The Calamities of Our Times

Kate Lasso

What struck me most about the scriptures for today is that they offer a stark contrast between parallel choices about how to live.  On one side, we can live committed to a free-will and faithful relationship with God.  In his book Come Out My People, Wes Howard-Brook would call this a life embracing the “religion of creation,” which is “grounded in the experience of and, ongoing relationship, with God the Creator, leading to a covenantal bond between that God and God’s people for the blessing and abundance of all people and all creation.” 

Alternatively, we can live according to the tenets of what Wes has called the “religion of empire.”  Wes describes this religion as “sometimes claiming to be grounded in that same God, [but it] is actually a human invention used to justify and legitimize attitudes and behaviors that provide blessing and abundance for some at the expense of others.”  According to Wes, the ideas of both the religion of creation and the religion of empire are present in the bible, woven together as contrasting threads of the same story of humanity in search of God.

I see these two alternative religions, of Creation and Empire contrasted against each other very clearly in today’s scriptures.  While I am sure that all of us would consciously choose what Wes calls the religion of creation, it’s important to remember that, for most of us, this is a minute-by-minute choice we make every day of our lives.  While sometimes these decisions are obvious and easy - we would certainly choose to help out our elderly neighbor by carrying groceries, for example. There are other times when making this choice puts us on in an uncomfortable or even scary situation.  Those are the times when trusting God becomes both vital to spiritual well being, and challenging, as our sense of our fragile humanity becomes painfully clear. 

Psalm 16 shows us this contrast in the simplest of ways, contrasting the Psalmist who seeks refuge in God, who trusts God no matter the circumstances, to those who move away from God and who lives are sorrow filled.

Psalmist:  Keep me safe, my God,
    for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    apart from you I have no good thing.”

God:  3 I say of the holy people who are in the land,
    ”They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.

Psalmist:  I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
    or take up their names on my lips.

I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
    even at night my heart instructs me.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
    With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

This would be an easy Psalm to sing the day after getting a great new job, wouldn’t it?  But how about when considering whether to turn down a much-needed job because you can’t support what the company does?  Or after being unjustly fired from your job and you don’t know how you will pay your bills?  That’s a little harder.

I believe that the reading from Daniel tells the same story in a more dramatic fashion.

One commentator that I read while preparing for today suggests that the book of Daniel has two distinct parts to it.  The first six chapters tell of four young Israelites in the Babylonian captivity (chapter 1)--Daniel, Hananiah (aka Shadrach), Mishael (aka Meshack), and Azariah (aka Abednego).  These first six chapters include the stories of:

• Daniel interpreting two of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams (chapters 2 and 4).

• The king making a gold statue and requiring that everyone worship it.  When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to do so, the king has them thrown in a fiery furnace--but God joins them and prevents them from being harmed (chapter 3).

• Next, Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall for King Nebuchadnezzar--followed by Nebuchadnezzar’s death and the ascendancy of Darius to the throne (chapter 5).

• Daniel is then thrown in the lion’s den after breaking Darius’ decree that no one should pray to any god or man for thirty days except for Darius.  Then, in the lion’s den, Daniel is saved from harm by God (ch 6).

Wes Howard-Brook reminds us, that, in contrast to Jesus’ teachings (which I’ll talk about more in a minute), “the religion of empire is always grounded in ... this principle:  that royal edict is divine law.”  

At chapter 7, the writing changes from telling the story of these particular Israelites to sharing a vision or dream of strange beasts, judgment and angels.  This is called apocalyptic narrative, with visions of the end times as revealed by an angel or other messenger from God.  Chapter 12, which is part of this week’s scriptures, is in this second half of Daniel and contains visions and prophecies and terrible things to come.   

 Chapters 12:1-3, our scriptures for this week tell of Daniel’s vision of conflict between nations and heavenly powers, culminating in a judgment scene where sinners are consigned to “shame and everlasting contempt,” but the wise “shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (12:2-3).

This same commentator continues by saying that even though chapters 1-6 and 7-12 seem like they don’t belong together, they actually tell two versions of one story--the story of God’s care for God’s people in the face of adversity.  Chapters 1-6 tell the story of God’s care of 4 specific people:  Daniel, Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego in the face of personal calamity.  Chapters 7-12 tell the same story as a vision of God’s care for the nation Israel--for all of God’s people during times of national anguish.  Wes Howard-Brook reminds us that this is a sliver of the story of God’s care--for God cares for all of creation, not just a chosen few and not just human beings. 

What strikes me as significant is that these circumstances of adversity and calamity are experienced by God’s people precisely because they stand in resistance to Empire.  The problems faced by Daniel, Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego could certainly been avoided if they had only followed the rules of empire rather than remaining true to their relationship with the one, true God of Creation.  In other words, these faithful people remained faithful to the God of Creation, knowing the personal sacrifice that would follow.

MARK

The Gospel reading for this week is Mark 13:1-8.  But just as with the scripture from Daniel, to understand this week’s reading from Mark 13, we really need the context of the chapters that come before and after.  Chapter 11 tells us of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (11:1-11) (where the Temple of David is located, which is the headquarters for the Jewish religious elite).  Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is followed by conflicts Jesus has with religious leaders who (in chapters 11-12) question his authority (11:27-33) and try to trap him with questions about paying taxes (12:13-17), the resurrection (12:18-27), and whether the Messiah can be David’s son (12:35-27).  These religious leaders were clearly alarmed by the empire-shaking influence that Jesus had that challenged their authority and exposed their corruption through his teachings.

Jesus ends these conflicts with the religious leaders by denouncing the scribes (12:38-40),  after having offered us a different vision: Jesus said, ”Isn’t it written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers!” (11:17).

In sum, in Chapters 11 and 12, the book of Mark tell us how the religious system in Israel is corrupt to the core, leading up to Jesus’ prophesy about the destruction of the man-made center of this priest-led religion, found in chapter 13. 

But before we get to Jesus’ take on the situation, we are given one more lesson about how easy it is to be fooled by the grandeur--the shock and awe--that Empire uses to deceive and control us.

Mark 13:1 As Jesus went out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, see what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Jesus said to him, ”Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will not be thrown down.”

In the land of Israel in those times (and even now), these were dangerous words.  As we know, Jerusalem was the epicenter of Jewish religion and cultural control over the Jewish people.  Any prophecy regarding the destruction of Jerusalem or the temple would alarm the religious and political elites. In fact, this prophecy about the destruction of the temple will play a significant role leading to Jesus’ crucifixion. When Jesus is brought up on trial, the formal accusation against him, which is an inaccurate version of Mark 13:2, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’ “ (Mark:14:58).  What follows is a record of the betrayal of Jesus (14:43-51), Peter’s denial (14:66-72), the crucifixion (chapters 14-15) and the resurrection (chapter 16). 

While Mark Chapter 13 is also often described as apocalyptic, filled with visions, unlike most similar literature, chapter 13 is NOT about end times. When the disciples ask Jesus for “the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished,” (v. 4), Jesus tells them of wars and natural calamities, but then says, ”but the end is not yet” and ”These things are the beginning of the birth pains” (vv. 7-8). Jesus used this visionary style of communication not to predict the end of the world, which is the most common use. Instead, his vision was of a new birth.

As I was working on this sharing, a thought came to me.  What if visionary text is a predictor both end times and new beginnings.  What if we were to interpret this text both through the values of Empire and the values of Creation?  What if this visionary prophecy is predicting both the end of Empire and the birth pangs of new life, thus bringing fear to those who live according to the values of Empire and anticipation to those who live according to the values of Creation?  If this is true, perhaps “end times” are always with us, just as the destructive forces of empire are always here.  Perhaps, by embracing the Religion of Creation and resisting the Religion of Empire, we see the same events as those who seek to preserve Empire see them, we just see things differently.  We stop being mesmerized by the grand displays of empire--such as the large stones and buildings the disciples saw in Jerusalem--and see revealed the corruption and decay of oppression and injustice.  Perhaps this is what is both birthed and destroyed when we decide to follow Jesus’ example and enter into a covenanted relationship with the God of Creation.

Wes Howard-Brook finds this story of resistance to empire leading to death and then resurrection as the heart of the gospel story.  For me, this means that, by keeping my eyes fixed on the promise of resurrection and new life, I can remain faithful in my relationship to God, and God’s grace is visible, even in the hardest of circumstances.  What may start out as difficult choices can become easy to make when my values are clearly aligned with God’s purpose. 

Wes states that, by keeping a focus on the promise of resurrection, we are able (like Daniel in today’s reading from scripture) to be God’s people who bring forth “a light for others, to show the how to live in true harmony (shalom) with God, one another and all creation.”  This understanding of YHWH’s purpose would have been obvious were it not for the persistent, powerful presence of the religion of empire (claimed as YHWH’s authority) practiced by the Jerusalem temple, its priesthood, and its collaborators among both the elite and ordinary people.  Jesus, however, experiencing God’s overwhelming love for him and all of creation, took up the sacred vocation of embodying YHWH’s will by engaging in the two-part mission of denouncing the religion of empire and proclaiming as Good News the religion of God’s immanent and abundant kingdom of peace, justice, love and joy for all.”

As disciples of Christ, we are invited to do the same, no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  But we must be both vigilant and clear to ensure that we stay true to these values despite the overwhelming displays of empire all around us.

 MARK 13: verse 5 warns us to be careful that no one leads us astray.   ”For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and will lead many astray.”

 “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, don’t be troubled. For this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places. There will be famines and troubles. This is but the beginning of birth pains.   

Hebrews 10:11-25 offers another contrast between the man-made religion of the priests and what Christ offers us:

Verse 10:11 says “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” In contrast, verse 14 says that “by a single offering Christ has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”

Verse 16 talks about the covenant that God seeks to have with us, forgetting our sins, inviting us to friendship:  “I will put my laws in their hearts and I will write them on their minds. 

Verse 19 says we are to have confidence to enter God’s presence.

Verse 22 talks about the assurance of faith. “Let’s draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, and having our body washed with pure water.”

A third assurance is that of hope in verse 23. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; for he who promised is faithful.”

Then the writer turns to three ways in which we are to express our faith outwardly.

First, we are to express our faith by good and loving deeds. Verse 24 says, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works ... not not neglecting to meet together (Verse 25) while “encouraging one another.”

This scripture from Hebrews aligns well with the Great Commandment found in Mark Chapter 12, just a few lines before the Mark scriptures for this week:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28) … 

29 ”The most important one,” answered Jesus, ”is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no commandment greater than these.”

So what impact does all of this have on us today?  Are we in end times?  Are we seeing the birth pangs of a new beginning?  I’m beginning to think that perhaps the whole of human history has been a long story of end times and the promise of new life--it’s just a question of how we see it and what we run after.  I also think that, while oppression and injustice have always been a part of the human story, we have sometimes been ignorant of its presence.  We’ve done a lot of soul-searching in 8th Day about the privilege of being white and the privilege of being middle class, and how that has blinded us to the ravages of the empire in which we live.  In this example, the pangs of birth would be the pain we feel as we begin to understand that we are co-conspirators with Empire if we don’t stand in resistance to its values and in solidarity with our black and brown sisters and brothers.  We are complicit in injustice if we don’t stand against it.

I also believe that it’s possible that the price that one might pay for standing in resistance to Empire may increase in the next few years, even for us middle class white people.  In other words, I believe things are going to get worse.  How can we stay standing while facing rising calamity?  By shutting our eyes to the powerful displays of empire, and turning our eyes to the one true God.

The Inward/Outward daily quote from earlier this week says it this way:

“The necessary detachment from this ugly and injurious present political climate depends upon our inner attachment to the mystery of God’s unbounded grace and divine, creative love. That is the foundation from which we can witness to truth, nurture community, and build essential bonds of solidarity with those who suffer. More than ever, politics which offers redemptive hope will begin with mysticism, with our inner attachment to the mystery of God’s unbounded grace and divine, creative love.” [Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation]

I’ll end with a modified version of a prayer quoted by Reverend James Lawson in a speech he gave recently at the Children’s Defense Fund:

Grant by Thy grace that we may not be found wanting in the hour of crisis when the battle is set. May we know on which side we ought to be. And when the day goes hard and cowards steal from the field and heroes fall around the standard, may our place be found where the fight is fiercest. If we faint, may we not be faithless. If we falter, may we not fall. And when we fall, may it be while expressing the passion of God while loving you and our neighbors and speaking truth to all who will listen.

[1] Shalom is rooted in the word Shalam which means "to be safe in mind, body or estate.  The idea is of an inward sense of completeness or wholeness.