Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost (Year B)
St. Luke's International Hospital Chapel
November 18, 2012– 10:30 a.m. Holy Eucharist
When I graduated university with a seriously undervalued degree in English Literature, I couldn't find a job anywhere. After a lot of looking, I eventually found two jobs: By day, I was a lowly proofreader, and by night, a waiter. The waiting job paid A LOT more.
I was anxious about my future. So I eventually took a few days off work and went away to a cabin in the woods. I did a lot of walking and thinking.
At the end, I had formed a perfect Long-Term Plan. It was a detailed map of my life, including work, graduate school, marriage, family, publishing a novel, traveling the country. (I'm sorry to say coming to Japan was not part of the Plan).
With this Plan in hand, I was happy and excited about the future. I knew just where I was going and how to get there. And my anxiety was gone, like clouds burned away by the bright sunshine of my future.
Within two weeks, though, my Plan was completely ruined. I met an old college flame at a friend's wedding, restarted the old romance, and decided to move to another city.
I never did get back to my Plan. But I'm grateful: God had a much better plan for me!
So now, my aim is to live a completely unplanned life! I want to take one day at a time, and go wherever God shows me to go, when He shows me.
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But I still feel anxious from time to time. It's hard not knowing what the future holds. What's more, we live in anxious times, in a world which is, frankly, not very hospitable.
Right now, Japan has no government. China has a new General Secretary; who knows how that will change the Japan-China relationship. There's a lot of saber-rattling over the Pinnacle Islands which threatens to escalate into something more.
The Japanese economy is in bad shape, and the American economy has yet to hit bottom. The worst is yet to come. Japan's social security system is headed toward collapse. Fukushima is still a mess, and will be for another 70 years or so.
These are anxious times for our Church, too. The Diocese of Tokyo is running on fumes. There's a shortage of priests and no sign of new vocations. Baptisms are far outpaced by funerals. We have practically no business to discuss at Friday's Synod!
And my life, our lives, are hardly models of tranquility, either. We have plenty to worry about. Many of you are worried about your job or your finances. Many of you are worried about your health or the health of someone close to you. Many of you are worried about relationships with family or friends. Many of you are worried about being alone.
And when it comes to our faith lives? Our relationship with God? Our prayer life? Are we living the lives we ought to? That God wants us to live? Lots to be anxious about.
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It was no different 2,000 years ago. Jesus lived in a time of great anxiety. There was widespread poverty in Palestine, and corruption among the country's leadership. Many people went hungry. Many lived without hope.
There were several uprisings among the Jews, which the Roman empire put down with merciless force. The blood of criminals ran red from thousands of crosses.
Everybody could sense that a big storm was brewing. The uneasy stand-off with Rome couldn't go on forever. At some point, it was bound to escalate into something more.
Everybody lived under this constant tension. There seemed to be a shortage of kindness and mercy in society, a general air of hunkering down, fighting just to survive.
What's more, the Jews suspected that their hardships were the result of their own disobedience, and that of their ancestors. Had not God's patience had run out with Israel? Had He not turned his face away from them?
In the event, the deep anxiety of the Jews turned out to be completely justified. Just as Jesus predicted, their whole world eventually came crashing down.
Do you know the awful history? In 66 A.D. the Jews of Judea rebelled against Roman rule. In response, the Emperor Nero sent an army which first wiped out resistance in the northern part of the province, and then turned its attention to Jerusalem.
The Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, and the walls were breached in the year 70. The city was ransacked. The Temple (the spiritual center of Judaism) was burned and destroyed, and its sacred relics taken to Rome to be put on display.
A bloodbath ensued. The historian Josephus reports that 1,100,000 people were killed, and 97,000 were enslaved and sent to toil in the mines of Egypt, or sent to arenas throughout the Empire to be killed for entertainment.
Josephus writes: "The slaughter within [the city walls] was even more dreadful than the spectacle from without. Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage."
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So, where is the good news in all of this? That's the challenge when we read a passage of Scripture like Mark's Gospel today. Where is grace? Where is our hope?
But if you look carefully, you can find the good news. The Bible is a goldmine of grace. Just dig a little bit, and you will find cause for rejoicing.
I think the good news in our Gospel reading today is hinted at in Jesus' words here:
"I have told you everything ahead of time." (Mark 13:23)
The good news of today's gospel is that Jesus is telling us ahead of time that there will be hardship. He knows this. It's on His radar. Jesus tells us the truth, because He loves us: Times are going to be tough.
Real Christian faith is not vending-machine magic, where you drop your money into the offering plate and pray and—bam! No more suffering, no more heartache, all your relationships go smoothly, business booms, you pass all your exams with flying colors.
No. Christians suffer, just like other people. We hurt those around us and get hurt by them. We experience setbacks. We get sick. We are lonely sometimes. We lose things that are important to us. We die, just like other people.
The promise of the Gospel is this: God does not magically take away our hardships, but He stays with us, and gives us the strength to get through them to the end.
In order for God to make our hardships vanish, He would have to override our freedom and the freedom of probably hundreds of thousands of other people. God is not willing to do that. Being free to do right or wrong, to love or not to love, is what makes us human. God respects our freedom.
The dark side of the freedom we have been given by God is that our world is full of people—including us—who are selfish or hurt others or are indifferent to suffering. And some people who cause great harm to others. And we are all free to act as we do.
In the midst of all this, however, God is always watching over us, always acting—often in secret and very subtle ways—to help us and encourage us and uphold us:
"If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them." (Mark 13:20)
God doesn't necessarily take away our hardships, but He helps us in the midst of them.
Jesus told His disciples ahead of time that rough days were coming. He wanted them to be on their guard, not blindsided, not losing hope, so that they could persevere to the end. But He also told them this, as He tells us:
"Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world." (Matthew 28:20)
Jesus is with you. In whatever you are anxious about, in whatever hardship you are facing, Jesus is with you. And He is with this Church. Jesus will help us see things through to the end.
And, for those who entrust their lives to Christ, the end is a very bright end indeed.