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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Never waste a serious crisis

“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Mark 13:1-8
XXIV Pentecost – November 15, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

At first blush, today’s scriptural lessons seem as impossibly gloomy as the weather we’ve been having. But sometimes, things are not as bad as they seem.

Jesus and his boys Peter, James, John and Andrew are at the Temple in Jerusalem, and the boys from the little backwater town of Galilee seem to be really enjoying the sites and sounds of the Big City. “Wow!” you can hear one of his disciples say, “Just look at these large buildings!”

I understand. Whenever I visit our daughter at her NYC apartment, and we walk down her street, at some point she’ll inevitably tug on my sleeve and hiss, “Mom, please. Stop looking at the buildings. We look like tourists and this is MY neighborhood!” Mothers can be such embarrassments! Apparently, so can disciples.

In like manner, Jesus cuts right through their tourists’ enthusiasm. “Do you see these great buildings?” he asks. “Not one stone will be left – all will be thrown down.”

Of course, the boys want to know when this will take place – and will there be signs to warn them of the destruction of the Temple?

And Jesus tells them – there will be “wars and rumors of wars,” and “nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.”

I don’t know about you, but every time I read this passage, I find myself scratching my head and saying, “Yeah, what else is new?” I mean, generations long before (and since!) Jesus have known ‘wars and rumors of wars’ and ‘nations rising up against nations’.

Indeed, we are experiencing similar disastrous times, right down to the wars and earthquakes in various places and famines – and just this week, “the Son of Ida” – the remnants of the hurricane which hit the Atlantic Basin – provided gusty winds, driving rain, unusually high tides and even serious coastal flooding and at least one related death!

So, which end of the world is it? THIS end of the world as we now know it – THAT one that Jesus talked about - or the NEXT one? How are we to know? What will be the signs? Questions and concerns like this have ever been thus in the history of the world.

Anyone who has ever looked at one of those Sky Mall Magazines while on a long plane ride and checked out the section on ‘motivational posters’ can tell you that in one of the Chinese dialects, the word for ‘crisis’ consists of two characters – one meaning ‘danger’ and the other ‘opportunity’.

I think that’s what White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was referring to when he said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.”

Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” And, in my experience, he would be right. What sometimes feels like the end of the world is often just the beginning of something new trying to be born.

Sometimes, life presents us with opportunities that come in the disguise of dangers. Sometimes, the dangers come again and again. If we look closely, sometimes we can even see a pattern emerging. Life has a way of providing us opportunities for learning, if we pay attention to the patterns.

There’s something called “A Short Story in Four Chapters” that’s told in 12-Step Programs. It goes something like this:

Chapter I: I go out for a walk. I am walking down the road. I see a pothole. I keep walking. I fall in. I pull myself out and keep walking.

Chapter II: I am walking down the same road. I see another pothole. This one is deeper. I keep walking. I fall in. This time I’ve hurt myself. I pull myself out and keep walking.

Chapter III. I am walking down the same road. I see another pothole. This one is very deep. I know there is danger. I keep walking. I fall in. This time, it’s really hard to pull myself out. I have to wait a long time, scared and all alone in that deep dark hole before some friends come by to help me. I’m pretty battered and bruised, but with some help, I make it. I’ve never fallen this far or hurt myself so bad. I’m walking, but I’m limping and humbled.

Chapter IV. I go out for a walk. I take another road. The end. And, the beginning.

Warning signs can sometimes emerge in the patterns of our lives. It’s a matter of paying attention. Life has a way of presenting us with crisis because, sometimes, it’s the only way that we’ll pay close enough attention to be able to learn the lessons we need to learn.

It’s easy to get distracted. We’d all rather look at the lovely sights around us, and marvel at the human ingenuity it takes to move large stones together, carve them just so, and create large buildings or monuments or statues.

Meanwhile, God is trying valiantly to get our attention, to look at what we are making with the stones and potholes in our own lives.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.” I don’t know about you, but I’m often my own worst enemy. No one can lead me astray better than me!

I can read my own press releases or listen to the accolades some people lavish on me and, in moments of weakness, I can actually start to believe them.

I can also listen to some of the harsh criticism and, in similar moments of weakness, I can also start to believe them, too.

The truth is that neither is true.

I’m neither a Hero nor a Villain. I’m neither the Messiah nor Satan Incarnate. And you know, neither are you. I’m just human. And, you know, so are you. I’m a child of God, just like you.

So, in these days of high anxiety and uncertainty, when the media ‘spin doctors’ are making us all dizzy with the high winds of the rhetoric of doom and gloom that blow as unrelenting as hurricane force gusts across the landscape of our lives, it’s easy to focus our attention on others. To be easily distracted by the bright lights and the sounds and sights of what seems like human success and achievement.

It’s easy to be quick to criticize or complain – why does s/he have and I don’t – and find ways to withhold our gratitude and decline the opportunity to make a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

This is Pledge In-Gathering Sunday. Today the pledges – the commitments – you’ve made to God through this church will be gathered and brought before the altar to be blessed.

What sign will you make, through your pledge – your commitment – of your gratitude for all God has done?

How is your pledge a sign of your hope, your confidence, in the abundance of God, even in a time of the perception of scarcity?

God blesses us – yes, blesses us – with crisis and you know, you never want to let a serious crisis go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.

Like, deciding not to walk the same path and take the risk of traveling a different road. One, perhaps, that’s less traveled.

Or, if you are stuck on the same road, as you emerge from having fallen into yet another pothole, you’ll meet Jesus who will say to you, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”


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