Following the attacks in Paris, this was the most difficult sermon I think I’ve ever (re)written, and then when I’d almost finished, I heard about Thursday’s attacks in Beirut and more recently in Baghdad, which have failed to make the headlines.
“What large stones?” We love ‘big’ don’t we? The richer nations of the world in particular, seems set on being bold, better, best. That’s the human motto, in every form, it seems. The bigger, the better, the best. The most influential. The most powerful. The most anything. It’s true of extremists too. It seems that the more cataclysmic the chaos, the higher the number of fatalities and news inches created, the better.
As we ache with the people of Paris, Beirut and Baghdad this morning, quite possibly concerned for friends and loved ones, and certainly asking God if there will ever be an end to such horrors, how do we make sense of this morning’s Gospel?
We can start by taking ourselves back to what the disciples were encountering. Those disciples were no different to anyone else and most of them had spent their lives in rural, lakeside, Galilee. So an immense structure covering hundreds of metres in every direction, with stones as big as 13 metres long and 3 metres wide (in old money 44 feet by 10 feet), was bound to capture their attention, hitting all the awe and wonder buttons in their minds. If we have encountered the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building or one of those immense buildings in Dubai, then, like them or not, we tend to be impressed with the scale and complexity of the architecture. As someone who’s not done much international travel, I’m more in awe of Stonehenge myself. In the case of both the Temple and Stonehenge, I am left amazed at how, with simple tools and transport, people engineered such mammoth stones into place.
Stonehenge was designed to give people confidence in what they believed. In the case of the Temple in Jerusalem, it was originally designed to speak of confidence in God’s presence and his protection of his chosen people. Of course prophesies of the Temple’s destruction, similar to Jesus’ words in this Gospel passage, are very visible within Jewish scripture in relation to Israel’s disobedience as a nation. But, like many things that smack of disloyalty to a favourite cause, such prophesies were often ignored, and some leaders simply fought to develop and hang on to the power they had created as the solid structure around their faith, rather than being obedient to God. Jesus was trying to remind the Jews what was at the heart of their faith. The result of them ignoring and seeking to silence him would indeed be the destruction of the Temple in AD70 and the dislocation of the Jewish people at the hands of others more powerful and greedy than they were. Similarly, what we’ve witnessed this last few days is the result of a twisted greed of a few for land, power and retribution, and shows no understanding of ‘Allah, the most gracious and the most merciful.’
Scripturally speaking, our Gospel in Mark today lies within Holy Week. Time was running out for Jesus in his earthly journey, and he knew it. He was desperate to emphasise to them that they would face all sorts of horrors, the rumours of which would come far more slowly than today’s newsfeed. But they were at all times to hold on to the simple core values of the Kingdom: to love God, and one another. “Beware”, says Jesus, to his disciples in a private conversation over-looking a symbol of faith that had become a memorial to power, “Beware,… that no one leads you astray.” He knew people would come and suggest that a particular course of action would give their ideas more influence among people seeking power. Yet they had listened to his parables which taught that greed led ultimately to self-destruction. They had also walked with him, watching his acts of healing that fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy from Micah that all should act with mercy, love with justice and walk with humility. And, he had taught them to pray for forgiveness for those who would trespass against them, even if, just as he would, that meant doing so as they were killed in a futile attempt to stop the power of God’s love.
As we sit here, talking intimately with God, receiving Christ in the Eucharist, and looking out over the evil that the search for power can inspire within people, the only gift we have been given to counter such things is the power of God’s love for all, the example of Jesus’ teaching, his healing touch and his prayer.
Over the coming days there will be voices all over the media calling for greater surveillance, greater controls and less immigration. As we remember that many of the migrants are running away from this same savagery that has been witnessed in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad, we must consider such ideas in the light of today’s reading. If we do not seek to act in the way Christ would, we stand the risk of being led astray in a climate of fear and suspicion, which only seeks to alienate and cause further fracturing of community – instead, we are called to love our neighbour.
We should also “beware” the temptation to expect those mysterious people called ‘others’, to do that all important ‘something’, without them being clear what it is that we, as Christians, think they should do. That will effectively be like acting as the Priest or Levite did in the story of the Good Samaritan, and walking by on the other side. Granted we may initially struggle in shock to find positive things to suggest, but there are plenty of ways to make our voices heard, and based on Christ’s teaching, we can promote the need to enter into dialogue with neighbours, to seek to welcome the stranger, and to bind up the broken-hearted – and we can do these things ourselves when the opportunity presents itself.
We can also think about what forgiveness means, and whilst it does involve seeking justice, that justice should be restorative not abusive: we are called as Christians not to demand an eye for an eye, but to undertake that most difficult of tasks: in humility, we need to pray for peace in the face of evil, and then to keep on praying for peace some more. For, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said this:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”