Dean Lloyd: “Birth Pangs”
Jesus and his disciples are walking out of the temple, the most magnificent building Israel had ever known. King Herod had just completed it—gleaming white marble, with immense gates and arches, and gold overlay on the walls. A historian of the time said when the sun was shining on the walls you had to look away, it was so bright. The stone platform around the temple was the size of twenty-four football fields. ‘Look how grand it is,’ one of the disciples says. But then Jesus abruptly declares, “Not one stone will be left on another. They will all be thrown to the ground.”
I have to say, this text makes me nervous. After all, next year here at the National Cathedral we will celebrate our centennial, and much of what we will celebrate is the nearly hundred years it took to build our own immense temple. And so when Jesus looks at Herod’s monument and says, “Not one stone will be left on another,” I don’t like it. The things we build are supposed to last.
The 13th chapter of Mark’s Gospel is what scholars call an “apocalypse.” It reflects the concerns of people who are living through times of crisis, and who because they see their world coming apart, begin to believe that the world itself, with its cloud-capp’d towers and great cities, is coming to an end too. Jesus is only a few days away from his own death, and seeing his own end coming he senses that the world’s end-time is near. “Nation will rise against nation,” he says. “There will be wars and rumors of wars”; there will be earthquakes and famines, beatings and betrayals, the destruction of everything they hold dear. It’s a startling declaration of the collapse of everything.
Of course, we know something these days about worlds ending too. Physicists have announced in no uncertain terms that this universe will not go on forever. The last account I heard was that we have about 10 billion years left. And what then? Well, take your pick. Some say the cosmos will continue expanding forever until it vanishes; others argue that it will collapse back in on itself in one huge explosion that will end material reality as we know it. Either way, things aren’t looking good in the long run, although, it looks as if we’ve got a little time.
The news about our world isn’t so rosy either. All the fundamental meaning-giving institutions—like family, church, and neighborhood—are in deep trouble. Social cohesion is collapsing around us and human relationships are becoming increasingly fragile. It’s probably fair to say that Western civilization is living through its biggest shift in 500 years. The world of modernity that began around 1500 is dying. Built on the printing press, the rise of science, the Reformation, the emergence of capitalism, the power of reason and the passion for conquest, it is now being replaced by a new one. Some call it “post-modernity”; it is built on computers and the internet, global interconnections, a new physics of uncertainty and relativity, a philosophy that says morality and the self are merely human creations.
In fact many would now claim that we don’t have “a world” at all. There are only multiple worlds. Everyone has a different perspective based on culture, race, ethnic background, nationality, and experience. Our new world is fragmented and decentered, a world of rapid shifts, disposable identities, and changing images—the world of MTV.
9/11 was itself a day of apocalypse. The world as we assumed it—relatively safe, reliable, with America held in esteem—collapsed in a matter of minutes, and all of a sudden we found ourselves in a hostile, resentful world in which we felt anything but safe. Terrorists and suicide bombers are new figures in our nightmares.
Many are saying that our own Episcopal Church is going through an apocalypse. The levels of conflict and anxiety in our life are profound; two large parishes across the river in Virginia have recently announced that they are planning to leave the Episcopal Church. Some are declaring that this is the end of the Anglican Communion.
But at least as worrisome is the continuing decline in membership in the Episcopal Church and in the other mainline denominations—Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and many others. They’ve all lost at least a third of their members in the last three decades.
Apocalypse isn’t just public and global, though. Our personal worlds sometimes topple. A heart attack hits. Or a divorce rips apart the world a family had built up over the years.
By the time Mark wrote his gospel, some thirty years after the end of Jesus’ ministry, it did seem that the end of everything was near. The temple in Jerusalem had in fact been destroyed by Roman soldiers. Christians were being murdered for sport, and the Christian churches themselves were often fighting each other.
But…for all the darkness of his times, Jesus said that there is no need for despair, because even when worlds collapse, there is God. In fact he wanted to tell them that they couldn’t have the new world God would build them without letting go of the old one.
Did you hear how our Gospel passage ends? After all the dark predictions Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” What a claim! That when worlds die, we need not despair. In every collapse God is sowing the seeds of new birth.
It is natural to assume that God’s creative powers must have peaked sometime in the past. That after the good old days there can never be good new days. But in God’s world every end is also a beginning. Life will rise out of the ashes—because there is God.
That’s what Elaine Pagels, a distinguished professor of early Christianity at Princeton, began to discover one cold Sunday morning in New York. She had been out for her daily run when she stepped into the stone vestibule of an Episcopal Church to catch her breath and warm up. This was an odd thing for her to do because she had long since given up on the church as an institution. She had just learned two days before that her two-and-a-half year old son had been diagnosed with a rare lung disease that was almost always fatal. As you can imagine, she was still reeling from the devastating news. Apocalypse.
In her book called Beyond Belief Pagels describes the impact of stepping into that church:
Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress—the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest, a woman in bright gold vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: here is a family that knows how to face death.
I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.
She returned often to that church because, she says,
…in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there…my defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope. In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible.
When everything seems to fall apart, Jesus says, it’s time to watch for the birth-pangs of new life. And the church exists to be the place where we can reclaim again and again what we most need to know—that death does not have the last word with us: not for a world descending into global conflict, not for our struggling church, not for a family devastated by loss. Here in our worship every Sunday we gather to declare this for ourselves and for all who will listen.
Two weeks ago I believe we saw in this Cathedral signs of a new birth taking place in the Episcopal Church in the two services on Saturday and Sunday for the seating of our new Presiding Bishop. In the Spirit-filled African-American, Latino, and Anglican music, in the energy and sense of joy in the worship, in the call we felt that day to be God’s servants to a hurting world, something new seemed to be aborning.
In fact by many accounts, amid the disarray of much of mainline Christianity a new church is beginning to take shape. It is a church that builds on the worship and practices of classical Christianity, but uses them in a new key—focusing on the spiritual hunger and quests of 21st century spiritual seekers. Diana Butler Bass, in her new book Christianity for the Rest of Us, describes visiting many new thriving churches, and finds people looking for something both old and new:
They wanted a different kind of Christianity than that of their childhoods, but they still wanted to connect with the Christian tradition. They wanted the Bible, prayer, and worship. They wanted open, non-judgmental, and intellectually generous community. They wanted to serve and change the world. And they wanted it all to make sense in a way that transformed their lives.
I believe that our Episcopal Church is experiencing birth pangs. Amid all the struggle we are becoming a more grace-filled, more worshipful, more generous, more welcoming church. I believe that this new postmodern, global world, for all its dangers, holds new hope for people in the poorest parts of the world and for new respect and understanding among cultures. I believe that out of the ashes of Iraq, as terrible as they are, will someday emerge a commitment to rebuild that devastated nation. I believe that God will not give up on Israel and Palestine until at last there is peace. Even amid these dark times, there are birth pangs of a new world.
And why do I believe all that? Because of what we do here—the music and words, the bread and wine, all tell me what I most need to know that God has new worlds yet to give. “Here is a family that knows how to face death,” Elaine Pagels said, standing in that church.
And our job in apocalyptic times is to help create the new world God is building, without waiting for leaders of the nations to do it first. Our job is to live God’s new world now—shaping simpler, calmer, more peaceful, more generous lives in these frenetic times.
Of one thing we can be sure. Apocalyptic times will come. Everything we cling to will eventually fall away. But we need not worry, because there is God. And where there is God there is hope.
“Not one stone will be left on another,” Jesus said.
And then he said, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”