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Nov 14, 2021

The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Series: November 2021

Today's Scripture: Psalm 16 and Mark 13:1-8

Today's Sermon

 

"The Path of Life"

 

Psalm 16
Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.  Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink-offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.  The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

 

Mark 13:1-8
As he 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 birth pangs.”

 

Scholars think that Mark’s Gospel was written around the year 70.  That is important to know, because that was a terrible time to be a follower of Jesus.  They were being persecuted by the Roman government.  Their charismatic early leaders, like Paul and Peter, were gone. False teachers were attempting to draw believers away from the movement.  Many followers of Jesus who had been certain that Jesus would return again in their lifetimes were starting to question their very faith because Jesus had not returned.  And, to top it all off, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.  One can imagine that the followers of Jesus at that time might have been thinking that the end of the world was near.

It is in the midst of all of this chaos that the Gospel of Mark is written, so it makes sense that this passage from Mark’s Gospel has some apocalyptic overtones as it serves two purposes at once. Jesus is preparing his disciples for his upcoming death, and, 40-ish years later, Mark is preparing his readers for the hard times they are facing.  Jesus’s statements sure make it sound as if the end of the world is near – “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.”

At first glance, this would seem to be a rather depressing, even hopeless discourse from Jesus.  Thanks, Jesus, for reminding us of all the bad stuff that is happening in our world!  But, Jesus does not mean to be hopeless here at all.  In fact, he is actually offering hope in the midst of a troubling time. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed,” he says, “the end is still to come.”  Though this may seem like the end, it is not, says Jesus.  Do not be alarmed.  We still have a lot of living left to do.

And then, Jesus closes this section by saying, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  Yes, things seem really hard right now.  Jesus is very clear that we will encounter difficult times – both individually and communally – times when it may even seem like the world is ending because the labor pains are so bad.  But, this is not the end.  Instead, something new is being birthed.  The old will pass away and then the new will come.  Look into the future with hope, says Jesus, not with despair.  With promise, not with desperation.

I don’t know about you, but I hear these words of Jesus differently having lived through a world-wide pandemic these last many months.  I know that many of us have had times of hopelessness and despair.  Life has been hard.  Jobs have been lost.  Loved ones have died.  There is no sugar-coating how difficult this has been.  And yet, I have also heard many of you thinking about what the pangs of the pandemic might be birthing in your life.  I know some of you really valued the slower schedule that the pandemic forced upon you, with so many activities getting cancelled.  It was a revelation to have open time in your calendar. How might we continue the practice of holding time and space to breathe in our schedules, even as many events and activities are returning to “normal”?

I know some of you found a renewed appreciation for the relationships in your life.  Both in the ways that you missed people you were not able to be with and in the ways that you stayed connected to people even as we had to isolate from one another.  How might you continue to value the relationships in your life now that we are able to interact with one another more regularly, rather than taking our relationships for granted?

In those times when it seems like the world could be ending – like a worldwide pandemic - what will we choose to be birthed anew in our lives and in our world?

I use the word “choose” deliberately, because it is a choice.  Now that the pandemic restrictions are ending, we could choose to return to overscheduling our calendars and to reaching out to loved ones only when it’s convenient.  Or, we can choose to be changed.  To do things differently.  To prioritize in a new way.

In her book, “See No Stranger,” Valarie Kaur considers what the United States could have chosen to birth vs. what it did chose to birth following another end of the world moment – the attacks of 9/11.  She writes, “Before Americans even had time to process our shock and count our dead, our energies had been redirected for war.  On the very night of the attacks, a ‘war on terrorism’ was declared and divided the world into us and them: ‘you are either with us or against us.’”

Kaur reflects, “In those first days after the attacks, the world as a whole poured its goodwill into us, despite any grievances with the United States.  What if we hadn’t squandered that goodwill?  What would have happened if we had used that outpouring of love as a balm for the wound?  We could have grieved with our fellow Americans, not just the ones who looked like us, but also the ones who looked like the people we feared.  We could have grieved with people around the world and drawn connections between their suffering and ours.  We could have … expanded our sense of who counts as ‘us’ beyond what anyone had previously experienced.  Today we might have remembered 9/11 as the tragedy that initiated an era of global cooperation rather than global war.”

In the Psalm we heard today, the Psalmist sings that God shows him the “path of life.” Truly, God shows us all the path of life.  Will we choose to take that path?  Valarie Kaur certainly thinks that following 9/11, the United States did not choose the path of life.  There was an opportunity to birth something new filled with love and understanding, and instead our country followed the path of hate and fear and division.

I think we, both as a country and individually, had another time of birth pangs following the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020.  After yet another black person had needlessly died in our country, and with the protests and unrest that followed, we had a choice to make.  What will these difficult, painful pangs birth?  Will we, as a country, finally work to put an end to the systemic racism that has plagued this nation since it began?  Or will we carry on with business as usual – more hate, fear, and division?  Unfortunately, we as a country, still have a lot of work to do.  However, I think we did see individuals and smaller community units working hard to birth something new – a new way of being and understanding and lifting up those who have faced injustice for so many years.

Here is one very small example of something new that emerged during that time last summer.  The song we are going to hear after the sermon is by a band named “Lady A.”  Until June of 2020, their name was Lady Antebellum.  Here is their statement about why they changed their name –

“After much personal reflection, band discussion, prayer and many honest conversations with some of our closest black friends and colleagues, we have decided to drop the word ‘Antebellum’ from our name.  When we set out together almost 14 years ago, we named our band after the southern ‘antebellum’ style home where we took our first photos.  As musicians, it reminded us of all the music born in the south that influenced us.  But we are regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before the Civil War which includes slavery.

“We understand that many of you may ask the question ‘why have you not made this change until now?’ The answer is that we can make no excuse for our lateness to this realization.  What we can do is acknowledge it, turn from it, and take action.  This is just one step.  There are countless more that need to be taken.  We are committed to examining our individual and collective impact and making the necessary changes to practice antiracism.  Our next outward step will be a donation to the equal justice initiative through LadyAid.  Our prayer is that if we lead by example … with humility, love, empathy and action, we can be better allies to those suffering from spoken and unspoken injustices.”

They understood that their name was causing harm, and so they took steps to change it.  They also realized that this change came much too late, so they took steps to better educate themselves about practicing antiracism. They established a scholarship fund to support students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Now, one could argue that they never should have had that name in the first place.  Even the process of changing their change was not without controversy.  But, they are taking steps to choose the path of life.

Again, this is a very small example that is not going to erase the systemic racism that plagues our country. However, I do think this is what it looks like to choose the path of life.  To take a step, no matter how small, into living into God’s vision of abundant life for all. To live through those birth pangs and have the courage to birth something new.

So how is it that we do this?  Especially when times are hard and it feels like the world is ending and our enemies seem to be all around us, how do we choose the path of life?  The chorus of the song we are about to hear by Lady A goes like this – “This world keeps spinnin' faster into a new disaster, so I run to you.  When it all starts comin' undone, you're the only one I run to.”  I’m guessing Lady A is talking here about a significant other – not God – but they sure could have been talking about God.  In fact, when I listen to this song, I imagine that they are talking about God.  And what sound advice this is.  When the world spins into a new disaster, run to God.  When it all starts coming undone, run to God.  God will show us the path of life each and every time.  In God’s presence, the Psalmist reminds us, there is fullness of joy.  Run to God.

The quote on the front of your bulletin this week is from the late actor, Christopher Reeve.  You might remember that he suffered a devastating injury when he fell off a horse that left him paralyzed from the neck down.  Talk about feeling like your world is ending!  But Reeve refused to give in to despair or helplessness.  He chose hope.  He chose the path of life.  “Once you choose hope,” he said, “Anything is possible.”  Lest you think that was easy for him and life was all rainbows and unicorns, he also said, “In the morning I need 20 minutes to cry … to say this really sucks, to allow the feeling of loss to be acknowledged.”

Only 20 minutes a day?  During our end of the world times, I think we might need 20 hours a day to cry!  Sorrow, grief, anxiety, struggle do not have time limits. We should take all the time we need.

But then, said Reeve, after his cry every day, he would say “And now, forward!”

And now forward.  Forward on the path of life.  Forward into what new is being birthed.  Forward with God, who offers hope in the midst of hopelessness and joy in the midst of pain.  Not instead of, but in the midst of.  May we choose the path of life, over and over again.