1 Sm1:4-20; Cnt. Sg Hh; Heb10:11-13[14-18]19-25; MK13:1-8
Grant us so to so hear, read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest all holy Scriptures that we may ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life.
This favorite and most effective of all collects was written for Reformation Sunday celebrating, encouraging, and urging the reading and studying all holy Scriptures, especially in English. However, today’s Markan last two sentences: “For nation will rise against nations, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” are not ones we’d like to do any of those five kinds of analytic work on. Our choice would be to omit them totally, brushing them off as hyperbole, exotic extremism, or just silliness.
We’d more likely prefer the Canticle’s “The foes of our God will be shattered…The almighty will judge the earth to its ends, and give strength to the ruler of God’s own choosing.” It confirms that God will do for others what God did for Hannah in her faithfulness. Naturally we count ourselves as worthy of Hannah’s favor and causes. “My heart exults in you, O God; God will guide the faithful, but the wicked will languish in darkness. For it is not by human might that any mortal will prevail. The foes of our God will be shattered.” We stitch these affirmations of God’s action for us, and we trust we’re faithful enough. We make our watchword: “God is good — all the time.” We “look over, we overlook,” as they say in “Pirates of Penzance,” these predictions of endtimes.
OR. Perhaps we’re of the mindset, where we hear the dire predictions as genuine predictions of a real and sooner or later, or even sooner times, and that we richly deserve that sort of punishment, comeuppance, or retribution for our “manifold sins and wickedness.” We’re ready for endtimes, even as we sense or even know we’ve earned disasters to come. That would be an out of fashion hearing, because many of us don’t really have a convinced feeling of self-sinning or any religious sword of Damocles over our lives.
I’ve been listening to the dire words and deeds between Israel, Palestine/Gaza. Many of us have a chosen “side,” potential “winner,” or “dog in that hunt.” Accepting that for each of us, how do you hear this? Hamas continues to say that Israel has no right to exist and it wants to drive Israel into the sea and is lobbing missiles — are they made and coming from Egypt (our ally) or Saudi or Syria? —at locations of civilians. Israel is retaliating with superior weapons aimed at military centers and causing more damage and death, but within, what it sees, as war rules. It’s all dire, and the underlying terror is of Iran entering the fray, and Israel either preempting a strike on Iran’s munitions centers or not, and Iran having disastrous weapons to support Palestine’s Hamas with. How do you hear any of this? As prophecy fulfillment, dire warnings, overblown news reporting, political showmanship, or more politics of which you’re weary. Do you hear these as more hassling distractions from our serious economic issues, or something real that could happen? How do you hear all that fiscal cliff news? Yet, and yet, I’m pretty clear that if we say: under no circumstances will we participate in any war for any friend in the near future, no matter what, we loosen boundaries and restraints on those who would harm any friend of ours, and if we say, under no circumstances can we go over that fiscal cliff, and we can’t, that we bargain less from strength and more from a willingness to placate on almost any issue, principle, or value. The trouble with each of these dire predictions of endtimes is that I doubt there are only two possibilities for either one. The two solutions, to destroy Hamas’s military capability, even if it means bombing Iran’s building sites or letting Israel be bombed in its cities, or to go over the disastrous fiscal cliff or compromise on taxes and cuts to eviscerate government’s work and obligations — are both unacceptable. Are they the beginning of birth pangs of something terminal, are they showmanship on all sides, or are they opportunities to demonstrate God’s faithfulness and love for all, God’s salvation. Does God have any stake, participation, or influence in either of these situations, which batter our eyes, ears, thoughts, daily, if not also hourly?
We surely have a part in all of this. We can hear these dire warnings and keep saying over and over, God is good — all the time. We’re also working on a personal experience of this, here, and now. We recognize that at the rate we’re going we’ll blow through our Endowment in a now predictable, mark-the-calendar, real time. The Cathedral — which has a strikingly diverse congregation like ours, devoted to mission and feeding programs to help the down and out, and is urban, loyal, from scattered places, yearns to reconfigure its space for more effective and varied liturgies and service — doesn’t have the money, either, to effect those changes. St. Paul’s and its leadership has a variety of weekly liturgies, the English-speaking Sunday liturgies, the Chinese ministry, the non-traditional Thursday-night Crossing, the guest Muslim huge congregations, the Monday lunch and worship time, and other small occasions. It also is charged with providing the large liturgies for the Diocese, planned with a couple of Deaneries, or a host of people being ordained, as deacons and priests. The Dean had a conversion experience and now is interested in providing a liturgy with a little more form as part of the St. Paul experience. As we discuss merging and bringing some of the St. John identity to complement the St. Paul one, we wonder about the various dire things that could happen. We could become a mission and the bishop could change his mind and fire the vestry, me, sell the buildings, and make St. Paul’s the way it had been planned. We could find a way to win some sort of lottery, or find a grillion dollars in our socks and let them go. There are several extreme possibilities. However, the most likely outcome is God is good — all the time, and cautiously and self-protectively working with St. Paul’s we’ll build something new, strong, and with their identity and ours, both preserved and changed, renewed and protected, gone and resurrected.
Do we go with “The Lord remembers us” or “not one stone will be here upon another”? It could well be time to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest all holy Scriptures.” Is “all” the key for the way we are to ingest what we read. I’d guess each and both. Those five strong verbs outline ways to do our serious human work. Of course, we can just refute this work with “The devil cites Scripture of his own purposes,” or better follow the dictum: “Be innocent as doves and wise as serpents.” I think the true guideline of this is the “and.” I’m prepared to say God will take care of God’s own and trust that Israel an Palestine will survive without any further work on anyone’s part, and that our economic system is so strong it’ll all work out easily, and that the synchronous time of St. Paul’s and St. John’s situations and hopes will allow a merger to grown organically. I’m prepared to scheme on a limited struggle between Israel and its enemies and imagine some war that will work, and I can imagine a bullying set of economic solutions which render some solution virtually unworkable and unacceptable to all, and I can imagine a variety of small outcomes between St. John’s and St. Paul’s. However we are charged to listen to “all” scripture, all possibilities, and be both doves and serpents. We are to plan wisely, inform ourselves thoroughly, get sound assistance, and to trust that God is good — all the time. We are to value faithfulness, loyalty, leadership, the ordination of our bishops, and God’s constant presence with us. We are to hope and trust in the energizing, bonding, and community reality of personal and corporate prayer.
These apocalyptic texts, of course, are leading squarely to next week’s final Sunday in Pentecost season, called both Last Pentecost and Christ the King, leading to the new beginning of the Church’s year in Advent. The new church year, though, only comes as a continuity and outgrowth of this year and a prelude and solid preparation for the year to follow. Wars, storms, famines or in Tom Lehrer’s words, “They’re rioting in Africa; they’re starving in Spain, there’re hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain”; or from “Ghostbusters” “the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifices; dogs and cats living together: mass hysteria.” These various descriptive, suggestive, frightening, unpleasant situations do come and go, and yet to be optimistic, even Pollyanna-ish, “The Word of the Lord goes on forever,” and God is good — all the time. Are the dire warnings to soften us up to renew our church commitment in Advent? Is Hannah’s prayer and pregnancy to assure us that whatever we really yearn for will be given us? Both, and/ dove and serpent/ hope and upcoming hard things: we bring all to the altar where we receive strength, hope, and the living presence of Christ our Savior in our souls and bodies, to trust and to work for God’s reign, and the guarantee of everlasting life with Christ: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 18 Nov 2012 St. John’s, Boston