The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, 2018 – 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
We’re getting close the season of Advent, which begins in 2 weeks. And it’s customary in this transition time into Advent to start hearing scriptural texts, such as today’s reading from Mark, that speak about cataclysmic events, like the war or natural disaster, societies and lives falling apart. It’s customary, because Advent is meant, in part, to turn our attention away from our self-certainties and habits towards God’s actual sovereignty over our lives and over the world. We are not our own. We cannot hold on to our lives, even the lives of those we love. We must give it all up, because it never belonged to us in the beginning. It is God’s first and last.
In our first reading, from 1 Samuel, we hear about this from another side, the side of birth. Hannah, desperately seeking a child, yet seemingly infertile, pleads with God and, against all expectation, conceives and bears a son, Samuel. To be born is wholly an act of God, wholly divine gift, utterly outside out hands; indeed, our hands are but the expression of a grace we cannot construct, but can only receive.
These two texts – the unexpected yet yearned-for conception of Samuel, and the violent dissolution of world in Jesus’ discussion in Mark – stand as strange bookends: birth and destruction – a destruction that will include, Jesus says a bit later, even our own children (Mk. 13:17). That may sound grim. But history past and experience present shows us this. And not just in war, fire, and earthquake zones; but on our own streets and highways. They are the bookends of all our lives in some sense: coming and going; not our own. Which means that how we live between these bookends is the sum of our lives.
We all live in the in-between time, the middle time, the strange place of a time that isn’t even ours to conjure or to preserve.
So let’s think a moment about the middle time:
For one thing, thinking about it puts a limit to our desires and pretensions. We are all in this middle time of limits; and so all of our lives are simply “normal”, no more, no less. I’ve become interested in normalcy of late, perhaps as I am getting older. Normalcy means we are all basically in the same boat, and that boat is not particularly exceptional. We can talk about hope as we should, hope in something better and grander. But that lies outside this middle time, and only by crossing the threshold of the bookends will hope emerge in its fullness. For now, we are Adam and Eve, given a few years – as the Psalmist says, 70, 80 if we are lucky, but in any case not long before we are “cut off” (Ps. 90:10). And during these few years, all of us struggle, toil, desire, work, grow, and fade, “like grass” as Scripture says repeatedly (Ps. 90:5; Is. 40:6).
Young people don’t like hearing this. Our hope is that we can explode this middle, normal time. Achieve something remarkable, rise above others. As a young person, I wanted to make a great difference, be influential, and so on. Not long ago, the former bishop of New York, who was 81, said to me, “The quickest way to be forgotten is to be a retired bishop”. That, and any number other things! But that goes for all of us. The Yugoslavian author Danilo Kis wrote a wondrous short story – a kind of fantasy story – about an encyclopedia that had been written about every ordinary person who has ever lived since 1789. Nobody famous is included; nobody already noted in some other book is there. Only “ordinary” people. The encyclopedia, which is carefully guarded, is housed in Sweden, and a woman gains entry and looks up the article on her recently deceased father. She is astonished at what she finds there. The simple details of her father’s life
are all laid out, remarkable and moving. Kis’ story is about love-in-the-ordinary, that normal people live out. But there is a sadness to the story as well, though. The Encyclopedia of the Dead, as it is called, is thousands and thousands of volumes. No human being will every read it as a whole, or even close. You have to know already who you are looking up. The lives of the ordinary are real and wonderful; but they are all outside of our grasp except in the smallest of compasses: our families, friends and neighbors. And even there what do we really know?
But “just there” is what our lives are about. The middle and normal time where we are, briefly and mysteriously, between the bookends of birth and end, is indeed the key. And, of course, God’s Lordship is exercised right here.
The Bookends, as it were, open up the space where God is Lord most fully for us.
Our reading from Hebrews is, in a way, about just this. The Letter itself is interesting and symbolic on this score. Nobody knows who wrote it. At various points in history, it was assigned to Paul. But in fact, we don’t know and almost all scholars today –liberal, conservative, critical, fundamentalist – agree that, for all intents and purposes, the Letter to the Hebrews is “anonymous”. Whoever wrote it was smart, literate, sophisticated. But someone whose life is buried in some inaccessible volume of the Encyclopedia of the Dead, just as ours will be.
The author writes about sublime and heavenly realities, as we have heard in our readings over the past few weeks: God, angels, a Son, the image of the Father, who stands beyond all priests and enters into the sanctuary of heaven, beyond all time and space. But having come to this place, we are told, “he waits” (10:13); waits until a final visible victory. And because Jesus the Christ now rules, by rules in waiting, we are left here, in a transformed space, between the times. And so? As with all the letters of the New Testament, having talked about this, there is always a “therefore”….. Because he is there and we are here, “Therefore, do not live like the Gentiles; therefore, stay awake; therefore submit yourself one to another; therefore be obedient, or live holy lives.” “Therefore” is always a turning, from a vision that stretches beyond the horizons of our lives – the bookends– back to today, to here, to the normal. Because Jesus is our great high priest, having entered into heaven, the writers says, “Therefore” (v. 19). In this life, “therefore”. And what does he tell us?
It is all very normal indeed. Therefore, hold on to your confession of hope; therefore, encourage each other to love and do good; therefore, go to church regularly (v. 23-4). This is normality, this is middle time, unrelated to grand deeds, unrecognizable across the centuries, or remembered by the great Encyclopedias.
What we do between the bookends of our births and the end of our scrambling, Hebrews says, amounts to three things: confess, encourage, go to the church.
Let us pause here on each.
I suppose that “confess” here could refer, say, to the Creed: – I believe in God the Father almighty… and in Jesus Christ is only son…. But more likely, it refers, as it does in Paul, simply the great “confession” that “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9); it is what all creation will do at the end of time, after all, when “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”.
Hold fast, then, to Lordship of Jesus. Here. Every day. In everything we do. Jesus is Lord of it. Which means that, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we are stewards of this short life we have, on the Lord’s behalf. We seek, openly and clearly, day by day, to do his will and be governed by his gifts and spirit. We read his Word, we follow, obey, and pray to him. He is Lord of my friendships and families in this way, Lord of my work, Lord of my money, Lord of my illness, Lord of my angers and joys, Lord of my hopes. But always here; nowhere else; not tomorrow; not when I move and have a new job; not when I find the right person or feel the right way. Just here, in all the things that are written down in the infinite volumes of God’s book, that only He can read.
Therefore, hold fast to your confession, and then encourage one another to love and good works. This follows directly from our confession that Jesus is Lord here. For it means that right here is where love and goodness is enacted, here with the person next to me: with your spouse or child or sibling or friend or neighbor. Nothing could be more normal; but also, in its penetrating immediacy, nothing could be more focused on God who is in the midst of our small times. It amazes me how easy it is – I speak of myself, but of others too – to forgo love and deeds of goodness for some grander arena always yet to come, because right here, I tell myself, is not that important, is but a way-station to the big stuff I am concerned with.
The Lordship of Jesus is exercised most fully – or not! — as you wait in line at No Frills. Or sit at the dinner table. Or bump into a co-worker.
“Encourage one another” to love and good works. “Encourage” in the sense of help each see how important this is, how it is possible, what it looks like. This is what parents do with children; and friends do with each other, or colleagues. This is the stewardship of normal time where all the visions of heaven come to rest in our actual life. It’s so interesting that Paul himself, after having written soaring disquisitions on divine glory, always comes back to the simplest elements of common life as his “therefore”: therefore, don’t lie, be kind, be patient, be humble, be thankful, be supportive (cf. Col. 3:8-15). Redemption, in normal time, the Lordship of Jesus in the midst of the ages, between he Bookends, looks like this. No more; but no less.
And so, the Letter to the Hebrews says, “therefore”, “don’t neglect to meet together as is the habit of some” – literally, gather in your synagogues, or more pointedly for us, go to church regularly. Of course, you and I are here this morning. But the point is, we are here because this is where the Lordship of Jesus and the encouraging of love and good deeds works itself out and gains its regular energies. Gathering in church is not about some magical experience, or some deeply moving practice or even about making God happy. If this is what church is about for us, we will soon either be disappointed or grow weary and move on. Many do.
But in fact, coming to church has a very normal purpose: to help us learn the will of God, in Scripture and prayer, so that the Lordship of Jesus is something we can receive every day; to learn to love; to practice good with one another in some regular way – with our conversation, time, and money.
And all of this is not to exhaust God’s life, but to let it happen for the whole of our existence, complicated and limited as it may be. Friends who go to church with friends, have stronger friendships; parents who go to church with their children have more resilient ties over time, and so on. That’s what sociologists tell us. But the reason for this lies deeper: in just gathering every week this way, we are given time to steward, and to be the place where God can meet us and receive of our thanks. And such a time as this, means a simple and regular focus. We “exhort” one another, the Letter says, in the sense that, in the brief time, the normal and middle time, of our existence, we can help each other stay on track.
And the track is given in the Bookends of Birth and End, in the miraculous power and gifting of God to let us be, be at all and be with Him. But the track is also given just here, in our normal
time: For as Advent itself comes to an end, in about a month’s time on December 25th, it tells us this: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14); here, in in a time everyone, it seems, forgets; except God himself.