[sermon] birth pangs

hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25 (NRSV)
and 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.

mark 13:1-8 (NRSV) as he 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. 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.

today is the twenty-fifth sunday after pentecost–the twenty-fifth sunday of a long period of time in the church year we call “ordinary time.” this long, long, long period of the life of the church between our celebration of the birth of the church at pentecost until our season of advent begins to prepare us to watch and pray for the coming of our messiah.

i have good news–this season of ordinary time will soon be drawing to a close as we begin advent–with the lighting of candles, the sharing of the call of mary to bear god in her womb, joseph’s acceptance of his call in the holy family–through the season of advent we will wait with mary as her belly grows large with child–we will wait with her as she waits.

so technically, at this moment, we are waiting to wait. we are perched on the precipice of a new season–next sunday is christ the king sunday, and the one following that is the first sunday of advent. we are entering into what is called a liminal space. 

to be liminal means to be betwixt and between two things. now wholly one thing nor another. for example–in cultures that have a coming of age ceremony: in the last stage of childhood, in some cultures, a boy is sent out into the wilderness and told to wait for his spirit animal to come to him. he is to wait, alone, in the wilderness until this happens–then he is to come home and tell the tale. it is then that he is eligible to go through the ritual that will make him a man. while he is in the wilderness he is neither a boy, nor a man. he has left what it means to be a boy behind in the village–and while waiting for his spirit animal to make itself known to him, he is also not yet a man. he is betwixt and between. not a boy, not a man, but something in the middle–a mix of the two and a third thing altogether. 

and so we are here at the end of this ordinary time. we are leaning toward christ the king sunday next week, looking toward advent. we are waiting to wait.

and the lectionary readings for this last part of the ordinary time season are perplexing ones to choose just before advent. the writer of the hebrew’s passage reminds us that christ’s sacrifice is the new law that replaces the old law of reconciling sacrifice. in the old covenant sacrifices were made over and over again, but christ, in offering of his body, then sat at the right hand of god and ending sin.

that passage ends with a plea for those following jesus’ teachings to not stop meeting together–urging those who hear these words to continue to seek unity together, to love one another and encouraging one another–all because of christ’s example in love shown most clearly through his sacrifice. it is a bit perplexing that the epistle lesson would be on christ’s sacrifice when we are waiting to wait for jesus to be born!

and again in the gospel text for this morning, from mark, we read that jesus and the disciples are leaving the temple (perhaps after pausing to reflect on the widow that jesus had drawn their attention to), and one of the disciples asks “aren’t the stones in these buildings amazing?” (don’t forget, these disciples were predominately galilian men-from down near the sea of galilee, not the big city of jerusalem–if you don’t see skyscrapers very often, you are likely to be in awe each time! so too with the expanse of the temple!) and jesus replies that not one of those impressive stones will remain untoppled–he is predicting the destruction of the physical temple, but also the destruction of the temple that is his body. it seems a peculiar reading to have here at the precipice of advent.

liminal spaces can be peculiar. they are mysterious places where uncertainty hangs out. a place where there tend to be more questions than answers–and everything is muddled into a a mix not seen before. 

this liminal space is like the end of a long pregnancy–where perhaps the baby is a little overdue. the mother of the liturgical seasons is heavy with child–that of the coming advent–these stories of jesus’ prediction of his suffering and the author of hebrews reminding us of that sacrifice–these are the beginnings of the labor pains for the next season. we are laboring, but not yet in labor.

we are in that confusing space between seasons and in-between time–almost in-between drought and flood with the quick turn around on rain after months of dry, at the in-between of hot summer weather and cooler fall weather, the seasons seeming to not quite make up their mind. in some traditions they began observing an extended advent last week–and yet a lot of churches and traditions still have some time to go before that liturgical season.

it seems that a lot of the world is feeling some sort of labor pain these days, too. the recent attacks in paris, the ongoing bombing in syria, continued violence in our cities and towns in the united states–the violence wrought through angry words and put downs of our family, friends or co-workers. the church was filled yesterday with those morning the loss of aleta duff–the labor pain of her rebirth into new life felt by those who now miss her presence here among us. 

we feel the pain of violence and oppression, we feel the pain of grief and loss, we feel the pain of change–but instead of shying away from this liminal time and space, instead of medicating these labor pains so we cannot feel them these scripture lessons today are inviting us not turn away but to feel that pain. 

growing up as an athlete i learned quickly the difference between good pain and bad pain. there is that tenderness that comes from a long and hard workout–that special kind of all over sore at the beginning of training season, where you rediscover muscles you forgot about in the off season–you learn if it is sore-pain, or if it is injury-pain. 

sore-pain you stretch out. you drink more water to dissolve the built up lactic acid and gently move the muscles, giving them space to heal and strengthen. injury-pain is different. you immobilize, you take the weight off and be still to allow for healing. 

the pain of this liminality –of being between liturgical seasons, being almost-between pastors, of funerals, and aching bodies, uncertainty in our world and in our community–this is not injury-pain. this is sore-pain. this is the laboring before the labor–when we stretch our muscles and drink enough water–when we go for walks to loosen up our joints. we cannot ignore these birth pangs–we cannot medicate them away, but rather must focus our attention and energy at the source of the pain.

these perplexing lectionary readings make more sense in the focus of waiting to wait–of laboring before the labor. jesus predicting the destruction of the temple (and thereby also his death and subsequent resurrection) remind us of the promises of god through the god’s son the messiah. it is good to be reminded, during the birth pangs, that there is beauty and truth coming at the climax of all of this pain. 

the hebrews passage today remind us in this liminal time of birth pangs that as followers of christ we are to remain united in our love and care for one another. the creators of the lectionary are showing us in this awkward in-between time reminders of what we will begin journeying toward during advent and into christmastide. 

what is the sore-pain that you are experiencing? what is happening in this seasonal liminal space for you? for the community and the church that could use some stretching out? what are the ways you are choosing to medicate sore-pain instead of feeling it, stretching it, drinking enough water and letting that sore place heal? 

this liminal space between ordinary time and advent is the time to actively wait on the waiting of advent. let this space be one of preparing for waiting with mary as she grows god in her belly. this liminal time is a holy time to renew our commitment to the unity of the community.

i invite you to cast away the medication of too much television or too much food. that medication of pushing feelings away and not feeling the awkwardness, anger or sadness. and let the feelings come. and if they get to be too much, reach for a friend to join you–we are all in this liminal: in-between space together–waiting to wait, laboring to labor. 

thanks be to god, amen.


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