“But the end is still to come” – A Sermon About Loss and Uncertainty in the Wake of Tragedy

Grace Lutheran Church
15 November 2015 + Pentecost 25B
Mark 13.1-8

As part of their Military Voices Initiative to commemorate Veterans Day this past week, the popular NPR podcast StoryCorps featured a video about Marine Lance Corporal Travis Williams and his squad. Travis tells the story of when he and his team were sent on a rescue mission in Iraq in August 2005. One morning, as they were loading into their vehicle, Travis was about to hop in when he was told he needed to move up to another vehicle. Just moments later, he heard an explosion. A bomb had ripped apart his comrades’ vehicle and left all twelve of them dead.

Tearfully, Travis recounts going back to the barracks alone for the first time and having to sort through everyone’s personal belongings to send back to their families: unmailed letters, unwashed dishes, even dirty laundry. “It was all I had left of my friends,” he sobbed.

Certainly, the loss of his friends, like any kind of devastating loss, left Travis in a state of shock, grief, and uncertainty. It’s a loss of innocence. It makes us skeptical of the assumptions of safety and security we once held. And it makes us wonder, “What will happen next?”

Bombs are not supposed to go off. War is not supposed to happen. Tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes are not supposed to destroy communities. Loved ones are not supposed to die from cancer. The people of Paris and Beirut are not supposed to be shot and killed and bombed and held hostage.

Loss of people. Loss of places. Loss of the familiar and the comfortable. All these things which shape our identity and give our lives meaning, purpose, and rhythm—things we take for granted suddenly taken away.

synagogue in Baden-Baden, Germany, burning during Kristallnacht (photo credit: CNN.com)

On Monday last week, my seminary community gathered for our usual midday chapel service, but that day we gathered to observe the anniversary of Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass.” On the night of November 9 and into the early hours of November 10, 1938, Nazi Storm Troopers and Hitler Youth were given orders to stage a massive, highly coordinated attack on Jews living throughout Germany and its territories. That night, they ended up burning 267 synagogues, looting and destroying nearly 7500 Jewish-owned businesses, and taking 91 Jewish lives.

Things familiar and held dear—lost. Places of worship, shops, homes, lives—gone in an instant.

At our observance of Kristallnacht, we heard the testimony of Walter Falk, a Holocaust survivor who now lives near Chicago. Falk was only 11 years old when Nazi soldiers raided his home. Shortly after the events of that night, he was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape on the Kindertransport, an operation arranged by the British government to secure safe passage out of Germany for 10,000 child refugees, with the assumption they would be reunited with their families after the war.

children sifting through debris in a ruined synagogue in Koenigsbach, Germany (photo credit: CNN.com)

Falk recalled the difficulty he undertook in packing up his entire 11 year old life in one suitcase, with room for only one toy among many treasured possessions. But the most poignant moment, he said, came when he had to say goodbye to his mother before boarding the train. Falk’s entire life was about to be uprooted.

That feeling of uprootedness and the devastating loss in the midst of war was intimately familiar to the original hearers of Mark’s gospel. Most biblical scholars agree that Mark was written during the Jewish-Roman War between 66 and 70 AD. If you look in your bible, you might notice that the verses I just read from chapter 13 are titled something like, “The Destruction of the Temple Foretold.”

But in all likelihood, by the time these words were written down, the temple in Jerusalem—the center of Jewish religious life in the first century and the place where devout Jews believed God was most present—had already been destroyed, along with the rest of the city.

Jesus’s words would have stung for Mark’s readers. But Jesus’s words would have said something else too.

The Apocalypse of Saint-Sever

This passage from Mark is the start of a section sometimes referred to as “the little apocalypse.” I know that word apocalypse is loaded with meaning, usually conjuring up images of horsemen, beasts, dragons, fire, rapture. But on a less frightening level, apocalypse simply describes a particular literary genre, like romance or science fiction. One of the major themes of Jewish apocalyptic writings is God’s ultimate control of the world. In these kinds of writings, it was taken for granted that God would rescue the world at God’s own timing.

And Jesus hints at that, too. Did you catch it? These things must take place, he says, but the end is still to come. The destruction of the temple—the loss of the tangible foundation of Jewish identity—is not the end. And it doesn’t get the final word.

In the story about the loss of his squad, Travis describes feeling guilty for being the only one left, but he also talks about his feeling of responsibility to let everyone know who his comrades were and what they did. The tragedy he experienced doesn’t get to be the final word.

Speaking of veterans, this summer I interned as a chaplain in a VA hospital. I had the privilege of meeting all sorts of wonderful people, but one who will always stick with me is Beverly. I met Beverly at the beginning of the summer and ended up talking with her regularly for several weeks. Her journey from addiction to recovery was a rocky one, but it reminded me that our stories, no matter how saturated they are with grief and loss and uncertainty, are not over. Addiction, a cancer diagnosis, or the foreclosure of a home do not get to be the end of our stories. When Beverly was discharged from my floor, she went to go live in a home where she could continue her journey of recovery and be closer to her young stepdaughter whom she cared for. Beverly’s story is far from over.

If we read a bit further in Mark, we would hear Jesus’s encouragement to his disciples to carry on in their preaching of the good news. Like Travis’s responsibility to tell his comrades’ stories, we have the responsibility to bear witness to the good news of God in Christ. That good news ultimately points us to the cross, but we know the cross is not the final word. It doesn’t tell the whole story.

image credit: Jennifer Clark Tinker

Resurrection, not death, is the end—the goal—of the story. And so our moments of loss and uncertainty do not get to be the end either. What happened in Paris and Beirut, and tragedies like those that happen around the globe with far too great a frequency, don’t get to be the final word. Jesus came to announce the reign of God and promise abundant life for all, and when we look to the resurrection, we can be certain that what God promises will happen. We get a taste of God’s promise of abundant life every week here at this table, and we will confess the certain hope of the resurrection in just a few moments in the words of the Apostles Creed: “On the third day he rose again.” When we say those words, we boldly bear witness to the life-giving gospel and declare that the story is not over.

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