When Temples Fall, or “I Heard That!”

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Comedian Keegan-Michael Key at the Fox Teen Choice awards delivers the affirmation I remember so well from my childhood.

Mark 13:1-8

Whenever I am listening to someone’s troubles, I often come back to the same statement. I use this statement when I don’t know what to say or when I think my input is unnecessary or would be intrusive. Whenever this happens, I just say, “I hear that” or “I hear you.” 

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that my use of this phrase comes from a much less serious place in my life. It’s a line that I heard growing up in Alabama, often said by boisterous, fun relatives whenever someone said something they agreed with — “I heard that!” In this case, “heard” really means “agree with,” but the effect is the same.

Either way, I think it’s a perfect affirmation because that’s all it is — an affirmation. It doesn’t cause the speaker to intrude with their own input. It affirms and lets go. I think of it as a verbal hug. 

In today’s Gospel text, the disciples go on and on about how impressive the temple and the city of Jerusalem are. Jesus, in response, says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2 NRSV). 

This, obviously, would be terrifying to the disciples. Imagine this: you’re hanging out with the Son of God in Washington DC. You’re sitting on the National Mall in Washington DC, say, just next to the Washington Monument, and looking out at the Capitol Building. Naturally, you might bring up how beautiful and impressive the city is, with so many buildings modeled after ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Jesus hears you and responds, pointing to the Capitol: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 

Needless to say, you’d be alarmed. 

And the disciples were. 

These weren’t just buildings; they were representative of the institutions that they built their lives on. These institutions formed the very bedrock of their society.

Then they retreat a little ways to the Mount of Olives, and they’re still thinking about this incredible and terrifying prediction that Jesus made while sitting next to the temple. They ask him, quite naturally, when they could expect such a thing to happen and what the warning signs might be. 

As we’ve already seen, he doesn’t tell them when. 

Instead, he gives them a long answer telling them not to follow anyone that comes along claiming to be Jesus — or maybe just claiming to be saviors, since people who gather a radical following claiming to be able to solve all the world’s problems have caused far more anguish in the world than a disheveled stranger who says he’s Jesus Christ right before he tells you that he was born in space. 

Today’s Gospel reading is really a continuations of last week’s. Last week, we saw a poor widow put her whole life, everything she had to live on, into the treasury of the temple. Jesus had just been railing about how the religious institution was devouring the houses and money of the most vulnerable among them, those who had the least. 

And here, governments rise up against governments. Temples fall. And person after person comes along, taking control of governments and other institutions claiming that he can solve all our problems and save us from despair.

Hmm… I heard that.

Given how much harm our institutions can do — from church sex abuse to governments having people assassinated — Jesus’ warning sounds as hopeful as it does terrifying. 

A friend of mine used to quote Tony Benn all the time saying, “My mother taught me to believe the prophets and not the kings.” 

In Benn’s eyes, it was the kings who had power, and the prophets who preach justice. When temples fall, kings fall. But prophets don’t depend on any human institution, but instead depend on people hearing them and hearing God’s words: “I heard that!” 

This past week, I had the privilege and the pleasure of making my way to the Cape for Bishop’s Convocation, a yearly gathering of our synod’s pastors and deacons and other leaders. As many of you already know personally, our synod (which is our regional gathering of churches) has some pretty amazing humans leading it. 

One such human is Pastor Sara Anderson, associate to the bishop and previous pastor of the Lutheran church over in Wilbraham. She preached the final service of Bishop’s Convocation on Wednesday. In her sermon, Sara talked about her call to ministry, which began at Calumet, our synod’s camp. 

She talked about sitting in the outdoor chapel as a teenager who was raised Catholic and listening to her very first woman preacher, Pastor Linda Forsberg (amazing human #2 in this story) talk about the Spirit moving. 

And for my part on Wednesday, I couldn’t help thinking, “If that isn’t inspiration enough to keep pushing, what is?” And it’s not about preaching to me — it’s about encouragement. We never know how deeply our words will impact people, or what they’ll be inspired to do and be.

Something as small as smiling at someone in the grocery store can have a huge impact; people have told stories for years about deciding to commit suicide only to change their mind because a stranger did something nice for them. If such small interactions with strangers can have such an impact, what more can we do for the people we see every day?

This, to me, is how to be a prophet: to keep doing the best you can, spreading love in the best of ways, doing all the good we can.

Institutions are all temporary. No government has lasted forever, nor has any religious institution. Traditions last, philosophies last, religions last; institutions really don’t. Sooner or later, not one stone will be left upon another, but all will be thrown down, and the war-makers and fake saviors with them.

What does last is Good News. What does last is kindness. What does last is believing in something bigger than yourself and investing in other people because of it. 

This Gospel text, you probably don’t remember, was also the pre-assigned Gospel text after the 2016 election. The message I got in our divided nation and world at that moment: institutions cannot, and will not, save us.

But Love will. When everything crumbles, God is there. 

As we’ll sing in a minute: my hope is built on nothing less. Nothing less than Jesus. No temple, no church,  no building. Just a guy who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago who they say rose from the dead. Who preached love of neighbor and welcome of the stranger. Who they say, as broken as it is, saved the world, so that no one else needs to save it again. 

Man, as discouraged as I may be sometimes these days, that’s enough to keep me pushing. Because you never know whom it might affect or what they might do. Because “my mother taught me to believe the prophets and not the kings.” Because you never know who’s listening.

Because love wins.

Because it’s worth it. 

I heard that. Amen.

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Poor Widows and Election Returns

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Voters in Georgia cast their ballots. (Source: John Spink, Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Preached on November 11, 2018, at Our Savior’s

Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

What Gospel text, what a week. Let’s get into it. 

For the first time in recent memory, I’m saying this sentence and expecting you all to know it already: the midterm election happened this past Tuesday night. 

If you’re new here, don’t worry. I think that it’s pastoral malpractice to be partisan from the pulpit. I also think it’s kinda silly at this point to go on and on about “both sides” in a sermon that pretends to be edgy but is secretly trying to keep everybody happy.

Just as the midterms had most of us claiming victory over something, there was another mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, leaving twelve people dead. 

At this point after an exhausting and heartbreaking and exciting week of news, most of us are some combination of sad, angry, tired, and maybe hopeful? Maybe.

Our political world is vitally important. Now, if for whatever reason you don’t buy that politics is important and that it affects our lives, or if you’re seriously just too busy trying to keep yourself afloat to pay attention, I hear you. To me, American politics and world politics are not only something that I’m aware affects my life and those of my neighbors and friends and family and all of you and the very world we live in. You see, besides those things being true, I find politics and history poetically interesting. Politics and history from around the world tell us some things about what it means to be human. Some of those things are uplifting and hopeful; some are very uncomfortable.

Watching election returns is one of our few remaining common experiences, and it’s growing to be one that we share more than ever. Once, we had to wait until the next day to find out who won an election. Before that it was days, and before that, weeks or months. What’s more, back in the day, people would get the news at different times; there was a good while when most people in Boston would find out who won national or state elections before most people in Granby or South Hadley found out. These days, we turn on the television and social media and we usually find out the results — all together — within hours. You don’t even have to be at the television or by your computer; you can follow it all from that little glowing rectangle in your pocket.

On election night, the resources are available for everyone who wants it to plug in and connect and tune in and watch and feel the current consciousness of the country be revealed — in parts and as a whole — precinct by precinct, county by count, district by district, state by state, moment by moment. Moment by moment, we learn where we are as a country, and what our fellow citizens are saying and thinking. 

It’s a uniquely modern experience that’s a mix of pure poetry and gastric disease.

The acid reflux that we feel on election night isn’t the same as the kind we get during sports games we care about, either. Politics is real life. Political policies lift real people up or hurt them, ‘cause or allow real people’s deaths or give real people more freedom or less. 

Too often, human institutions have hurt the people they were supposed to protect and serve. This has always been true as long as humans started banding together. Our own country originated from a rebellion against a government that didn’t have citizens’ best interests at heart. 

In today’s Gospel text, there’s a widow who puts everything into the treasury of an institution — a religious one, the temple. The temptation that I see for us as interpreters is to romanticize the widow. How amazing is she, we think — she who has so little, but who gives it all away?

But in the shadow of an election, I’m thinking a little more about institutions than I normally do, and I caught something in the text this cycle that I can’t believe I’ve never caught before.

You see, Jesus spends the entire paragraph that we read before that coming straight for the religious institution and the people who run it. I think we miss this because the term “scribes” doesn’t have much meaning for us. It’s not a term that most everyday folks are familiar with. 

So instead, try this adaptation on, and you’ll get closer to how Jesus’ original hearers would’ve heard it: “Beware of the pastors, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect at the farmer’s market, and to have the best seat in church and places of honor at community events! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And then, imagine that he tells a story about a poor woman who gave the tiny amount of money she had for food to the church with the pastor who devours widows’ houses. “Widows,” in that time, of course, was a stand-in for the vulnerable. The widows the the orphans — women and children without a grown man to protect and provide for them, which was absolutely necessary back in those days. The point is that institutions can easily exploit financially vulnerable people.

What’s more, in the very next chapter of Mark, Jesus will tell his disciples that “not one stone [of the temple] will be left upon another, but all will be torn down” (Mark 13:2). This widow is giving everything she has to an institution that not only keeps her down, but one whose days are numbered. Given that, I began to see her less as a paradigm for giving and more as a bit of a tragedy. I felt a little sorry for her.

And when I start to feel sorry for her, I start feeling sorry for myself, too. I think about all the ways that I pour myself into institutions: into my work in the church and into my citizenship. Then, in an act of self-awareness, I think about people who give much more than I do and I start feeling sorry for them. In Greek, Jesus says of the widow that she put “the whole of her life” into the treasury that day. Her whole life — and for what?

Is any of this redeemable? Where is the Good News?

Is the church in America dying? Is our divided and furious political democracy dying? And if they’re not dying, is either really worth it, or do institutions just always do more harm than good? 

Is it worth it to take the time to vote? To knock on doors? To talk to our neighbors who believe so diffeently?

Is it worth it to come to church, to give to the church? Or are we, and the generous widow in Mark’s story, just characters worthy of pity, pouring everything into a doomed institutions?

Is any of this redeemable?

Well, as much as I’d like to say that institutions are all garbage, truth is, we’re created to work together, and we always have. And I don’t think Jesus points out this woman just to pity her; I think he points her out because otherwise, we wouldn’t see her. The one who’s not just contributing out of an abundance, but putting her life and soul into what she believes. I think that Jesus is saying that that kind of dedication is the kind that most reflects the face of God.

Because ultimately, you know, it’s Jesus, not us, whom the widow most clearly reflects. It’s Jesus who gives his whole life. Jesus sees her, I think, because he identifies with her. And that’s why it’s here that I offer a note of caution: a Lutheran pastor that I known often cautions against overwork by saying, “You don’t have to die for Jesus; he already died for you.” We are not called to sacrifice our health and well-being for the sake of institutions. We are not Jesus. We cannot save and redeem everything. Jesus already did that.

But we are called to invest ourselves into something bigger than ourselves, to pull together, to work together, to try our hardest to make things just a little bit better in the church and in the world, for those who will follow us. We are called to see this widow and make sure that the money she put into the treasury won’t mean she doesn’t go without food. We are called to protect the most vulnerable among us. We are called to put our whole lives into good work and hope for the best, knowing that in the end, it’s all redeemed, somehow, anyway.

Yes, our institutions are broken. No election will solve everything that’s wrong with our nation. No election is guaranteed to stop all violence or truly guarantee freedom and justice for all. No church program will fix everything that’s wrong with the church. We’re not Jesus, and we’re really bad at saving ourselves. 

But the good news is that we get to contribute. We get to pour ourselves into something. We get to try greatly, even if we fail. 

And the best news of all is that Jesus sees us. And the best news of all is that Jesus redeems all of it — our efforts, our institutions, our lives. 

So keep putting your whole life into your work. God sees you. God redeems it. God loves you. 

Thank God. Amen.

Unbound

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Isaiah 25:6-9
John 11:32-44

“And he will swallow up death forever.”

That sounds nice, but I don’t know about you, but I am tired. 

I am tired of saying goodbye to people that I love who have died. We’ve said goodbye this year to a lot of people, too. Most recently, we said goodbye to Beverly. Before that, we said goodbye to Bruce. Lee Debiew and Jeff’s mother Lois left us this year, too. We could fill so much time recounting the people we’ve all lost, people whose faces and voices we cherished who are no longer with us.

That alone is enough to cause us to sink into despair. But then we turn on the news, and we get more tired, really, regardless of the specifics our political views. It seems we’re all tired of hearing about the violence and the death and the hatred and the pain, so much that we lash out at everyone we see as being to blame for it all.

Preaching professor Dr. Thomas Long, a tall Presbyterian pastor with a deep voice who was my own preaching professor, opened his lecture on preaching funerals with one sentence that I will never forget: 

“There are two preachers at every funeral. There’s you, and there’s Death with a capital D.” 

Death says that this person is gone too soon, never to be heard from again. Death preaches despair. Death preaches loss. And Death will be heard at every funeral. The Gospel needs to be heard, too.

Sometimes, though, even to preachers, it just doesn’t seem like enough. Funerals are so real. Death is so real. We feel the loss so acutely, but even the best-preached Gospel can seem like just abstract words. Death, we can see. The Gospel? The words of Revelation about no more death and crying and pain? That just seems like an abstraction, something that’s at best too far off to see.

Even reading the story of the raising of Lazarus on All Saints’ Day seems almost cruel. On a day when we remember those who have died and remember being at their gravesides, we hear this story about someone who miraculously comes out of a tomb after four days of death. 

We in the church have made the mistake of making the Gospel an abstraction, a heady idea that we’re supposed to just believe. We’ve failed to unpack the earthiness, the pain, the visceral realness of this Gospel of death and resurrection.

Dr. Long wrote this in his book on funerals: “Christians do not live in the abstract. They are real people who live real lives, and they die real and very different deaths. They die young, and they die old and full of days. The die in the flames of martyrdom, and they die cowering in fear. They die as saintly sinners; they die as sinful saints. They die of crib death, of cancer, of old age, and by their own hand. They die full of joy, and they die despairing. They die in Hartford and Buenos Aires, Karachi and Toronto, Nairobi and rural Nebraska — in the places where they have lived and loved and in places where they are strangers and exiles. They die in hospitals and nursing homes, along highways, at sea, [at home] and at work. They die surrounded by those who love them, and they die alone….

“All Christian funerals — formal or informal, high church or low, small or large, urban or rural — say… ‘Look! Can you perceive this? The life and death of this one who has died can be seen, if you know how to look, shaped after the pattern of the life and death of Jesus.’” (1)

Just like our lives and our deaths and the deaths of all the saints, the Gospel is more than an abstraction. It is death and resurrection. And resurrection is more than just the “undo” button on death.

In this Gospel story about Lazarus, we find ourselves in familiar place — particularly familiar to this community this year. 

Someone has died, and people gather in support around the family. Surely someone brought a casserole. 

A man named Lazarus, a dear friend of Jesus and his band of followers, has died. We don’t know how they knew one another, but we get the sense in this scene that they’ve definitely hung out together, eaten together, laughed together, bonded. When Jesus is told about Lazarus being sick, he hears, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:3).

And now the one that they have all loved has died, and so they gather. Jesus meets Martha, Lazarus’s sister, outside of town, and she sends her sister Mary out to meet him, too, in the centuries-old tradition of the family greeting the mourners.

Mary says to Jesus the same thing her sister Martha did: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

Is that faith we hear? Is it protest? Accusation? They had invited him before Lazarus died, but Jesus didn’t leave immediately. The point is, Mary has lost her brother. She is grieving, and grieving people are allowed to just say things, even to the Son of God.

Then the story goes: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” 

That gives you the sense that Jesus wiped a tear, maybe sniffled a little. No. 

For quite awhile now, translators have softened these emotions of Jesus. The Greek makes him sound much less sad, and much more angry. The words used mean both to snort in anger and to be troubled, anxious, distressed, restless. 

None of them means that he was just sad. He’s disturbed. Angry. Agitated. 

Jesus, God-made-flesh, knows that this isn’t how life is supposed to be. This isn’t how love is supposed to be. Families are supposed to stay together, friends are supposed to be together, love is supposed to last, and yet the powers of disease and violence and death rip us away. And God is angry.

“There are two preachers at every funeral. There’s you, and there’s Death.”

Everyone here has heard Death’s sermon. Jesus hears it here, and he’s angry.

He wants to act. “Where have you laid him?” he asks Mary.

What Mary says to him is the primary invitation in the Gospel of John: “come and see.” Except that nearly every other time, it’s Jesus issuing the invitation. It’s what he says in John rather than “Come, follow me.”

Here, Mary, stricken with grief over her brother’s loss, looks into the eyes of God and offers the invitation back: “Lord, come and see.” 

Come and see what Death has done. 

These days more than most, we feel the gut-wrenching pain of Mary’s words: 

Lord, come and see. Come and see what Death has done.

Come and see what has happened in Pittsburgh.

Come and see what is happening in Syria. 

Come and see what has happened in Puerto Rico.

Come and see the devastation on the Gulf Coast.

Come and see the chairs that used to be filled every Sunday by Beverly and Bruce. Come and see the chairs all over the sanctuary that used to be occupied by people we loved who aren’t here anymore.

Come and see what Death has done.

Lord, come and see. 

This. This is when Jesus weeps.

We already read how the story ends. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus is so moved and disturbed by Death, so sick of Death’s preaching, that he brings Lazarus back after four days gone. Lazarus is one of two people brought back from the death in John’s Gospel, you may remember — Jesus being the other one.

But here, with Lazarus, when he comes out of the tomb, he’s still wrapped in the linen grave clothes — with his face and hands and feet bound. If you want an image, think about that: his feet are bound, but he comes out of the tomb on his own. Did he levitate? Hop? Shuffle? 

Lazarus can’t even see. His face is covered and he stumbles forward, bewildered, still wrapped in the linen clothes of death. What you’re meant to know is this: this is a miracle indeed — Lazarus is alive again! But he is still bound by death. He will someday die again. 

That’s sort of how I feel sometimes, and I’m betting you do too. We’ve got hope, but we’re also still bound by despair, the weight of grief, and the blinding wrappings of Death. 

But it won’t be long in John’s Gospel before we meet Jesus at another tomb: his own. When Jesus is raised from the dead, the disciples will find the linen grave clothes lying in the tomb (John 20:5). Jesus won’t need to shuffle out blindly. He will be free of death entirely. (2)

Where once he called Lazarus by name out of the tomb; on that day at his own tomb he will call Mary by name, no longer bound by death, having put Death under his feet. 

Death still preaches loud, and still, we call to Jesus: come and see. And Christ grieves with us. 

But with all the saints who came before us, we hold on to this crazy hope that maybe it will not always be this way. That maybe, despite everything, new life is coming into the world. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, that hold onto hope, that died in hope, who were buried in hope that maybe, just maybe, after death comes resurrection.

We often try to make the Gospel an abstraction. It isn’t. It is death and resurrection. When we say that someone who has been in physical or mental or emotional pain or who has been lost to dementia is free now, we mean it.  

The people whose names we will call today will be among those who have gone before us, lived before us, grieved before us, died before us. We are who we are because of them. Our faith and our outlook on life is because of them. They weren’t perfect. Many did great harm, and many did great good, and most of them are a messy combination of the two. But they shaped the world and the church that we live in today, and so we continue to proclaim this crazy hope that someday, we will all be free, and as the Revelation reading for today promises, that there is a place where there is no more death or crying or pain, because if John’s Gospel is to be believed, Death makes God angry, too.

I close with words from my dear friend Dana, a Methodist pastor in Atlanta: 

“It seems like death is everywhere in our personal lives and in our collective consciousness.  But know today that death will not have the last word.
Death doesn’t have the last word.
Terror doesn’t have the last word.
Racism doesn’t have the last word.
Anti-semitism doesn’t have the last word.
Islamaphobia and homophobia don’t have the last word.
Fear doesn’t have the last word.
Death doesn’t have the last word. Why?
Because God is the last Word, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Life is the last word. Love is the last word.” (3)

I know. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. But Christ is angry at death because he knows that love is the last word. And so he shut death up for good.

In a moment, we will sing the words, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.” Rejoice and be glad: we are who we are because of these saints that we will name today, and someday, no matter how tired we are, we will be free, unbound, and Death will finally be swallowed up forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing, 2009.
2. Gail R. O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 2002.
3. Pastor Dana Ezell, Trinity UMC, Atlanta, GA, 2018.