THINGS THAT MAKE FOR PEACE
Luke 21: 5-19
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
November 18, 2018
As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.
Luke 21: 6
His words sound like he has been watching the newscasts of the devastation in California. Not one stone will be left upon another. The ongoing tragedy in California is heartbreaking and daunting.
Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down. These strange and scary words from Jesus are a far cry from Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. This is definitely not the pastoral Jesus we know and love; this is the apocalyptic Jesus, the end-of-the-world Jesus that we conveniently ignore.
Yet the early Christians who carefully preserved the sayings of Jesus all agreed that these words were important. Some version of this text appears in all four gospels! They may have kept those words because they thought the end of the world was near. But those words remain contemporary because (like many in the California wildfires) all of us experience events that are like the end of the world for us.
Bad stuff happens to all of us. Things crumble—things we thought were permanent. Buildings crumble; health crumbles; institutions crumble; wealth crumbles; promises crumble. Things we think are forever turn out to be temporary. People we thought would always be there turn out to be mortal after all. We don’t like it, but it is true: …not one stone will be left upon another.
This is a disturbing reading and an unfamiliar Jesus we are listening to in this text. We don’t want this famine and plague stuff; we want the goodies; we want the peace; we want the comfort.
This whole text reminds me of the experience I had at Ground Zero after 9/11. Some of you may have been part of the teams that flowed into New York and helped in many ways. But I happened to be in New York about a month after that dreadful day in September. I wanted to see what I could of the destruction, so I took a subway down to the World Trade Center. The nearest stop was a couple of blocks away, and there was construction fencing around it. You could see through holes in the fencing, and at places I was tall enough to see over the fence.
I could see some of the rubble. I could see the cranes working. I could see water from a fire hose still dousing the rubble. I could also smell. It was the smell of construction dust that pervaded the place. But it wasn’t the smell of the dust that stands out most prominently in my memory. It was the people. I began to notice the people standing around me. They were largely people like us, people from all over the country, I suppose. But what I remember most is that in the midst of lower Manhattan those people were whispering! I noticed that they were stepping lightly, walking quietly, like they were at a funeral home at a wake.
Then I remember someone tapping me on the shoulder. It was a young couple who had just come up the subway steps. They whispered to me, “Could you take our picture?” So I took their picture with the rubble in the background, but they weren’t smiling like tourists. They were somber like everyone else.
I didn’t stay there long. I left that young couple staring through a hole in the fence, walked down the steps into the subway station, and went back up to mid-town Manhattan, where the noise and the commotion seemed more normal. It was hard to comprehend the scope of that tragedy.
Since that day we have encountered many more tragedies. They happen with regularity. It is in those times that we are most grateful to be part of a community of faith. Authentic Christian faith is not always happy time, and church is not for finding simplistic answers to tragedy. Easy answers are good for bumper stickers, but life is more complex than that. We can be grateful to be part of a community of faith that faces the unexplainable, the incomprehensible, the unfathomable…together! In authentic church Christians keep up with one another and struggle honestly when not one stone is left upon another.
When life confronts us with these experiences, we have a communal history; not only a personal history. We ride a wave of history in church. That is not insignificant! Our predecessors in church had their own tragedies to face, and they did it together…and they made it through together. So as we approach the season of Thanksgiving, we can be thankful that we are part of a worshipping community.
Just a quick note on the fact that this is also Pledge Sunday. Stewardship in the church has nothing to do with begging for money. Charities can do that; public radio stations can do that; but churches do not beg for money. At least authentic churches don’t! Churches worship! Churches create community! Churches seek the will of God in a complex world. Churches reach out to help in times of crisis. Churches put love into action. That’s what churches do. They don’t beg for money.
You know why? Because we know that pledging to support the church is not an act of charity; it is an act of worship. It is a way of saying, “I want to give my best, be my best, and support this ministry the best way I can. And I want to do it as an act of worship, with thoughtfulness, and with gratitude! I want to be a part of a community that cares, a community that is authentically trying to live the way of Christ in a complex world.”
It is no accident that Pledge Sunday is scheduled for the Sunday before Thanksgiving. That is not manipulation; it is a thoughtful reminder that the gathering of family and friends around a table at Thanksgiving is what we do all year round in worship, except with a larger family. It is with that larger family of faith that we struggle to make sense of our world, and reach out to those in need.
Now a little postscript about this text in the gospel of Luke. When Jesus said that not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down, he was referring to that grand temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. He was warning about a great tragedy that actually happened in AD 70. Jesus offers three imperatives to his disciples that are just as pertinent today as they were then. They come in the form of three negatives found in the scripture for today: (1) do not be led astray; (2) do not go after them; and (3) do not be terrified. These three negatives can become the word of God for us today.
Of course, when he said, do not be led astray, he was referring to those who always seem to have all the answers. They are people who look at a tragedy and leave the impression that they can explain everything. Do not be led astray, says Jesus. Do not go after them. Stick with those who recognize that tragedy is greater than any one of us can ever explain. In other words, stick with the community of faith that is searching, struggling, and doing it together. This is the church!
Finally, Jesus says, do not be terrified. When Jesus said, Peace I leave with you, he did not mean peace only when life is smooth and unruffled. He meant peace in the midst of storms, peace in the midst of tragedies, peace in the midst of difficulties. Do not be terrified, he said, for God is greater than terror.
Some tragedies are beyond words, beyond explanations. But they are not beyond our response. We respond with deep commitment to the community of faith that sustains us; we respond with compassion for those who suffer; and we respond with renewed pledges of our time, our talents, and our resources. These are the things that make for peace.