25 Pentecost, Proper 28 – November 14, 2021
Our gospel story from Mark today begins as Jesus is walking out of the temple just after pointing out to his disciples that a poor widow gave more with her small offering than the wealthy did, because she gave out of her poverty.
So, doesn’t it strike you as rather interesting that the first thing said to Jesus as they are leaving the temple is, Wow! Look at these large stones and large buildings! They were dazzled by what truly was an awe-inspiring wonder. That Jerusalem temple of Jesus’s day was newly reconstructed by Herod the Great and the temple’s retaining walls were made of stones forty feet long. The temple itself occupied a platform twice as large as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Acropolis. Herod reportedly used so much gold to cover the outside walls that anyone who gazed at them in bright sunlight risked blinding themselves.
So, the disciple in the story is impressed…wouldn’t we all be impressed…and tries to share his sense of awe with Jesus. But Jesus isn’t dazzled. Instead, he responds to the remark with a question: “Do you see these great buildings?” Why does Jesus ask him if he can see what the disciple has just invited Jesus to see? Aren’t the two of them seeing the same thing? Well, apparently, they’re not. They’re not seeing the same thing at all.
The disciple was seeing a symbol of permanence, of God’s unshakeable presence. A symbol of spiritual pride, glory, worthiness. But Jesus. Jesus sees ruins. Rubble. Destruction. Fragility, not permanence. Loss, not glory. Change, not stasis. “Not one stone will be left here upon another,” Jesus tells the stunned disciple. “All will be thrown down.”
This is what has been called apocalyptic. Now, I think it’s important to know the original definition of apocalypse. Apocalypse actually means “an unveiling”. Or, an uncovering. A disclosure of something secret and hidden. To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before.
In 2016, social activist Adrienne Maree Brown wrote: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
Notice that Jesus began to explain to the disciples how to be, how to live, during the difficult times ahead. Not to be alarmed, but rather that this is the beginning of the “birth pangs”. “Don’t be alarmed,” he says, when truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred. Don’t give in to terror. Don’t despair. Don’t capitalize on chaos. God is not where people often say he is; he does not fear-monger. He does not incite suspicion. He does not thrive on human dread.
As my colleague Debi Thomas suggests: “Avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments. Be perceptive, not pious. Imaginative, not immature. Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes”.
It’s been an emotionally and spiritually exhausting pandemic, and it certainly feels apocalyptic. So, it is precisely now, when the world around us seems apocalyptic that we need to respond with resilient, healing love. It is precisely now, when systemic evil and age-old brokenness threaten to bring us to ruin that we have to “hold each other tight” and allow the veil to part, the walls to fall. What’s happening, Jesus promises at the end of this week’s Gospel reading, is not death, but birth. Something is struggling to be born. Yes, the birth pangs hurt. They hurt so much. But God is our midwife, and what God births will never lead to desolation. Yes, we may well be called to bear witness in the ruins, but rest assured: these birth pangs will end in joy.
The disciples were focused on the “when” of what Jesus was telling them, but Jesus never gave an answer to that question. Perhaps we are called to live in the here and now, not to worry ourselves about the when. As difficult as it may be, choose to see what Jesus sees. Not the earthly grandeur and dazzle that will eventually crumble; but to uncover the hidden beauty that surrounds us, the lasting relationship with a God who loves us, deeply. Seeing as Jesus sees is often about perception.
Here is a simple example of changing perception. I was riding the train into Philadelphia recently and it was dreary day and I was thinking and worrying about “things”. As we were making the final approach into the city, I was viewing “urban blight” out my window. It was not a pretty landscape and combined with the dreary weather and my worry, it didn’t do much for my mood. And then the train unexpectedly stopped. My now stationary view was of a chain link fence. So, chain link fences have their place in the world. Whether they surround a vacant lot, a junk yard or a private residence, their jobs are to keep people and critters out. Or in. So, utilitarian, yes. Pretty, not so much.
I was thrilled to see that someone, or some group, had decorated the chain link fence with these plastic, colorful forms that inserted into the openings. They artfully created huge, colorful flowers that were dazzling. It was a symbol of beauty and care in the midst of urban blight. It was an uncovering of sorts – and my thought process and perception were abruptly shifted. My mood shifted. People obviously cared.
God has not given up on us. Even as we marvel at things that just don’t matter and miss the ordinary and extraordinary sacrifices around us, God still comes… to us…to you, to me… always in love… always to save.
I close by sharing a blessing written by Jan Richardson. This is a Blessing of Breathing for those who are finding it difficult to breathe, or finding it painful, or exhausting. May we learn to breathe together through these days, holding each other tight.
That the first breath
will come without fear.
That the second breath
will come without pain.
The third breath:
that it will come without despair.
And the fourth,
That the fifth breath
will come with no bitterness.
That the sixth breath
will come for joy.
that it will come for love.
May the eighth breath
come for freedom.
And the ninth,
When the tenth breath comes,
may it be for us
to breathe together,
and the next,
and the next,
until our breathing
is as one,
until our breathing
is no more.
from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief