Apocalypse Now

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I used to love picking poke salad with my Grandy as a child back in Arkansas. It’s a temperamental dish; of course you have to cook the greens and rinse it out three times or it’s poisonous. Don’t you wonder who the first person was that figured that out?

We would load up in Grandy’s car and drive down Highway 133, to the thicket where the paper mill had cut down the pine trees and burned several acres of land. We would get out of the car, and crawl over the charred remains of the tops of the pine trees. They lay all around like blackened skeletons, perfect hiding places for snakes—if you ask me.

But we were brave—or clueless. We would go out and walk amidst the debris, looking for our treasure. There, sprouting through the ashes and splinters, the green poke salad leaves would shoot up.   And, we would fill up several paper grocery bags and take them home to cook.

Even as a child, I remember how interesting it was to see these green leafy treasures sprout up out of what appeared to be this blackened, ashy destruction.

An apocalypse is an interesting thing. I don’t think anyone actively searches for an apocalypse. Maybe some people do, but we know who they are and we avoid them. No, rather than seeking an apocalypse out, we more often than not find ourselves in the midst of them: those moments in life where it seems like the world around us has crumbled, when something happens that upends—disorients—our lives, our well-being—the way things have always been. Suddenly we look around and see that something radical has happened…that life is different…that we can’t rely on things being the way they have always been. Something traumatic, maybe even cataclysmic.

We get to this point each year in the lectionary cycle, when we look toward the Feast of Christ the King (next Sunday), the last day in the church’s liturgical year. And, Advent is right around the corner—ready or not here it comes.

This season of the year has us reading texts about the upending of things. We’re called to explore radical changes to the way we understand things. Because the biggest lesson with the Feast of Christ the King is that we are truly called to reflect on how Christ is King—and we are not, nor is our particular cultural norms, our particular economic model, or our expectations or interests. Any systems or frameworks that we put our hope in are examined through the lens of Christ the King. The very way we orient our lives is burned in the crucible of the image of Christ the King… It all starts to feel apocalyptic, because, well, it is.

Something new is being revealed, born, refreshed… Something new and green is breaking through the ash that falls as the illusions of our lives are burned away.

Jesus knew this, and he tried to show his disciples what this was going to look like.

“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” his impressed disciples tell him when they see the Temple. And, make no mistake about it: it was an extremely impressive religious institution!

Jesus tells them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Like I said, I don’t think anyone just goes out and looks for an apocalypse, but Our Lord tells us to be on the watch for new revelations, for the in-breaking presence of new life, for the Spirit to act and move…and it’s telling that the illustration he uses is the one where religious establishments are to be torn down—“not one stone left on another.”

Much has been said in the news lately about Pope Francis and his desire to lean into a new way of being church. His prayer that the Roman Church might be “a poor church for the poor” rang true for many of us who live within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. His words are like a fresh breeze trying to squeeze in through the old, rigid stones of the institution.

But people don’t go out looking for an apocalypse, and, often, when we find ourselves in a space of new growth and expansion, the institution of the church will resist any change. It has been an age old battle within all religious systems: apocalypticism versus institutionalism. Are we willing to be open to a new expression of life, or are we going to cleave to what so often is a romanticized memory of the way things used to be?

How do we honor our Tradition without worshipping it? How do we move beyond the impulse to preserve ourselves and seek to practice our faith and embody compassion in the world today?

If I were to ask you to describe the Holy Trinity to me, I would not be surprised if you spent a good amount of time talking about God the Father/Creator and Jesus. But, then there’s the Holy Spirit. This enigmatic person of the Trinity, “the Lord, the Giver of Life” as the Nicene Creed describes.

I have always wondered if we don’t talk about the Spirit much because she’s just not that easy to control. “The wind blows where it will, and you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going,” St. John describes in his Gospel account.

Institutions don’t like that level of discomfort—that potential for in-breaking and shifting and upending!

Here at Grace, we have shared two years of conversations about reorienting our way of doing ministry—of being a spiritual community that honors our Tradition while also being open to new glimpses of the Spirit. We have shaped our life around these five ministry clusters, these areas where we experience the potential within a very Traditional system to stretch, to imagine, to wonder, to grow.

We are invited to move from programs to practices, from maintenance to vulnerable ministry, from defensiveness to discipleship, from accomplishing tasks to discerning our vocation, from claiming ownership to building a legacy, from suspicion to appreciation, from control to community.

As a parish, we are called to be supple rather than frozen. We’re called to look for the green sprouts that are breaking through any ash and crumbling that we experience in our lives.

As we have reflected together many times, this potential for a spiritual community is grounded in an awareness of what St. Paul describes as kenosis, that practice of self-emptying. Of getting beyond our loaded agendas, of letting go to our grasping mentality…of opening to the Spirit’s presence. This is what it means to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Are we going to feel pinched? Yes.

Are we going to feel challenged? Yes.

Are we going to question? Yes. Absolutely.

But here’s what we must always remember: Are we ever going to be alone? No. Absolutely not. We are not abandoned…even when we experience a death of some kind.

Because death is not the end of the story. When we look over the horizon, we see the Baby Jesus coming. But not yet. First, we have to prepare ourselves. We have to make room, and sometimes that means letting go of things we have been clinging to—or shaking off things that have been clinging to us!

Listen to this remarkable imaging from John O’Donohue, a wonderful Irish poet and writer:

Imagine if you could talk to a baby in the womb and explain its unity with the mother. How this cord of belonging gives it life. If you could then tell the baby that this was about to end. It was going to be expelled from the womb, pushed through a very narrow passage finally to be dropped out into vacant, open light. The cord that held it to this mother-womb was going to be cut, and it was going to be on its own forever more. If the baby could talk back, it would fear that it was going to die. For the baby within the womb, being born would seem like death. Our difficult with these great questions is that we are only able to see them from one side. Many have had the experience, but nobody had come back to tell us about it. Those who have died stay away; they do not return. Therefore, we cannot actually see the other half of the circle that death opens. (Anam Cara, 223).

Or, put another way, like the wonderful hymn says,

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green (
Hymnal, 204)

Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 28, Year B
St. Mark 13:1-8
November 15, 2015

 

 

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