A Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who will topple every stone from its place. Amen.
Imagine, if you will, that we have taken a trip to Washington, DC. As we wander around the seat of our national government, we of course marvel at the beautiful neo-classical architecture. DC — ok, well, the heart of DC, not so much the sprawling suburbs — is a well-designed city which draws on the great monuments of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman culture to communicate our country’s loftiest ideals. The Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln memorials call to mind the Egyptian obelisks, the Roman Pantheon, and the Greek Parthenon. Instead of divine heroes, these monuments stand to elected human leaders, flaws and all.
The Capitol Dome towers over the city, a reminder that our nation’s power is rooted in its people. Behind Congress stands an immense library; stretching out along the Mall are the Smithsonian museums. The entire city is a reminder that ours is a nation built on ideas rather than blood, soil, or tribe.
As we walk along these corridors of power, I don’t doubt that I would drag all of you over to visit some of DC’s most beautiful churches — and DC does have some glorious sanctuaries.
Chief among them is the National Cathedral, the seat of both the Episcopal Bishop of Washington and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Michael Curry (you may have seen him recently preaching at the royal wedding a few months ago). As we wander along the resplendent chapels and marvel at the stained-glass windows showing our national history, we pause. What sublime architecture! What a wondrous alter! “What large stones, and what large buildings!”
As we end the tour, a street preacher wanders in, climbs into the pulpit, stares directly at us, and starts shouting/preaching/singing that counter-cultural classic from The Door’s 1966 debut album, “The End”:
This is the end… / Of our elaborate plans, the end / Of everything that stands, the end / No safety or surprise, the end
We’re at that point in the year when the liturgical calendar resembles a snake eating its own tail. On this, our penultimate Sunday in the annual cycle of readings, our attention turns to the end of days – and our focus will stay there through Christ the King (next Sunday) and three weeks into Advent as we look not only to Christ’s birth (heralded by the apocalyptic prophet John the Baptist calling people “broods of vipers”) but also Christ’s coming again in glory at the last day.
So today we find ourselves near the end of Saint Mark’s Gospel. Jesus and the disciples are wandering around Jerusalem.
Christ’s teaching has taken a turn towards the disastrous.
They entered in a big parade full of messianic imagery, and since then Jesus has been cursing fig trees, turning over tables in the Temple, arguing with the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, and preaching about murderous share-croppers. But the disciples are sort of lost in all of this because they are a little bit awe-struck by the city. The Lord has been warning them that their pilgrimage to the City of David won’t end well, but that reality hasn’t quite sunk in yet. As the Twelve take in the sites of their cultural capital, Jesus demands that they turn their attention elsewhere:
Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down….When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
Just as in our imaginary trip to Washington, DC, Jesus interrupts the disciples’ wonder with a startlingly counter-cultural message: This is the end. Not a stone left on stone – everything that stands, the end. No safety our surprise. Nowhere left to hide. Instead, all of creation will tremble and cry out as in labor.
Jesus’ words interrupt our lives. Despite constant demands to turn our attention elsewhere, Christ keeps pointing us to the end of time. Jesus disrupts the disciples’ wonder with warnings about the end times. He is constantly pointing them beyond the world that they see and understand and towards something transcendent.
As we’ve read through Saint Mark’s Gospel this year, we’ve encountered Jesus of Nazareth, the apocalyptic preacher proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God.
Consider our Gospel reading from the first Sunday in Advent, about fifty weeks ago, just a few verses after today’s lection:
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
Or from the third Sunday after Epiphany, way back in chapter one:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
Throughout Mark, Christ’s ministry is to show what the Kingdom of God is like: a place where the hungry are fed, the demons cast out, where the Messiah of Israel storms into Gentile territory to work wonders, where sight is restored to the blind, where the winds and the seas obey their creator. It is a place where the world is set to right, even as the powers rage and the disciples give in to distraction.
And now, our Lord’s message grabs us by the collar as though to point towards the end: “Look! Look over there! See that building? It’s going to topple. See that palace? It will be laid to waste, but that slum just down the hill from it? Its impoverished residents will be lifted up as befitting people made in the image of God. See that wealthy merchant? The one shooing away the beggar child? Soon and very soon they’ll sit down together and eat as equals. One day, the earth will shake as her creator returns to set all things right.”
The Kingdom is erupting forth into this world – through Christ’s ministry and through the ministry Christ has given to the Church. We, right now, we happy few, are an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. We are sent out to serve the Lord. We, in our baptisms, are brought into that new life, leaving the petty ways of this world behind and instead, dedicating ourselves to proclaiming God’s love to our neighbors through word and deed. At this altar, at this table, through this holy meal, this most blessed Sacrament, heaven touches earth! We join together with the choirs of angels, the hosts of heaven, the saints across the ages, and sing praises to our coming King:
Holy, holy, holy Lord God of power and might!
Heaven and earth, though they tremble in your presence, are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the Son of David!
Blessed is the Son of God!
Blessed is the Son of Man, descending on the clouds!
Hosanna in the highest!
In this feast, a small, struggling congregation in Macon, Georgia joins with Michael and Gabriel, with Peter and Paul, with angels, martyrs, and apostles, and raise our voices to heaven. Here, God breaks into the world, feeds us with divine grace, and sends us out to show the world such divine fervor. Here is the strength to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick, comfort the broken hearted, and to love even our enemies as Christ has first loved us.
Here, in ordinary things like water, bread, and wine, here in tangible, commonplace objects, here is an apocalypse – a divine revelation breaking into the world.
And make no mistake: “breaking” is exactly the right word. The entire world shudders at the thought – that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, that the lowly will be lifted up and the lofty will be toppled. This shift is so momentous that it will bring low buildings; the powers and principalities will rage against it. Those beautiful buildings in DC will be brought down – for our great hope is not in this country, in earthly kings or human presidents. The powerful will cling to their prestigious positions; the wealthy won’t know what to do. Those who devour widow’s houses will not give up their wealth and power without a fight. Those who put their trust in money will cling to their cold, dead cash. Those who have built their empires on systems of oppression will rise up in revolt.
For them, this is the end. Not a stone will be left on stone.
But this tumult will last only for a time. Because they are birthing pains, contractions. Something new is coming. New life is entering into creation. Just as we die to self in the waters of baptism that we may rise anew and alive with Christ, so to will the world die that it may rise as a restored creation.
During this, the changing of the years, listen: hear the heralds proclaim the Good News of our Coming King. Prepare for his advent. Remain alert. Do not be alarmed or greatly troubled.
Instead, keep awake. Watch. And pray.