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Morning sermon
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 18, 2012
Just beyond the old imperial forum and a little to the left of the Coliseum in Rome, the Arch of Titus stands. Completed in the year 81 C.E. it commemorates the triumphal procession of General (and soon to be Emperor) Titus and his Roman legions after their successful 4-year long conquest of Judea and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem on August 9, 70 C.E., a day still commemorated known as Tish B’Av, “the saddest day in history” on the Jewish calendar. Depicted on its marble panels are scenes of the burning and destruction of the Temple with robust Roman soldiers marching in triumphant procession, bearing on their shoulders the golden vessels and giant menorah, looted from the temple and leading weeping chained and naked Jewish prisoners through the streets of ancient Rome and into slavery. Today in Jerusalem, you can still see the rubble of great stones thrown down by the Roman legions along the south side of the Temple Mount. Today in Rome, you can still see Titus’ Arch, built to commemorate Titus’ triumph.

I’d like you for a moment to try and see yourself as part of the great crowd watching that triumphal Roman parade as the
legionnaires with slaves and booty march through the streets, Titus aboard his chariot, leading them, a slave whispering repeatedly “Sic transit Gloria mundi,” — The world’s glory is transient” into his ear. The din of marching feet and the blare of martial trumpets is deafening and the crowd roars its approval at every step.

Can you picture this scene? Can you see yourself in this crowd? Now imagine that you are a diaspora Jew or part of that tiny but growing Jewish minority beginning to be called “Christians.” Imagine their anguish, despair, hopelessness and anger as this triumph marches by. Picture these hurting people also in that crowd.

One of the people I see in this crowd is a slightly balding, middle-aged man called Mark, a diaspora Jew, a companion of the recently murdered apostles Peter and Paul. Mark knows the city of Jerusalem. He had frequented its Temple. He knew its importance as essential symbol of Judaism, of God’s choosing and blessing of this people as God’s own. Sharing the despair of his people, Jews and Christian alike, knowing that there were no living
witnesses left who could tell the story of Jesus, with the shouts of the crowd c Titus “savior, lord and son of god” ringing in his ears, Mark sits down and pen these opening words of what we will label “Mark’s” Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In order to deal with the destruction of the Temple, Titus’ triumph and the anguish of the Jewish and Christian community, Mark puts these words into the mouth of Jesus: “"Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

Forgetting Mark’s context, most people hear these words of Jesus as predictive prophecy and are, frankly, scared to death. Yet, knowing Mark’s context, we can hear these words for what they are, not predictive, but descriptive; descriptive with the specific goal of helping a despairing, hopeless, angry and anguished people, watching what little evidence they had of God’s existence and presence and blessing contemptuously carried away, hear Jesus say, “…do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come” — wars rumors of wars, nation against nation, earthquakes, famines?
“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Not prediction, but description. Not mean to scare us to death, but to strengthen us for life.
Syria, Afghanistan, Iran. New Chinese leadership.” Eurozone. “Fiscal cliff.” Global warning. The lingering effect of Sandy.

I don’t know precisely what each of these evoke in each of you, but the general mood in the church, the city and the world seems to be somewhere between sullen resignation and total panic. Virtually every day someone asks me what I think about the Mayan calendar; and they’re not ever facetious.
I also know that, from many pulpits, this morning, today’s reading and this Gospel will be used to scare people to death and provoke them to stand against the very things the people of this parish community hold dear; things like justice for the poor, welcome of the immigrant, respect for the integrity of women, especially in matters concerning their own body, and restored dignity for everyone on the gender spectrum. In every one of these cases, the goal is to drive you to look out for your own self-interest and to long for and look for a new Titus, a new Caesar, who will make us feel triumphant, safe and secure.
Mark the Evangelist and Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, have absolutely no interest in making us afraid or in driving us to look out for our own self-interest. In the context of wars, rumors of wars, Syria, Iran, China, Afghanistan, earthquakes, famines, fiscal cliffs and global warning, Mark and his Jesus urge us to pay attention; to look to the needs, not of ourselves, but of others; to look for places and search for ways where, in Christ, we can “creatively shape life in the city.” Mark the Evangelist and Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, have absolutely no interest in predicting the effects of sin, but they have every interest in comforting all who live with the “waste of our wraths and sorrows.” “Do not be alarmed,” is Jesus first, last, and best word to all of us.

How shall we live as people of faith in times like these: The writer to the Hebrews describes our faithful way thusly:
Since we have a great priest, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, [and] Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the One who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

That is not a description of a people scared to death; that’s a description of a people bound for life; a people just like us.