All Saints, Morton—Mark 13:14-23
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—so go the opening words of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. There seem to be a few lucky people who sail through life with plenty of money, hardly even getting sick, and dying at a ripe old age with plenty of loving family and friends. A great many more experience life as one long nightmare, endless tribulation. In the third world, this might be a majority. But for most of us in this society, there are good times and there are bad times. If, at age 67, I have any wisdom from my years on this earth, it is that if I’m feeling on top of the world one moment, the pendulum will invariably swing back in the direction from whence it came.
Tough times happen. They’re not any fun, and sometimes it seems like they’ll never end, but they happen. We have personal experiences of “the worst of times.” We get sick and have a hard time doing things that are supposed to be normal, and we get depressed about it. The regular routine of my work and ministry, and even more so when I was a parish priest, prevents me from ever ignoring this fact. We suffer from business failure, financial reverses, stagnant careers, youthful dreams that fade away in the reality of middle age. We make mistakes as parents and wonder who will pay for them and when, how many emotional time bombs will someday explode in our faces. Loved ones die, and we grieve, sometimes bitterly. If we’re lucky, the worst that happens to us is that we get old and die.
We also have hard times as a society; the world has hard times. Gang members spray paint the walls of buildings, or walk into houses and shoot people. Governments make war on each other over insulted pride. Innocent people are shot or blown up, or just kidnapped, in the name of political justice. Nowadays, in many places, you can get shot for inadvertently cutting somebody off in traffic. Our political system seems on the edge of dysfunction, with tainted money littering the landscape. The economy is in good shape at the moment, but a hundred point dip in the Dow Jones average can still cause an awful lot of headaches and upset stomachs.
Hard times are also upon us as a church—I don’t mean All Saints’ particularly, although, like any church community, you do have our share of challenges—but on a diocesan and national and worldwide level. We have such divergent views of what constitutes legitimate authority in the church that we can barely communicate with each other. That most wonderful part of God’s creation—the fact that we are made in his image as male and female—is causing us to crash and burn in a dozen different ways. We can’t figure it out. We can’t agree on what it means, and how we should behave accordingly, and while we fight about it, the gospel can’t be heard above the racket, sinners don’t meet Jesus, and the naked, cold, lonely and hungry stay that way.
And then there’s the ultimate hard time, the hard time to end all hard times, because it’s the end of time. Jesus paints this horrible picture of the apocalypse in Mark’s gospel:
And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be.
So, like I said, even if everything seems to be coming up roses for us today, there’s always that to look forward to! So … how do we cope? How do we survive tough times—in our personal lives, in the world, and in the church—how do we survive tough times with our sanity, or at least our humanity, intact? Jesus’ contemporaries asked him for a sign, they continually pressed him for more and more information. When is all this going to happen? How will we know? What plans should we make? What does it all mean? The multitudes of our own age are also hungry for information. The more we have access to, the more we want. I don’t know about mousetraps, but build a faster microchip or modem and the world will beat a path to your door. We want more information; we want to solve all the mysteries, we cannot tolerate the unknown, everything is an algebraic equation and we must be continually solving for ‘x’. Prominent people consult astrologers and psychics to give them an information advantage!
I don’t know that there’s ever been a time in our nation’s history when there was more interest in spirituality than there is today. But don’t take that as a sign of hope, because I’m also not sure that there has ever been a time of less interest in authentic Christianity. People are not particular about what source their spirituality comes from. I saw a cover of one of the major news magazines some years ago (back when news magazines were actually still a thing) with a man who has an Indian-sounding name who is apparently getting rich selling his spiritual insights and advice. People want spirituality that works, and works quickly. Whether it’s true or not is an irrelevant question, because objective truth isn’t even one of the categories in this post-modern age.
No, Christianity no longer enjoys a privileged position in this culture; we are now just one more competitor in the spirituality marketplace. Our message isn’t always packaged and presented in an appealing way, which makes it tough, because Jesus’ message to the information gluttons of today is the same as it was to his original listeners: I’ve already told you everything you need to know!
I’ve already told you everything you need to know.
There aren’t going to be any more signs, other than the signs you already have.
And what is this … sufficient knowledge that Jesus has already told us? It consists of two parts: one is explicitly mentioned in this gospel passage from Mark, the other is a major theme in all four of the gospels. The first involves recognizing and renouncing. The second involves embracing and following. First, we must recognize and renounce false Christs, false messiahs. Jesus tells his listeners:
… If any one says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ Do not believe it. False Christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.
What exactly is a false messiah? Broadly speaking, anything other than the true one, anything other than Jesus, the Word of the Father, true God from true God, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried, risen, ascended, glorified, and coming again. If we serve any lord along with or in place of this one, we serve a false Christ.
But I can be more specific than that. I believe there are three particular false messiahs that are tempting to people in our time and place: materialism, eroticism, and competitivism—or, more simply perhaps: money, sex, and power.
The false messiah of materialism is money, wealth, “mammon.” It usually disguises itself with a “softer side,” complete with puppies, kittens, and cute young children. It disguises itself through association with our deepest values and aspirations, with the love of family ties, with the very fabric of our lives. It is, as the Visa commercial says, “Everywhere [we] want to be.” It promises, as did a Master Card ad once said, to “put the whole world in [our] hands.” Materialism is a false messiah. Renounce it.
The false messiah of eroticism is sexual fulfillment in specific and self-indulgence in general. Its message is that life without sex is not worth living. So any standard that restricts sexual intimacy to the protective context of a formal, public, and lifelong mutual commitment between one man and one woman—such a standard is unjust and cruel to the pre-married, the post-married, the unhappily married, and those of other than the majority sexual orientation. The larger implication, of course, is that the highest human good is to be able to do whatever we want whenever we want to. Sex is God’s good gift to us, but it is not his only gift, and when it seems like life is not worth living without it, we have an impoverished understanding of what human life is about. The true cruelty and injustice of eroticism and self-indulgence, of course, is the slavery that inevitably results, whether it’s slavery to sex, drugs, rock & roll, golf, gardening, softball, sailing, or bridge! Eroticism is a false Christ, renounce it.
The false messiah of competitivism is power, influence, and control. In order to acquire and retain power, we justify the demonization of those whom we perceive as our opponents. It is the quest for power that leads to all forms of violence, whether informal or organized. In the process, we see those on the other side as less than fully human, less than fully loved by God, less than a precious life for whom Jesus died. Power is a false messiah. Renounce it.
The second critical piece of information that Jesus has already told us is this: after renouncing any and all false messiahs, follow the true one. But how do we do this? Well, today’s collect offers some good advice in this department—it’s one of the more well-known of the Prayer Book collects. It starts out by thanking God that he has “caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning,” and then goes on to ask that we may “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” those same scriptures. I want to take it a step further and expand that petition to include not only the scriptures but the whole of Christian tradition, the holy lore of the church that has been handed down to us by saints, apostles, and martyrs through two thousand years of Christian experience.
Read it—attend a bible study, come to one of the Christian formation opportunities offered by this parish.
Mark it—ask yourself, “How does what I’m reading apply to my life?” Be attentive to the questions it raises in your mind and heart.
Learn it—study to the best of your ability. Study the bible. Know the history of the church. Become acquainted with the lives of the saints.=
Inwardly digest it—make this all part of your daily routine. Like a cow chewing its cud, go over and over and over it until the things of the Lord, the words and phrases and images of scripture, the texts and tunes of our great hymns, the names and deeds of the heroes of the faith—until all of this is just part of you at a profound level.
There is more that could be said, of course, about following Jesus, the true Christ, but if we focus on reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting, we will not be far off course. When the tough times, the worst of times, come—whether in our personal lives, in the church, in the larger society, and at the end of the age—we will be armed, prepared, ready to face what comes without shame or fear, and with abundant hope.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.