How Does It End? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 23 September 2018
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — September 23, 2018
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Text:  Mark 13:1-8, 24-27, 32-33

Peter, James, John, and Andrew got [Jesus] off by himself and asked, “Tell us, when is this going to happen?  What sign will we get that things are coming to a head? — Mark 13:3 [The Message]

I preached this sermon about four years ago for the first Sunday in Advent, and I wanted to come back to it on this, my next to last Sunday as your pastor, for a couple of reasons.  First, of all the sermons I’ve preached here at IPC, it’s one of my personal favorites.  And second, it deals with endings—not specifically my retirement, but with the kinds of questions that run through our minds about endings both large and small.  And there’s a third reason—I get to reminisce about circuses.

I’ve always loved circuses, though I’ve seen only a few in person.  I was sad when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down last year after 146 years in operation.  I know about the problems with circuses and the welfare of circus animal, but as a kid I fell in love with the whole shebang:  clowns, trapeze artists, contortionists, elephants, lion tamers, the circus band: all of it.  I once saw the Ringling Circus in Washington, DC, and one of the highlights was seeing Hubert Humphrey ride an elephant around the arena.  But from the very beginning as a kid watching circuses on Saturday morning television (a show called The Big Top, I think) in the 1950s, what has fascinated me most are the human cannonballs. 

The original human cannonballs were the five flying Zacchini brothers.  Their father Hugo invented the act in the 1920s, and the Zacchinis had their own circus, traveling the world.  Eventually they went with the Clyde Beatty Circus and then Ringling Brothers, where for years Mario Zacchini’s human cannonball act was the grand finale.  He was shot from a cannon more than 5000 times in his life.  He’d don a crash helmet and load himself into a bright red cannon.  Then after a fanfare from the circus band an assistant would ceremoniously light the fuse.  And with a great roar and a belch of gray smoke, Mario Zacchini would be hurled hundreds of feet over pastures or parking lots, even over a Ferris wheel, into a tiny net on the far side.  One day when a reporter asked him the usual question—“What’s it like to be shot out of a cannon?  It must be terrifying to fly through the air!”—Mario thought a moment and said, “No, flying through the air is easy.  Landing in the net is the hard part.”
 
Eighteen years ago when I came here to IPC from a small church in a rural town of about 12,000 people to this stone edifice and the big city of Columbus, I felt on many occasions like I’d been shot out of a cannon.  I want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart for all the nets—eighteen years of nets.

I think Jesus’ disciples would echo Mario Zacchini’s words.  If you think about it, their being with Jesus was a lot like being shot out of a cannon.  Blasted out of the safety and security of family and village, ejected from fishing boats and tax office jobs, hurled back and forth over Galilee and Judea, over Pharisee and parable, over beatitude and blessing, following this amazing Rabbi to God only knows where.  When the opposition began plotting against Jesus and violence was in the air, you can hardly blame them when they began looking around anxiously for some sign of a net.  “How does it end?” they asked Jesus. “When?  And what are the signs?”  Flying through the air is easy.  Landing in the net is the hard part.

What the disciples want to know are the facts.  How can this great stone temple be thrown down?  How is the world going to end, and when?  What is all this you’ve been saying about dying and coming to us again?  What does that mean?  When will it be?  What should we look for?  Tell us the facts.

But beneath their quest for facts lies a set of deeper questions, questions I myself have, and so, I suspect, do you.  Some of those are:  Is this all going anywhere?  Is there some grand finale that will make sense of all that we are experiencing?  Is there an ending that can give meaning and shape and wholeness to our lives?  Flying through the air is easy.  Landing in the net is the hard part.
That is… if there is a net.  Mario Zacchini once missed the net, hit the ground, and lay there briefly paralyzed.  He could hear people exclaiming, “He’s dead!  He’s dead!”  But he couldn’t respond. 
 
Is death the end?  That’s what the tombstone of Mel Blanc, the voice of Loony Toons characters like Bugs bunny and Porky Pig, seems to say.  His epitaph reads (can you guess?), “Th...th...th...that’s all, folks!”  Is that true?  Graveyards are good places to ponder such things.  I have in mind a particular graveyard just outside the tiny village of Mendon, MI, where my mother grew up and where I spent many a summer week at my grandma and grandpa Taylor’s farm.  I was back there just this past April for the funeral of my Aunt Nancy, my mother’s youngest sister.

I hadn’t been to that graveyard for more than 30 years when, in 1995 my Aunt Bethel flew us from Oregon to Michigan so I could preside at my Grandma Taylor’s funeral.  The day before the service, I was walking in the Mendon cemetery looking for family markers and noting the names of local families I dimly recalled from childhood.  There were worn stones from the 1800s and shiny new ones, with names and dates, some with inscriptions—beloved husband, beloved wife—a Mumby girl dead in 1911 just after her fourth birthday—the inscription, “Underneath are the everlasting arms”—a line from Deuteronomy I always quote at funerals.  She might have been a distant relation, since my grandmother was a Mumby.  A Haas boy lost in WWII at 19 with a phrase from the eighth chapter of Romans that I also include in most funerals—“Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”  I found the marker for my great grandparents, then for Grandpa and Grandma.  Both names were there—Vern Taylor (I get my middle name from him) & Frances Taylor (my daughter’s middle name is Frances from her)—along with his birth and death dates, her birth date, and the blank space that could now be chiseled in.  My grandpa died in 1968, and I found myself pondering my grandma’s life—92 years old when she died, seven children who lived, 26 grandchildren, nearly 60 great-grandkids, married for 46 years and widowed for almost 27.

Then I saw a little stone to the side that surprised me—Baby Girl Jackson, 1952, no birth date, no death date, just 1952.  I vaguely recalled that Mom had lost a baby who’d have been my only sister.  I was three or four, so I have no real memory of it.  She wasn’t named.  I’m not sure she ever took a breath.  I seemed to recall she’d been buried in a small country graveyard; I was never sure exactly where.  When I asked my Aunt Bethel about it, she said, “Oh, yes.  After Grandma came back from your mom’s funeral in Florida in 1982, she arranged for the baby to be moved to the family plot beside her own final resting place.”

Walking to the car, I stopped at the stone for my Uncle Herb, my mother’s closest brother.  He had five children and one on the way when he was killed in a construction accident in June of 1961.  His funeral was the first one I ever went to in that cemetery.  I was only 12, but until the day I die, I will never forget my mother’s scream of anguish that June morning when she picked up the phone and heard the terrible news—a wordless wail, and then the words, “Oh no, no, no.”  Standing there before my uncle’s stone, it was like it happened yesterday.  Right here and now, it’s like it happened yesterday.

And the disciples wanted to know.  How does it all end?  The everlasting arms and the eighth chapter of Romans?  Or “That’s all, folks!” and an anguished no, no, no?  In every graveyard, there’s evidence for both.

When the disciples ask how does it all end, it’s not an intellectual question.  No, it comes out of that place in the human soul that hungers to be shaped according to hope.  We are hoping for some word from God that we can cling to, that we can trust, that we can build our lives around.  How does it end?

In the little town of Dachau, Germany, the site of one of the death camps, there is a museum of the holocaust.  In the museum, there is a photograph of a mother and her little girl being marched to the gas chamber.  There’s not one thing they can do about it, so the mother does the last act of love she has available to her.  She puts her hands in front of her little girl’s eyes so she will not have to see where she is going.  People who pass by that picture pray, whether they are secular or religious.  And the prayer goes like this:  “O God, do not let that be the last word.”

The disciples ask Jesus, “How does it end?”  Jesus says, “You will hear of wars and rumored wars, but keep your head and don’t panic.  There will be terrible conflicts and false leaders, disasters and suffering, but that’s not how it all ends.  There will babies and young dads buried in small town graveyards, and there will be little girls marched by mad men to gas chambers, but that is not the last word.  I am Alpha and Omega.  I am the beginning, and I am the end.  And I am with you always!”

If you have read the book or seen the movie Big Fish (or went to see the musical at Otterbein this weekend), you know it is a tall tale about a larger than life character in a small southern town.  Like all self-respecting southern towns, it has a haunted house that is, of course, occupied by a witch—at least that’s what the children call her.  But if you view this story as a parable, you will realize she is not a witch, but wisdom.  In the movie version of the story, she has one clear eye and one milky eye.  The town legend is, if you look into her milky eye, you will see how you will die.  The hero of the movie, when he is a little boy, marches bravely up to the front porch of this haunted house and confronts the witch.  “I want to see.  I want to know,” he says.  In other words, “How does it end?”

She looks at him knowingly and lifts the patch from her milky eye.  He looks into it.  In the film, the camera pans on his face as he breaks into the most beatific smile.  “So that’s how it ends!” he says.  From that point, he is afraid of nothing.  No matter what he faces, he says to himself, “This is not how it ends.”

There will be wars and rumors of wars, but that is not the last word.  There will be false leaders and terrible conflicts and disasters and suffering, but that is not how it ends.  And that is why the very first words spoken on Easter morning are “Do not be afraid.”  This tomb of death, this is not how it ends.

Tom Long, who teaches preaching at Emory University, tells of a farewell service for a much-loved pastor of an Atlanta church.  It was packed, with standing room only.  The pastor preached a powerful sermon.  But Tom Long claims that an even more powerful sermon was preached that day by a little girl in the children’s choir.  They sang an anthem up front of the chancel area.  And their director had told them, “When you finish singing, don’t move.  Just wait there, and your parents will come and get you and take you to children’s church.”

Well, sure enough after singing the anthem, they all obediently stood there as the parents came forward, and one by one took their children off to children’s church.  Finally there was just this one little girl left standing there, all by herself.  What she didn’t know and couldn’t see was that her father was in the back of the sanctuary.  It was taking him a while to get past the crowd and come forward.  She couldn’t see that.  All she knew was that she was told he was coming, and she was to stand there and wait.  She stood there with hundreds of eyes on her.  Most kids would have cut and run, but not her.  She stood there with her jaw jutted forward, confidently, maybe even defiantly, waiting, until finally beside her, suddenly, there was her father.  She turned to him, threw her arms around his neck, and said, “I knew you’d come.  I just knew you’d come.”

The disciples wanted to know—how does it end?  I am the church… you are the church… we all are the church.  But the church is more than all of us.  And the church stands here with the eyes of the world on it—obediently proclaiming good news, showing mercy and kindness, doing justice, and standing with the least of these—ever confident that landing in the net is actually the easy part.  For in the end we will all put our arms around the neck of the one who has loved us so, and say, “I knew you’d come.  I just knew you’d come.”  Amen and amen.


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Mark 13:1-8, 24-27, 32-33   [The Message]

As [Jesus] walked away from the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at that stonework!  Those buildings!”
2 Jesus said, “You’re impressed by this grandiose architecture?  There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.”
3-4 Later, as he was sitting on Mount Olives in full view of the Temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew got him off by himself and asked, “Tell us, when is this going to happen?  What sign will we get that things are coming to a head?”
5-8 Jesus began, “Watch out for doomsday deceivers.  Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the One.’  They will deceive a lot of people.  When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic.  This is routine history, and no sign of the end.  Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over.  Earthquakes will occur in various places.  There will be famines.  But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming.
……

24-25 “Following those hard times,
    Sun will fade out,
        moon cloud over,
    Stars fall out of the sky,
        cosmic powers tremble.
26-27 “And then they’ll see the Son of Man enter in grand style, his Arrival filling the sky—no one will miss it!  He’ll dispatch the angels; they will pull in the chosen from the four winds, from pole to pole.
……

32-37 “But the exact day and hour?  No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son.  Only the Father.  So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable.

 
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