Scripture: Psalm 16; Mark 13:1-8
I attended Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. The grand neo-Gothic campus is nestled between The Riverside Church, Columbia University, The Jewish Theological Seminary, and The Manhattan School of Music. The first time I entered the chapel, I knew this was the place for me: stained glass windows, tall Gothic col-umns, harmonies that soar into the balcony, a community gathered for worship in a circle of unattached chairs, and a young woman at the makeshift music stand/pulpit. The juxtaposition of the ancient Gothic architecture against the contemporary music, the liberation theology from the pulpit, was so enticing to me.
Months after I was admitted, the school filed financial exigency. A non-denominational seminary who placed a priority on cutting edge theological exploration and justice-seeking: a school that birthed the founding scholars of womanist theology and black theology, a school that in another day was home to brilliant minds like: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rienhold Neibuhr, William Sloane Coffin, Paul Tillich, James Cone, Dolores Wiliams, Cornell West, and so many more. A school without the financial backing of any one denomination has hard time staying viable these days.
Things haven’t gotten that much better, financially, since then. First it was The Burke Library—the largest single collection of theological literature in North America that was leased to Columbia University for 100 years. Then the bookstore was closed. Now, the latest news is that one portion of the gorgeous quadrangle will be torn down stone by stone to build high-rise apartments.
I was reminded of this as I read our gospel for this morning. Rabbi, Teacher, Look! What large stones and what large buildings! exclaimed the disciples. “Not a stone will be left on stone,” replies Jesus. “Everything will come down, wars, rumors of wars, nation will rise up against nation, kingdom against kingdom; earthquakes, and famine.”
Not a stone will be left on stone. That is heartbreaking and somewhat frightening news from Jesus and certainly not the message I would have chosen to preach on this “Thanks and Giving Sunday.” I and my collegial alumni know how that feels, to hear that something that you love, something that you have poured your heart into will no longer exist in the way you have come to know it.
Can you imagine how you would feel if Jesus told you that not one stone of this church—or one shingle might be more apropos—would be left. Not one stone of the econom-ic, social and political structures that have buoyed you along your life would remain. Not one of the ethical principles that we have established and force others to adhere to would remain. Not one stone of our way of life, our plans would remain. Not one stone of the church world that we have established for ourselves, thinking God constructed for us, would continue to exist. Every last stone torn down.
How would we feel if Jesus told us that the carefully constructed, economically unequal, politi-cally segregated and socially stratified world would not stand? That it would all be utterly torn down. We would feel like the people of the first century Palestinian Empire when Jesus declared that not one stone would be left on stone. It would be scary, and it no doubt would send us away angry.
This does not sound like good news for this Thanks and Giving Sunday! Most of us have pretty good lives. We feel proud of all that we have built, the stones that we have placed. We feel attached to the walls we have painted in this church, the bazaars we have helped to succeed year after year, the youth group we supported, the Adult Faith Formation classes we have taught, the lights that we fixed, the defibrilllator we installed, the youth space constructed. We are proud of the life we have created, the home we have kept, the family we have built (not perfect, but good), the job we have worked so hard at that has been fulfilling and energizing and met a real need, the ministries we have established, the needs we have met with the food we have gathered, the education we have imparted, the commu-nity that we established. All gifts to God out of our time, our talent and our treasure.
For the people of the first century, the temple is like that. It is a physical reminder of the fruits of all that their hearts poured forth and Jesus announcing that not one stone will be left on stone seems impossible. Not only because they can’t imagine a time when it does not stand eternal but also because of the enormity of it, the grandeur of it. The temple was a magnificent architectural achieve-ment by all accounts. “The roman historian Tacitus describes the temple complex as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold: when the sun was rising, it would reflect off the temple and appear as yet another sunrise. It was, as Tacitus writes: a ‘temple of immense wealth.’ The enormous stones mystified many, and the surrounding complex has sprawling courtyards, colonnaded courts, grand porches, balconies, covered walkways, and monumental stairs. From far away, the temple sat upon the hill and appeared like a snowy mountain top.”¹ The Temple’s “large stones” were staggering: 35 feet long by 18 feet wide by 12 feet high. Standing 17 stories high, the temple was nothing short of dazzling. Herod built it to impress the wealthiest and most powerful rulers of the day. And he suc-ceeded.
But Jesus sees cracks in the foundation of some of the things we build. In what scholars call “the Little Apocalypse”² (Jesus’ longest sermon in Mark), Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple. Apocalyptic writings focus on the end of times. They, as Will Willimon writes: tell the truth of God’s intention for human kind revealed in the way the end times unfold³. They see the future while stand-ing in the present.
Now, I am one to steer clear of these texts, generally. I don’t put any stock in the countdown clock that looms over NYC, or buy extra water at the turn of the century. But I do place stock on what the Gospels call us to do to take part in creating a future that matches God’s vision for the future, for the Kingdom of God.
God’s intention is not to tear down everything we have built but it’s to tear down anything that we have built up that stands against the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. God’s end game comes crashing against our plans. Jesus, sees cracks in the foundation and is chipping away at the stones throughout the gospel of Mark. In a world that casts lepers as so defiled they can’t be among the company of regular people, Jesus touches them, heals them and eventually, eats in a leper’s home.
In a world where women are 2nd class citizens, Jesus calls women to be disciples, listens to them, learns from their arguments. In a world where tax collectors are not among the righteous and considered outcasts, he goes to parties with them and invites them as guests of honor. In a world where no one is above the law, in a world where laws are abided by in a way that is legalistic but not open to healing, Jesus breaks Sabbath laws by healing on the Sabbath. In a world where the people of Israel are using the tem-ple as a den of revolt against the Gentiles, who have occupied their land, Jesus cleanses the tem-ple because it is not a house of prayer for all people. And God’s vision of worship in the future is for the building of house of worship for all people.
Right from the beginning, Jesus, because of his belief that the kingdom is breaking in, starts dismantling the carefully constructed social, political, and religious world of first century Palestine, spiritual stone after spiritual stone. The world they have constructed and the world God envisions cannot co-exist. The former things must come down for God’s world to break in.
How we hear these apocalyptic texts depends on where we are sitting when we hear them. For the former Florida inmate who just regained his voting rights, it is good news. For the young lesbian seminarian who sought ordination during a time when her denomination had re-strictions against it—that’s me—news of walls and barriers falling was life-giving. For Josephine, the woman from the Bolivian village of Chichen Itza, who lost two children to illness and lack of access to medical care and who has to turn over most of her income to the corrupt land owners, the walls coming down, the reordering of society is good news!
Jesus announces that all that is here now, will fall. No stone will be left on stone. The old systems must be torn down in order to usher in God’s kingdom. So when Jesus leaves the temple angry, he announces that no stone will be left on stone because of what he sees in the temple. He sees the widow we talked about last week who gave her last two coins to the temple, everything she has, everything she had to live on. He sees a system that is driving this woman into poverty, hunger and shame. And that must come down.
The temple, should have been operated under a system that took money in and also gave money out for the building of the Kingdom of God. But this temple simply kept taking money in and kept it and used it to keep building bigger and bigger buildings; all those inside the system were getting richer and richer; all those who benefited from the temple system were lining their pockets with the scarce money of others.
And you see, in God’s kingdom, there is no discrepancy between rich and poor. In God’s kingdom there is not distinction between who is in and who is out. In God’s kingdom, we are all just God’s people. That is the revelation of what the future will be and it is the mandate of what the present will be. Instead of preparing for God’s future, the temple perpetuated the present. That is why an angry Jesus prophesies that the temple must come down.
The good news is that the kingdom of God is breaking into human history. The difficult part of the good news is that God will confront and tear down anything that stands in the way, any magnificent, beautiful, expensive, expansive thing we have created in the present that resists God’s intentions.
Where is this happening? Wherever any Jesus disciple is doing anything she can, despite the opposition, to make real in the present the invasive kingdom-vision God has shown us of the future. The good news is that we can be part of this invasion of God’s future into the human pre-sent: running out in faith and trust that God is ending the edifices we have created that are of brokenness and ushering in a new day that God has created. Jesus did not see the destruction of the temple as the end of all things but the beginning of all things—the birth pangs of the kingdom breaking in.
So, this Thanks and Giving Sunday, we offer gratitude to God for God’s persistence in com-ing after us and trying time after time to break in to our present and we have the opportunity to give in the thanksgiving for all that we can built that does glorify God, that does honor God’s kingdom of the future.
Jesus ends his discourse by saying this end is the beginning. This death is birth. So that a new world might be available by God. May all the endings be birth pangs that offer you a new world.
¹Robert Bryant, Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 0, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds, 2009 Westminster John Knox Press, 311.