“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.


A Sermon About Rejoicing and Not Worrying (Really?!)


Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
3 November 2015
Philippians 4.4-7 (Advent 3C)

[Click here to listen along!]

I hate to break it to you, but you realize that we’re now just a mere five weeks and three days away from the end of the semester, right? That’s only 38 days to research and write those final papers and give those final presentations. And I know most of us in this room are doing MIC (Ministry in Context), so let’s not forget about preaching or leading adult forum or teaching confirmation at our congregations. And Thanksgiving’s just around the corner, with Christmas lurking not all that far behind: the gift shopping, the cookie baking, the extra worship services, the stress of awkward family gatherings. But you know, don’t worry.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably take issue with what overly optimistic Paul has to say in this passage from Philippians. Rejoice always. Don’t worry. Pray continually. And by the time he rolls around to his conclusion, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding,” his maxims and platitudes have reached their pinnacle of gag-worthiness.

I learned the lesson about vapid platitudes and overly optimistic maxims the hard way during a summer of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). During one patient visit, I was listening to a woman, Amy, talk about loss upon loss in her life: her son’s unemployment, her own tenuous employment and lack of sick pay during multiple hospitalizations, the uncertainty of whether or not the bank would foreclose on her house and leave her homeless for the second time. So at one point when I said, “Well, you’re here now, and it sounds to me like you’re a survivor,” she basically told me to shut up. I imagine if Paul were in the room telling her to rejoice in the Lord always and not to worry about anything, she might have said something similar.

There’s been an article floating around Facebook this week titled “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades.” The author reports that about 62% of students suffer from “perpetual, toxic anxiety.” Stress, she says, is “a force to be reckoned with.” It can have damaging effects on our sense of well-being and our ability to function, resulting in fear, doubt, and depression. In response, the author conducted a study focusing on what her students were doing to actively combat stress. Among her conclusions: you don’t have to be a perfectionist, and you’re not alone. In other words, stress isn’t worth it if it costs you your mental health and your life in community.[1]

The Philippians appear to have been no strangers to stress, either. There’s evidence throughout Paul’s letter that the church at Philippi experienced both external persecution and internal conflict. But Paul offers them encouragement. “Rejoice,” he says, and “let your graciousness be known to everyone.” The Greek word for graciousnessepieikes—means, essentially, not insisting on the letter of the law and instead being gracious and forgiving. It’s also the word Paul uses to refer to the graciousness of Christ in another letter to the Corinthians. As one commentary puts it, epieikes evokes a sense of generosity toward others, and Paul uses it here as a model of living for the Philippian community. Be like this because Christ was.

In this passage, Paul is basically telling the Philippians the same thing as the author of the stress study tells us: Your unity and graciousness to others are more important than getting it right all the time. Paul is concerned for their unity, and against the background of conflict and anxiety, his words remind the Philippians that they’re in this together. As one biblical scholar puts it, “Jesus has redeemed us from petty squabbles and derisive chatter to provide a particular kind of witness to the world. That witness is found in the way we treat one another.”[2]

So: rejoice in the Lord always, let your graciousness be made known to everyone, do not worry… and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul ends with a promise of God’s peace, but it’s not just another vapid platitude. The word Paul uses for guard can also be used in the sense of confinement in prison. I don’t think his word choice is just a coincidence. Paul knew what confinement was like, since at the time of his writing to the Philippians he himself was locked up in Rome, pending capital charges. So if Paul could be reassured of the peace of God in his situation, the Philippians could believe it in theirs. Paul wasn’t offering empty words; he was offering his lived experience.

We can rejoice in the Lord always and not allow ourselves to become confined by stress or conflict. We can rejoice not because circumstances are always ideal or easy, but because in the end God’s peace endures even in those dark places—be it the stress of the rapidly approaching end of the semester or the depression that accompanies the ever-shortening days until the winter solstice. Advent is the season we anticipate the inbreaking of God’s new reality in Jesus, culminating in the angels’ proclamation: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”

[1] Kristen Lee Costa, “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reset-247/201510/your-mental-health-is-more-important-your-grades.

[2] Jacob Myers, “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1505.