Mariya uMama we Themba Monastery, Grahamstown, South Africa
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Proper 28 B - November 15, 2015
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
I struggled this week with what relevance our Scripture texts might have for us and our world. And then I opened computer yesterday morning to read about the terrorist attacks in Paris and I began to see the connection for today. But really, almost any day it's the same: wars and rumors of wars, political turmoil, mass migration and displacement of peoples, earthquakes, poverty, famine, illness, drought, climate change... Jesus really wasn't being very supernatural in speaking of such things; he was simply being realistic. It is the stuff of the 24-hour news cycle. And it is precisely in such a world that we live out our faith.
In today's readings, these hard realities are spoken of and about in the language of apocalyptic. It is a style or genre of writing and speaking common in the Ancient Near East both immediately before and after the time of Jesus. The Book of Daniel, parts of the the Gospels, including this whole chapter of Mark, and the Book of Revelation are written in a dramatic story form accompanied by strong, sometimes lurid, images guaranteed to capture the attention and the imagination of the hearer or reader. They are marked by talk of cataclysmic struggles and cosmic battles between good and evil. The figures are often thinly veiled symbols of then current political powers or social forces. And though not always easily understood in our time, they spoke to the oppressed believers of their day, encouraging them to stand firm, to not give up hope. They reassured their hearers—and us—that though history may be bloody and violent, God is the Lord of time and of history, appearances to the contrary not withstanding. God is at the start of time and of history, and God is its author and its end.
Indeed, this kind of biblical literature is much concerned about the “end times” and the end of time. And people have seemed to take a perverse fascination in it, especially when the going gets tough for us, either individually or nationally or as a whole human race. When will this be over, we wonder. How will it end? What are the signs? What, if any, are the grounds for hope?
Today, at the beginning of the 13th chapter of St. Mark's Gospel, Jesus brings his disciples up short. One of them blurts out his astonishment at Herod's Temple. And he had every right to be astonished. Started about twenty years before Jesus and taking many years to complete, the Temple of Herod was one the of the wonders of the ancient world. Breathtaking in its size and architectural complexity and in the sheer amount of wealth that was poured into it, it would make even a contemporary tourist's mouth drop open. Built high on a mountain it was literally covered with gold, so much so that ancient Jewish historian Josephus says that pilgrims couldn't look at it directly in the sunlight. And what wasn't gold was of the finest white marble. The foundation stones, now part of the so-called Western or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, still astonish. It seems something worthy of, say, a Donald Trump.
But what was also supposed to be the meeting place of God and humanity—the ultimate thin place—had become, as we heard in last week's reading, a place where widows and others were exploited and where a cadre of religious professionals controlled what was, in point of fact, a very big business. Jesus saw this plainly, as did many others: the place was magnificent...and corrupt. And Jesus didn't need to be divine to see that it was also doomed. The gap between the ideal and the real had grown so wide, the disparity between appearance and reality so great, that a violent end seemed inevitable. And it was. Within a generation, the Temple was leveled to the ground.
I wonder if it is that gap between the ideal and the real, between appearance and reality, that is the seedbed of violence and ultimately of the type of extremist terrorism that we saw in Paris.
There is, of course, always a gap. What we proclaim or desire in and for ourselves, what we say we value: this is rarely, probably never, fully realized or actualized. For one thing, we are easily deceived by others. Or worse, we deceive ourselves: we don't know ourselves or what we really want, and so we become prey to what our culture holds out to us as desirable. And because ideals are usually slow in being actualized, it is often difficult to accept the gradual or partial. We become impatient—sometimes with good reason—and push things forward in destructive ways. And finally, we become disillusioned and lose hope. Then anything goes. One Bible commentator noted that perhaps there is so much interest in the Second Coming of Christ among so many people because deep down, they are profoundly disappointed in his First Coming. All that hard ethical teaching, and what do we have to show for it? Though they might never admit it, I wonder if those terrorists who caused such havoc and destruction and murder in Paris yesterday were disillusioned in their religion, in their society, in themselves. Was the gap between the ideal and the real too much for them? I wouldn't be surprised.
What then shall we do? How shall we live in such terrible times? The Bible is not an answer book, but it does offer us some helpful direction.
Further along in Mark's narrative, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that, alas, nobody knows the time frame for the end of all this turmoil. But in the mean time, he says,
--Be a people of endurance. Hang in there. Persevere. Don't give up.
--Don't be naive. Don't believe every new messiah, every new scheme, every news flash or internet posting. Be wise. Be people of discretion.
--Be awake, be alert, be aware. You may not be able to do anything right now, but you can see what's going on around you and you can name it. And that truthful naming will be infinitely more powerful than anything the Father of Lies or the powers of darkness can do.
And then that strange Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us:
--Have confidence in God, for in Jesus Christ, God has in fact broken open a new and living way through his own life and death.
--Be people of hope, for “he who promised is faithful.”
--Be people who do not neglect to meet together...that is, be part of and live in community. We will, none of us, get through these days—whatever they are—alone. This is not a solo journey. It is a pilgrimage we make together. And as is often said of pilgrimages: the important thing is not to get there first but to get there together. Live in solidarity with each other, with all others of good will and who act in good faith.
--And finally, be agitators. Be those who “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Encourage one another. Challenge one another. Irritate each other...though only when necessary. But when necessary, be that holy gadfly, the irritant that leads to holy action.
St. John's Gospel would simply say: Let us love one another. And let us do it now, for : “...you see the Day approaching.”
Even when the world is falling apart and the the center seems not to hold, there is work for us to do. Sometimes big, more often small, but always of great value. Let us provoke each other, challenge each other, encourage each other, support each other, nurture each other, love one another. Let us be church.
Let us live into what we pray: You kingdom come. Your will be done. Your dream become.
So be it. Amen.