Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, 15 November 2015: I Samuel 2:1-10, I Samuel 4:1-20, Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8. A few days after multiple attacks in Paris, and when a community children’s choir was scheduled to sing as part of our morning worship.
In lieu of a sermon today, I offer this letter to children of St. Thomas and Voices of the Valley.
It is always a special opportunity to welcome you and your families to St. Thomas. Today is extra special because we get to welcome a whole children’s choir and hear you sing later in the service. This congregation loves children and loves music. Several of your friends are part of this church community. Supporting you is a fitting partnership.
But it is especially fitting to welcome you today. You may be aware that it has been a rough week in the world. You probably heard that a lot of people were killed and hurt this week in Paris. Events like that make us all think about the people we love and how important we are to one another. If your parents have hugged you a little more closely the last few days, that’s why. As you lead us in worshipping and giving thanks to God, your presence here demands that we think about the kind of world you will inherit when the adults in this room are long gone.
At times like this, I admit, that world doesn’t look too good. The attack in Paris was a terrible thing, but sadly it is just one of many terrible things that happen in many parts of the world. We don’t hear about the other places as often, or if we do hear about them we don’t notice as much. But in some parts of the world people are leaving their homes and seeking a new life in a new country somewhere because of situations like what happened in Paris.
Then there are other terrible things. Some people in the world are very, very poor. Some people are sick or can’t go to a doctor when they’re sick. Some children can’t go to school, which might sound nice for a day or two but causes lots of problems later on. Even here in this country, there aren’t as many jobs as there used to be. So a lot of adults are scared and wonder what the world will be like when you are our ages.
I’m not trying to scare you with any of this. You’ve probably heard most of this already so it is not new information. All of you have safe homes and families and teachers who love you and opportunities to learn and grow. You are as safe as anyone can be, so you don’t need to be afraid. But someday you will be the people who make decisions about our world and you’ll have to think about how to respond to the problems we face.
So I want to lift up some things Jesus said in the gospel lesson we just read. The gospels are four books about Jesus written long ago. They are based on what people who knew Jesus remembered about him. Every week we read from the fancy copy of the gospels we keep on the altar. We read a different reading every Sunday in a three year cycle. I didn’t pick the lesson for today – it was assigned. When we read the gospel, we carry it in procession to the center aisle to put it as close to all of us as we can. We all turn to face the reading to make ourselves listen even more closely. We hold the book up to remind us to pay attention. Some people make a little sign of the cross on our foreheads, mouths, and hearts as a way of praying “May these words be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.” Some of the things we read in the gospels seem fairly easy to understand, but when you think about them over and over they mean even more than we first thought. But some things we read in the gospels sound strange, like today’s reading.
In the story we read today, Jesus was at the Temple in Jerusalem. It must have been the first visit to the Temple for one of his friends, because that disciple said, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.” He was impressed. If you’ve ever been to a big cathedral, the Temple was like that, only bigger. The entire Temple complex took up over half of old Jerusalem. Altogether the Temple Mount was about the size of Uptown Columbus. King Herod built it, mostly as a monument to himself rather than to God. He was not a good king. He started it in year 20 BC and it was still under construction when Jesus and his disciples visited. Herod’s successors finished it around year 63, which was about 30 years after Jesus. But while standing in that huge building that was still under construction, Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be torn down.” And not much later it happened. In year 70, just 7 years after the Temple was completed, Roman armies came and leveled the whole thing. The people who lived there fled to the hills.
It sounds like Jesus knew this would happen. But I think he knew in part because things were already bad when he was speaking. The events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in year 70 were already starting. There were wars and rumors of wars, even then. Nation was rising against nation. There were earthquakes and famines then, and later in year 70 when the Temple was destroyed, and still today in 2015.
So notice first that Jesus told his friends the truth. They wanted to look at the pretty buildings. But Jesus said the buildings would soon be torn down. Jesus called them and us to pay attention to what is happening in the world. He didn’t hide or pretend it wasn’t happening.
Then he said this. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.” Another way to say this is, “Don’t freak out.” Jesus knew that when we are alarmed or freaked out, we make bad decisions. We act in ways that just make a problem worse. We make threats out of anger, and that doesn’t help. So Jesus said, “Do not be alarmed.”
Then Jesus said a really strange thing. “This must take place; but the end is still to come.” It almost sounds like he was saying, “Sorry, things are just going to get worse from here.” But I don’t think that’s what he meant because of what he said at the end. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but giving birth to a baby is hard work. And it hurts. But women do it because that’s how a baby gets born. New life comes into the world through pain. That’s how it is for people and that’s how it is for the world. Standing in a Temple that was about to be destroyed, in a world of war and fear, Jesus said something new is being born.
Some people who heard Jesus say “the end is still to come” thought he meant the end of the world. They thought the world was about to end, and they thought that was a good thing because they believed God would start over and make a better world. Some people still think that, and they may be right. It’s hard to know about things like that. But another way to think about the word “end” is as a purpose or goal. In other words, maybe Jesus was assuring the disciples that God was still working out God’s ends, God’s purpose and will in the world, like when we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I think maybe Jesus was calling the disciples to trust in God, even when things look bad.
So when things like this happen, I find it helpful to try to do what Jesus said. First, try not to be alarmed and react in ways that make things worse. Then, try to trust that even in terrible times, God is working to bring new life.
I really believe that. That’s what we mean when we say that we trust in God. It doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen. They will. But even in the bad things God is working to heal and help and transform. God does everything possible in every situation to bring new life.
And that new life will come through people like you. Maybe you will be the ones who bring love instead of hatred. Maybe you will care for people who are sick. Maybe you will welcome a family looking for a safer home. Maybe you will protect people from danger. Maybe you will help make peace in the world. That is how God works – through people just like us.
You may not realize it, but God is working through you even today. Your singing gives us something to hope for, to hope that someday children all over the world will sing together in safety and understanding and joy. Thank you for giving us hope. And as you sing for us, may we all promise to do everything we can to make the world better for you and for those who come after you.
Thanks for being here today. We all love you very much. Amen.
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© 2015 The Rev’d Grace Burton-Edwards
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
2100 Hilton Ave.
Columbus, GA 31906
Photo by Tim Evanson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. I know it’s not Christmas, but I’d still like to teach the world to sing!