There is something about travelling that I enjoy the most. I love architecture. I like to understand a new culture through it’s sculpture and buildings. The first time my parents took me to Hungary I was enthralled by the deep sense of history. I fell in love with the buildings that surrounded us – everything had a story. From the 17th century thatched-roof, mud-walled, three room long homes with two different ceiling heights that indicated family wealth; to the castle ruins, turkish baths, marble factories, and an entire city rebuilt from ruin again and again.
By the end of the second world war, there was very little left of Budapest that marked it as one of the most cosmopolitan of the European cities. It had been bombed to utter ruin. Yet, to walk the streets today, or take a boat tour down the Duna, or the Danube, one would not guess that this incredible historically accurate buildings were all faithfully reconstructed with incredible attention to detail post war.
In my travels to Ethiopia, I was shown the ruins of the formal bath for the Queen of Sheba, these incredible palaces and monuments to the incredible imagination and feats of strength for a people without much modern technology. I saw entire churches carved down and out of rock mountains. The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were hollowed out instead of built up using the tools of the 12 and 13th centuries.
I stood, literally, in awe of what humanity is capable of building. Faithful people, to this day, travel to Lalibela in pilgrimage on holy occasions. And many of them stood, as I did, in awe of the incredible architectural creations.
In architectural design we get a sense of permanence, even in the midst of time moving on and cultures dying to new ways of life. These structures remain to inform us of the people before us. We study the way structures were built, we seek to know more about the people that built these monumental things. In some ways it seems that the bigger the structure the more in awe we are of the accomplishment.
Humans, it seems, like to leave big marks. We love big. Always have. You simply have to look at the development of the structures in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome to discover that we improve on things by making them bigger. And sometimes you don’t even have to look that far. How many communities in Saskatchewan make the boastful claim to have the world’s largest…. something?!
There’s an entire website dedicated to the Big Things: Monuments of Canada.
I can’t help thinking that we are not so different today than the disciples and they are not so different from us. The disciples are in Jerusalem and stand in awe of the massive structure that is THE Temple. And Jesus, in today’s gospel, is there calling us on our human tendency to be drawn to the bold, the bright and shiny, the new and impressive, the massively attention grabbing, the richest, etc. Despite this gospel message and the passage of time, we perhaps haven’t learned the lesson Jesus is trying to teach.
It goes beyond the awe of massive architectural wonders. It can be as simple as this question:
“How many were there in church today?”
We concern ourselves with the number of people in the pews at worship, as though it gives us an indication of how big we are as a church.
“How many children were in Sunday School?” – as though the number of children between the ages of 3 and 12 give us an indication of our assured future.
“How much money do we need to meet the budget this year?” – as though the current state of finances should lead us into our future.
“How interesting was the Pastor’s sermon?” as though the popularity of the preaching and presence of a pastor would gather in the lost and forsaken, the extra people to increase the numbers of the church.
The list goes on and on – there is no end to what big marks we want to leave behind, what large stones we seek to erect. Just as the tall buildings and monuments of the world, Karoline Lewis says that “our large stones are meant to draw the attention and wonder of onlookers. Our large stones are put in place to attract potential members. Our large stones are even constructed so as to secure the dedication and continued wonder of our own flock. Our faith, our religious life, our churches are not free from the want for prestige, for desire of greatness and grandness, for a yearning for a majesty beyond comparison.”
I often wonder what it is that drives us to put so much stock in these kinds of big marks. What is it about our human tendency to want to create some new definition of greatness? What is it that motivates us to continue to desire the next bigger and better thing? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Do we seek these large stones out of a belief that the singular purpose of life is really just one big competition? Or maybe it’s a sense of worry that God doesn’t really keep God’s promises, that we need to rely on our own ability to conjure up the mighty, magnificent, and mesmerizing.
We stand in awe of the big marks, the large stones, and there we discover another problem in all of this. Our attention being drawn to those large stones is quick and meant to pull our focus. Which begs the question: what is behind those large stones?
It’s makes me think that our attention gets captivated a bit like Dorothy, when granted an audience with the great Wizard of Oz. There is this large head, floating in the midst of the room, and much light, and smoke, and fanfare. And the curiosity of the whole situation is that the attention of those in the chamber is eventually drawn to this curtain. And as Dorothy’s attention is turned away from the magnificent Wizard, this massive head suddenly shouts, in a panic: ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!’
The thing about large impressive stones is that we aren’t drawn to ask what is going on in the background. But there is always a backstory of which we are not aware. We don’t know from merely looking at the surface what lies beneath, or what happened to make the surface true. We have no idea what lengths were travelled to make our amazement possible. And I think this might be a little of what Jesus is getting at.
Jesus is asking us to pay attention to those large stones because they are markers of something being overlooked in the past in order to create what it is that we are now looking at. And, usually, those large stones that are vying for our attention do not come without a significant price. Think about the gospel story that we had last week. The widow is giving away all that she has – and our attention to that small, seemingly insignificant detail that Jesus drew our attention to could be much less compelling on its own than the rich folk who are making a big deal out of their contributions and donations. Karoline Lewis puts that lesson this way: “That which, and those whom, we prop up, admire, wish to be, or envy, have particular reasons and rationales for being what and who they are. We might not like what we hear if we knew the truth about how the greatness came to be. ‘What large stones’ is a phrase never without sacrifice, either the sacrifice of others or the sacrifice of who you intended to be, wanted to be, and thought you could be.”
Jesus is calling us to understand that despite the impressiveness and majesty that one feels upon discovering those large stones for the first time, all of it will fade given enough time, but especially when compared to God. Not to fade because humans are perpetually getting bigger and better with each passing year, but because nothing compares to the eternal nature of God. Everything that is familiar, treasured, and held dear will all end – but even they can’t compare to the awesome power of creation, or the magnificence of everything that God is and is doing. God is beyond it all.
So suddenly, when Jesus points out the reality of impermanence, the disciples immediately want to know when that end is going to happen. ‘Tell us,’ they say, ‘when will this be, and what will be our big sign that what you are telling us will happen?’ They want a new indicator to look for. I think there is a part of each of us that fears the sudden and startling kind of change that Jesus is talking about. Not a single stone will be left; all will be thrown down, and the disciples might want to know how they will survive it all. Just like we all have a desire to know when the bad stuff is going to happen, so we too can survive. So we can be prepared.
That kind of preparedness and end times conversation can’t help but point me at the people of war-torn countries like Syria.
I have seen pictures of what Damascus used to look like and how it looks now. I have grown up seeing images of the destruction of cities and countries as they flashed across a television screen. I have seen the historical pictures and records of European towns reduced to absolute rubble. We may not know what it was like for the people of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but we cannot say that we don’t understand what Jesus means in what he says: “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” [Mark 13:8a]
The picture is rather bleak.
And Jesus doesn’t ever really answer the disciples question.
And that, in and of itself, is important.
No one will know when.
And then we get another cryptic answer: this is but the beginnings of the birthpangs….
Which makes me think of the raw, chaotic, but highly creative power of giving birth. It takes incredible courage to carry a child and birth it into the world. There is incredible sacrifice on the part of parents of the world to commit themselves to raising a child. There are so many unknowns. I have been witness to the arguments, the fights, the frustrations, the long sleepless days and nights that take a terrible toll on the adults around me who have made this both selfish and incredibly unselfish commitment to be parents. Because I have also seen the incredible joy, strength, laughter, and love that comes as each tiny humans grows and learns and develops and simply becomes.
It takes incredible courage to start new life.
But time and time again, we see new life come into being. Not just in babies, but in every walk of life around us. So much new life comes out of the end of something else.
The birthpangs that Jesus mentions is a reminder that something will come out of all the destruction. As time moves on and the large stones come and go, God is up to something. Everything will happen in time. In God’s time.
Micah D. Kiel says that: “The whole of life is about God working on behalf of humanity. Today’s Gospel reading leaves God alarmingly free and open to the future. God is not limited by temporal questions, such as the one the disciples ask. The community is supposed to watch, stay fast, and endure.”
And perhaps we still might like to know what it is that we are watching for. We might like to know when things are supposed to happen so that we can be as prepared as possible. But that readiness is not really what we are called to know and do. What we are called to do and be is to live and be present in the now, allowing the promises of God about the future to infuse each and every present moment that we experience.
Because, as David Lose says, “when you live looking for the activity of God here and now, you begin to see it. In an act of kindness of a friend, in an opportunity to help another, in the outreach ministry of a congregation, in the chance to listen deeply to the hurt of another. God shows up in all kinds of places, working with us, for us, through us, and in us. You just have to look.”
So, we live as we are called: in joy and confidence. And maybe we will discover an entirely new collection of large stones and big marks that point us ever and always to God. Let us pray:
Awe-Inspiring God, we thank you for your presence around, above and below, through and in us and all that we see in the created world. Help us to live our lives with eyes open to look for your presence and your activity in the moments present to us in each day. Encourage us to use minds sharpened and keen to the realities behind human creations of power, strength, and wealth. Help us to live with courage knowing that in time all things will fade, but you will be there shining a light brightly for each of us. And remind us that in the present we are called to live lives informed by the one who died for all, your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.