Birthpangs of the here and now

25th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27, Year B)

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 13:1-8
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors: Willie and Sarah

 
I was honored, in this interview, to sit with my friend and FFMTW contributor Willie as we discussed this scripture together. We are drawing toward Advent, and coming full circle through this first year of Faith from the Margins to the Web.

“This is but the beginning of the birthpangs” said Willie. “Some definite changes are coming, I guess for mankind and everything. Well, I guess that we’ve got to get ourselves ready for our Lord and Savior, to get things in order.”

“It’s interesting that you said that” I said, “because it was that word, ‘birthpangs’ that stood out to me, too. In the midst of all those images of death and destruction, Jesus chooses that image of giving birth. Now, I don’t mean to be overly self-disclosing here, but I want to say for a fact: giving birth is painful! Worth it, of course but without a doubt, painful. But it isn’t pain for no reason…it is for a wonderful reason. It is leading to something new, something wonderful at the end of this process. There is this birth outcome that is so beautiful because of what you know is coming. It changes this whole passage for me to hear that word.”

“You know, that makes me think of my own mother. She was always reminding me of how things were, and I would come up running behind her wanting to know more. When I think about it, it was really my Mom who got me interested in the Bible, because she would tell me the beginning of the stories and I would be wanting to hear her tell me more and of course, then I’d have to be quiet and listen. It would be lessons like this, where I was small and I wanted to know what was coming ahead and she would tell me…and keep me guessing, too.”

“We always want to know what’s to come, don’t we?” I said. “I mean, think about it: this was 2,000 years ago and people wanted to know then what was happening. They were feeling like the end was near and Jesus was reminding them: this is still a birthing process. We’re not done yet!”

“You know, that’s true!” said Willie. “When Jesus was on the cross, and it was like this moment when there was the thunder and the lightning and heaven was starting to shake…you know, it was at that moment people were looking around and thinking ‘oh wow…this man really WAS the son of God!’ It’s like we are just waiting and waiting for that moment when it comes clear, when we can’t ignore it, so we can really see and believe. But you know, it’s really been right there in front of our eyes the whole time. The other story my Mom used to tell me is how you’d be walking with a friend, and maybe that would be when the Lord would come and if you weren’t ready, that friend might be whisked away with God and you’d be left standing there. That always got my attention!”

“I have to be honest” I said, “it is the stories of destruction or these ‘left behind’ stories that are the hardest for me. When I was growing up, I was often told stories about all that end-time, apocalypse destruction or told about how I might be left behind if I didn’t get right with God and it would terrify me. Truly…for me it was terror, and I became so afraid, even afraid of God. It look me a lot of years to reconcile these images that I’d be given of a destructive God, and the images I held and cherished of a loving God. But it helped me…and still helps me…when I think about the way that things torn down make room for new growth. It’s like pruning away trees, or here, like birthpangs. It also helps me to think about it a different way, too. I know you’re grieving your friend, and I’m grieving some friends, too. So the lesson I’m reminded of is that when we are walking with our friends here on earth, we really never know how long we have to cherish that relationship. And so, it becomes important to be present, to see God in the face of the other person right here and right now. I think there isn’t just a ‘here’s what might happen…” message, but a ‘pay attention right now so you don’t miss seeing God!’ message, too.”

“You know, that reminds me of something really important” said Willie, “I mean, I’ve been battling on with dialysis and believe me, that too is painful. And I could so easily just be stuck in the pain of it or wish to be taken way. But then, I remember that I have my own place, my own battlefield right then and there. And why not there? You know, because that is where people are aching and hurting. I have a role to play and thing that need to happen right then and there!”

“It’s your mission field” I said, “You were wondering to me before we started what mission field you were called to. But maybe, where you are right now really is your mission field.”

“That’s true, that’s true” said Willie, “I mean, just think about my friend Dave. I had to work hard at first because even though we were walking together through our treatment, we did not see eye to eye. He saw my skin color, and I saw his distrust. But it didn’t stop, and we persisted and God prevailed. It was like birthpangs! I mean, he would actually whine and complain and I would think, “you are acting like a baby!” and now I realize: it was truly like a baby because those were true cries of pain, that he didn’t have words for. So, we kept walking together, I would be beside him and pray, and try to be a comfort to him. We took the time, and we both learned to see Christ in each other, no matter our differences.”

“I think you just hit right on what Jesus was talking about here” I said. “We have so many opportunities not just to wonder what will happen in the future, but to see God here and now.  Those birthpangs are a message that there is something new, something happening right here and now.  We just have to keep our eyes open to see God at work.”

The Word became flesh and lived among us…

On the Friday before Christmas last year, I stood in front of the Red Door congregation gathered for the weekly service of Healing Prayer which we hold before serving a hot lunch to anyone who is hungry and in need of a good, home-cooked meal along with conversation, music, and safe space from what can often be a harsh world.

No one has to come to the service before they eat, but every week there are around 30 people who do choose to gather in the name of God in the sanctuary space of the urban parish who offer up this ministry of hospitality.  Every week, we pray: silently and out loud, individually and as a community.  We recite the psalms together, and we read the text from the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel, offering a short reflection.

On this particular Friday, it so happened that Sunday’s Gospel was for the upcoming Christmas Day.  As a seminarian, I don’t often get to practice preaching for such a major feast day.  As I had read and studied the text of John 1:1-14 in preparation for that reflection, I kept thinking about the Word made flesh, the Word who dwells with us, the Word who became incarnate in this world in the most humble and unhoused of ways, the Word who was and is and is always becoming known in the midst of those who gather from street corners, parks, parking lots and parishes alike.

There are more times than I can recall when I have experienced the Word made flesh in this space, with these faithful ministers of the streets.  Some people are there ever week, offering me their reflections.  Others straggle in for a break from the winter’s cold or the summer’s heat.  We are people who are yearning, seeking solace, recovering, struggling, doubting, believing, praying.  That day was no exception.  When I stood to speak, the first thing I said was: “Merry Christmas!  This is the first time this season, in this space, that anyone gets to say that and you are the first people who hear those words.”  I noticed, at that moment, that John had tears in his eyes.  I felt what he was feeling.  The Word made flesh was, indeed, with us.

After the service, still teary, he came up to me: “Pastor Sarah [as he liked to call me], I just started crying.  I couldn’t help it.  It’s just that we are never first…we never are.  And then, today, there we were and it was us…we were the first!  We had the first Christmas!”

I had no words, so I just nodded, and hugged him.  I had tears in my eyes, too.  Something stirred in me, and stirred in us.  There is a presence of Christ in the lives of those on the margins which is palpable and present and transformative.  That was the gift of that moment.

John didn’t know then…nor did any of us…that it would also be his last Christmas here on this earth.  A few short weeks later, the Friday healing service would be a memorial for John’s life.  He lived unhoused, under a bridge but worked washing dishes or volunteered somewhere every day.  He saved the lives of several people from near drug overdose, but he died from an overdose himself.  He was and is one of many people whose complex and faithful lives on the margins touched and changed my own life.   But, in between that Red Door Christmas and his untimely death, the idea for this project had already been birthed.  That idea was floated during my January seminary intersession, put to paper and submitted as a grant on which I had sought John’s input, and even in grieving his loss, the restless spirit of something new coming to life was taking shape.

Although it has been several months in the making, Faith from the Margins to the Web is now a reality that will begin with regularity on the first Sunday of Advent, Year B and will grow week by week over this next liturgical year and (hopefully) beyond.  Behind the scenes, people are being trained and interviews are being scheduled.  Evangelism is happening and will soon be brought into being as words to the web.  These stories and weekly blog commentaries are indeed life giving, because they come from the spaces where God meets us, and we are changed.

I hope you will join in this project to help nurture its growth week by week.  Let us know how the stories are shaping your faith, too.  We welcome your comments, your prayers, and your reflections.

Peace,

Sarah