“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.”

“Watching and Waking,” Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | Nov. 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Have you ever noticed how unnecessary God seems much of the time? Except, of course, when we’re confronted by fear that’s so thick we can almost taste it.

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingSeveral years ago, I remember sitting in my office on a cold afternoon in early December. The phone began ringing, just as I was pondering whether I could end the day a little early and take advantage of some Christmas shopping. My brain decided to let the answering machine respond, but somehow my hand picked up the receiver. It was the sister of my closest college friend. “Get on a plane immediately,” she said, “Dennis is dying of AIDS.” The next few hours are still a blur, but I vividly remember driving to the airport, nearly blinded by my tears, saying over and over again: “God, we need you…”

Today’s readings each describes a time in which God’s presence is desperately needed, and yet when God, for all practical purposes, seems to have vanished. First we hear the people, Isaiah among them, returning from exile in Babylon, and what they find is appalling: the hollow shell of a city. Everything that was precious has been smashed.
As Isaiah wanders through the ruined remains, he raises his arms and shouts: “O that you would open the heavens and come down.” God, we need you.

Then we hear Paul, addressing the Christian community in Corinth, famous for their divisions and conflict, and they’re in a terrible mess. God has bestowed abundant grace and individual talents upon them, but they’ve utterly failed to express this grace in their community life, and they’ve consistently misused their talents.

Finally, in Mark’s gospel, we hear Jesus speaking to a group of Palestinians, struggling under one of the most oppressive regimes in history – they yearn for a Messiah who will come and drive the Romans from their promised land. “God we need you” they may well have said. In each of these situations, holding onto any consistent faith in a compassionate God who dwells among us, was a very tall order.

Now the early Christian communities hearing Mark’s words must have been riveted by Jesus’ message. They were suffering intense persecution, and while they busily recruited new Christians, they also watched carefully for the signs of the imminent “end time” Jesus seemed to be describing. But years, and then decades, passed after Jesus’ crucifixion, and they had to re-think Jesus’ meaning. Where are you God?, they might have prayed, God we need you.

We, of course, are the companions across time of those early Christians, challenged to live between the “now” and the “not yet” – the “now” in which we see only dimly the workings of God breaking through in our lives, and the “not yet,” when God will appear in glory.

Today is the first day of the new church year, and I love this beginning – it always reminds me of how we are invited to view time, as Christians, so differently from the secular world, to be aware and intentional as we shift from the “ordinary time” of the Pentecost season to the anticipatory, quieter time of Advent from chronos to kairos.

As Advent begins, we too listen carefully to Jesus’ words. Rather than encouraging his listeners to wait around and speculate about when the end time might be coming, Jesus literally gives them, and us, a “wake up call” – a call to the kind of action that inevitably results from waking up to a new consciousness about life’s abundance, to a focus on light, not darkness, on the spiritual rather than the material, on others, rather than the self. In this way, Advent invites us to live as if Jesus’ coming, which we celebrate in a few short weeks, so that it actually makes a difference in our lives today.

Is there a better time for Jesus’ message than right now? As Advent dawns, we feel just as desperate for God’s intervention as in the examples we just heard read. Today communities from Ferguson Missouri, to Florida State, to the University of Virginia, to cities and towns across the Middle East are racked by violence. The scourge of Ebola continues to spread across East Africa. Across the United States, established members of our communities and their children, ponder the calculus of the President’s executive orders on immigration to determine who is now “in” and who is still “out.” “God we need you.”

We resonate with Isaiah’s plea for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” and we also remember that God did just that in sending Jesus to become one of us, to vanquish not the Romans, but our greatest oppressors, sin and death; to give us, through Jesus’ resurrection, the gift of hope; and the continuous inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah reminds us that ours is a God who is always faithful, even if we forget to watch, even if we fail to stay awake. “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand,” he says. And in response we sing: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” ‘Emmanuel’ – God abiding with us, in a relationship that will totally transform us, a God who continuously shapes each of us with abundant grace, with plentiful talents, and with the joy of a community in which to exercise our gifts.

This came so clear to me that cold December night, as I sat holding my friend Dennis’ hand, stroking his unconscious brow, and watching his life ebb away in that dingy city hospital room – that God had sensed exactly what Dennis needed at the end, the gift of being surrounded by those who loved him, being ushered into the promised land of eternal life. And so the Holy Spirit inspired each of us there that night to drop everything to be present for our friend at his death and resurrection.

Just like the servants who are asked to care for the owner’s home as he leaves them for a time, while we wait, we are called as a church community, to take Advent seriously – to stay alert for the countless opportunities, large and small, to be the eyes and ears and hands of God, to heal this world wherever healing is required, whether the world yearns for a ministry of reconciliation, from global crises to a dear friend or a member of our family who truly needs our loving attention.

And even though, when faced with these opportunities, we may find ourselves asking “Why me, God?” if we listen carefully, we will hear God’s quiet response, “Because I need you…”

As the 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, puts it:

God’s ground is my ground
And my ground is God’s ground.
All our works occur on this common ground
Where God and the soul
Do one work together.
Just as I can do nothing without God,
So too God can accomplish nothing
Apart from me.1

As we begin our Advent journey together toward the promised land of Jesus’ birth, remember that we will all certainly need God, just as God needs us. May we be inspired to continually remind each other of that fact, so that each time God calls, guided by our faith, and not by our fear, we will stay alert enough and awake enough to hear the call, and to say “Yes.”

1 Meister Eckhart (1260-1329) in Matthew Fox (1983). Meditations with Meister Eckhart. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.