Rev. Keli Shipley Cooper | 11.14.21

Nations against nations. Insurrections. Earthquakes. Viruses. Wars. Rumors of wars. Sounds dark yet too familiar, doesn’t it? When we hear texts like the Gospel reading for today—warnings of what is to come, we may find ourselves too close to that chaos- or we may even find ourselves in that chaos. Whether in our personal lives, in our community, or on this earth, we may fear the end of some thing or all things.

This story is known as Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” although I’m not sure it’s so “little.” When I hear “little apocalypse,” I think of my daughter in a mood. I think of deciding what’s for dinner. I think of rush hour traffic. But no, this is big- this is Jesus warning his disciples. So, it’s little compared to the book of Revelation or Daniel, yes, but a prophecy of the future, nonetheless. An unveiling of what is to come. Jesus says that destruction is inevitable, but do not be alarmed. Much easier said than done.

Last week, we celebrated All Saints—we named those who have died this year—the saints whose legacy continues yet their time on this earth has ended. And now, as the church, we are two weeks, yes just two weeks away from Advent- a season of waiting. So, in these weeks of waiting to wait in Advent—we talk about the destruction of the temple and war—yikes.

Here, Jesus is at the end of his ministry. He’s leaving the Temple for the last time and his death is drawing near. Jesus fed the four thousand, healed a blind man, shared stories, taught lifelong lessons, and he’s now entering his final and longest discourse—his final teaching to the disciples.

This teaching is also found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke—it is important. But it’s especially important for the audience of Mark—a people in upheaval. Their temple- a temple that took 80 years to build is destroyed. We complain about a few years of downtown construction—but this is 80 long years. And more than that, the place where they felt closest to God is destroyed. Their foundation was destroyed- they no longer know who or what they can trust.

Moving back to the Scripture, Jesus and his disciples are leaving the Temple. There’s one disciple who comments on the beauty of it. I imagine this is the disciple who would take thousands of photos on vacation or spend hours in a museum- reading every description.

This disciple exclaims “What large stones! What a great building.” Imagine the disciples and Jesus here in this space at St. Paul’s. They walk through these brass doors and say “What large marble stones! What a large building!” Jesus looks up and says—oh these stones? They will all be thrown down.

Those poor disciples…. Thinking. What? Are you kidding me? We just spent over 80 years building this. I’m not doing another stewardship campaign. This is the heart of our community- this is the heart of our people.

And then they hike up the Mount of Olives—a place thought to be physically closer to God— Jesus sits down in his teaching position and spends time with four of the disciples.

Imagine Peter, James, John, and Andrew in a circle with him. They want to be in the know, just like any good ministry leader does. They ask … so, when will all this destruction happen? Can you give a hint? And, I mean, as a planner, I resonate with that disciple. Jesus, give me a timeline. But Jesus responds with teachings—well, warnings— “Keep watch” “Stay awake” “Do not be alarmed”

Jesus says “Beware that no one leads you astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of war, do not be alarmed… nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.”

When I hear “rumors of war,” I think of the sculpture by Kehinde Wiley. The magnificent bronze piece is outside of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts right here in Richmond. Wiley is an American artist who is well known for his paintings, especially his portrait of President Barack Obama.

Wiley says, “In these toxic times, art can help us transform and give us a sense of purpose. This story begins with my seeing the Confederate monuments. What does it feel like if you are black and walking beneath these? We come from a beautiful, fractured situation. Let’s take these fractured pieces and put them back together.”

The “Rumors of War” sculpture was completed in 2019-there’s a young Black man sitting atop a horse wearing Nike high tops and ripped jeans. The sculpture resembles the monument that stood for JEB Stuart, Confederate General, but this sculpture commemorates the black youth lost to the social and political battles being waged throughout our nation. This sculpture tells a more complete story of our country.

The name of this sculpture is accredited to the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 24—the same story as our Gospel reading today from Mark. Wiley says quote “…in the change times there are going to be wars and rumors of war—because human nature is to have war and to have strife. The nature of human beings is to have this type of strife. There is nothing new to that.”

“Rumors of War” is a response to the chaos of the world and unveils something once hidden. Wiley sees the world as it is—shares a more complete story of our nation—and shows us something that we cannot unknow. We cannot unsee. He reminds us that war and strife will happen.

Wiley says quote “monuments are large—and you can’t see the full story until you slow down and see the details… You should be able to see yourself in this place we call America. Your Black body. Your female body. Your trans body. Whoever you happen to be, you should be able to see yourself in America.”

We are reminded of the Gospel message for today—to stay awake. There will be rumors of war—humans will be selfish- we will mess up. But do not be afraid. I know, easier said than done. But while we think these things point to the end times—Jesus reminds us—and now Wiley reminds us—pay attention. There is an opportunity for something new.

Our reading for today ends as Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” And I know of “birth pangs” —the painful labor that comes before the birth of a child. Our daughter Annie was born 7 months ago after 34 hours of labor—but, I like this translation of the last verse— “But these things are nothing compared to what’s to come.”

Jesus gets critiqued for this passage all the time. I know, shocking- Jesus getting critiqued. But was Jesus wrong? He was telling us the end is near—but here we are, thousands of years later—many wars, insurrections, viruses later. Many read this as nearing the beginning of the end, trying to predict a specific date—but I read it as there is new life born from chaos. A new dawn. The birth of something new. The continued life cycle of humans. Necessary change. Inevitable change.

We are called to look past these large buildings, our controlling tendency to plan—and to not lose hope. God is with us—and God is ushering in something new. Wars, rumors of wars, charismatic leaders, viruses—these things will happen- they are happening. But they are not the end.

There are deaths and birth, and there is change all around us. We are called to pay attention to the details—we are called to pay attention to one another. To the way of love. To hold one another in these times of chaos—of grief. To hold up hope during the unknown. To have faith even when it feels like the end of the world.

There’s a beautiful hymn based on the Magnificat- Mary’s Song. The hymn is titled “The Canticle of the Turning” and the chorus sings, well, says “My heart shall sing of the day you bring; let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about turn!” The world—is about to turn—to change. Honestly, it is changing. That’s scary. Are we paying attention? In times of chaos, change can be really exciting.

In this Gospel reading, Jesus tells Peter, James, John, and Andrew—and Jesus tells us to stay awake. To keep watch. Even in those chaotic times. Even in these chaotic times. Climate change, Insurrection. Gun violence even amongst children in our city. War. Rumors of war—these are but the birth pangs. Uncover what is hidden. Keep watch—pay attention—have hope—change—for the world is about to turn.