Over the years we’ve seen quite a disaster movie genre develop. I remember Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Twister, Independence Day, Armageddon, and so many others. There’s a new slew of end of the world movies out, as some look toward 2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar. Additionally, our culture has a bit of a fascination with destruction, and some have even interpreted that biblically resulting with books like the Left Behind series. Today’s gospel from Mark may be all of that, and more. These movies are just movies, they are fantasy, these books are fiction. Our reality however, is the tragedy at Ft. Hood, the devastation of Katrina, the destruction of the two towers in New York, reality does brush against fantasy.
When destruction or tragedy happens in our communities, we will eventually look back at those events and tell each other about it. We know where we were when the images first began coming over our television sets, some of us know people who were there and have some first hand stories. But we always understand events, tragic or glorious, in hindsight. We look back at an event and there is much discussion about how it could have been prevented, if at all, there is much sadness and heroism reported and recorded. These sorts of events become defining moments in our communities and in our nation’s collective psyche, watershed events.
The report of destruction in the gospel of Mark that we read this morning is similar in many ways. The story contains a prediction by Jesus of the destruction of the temple, but stories are always told after the fact. So this is a story about destruction that really occurred, and the destruction was shared by and affected all Jews. So we have a story in which Jesus makes a prediction of what will happen, written down after it has happened. The placement of this story is in the final days of Jesus life, it is Jesus’ farewell to his disciples. It had an urgency to the disciples, as it has an urgency to us.
The original hearers of the story probably lived through those events; they have lived through the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, they have lived through wars and insurrections, they have lived through famines and plagues, they have lived through persecution and betrayal; it is like someone today writing a story about the events leading up to our recent tragedies. We all know it has already happened, but we include in our stories the ways it could have been prevented, or could have been worse, or could have happened to me, or my neighbor.
What can we hear in this story from Mark? I think what Mark is trying to tell those who originally heard this story is that just because he won’t be there with them anymore doesn’t mean that he isn’t with them anyway. He is saying, yes, it looks and feels like the end must be coming, but don’t panic, don’t be afraid, don’t lose hope. Don’t panic in the face of human destruction. Don’t panic about wars and rumors of wars. Don’t panic when the sky itself shows troublesome portents.
It is so tempting to panic. It is tempting to be ruled by our fears. I believe we live in a culture of fear today. There is fear in so many of the arenas of our lives. There is fear in parenting. Doing the right thing by our children is no longer self-evident. From pregnancy to parenting, there is no sure fire right thing. New parents have so many choices. Should they reclaim a simpler time and have the baby at home. Should they hire a doula to assist with delivery? Should they take advantage of the full medical and technological capacities of the modern hospital, trusting to well-trained doctors and nurses? If so, should the mother take medications that might facilitate a quicker, less painful birth? But the drugs might be dangerous for the baby. How do you know? Uncertainty quickly turns to fear that they may make the wrong decision for the baby. Once that wisdom was handed down from mother to mother, now it is the experts that must be trusted.
Parenting itself is increasingly an arena of fear and anxiety in part because family life in general now lacks any cultural consensus about norms and standards. It’s not just that we don’t know if we’re getting it right, but that we don’t even know what right would look like.
In the absence of agreement about good parenting, we increasingly find solace in safe parenting. We don’t let the nurses take our baby to the hospital nursery, because we’ve heard stories of babies getting mixed up or even stolen. Sure, it’s unlikely, but it happens—we saw it on Dateline!
And there’s the rub. In the midst of our fears, whether they are around parenting, or the Newsweek lead article That Little Freckle Could Be a Time Bomb, or Why drinking too much water could send you to the emergency room, or the Mayans calendar ends in 2012 so that’s the end of the world, we are surrounded by fear to the extent that we are surrounded by people who profit from fear.
Although we may be experiencing a heightened level of fear and insecurity, the truth is that our world is no more dangerous now than 50 years ago, 100 years ago, or 1000 years ago. The types of dangers have changed, no one had to worry about plane crashes a hundred years ago, but in general we in the west at least, are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. And yet in our darkest and most fearful moments, our greatest fear is our fear of death.
How do we follow Jesus in a culture of fear? What is the fitting response, the ethical response to fear, the kind of fear that is with us today, and the kind of fear some garner from a biblical passage like this one in Mark? Now, fearlessness is not a good thing. But that is why God chooses to be known to us, so that we may stop being afraid of the wrong things. Putting fear in its place is being freed from fear to being empowered to love. The quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us, and yet in our culture, fear seems to have the loudest voice.
Quieting our fear is not easy, but these overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a sense of adventure and fullness of life that comes from locating our fears and vulnerabilities within the larger story that is ultimately hopeful and not tragic. The story of God’s abundant and amazing love that resides with us in the life and love, the pain and suffering, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And only by facing death, our most primal fear, can we move ahead to embrace life with the great nevertheless that is God’s gracious word to a broken world.
At our baptism, we were united with Christ and marked as Christ’s own forever. Through baptism we have already faced death, and seen it overcome. Every time we gather together here to celebrate Christ with us we acknowledge the work that God does in Jesus on the cross. Jesus collects all our fears, all our pain and suffering, and Jesus takes it out with him, not by responding in kind, not by seeking revenge, but responding in love.
Following Jesus in this culture of fear is to offer hospitality and then we are no longer strangers. Following Jesus in this culture of fear is to be compassionate instead of safe. Following Jesus is to transform this culture of fear into a culture of hope.
The earth is the Lord’s for he made it: Come let us adore him.
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