Chaos and Construction
25 Pentecost B 2015
November 15, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Does anyone here remember the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State? It happened in May of 1980—35 years ago. I found it horrific—especially the stories of the destruction and the deaths of several people from the eruption. And I also found it fascinating, because I was a geology grad student then. And the story of a huge volcano in the Pacific Northwest was amazing and riveting for every geologist I knew. Do you remember the pictures of the trees flattened like so many matchsticks? And the whole side of the volcano blown out from the explosion? It was the most spectacular destruction I’ve ever seen.
But even more amazing than the event itself is its aftermath. Within just a few months after the eruption we started to hear news stories and see photos of wildflowers pushing their way up through cracks in the congealed lava. You can see one such picture on our bulletin cover today. That’s new life after colossal-scale destruction.
The Mount St Helens eruption and its aftermath show us pretty clearly how God uses destruction in order to usher in the new. We see Jesus talking about endings and beginnings in today’s gospel. He predicts to his disciples how the huge blocks of stone from the temple in Jerusalem, built up by Herod the Great, would not stand much longer. The disciples seem horrified and fascinated, and press him for when that will happen. But Jesus won’t answer their question.
Instead he goes on to predict all kinds of calamities and disasters following the destruction of the Temple: wars, earthquakes, famines. And our gospel today ends with Jesus telling them that all these calamities are just the beginning of the birth pangs.
Birth pangs? That implies that something is being born; something new is coming. And so it will be. From disasters and chaos come new starts, new beginnings.
But of course we can’t see that when we’re in the middle of the horrific. It’s not right to be cavalier about the attacks we saw in Paris this week and to declare that they’ll lead to something new. That’s not appropriate while we--and the world--are still in shock.
But generally God’s way in the cosmos is to bring new life after disorganization and chaos, and we see it exemplified in the life of Jesus. His death was horrific, marked by torture and abandonment. But his death was a birth into new life—for him and for us.
Today’s gospel is at the beginning of Mark’s Chapter 13, often called by scholars the “Little Apocalypse.” The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek, and it means a revealing of what is to come.
This time of year we begin to reflect on that point in the human story when things will be wrapped up. And we are also encouraged not to despair, for even in the ending of time, there will come the birth pangs, ushering in something new. I think of the ending of the Book of Revelation, another apocalypse, where Jesus says, after all kinds of destruction happen in Revelation’s chapters, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
Over these last 2 days at our diocesan convention Bishop Douglas has spoken about this gospel. About how the picture of the temple’s huge stones being toppled is a pretty scary metaphor for how today’s church is suffering these days. Attendance in Catholic and Anglican and Protestant churches is down in most places. There are changes, and some of them are very upsetting. YET, the people who are here today are the people who come for the right reasons. And so we trust that even in chaotic times God is doing a new thing, giving birth to something new in the churches—something we can’t see clearly yet. God will see to it that faith survives.
Many of us here today already know that this pattern of chaos, endings, and new births is how God works in the world, and in our own lives, as well. God uses our wounds—those things that surely feel like the end of the world—to bring us to new levels of maturity. Over time God uses our weakness to lead us to strength.
Franciscan friar Richard Rohr says that our wounds—our places of injury—are the places where God is hiding. He says that “the huge surprise of the Christian revelation is that the place of the wound is the place of the greatest gift.” [Richard Rohr, “The Sacred Wound, email letter, October 16, 2015]
God works through our weakness, our wounds, to bring us the gift of new and better life—and this happens only as we submit to the painful process of growth. Rohr goes on to say, “Surprise of surprises, Christianity is saying that we come to God not by doing it right (which teaches you very little), but invariably by doing it wrong and responding to our failures and suffering with openness and awareness.” [Rohr, ibid.]
We grow into new life as we embrace our own birth pangs. That sounds a little like a Lamaze class, doesn’t it?
We saw a few weeks ago in our cardboard testimonies how 10 people in the parish have come through the chaos of personal dis-integration and been reformed and re-birthed into new life. One person told how her marriage was abusive, and that with prayer she was able to find stability and to love again. One person talked about losing a home in a different church and finding it again here in the Episcopal tradition. I talked about the journey from skepticism dismantled to faith rebuilt.
Each of us has our own story about how we went through chaotic disorganization and then how we were formed into someone better than before. Some of our stories are very traumatic, and others not so much. But all are passages through chaos and disorder and out into a new life. And that process repeats itself over and over throughout our lives. To quote Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” [Rohr, ibid.]
It’s part of our Christian calling to support each other as we go through the painful process of re-birthing. We can find hints about how we might be midwives for each other from the Prayer of St. Francis. You can find that in the BCP on page833. We ask God to make us instruments of God’s peace. Where there is hatred, we ask God to help us sow love. Where there is injury, we ask God to help us to pardon those who hurt us. Where there is doubt, we ask God’s help to hold the faith for others and help them through. Where there is despair, we ask God to help us shine hope. Where there is darkness, we ask God to enable us to bring light. We ask God to help us be consolers, not just those who crave consolation. To be understanding instead of always trying to be understood. It’s a mighty powerful prayer and it sets a very high bar for the way we are to be in relationship together. All these requests give voice to our role in this life of helping the New to be born.
[[Now, the baptismal promises we’ll renew for ourselves when Catherine is brought into the household of God in a few minutes also remind us of our sacred duty to be centered in God, and to be light for other people. And we hope and pray that in her lifetime Catherine will mature into such a bringer of hope and joy that she is there for many as they experience personal disintegration and then re-building by the grace of God.]]
So it’s not just the destruction of our religious institutions, and wars, and earthquakes and famines that usher in change and a new order. It’s our own personal-size times of chaos and challenge that God uses to help us be born into better people. May we have faith to withstand the crises that come, and may we help others through their own times of testing.
And may we not fail to notice the little flowers always struggling up through the lava flows.
I end us today with the exhortation from today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews:
“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, . . . but encouraging one another, and all the more as we see the Day approaching.”