“The sun will be darkened. The moon will not give its light. Stars will fall. The powers in the heavens will be shaken.” If I didn’t know better, I’d think Jesus is describing what it is like to go out shopping early in the morning on Black Friday. And while the rest of the country is shifting gears from Thanksgiving Day meals to Christmas preparations, we silly Episcopalians think now is the time to observe Advent by pondering images of the world falling apart. While many other churches are starting to look backward to the heart-warming events of Jesus’ birth, we are paying attention to frightening cosmic mutations and the role Jesus promises to play in the future. What are we to make of all this?
First, let us say this: we simply cannot abdicate this passage (and those like it) to the “Left Behind” crowd who, as one Lutheran theologian puts it, “view the Bible as an encrypted map of the future, leaked by God to code-breakers, who derive from it a deity who’s itching to snuff out the multitudes.” This thinking is so pervasive in much of our contemporary culture that combating it is almost as difficult observing Advent rather than flipping from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
Next, notice how the passage begins: “Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering…” If we want to understand the passage than we need to know what suffering he is describing. The Gospel of Mark was written around 70 AD, almost 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. A lot happened and a lot changed during that period and Mark crafted Jesus’ words more to speak to events in 70 AD than to be a historical reproduction of speeches made four decades earlier.
In 66 AD, Jews refused to pay taxes to Rome and, in response, the Roman military plundered the Jerusalem Temple and killed over 6,000 people. This action led to open, full-scale revolt and Roman officials in the Holy Land fled for their lives. Vespasian was appointed to lead the Roman army to retake the region. He started in the northern part of Israel - in Galilee - and eventually, in 70 AD, laid siege to Jerusalem itself. The city and the Temple where completely destroyed. The Roman military effort concluded with the Jewish defeat at Masada in 74 AD. All told, historians estimate that over a million people were killed in the conflict.
This unfolding calamity was the only thing on peoples’ minds when Mark’s gospel was written. It is their suffering to which Jesus refers in today’s reading. It is not a cryptic description about some future event that may or may not be imminent in our time. It was THE event of their time.
With this in mind, we learn two things from Jesus’ words. First, he is not going to return to intervene in a military conflict nor does he show up to rescue the faithful, few elect while leaving behind others to suffer. Everyone – the good and the bad, the believers and the unbelievers, the trouble-makers and the innocent bystanders – is in the same, painful, messy boat. Jesus does not say he will come in the midst of the worst suffering to save a special few. He says he will come after it.
And second, Jesus says he will come in “power and glory” to gather the elect from “the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” There is no mention of being taken away or left behind. The gathering seems to be more about creating a post-suffering community who will love and care for each other. This new community is where Jesus will be found.
When I hear these words of Jesus, my mind immediately recognizes a truth that overcomes us from time to time. I go through much of life working my ways on the world around me. I shape my day and I shape my week. Some of the time, everything goes exactly the way I plan for it go. Much of the time, it unfolds with slight variations, which, truth be told, make life interesting. In the midst of all of this – from time to time – comes an event when the sun goes dark, the moon loses its light, stars fall, and the heavens are shaken. Suddenly and without warning I am made aware that I am in control of absolutely nothing. It is the feeling I had once when driving on an icy highway and my car began to slide out of control. It wobbled through the median strip and across the lanes of on-coming traffic; even though I was still holding the steering wheel and pumping the brakes. In that moment I was reminded how in life, like that car, there are instances that come in an instance when I am no longer determining the direction things are going.
You know what this feels like. It is what happens when your doctor calls you into her office after you’ve had a battery of tests and says, “We need to talk.” It is what happens when the HR department announces there will be down-sizing. It is what happens when you open the door of your Buffalo house and discover 70 inches of snow between you and everywhere you thought you were going to go.
And it happened again to me last Sunday afternoon. At 4:04 PM, I decided to walk from my house down the street to the church office to pick up a single page document I wanted to work with at home. So sure was I of my plan that I did not bother to grab my cell phone or to lock my door. As I walked to the church I saw numerous fire trucks and police cars parked around the Suffolk Towers and TV news van was setting up its equipment. I asked someone what was going on and learned there had been a fire and the Tower had been evacuated. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
Many of the residents were gathered across the street at Main Street Methodist Church. A lot of these folks are regular clients at our food pantry and I was concerned about them. I went to the church and talked to the people there who, understandably, were shaken up. Chris Ward – their church organist many of us know – had opened the doors and welcomed in people. After a while, I went to Farm Fresh to buy some food to feed displaced Tower residents and first responders. I called John Rector who called Beau Holland, and the three of us, along with a dozen members of Main Street Church, fed at least 75 people. The residents where then taken to two hotels out at the Holland Road bypass for the night. Four-and-a-half hours after I set out on my quick errand to my office, I got back home.
On Monday morning, the Tower residents where told they could not stay at those hotels and had to leave. Most didn’t have transportation, but somehow managed to get back downtown. By noon it was clear they had had nothing to eat all day and had nowhere to go. We opened our Parish Hall and put out the leftovers from the night before. 30 people made their own sandwiches, enjoyed some potato chips, and drank coffee, lemonade, and ice tea. Just before our Food Pantry opened, the folks were taken to the Super 8 Motel next to McDonalds. I worried they would not have any breakfast and invited them to come back to St. Paul’s in the morning. Kitty Quillin and Bev Judkins set out to buying something we could serve for breakfast.
On Tuesday morning, about a dozen folks from our parish showed up to make breakfast, but at the appointed time of 9:00 no one showed up to eat. Within half-an-hour, we learned that the Tower folks at the Super 8 were hungry, but had no transportation. The weather had turned cold and rainy, so walking was out of the question. We packed up 30 to-go boxes and delivered breakfast to the hotel. I asked if they need lunch and they did. Kitty and Roy Waller were still at the church when I returned. They agreed to make sandwiches and Kitty went to the store to buy more bread and chips. At 1:00, I delivered forty-some boxed lunches. I can’t even begin to describe how appreciative these folks were. “Pastor,” they said to me, “Can you say a blessing for this meal.” “I sure can!” Knowing we had a lot of breakfast fixings leftover, I told them I would be back in the morning with more food.
Kitty and Roy got together another 30 breakfast boxes on Wednesday morning and I delivered them to some very grateful folks. Later that morning, WAVY News 10 said they wanted to come to the church and interview someone named “Cookie.” Amy, our administrator, who answered the phone call, said, “Do you mean ‘Kitty’?” Try as I might, I could not keep Roy around to be interviewed. He was having none of that. But Kitty did appear in a story on the Wednesday evening news and did a fantastic job communicating the kind of compassion we here at St. Paul’s are all about.
The Tower residents are supposed to be able to return to their apartments tomorrow.
So we begin this first Sunday in Advent with some crazy, apocalyptic language that, at first glance, seems to have nothing to do with ‘the joy of this holiday season.’ But we followers of Jesus know that the world is a difficult, dark place where suffering is all around us. It is in the Holy Land. It is in Ferguson, MO. And it is right here in our own town. We take to heart that Jesus does not promise one day to whisk us away from all that troubles this world, but rather promises always to reenter it in power and great glory. This reappearing is never about rewarding a chosen few for staying removed from the stains of the world. It is always about forming a community who is in, or has come through, suffering so that we, who are immersed in the power and presence of the Lord, can love and care for each other… and every person – all people – who are loved by God.