Year B Proper 28, 14 November 2021
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Bode or Birthpangs”
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
The Lord spoke to Daniel in a vision and said, “At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
he also adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “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.”
There is a lot of doom and gloom in today’s readings. Apocalyptic literature is a genre within Scripture, foretelling a time of calamity from which a branch of hope will rise.
Daniel says, “I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s gonna get bad, very bad. But St. Michael, your defender will arise. Your people will be saved along with those in the book of life.”
Hebrews teaches that hanging our hope on other people is gonna fail. Even the high priest who offers up prayers and sacrifices on the Day of Atonement is a sinner, too. But Jesus, the only perfect High Priest, is the one going to bat for us. And no matter how hopeless it seems, Grace Bats Last.
But then we hear from Jesus’ own mouth what will be. Looking at something as timeless as the Temple in Jerusalem, he foretold how it would all be thrown down, each and every stone. What news we will get will get worse and worse and worse. Wars, and rumors of wars. Where can we turn? What hope do we have? But then he says, “These are but the beginning of birthpangs.”
Friends, we are sinners in a sinful world. We want something better. God wants better for us. In all of this apocalyptic language, we can get bogged down by the weight of it. It is hard to understand. It requires us to do some research and homework. The audience was the recipients of the day, but it still can speak to us. Think on apocalyptic literature like one would reading hundred-year-old political and editorial cartoons. The imagery may make no sense to us. They use hyperbole and caricature to make a point. Apocalyptic doom and gloom readings are much the same. We have to read them for what they are. But their utmost purpose is to convey a sense that in the meaningless destruction that there is someone still in charge and they will get the last word. We read these things to have hope, a hope in the one in whom we trust.
Hope is about our feelings when the evidence may point otherwise. As the poet Emily Dickinson penned, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” As hope sings on in our souls, we are not Pollyanna only seeing a silver lining. Apocalyptic literature is there to give us truth, it’s bad and will probably get worse, but then things will get better. Have hope in the darkness for the dawn will come. It always has and it always will. But feelings are fleeting, like an ember they need fuel and fanning to burst into flame. If not, they grow cold and can die. So hope cannot be just about feelings.
Preparing for today, I ran across a quote from Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine which gave hope to so many during a disease ravaging children. “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.” Have the dreams. Feel the feelings. Then get into action. Acting when days are dark is one of the greatest testimonies of what we really believe that we have. Standing for the light and working for what is right, even when the world is going to hell in a handbasket, ESPECIALLY when the world is going to hell in a handbasket, is what preaches the loudest to a hurting world.
There is an Audacity to Hope, as a former president said. It goes against the grain of the times, it shines a light when all seems dark, and it is what Scripture repeatedly instructs us to do. Having Faith when all seems hopeless, and having Hope when all seem faithless, is our call and the hallmark of the people of God.
Hope is not something that is an option. Can we truly say we believe and not have hope? And we cannot hold it at arm's length. We don’t have hope as something internal, we have to reside in hope. Novelist and essayist Barbara Kingsolver put it this way. “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”
So people of God, people of Hope, where do we lean when days are dark? Jesus said these dark times are but the birthpangs. What are we giving birth to?
Dark times are still with us. These are just some headlines from this week’s news. When people spew fear and hate at the school board meetings, and say they are doing it in Jesus’ name. When congressmen make videos depicting them killing their colleagues and say it is merely symbolic. When someone says book banning is not enough, but that book burning would solve anything. When the world leaders gather to save the planet there is more finger pointing and finger wagging than solutions. And that is just the headlines from this last week. The human heart has not changed. The heart is the problem. And Jesus came to change our heart. Light drives out the darkness, and the darkness will NEVER overcome it. John 1:5
The first words out of any of God’s messengers tends to be, Fear Not! Angelic and otherwise. I may need to start all my sermons that way. When things get bad, I hear a phrase. “Crisis of Confidence.” It could be the stock market or political leadership. Words mean things. Con-fidence. Con- meaning with, and fidence coming from Fide, faith. With faith we can do anything, the word itself means that. And if we have faith, the attitude we have around that is Hope. Hope lets us breathe when we are being crushed. Hope lets us give when we do not have much. Hope lets us live even though we die. Hope lets us act when it may seem pointless. For our faith is in the One who has conquered death and overcome the grave itself.
As our Senior Warden said a few weeks ago, all things considered in this epoch of the unprecedented, we are thriving. It is easier to have faith when things are going well. But what do we do when things are not?
Two of my dearest friends from college grew up around here, and went to Chamberlayne Baptist Church. You may know the story of their faith that came out in the press this last summer. The congregation gave a public testimony of their hope and faith in an eternal God when they gifted their property and everything in it to Bethlehem Baptist, an African-American congregation from the East End. They met together on June 13 last year (2020) for a final worship service for one, and the start of something new for another. I remind you of the racial tensions happening during this time, which is another reason this story resonated with me so much. I take this from an article written by my friend, Steve Allsbrook.
Chamberlayne Baptist Church did not start until 1953, but the believers who planted it also started it among the people it sought to reach. Following World War II, metro Richmond expanded into what had once been rural spaces. Neighborhoods like Chamberlayne Farms turned into communities of new suburban homes. Hatcher Memorial Baptist Church and Northside Baptist Church saw the need for a new church in this growing community. Chamberlayne started in a tent and the basement of a home.
Soon it had property with a house, built a chapel, and started to thrive. People typically gather where they feel comfortable. That often means they gather with others of similar culture, language, or appearance. They also usually live in the best place they can afford. Over time, demographic changes occur naturally. People age in place. Children grow up and leave home. What was a neighborhood with children turns into a community of older people.
When one household moves away, the one that moves in usually moves to the best place they can afford but may have a different culture, language, or appearance. Chamberlayne Baptist Church had served a growing community with children that changed into a community with a mixture of ages and ethnic backgrounds. The houses remained, but the people changed.
Circumstances and people change, but God does not change. God sends messengers to show and tell others about His love. God’s people move as God sends us to nearby neighbors and far beyond. That may mean a church moves with the people. It may also mean church people move. Chamberlayne Baptist Church stayed put, and Bethlehem Baptist Church moved several times. Their holy paths have intersected on Wilkinson Road.
The members of Chamberlayne Baptist Church have served faithfully and well for 67 years. They have shared the Gospel and baptized many. The church ordained 24 ministers who have served near and far in God’s Kingdom. Before public schools offered kindergarten, Chamberlayne had one. They started a group home and a Friends Class for persons with special needs. They have loved each other like a family, sharing and celebrating life events and supporting each other in times of grief and pain. Members moved. Members died. Pastor Dave Peppler helped the people who remained at Chamberlayne discern God’s voice. They understood God saying the time of this church family on Wilkinson Road has come to an end. What does a church do with the place it called home and all the things in it? They considered their options. The people of Chamberlayne Baptist Church believed that God wants a church on Wilkinson Road, even if they cannot continue to serve there. Giving their church facility and the things in it to keep a Gospel witness on Wilkinson Road would be their last act of faithful service as Chamberlayne Baptist Church.
[From River City Faith Network, written by Steve Allsbrook: https://d08d5598-300f-4285-a108-a24d513f85a2.filesusr.com/ugd/3fb328_d3efa5664a8a4760a58c9aac4e809271.pdf]
I cannot hear the story of the final act of Chamberlayne Baptist without hearing the words from our funeral Rite.
All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.
The story of Chamberlayne Baptist, the new story of Bethlehem Baptist, the final words in our funeral Rite. Testaments of faith, choices of Hope.
All of us, if we live long enough, will see days of dissension and times of upheaval. Those days are dark. I believe we are in the throng of one of these times right now. But we can cower in fear, or see them as the birthpangs of something new. Only with Hope can we see it that way, like Jesus taught his disciples to do.
I posed the question, but never answered it. What is being birthed? I know what I think, but what do I do to make that real? Do I run away or cower in fear, saying, “Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies!” Or do we catch glimpses of the Kingdom of God in our dreams and in our prayers, and roll up our sleeves to make it reality.
Everyone laughed at Noah, but it was his diligence in the face of scorn that saved us all. Jesus on the cross forgave his executioners because they did not know what they were doing, but in his death we can be reborn eternally. Times may be dark, and the road ahead hard to see, but the God who was with us before, is with us now. Why would God not be with us in the days to come?
Fear Not! Have Hope! The Lord is with us, and always will be. Amen