Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
November 19, 2000 - Pastor Diane Schmitz
We live in a pregnant world. Birthpangs are present everywhere; sudden, sharp spasms of pain pushing us out of our comfortableness and crying out for a new way of living to be born.
Every 3.6 seconds someone in our world dies of hunger; 75% are children. Religion is being used to justify violence and hate crimes, the disparity between the rich and the poor is growing. Racial prejudice continues to show its ugliness. Our environment is thoughtlessly being abused; nearly 2 acres of tropical rainforest disappear every second. In our country, a land of abundance, people wander aimlessly through a consumerist wasteland searching for meaning in their life while others scrounge the streets looking for a safe place to spend the night.
Awakening to these realities is not comfortable but as Christians we are called by the gospel to choose life, not death. We are called to be prophetic, raising our voices to challenge our culture and ourselves as we live in denial of the deadening forces impacting our lives. Birthpangs that insistently remind us of injustice in the world are painful but they deserve our attention - and our thanks - for they are guiding us towards a new birth. But resistance to such radical changes is strong.
We fight the advent of new births clinging to the familiar, persisting in a belief that we are in control. But, little by little, the stones upon which some of our most cherished beliefs and institutions were built are slipping out of place. The ground beneath us feels unsteady and shaky. We look desperately for something to grab onto. We find there are those who would rationalize away the labor pains, those who offer quick and shallow solutions to anxious souls eager to avoid an encounter with an ending of life, as they have known it. "Beware that no one leads you astray," said Jesus. He knew the temptations of an easy way out. He knew there would always be those who would just as soon exalt and worship the status quo rather than answer the call of a radical new birth. He knew about those who would rather point with pride to the grand buildings than to confront the inadequacy of their spiritual and ethical life.
Our passage from Mark this morning includes material of a general apocalyptic nature but most scholars agree that the chapter is a composite. While some of the sayings probably are authentic to Jesus, others cannot necessarily be attributed to him. It was the nature of apocalyptic writings to expand and have material added to them as well as to look back in history as the Bible was being compiled and add things in a way that made sense to the editors. But, something can be truthful even if it is not factual.
The truth is: new birth requires an ending and endings are painful. Letting go of what is known for a journey into the unknown can be a terrifying task. Our sense of permanence is challenged. Whether the transition is an individual one or one within a community or culture there is warring and there is quaking. But, as Jesus said, this must take place for the end to come and he urges us to not be alarmed.
As Christians we believe in the power of life over death. Our tradition teaches us that new life is resurrected out of that which has died. Bountiful birthpangs should be cause for celebration and excitement. But, we are reluctant to fully engage with the difficult struggles required to bring about something new. It would be so much easier if we could simply desire a new birth and have it happen instantaneously.
In this morning's reading Hannah deeply desires to become pregnant and give birth. For a long time she has waited in vain for this to happen. She has endured judgments by her community and ridicule by other women. But, she continues to call upon God admitting, "I am a woman deeply troubled; I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time." Even in the midst of her discouragement, Hannah persists in her desire to create a new life.
Hannah does conceive and is thrilled to give birth. We are not privy to her time of pregnancy or her challenges as she gives birth. The emphasis in this reading is on the conception and actual birth as the causes for celebration. But, we lose something of the power of this story if we ignore what it means to be pregnant and how we engage with the labor pains that transition us to new birth.
A pregnant woman is well aware of the changes that occur in her body in preparing for a birth. There are emotional and physical upheavals. Joy and anxiety mingle. The nine months of pregnancy provide time for her to adjust to the fact that her life will never again be the same. Who she has been must give way to the new creation she will become and the new creation she will birth. She surrenders to a process and trusts.
That process and its timing are often bewildering. Here is one example:
A woman was a couple of days past her due date and labor had not yet begun. Her doctor was eager for her to deliver wanting to avoid any possible complications because of waiting. He gave her pitocin, a chemical to expedite her going into labor. Shortly after she took it, her body began intense contractions. They went on steadily for 24 hours. At the end she was only a tiny fraction more advanced into labor. The body was not ready; the body refused to be hurried. The mother, meanwhile, was totally exhausted when the true labor finally began. There is a lesson here about impatience and interference in the birthing process.
When labor begins it becomes clear that a Mystery is in charge of the process and it calls for surrender to it. Those who are able to dance fully into that Mystery engage with a creative and powerful force that has its own rhythm and its own timing. Surrendering with complete trust to that Mystery leads to a new spiritual awareness. God is experienced as a midwife carrying the mother through the pain and through the fear into the joyful exhilaration of a new birth.
God is a midwife to all new births in whatever forms. Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic said, "To grasp God in all things - this is the sign of your new birth." Birthpangs are invitations by God to encounter life in a new way.
These very days our country is in an unexpected labor in the midst of our election process. The process upon which we have depended has not gone as it usually does and we don't like that very much at all! We are not a culture comfortable waiting; we have little patience with processes that are not linear and controllable. We expect timely results, clear meaning, and things to work like they're supposed to work. As these days have passed we have shared experiences with others of frustration, anxiety, hope, and confoundedness. The ups and downs of these types of pangs are disconcerting; we want them to end. Yet this experience has opened up a whole new realm of conversation and caring about our democratic process that this country has not seen for years. What the resulting "birth" will be of this intense labor is yet to be seen. But, there is little doubt our country will have changed because of it.
When we feel within us the pangs of disappointment and disillusionment about our lives it often is God's way of communicating to us that there is a better way. The pain we feel may be a doorway through which we travel to a new understanding of how to live. It is our trust in God that enables us to give ourselves freely to that process knowing that God stays with us on every step of that journey.
As difficult as birthpangs can be they are indicators of a healthy and enlivening process at work that brings us closer to God and the realization of a just world determined by love and not fears.
As we move towards the season of Advent, we are invited to let God into our lives in a new way. Let us become pregnant with new ideas and new responses to the challenges of our world. Let us honor the birthpangs and go forward on our journeys of new creation with confidence and thanksgiving. Here is a parable about journeying:
Once upon a time there was a man living in a certain kingdom who received an invitation from his king to come to dinner. Something inside him was excited as never before by the invitation. Something was afraid as well. Would he have the right clothes to wear? Would his manners be good enough for his lord's table? What would they talk about when they were not eating? Above all, the man was frightened by the long journey to the king's castle.
So what did the man do? Well, he spent one month deciding what to wear and buying the clothes he did not already have. He spent two months learning the rules of etiquette and practicing them as he ate. He spent three months reading up on all the latest issues faced by the kingdom so he would have something to say.
Finally he faced the journey itself. By trade the man was a carpenter. He built small houses and extra outhouses and garages better than anyone else. After he had packed the clothing and food he thought he would need for the journey, he had room for only a little more. So he decided to pack a few tools, enough to permit him to build adequate overnight shelter on the journey. Then he started out.
The first day he traveled through the morning and early afternoon, stopping only to eat some lunch. Then he set about constructing a rough shelter to spend the night in. After a few hours labor he had a small, safe, dry place to sleep. The next morning as he was about to start out again, he looked at the shelter he had built. He began to notice places where it could be improved. So instead of resuming the journey right away, he began to make improvements on his little dwelling. Well, one thing led to another, garage to kitchen to indoor plumbing, and so on. Soon, he had pretty much forgotten about the invitation and the journey.
Meanwhile, the king was beginning to wonder about the man. And so, as kings are able to do, he arranged for another person who was also traveling to the dinner to stop by and see how the man was coming along.
When the king's friend found him, the carpenter was living in his second house. He had sold the first one to someone, remembered the invitation, and moved on for a day or so. However, he had soon settled in and built an even bigger and better house on the profits he had made from the sale of his first one. The carpenter was only too happy to invite the visitor in for lunch; but while he was content to accept the offer of food, the visitor said he preferred to eat out in the yard under a tree.
"Is there a reason you don't want to come inside?" asked the carpenter, immediately wondering if his house wasn't quite right in some way.
"Why yes," replied the visitor. "You see, I am on a journey to have dinner with the king of our land. It is important for me to stay on the journey. Perhaps after lunch you would like to come with me?"
:"What you say sounds familiar to me," said the carpenter. "I think I too received an invitation to have dinner with the king, but I have been a little bit uncertain of the way."
"I know," responded the stranger. "I was once uncertain as well. As a matter of fact, once I was a carpenter just like you. I too wanted to build safe places along the way to stay in. One day, another person on the journey helped me learn how to unbuild instead of to build. He helped me leave the house I was living in and trust the journey itself. I was worried about following the right path. He told me that there were a number of paths that would lead to the dinner. The king had set it up that way, and the king had also set up warnings along the wrong paths. The important thing was simply to put one foot in front of the other with love and trust. I was also worried about what I had left behind. To this he said that the king had seen to it that everything worth saving would be at the castle waiting for me."
"What you say is certainly of comfort. It helps to know that you have been just like me," said the carpenter.
"Well then, why don't we let go of this house and get on with the journey?" "I don't know. Maybe. Can I sleep on it?" "I suppose." "May I fix a bed for you?"
"No," countered the visitor. "I will just stay out here under the tree. It's easier to notice the wonderful things the king has put along the way when you aren't looking out from inside something you have put up to protect yourself."
The unbuilder waited outside all night. The next morning the carpenter indeed had decided to resume the journey. Together they prepared to set out.
"Well," asked the carpenter. "Which way shall we go?" "Which way seems right to you?" replied the unbuilder. "I'm not sure."
"I'll tell you what. Let's just sit here a few minutes and think hard about the king. Remember the stories you have been told about him. Remember how much you love him. Remember how much he loves you. When you have remembered as clearly as you think you can, consider the paths that life before you and see which one seems to satisfy your longing for, and remembrance of, the king. Let your desire to be with the king become more powerful in you than your uncertainty and fear about choosing the right or wrong path."
Silently they sat through the morning in the carpenter's front yard. Slowly it began to seem as though they were already on the journey. As that feeling grew and grew, it suddenly didn't seem like any decision needed to be made; it just happened. With a deep sense of freedom they were off.
Many of the days went jut like that, new steps out of silent beginnings and pure desires. The simply waited until the sense of journeying wrapped itself around even their waiting, and then they were off without worrying whether they were on the "right" path or not. In the stillness of their hearts they made room for the path and the path seemed to come to them.
Of course the carpenter still felt the need to build a home from time to time. The unbuilder made sure he understood what he was doing and then let him do it if he really wanted to. While the carpenter labored, the unbuilder, his guide and friend, would continue the silent waiting in the yard under a tree, and soon they would unbuild yet another house and begin the journey again.
In the meantime the king kept the food warm, which he was very good at doing.
*Story from "The Carpenter and The Unbuilder: Stories for the Spiritual Quest" by David M. Griebner.