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Living and Giving in the Fullness of Time

Theodore J. Wardlaw

November 10, 2013
Mark 13:32-14:10

Last night, I was in an airport gate in Atlanta, waiting to board the plane to Austin, and the gate agent grabbed her microphone and told us that this particular Delta flight was going to be completely full.  She was urging us to gate-check our carry-ons, so that there would be enough overhead storage space for the rest of our luggage.  “The plane is going to be completely full,” she said seriously; and then she surveyed all of us there crammed into that gate, and said, “Y’all, what’s going on in Austin, anyway?”

In my mind, I immediately began scrolling through the annual dates of the various music and film and book festivals, trying to account for the size of that crowded plane; but before I could come up with an answer, a little man with an umbrella, a tweed hat and a bow tie stood up and announced proudly, “The National Entomological Society of America is having its annual convention in Austin this week.”  He went on: “Folks, we’re bug people, and we’re headed for Austin!”

A few people laughed good-naturedly.  Speaking for myself, I was grateful that he identified himself; and it struck me that he kind of looked like an entomologist.  And, as we crossed the middle of the country last night—headed home, in my case—I smiled to myself at the thought of the “bug people” headed for Austin.

Apocalyptic scenarios like that are great entertainment in our time, aren’t they!  The Vampire Apocalypse, the Zombie Apocalypse, and now the Entomological Apocalypse.  They are maybe the ironic ways in which we cope with all the things in our world that are truly terrifying.

But we Presbyterians, along with many other traditions, have not spent a lot of time preoccupying ourselves with apocalyptic literature.  We associate such themes with street-corner preachers, hellfire and brimstone preachers, people who often get in your face and make you uncomfortable.

We once had at the Seminary a legendary Theology professor back in the 60’s and 70’s.  Some of you knew him well.  He was scary-smart, astonishingly quick-witted.  This was back when there were lots of “Jesus people”—“Jesus Freaks,” people sometimes called them.  They would pass out literature at street-corners, trying to convert you.  “If you died tonight,” they’d say, “where would you spend eternity?”  Things like that.  One Saturday afternoon, this Theology professor was walking back to the Seminary campus from having been at a U.T. football game, and at a street corner not too far from this church, one of these “Jesus people” accosted him.   He got in his face and said, “I’ve got good news, brother: Jesus loves you and so do I.”  To which this professor said, “Well, half of that is good news.”

This is what we think about when we imagine the more apocalyptic dimensions of Christianity: folks who buttonhole people and get in their faces with “turn-or-burn,” end-of-the-world propositions.  And because we have these assumptions about this approach to faith, we write it off!  We leave these themes to other branches of Christianity.   But, speaking for ourselves, we’d rather not read it, we’d rather not preach on it, we’d rather not think about it.

Which is a shame.  Because, first of all, Scripture takes these themes seriously, which means that we should take them seriously.  And, secondly, there is actually much to learn about our faith by examining, and not ignoring, these themes.  Take our text this morning from Mark’s gospel.  Mark is writing decades after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and, as he writes, Israel is being consumed by a rebellious war with Rome.  Every apocalyptic street preacher in Jerusalem has a stake in that war; and some of the most effective preachers, essentially fundamentalist zealots, are predicting the imminent victory of Israel and the humiliation of Rome.  Things on the front have been going well for them for a while, and so they’re getting a little cocky as they predict the future.  “God is fighting on our side,” they are saying, “and just as soon as we drive the Romans out, then we can do a little ethnic cleansing.  We can draw some new lines.  We can re-establish David’s kingdom and re-initiate God’s reign, just as God meant it to be, and—most importantly—we can elevate the Jews again and get rid of the Gentiles and their influence forever.”  That’s the preaching on the street in Mark’s time.

And Mark has a huge stake in this argument, too, because the church community to whom he’s writing is already mixed with Jews and Gentiles.  He is presenting Jesus as one who urges them against false prophets who envision an exclusive faith community, and is urging them instead toward the preaching of a bigger gospel—a gospel of inclusion, a gospel that, in its wideness, makes way not just for Jews but for all sorts of people.

So, all across chapter 13, the chapter that runs up to our text today, Mark is surely thinking of his own context when he writes of Jesus warning his listeners against misinterpreting the inevitable fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  Mark 13 is peppered, like nowhere else in Mark’s gospel, with Jesus’ own apocalyptic preaching.  “Beware that no one leads you astray,” says Jesus about those false prophets.  “And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’—do not believe it.  False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.  But be alert; I have already told you everything.”  “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake…Watch out.”

Unlike other examples of apocalyptic language, Mark’s language is rooted in an expansive word, not an exclusive word.  Moreover, when Mark’s Jesus encourages his followers to keep awake and to watch; he’s not just saying, “Keep an eye on things.”  He is at the same time encouraging them to translate that watchfulness into active behavior: to actively live toward that something.  It’s not just talking the talk; it’s also walking the walk.  It’s a vision of living and giving in the fullness of time.

And to illustrate all that, early in chapter 14, Mark writes that, two days before Passover, Jesus is in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper.  Right before his own passion—when he will have the last supper with his disciples, and will get betrayed by Judas and arrested and interrogated and ultimately crucified—right there in those days when he’s being watched like a hawk by his enemies, Jesus not only talks to a leper…he goes to dinner at the leper’s home.  He eats food that is prepared by that leper.  He cleans his plate on a dish that is washed and handled by that leper.  He shakes hands with that leper.  Now this alone should get your attention, but there’s more.  Mark introduces us to a bold woman who’s apparently not afraid of anything, as she breaks every boundary in the world to step onto that scene and demonstrate what it looks like to live toward Jesus’ own expansiveness.  Out of nowhere, she crashes that dinner party—at which, presumably, these men are talking about things far more important than her and anything she will do—and you can practically hear the disciples perk up in the background and say, “Keep awake, watch out, what’s she up to?”

She is up to something obviously unreasonable.  Without hesitation, she dumps what is apparently almost a year’s worth of wages, money that could obviously have gone into mission work, onto Jesus’ head.  She has wasted a precious resource.  But Brian Blount reminds us that “the attentive reader, the one who ‘sees,’ knows…that her unreasonable action fits right in here.  And this isn’t a reasonable text.  First, the leaders of God’s people are trying to kill the emissary God has sent to lead them…Second, the emissary God had sent to lead a holy and pure people is sitting in the impure, unholy abode of a man marked by impurity.  And third, there’s this unnamed, unannounced, unanticipated woman flitting about.”[1]

Friends, keep an eye on this woman, because something that is pointing toward the end of time—the fullness of time—is happening right here.  Time is slowing down here, so that this glimpse of the fullness of time can inform the mere keeping of time.  And glimpses like that happen every day if we have the eyes to see them.  This boundary-breaking woman is penetrating this utterly unreasonable world, in order to make the most faithful gesture she can make; and by doing so, to show us what it means to give ourselves—to give all of ourselves—to Jesus and his gospel.  She’s not just watching things.  She’s got her faithful eye on God’s victorious future, and so is at the same time walking toward the reality of God’s reign in the present, which she has seen in Jesus Christ; and there is nothing more important in our lives than walking that walk.  Than living and giving now, on the strength of God’s promised future.

Our calling is to live like that, so that the world can see the difference that such living makes.  It is living now as though God’s future is already a present reality; because, all evidence to the contrary, it is.  This woman is already bearing witness by her extravagance to the lordship of her Lord.  In just a little while, he’ll be dead on a cross, but in her witness he is already the Risen Lord.  By none of the standards and expectations of his world does this Jesus, eating food prepared by a leper, come close to resembling the Messiah; but that doesn’t matter to this woman, because she sees everything clearly.

How might we be different, if we could see that clearly?  If we could watch—and then move toward—the moments like that in our lives?

It’s often the case, in my morning prayers each morning, that I ask God to send me some sign of God’s presence in my life.  It’s probably not a very faithful thing to do—I mean, Christianity does not necessarily promise us a daily diet of such signs.  Besides, who’s to say I’m not surrounded by signs all the time?  I mean, I love my work, I have the pleasure of interacting with astonishing faculty and students and Board members, I am blessed to take part in the life of this particular congregation, I am surrounded by a beautiful and loving family.  So how fair is it for me to be pestering God on a regular basis to send me a rainbow, or a donor calling me up to say, “I’ve got fifteen million dollars burning a hole in my pocket—can you use it?”  What I’ve discovered is that, more often than not, God sends me more ordinary moments, as if to challenge me to have the eyesight to notice them.

Some of you saw, as I did, that recent film, “42,” about Jackie Robinson—that amazing athlete, and faithful Methodist, who broke the color barrier, decades ago, in Major League Baseball.  On this side of his story, we acknowledge that Jackie Robinson is a spectacular historical figure; but, from the point of view of where his story began—where this film begins—he was not spectacular at all.

Breaking the color barrier, after all, was not easy—not in a world of “White” and “Colored” restrooms, of locker rooms where Robinson himself didn’t have a locker and was only comfortable showering when the rest of the team had finished showering, of hotels when they were traveling which would not only not rent a room to Jackie Robinson but would not rent a room to anybody on his team.  At Spring training camp in Sanford, Florida, Jackie Robinson had to stay, not with his team, but in the private home of generous African-Americans, and once, at least, his life was threatened there.  And then there were the games themselves, when he was taunted with unspeakable racial slurs every time he went to bat.

During one particularly brutal session of such taunting, when Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers were playing the Philadelphia Phillies, he’d been up at bat and the words were horrible.  When his foul ball was caught easily, he ran into the tunnel beneath the stadium, where he just dissolved into tears.  The game was still going on, but the team’s owner—Branch Rickey, also a devout Methodist—found him there in that tunnel, and stood there with him as he sobbed.

Robinson said, “Do you know what it’s like?”

“No,” said Rickey.  “You do.  You’re the one living the sermon.  Forty days.  In the wilderness.”

“Not a damn thing I can do about it,” Robinson replied.

“Sure there is,” said Rickey.  “Get out there and hit…”  Branch Rickey was saying to Jackie Robinson, get out there and do what you do.  Do it as well as you can, and bear witness to the possibility that it can be done.

That was a moment—tinged with glimpses of what the future will look like when God is finished with it.

There’s another moment I’m thinking about that involved another boundary-breaking woman.  It happened here in Texas.  I heard about it just a few days ago; a story aired on NPR.  A family up in the Dallas area lost a child tragically—a son, seventeen years old.  Traffic accident.  The EMS people on the scene discovered that he was an organ donor, so the hospital did what they do and the organs were dispersed.  A few years went by, and the child’s mother—who was stuck in her grief—reached out to the medical authorities and said, “Is there any way that I might talk with whomever got his heart?”  They checked it out with the recipient, and he said “Sure,” and so they put her in contact with him—a young adult man living in McAllen.  Recently she went to see him, and it was for her a wonderful and redemptive visit.  And as the visit came to an end, she said, “There’s one last request before I leave: may I listen to your heart?”  He reached out his arms and drew her head to his chest and she listened for some long while to the heartbeat of her son…and finally she said, “It’s so strong!  It’s so strong!”[2]

What a parable of the Body of Christ!  Right here in the middle of apocalyptic challenges, right here in the middle of a world that is so broken and fractious, the heart of Jesus Christ still beats so boldly in this body the Church…and it is so strong!  So strong!

So come on, Church!  Do what you do!  Do it as well as you can!  Don’t just watch for signs of God’s presence, but bear witness, in your own living and giving, to the strong heartbeat of Jesus Christ—at the center of who we are and what we do—summoned and embodied even by you and by me.  That’s what it means to live as people who are faithful and unafraid, even in scary times.  That’s what it means to be the church.

In the name of God: Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 215.  I am grateful throughout this sermon for Dr. Blount’s wonderful exegesis of this text.

[2] I am grateful to Dr. Rodger Nishioka, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, who told this story—just broadcast on a recent NPR program—at a presentation on the 21st-century Church that he gave at Montreat Conference Center on Friday, November 9th, 2013.  It was a pleasure to be in the audience on that occasion.