- Parish House
A Sermon for the Twenty Sixth Sunday After Pentecost – Mark 13:1-8
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
The night after it happened, I took a metro train to downtown Chicago. My friend and I were the only ones in the fluorescent lit cars. We were surprised the trains were even running, but we were glad for the rhythm of a their scheduled stops. Downtown the Sears Tower and Federal building were surrounded by police cars and barricades. Protecting them from whom? No one yet knew.
We went to our normal place, the coffee shop on Printers Row, painted Matisse red and filled with the lingering smoke of art students and writers. The tables were mostly clear, but the music was downtempo and familiar. There was a warmth and comfort in being there away from the chatter of campus, everyone gathered around television screens, watching skyscrapers burn. Something had changed. The hard lines of the city-scape, seemingly eternal, had been disrupted.
In the days that followed there was a strange silence. We had never realized how many planes passed overhead on their way to and from O’Hare. Now it was only geese in their migrations, their ancient V against the blue.
I don’t think I’d realized exactly how much my hope, the future I’d sketched out in my mind, was dependent upon America, benevolent and beloved, seemingly eternal as stone. Now it had trembled at the core; hard steel had melted under the heat of the very engines that daily connected us across the continent.
It was my last year of college, I was beginning to imagine my first job, and now it became clear that my hopes pinned to America’s continued progress, its prosperity and freedom, were not guaranteed. Where could I turn to when all that was solid seemed to melt into air?
That is a question we all have asked in our various ways and times. There are so many things we put our hopes in–people and institutions and progress and faith. We hope that our children will return to us when we need them. We hope that our spouses will keep their promises. We hope that our country will be able to continue the life and values we’ve come to enjoy. We hope and in that hope we try to sure it up and secure it. We create institutions and insurance and governments, we claim rights and make laws in an attempt to protect our hopes.
Hope for the Jews of first century Palestine was captured in the monumental stones of the temple. The temple was a wonder of the ancient world, magnificat from all accounts. The disciples’ awe at the sheer size of the masonry were surely typical of the peasants of their day. But more than a magnificent building, the temple represented a restoration, a precursor to the Messiah.
As the disciples walked the grounds of the temple, watching their teacher show up the sham religion of the authorities, they saw a home for their hope. They were coming to see Jesus as the Anointed one who would restore the fortunes of Israel, but Jesus needed an institution from which to transform the world, a throne from which to reign. With Jesus, they imagined, true power would return to Mount Zion where the palace of David had stood, true religion would return to Mount Moriah, where the temple rose as a sign of hope and faith.
But while the disciples were in awe, imagining the righteous rule of the priestly King, Jesus interrupts the expectation: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
This is not the Kingdom, he’s telling them. This is not my reign, not my religion. If the temple is destroyed, hope will not be lost.
As Jesus does again and again in the Gospel of Mark, he points his disciples away from a Messiah who will restore the institutions of Israel and toward a relationship with the God who welcomes all into the way of love. In pointing his disciples away from the impressive structures of human institutions, Jesus is offering them and us a hope that is deeper and more radical than the container of any culture, any liturgy, any instrument of security that stands outside of the God who lives not in buildings made by hands, but dwells among us wherever freedom is needed, wherever love can enter in and heal the brokenness of the world.
Apocalypse is the term scholars use for passages like the one in our Gospel today. It has become a scary word, but it shouldn’t be. It means to uncover, to reveal. It is like the closet light turned on for a terrified toddler–revealing nothing but a pile of blankets, some hanging clothes. It is like the moment when a nightmare awakes you and you realize that it was just a dream and your loved ones are close at hand. It is like the moment when a disaster comes but you are suddenly able to see it from the wide angle of your life and realize that it was a divorce, but not the end of love, a lost job, but not the end of work, a disappointment, but not the end of hope. Big and small, our lives continue to live through the concrete realities of culture and institutions, homes and temples, but Jesus is here to offer us the apocalyptic truth that when all is uncovered, we are left at the end only with relationship–with God and our neighbor. It is to them that we should turn and exclaim in wonder.
When we are given such a vision, our work becomes something different than suring up institutions, preserving politics, saving the world from its follies.
Instead, “a new and living way” has been opened to us in Jesus as the living, relational temple of God. As cities burn and wars rage and the earth unravels in response to human greed, we who have a faith that runs deeper should “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” as the book of Hebrews tells us. We should “provoke one another to love and good deeds” and encourage one another until the Day when God’s reign comes in all its loving fullness. In this we have something to offer to a world that is poised on the precipice of defeat and disappointment. We cannot offer security or safety, but we can offer a hope and love and relationship that go beyond anything, even life itself. Amen.