One of my favorite church buildings is Grace Cathedral, I’ve loved it since I was a little kid, watching at the top of Nob Hill, like a great sentinel over San Francisco. What I love about Grace is the mix of ancient and modern. While the patterns of the church are medieval gothic, Grace borrows designs from the Cathedrals in France, England, and Spain, the church was constructed starting in the 1920s with poured concrete and steel. Unlike at Holy Communion, the pulpit is to the right. All sorts of preachers from Dr. King to Jane Goodall to Desmond Tutu have given a sermons at Grace. To the left is the lectern from which the lectors read scripture. It is, frankly bigger than our pulpit, and carved into the face in giant modern block Greek letters are the words “en arxe.”
En Arxe, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,” Genesis reads in the Septuagint, the Ancient Greek version. “In the beginning was the Word,” begins John’s Gospel. I’m belaboring the word today, because I’m a little frustrated with our translation of Scripture. I usually like the Common English Bible. I like the contemporary plainspoken rendition it often makes of the ancient languages. But in this 13th chapter of Mark, the translators made a strange decision. They put a phrase in Jesus’ mouth that isn’t there in the original language. So if you have a pen, cross out the last five words of the Gospel today. Go ahead, cross them out. I know it’s the Bible, but you’re allowed. Cross out the words “sufferings associated with the end.” In their place write the more literal translation, just one word: “birth pangs.”
Now Jesus’ words read very differently. His disciples Peter, James, John and Andrew have come to him quietly, after overhearing him talking about the destruction of the temple. They ask, “What will be the sign that show the end is coming?” Jesus says some words about signs. He talks about wars, famines, difficult stuff, but Jesus pointedly doesn’t talk about an end. He says rather, “arxe,” the signs are the beginning. These are the birthpangs. The end isn’t coming, something new is beginning.
Are we living in the “end times?”
Jesus’ followers throughout the ages, like the disciples who sat with their savior on the Mount of Olives were tempted to believe they were living through the end times. In some ways they were. Jesus would be proved correct, by the time Mark’s Gospel is circulated the Roman Army would have toppled that seemingly un-topple-able temple. Jerusalem would fall.
Augustine of Hippo interpreted Jesus’ words to the fall of Roman provinces to barbarians. Martin Luther described the destroyed temple as the institutional church. When I was in college in San Diego, there was a megachurch pastor who was convinced that Colin Powell was the anti-Christ. A couple of weeks ago, in response to Powell’s death, that same pastor called the general “distinguished and trailblazing.” Human history is full of folks who stood on mountaintops to wait for the end, only to have the sun rise the next morning.
It is tempting today to sit like Peter, James, John and Andrew, to look out over the troubled world and think, “we have reached the end.” The news from Glasgow is that a climate deal was reached, but it won’t be enough to stave off catastrophic global warming. There are already more fires and super-storms. The pandemic continues. Food pantries across America have more demand than ever before. The news these days is full of awful signs. It would be easy to fill out Jesus’ list and say, yep we have reached the end.
But that isn’t what Jesus says, at least not in our corrected version, not in the original language. Jesus says, these signs are birth-pangs. Yes, they are painful. Yes, they are difficult. But this isn’t an end, it is a beginning.
Sometimes these verses in Mark are called the “little apocalypse.” Technically that is because the great apocalypse is the whole book of Revelation. But I like this idea of a “little apocalypse.” Jesus saw the pain. Jesus didn’t hide from the difficulty. Jesus didn’t sugarcoat. No great religious leader sugarcoats. If they did, the teaching wouldn’t hold up to the honest facts of life. Throughout history the human race has survived all sorts of “little apocalypses.” We have made our collective way through the ends of all sorts of ages.
In a divided world: Critical Race Theory
We don’t always agree on the signs of the times. We don’t always agree on history. There is a huge fight going on in school board meetings across this country right now over history. Using the misnomer of “critical race theory,” parents who have been whipped into a frenzy are storming educational leadership: What do we teach our children about race? What do we teach children about the history of slavery, of Jim Crow, of lynching?
Some of you may be gearing up for family conversations like this around the Thanksgiving table. You may be steeling yourselves for conversations with family members who see differently than you.
The human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson was recently interviewed on Krista Tippett’s show on NPR. Stevenson is the founder of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery Alabama. You may know it by another name: “the lynching museum.” Stevenson believes that we have to tell our whole story, we have to tell the story of the terror faced by Black Americans through slavery, lynching, segregation, Jim Crow. You have to tell these stories to understand why still today Black people face violence at the hands of police and inequality in the so-called justice system. The museum is one facet of the wider “Equal Justice Initiative” which “provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.” (Most of them are people of color). Stevenson has been rightly celebrated for his work.
You might expect Stevenson had a word or two to say about why it is important to teach the history of racism in our schools. He did, but that’s not where he spent most of the interview. Instead he talked about hope, about the power of hope. Stevenson told the story of his great-grandfather, who was enslaved, and while he was enslaved learned to read. He talked about how his grandmother talked about how, after emancipation, how other formerly enslaved people would come over to their home and how her father would stand up and read the newspaper. It took a lot of hope to say to himself, “I better learn to read, because I’m going to need to know how when freedom comes.”
So if a family member, or a neighbor, or a co-worker comes to talk to you about the evils of “critical race theory.” If what they want to talk is history, and whether racism was all that bad, whether we live in a racist country today, maybe change the time-frame.
Change the time-frame
What if we started not by disputing what happened in the past, not by debating partisan viewpoints about current events, what if we asked: “what do we hope for the future?” Do we hope for a country that is more equitable? Can we dare to hope for a world where the kids in the UCity school district, the kids in the Normandy School district, and the kids in the Clayton School district have the same access to great resources, to top-notch teachers? Can we imagine a city where our poorest residents don’t live with toxic black mold? where basements don’t flood with raw sewage every time it rains? Where kids don’t develop asthma at higher rates in certain zip codes? What if we started installing solar panels on the poorest homes in St. Louis to help lower electric bills?
I know many of us are friends, neighbors, even family with congregants at Central Reform Congregation. The rabbis just sent out a letter about a mentally ill man who is in custody after making threats against the synagogue. Can we dare to hope for a world where our Jewish neighbors don’t face threats of violence? a world where antisemitism is rightly condemned from every pulpit and at every dinner table?
I know, some of you are thinking, “yeah right Mike. Good luck.” Look, I know we live in days that are pretty soaked with bad news. We can all list signs that the world is ending. We can recite the litany of all that is wrong, in our world, with our neighbor, with those in the other political party. But until we decide to stop seeing this moment as the end of history, until we start asking “what new world would we like to see born?” we are stuck in the apocalypse. You get to choose: you can live like these are the end times, or you live like this is the beginning. I can tell you, your prayer life and your sense of hope will be stronger if you choose the beginning.
In 1906 a terrible earthquake rocked San Francisco. After the earthquake came a fire, which burned much of the city including Grace Cathedral. It took awhile for the congregation to re-group. When they did, they decided not to just re-build the former church. They set out a plan to birth one of the nation’s largest cathedrals using modern concrete and steel to ensure future earthquakes wouldn’t threaten the structure. From 1914, with pauses for the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Cathedral was under construction all the way until 1964. It took generations of Christians working until the towers looked out over the bay. I love that they chose to carve into the stand from which they read scripture, “en arxe: in the beginning” as if to remind themselves: We can read these signs and see doom, or we can ask, “what is trying to be born?”