The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?

Maybe some are getting bored with my use of the image – being on the road – to describe the continual process of being in discipleship. This is literally a physical journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. It’s also a spiritual journey during which Jesus teaches the disciples about the meaning of being his followers. What we have noted time and time again is how difficult it is for the disciples to grasp Jesus’ message. They are encapsulated within the necessary limitations of their own conventional imaginations.

Accompanying Jesus along this road to Jerusalem we have had to climb onto a road that has led us to challenge the necessary limitations of our own conventional imaginations (refer back to my blog entries since the beginning of  September).

I use the term necessary because, being a part of our own society with its conventional attitudes and ways of looking at the world, offers us the illusion that we are protected from an exposure to the risk. Risk describes the process we experience as fear and anxiety when we contemplate becoming unconventional. When we begin to realize that what God is calling us into requires breaking company with the comfortable anonymity of keeping our heads down and mindlessly grazing along with the heard. Risk is the experience of breaking out of the necessary limitations of our own imaginations into a glimpsing of something new. The new always begins with a sense of the unfamiliar.

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Jesus is now in Jerusalem and he seems not to like what he sees. He notes a Temple religious system that through the force of convention functions to outwardly oppress and impoverish the poor while rewarding the rich. It is a system that encourages the poor to further impoverish themselves in the name of religious duty and fidelity. The pernicious element in systems of oppression is the way they internally conform us into supporting the very world-views that in reality, are the source of our own oppression. Jesus’ observation of the Widow in last week’s Gospel reading seen from this angle is less an endorsement of sacrificial piety and more a comment on her own internalized oppression (see my last entry of Widows and Veterans).

Today’s gospel from Mark 13:1-8 introduces a new and even more frightening tone into Jesus’ conversation with the disciples. This chapter is known to Biblical Scholars as Mark’s Little Apocalypse.

David Loose, commenting on this week’s text notes three core characteristics of apocalyptic writing:

  1. In a nutshell, apocalyptic literature stems from a worldview that believes that everything happening on earth represents and correlates with a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil.
  2. It therefore reads into earthly events cosmic significance and anticipates future events on earth in light of the coming battle between the forces of God and the devil.
  3. Hence, it often tries to make sense of current events and experiences by casting them in a larger, cosmic framework and in this way give comfort to people who are currently suffering or being oppressed.

It appears that Mark is probably writing around 70 AD or, at least, during the period of  the Jewish insurrection that leads to the final destruction of the Temple in 70AD at the hands of Caesar’s legions. The community Mark is writing for is literally living through a period of social collapse with its ensuing chaos. This is probably why his Gospel takes a sharp turn at chapter 13 veering into apocalyptic writing. It’s possible to take out the whole of chapter 13 and not actually disrupt Mark’s larger narrative, moving seamlessly, from the end of 12 to the beginning of 14.

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This fearful apocalyptic mindset fills our viewing screens today. As I flip through the TV programs I am aware of at least three series currently running that set us in a post apocalyptic time where following an alien invasion or a nuclear catastrophe or following a mysterious world-wide collapse of the electrical power grid we are plunged into a world where primitive tribal consciousness consigns us to lives that are brutish and short.

We live in an age when the institutions that form the pillars of Western Society seem to have become either unalterably corrupted or are in a state of chronic collapse. The world wide banking system seems corrupted beyond reform. Even the BBC, which is arguably the world’s greatest information and media institution seems continually rocked by its failure over recent years to confront its own silence in the face of entrenched systems of political and societal corruption and abuse.  Our political and judicial systems are in gridlock. At the local level are schools collapse around us for lack of funding and the 20th century version of Institutional Church is clearly disintegrating before our eyes. When we add to the signs of societal collapse the heady cocktail of hurricanes, tornados, floods, droughts, and the ever increasing degradation of the environment symbolized by the ever rising sea level and depletion of the ozone layer we can understand why apocalyptic fears are alive and kicking in our own time.

However, the point of apocalypse is not, primarily, to frighten or even warn us. Its function is to remind us that the cycle of renewal and the risk of the new requires first that the old order falls away to make way for the new. That this is a traumatic process and that it involves a period of uncertainty and even chaos only shows us that there is light at the end of the long dark and dangerous tunnel.

Systemic change follows an internal change within a each one of us. We come to understand that the critical question is not can we afford to risk things changing, but can we afford to risk things not changing. As this realization reaches a critical mass of individuals, we arrive at what is commonly referred to as the tipping point. Systems change when we realize how little they serve us in their current form.

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Next Sunday our Trinity Cathedral Annual Renewal Program, launched on the 7th of October, culminates with Commitment Sunday. This coincides with the feast of Christ the King marking the transition in the liturgical calendar from the Sunday’s of Ordinary Time to Advent, the Church’s New Year. The active phase of our annual renewal will come to an end with Commitment Sunday. However, annual renewal is a year long activity that invites us to attend in new and novel ways to the enrichment of our spiritual lives as individuals and as the community of God’s faithful people at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central.

There may be an assumption that attending to our spiritual growth will not involve pain and the uncertainty of risk. All around us we see the signs of change amidst a continual collective expression of anxiety and fear that what lies ahead is only an ensuing chaos as the world we know passes away.

The disciples ask Jesus how are they to recognize the signs of the birth pangs of the new order? Jesus’ response is to reassure them. ‘Don’t be alarmed’, he tells them, about how things appear. Only watch for the signs of change that must take place.

Over the next 12 months at Trinity Cathedral we will together be watching to note the signs – in each of us, in our congregation, in our country – that promise to open us to the new things that God dreams to be accomplished?


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