The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
These Labor Pains
It has been said that “on a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” And I suppose that could be extended to everything as well: animals, plants, civilizations, even worlds, even planets. On a long enough time line, the survival rate of everything drops to zero. Everything has an expiration date.
In many ways St. Paul's world, the world of the 1st century Roman Empire, was very different from our own. In a time before refrigeration and dentistry, “decay” was a more aggressive daily reality. In the centuries since Paul penned this letter to the church in Rome, from which we heard this morning, we have created and innovated; we have changed the landscape. We have built warehouses full of gadgets that slow decay, postpone decay, delay decay. But never stop it. We've yet to stop it. Some things never change. For all our technological advances, we still have expiration dates.
And while, on the one hand, we do everything we can to prevent our own decay, to ward off the reminders of the inevitability of death – laser our eyes, lift our faces, color our hair – collectively humankind puts even more effort and greater resources into destruction. If the actions of the first human beings started our fall into exploitation and decay, as a species, we've done little to stop the fall.
Humankind is caught in a terrible pattern of self-destruction – and we are taking down the rest of creation with us. Each missile pushes us closer to an expiration date; each child killed by violent, war-crazed grown-ups is another scar on our future; each bomb dropped a reminder that we prefer domination to mercy.
We kill each other. We pollute the skies, the waters, and the land. Our pursuit of power and money leaves behind us the rubble of things beautiful and sacred and irreplaceable. Decay. Destruction. Domination. And once it is gone, once they are gone, we cannot get it back.
The Apostle Paul looked around and saw a creation subjected to futility by the very ones to whom God entrusted it. The stewards claimed ownership, and then wrecked the place. Paul was not the first person to expect God to step in and put an end to the madness; and he is certainly not the last. Paul knew we would never right the ship save the grace of God – and he lived on the good side of The Doomsday Clock. Some things never change.
But what if I told you, decay is not the end of this story? What if I told you destruction does not have the last word? What if I told you what seems like death throes are actually labor pains?
I've witnessed labor pains – all-natural labor pains. I've never felt them. But I have heard them. I have seen them. I have listened as my wife has reflected on and processed the experience.
For something that is extremely natural and highly common, it is an awful event. It is painful, again I've never felt the pain, but I've seen it, and I have no doubt that the pain is incomprehensible. And I am told that the process – the labor pains and giving birth – is something like a death. My wife describes it this way: “Pain, suffering, joy, and healing...this is how new life comes.” I've seen it; it's true.
A whole creation, groaning in labor pains. Waiting for what is next, for what is coming, for what is new. And not only the creation, but we ourselves. Waiting for what is next, for what is coming, for what is new. All together. Waiting together. As the missiles fall in Israel and Palestine: We wait for what is next. As planes, full of people, fall from the skies: We wait for what is next. As cities and villages sink into a warming ocean: We wait for what is next. As the ticker scrolls yet another mass shooting across the bottom of the screen: We wait for what is next. Because there is something after all of the pain and decay and destruction. A salvation. We hope.
We hope because don't see it. Because it is not here yet. Because no one hopes for what is seen. We hope for what we do not see. We hope because where others see death, we see new life. Coming.
There is a story that goes like this: once upon a time a boy approached an archbishop and asked him that annoyingly, probing question, “Are you saved?” The archbishop replied, “I have been saved, I am being saved, and I hope to be saved.” Resurrection is the reality. And while we see it only in fleeting glimpses, it is breaking through in the world in which we live and move and have our being. Even breaking through in our own lives – lives that should witness to this impending reality. Our hope has not yet been fulfilled, the reminders of that are all around us, but we are still called to foolishly and boldly live our hope even as the bombs fall.
Our hope is resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus has bigger implications than for which most Christians even dare hope. We satisfy ourselves with a vague idea of a disembodied afterlife. But Paul expects more. For Paul the resurrection is the beginning of something. Through Christ's resurrection we will be raised. But Paul takes it even farther. The resurrection of Christ will change everything. All things are being made new. The entire cosmos will experience resurrection. The new life of Christ will become the new life that rips through everything in all of creation.
Hope is hope. It cannot be seen. I cannot be proved. But when it is lived, it is powerful. And while the pain and struggle in this world can be overwhelming, God knows our death throes, our violence and destruction, are really labor pains. The resurrection of Christ will one day break through this old reality with new life. It's already happened, it just hasn't happened yet. The last word has not yet reached our ears, but it has been spoken. And that word is resurrection.