Were you listening to these readings? Where in the world did they come from and what are we supposed to make of them? We’ve been cruising along through the Gospel according to Mark, absorbing the teachings of Christ, watching ourselves in the mirror the disciples and the scribes hold up for us and our lives. We’re coming up to the end of the church year, and you’d think that the folks who organized the lectionary that guides our readings would have picked readings that would begin to pull it all together for us. You’d think we would be listening to readings that put all of this year’s readings into perspective. Instead, we have these readings that can probably best be called apocalyptic. Apocalypsis is the Greek word for revelation, and the two largest bits of apocalyptic scripture are the book of the prophet Daniel and the Revelation to John. Apocalyptic writings report mysterious revelations, usually mediated by angels and disclosing a supernatural world. These readings focus on the end times and always involve the judgment of the dead.
Put those things together—the end times and the judgment of the dead—and it’s not difficult to conjure up a good case of fear. Over the years, most of us have been exposed to Christianity that has its base in fear. Fear of God’s judgment, fear of not measuring up on that great getting-up morning, fear of not being a good enough Christian to earn a place in heaven, fear that our names won’t be written in the good book that holds the names of those who awake to everlasting life, fear of living out eternity in the bad place, separated from God and from all the people we love.
Even today’s gospel segment points us in the way of fear. Jesus is warning the people that catastrophe is on the way. He’s telling them to take immediate action when they see the signs of catastrophe. He tells the people not to try to fight what they are seeing but to leave—to get out of Dodge—to flee as soon as they recognize the warning signs of imminent disaster. It’s hard to tell exactly what Jesus was warning against. Those who believe that he was able to see into the future think that the “abominable desecration” refers to Emperor Caligula’s attempt to put a statute of himself in the Jerusalem temple in about 40 AD or that it might refer to the events that took place at the end of the Jewish Revolt in a few decades later. It may simply have been that Jesus was able to see the collisions that were certain to happen sooner or later in response to the Roman domination of Judea. Whatever the specific events that Jesus has in mind, it’s clear that he’s encouraging the people around him to follow the course that was frequently his choice when danger loomed: to slip away as quickly as possible. And live to teach and preach and heal another day.
It’s easy to focus on fear of the coming disaster that’s described in this reading. It’s easy to focus on all the fearful things that may happen in our lives. It’s harder to hear the encouragement and reassurance that’s tucked into this gospel. It’s hard to hear the good news, but it’s there.
After he warns of rough times ahead and encourages the people to get to safe ground, Jesus tells the people to watch out for false messiahs and false prophets who will attempt to lead them astray through signs and omens. Then he says—“Be alert; I have already told you everything.”
When disaster strikes, sometimes the very best thing we can do is hunker down in a safe place and ride it out. Like every action we humans take, seeking shelter from the storm sometimes brings unforeseen consequences that present another kind of danger. One of the problems with taking refuge in a safe place is that it’s hard to leave again when the troublous times are over. We become accustomed to living in fear, accustomed to guarding against danger, accustomed to seeing danger outside every window and door. When that happens, it’s easy for the false messiahs and false prophets to get our attention. “Watch out!” they say. “Don’t get your hopes up!” they warn. “You’re safe now and this is as good as it’s going to get. You don’t want to go stirring up trouble. There’s not much life here, but it’s what we’ve got, and we have to take care of it.”
That’s what could have happened here at St. Mark’s.
Six years ago, we were in the middle of a bad patch. When I came here five years ago, the vestry had the choice of paying our full fair share to the diocese or paying my salary. We couldn’t do both. I’m glad they chose to pay me, and I hope you are too. Last year at this time, two things were happening. First, we were on track to pay our full fair share for the entire year. Second, our preliminary budget projection for 2006 showed a whopping $45,000 deficit. We brought our pledges to this altar, just like we’re going to do today, and a miracle happened. We pledged a part of the abundance God gives us, and our treasurer was able to present a balanced budget at our annual meeting in January. And we ended 2005 having paid our full fair share for the first time in many years. Then another miracle happened. In response to the work we have done to bring our finances into health, the diocese agreed to forgive our debt, contingent on our meeting our fair share for two years and our promise to continue to do so. In two weeks, our treasurer will write the last fair share check for the year, and our debt will be forgiven. And another miracle happened. In July we called Pastor Kate to be with us half time for six months. Her salary was an unbudgeted expense, and we didn’t know if we could afford to keep her on after December. Last Monday, our vestry voted to give Pastor Kate an open-ended letter of agreement. That means that our preliminary budget projection shows a $16,000 deficit. Somehow, I have no trouble believing that we will see a balanced budget at our annual meeting in January.
I have no trouble believing that we will continue to grow in our ministry together. We could have stayed hunkered down in a safe place, but we didn’t. We could have listened to the false messiahs and false prophets who said we would never rise to our feet again, but we didn’t. We could have kept our focus on fear, but we didn’t. Instead, we have focused on Jesus’ actions in our lives and the promises he has fulfilled to us. Jesus said, “I have already told you everything,” and the people of St. Mark’s have been listening. In this miraculous year, we have listened to Jesus speak of God’s love and compassion for us, and we have been called to love and compassion for others. We have experienced ministry to us, and we are growing in our ability to reach out to others in ministry. Most of all, we have believed Jesus’ words: “I have come so that you might have life and have it abundantly.” We are living in abundance and trusting in God’s love.
Thanks be to God.
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