The Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost-November 18, 2012
1 Samuel 1:4-20; The Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10); Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
Preacher: Meredith Kadet, Seminarian, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.
I began working on this sermon about three weeks ago – so yeah, maybe I was a little nervous about my first Sunday morning preaching gig! Most models of preaching say you work from at least two texts – the lectionary, and the world you’re in. Well, this is the world I was in while I worked on this sermon. SuperStorm Sandy was raging, and in the days after reports began to come in of neighborhoods wiped away, lives lost, millions of us cast into cold and damp and dark. I saw a picture on the cover of New York Magazine, maybe you saw it too, of Manhattan at night, its lower half completely dark. People living in housing projects and high rises were – and are – without water and power, climbing ten or more flights of stairs with nothing but flashlights. Homes and businesses are flooded. People in middle class neighborhoods in Staten Island are seen rifling through the garbage because they haven’t had fresh food to eat in days.
It’s all so – apocalyptic. So I couldn’t help making the connections I made, between these biblical predictions of a world’s end and what seems very much to me like the end of the world that’s happening right now. So I want to acknowledge right now that this has been a hard sermon to write, and it’s a hard message for me to deliver or hear – but the connection is there, between these texts and our experience right now.
By most accounts, Mark’s Gospel was written during what we know as the Jewish Wars, a widespread and diverse first-century revolt against Roman power and control of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside. In Jesus’ time many in the countryside were going hungry due to Roman taxation. Anti-Roman sentiments and movements for change would have been gathering strength and momentum. The foundations of Roman order were about to shake – famines, earthquakes, wars, and rumors of wars indeed! So Jesus’ signs are not to be understood generally, as signs of some far-off end of the world, but rather Jesus is pointing directly to the increasingly undeniable signs of a very specific end – an end of the tense and subtly violent “peace” between the people of Judea and their Roman governers, an end, perhaps, of the collaboration between Rome and the Temple. The signs are all there to be read – it is only left to Jesus to name them as what they are.
Sandy is such a sign. Throwing around the word “apocalyptic” to describe the storm seems less hyperbolic when we remember that the original Greek for apocalypse means simply to reveal, to uncover. Sandy is a sign, an uncovering, of a real and dire state of affairs for our climate and for us. This is the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. I (thankfully) don’t have to be a prophet to say so. Maybe in the 1970’s it took a prophet to name it, but nowadays the signs are unmistakeable. The cover of Bloomberg Businessweek recently proclaimed, It’s Global Warming, Stupid. And what does it mean for New York? It means that life is going to look more and more like life after Sandy. Some scientists are saying that in the next hundred years, the high-tides of Hurricane Sandy will literally be the new normal for New York City. We’re going to see more lines for gas, more crowding in the subways, more dark and empty buildings as shoreline developments are decommissioned. And while we’re at it, let’s add in more wars as resources get scarce, as famines of all kinds become prevelant. Signs of the end of a world, whether today or in first-century Judea, look a lot the same.
Now my feelings about all this are complicated. There’s fear and anger, there’s ambivalence, there’s a sense of drama, and there’s disbelief. Above all, there is the desire to deny, to unknow, to cover the revelation back up. Many of you may have had conversations about the meaning of Sandy with your friends, your family, maybe your children. But when it comes down to it, the end of the world is just a little too much to handle. It’s a little too much grief and a little too much terror.
That’s why I want to talk today not just about the end of the world but, to steal a phrase from theologian Catherine Keller – Open Endings. An open ending is not a simple termination, not just a closure – it is an opening into a new set of possibilities.
At Saint Jacobi’s church in Brooklyn two weeks ago, storm relief volunteers unfurled an enormous banner, with the slogan “Another World is Possible.” That’s what an open ending is about. It’s about transforming a threat into a promise, an ending into a new beginning.
That’s why Jesus talks to his disciples about birthpangs. All these signs are but the beginning of the birth pangs. Birth runs through our texts today for a reason, to remind us that another world is possible, to remind us that this ending is an opening. The story of Hannah, persistent and insistent, and her pregnancy and childbearing, unlikely and divinely touched – this can be our model for the work ahead. Our work is to see our world through its birthpangs, for the world that is about to end is pregnant with a new world, and the midwives are us – the children of God. It is we who will make the changes to our everyday lives – using less, sharing more. It is we who will push the powerful to talk about and address climate change. It is we who will have to adapt to the world as it groans and changes.
Now surely I am not the only one who thinks about the work ahead and would rather crawl into a brightly lit closet with a cozy blanket and the volume turned way up on the TV – and I won’t be watching the news.
I do not feel that I have what it takes to change the world. I do not feel that I can stop the rising tide of poverty and hopelessness, the destruction of this city, as disaster after disaster will throw stone down from stone. So many of us are all struggling already – as one person said to me, after all, right now I’m just barely getting out of bed in the morning. Even those of us who are doing pretty well have families to love, jobs to do, health and financial concerns to deal with.
And even open endings aren’t without grief. In the wake of Sandy, there is so much to grieve, so much pain to tend to in this city – our own and our neighbors’. That these pangs are birthpangs doesn’t make the suffering less meaningful or the pain less intense.
In the midst of the burdens of our own lives, and in the midst of the emotions stirred up by this storm – How can we become midwives for the new world, too? How can there be MORE work to do? Are we UP to it?
James Baldwin, a contemporary prophet on race in America, wrote thirty years ago: An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the newborn: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessarily evolving skill.
Baldwin’s clumsy midwives are us, the ones who see the signs and recognize that another world is possible – and probable – whether or not we feel up to it. But it is the acceptance of the signs and our responsibility for them that makes the service possible.
We exceedingly clumsy midwives, we who see the signs of change and have become alert to the open ending, to the birthpangs that are beginning, to the new birth that is becoming – we are right to know that this is not a project for you – or for me – or for the president – or for our neighbor. This is not a project for any one. Not for any ONE. It is a project for us all – for the world that is coming to an end has belonged to all of us, and so the birth of something new belongs to all of us, together. This is why Hebrews exhorts us to meet together, to be together, to encourage each other, to provoke one another. When I see the photos of Saint Jacobi’s, or Saint Luke and Saint Matthews, transformed into warehouses, with boxes of supplies piled on pews, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. It’s not something I could have imagined. It’s certainly not something I, or you, could have done by ourselves. But the power that is manifesting in this city – a people power, a power, I’d say, quite Holy and Spirited – a power, I’d remark, that flicked on the second our electric power flicked off – is a power that comes out of a sense of responsibility, a sense that we, all of us, are the ones who are going to do this.
Volunteers are in the Rockaways with a massive presence bigger than FEMA, bigger than the National Guard. They are sustained by a network of churches and organizations like Saint Michael’s all over the city that are collecting supplies and skills and energy and channeling it where it’s needed. Thousands of clumsy midwives are sharing their skills, and, as Hebrews exhorts, teaching and provoking and encouraging one another, seeing each other through these birthpangs.
It’s fitting maybe that Sandy, this sign of the end should come just before advent, the season set aside to observe both darkness and hope, the hope of the messianic new birth. Again, another world is possible, and for us, all of us, persisting in the full assurance of faith, that world can be a promise. Like Hannah this advent season, we can persist in our work insisting on hope, doing whatever we are to do to bring it about. Praying. Encouraging. Coming together.
Do not be afraid, says Jesus, because he knows we are afraid. To be not afraid, hang together – do not be led astray, but stick together. As Christians we can count not just on each other but on the God who has steadfastly promised to be with us wherever we gather together in God’s name, wherever we work in God’s name. What is more Christian than to announce that an ending, even a death is not a closure, but an open ending – open, miraculously, to resurrection, to the new birth. To ponder this can give us the strength to go on, to push through, as clumsy midwives, to see the birth through. God is involved, and we are involved. This is just the beginning. Another world is possible.