Do not be alarmed. That’s the first thing I have to say about today’s gospel (Mark 13:1-8). And it’s the same thing Jesus told the disciples. “Do not be alarmed.” Do not be disturbed or troubled by all these things. Do not be frightened.
Jesus also told the disciples that he’s not talking about an ending but about a beginning, the birthing of new life. He’s describing a movement toward wholeness, fullness, and completion.
Last week, All Saints’ Sunday, I talked about all things being made new. Today’s gospel is another version of that. It continues the theme of “making all things new.” And I think it’s exactly what need to hear these days when it looks as if so many things are coming apart at the seams. Today’s gospel overflows with good news. And yes, it’s difficult and challenging but it’s worth all our attention and effort.
It’s a gospel about hope. It’s a gospel about opportunities and possibilities. It’s a gospel about finding meaning and new life. It’s a gospel about your future and my future. And who among doesn’t sometimes wonder, worry, or even become alarmed about our future and the future of the world?
I’ve come to realize that when I become alarmed about the future I’m not really focused on the unknown and a time yet to come. I’m really more focused on the known and the present time. I want to know if the temples I’ve built will withstand the test of time. Will the center hold? Will my relationships endure? Will my acquisitions and accomplishments continue to give identity, meaning, and security (or at least a numbing illusion of those things)? Will the systems I’ve created for my life, well being, and happiness remain intact? Are the foundations of my life stable and strong enough to last?
In other words, I’m focused on the large stones and large buildings of my life. So when I hear Jesus say, “Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down,” I get a bit twitchy. Maybe you do too. Jesus says the very things that I am most focused on are coming down. I can’t help but wonder if I’ve missed the point and been distracted from what really matters, from the new life that is waiting and wanting to be birthed through me.
Maybe that’s what is going on with the disciple who says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Maybe he’s missed the point and distracted himself from what really matters and is calling for attention.
I say that for a couple of reasons. First, what this disciple says doesn’t make sense to me. This surely wasn’t the first time this disciple, an adult Jewish man, had been to or seen the temple. He had probably grown up going to the temple. He’d gone to the temple with Jesus at least twice before this day (Mark 11:11,15). The large stones and buildings of the temple were not new to him. He’d seen it all before.
Second, there’s a disconnect between what he says and what has just happened. Jesus and his disciples have just left the temple where they sat opposite the treasury watching the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums but a poor widow put in one penny, all that she had. Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” (Mark 12:41-44) With those words Jesus has cracked the mortar between the stones of power, wealth, prestige, reputation, position, and security. A separation has begun.
Jesus holds up the widow as an example. She’s probably not the example the disciples or we would hold up. She has no wealth, power, position, or security. She’s the one we often overlook, ignore, and sometimes abuse. And the first thing, the only thing, any disciple says is, “Wow! Look how big that building is.” They don’t get it. Maybe we don’t either.
I wonder if this disciple is trying to change the subject and distract himself from what Jesus has just said. Haven’t you done that? I have. We change the subject or distract ourselves so we don’t have to deal with the vulnerable, painful, or broken parts of our lives. I wonder if he’s looking at the large stones and buildings so he doesn’t have to look at himself in light of the widow. I wonder if he’s feeling the large stones and buildings of his life beginning to shift and separate.
When have you felt that shift and separation? I felt it happening during my divorce. I feel it every time a loved one dies. I remember my temple coming down the day the Bishop sent me a letter saying I was not called to the priesthood. I feel it every time I tell myself a lie rather than face the truth about myself. I feel it when the values I claim for myself are not the values I speak or live. It happens when I use my accomplishments to avoid facing how I need to change. It’s all those times I look at what’s happening outside of me instead of what’s happening inside of me. It’s there whenever I refuse to see, acknowledge, and receive the widow and her way of life in my life.
That separation shows up in all my attempts to ignore the elephant in the room. It separates me from God, you, and myself. I end up denying myself the life I say I want. It’s not just a separation. Somewhere in that separation there’s usually a conflict or division within me or between me and another.
You know as well as I do that’s a difficult and uncomfortable place to be, and we’ve all been there. Jesus says it looks and sounds like war and rumors of war. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famines.
Every one of those is an image of separation: nation separated from nation, kingdom from kingdom, the earth from itself, the stomach from food. Even the widow is an image of separation. She’s separated from her husband and the life she once had. Those images describe not only what is happening around us but also within us. That’s the hard and challenging part of today’s gospel. It’s showing and telling us something we don’t want to see, hear, or deal with. It’s too frightening, painful, and uncertain.
What if, however, they are not separations that destroy but separations that create and give birth? What if they are an opening, a space, for something new to come to life?
Jesus is never more compassionate than he is during these times. He speaks with such tenderness and reassurance. “Do not be alarmed.” “This must take place.” “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” It’s as if he saying, “Don’t worry. This is normal. You’re going to be ok. I’m the Midwife who will get you through this.”
Take a look at your life today. What would it be like to stop changing the subject and distracting ourselves? What if we, as my granddad used to say, “bellied up” to the elephant next to us and said, “We need to talk. We have some things to work out?” What are the large stones and large buildings of your life that are being thrown down or need to be thrown down?
I wonder what would come of all that; what it would ask of us, what it would offer us, and what might be born.
What if, in those times when it feels like our life is shifting and separating and everything is being thrown down, we would trust the Divine Midwife and just push a little? Push with faith, push with hope, push with love, push with anticipation of something new.
I imagine the Divine Midwife next to us whispering, “Push, push, push. It’s almost here.”