SHAKING THE FOUNDATIONS
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
November 29, 2020
Texts: Isaiah 64:1–9; Mark 13:24–37
The biblical scholars who prepare the lectionary certainly chose a curious passage to start the Advent season. After all, with all the warm fuzzies we see on the TV ads and Muzak type Christmas music––if you can call it that–– an eschatological picture of the apocalypse is hardly what we expect. I know that for many years I resisted this passage being read at this time of year. But, it makes sense in a very important way.
The passage in Mark is more about watchful living than it is about the end of the world. The theme of the first Sunday is supposed to be hope, but where in the world do we find a message of hope in words that tell us that the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give light or that the stars will fall from heaven?
The section we read this morning follows the prediction that Jesus’ followers will be taken and handed over to the authorities, who will beat them and even kill them. And in spite of the fact that even the temple will be desecrated, the ultimate triumph will belong to God. Jesus has subverted the powers that would oppress and destroy people. This is the affirmation of hope.
Those who heard this gospel knew about oppression. The earlier part of the chapter referred to the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66–70 and its terrible consequences––the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the massacre of thousands of its inhabitants by the Roman army. The small but rapidly growing Christian communities of the Empire had shaken the very foundations of society by offering a radical approach toward relationships between individuals and between individuals and those in power.
Forty years ago this week, Maryknoll sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke were preparing for the arrival of two more church workers, due to arrive at Ilopango Airport in San Salvador on December 2. Like those in the early Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire, their very presence challenged the authorities. They worked with families displaced by the intensifying conflict there, comforting mothers who had to bury their teenage boys because they balked at being conscripted into the National Army, known for its brutal torture techniques taught to them at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Ita and Maura, however, in spite of all that they saw, lived in hope. On the night of December 2, 1980, they went to Ilopango to pick up Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel and lay worker Jean Donovan. Jean had been an unlikely kind of person to end up in a place like this. She had been a party girl in college and had a great job, but lacked something in her life: direction from God. Her family was appalled when she suddenly announced that she was going to El Salvador to work with the poor. It was her way of living in hope––waiting with the expectation that the Kingdom of God is indeed at hand.
It’s always easier to talk about oppression and death, salvation, and hope when it doesn’t affect us personally. You see, the easiest way to deal with this passage is to keep talking about it in its first-century context. This is because none of us can even imagine the first-century context. That way, we just smile and nod our heads and go on our way into the warm fuzzies of Christmas.
But this text, although written in a certain historical time and place––and context, this passage just cannot be shoved off to the dustbin of history. All that happened a long time ago; what does it have to do with us, anyway?A lot. It has a lot to do with us and how we live in today’s world.
In one of her last letters, Ita Ford wrote, “The reasons why so many people are being killed are quite complicated, yet there are some clear, simple strands. One is that many people have found a meaning to live, to sacrifice, struggle, and even die. And whether their life spans sixteen . . . or ninety, for them their life has had a purpose.” These words could have been written about the members of the early Church. Can they be written about us who live in the wealthiest nation the world has ever seen?
Jesus calls us to watchfulness, to be aware of the world around us. How is this to happen? How can we, here in twenty-first-century America be open to the world of the oppressed––and live in hope? As Ita wrote in an early letter, “Here I am, Lord.” This simple declaration of commitment is the very essence of hope.
Mark’s Gospel was written in a dark time: Jerusalem had fallen; the temple had been desecrated, destroyed. Yet the early Christian communities lived in hope. They did not live in hope because a “Son of Man” would descend from the clouds as in Daniel’s visions. They lived in hope because they believed that in the end, good would triumph over evil, no matter what.
Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel met a horrible death on a lonely road that hot night in El Salvador on December 2, 1980. But the soldiers trained by the U.S. government who raped, tortured, and murdered them did not win in the end. In 1984, five low-level guardsmen were found guilty of the crime; in 1997, they said that their orders came from above. Ita’s older brother William Ford, an attorney, worked with the Center for Justice and Accountability to bring Salvadoran generals, who had been granted residence in the United States to justice,
Former Generals Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova were brought to trial under the Torture Victim Protection Act. Found guilty of torture, they filed appeal after appeal. To make a long story short, both generals were into immigration court proceedings based on the fact that they had lied on their immigration applications. Their appeals finally ran out and they were deported in 2016. But not to worry for them. They are living very comfortably in El Salvador.
Mark’s reading this morning calls us to watch and wait in hope for the kingdom that is promised and that is realized in our living the truth of God’s good news. This is not a call just to a small group of followers who lived in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple; it is a call to us.
We are to have hope not in some great blast in the future but in the present where we live God’s good news every day. Living that hope may cost a great deal, as it did for Maura, Ita, Jean, and Dorothy, but it also offers a great deal. We are offered the opportunity to shake the foundations, to shape the world into the kingdom of God. May we be able to say with them, “Here I am, Lord. Send me." Amen.