By Rev. Sarah Buteux
November 18, 2018
Mark 13:1-8 Proper 28, Year B
Last Wednesday I attended a gathering at Congregation B’nai Israel. It was called “After Pittsburgh: Uniting Against Anti-Semitism and White Supremacy.”
Part vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the two black patrons of Kroger’s in Kentucky, and the two women at a yoga studio in Florida, and part call to action in the wake of so much violence and hatred – the event itself was a little all over the place.
It was organized by two of our local Rabbis in conjunction with members of the Pioneer Valley Worker’s Center. So throughout the evening we bounced between lamentation and rousing political speech, between prayers offered by various people of faith and the pleas of secular people who are acting in good faith to change our country.
As the evening progressed, a Muslim woman stood up and blessed the names of every Jewish congregant who died in Pittsburgh.
A U.C.C. minister repented of the role Christianity has played in building structures of power that have favored white men, white skin, and the Christian faith, over everyone else.
A Somali refugee stood before us and proclaimed that he was proud to be black, to be Muslim, to be here in America, and that no one could take that from him.
A man, originally from Mexico, spoke from a deep well of experience about his hopes and fears for the caravan making its way toward our borders.
We praised God for the number of women elected to the house. We were reminded that this was not just a blessing, but the result of two years of grassroots organizing.
Young activists who have little or nothing to do with religion, clergy, and lay people of various traditions shared and sang and prayed together. We held hands and laughed, cried, and cheered together. And as beautiful as it all was, at times it was definitely a little bit awkward.
We don’t all speak the same language…literally. We don’t all believe the same things. Where I might have invited the next person on the program to “come forward and lead us in prayer,” a young activist called forth the next person, “on the agenda.”
Like I said, it was sometimes awkward. But that awkwardness speaks to something paradoxical and beautiful about the times we are living in. A common refrain throughout the night was, “Solidarity is our super power.” And the sense of solidarity in that room was palpable. It was powerful.
I was grateful for it. And, at the same time, I was fully aware that we wouldn’t have all been in that temple seeking to establish solidarity across racial, class, cultural, and religious lines, if we weren’t all feeling so threatened, besieged, and broken hearted right now. Our collective sense of grief and vulnerability – as awful as it is – has driven us into the arms of one another, opened our ears to hear the cries of each other, softened our hearts to make room for the other.
In times like these solidarity is our super power and I think it is good to hold on to that, because the temptation to despair right now is very real. I mean, thirty people have been killed or injured in mass shootings since that vigil, last Wednesday. At one of these shootings, it would seem that Jemel Roberson – a “good guy with a gun” who had managed to apprehend the shooter – was killed by law enforcement because he was black. It just breaks your already broken heart.
I know the temptation to give into a feeling of powerlessness in the face of so much hatred and violence is strong. So if our response, instead, is to link arms with our neighbors, affirm our common humanity in the face of discrimination and injustice, and work together for a better world, then we are on the right track.
But on the flip side, especially in times like these, there is an equally dangerous temptation. It is the temptation to think that if we just had enough power, then we could make everything alright. If we just had more power than the people currently misusing it, then we could make it all ok. Because somehow, it never seems to work out that way. Solidarity is good, but power…well, let’s just say power is complicated.
I think it is telling that in all his efforts to bring about a new and better world, the one thing Jesus didn’t grasp after was the power to control: the power to dictate, legislate, or intimidate.
Which is not the same thing as saying that he didn’t wield power, because he did. His words and actions were potent. Jesus used his divine powers of love and persuasion to inspire, convict, heal, forgive, and transform those around him. Solidarity was his super power too, and he used it to build a coalition of the most unlikely allies you could imagine: tax collectors and zealots, women and men, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, pharisees and sex workers.
And when I say that Jesus didn’t grasp after the power to control, I don’t mean that Jesus was not political. His message of non-violence, anti-consumerism, care for the marginalized, welcome of the stranger, and love for the enemy was as much a challenge to the political system of his day as it is to our own. Jesus preached against those systems and worked to subvert the status quo with all the power he could muster.
Jesus had power. He used power. Jesus was powerful. But it was a power he poured out for the sake of others, never a power he wielded over others. He simply didn’t trust in power for the sake of power, as you can see in our reading today.
Jesus and his disciples have just left the temple in Jerusalem, one of King Herod’s greatest architectural achievements. The temple was a blinding wonder of white marble adorned with gold. Its foundation stones were so massive, it was almost impossible to believe that humans could have set them in place. They were literally 35 feet long by 18 feet wide by 12 feet high!
It was an immense structure of colonnades and courtyards, designed to shock and awe. Not only that, on the day Jesus stood there with his disciples, pilgrims from all over the world would have been approaching the temple because it was the week of the Passover. The temple would have felt like the center of the world, the sort of place that would stand forever.
“Look, Teacher,” said one of Jesus’ disciples, “what large stones and what large buildings.” “All the better to worship me with, my dear,” said Jesus. No? Oh, right. Sorry. I must be thinking of Little Red Riding Hood. “Grandma, what big eyes you have…”
Anyone else? Just me.
Ok moving on, because in truth, Jesus didn’t say anything of the sort. Where the disciples saw the enduring strength of raw power – a temple establishment so big, so firmly rooted in its time, place, and culture no one could imagine it ever coming down, Jesus saw an institution whose days were numbered.
What Jesus saw was a mess of collusion between Herod and Rome. What Jesus saw was an institution run by a High Priest who was as entangled with the government of his day, as far too many church leaders are in our own.
And as easy as it would be to paint Herod and Caiaphas as greedy or corrupt villains in this story, the truth is, I get why they did what they did. I get that all the material wealth and political influence they amassed as leaders in Israel was part of what kept their people relatively safe and their temple up and running.
I understand the temptation to put our faith in power for the sake of power, to align ourselves with the biggest kid on the proverbial block no matter how big a bully he might be, because power of that magnitude promises protection.
Power like that promises stability.
Power like that promises the opportunity to re-make the world so the people who like us and are like us can enjoy the peace and prosperity we all long for.
But it never really plays out that way. The world turns. Things get better for some at the cost of many. Those who were once on top fall down. Those who were once on the bottom rise up. The deck gets re-shuffled. The game begins again. And in spite of all the problems we solve once our side gets control, somehow the cycle of violence and oppression continues.
Jesus knows that the temple looks impressive. He knows how tempting it is to put our faith in the strength of institutions and rulers, military might, and the rule of law. But he also knows that failure, entropy, and destruction are inevitable. Jesus knows that no building or institution, no royal house or empire, can last forever.
“Do you see these great buildings?” he asks. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” His disciples want to know when all this will be, but Jesus doesn’t think “when?” is really the most important question. The real question for him and for them, is “who?”
Who will you be when it all comes tumbling down?
Will you stay true to my teachings when the going gets tough?
Will you stay true to one another?
Will you love your neighbor and bless those who persecute you?
When your very lives are on the line, will you swear allegiance to a flag or party or leader who thinks they can save the world, or will you stay true to the only one who endures forever, the only one who can truly save us all?
Will you stay true to God?
I think it is safe to say that they did. In spite of all the violence that did descend upon them, I can’t think of one story of an apostle raising a sword against an enemy. In spite of all the persecutions, the apostles and countless other men and women of the early church continued to cross borders and boundaries to testify to the love and grace of Jesus.
They believed that another world was possible and dared to live as if that world were already here.
They gave away their possessions, cared for the sick, visited those in prison, and refused to fight or participate in the Roman government or economy, professing that Jesus, not Caesar, was their Lord.
And more often than not, the disciples of Jesus paid with their lives rather than turn their backs on him. A movement known simply as “the Way” grew out of those humble beginnings. There was no temple in which to worship, no Cathedral in which to practice, no formally ordained priests to proclaim their truth.
They gathered instead, often secretly, in the homes of the faithful. On the underside and outside of the power structures of their day, they broke bread and shared stories. They didn’t seek power over anyone, but poured out what little power they had for the sake of all.
Their example is not an easy one to follow. Jesus message for them and for us is not an easy one to hear. There is a real and ever present tension within us all when it comes to the question of how best to use our lives to bring God’s kingdom to earth: how best to harness our power as people of faith without abusing it, how to make life better for all without harming some.
We know the evil that comes from aligning religion with power, all too well. As Tony Campolo has said: “Mixing politics and religion is like mixing ice cream and manure; it doesn’t affect the manure much, but it sure messes up the ice cream.”
But we also know the evil that results when people of good faith withdraw from the world and do nothing.
Honestly, I don’t think it’s a question of either/or. Either we get politically involved or we don’t. I think once again the questions we need to ask begin with, “who?” Who do we put our trust in? Who are we called to be? Who will we allow to lead us when the world comes down around us?
And I think in this, at least, Jesus’ message is pretty clear. Beware of thinking worldly power or good politics will save you. Don’t sell out, or stake your life on anyone’s agenda but God’s.
Because here’s the thing: every earthly leader – no matter how noble -has an agenda. And even if those with the loftiest goals – to end terrorism, provide health care for all, save the environment – were to achieve their ends, the world would still not be perfect.
Humanity would still need help. Humanity will always need help because we will still need saving, still need some force to draw us out of our fearful, self centered little hearts to become more loving, compassionate, heavenly people.
I’m a Christian, in part, because I believe only God can do that.
No human being can save us. They can move us closer to the world we long for so, by all means, put your energy into making a difference in the world. But do so with humility, knowing that we’re not ever going to save the whole thing.
Yes, keep working for peace and justice, but never stop questioning whether your efforts to save the earth or fix healthcare or reform immigration or defeat racism are making not just the world more loving, but you yourself.
Friends, if you find that your activism is making you more hostile than loving, (notice I didn’t say angry. It’s ok to be angry) but if you’re becoming more hostile than loving, pull back and re-center yourself. Remind yourself that you are a child of God and so are the people on the other side.
Are your efforts helping you become more peaceful or arrogant, centered or destabilized?
Is your work in the world, the leader you are backing, the institution you are supporting, making you better or bitter, courageous or cynical, more who God wants you to be or simply who “they” need you to be to achieve their own ends?
Who are you called to be? Who are you called to serve?
In a recent article for the Religion News Service, Tom Krattenmaker put it this way:
“Invest your ultimate in faith, in enduring principles, in relationships with full human beings who are more to you, and you to them, then Democrats or Republicans. Invest in the value of the struggle itself — the struggle for a fairer and more humane world. It is the dream that is never fully realized but can never be snuffed out.”
Solidarity is our super power. Learning to love one another better is God’s ultimate agenda for us all. And I am not without hope that we can work for a better world and not lose our souls in the process. I saw it last Wednesday. I saw it when Rabbi Riqi of Beit Ahavah, who had the job of welcoming us and setting the tone for the vigil walked up to the microphone. She had a sheaf of papers with solemn remarks which, when she finally got to them, made us cry.
But before she took us to that place of grief, she looked out at all of us and confessed that paradoxically, what she felt most strongly in that moment… was joy. Joy in the fact that neighbors, friends, and strangers were moved by love and compassion to come together. Joy in the fact that so many of us knew each other and had learned to love each other, already. Joy because even and especially in her grief, she was not alone.
Solidarity is our super power. Love is our goal.
So for the love of God, don’t lose heart, but trust that the only power we need is the power of God’s love flowing through your broken hearts and mine. Not a red wave or blue wave, but a wave of love so powerful, it just might be enough to heal the world.