Sermon Given at St. James, Knoxville
26th Sunday after Pentecost 2018 | November 18, 2018
“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Amen.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
When I was in college, the musical group, R.E.M., was a big deal. During my sophomore year, they came out with the apocalyptic-pop song, It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine). As is the case with many followers of rock bands, I thought they had written the song just for me.
For much of my growing up years, I had been told the world was about to end, that I should duck and cover and live in fear from now until its conclusion. This kind of perpetual fear was, at the time, what I understood to be the Christian faith. Be afraid, be very afraid. Jesus will save you, but first he has to clobber you and everything around you.
So, when R.E.M. came out with such a matter of fact song, yes, the world is ending and that’s okay, well, I did not know that such a posture was ever possible before. For me, hearing the song was like going from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz.
They were singing, even celebrating about the world’s end and they were announcing that they were fine with it. The music video for the song, (you remember music videos right?), had a young teenage boy wandering through an abandoned farm house. As the song blared, the boy and his dog look through the remains of someone else’s house, now all in ruins. The boy is intrigued by what he finds, not afraid.
If you were here last Sunday, then you heard a gospel lesson about small matters, two insignificant coins. The widow and her meager offering made little difference in the care and upkeep of the Temple.
Yet, it was the small gesture that Jesus chose to praise. In praising her small gift, you may recall that Jesus has contempt for the keepers of the Temple who only care for its bigness and power. They have forgotten what the Temple is intended to represent. They care more for the stones than the souls who seek solace and safety there.
Today, we hear a lesson about large matters. Stones upon stones come together to make buildings next to buildings. When you stand back far enough away, then you can take in the totality of the scale of the Temple. “Look, Teacher, the mites of the widows really add up.”
Jesus, who last week praised what was small, is now indifferent to what is large. This temple, it’s not going to last. And Jesus appears to be okay with that.
These stones, that building, well they are not going to last. The teacher who praised the small gift now is doubtful the Temple, which is so solid, has any real future. If the Temple does not last, won’t that mean the world has ended and everything has ground to a halt? How do you go on after that?
Hearing Jesus say such a radical thing, once they are seated and looking back at the Temple, some of Jesus’ advanced placement disciples, Peter, James, John and Andrew, have a few more questions for Jesus about the whole destruction of the Temple topic. They basically are asking for signs to watch for, dates to circle on a calendar, any tips or hints or insider divine information that their Teacher might give them so they can be ready, so they can duck and cover, so they can place a bet to cover the spread.
What does he tell them? He tells them everything and he tells them nothing. He is incredibly transparent and they probably realize now they do not know any more about when the end is coming then before they had asked. They are still uncertain about the time, but at least they are uncertain at a higher plane of knowledge.
He tells them that others will follow Jesus and claim to speak on his behalf. That happens a lot, doesn’t it? And he tells them there will be wars and the possibility of war. There will be earthquakes. There will be many moments where everything will appear to end. And that won’t be the end.
Actually, that will be the beginning of birth. Birth sounds good, though birth comes with pain, do not forget the pain of giving birth.
I wonder if anyone who lives, or lived, in Paradise, California is in church this morning. I wonder if anyone is reading this passage of scripture in their presence. If so, this passage might not sound like good news if your world has ended, if your world has burned to the ground.
The Temple will stand forever. Look, Jesus, at the stones and the large buildings. And Jesus looks and shakes his head. No stone will rest upon stone. All those stones will end up in a ditch, forgotten. They won’t outlast the two simple coins dropped in the treasury.
When you name a town Paradise, you probably can only imagine a future that grows and grows. Paradise is forever, there will always be a Paradise. Yet, after this week, Paradise is no more and many have died who lived there, and all that was there, the stones and the buildings, are no more.
After seeing the ruins from the wild fires in California, you might have gone back and checked your insurance, made sure you were more prepared, more able to protect all that you possess, that you hold dear.
And in this time at St. James, in what we call the Stewardship season, we are hoping that you will give generously to support the ministries that flow from this place. But we also hope you will support the place, care for the roof, keep the wiring safe and insulate the windows. For, no doubt, we always want there to be a St. James here in this neighborhood. Long after you are gone and I am gone, we want this place to last.
If you do this, here is the good news. It won’t last. At some point, no stone will rest upon stone.
That is not a reason to cancel your pledge, to throw a rock through the stained glass, to forego paying the electric bill. It is, however, a reminder of what is real and lasting and what are simply gifts and tools and resources we use, not because they are eternal, but because we believe the One who is eternal is in us and around us and calling us to tread lightly through this world.
This world that you and I are passing through is ending all the time. Now, we do not say to the people of Paradise, California that their world ended this week and we feel fine about that. No, their world ended this week and we grieve with them, we send financial resources their way, we seek to comfort, to help them rebuild and repair and restore. We pray for their dead and for the living. But we also realize this is not the end.
This text from the Gospel of St. Mark is an apocalyptic text. I used to think that meant this text is here to scare us, to motivate us with fear. But I do not believe that anymore.
This is an apocalyptic text. Such texts are given to us to reveal what has been unknown to us, though often hidden in plain sight. What is revealed in this text is that the things of this world will not last, no matter how much we value them. The Temple did not last. But that was not the end. That was the beginning of birth.
What is this thing being birthed? I think Thomas Merton, the monk from Kentucky, wrote something worth hearing about what is being birthed when we feel as if we are at the end. From his book, The Sign of Jonas, he wrote:
“But love laughs at the end of the world because love is the door to eternity and he who loves God is playing on the doorstep of eternity, and before anything can happen love will have drawn him over the sill and closed the door and he won’t bother about the world burning because he will know nothing but love.”
Something new is being born now. Like so many births, new life comes with pain, with the feeling as if you are about to die.
Jesus promises his followers that when it feels as if the end is here, rather it will only be the beginning of something new. Also, my brothers and sisters, remember this. Remember that unlike those fearful images of an end where God abandons us and leaves us in the lurch, the promise of any true apocalyptic text is that this is the very hour when God draws closer to us. Your neighbor might believe in the Rapture, but God does not. God is not going anywhere. God is staying with you, even as the end draws near.
The world is burning, the Temple is gone and the fear in you might be rising.
But we profess, again and again, that the God of the new birth is drawing closer to us, loving us into the new world, which is the old world, filled with divine grace once more.