This past weekend, next weekend when we celebrate The Reign of Christ and yet again on the first weekend in December, The First Sunday of Advent, the readings appointed all focus our attention on endings. The fancy Biblical word is eschatology - words about "the end of the world."
In my sermon this past weekend, on Mark's "little apocalypse," I focused on Jesus' words that cataclysmic signs of the end be seen as "birth pangs." As I hear those words, Jesus is inviting his disciples to be not afraid, to live as people of hope. In two weeks we'll hear a very similar metaphor to my ears. Jesus tells his followers in the twenty-first chapter of Luke's Gospel to consider the fig tree: how when they sprout leaves you know that summer is near. So, too, he suggests, when the earth seems under distress and the end is near, know the Kingdom of God is upon us, that it's like a fig tree bearing fruit.
One of my parishioners met me at the door yesterday after my sermon, which she told me she liked and agreed with. But...
I knew where she was going and I was not insulted; I have the same "but." If the world around is coming unglued, and yet we act as if this is great stuff--birth pangs and figs on a tree, are we living in denial of the realities of our call to be good stewards of the earth? If the oceans are rising and the weather is out of control because we have failed the earth, are we missing "signs" from God to "wake up" and to love our Mother Earth if the preacher just keeps saying, "no worries?"
I think as we get ready for Advent, it is helpful to distinguish between denial, wishful thinking, and hope. Denial is about putting our heads in the sand: about refusing to see what is before our very eyes. Wishful thinking, however, assumes we can do nothing and God will take care of it. To my way of thinking it is not very different from denial.
Hope, though, is different. Hope empowers us to act. What I wanted to be heard to say in my sermon (and what I think Jesus says when he speaks to his disciples about "the end") is that we must not be paralyzed by our fears. We are meant to "wake up" and "keep alert" and act like faithful disciples. It is irresponsible of us to abdicate responsibility: our Baptismal Covenant calls upon us to live our faith and to do the work God would have us to do.
I realize there is a paradox here but I think it is a paradox embodied in the life of St. Francis, who is said to have been hoeing a row of beans when someone asked him what he would do if the world was to come to and end tomorrow. His response was said to have been that he should like to finish hoeing that row of beans.
We are meant to do the work God has given us to do, as individuals and as a community of faith. We are meant to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. To love one another. If we live in fear of "the end" we can become distracted from that calling; and even paralyzed. I think when Jesus talks about birth pangs and fig trees he means to call us back to the main thing: whether the end is coming soon or is a long way off, to live as God's people, as a people of hope who are empowered for the work of ministry.