“Birth Pangs” | Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, PhD | November 15, 2015

Mark 13: 1 – 8

The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain
The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain

If you’re looking for the most powerful metaphor about life, death and salvation, you might try childbirth. Unless of course you’re a man. In the Ancient Near East and today, real men don’t dare talk about “women’s problems.” They’re too messy.

Except… How on earth do we have new life without birth pangs? It’s the 21st-century and life feels pretty messy. Maybe that’s because we find ourselves in the deepest throes of a new kind of childbirth today, the birthing of a new way of living with each other, which bridges the great divides of wealth, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and culture, of dying to a world in which certain flavors of people get to judge others as less valuable or necessary for our common salvation. It’s messy and it’s exhausting.

Sounds like Jesus’ world, huh? But our hope is that, over the millennia, we’ve grown a new consciousness, so that you, along with your older allies, and with your faith, may just be ready to change the world. But, my oh my, isn’t it a bumpy road?

I remember a vacation with my college age son in Florida, driving through the beautiful islands of Sanibel and Captiva. As I looked out over the seascape, I spied the most magnificent sunset. I turned to Oliver and said, “Isn’t that extraordinarily beautiful?”

But in the moment it took me to view that scene, turn my head, and report it to him, we were already passing a new scene – a beach completely devastated by the most recent tropical storm. Without missing a beat, Oliver looked and replied, “Yeah Dad, it is beautiful… in an apocalyptic sort of way!”

I think that’s exactly the kind of birth pangs Jesus is talking about. In a kind of whiplash, one moment we witness the sea change of marriage equality becoming the law of the land, and in the next, the pain and anger of so many of our sisters and brothers of color, or our LGBTQ friends at Yale, or women experiencing sexual harassment, testifying to their continuing experience of exclusion and disrespect.

The foundational assumptions we hold dear begin crumbling, just like the beloved Temple of Jesus’ contemporaries. What we thought were the ultimate tools of polite discourse – civility, carefully crafted arguments and counter arguments – fall apart in a deep rift of mutual misunderstanding. It’s like trying to manage a transaction with totally unfamiliar currency, and the result is defensiveness and anger. What seemed placid relationships, well – ordered by a mutual acceptance of relative authority, break down, revealing the underbelly of all the suffering this civility has covered up.

Birth pangs are the messiest and most disorienting moments of creation, even as they’re often the only path to the in – breaking of God’s dream of shalom. Moments before Jesus predicts the Temple’s destruction, he overturns the moneychangers’ tables, showing how corrupt institutional religion had become. People want to kill him, not for upsetting tables, but the whole natural order. Remember that when we blithely say, “What would Jesus do?”

Watch for the birth pangs all around us. Like the long string of posters on the High Street gate last week, reading – “Sisters of Color. We’re Here, We’re Loved, We’re Home.” If anything echoes Jesus’ Good News, it’s that – We’re here. We’re loved. We’re home – whether or not particular leaders or peers accept it.

The old Yale of expressing ourselves cerebrally, with nothing relevant below our necks, is fading. The timeless assumption that we’re all white, English – speaking, heterosexual, Christian “Yale Men” barely represented reality 50 years ago, and it completely misses the miracle of who we’ve become in 2015.

Over those decades, our community has given birth to a wonderfully life – giving expression of the Body of Christ. Step by difficult step, we’ve become a university of every nation, tribe and people, blessed with a wealth of gifts that are meant not to be tolerated, but to be celebrated as vital and necessary sources of learning and transformation for all of us.

  • Watch for the birth pangs, and watch also for the signs of hope.
  • Hope, as the faculty of disparate disciplines weave conversations about the tumult on campus into their classes.
  • Hope, in the massive outpouring of solidarity from students, faculty, chaplains, and staff.
  • Hope, in ECY, as members who may have started on the sidelines, end up marching, talking deep into the night, changing and being changed.
  • The hope Jesus provides in the incarnation, that once birth pangs begin, the proverbial cat has been let out of the bag, and there is no turning back.

Watch for the birth pangs. Watch for the signs of hope. And nourish your faith. Our faith gives us extraordinary gifts to navigate these turbulent times.

  • The gift of knowing that every one of us – those we like, and those we don’t like – are all equally beloved by God.
  • The gift of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us, between us, among us –– that’s where we find the courage to speak our truth with love and respect, to listen to others’ truths, knowing God is doing God’s job, working to transform each of our hearts.
  • And finally, the gift of this amazing oasis that is ECY – a place, wherever you are on your journey, where you can listen, be heard, and be loved.

So, my sisters and brother, before you re – enter the fray, come apart and rest awhile, be fed by the word, be fed at the table, be fed by your community. And be fed by the words of the great Sufi poet, Rumi:

“The clearest sign of grace,” Rumi writes, “is that dung becomes flowers. The ground’s generosity takes in our compost and returns beauty. The world is saturated, wet with love. Be ground. Be crumbled. So that you will grow wildflowers where you are. You have been too strong for too long. Try something different. …Surrender.”

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