The word for the day is ‘eschatology.’ The study of end things. Both our readings today are eschatological. I’ve had a lot of time recently to ponder eschatology, both cosmic and personal.
As most of you know I recently spent a week in Ohio with my parents, following my father’s hip surgery. (Thank you for your prayers, by the way).
It was not lost on anyone in my family that Lincoln Park, the rehabilitation center where by father is staying, is in the same the building where both of my grandmothers spent the last years of their lives. You go in the front door and then turn left for the nursing home or right for the rehab center. Coming and going each day, it was easy to remember earlier visits to LP, and those passings of both Honey and Nana, and to feel eschatological at the family level.
Here we were again. Will my father be OK? What kind of plans should we be making? What should we hope for and what should we fear? Who has the information we need to answer these questions? What should we be measuring to figure out whether to tell people “he’s doing great” or “it’s going to be a long haul”?
The physical therapists and occupational therapists attending my Dad are doing a nice job. Dad is getting adequate if not always tasty food (one of my tasks was to sneak in Campbell’s chunky soups and malted milk balls), and everyone is keeping track of him well. All of this really matters, and I thank God that Medicaid pays for it.
But the greatest healing I witnessed in my time with Dad came not from any of this, but from a phone call.
Hap is an old friend of Dad’s; they are fraternity brothers from back in the day, and through the years, their friendship has continued. Through Christmas cards and visits and Ohio Wesleyan reunions, they have traveled the road together. My Mom dialed Hap’s number and held the receiver up for Dad, and as soon as Hap answered, a whole part of my Dad clicked back into place.
Hap knows him, hearing Hap’s voice reminded him who he is. Watching him gain energy as they talked was like watching healing oil being massaged into him. They kidded with one another, shared stories about aches and pains, surgeries and diagnoses, but did it with the joy that comes from knowing and being known.
During that conversation, for all of us in the room, the questions about plans and hopes and fears and information and measurements receded to the corners of our hearts and minds. We were all healed, and when the phone call ended, we were able to better put this season of physical suffering into the larger picture of a long life well lived by a particular, beloved person.
Today’s scriptures invite us to make this same shift – from panic in the face of endings to trust and hope, maybe even joy and thankfulness. Let’s focus on the gospel.
Jesus tells the disciples that change is coming. The impressive temple before them will not last. This wonder of the world, with its 40 ft. long stones and golden trim, will be brought down. And there will be more: loss, war, rumors of war.
The disciples then ask really logical, very human questions: Tell us, when will this be, and when will be the sign?” In other words: When should we get worried? What should we be afraid of?
Jesus, as is his custom, doesn’t answer their questions. He does not say, “You should be really worried, and especially on this day or when you see this ruler ride into town!” (Keep that in mind the next time some religious ruler starts prognosticating about the end of the world or the date the rapture will start).
Instead, Jesus says two things:
First: Don’t let people lead you astray. Remember who you are and whose you are.
Keep following me! Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has overcome death. Through our baptisms we have been joined with him and we have the promise that nothing will separate us from God’s love. We are resurrection people, even in the midst of what looks like devastation. Don’t be led astray and give up the hope that is in you. Yes, you may be a victim of oppression; you may be a patient in a rehab center; you may be a member of the losing political party; you may be the victim of a heinous crime perpetrated by people who would label you apostate or subhuman. None of these are your true identity. You are a child of God and you are Christ’s own forever. Remember who you are.
But that’s not all, Jesus goes on. Yes, he says. There will be hard times. Wars and earthquakes, all manner of bad news. What appears to be devastating is not the end, but “birth pangs.”
Birth pangs. Something is coming. God is laboring. There is a next. What it is, we cannot see yet. But there is a next.
Yesterday at our diocesan convention, the Dean of the Cathedral quoted the great writer Frederick Buechner, one of whose characters says in a story, You ever seen anything getting born looked easy, let alone anything getting born again?”
The work of God never looks easy. If God is in it, it is likely to be coming slowly, imperceptibly at first.
And we are so often so caught up in our fears or chasing after a false prophet promising a quicker, easier fix that we have given up on what God is birthing long before it’s tiny head has appeared.
Remember who you are. Hold on, persist in faithfulness. Something more, something new will come, in God’s ineffable but promised time.
I am so thankful to have this place to come to each week to be reminded of these things. I am so thankful to have you to pray for my Dad and remind me to keep the faith. I am so thankful that in this world, where the headlines are so often wars and rumors of wars, I can raise my children in a parish where they are surrounded by people who remind them who they are. I am so thankful to be surrounded by living icons of persisting in making a better world. I pledge to this church because God the giver has given me all of this through this community. I am raising my pledge this year because I need to be even less afraid of this world, and I have found that the more I trust God and invest here, the deeper Christ’s peace is settled into by heart and my bones.
Each week, our worship here is like sitting on the hillside looking at the Temple (or whatever else seems threatened) and allowing ourselves to hear Jesus describe it. It’s like getting a phone call from our old friend. We remember who we are and are coached in ways of watching for what is coming — the birth pangs of the next.