. And that for good reason. The temple erected in Jerusalem under the direction of Herod the Great was an architectural marvel equal to the Mayan pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Roman Amphitheater . Like the Twin Towers, the Jerusalem temple was a hub of commercial activity and, in addition, a powerful symbol of Israel’s identity. Its destruction was probably as hard to imagine as the fall of the Twin Towers used to be. Yet both structures, Temple and Towers, are now only memories.

Jesus’ words serve as a powerful reminder that nothing is safe from the ruinous currents of history. The ground on which we stand is never as firm as we believe. Growing up as I did in the Cold War era, I could not imagine a world without the threat of Soviet nukes facing off with our own ending, best case scenario, in a perpetual stalemate. But Balkan states rejected Soviet rule, the Berlin wall fell as did the Soviet Union itself, all in fairly rapid succession giving birth to a new order with its own set of problems. I grew up believing that the rights and freedoms we Americans hold dear would always be protected by a system of constitutional checks and balances enshrined in the rule law. On January 6th of this year I watched in real time as that bedrock principle was violently attacked and, if not destroyed, mortally wounded. There is, as the old hymn reminds us, “change and decay in all around I see.”

None of this should be surprising. Jesus warns us that “wars and rumors of wars” will characterize life for the indefinite future. Empires will rise, shake the earth and fade away. New ideologies, religions and movements will take root and grow. Old ones will endure or lose credibility or die out altogether-and perhaps re-emerge in some other form. Culture, morals and priorities will change from generation to generation. And a lot of us don’t like any of this. It pisses us off. Witness the rage of angry white men who see their privilege melting away and scream about “taking the country back again.” Witness the anger of individuals and congregations that have departed their churches in response to the long overdue welcome extended to LGBTQA+ folk. Witness the craven, paranoid mindset that gives credence to ridiculous conspiracy theories such as “replacement theory.” For many of us, change means loss. It means somebody is taking something away from us.

Jesus, however, doesn’t see it that way. While the tumult, uncertainty and change might look like and might, in fact, be the death throws of the world as we know it, Jesus would have us know that they are the “birth pangs” of something new. Furthermore, that something new is the just, peaceful and gentle reign of God. And whether that is good news or bad depends on where your loyalties lie. For those of us heavily invested in our existing privilege, for those of us who are comfortable with the status quo, for those of us who believe our best days are behind us and that our salvation lies in making America, the church or (you fill in the blank) great again, change is bad news. What we are desperately trying to save, God is taking away from us. We are not going to win that tug-of-war. But for those formerly marginalized, excluded and vilified who now experience welcome and inclusion, the dissolution of the old is good news, the news proclaimed by the Mother of Our Lord:

“He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.”  Luke 1:51-53.   

As a brother in a prayer group in which I participate reminded me last week, the darkness we experience is not, for those who have eyes to see, the darkness of the tomb. It is the darkness of the womb, or, as Jesus would say, “birth pangs.”

So, if like me, you are troubled by Sunday’s gospel, perhaps we need to re-examine our loyalties and priorities. Maybe we should question our assumption that God is on our side and ask ourselves whether we are on God’s side. Maybe we need to hear these troubling words of Jesus as bad news before we can hear them as good news. Perhaps we need to start letting go of everything we are afraid of losing so that our hands will be free to receive all that God would give us.

Here is a poem by Mark McCloskey illustrating the destructive effects of hanging on to a vanishing past and freedom to embrace a better future that comes with letting go.

A Change for the Better

What do chairs and tables mean in tombs?

Weren’t the lovers buried there

Stingy when they made their wills?

And when the time came for them to quit their bed

Didn’t they forget a certain narrowness?

Darling, what do you think of this?

We’re moving to another house,

And disarranging all our hands were fond of

Makes us lose our tempers with all the doors

So that we slam them between each other

And hobble round on canes of silence.

What happened to the gipsy-looks we had,

Seeing no good luck in settling down,

In things that didn’t breathe or move?

Look at the furniture we’ve gathered:

How come we went so far we got to love it,

As if bones don’t darken with their tombs?

Well, it’s enough death for us:

It’s better that we live on wind

And keep no dust or stillness anymore between us.

Source: Poetry, January 1965. I know nothing of this poet, other than that he is definitely not the Mark McCloskey who, with along with his wife, threatened unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters marching past his suburban home in St. Louis, Missouri, was arrested, pleaded guilty to harassment and is now running for U.S. Senate.

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