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