Scripture: Mark 13:1-8
Given on 11/15/2015 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
“Not a single stone will be left on another. Everything will be torn down,” Jesus told his disciples one day while walking out of the Temple. The disciples, perhaps wanting to curry favor with Jesus, sought to praise the place where God was though to be centrally located, the place upon which generations of Israelites had come as a sort of Pilgrimage to experience the reassurance of the community of faith of which each was a member. The Temple served as the chief symbol of the Jewish faith, an edifice that had withstood attack and occupation to remain the place where Jews could garner strength. More than that, it was part of the daily rhythm of life of the Jewish people. Those living in and around Jerusalem came to the Temple at least once a day to pray to God, to offer to God from what they themselves had received, to be in community with one another. It represented the safety and security, the chosenness of the faith.And yet, as the disciples and Jesus walk out, in an otherwise pedestrian day, Jesus tells them that it too shall be brought down. Now, what most scholars will tell you is that this decree of Jesus of the destruction of the Temple is one of the chief ways that the writing of the Gospel of Mark is dated. In the confusion following the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Gospel of Mark was written in order to bring some stability to a city and a region that had been thoroughly decimated by Roman forces. The followers of Jesus, seeking to place the destruction of the the Temple and all of Jerusalem in the context of the good news of Jesus Christ. But, for the purposes of the story that the gospel is attempting to tell, Jesus’s warning that the Temple will come down, that there will be war and pestilence, that all this will merely be a precursor, the birthing pains of the end times, and that the one place one need place his or her faith is in God, not in the structures of humankind, not in the military might of one civilization over another, not in the false prophets who will arise offering the people comfort in the face of the end times, all this is simply a part of the falling away of all the things that people often turn to for comfort in the midst of tragedy, in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of confusion, all that is torn down so that all that is left is God and the faith that God offers all people.
This passage and others like it have been used throughout the history of the faith to bring persons from oppressed classes hope in the midst of struggle. Within the history of the United States, several communities, many led by charismatic cults of personality have sought to use these stories to show that creation is drawing to a close and the only comfort one can draw is to find common community with likeminded persons who know the truth while all others are missing the signs. It’s a sad reality that many live into when the alternative of living one’s life to its natural end seems unbearable in the face of economic oppression, of struggle against the perceived power and principalities of whatever society in which they find themselves. So whether it is the Jonestown massacre of a couple of generations ago, the standoff in Waco between the FBI and David Koresh and his followers or the cults that have waited for the arrival of a comet to whisk them away from their current situation and to a paradisiacal future in which the chosen will survive while those who are not the chosen are left to perish the language of apocalyptic end times remains incredibly powerful for those trying to understand how to survive in a world that seems inexorably stacked against them. So much curiosity is there about the end of the world that only a few years ago a series of oddly cobbled together novels about the end times sold somewhere north of a gajillion copies while many who read them placed them on the shelf next to their bibles. In times of trial, in times of struggle, in times of unpredictability, people turn to these texts in hope that they will offer black and white answers in a world that becomes more gray each moment. But I would submit to you that the answers that arise from this passage of scripture and those like, are not to seek to predict the end times, not to seek to predict when it will all end so that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt, but rather, the message, the prescription in each of these passages, is to place your ultimate trust in God every moment, not simply the last one. Because, and I don’t have to tell any of you this, life is fleeting. Life is not permanent. We each can be here one moment and gone the next and so it is that each of us is living in our own end times, regardless of what happens whenever it is that time and capital L, life draw to a close. If you are waiting until you are staring death in the face to tell someone you love them, to offer forgiveness to someone, to take off every mask that you wear out and display your real self to the one that you are closest to, don’t. Don’t wait. Don’t wait to say that thing, to reach out to that person, to increase the amount of love that is in the world. Don’t wait. Because, exactly none of us know the exact moment of our deaths and if we wait until the perfect moment, we risk never really being our best, most honest, most authentic selves. And here’s how I know.
It’s hard to know the exact words to say when you spend almost 24 hours staring at news reports and grasping for anything that will provide either some degree of comfort in the face of the horrific or some clues as to how it is that the ugliest side of these natures with which our humanity has been blessed could wreak such havoc on one of the most beautiful cities in all the world the architecture and spirit of which inspired Victor Hugo and Voltaire, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Matisse, Monet, Degas. So many of the great artists, writers, philosophes of the past 500 years were drawn to the streets of Paris. The Salons, where hearty debates of all manner of politics, philosophy, ethics were debated. The cafes and coffee houses, where life as pure life was celebrated each evening. The stunning beauty of the walkways along the Seine River and the cold and solid limestone of the Cathedrals the dot the city, the snow white face of the chapel of Sacre Couer. Paris is truly one of the most awe-inspiring cities one can visit and to think about it being thrown into turmoil is both sad and disconcerting. I have always felt a special connection to Paris, having gazed over the city from the top of the Eiffel Tower at night, having hiked up the mount on which Montmartre sits and spent an evening in the artisan parks and jazz clubs that reside in that part of Paris. Having spent a week visiting just about every Chapel, Cathedral, Church that is found within the metropolitan area of Paris and deciding once and for all to become a pastor while praying at the foot of the statue of Peter that sits in the Église Saint-Jacques-Saint-Christophe de la Villette. It is heartbreaking to think of that city (or any city for that matter) on lockdown.
At 6:51 Friday evening, my wife sent me a text saying that dozens of Parisians were dead. My wife lived in France for a time, speaks relatively good French for someone who has not been immersed in the culture in a couple of decades and still has an adopted family there with whom we exchange Christmas presents every year. There was a hope for finality when she sent that message to me not knowing that there was still an ongoing hostage situation in the Bataclan, and that the number would soon skyrocket. I can’t even imagine what that scene must have looked like when the police were finally able to gain access inside the music venue. A big soccer match, a foreign restaurant, a cafe, and a music club all turned upside down and inside out in the span of a couple of hours as the world completely unraveled, and no stone was left on stone, and nation rose up again nation and empire against empire until all that was left was pure, unadulterated carnage and fear of what might happen next.
The sermon that I wanted to preach this weekend was to be the second in the series on resources, time, and talent. I wanted to talk about the need to use what time we had for the betterment of our world. I wanted to tell you to seek the appearance of the realm of God each moment and that everything else would take care of itself. I wanted to tell you that whether we encounter the end times tomorrow or a billion years from now, the love of God continues to wrap around each of us and that we should share that love with one another freely and without hesitation. I wanted to tell you all that but then a night of terror erupted in a city that could very well be one of our own and the reality of End Times took on a whole other meaning and urgency. Each of those that perished in the Bataclan, each of those that died at the soccer match, each person that died at the Cambodian restaurant, what do you think that they would each give to have a singular moment with their husband or wife, with their sons and daughters, with their parents, with their friends? What do you think they would each give to have just a few moment to make right everything that they had done wrong in their lives? What would each give just to be able to wake up one last time and see the sunrise over the Parisian skyline?
The great historian Howard Zinn once declared “that you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” The Pastor and Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King told anyone who would listen that “the time is always ripe to do what is right.” The theologian James Cone wrote that to be silent in the face of oppression is to take the side of the oppressor and the writer and academic MK Asante says that “if you make an observation, you have an obligation.” We, as the faithful who remain have a responsibility to those who have perished in an explosion of hatred to redouble our own efforts to work for the ascendancy of peace, to infuse all creation with the love of God which we each have experienced, to fight for the justice and wholeness of all people whether here in our midst, or in Paris, or in Damascus, or Beirut, or Kabul. We have to give all that we have, while we have it to bring an end to these times in which we find ourselves. Times in which it makes sense to so many to offer their lives as a sacrifice to taking other lives. There is nothing holy about terror, but neither is there anything holy about the daily hurts that inflict upon one another whether in the guise of violence, or the guise of words meant to demean, or whether in the guise of greed in the face of hunger and suffering. We each have but a limited time on this earth to give what we have in the cause of Jesus, to live our lives that we might be the hands and feet of Christ in a world that groans in pain for any other way to live than the one that we have created for ourselves. We each find ourselves in the end times, times in which it seems darkest before the dawn of the new age is upon us and we are called to be conduits of that light that shines in the face of the deepest darkness, to be conduits of the peace that surpasses all understanding that is available for all those who will reach out and grasp it, to be conduits for the love of God. A love that created the heavens and the earth, a love that birthed you and man, a love that immerses all people in care and concern. We cannot any longer turn a blind eye to the violence that makes up far too many peoples’ daily experience of life, neither can we become apathetic to the suffering of those around us, nor complacent about our own culpability in their suffering. We must be about the work of God this moment and every moment until that unknown time in which each of us, merely as children of God, are called home. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace, for the love of God, amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.