Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2018
Year B, Proper 28: Samuel 1:4-20; Canticle: The Song of Hannah (Samuel 2:1-10); Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25; Mark 13:1-8
There was no recording of this sermon.
If you can imagine the first time you went to a city like New York or Miami, or if you’re like me the first time you saw real mountains and the awe you felt, you get something of what Jesus’ disciples must have felt when they saw Jerusalem for the first time.
Jesus tells them, however, that the beauty of the buildings will not last. “Not one stone will be left here…; all will be thrown down.”[i]
What we’re hearing in this passage is difficult. Jesus speaks about wars and rumors, earthquakes and famines. What strikes me most, however, today is the warning Jesus gives his disciples: “Beware that no one leads you astray.”[ii]
In our day, not all those pretending to show people the way are religious. All sorts of people claim to have answers to our deepest needs: politicians, fitness experts, talk-show hosts, financial advisors, even toothpaste manufacturers. Unfortunately, however, some people at least offer the pretense of religion. They are often magnetic personalities who twist Christianity into a faith that little resembles the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Forty years ago, today, hundreds of people were led astray. On November 18, 1978, a massacre of epic proportions occurred in what was then a little-known South American country, Guyana. Most of you, most of us probably, remember what happened in a community that has become a part of our vocabulary, simply known as “Jonestown.” 919 people died, through a combination of murder and suicide. The mass suicide and killings at Jonestown represented the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act of evil and violence prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The scene of devastation in Jonestown left a terrible mark on people. Forty years later new documentaries are still being made and questions about how and why this could happen remain unanswered. In passing, I mentioned on Facebook that I had listened to a program on National Public Radio about Jonestown. A friend I’ve known for almost twenty years, a former Air Force pilot, a man who chaired my parish discernment committee, shared with me for the first time that he had been one of the helicopter pilots to fly bodies out. Suddenly, my desire quest to understand Jonestown was no longer an abstract quest, but a reality for some I know and love dearly. Another friend also emailed to tell me that they had lived in San Francisco at the time of the rise of Jim Jones’ church, People’s Temple, and counted many who died among his friends.
Jonestown’s story began in the early 1950s when Jim Jones started an interracial church and ministry in Indianapolis. He appeared to be a young, idealistic, charismatic preacher who sought racial equality and preached a gospel of inclusion. He was a vigorous advocate for racial and social justice. This is a person who many of us might yearn to listen to today. Yet, twenty-five years later he manipulated and induced his followers to commit mass suicide and murder. What could drive a person with apparently noble motives to such evil?
Over the years, Jones became increasingly irrational and paranoid. He abused drugs. Whether it was the drugs, an underlying mental illness or plain “evil” in the world, has never been definitively concluded and never will be. What Jonestown does continue to represent is an unbearable moment of pain in our history, especially when we consider the Christian values he purported to represent.
There is no neat, tidy explanation for this evil. Jim Jones, however, clearly led people astray as Jesus warned about.
There is also no neat, tidy explanation for what Jesus is telling his disciples in today’s Gospel. Where is the good news in Jesus telling us that the grand buildings will all fall, that the Temple will be destroyed as it ultimately was.
Last week, the world commemorated the 100th anniversary of the armistice of World War I. Think of the incredible carnage that was wrought by World War I and World War II, especially throughout Europe. It is believed that the glory and splendor of Paris’ beautiful buildings only survive because of a German general who defied Hitler’s orders to destroy the city. It’s hard to imagine that kind of destruction.
Yet, that is the kind of destruction that Jesus is predicting. At least that’s what most think. This section of Mark’s gospel is often referred to as the mini-apocalypse and referencing the end times.
But what if Jesus meant something else. What if Jesus meant us to understand that empires and eras, churches and traditions, all rise and fall, and idols come and go, but that the reign of God continues. By the time Mark writes this Gospel, the world as early followers of Jesus knew it, was crumbling. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Early leaders like Paul and Peter were gone. The church was in the midst of its break from Judaism. And false teachers were seeking to draw believers away from the teachings of Christ. Who these teachers were and what they were offering, we don’t know, but the future looked bleak. All seemed lost.
Into this mix of fear, we hear Jesus say to the disciples: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”[iii] Birth represents hope and new life. The message of Mark’s Gospel is a message of hope proclaimed in the midst of catastrophe, grace if the midst of violence and ruin.
How do we hear this in today’s world? “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”[iv] We’ve seen this come to pass, more times than we want to remember. Yet, we’ve seen how the world is continually reborn.
The language of end times gets a particular in election seasons. Candidates predict the rise and fall of the nation and proclaim themselves the ones who can either produce or the rise or stop the fall. We are challenged, as Jesus said we would be, to discern good shepherds. As followers of Christ, we need to be looking to Christ’s vision for the future, for God’s world, not for the vision of those who would lead us astray.
As we follow Christ, we should ask what is it that Christ wants us to accomplish in the fullness of time. We should ask what does Christ expect of us as we live out our lives as followers of Christ. And if the answers include denying the love that Christ demands that we show others, or to place our trust in someone other than God, or to justify religious ends by dubious or illegal means, I can pretty safely assure you that these are warning signs that we are being led astray.
The real test of faith is to follow Jesus, to find the way of love. Sometimes the way of love is easy to follow – Bishop Curry makes it very easy to follow and understand; sometimes the obstacles to the way of love are clear – we know what we have to do to go over them or get around them. And sometimes, it just isn’t so easy to discern. We are often tempted to put our faith in many things or people like Jim Jones, who appear to represent Christ. Real love and commitment to Christ, however, will stand the test of time and will withstand light and transparency of things done and left undone in the faith.
In the end, if we follow Christ with great determination, and we can say yes to the questions of whether we left the world in peace, and filled the world with love, and we did it in the name of Jesus Christ, then I think we can safely assume we followed the path of Christ.
[i] Mark 13:2
[ii] Mark 13:5
[iii] Mark 13:8
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