25th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 33
November 14, 2010
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.
In our recent trip through early Christian sites in Greece and Turkey, we saw a lot of ancient ruins. Mary commented that when she developed her pictures, there was field after field of chunks of stone and broken columns lying about. “I couldn’t remember which site was which!” she said. One of the things we learned is that even the most beautiful, carefully constructed buildings can be shaken down by an earthquake, covered over by silt, or wrecked and reused by conquerors. They do all begin to look alike. And all of them were the most fabulous and extravagant examples of engineering and beauty of their time.
Our lives are full of stories of the places and events which shape our lives. Many of us have those treasured family heirlooms we save in glass-fronted cases or hanging on our walls. They may or may not be beautiful or collectible, but they are our treasures because of the stories they bear for us. In my day, everyone could tell you where they were when they heard the news that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or when they heard of the Oklahoma City Bombing. In my mother’s day they could tell you where they were when they heard that the war was over in Europe or when they heard that Franklin D Roosevelt died. My kids can tell you where they were when they heard about airplanes flying into the World Trade Center buildings on September 11th 2001 , and where they were in the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.
Treasures and disasters are woven into our lives and become part and parcel of our own stories. Jesus tells us that this is bound to happen. The world around us can seem so permanent, but like everything else in our lives, everything can change in a heartbeat. In today’s reading, it’s almost like Jesus is saying, “Get used to it. There will be wars and rebellions, kingdoms which take over the known world, earthquakes and tsunamis and cholera outbreaks, great cosmic events and discoveries. It will never end in this world. There will be a different ‘savior’ in every age: a new religious leader, a new economic revolution, new industry and new modes of transportation and communication. But they will not save you.”
So if the monuments of our civilization will not last forever, what will? If disasters and failed heroes exist in every generation, what can we trust? What is it that remains from age to age? It is the story of our salvation. You see, it is the times when we turn to God in trust that ‘all things work together for good to those who love God,’ that shape our lives and our faith. In some very real ways, every time is the End Times, a time when we are called upon to give up our trust in monuments, systems, and other people because we see that they fail. What never fails is that God loves us. What never fails is that Christ came to save us. What never fails is that we fail God at every turn, never giving what is required of us, never able to live completely as God’s people. But God forgives our failure, and embraces us anyway. We are treasured and invited and lifted up always, and assured of God’s presence with us through every failure. When our world falls apart, God is with us. When the world around us falls apart, God is with us. That is Jesus’ promise to us today. God can make a way when there is no way, say my African-American friends.
The people to whom Jesus was speaking were handed over to persecutors and torturers, and called upon to give up their faith. The history of our faith is filled with stories of martyrs to this very day. Fortunately none of us has been called upon to stand before a death squad because of our efforts to live the Gospel, but we are often called upon to give voice to our faith. “Not to worry,” Jesus tells us, “I will give you the words you need when you are desolate with grief, astonished by evil, turned against by those you trusted, called upon to give words of comfort.” It is when we tell of our trust that we testify to God’s power in the world, and God’s place in our lives. Our hope in the face of disaster is our testimony. Our refusal to let tragedy take away our confidence in God’s presence and God’s continuing will for us speaks to the world, but it also strengthens our faith. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”
When my mother had a spinal cord accident in January 2003, we posted her story to all her friends and family and asked for prayers. We wrote every day telling of changes and continuing developments and received answers and comments from around the world. She was held up in prayer every day and so were we, whether we were able to pray or not. We shared our thanksgiving to God for every change and for her wonderful life. It was one of the worst times in my life and one of the best. We were held so firmly in God’s hand, often through the chain of communication we had spun through cyberspace. When I think of Jesus’ prediction that his followers will hear the words that he will give them when they need them as testimony, I think of the web of words of hope and comfort that sustained me and all of us in those last months of her life.
“If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot teach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, you can say he died for all….” goes the old hymn. It is how you see God as faithful in your life that is the core of your story, your treasure. That is what lasts when everything else fails. Thanks be to God.
Now may the peace which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.