by Ellen Sims
Texts: I Samuel 1: 4-20; Hebrews 10:23-25; Mark 12:38-44
Thursday’s terrorist attack in Beirut, Friday morning’s earthquake in Mexico, and Friday night’s terrorist attack in Paris seemed straight out of this week’s Gospel reading. I began yesterday’s contemplative service by pouring water from a clear glass pitcher into a clear glass bowl that I then declared to contain the tears of the world (a prayer practice Richard Rohr describes). We passed that bowl through the congregation so those who wished could touch the tears and name a particular concern on their hearts. One well-traveled young adult among us, who has a close friend in Paris whom she learned is safe, tearfully explained that the sites and events in Paris targeted by the terrorists are popular among young people. In directing the violence against hopeful young adults, terrorists were aiming to extinguish hope. But our Gospel text, which predicts earthquakes and “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 12: 7-8), says these events are not the end but are “birthpangs” for a new humanity. Our Epistle Lesson urges us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering”(Hebrews 10:23) until “the Day” (10:25) when God’s fullness is known. I offered this homily on the Gospel text.
After the Birthpangs
In last Sunday’s reading from Mark, Jesus praised the poor widow who gave her last two copper coins to the temple treasury. Today we have read that Jesus then left the large and lavish temple with his disciples, one of whom, poor distracted soul, commented on the grandeur of the enormous temple buildings. Let me say again, Jesus had just lifted up the lowly widow. But the disciple focused on the fancy facilities. So Jesus shocked his followers by predicting that the grandest and holiest of buildings that seemed so solid and impervious would soon be destroyed.
In fact, by the time Mark’s Gospel was written, the Temple HAD been decimated. For Mark’s first readers, this devastating event had already happened. In the year 70 CE, the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the temple—and with it the center of worship for the Jewish people. The Jews who lived in the time the Gospel of Mark was written were still reeling from that horror and loss. What they could not have known yet is that once the Temple was destroyed, temple-based Judaism as Jesus’s contemporaries had known it was no more. A very different form of Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism, developed over the next five centuries, with the rabbis replacing the temple priests, the synagogue replacing temple worship, and prayers and study of Torah replacing the sacrifices and burnt offerings in the Temple. The persecution of the Jewish people and the loss of their religious center forever changed the Jewish religion, but Mark’s Jewish Christians could, with this story, understand this painful violence as birthpangs that could produce something new. Their religion as they’d practiced it for centuries had died. A new Judaism was being born—and soon a new religion to be called Christianity would also develop alongside the new Judaism.
While many today are lamenting and fearing the rapid changes and losses in Christianity–citing the accelerating decline in church attendance and membership and the increase in the “spiritual but not religious” among the Millenials in particular–I suspect these are really birthpangs that hurt now but are preparing the way for the new thing God is birthing.
I’ve recently read the book Beyond Resistance by our denomination’s new General Minister and President, John Dorhauer. He’s someone you’d expect to be upholding institutional Christianity. But the head of the United Church of Christ is instead holding lightly the trappings of the institution while embracing post-Christianity Christianity. He anticipates that “post-Christian Christians will be a strange, almost unrecognizable breed” (p. 116).
See if his prediction of major change sounds like the words of a religious leader: “Gone will be the impulse to preach, convert, and baptize nonbelievers for the salvation of their mortal souls. Gone will be the Christology that needs Jesus to be sovereign or savior. Gone will be the inclination to reduce all authentic spiritual truth to what the Bible can tolerate. In its place will be a church filled with disciples of Jesus who walk in his way, and who do their best to be faithful practitioners of all that they understand him to have been” (p. 116).
Later he drives this point home: “Conversions, baptisms, membership drives are not a part of the [postmodern] culture or vocabulary. Their primary concern is that people learn to live as Jesus taught us in the hopes that communities discover a new capacity for peaceful living. Baptisms, confirmation rituals, membership drives are an impediment to the focus on simply living faithfully” (p. 122).
Friends, you’re not going to hear other denominations’ leaders minimizing rituals and church membership. But you and I already trust this uncluttered Gospel that John Dorhauer is describing. Yes, we practice and value the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. Yes, I preach sermons and love the Bible. But our fundamental worldview and our expansive theology open up conversation about how and why we continue in these (often modified) practices. And they are not our essentials.
For the head of a denomination–which has just this week sadly announced the closing of its flagship (and this country’s oldest) seminary because of financial constraints–to see Christianity beyond its institutions and doctrines and embrace a very Jesus-y spirituality helps me confess this:
My hope is not in buildings or doctrines. My hope, I confess, is in the way of Jesus, a path of peace that refuses to return evil for evil, that understands that love will have the final say. I say this just days after terrorists struck Paris and Beirut and Syria continues to hemorrhage refugees.
Open Table, how will we know if we’ve done well as a church? Will we consider ourselves successful if we eventually own a grand building? If we create and fund a big budget? If we add hundreds of new members? If we look back on 2015 and say proudly, “We looked respectable!”
I want to be able to answer yes to this question: Are our lives and the lives of others more loving and giving because we gather together and serve others?