November 15, 2015, Feeling the Birth Pangs – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

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“Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
Today’s gospel reading tells how Jesus ruined a perfectly good tour of the beautiful Temple in Jerusalem by warning the disciples that a terrible disaster was coming. And of course he was right: less than 40 years from that day Rome would sweep in to punish the Jews that rebelled against the Emperor Caligula. Between 600,000 and a million Jews were slaughtered, and the Temple was utterly destroyed – not one stone left upon another, just as Jesus had told them. Jesus warned his disciples about the coming horror, because it was important for them not to be led astray in their fear and dismay, not to lose their hope in God and go off following after the voices that love to seize control when people are lost and afraid – like sheep without a shepherd, as Jesus said.
There are going to be wars, and rumors of wars,” Jesus told them. “There are going to be earthquakes and famines.” This week Jesus’ words don’t sound like they come from 2,000 years past. Rather, they sound horribly familiar, horribly up-to-date. It sounds an awful lot like Jesus is reporting the Channel 10 news.
This past Thursday, in Beirut, Lebanon and the city of Baghdad in Iraq there were suicide bombings, killing a total of 67 people.
On Friday there was an earthquake, magnitude 7, in Japan. And on the same day there were terrorist attacks in Paris that killed over 120 people and injured many more.
12 million Syrians have fled their homes because of civil war – and half of them are children
In Sudan’s long civil war, 16,000 children have been forced to fight as soldiers, some of them as young as 9 years old
That is the world we live in today, pretty much the same kind of world Jesus described to his disciples. And we aren’t in some kind of safe-zone here in the US, not nearly as much as we’d like to think we are – as we learned on September 11th. Yesterday a 16-year old high school student in Sacramento California was killed in yet another of the seemingly endless stream of shootings that have plagued the streets and schools of our nation. Gun violence and racial tensions and sexual assault are just a regular part of the daily news; it takes something really horrific, like the attacks in Paris, to surprise us anymore. And even in our small community we see the ravages of drug use and alcoholism and domestic violence and broken families and now, with the Alcoa shutdown, the threat of mass unemployment and economic instability.
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Don’t be alarmed.” “When all hell breaks loose – and it will – ” he warned them, “There will be people who come in my name and they will lead many astray. Take care and don’t let anyone lead you astray.” In the days of the Roman Legions and the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, there were false Messiahs who gathered followers around themselves so that they could lead violent revolts against the Roman forces. All those false Messiahs came to bad ends along with the followers they had led astray. It was exactly as Jesus had warned his disciples when they wanted to fight the soldiers who came to arrest him: “those who live by the sword will also die by the sword.” But that’s the kind of Messiah people were looking for, a military conqueror. That’s why so many of the Jews had found it hard to accept Jesus as the true Messiah, because he didn’t fit the image they had constructed of what a Messiah was supposed to be and do. And so when disaster struck and people were desperate and afraid, many were led astray by these false Messiahs and false prophets, lured into violence, eager for justice, hungry for vengeance, ready to take back by force what belonged to them by right.
Obviously, we are in a very different world today. Today we don’t have anything to fear from Rome. And we aren’t living in a nation that has been swallowed up by the irresistible forces of an empire. But just like the nation of Israel in the first century, just like every people in every era of this world since the first man and woman listened to the voice of the enemy, we are suffering the birth pangs of this broken creation. And we are overwhelmed at times, like this past week, by the forces of darkness on all sides that seem to threaten our peace and our safety and all that is precious to us – freedom, and justice, and beauty, and the sanctity of our home and family.
And in the midst of the terrible fear and sadness and helplessness we have all been feeling this past week and more, we can hear the false Messiahs and prophets loud and clear, right here in the 21st century, those people that would prey upon our fears and use them to turn our eyes and our hopes far away from Jesus and the truth, and into the path of hatred and retribution and self-righteousness and self-preservation and bigotry.
In the first century, a false prophet gathered around himself just those men he could talk to and influence by word of mouth – a handful of men, maybe, or possibly even a sizable army. But nowadays the potential for leading people astray is vastly expanded by television and the internet. Social media like facebook and twitter and instagram – those can be a tool for good, and they can also be a powerful force for deceiving the faithful and propagating lies and suspicions. The internet lit up Friday night with expressions of solidarity and compassion and prayers for the attacks in Paris, and that was a very good thing. But it is just one step from there to calls for swift and violent retribution, and those voices are making themselves heard.
What will happen to the millions of Syrian refugees, who are Muslim, in Europe, and in the United States when those false prophets spread their agenda of fear and suspicion? What will happen to our fellow citizens who are Muslim, or maybe who are just brown-skinned? The voice of revenge and retribution will only lead us to do harm. Don’t be alarmed, Jesus warns us. You will be horrified by the things that take place. But take care that no one leads you astray. Because that way leads to death and destruction.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” If we hear the voice of Jesus, we will pray for the innocent people of Paris and Beirut and Baghdad, but we will also pray for the men of ISIS and al Qaeda and Boko Haram. We will pray for the families whose children were killed in school shootings. But we will also pray for the man who pulled the trigger.
We can always recognize the voice of the True Shepherd because he calls us to love. Our God is Love itself, and so there is nothing he will ever call us to that is outside the bounds of love. He even calls us to love those who call themselves our enemies. Love isn’t easy, but it is the only way to life; all other paths lead only to a bad end, to death and to darkness.
The President of France has vowed to be merciless in his retaliation for the terrible harm that was done to his people. It is the logical path to take according to the wisdom of this world, and Paul writes in Romans that authorities are instituted by God to bring justice to the wrongdoer. But we are called to follow Jesus, and not to be led astray into the thinking and actions of this world’s logic. We are called to love in the face of hate. And sometimes it’s really hard to figure out what that’s supposed to look like, when we are still reeling from the shock. But I think most of the time, the first step of love is just to show up. Ann Lamott, a Christian writer, wrote this about her own reaction of helpless grief to the news this past week:
So after an appropriate time of being stunned, in despair, we show up. Maybe we ask God for help. We do the next right thing. We buy or cook a bunch of food for the local homeless. We return phone calls, library books, smiles. We make eye contact with others, and we go to the market and flirt with old or scary unusual people who seem lonely. This is a blessed sacrament….in the face of human tragedy, we go around the neighborhood and pick up litter, even though there will be more tomorrow. It is another blessed sacrament. We take the action and the insight will follow: that we are basically powerless, but we are not helpless.”
And if we hear what Jesus has to say, if we keep our eyes on him, we have hope. Because these are not the death throes of this poor tortured creation. They are the birth pangs, and in the midst of the suffering of childbirth there is always hope. Ann Lamott wrote:
Grace always does bat last, and the light always overcomes the darkness–always, historically. But not necessarily later the same day, or tomorrow, after lunch.” [The poet] Wendell Berry [wrote that] in Advent, the darkest shortest days of winter, “It gets darker and darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” But here we are at November 15th, and we can expect things to get darker for a while. And so, in hope, we love one another and we practice the sacraments of kindness and beauty. We turn a deaf ear to the false prophets who cry out for blood and revenge. Instead, we pray for our enemies, as our Lord did even as he hung dying on the cross: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”
Please join me in praying prayer number 6 on page 816 of the BCP:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

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