A Realistic, Optimistic Hope – Drew Tucker reflects on end times, resilience, and our place in the birth pangs of new life.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday November 13-19, Year B (2021, 2024)
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Wishbone the Dog might be the most poignant storyteller of my youth. As I avoided my homework, I’d get lost in great literature voiced by a Jack Russell Terrier. In fact, I’ve memorized the beginning of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities not because the book itself impacted me so gravely, but because Wishbone’s retelling of the story captured my attention. It goes, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
And believe it or not, in Mark’s Gospel for today, Jesus is pointing to such a dichotomy.
Lutherans often approach conversations about the end times with a healthy dose of skepticism, but many of us rarely see something like the best of times in what Jesus has to say. Wars and rumors of wars, destruction of the Temple, famine, natural disaster. None of this is any fun, and Jesus even says that these are only the beginning of the birth pangs. If all that is just the beginning, what is yet to come? The end of the world as we know it seems like exclusively the worst of times.
Yet, such upheaval is negative only for those whom the status quo benefits. What does the end of a world that oppresses people sound like to the oppressed? What does a revolution sound like to those who’ve got no power? For some, at least, those sound like the best of times.
Dickens framing of tension can inform our interpretations of this week’s passages, as can a deeper engagement with organizational ecology. Organizational ecology is a way of understandings social organizations, like communities, corporations, or churches, based on insights from environmental biology and other natural sciences. For instance, since we see natural instances of death and birth in healthy environments, so too we can expect organizations to go through a process of birth, life, and death as a natural order of their social existence. The best of times for one creature might be the worst of times for another. One’s experience of death may lead to another’s opportunity for birth or growth.
Some, both people and organizations, tend to seek an escape from this cycle. Even the Psalmist speaks that way in today’s text, declaring that, because of God’s favor, they will not see the realm of death or even experience decay. Now, I don’t mean to attack the Psalmist here, for this is an experience common to many of us. We often hope to escape death and its consequences. The discomfort of people even saying the words “dead” or “died” instead of euphemisms like “passed on” indicates our struggles with death. So does the tendency to prevent children from attending funerals or memorial services, as though preventing them from mourning in community will somehow make the death of a loved one less real.
The Psalmist expresses a real hope common to our experience, but it is not a realistic hope. Even Jesus couldn’t escape the consequences of death. Nor can we. But the winter of despair that accompanies our bodily demise is also the spring of hope for our transition into a different phase of existence, a new way of being with God.
Daniel’s passage for today notes that all those who “sleep in the earth” will wake. So it seems that euphemisms for death are as old as scripture itself. But more than that, Daniel highlights the fact that death is a real thing that we experience and that it is not the end to our story or the cessation of God’s work. Death does not have the last word, for God’s Living Word spoke life into the dust once and will speak life into our dust once again. The cycle of life and death isn’t to be ignored or avoided, not just because it is ecologically natural, but because through that experience, a new day dawns. A new experience is born.
We can have a realistic, optimistic hope, one grounded in the reality of creaturely life and one connected to heavenly promise. Hebrews reminds us that, as those washed in water, we’re grounded in a hope that neither ignores death nor is controlled by death. The hope that holds the attention of our faith is a hope that deaths word is not the last word. It is an optimistic hope that looks to the evidence of God’s creation and admits that what was once dust will return to dust but that dust is not our destiny. In his resurrection, Jesus carries the dust of our humanity into the presence of eternal divinity, forever interceding on our behalf not only with words, but with presence, with matter, with substance, where the fusion of earthly dust and Holy Spirit are human flesh in divine space.
If we apply a Christian lens to organizational ecology, we admit the wonderfully appropriate reality of life cycles and to look beyond, into the Creator of life and its cycles. Rather than remain in the unrealistic though understandable yearning of the Psalmist, we embrace instead the optimism fused with realism we find in Daniel and Mark. There will both the pains of death and the pain of birth. Such proclamation points to a possibility that arises in these tensions, one necessary to persevere amidst the end of times, which is of course the beginnings of other times: resilience.
To be resilient is, in essence, to persevere through disruption. To be resilient does not mean to be unchanged, but it means to thrive in the midst of the challenges that arise. Today’s texts speak of resilience through a Christian lens. We find resilience, not in our own ability, but in God’s promise. Resurrection happens in Daniel not because of the efforts of the dead but the promise of the Living God. The turning of the world Jesus promises in Mark isn’t the work of earthly generals but of the God of angel armies. For some, this will be bad news insofar as they lose their earthly power. For others, a reset of the systems at play promise new possibility, offer hope for a future. For all, this is a reality grounded in a lifecycle, one of birth and death but not ceased by death. Instead, with God as good company along with way, we can persevere. We become resilient through the embrace of life’s cycles and through the embrace of the God of life.
As you prepare to preach, attend to the earthly elements in the texts. The notions of birth and pain in Mark’s Gospel speak to the realities of motherhood, as well as the stark reality that pain and struggle accompany new life. The Psalmist desire to avoid death and decay admits the fear that so many of us have of such apparently final destinies. Don’t avoid that content. Instead, admit it, especially in these weeks after Halloween and All Saints. If your context has a cemetery nearby, note the tension of life and death in such close proximity, and the discomfort that often arises in that space. Earth (well, dust) and water, two of the four classic elements, appear obviously in the text. The other two, fire and air, appear in subtle yet palpable ways. The “priestly duties” to which Hebrews refers are, of course, burnt offerings. The Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, appears in Hebrews, and each text references speech in some way, which requires air to pass from lungs to lips to the world beyond.
How might the presence of these elements enliven your preaching? How might the tensions of death and life, the worst of times and the best of times, find earthly connection and heavenly meaning? Who in your congregation sees the end of this world as a spring of hope and who sees it as a winter of despair? How can you help your congregation see God’s presence in this tension and an invitation for all to find resilience amidst the upending that is to come? And remember: resilience does not mean continuing unchanged. It means continuing in the realistic, optimistic hope God offers.
For more reading on organizational ecology, check out the following resources:
Branson, Christopher M., and Maureen Marra. A New Theory of Organizational Ecology, and Its Implications for Educational Leadership. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.
Riddiford, Jane. Learning to Lead Together: An Ecological and Community Approach. Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge, 2021.
Walker, Brian, and David Salt. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006.
Images of nature – birth and pain (Mark), washing in water (Hebrews), no death or decay (Psalm), sleep in the dust of the earth (Daniel)
Originally written by Drew Tucker in 2021.
Read more by Drew Tucker at www.friartucker.com