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Sunday, March 18, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Staying Awake

Lenten Sermon Series: Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 102:12–22
Mark 13:1–8, 32–37

Work from God goes on quite simply in that way; one does not always have to wait for something out of the ordinary. The all-important thing is to keep your eyes on what comes from God and to make way for it to come into being here on earth.

Christoph Friedrich Blumhard, Action in Waiting

We left Jesus last week as he sat opposite the treasury at the temple. He had been watching the way people put in their money. Many of those with great abundance contributed generously, but some of them also made quite a show about it. Since coins worth larger amounts were also quite heavy, the individuals giving them literally made a racket, especially as they threw them into the collection with a flourish. But then there was that widow—the one who gave coins worth little monetary value, coins so light you could hardly hear them land when she dropped them in with the others. And she, well, she just gave them. No counting. No flourish. She simply made her offering before blending back into the background again.

Jesus, though, noticed that widow and called on the disciples to notice her too. He was struck by her willingness to give wholly of herself—holding nothing back, taking the risk to give all she had in hopes that, with her participation, God would indeed transform the world. Some commentators posit that Jesus saw himself in that widow. He, too, was on his way to give wholly of himself—holding nothing back, taking the ultimate risk with his life out of the trust that, with his complete participation, God was indeed transforming the world, even through Jesus’ suffering and death. “Watch her,” Jesus had told those disciples. “She is the one from whom you will learn.”

That brings us to today, as we watch the whole group walk outside. As one disciple looks all around and catches his breath, he seems to forget all that Jesus had just taught him. “Teacher, do you see the size of this place? It is so big. God must really be doing something here.” It’s as if he looked right past the widow again and could only see those with the heavy coins making such a racket.

Surely his reaction caused Jesus to feel at least a little impatient. After all, the teachable moment with the widow had not been the only time Jesus tried to adjust his disciples’ vision. Jesus did that every single day. He desired to give them a fuller perspective, a holy perspective, a new vision about what and who counts in God’s eyes. One thing we learn about God throughout the whole witness of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is that God always pays particular attention to those left out, to those the world does not value, to those whose stories are ignored, to those who inhabit the margins of importance, to those, as my predecessor Elam Davies always preached, who are the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely. Because God pays particular attention to them, that is to be our work as disciples, as well—no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Yet day after day, regardless of how many times Jesus made that point, the disciples kept forgetting their lessons, misplacing their notes, and regularly becoming swept up in the cultural tidal wave we all know well—a cultural milieu that claims bigger is better, the powerful will inherit the earth, and net worth equals self-worth. Jesus and the disciples had just left the widow, yet already they had forgotten the difference between their vision and God’s vision about what matters—what matters now and what will matter in the end. Surely the lack of consistency made Jesus impatient, for it was his focus on that difference of vision, his focus on all who matter to God, that was getting him in so much trouble with those in power, for whom constricted vision worked the best. It was why he knew his days were numbered. Jesus was in Jerusalem, about to be arrested. Could those disciples not just stick with him, even for a few moments?

Thus Jesus chose to use a different teaching method to get their attention: he launched into an apocalyptic diatribe. In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first time Jesus speaks of such things—the destruction of buildings, the violence of war, the tragedy of earthquakes and famines, the fear that would arise. Yet even though these dire images sounded to those disciples like warnings about the end of all things, Jesus actually talked about them as signs of birth pangs. They were symbolic of the labor pains that creation would endure as God birthed the new world, the fully transformed world, the redeemed world, into being. Then, after demanding their attention with such vivid imagery, Jesus moved quickly to the image of the fig tree.

“As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Now, while Jesus’ apocalyptic language feels as stark to me as it did to those first disciples, his example of the budding fig tree has captured my attention this year. This is my fourth winter experience here in Chicago, and I have realized that around this time of year, on most days, I catch myself looking anxiously at the branches of the trees outside of my office window. Each day I look to see if the buds have appeared yet—the tangible signs that winter is almost done, the small promises that the cold will pass and spring will again arrive. The buds become for me tiny sermons of hope, tiny proclamations of new life.

A friend of mine, Ellen True, a Southerner now serving a church in Pennsylvania, does the same thing. She recently reflected that since spring seems to be reluctant to show up this year where she lives, she has also become much more aware of the buds that are starting to appear. But even as their arrival delights her, she also worries that if they get yet another snow or frost, they might not recover. This realization of that fragility is why Jesus’ use in this passage of the adverb “tender” has struck her. There is a tenderness to the beginning of spring that I never used to notice, she told me. First the snow melts away, revealing all of the gravel, the trash, the lost gloves. But once the snow is gone, for a while, everything just looks very stark, very bare. For a while, the entire landscape appears brittle and fragile as it waits for the new life to finally break through. But not just the landscape, she reflected. People, too, seem more fragile, perhaps more brittle, than normal around this time of year. Folks are weary of the cold. Weary of the gray. Nerves, relationships, and resources stretched thin, right up to the edge of breaking.

At this time of the year everything and everyone feels a little like that fig tree branch—tender and vulnerable. We wonder if things can hold; if the new baby buds of promise and hope appearing on that branch will be strong enough to weather another storm, another month or two of waiting should that come to pass. It is as if in this tender and vulnerable season, this liminal time between winter and spring, nature itself stands on tiptoe, also anxious for the new day, ready to bloom, ready to become green and verdant and lush. And we wait with it. Watching. Wondering. When will the time of blooming and newness come, and can everything hold until it does?

Back in 2015, we hosted the NEXTChurch national gathering here in this space. One important insight that emerged for many of us in attendance, an insight that intersects with Jesus’ teachings in this passage, came from Diana Butler Bass, a sociologist of religion. In her keynote, she talked about the challenges facing the institutional church and the possibilities of transformation. She used Otto Scharmer’s Theory U project. (Quick explanation: The shape of the letter U allows one to understand the corporate shift from a crisis in understanding to a new understanding and transformation. It is a movement that follows the shape of the U. The crisis happens—an experience at the top left of the U shape—and then you move through the lower and deeper place of corporate awareness of both that crisis and of new possibility—the cradle of the U shape. And if you make it through that, you keep moving toward a new transformation—represented as the upward top right of the U shape.) Bass used this image to illustrate where we are as church in this always-changing, always-shifting, always-chaotic culture.

As she explained the movement, Bass pointed out that the bottom, the cradle, is the thinnest place on the entire journey. It is the place where discerning new vision of what could be is both very possible and accessible, but it is also the most fragile place. Jesus might say it is the most tender of times—the time in between what has been and what will be. Bass believes that, in this moment of history, this is the space the church inhabits. We are currently living in that thin, fragile place.

We are starting to catch new visions of who the church can be as Christ’s body in this world, but we are also needing to be incredibly attentive to both our world and to each other so that this moment of possible transformation does not break, taking us years to recover. To use Jesus’ image, we are watching the buds of new life in the church begin to sprout while, at the same time, we hope that if another snow or freeze happens to occur, the buds are strong enough to weather it.

I agree with Bass about her assessment of the space the church is currently occupying. I would argue we are occupying that space here as Fourth Church too. But in the three years since that presentation, I have also concluded that this moment of inhabiting a thin, rather fragile, certainly vulnerable space is not confined only to the church. Rather, when we pay attention to the other buds beginning to sprout on the branches of history, we see this fragile, tender moment all around us, particularly in our national life. We are living in a moment when something new, something verdant, something beautiful and transformative could blossom in and through us as a national family or when we could break, taking us years to recover. I will offer just one example of where I have seen this recently.

For me, as a mother of a high-school student who walked out of school this past Wednesday as a part of the national #NeverAgain protest, I have realized I am watching this newest movement almost on tiptoe, holding my breath, hoping that the new buds of these young people collectively lifting their voices will, like the buds on the fig tree, have the fortitude to withstand the backlash of winter they will inevitably face. They will face that winter because they are actively challenging those of us with the power of the vote and the power of advocacy to respond to their concerns about what we value in our collective life and why. They are loudly asking us—both elected officials and just regular adults like you and me—questions that pointedly call us to account about to whom we are listening, on whom do our eyes rest. Are we looking out for the widow anymore or only for those whose loud coins are making a racket?

Here in Chicago, students at a number of schools walked out not only to protest the gun violence unleashed in schools, but also to protest the regular, everyday violence that punctures many of their days. While they stand and act in solidarity with the #NeverAgain movement, some students, particularly students of color or students in under-resourced neighborhoods, are asking us why the violence in their neighborhoods has not been enough to warrant this same kind of national attention and deep passion. Why is the violence and everyday trauma they experience just seen as normal or acceptable? Expected, even, they ask.

These are some of the questions voiced by Chicago students. They are questions that are authentic and painful and true, all at the same time. They are the kinds of questions that can be asked when one is living the bottom of that U, the kind of questions that can be asked as the fig tree starts to sprout its leaves, the kind of questions that Jesus might ask as he continually tries to redirect our attention to those who do not normally have the microphone given to them to tell their story. They are “do you see that widow?” kinds of questions.

They are the kinds of question that have the possibility of bringing forth new blossoms in our city during this fragile, thinly stretched time if those of us who do have power can receive them as true and with empathy and compassion. But if those of us who’ve never had to ask those kinds of questions choose to receive these students’ truth with defensiveness or misplaced anger, then our collective response or lack of one has the possibility of breaking us even more apart as a community, taking years to recover.

To that end, if you are interested in joining your voice and your power to this conversation, we have an advocacy committee that works on issues around gun violence. Our work through Chicago Lights also tries to get at some of these core concerns. These are just two ways that we here at Fourth Church try to do what we can to make sure the buds are strong enough to get through the winter so they might flourish with blossoms of peace. You can find out more information at the Connection Corner in Coffee Hour if you are interested or by getting in touch with Vicky Curtiss, our Associate Pastor for Mission.

These are tender times in which we are living these days—vulnerable times during which we are again having to decide who we want to be as a country, who we want to be as a church, who we want to be as those who follow Jesus. As with those first disciples, Jesus is still asking us who we are watching, to whom are we paying attention. Are we still awake? He is wondering if we are noticing the buds of transformation and new life beginning to emerge on that tender branch, and if so, if we are willing to do whatever we can to help those buds survive until spring finally arrives. The widow was. And Jesus was and is. And the disciples wanted to. What about us?