Part of our Inspiration for Beloved Community Series, here is the sermon from Sunday. This is a tag-team message between Erica and I drawing from the wisdom of mothering to help us all be more faithful in our waiting for the future! Check out the audio and transcript below. Feel free to comment and please share!
We continue in our series Questions God Asks. The title of my message is: When is the day or the hour?: Learning from our mothers. Our passage of Scripture comes from Mark 13:32-37.
Mark 13:32-37 (NLT)
32 “However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. 33 And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert[a]!
34 “The coming of the Son of Man can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. When he left home, he gave each of his slaves instructions about the work they were to do, and he told the gatekeeper to watch for his return. 35 You, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know when the master of the household will return—in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak. 36 Don’t let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning. 37 I say to you what I say to everyone: Watch for him!”
This is the Word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Pray with me.
This is a passage about the future, about the very end of time and everything leading up to it. About the future of all of creation collectively, and each of our individual futures, tomorrow, five years from now, even eternity. The passage comes at the end of verses that are commonly known in American Christianity. These earlier verses begin with Jesus speaking to his disciples about the destruction of the Temple. For a Jew this was a sign of Israel’s long awaited future time when God would bring judgment upon their oppressors. God would finally make things right and bring unending political and religious authority to the Jews. Still, the disciples are as clueless as ever. They begin to ask Jesus about more signs. They want to get down to the details. They want to know when will this destruction at the end happen? We can relate. Most of us grew up in the generation of the Left Behind series. Still today movies abound about the doom of Armageddon. So when Jesus goes into his spiel about wars and rumors of wars, antichrists, earthquakes and famines in odd places it’s hard to get those “end times” images out of our heads about widespread persecution or one person being caught up by Jesus in the clouds, while their companion is left for destruction.
Theories abound about the exact date, the exact signs, the exact place, the exact people that will be caught up in these last moments of time and life as we know it. For more conservative folks, Left Behind almost rivals the bible itself for most of their understandings of God and the way that God will finally deal with the world. Liberals choose to ignore the passage altogether. They say it’s no point in wasting our time worrying about a final judgment and God setting things right. God hasn’t done it yet. This is gullibility at best; fairytale at worst. They conclude that we are the ones responsible for bringing the future that we need and desire. Human ingenuity and capacity will bring us into the future, will solve all of our problems.
Control is at the center of both of these, our often subconscious addiction to control what the future entails. The problem is there is no vision exterior to us, no transcendence that calls into question our egos. So on the one side there’s no lasting responsibility to care for the earth or those who are suffering, because this will all burn up anyway and God will make things right at the end. On the other side is the belief that if we don’t fix the world and its environmental and social justice problems, we won’t have a world left. God forgot about this mess a long time ago. So when it comes to the time between the present and God’s future, our futures we are left with escapism on the one side and obsession on the other.
Scripture refers to the time between the now and not yet, the present and God’s future, as “birth pains.” An appropriate metaphor for what I want to offer us as a third way, an alternative to obsession and escapism, a way of being that is demonstrated in the experience of motherhood, active waiting.
When it comes to the question “how do we anticipate the future?”, “how do we wait?”, I have three points that we can learn from the experience of motherhood to help us be faithful. So as not to pretend that I can ever speak for this experience, my wife Erica and I will tag-team on this. Three points.
First point: humility.
[Erica talks!]: About this time of day on March 7, 2013 I was in Chicago with my mommy. I had already been out of work for a week, we had had several baby showers, and we were just awaiting the entrance of our dear “lil Phil” as we were calling him. Sounds so sweet, right? Wrong. I was irritated, angry, downright disgusted. Here I got my momma having traveled across the country a week ago to be with me, me having taken off work A WEEK AGO—that’s 5 sicks days gone people–GONE, me having weird Braxton hicks contractions for God knows how long and this little boy IS STILL not even trying to make his entrance. Humbling is an understatement. I couldn’t MAKE him appear. Yes I had planned everything around this due date that was indeed a vague estimate of when my baby would be born. But when that date came and went, it became one of the greatest evidences that GOD is in control, that I can plan and plan and plan (and I should), but my and my child’s wellbeing were ultimately in the hands of God. And that my friends, was humbling.
“No one knows the day or the hour.” “You don’t know when that time will come.” “You don’t know when the master of the household will return – in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak.”
Jesus says this to an inner group of disciples on the mountain. Jesus never tells them to try to discover the exact details about the future and about his final coming. If he didn’t tell them, what makes any of us think that we should be trying to agonize over the details of the future? None of us knows. And in case we think there’s the possibility that we could find out, the bible makes it clear that no one knows, not even the angels in heaven. Seems pretty clear that Jesus ends our speculation about the future. This doesn’t mean become buffoons. It means we are invited to a posture of humility. Humility helps us to remember that we are dust, and to the dust we shall return. That there is fragility to human life that we must accept. Mothers understand this well. Friends, the future will come. Humility creates the capacity for the kind of freedom and openness for others and for all of life. This is necessary for the future. Or else any and all of our futures are left to anxiety. Anxiety is rooted in our need to control. Control is at the heart of every instance of injustice and evil that our world has known. Anxiety is not the way forward. The bible says:
25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life[a]? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
Point two: presence.
[Erica talks.] I’ll back up a bit during my pregnancy. Although our pregnancy was planned, who can plan for these things anyway? It took me a while to own what was actually taking place within my body. And I’m gonna be honest here folks, it wasn’t until I could inhale without being nauseous that I was able to be a bit more present with what was going on. It was like a switch went off and I my perspective went from taking care of me, to taking care of us. It shifted from eating well and exercising for me, to eating and exercising for us. I began to sing to this little life, to talk to this little life, to connect with this little life. And as this shift happened, as I became more present with what was happening within me, all the little things that went along with growing a baby (swollen feet, fatigue, stretching of… well everything)—all those things became secondary, because you see I was able get excited for how my present, how my right now was connected to my future. And it was so exciting.
“Be on guard. Stay alert.” “Keep watch.” “Don’t be found sleeping.”
If humility invites us to openness and flexibility, being present invites us to get to work, to show up, to pay attention. One of the great temptations when we are waiting for something in the future is to be passive, inattentive, lazy. It makes me recall the story of Jesus in Gethsemane inviting his disciples to be present with him in prayer and they fall asleep. Jesus says to them:
“Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Being present helps us to know ourselves and our surroundings deeply, to not be carried off into the temptations of the flesh: selfishness and pride. Being present helps us to know that we can’t do or be everything, but we can do something, we can be some place. And that’s tied to your spirit, that inner voice of presence that tells you that you matter and therefore everyone else and every place matters and is worthy of love and investment. Presence creates the conditions for intimacy, for companionship, for service. If you’re constantly trying to fix, to manage, to control what’s ahead, how can you ever be working meaningfully with what you have right in your midst? Pay attention to what’s inside of you, take time to notice who and what is around you. If you can’t find meaning in serving and loving yourself and others right where you are, there is no deep and abiding meaning in the future for you. So let’s not get carried away with questions about what comes next, or what the end will be. Howard Thurman, mentor to Martin Luther King, said it this way:
“Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Third point: trust.
When I was growing up, and was old enough, I was responsible for watching my sisters while my mom was at work during the summer when we were out of school. Momma would leave the house for work in the morning, sometimes before we were awake. We always had what we needed, but those days were always so long. They probably felt longer for my sisters. Let’s just say I was that type of big brother. Though we rarely said it aloud, all three of us couldn’t wait for momma to get back home. We trusted that she’d always show up, she’d come back to us. We could be in the middle of having fun, or me teasing my sisters, or we might be bored out of our minds, but we had this sixth sense of knowing when her car wheels ruffled over the gravel in our driveway. Something leaped in us. Home wasn’t truly home unless she was there! We trusted that she’d show up every time, we trusted that home was always possible.
The danger with trust, of course, is that it uncovers the truth that the future may not turn out the way we want it to or the way we plan. It may actually turn out for the worse. Many mothers are not able to bring their children to term or have children at all. Even for mothers that can witness the birth of their babies, death remains a possibility because we live in a world that cannot accommodate perfection. And I recognize that for mothers of black, brown or poor babies the death from social injustice threatens their children’s lives before they are even born. Of course this goes beyond children. Evil and pain and suffering show up in all of our stories and experiences. For you the danger of trust may be any number of other painful outcomes that you’d rather forget, that are hard to even talk about, that you are praying won’t turn up again.
And yet trust is all we’ve got. It’s all the disciples had too. Jesus says to them about the future:
“Only the Father knows.” “Watch for him!”
The only way we can go on trusting is if there is a transcendence, something outside of us, a God, that is trustworthy. Jesus says God the Father is just that. But the real indication of God’s trustworthiness in this passage is the bit that says: “no one knows the day or the hour…not even the Son himself.” How can the Son of God, Jesus, the one Christians claim to be God, not know what the future holds?
This is a statement about God’s identification with us, even to the depths of the unknown. This is Jesus taking on the life of the cross before he was nailed to the one that killed him. In the cross of Jesus, God identifies with us in the lowest points of human evil and pain. If pain and evil and sin can’t be transformed from the inside, then hope, then life is strangled. That Jesus was raised from the dead, means that life wins, that love and joy are given space in all of our futures. That Jesus was raised from the cross means that God is trustworthy for the future in which we wait. Each of us is an example of life and love made possible through the pain of our mother’s wombs. Praise be to God!
Jesus is saying to the disciples and to us that the future, though there are uncertainties, though there may be pain and disappointment, there is a promise that we can trust: that Jesus will show up, that Jesus will be there. Which is another way of saying, hope is possible! Humility and presence give us the capacity to trust, to notice Jesus right in the midst of whatever future comes our way. What is it that you are waiting for? Jesus promises to meet you there. What will we be doing when Jesus shows up? Will we be debilitated with fear? Will we be enamored with the violence of control? Will we be stricken with anxiety and complaint? Or will we be busy watching, working and hoping for the future we long for, the only one that is worth the wait, a future of love, a future of justice, a future of peace, a future of joy.
The midwife had taken me out of the delivery room to tell me that if we didn’t agree to a c-section Erica’s life was at risk as well as Phillip’s. Phillip’s heartbeat was already inconsistent. I had done all that I could do. We had danced the floor and kissed, I had been a coach in her ear, all to induce her labor. I was at my end. I had no idea what to do. And then all of a sudden with tear in my eyes, I prayed the passage of Scripture my mom taught me from a child to pray when I was afraid.
Allow me to close with this prayer of trust, from my mother, that I offer for your encouragement wherever you are on your journey of waiting for the future.
Psalm 23 (KJV)
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.