“Giving Thanks” Colchester Federated Church, November 18, 2018—Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Mark 13:1-8)

Jesus and his disciples were walking out of the Temple and the disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  The disciples weren’t from around those parts and the beauty and grandeur of the Temple standing tall and proud atop a hill in Jerusalem must have been an especially amazing sight to behold.  Jesus asks, “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”[1]

The disciples must have been puzzled by this statement because the scene of our story shifts to Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives across from the Temple.  Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Jesus’ inner-circle of disciples) take a moment to ask him privately when this would come to pass and what will be the signs that everything will be thrown down?  Jesus tells them to beware that nobody leads them astray.  “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”[2]

This isn’t an especially uplifting Gospel passage, particularly not one to hear the week of Thanksgiving and the day that we formally end our Pledge Campaign here at CFC.  Though it can give us pause in the midst of what we’ve seen in our nation of late.  The wildfires in California are absolutely horrific—the deadliest wildfires the United States has experienced in a century.  At the time I was writing this sermon on Thursday night, the death toll was 56 people who died in the Camp Fire and 300 who were unaccounted for.  Over 10,000 structures were destroyed in that fire.  On the other side of California, firefighters were battling the Woolsey Fire that destroyed over 500 structures in Malibu and other communities, with 3 deaths being reported from that location.  Between the two fires, over 200,000 acres of land have been burned in California.  The rest of the state has been dealing with heavy smoke and air pollution as exhausted firefighters continue to battle the flames.[3]

Rebuilding efforts in communities leveled by this disaster could take years.  The images from these fires look apocalyptic with peoples’ homes razed to the ground, with flames consuming buildings and trees, with firefighters sleeping haphazardly on the ground when they can finally rest because they can’t battle the flames any longer.  When disasters strike—wildfires, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes—we know that these events result in lives lost, property lost, and perhaps the loss of innocence.  Professor Rodger Nishioka writes of victims of natural disasters, “They now know that something they once believed to be sure—that a towering structure would stand forever, for instance, or that the ocean would stay securely in its seabed—is no longer trustworthy.  They have lost a foundational belief upon which they once built their lives.  No longer will they be able to step on the ground without wondering, if only for a moment, whether the ground is going to remain stable.  No longer will they be able to look up into a darkening sky without wondering if a destructive storm is on its way.”[4]

Experiences like these can profoundly affect people for the rest of their lives, and we must have compassion.  Because depending on life’s circumstances, disaster can strike us too.  That’s what makes all of this rather scary—fires raging out of control don’t discriminate between large or small houses and the people who live inside them.   Though there are some Christians who will use every hurricane, wildfire, tornado, earthquake to predict the end times.  There were plenty of evangelical figures who said that 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina was God punishing the United States for all sorts of reasons that fit into their own political agendas and theological beliefs.  And won’t quote them here because that blasphemy doesn’t deserve any air time this morning.

But all of those end of the world predictions, people who focus on the rapture and the second coming and who will be left behind miss some important things that Jesus teaches.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples when the Temple will be no more.  He doesn’t tell them when to be on their guard exactly.  Instead, Jesus tells Peter, Andrew, James, and John to not be led astray by people who will come in Jesus’ name and not have good intentions.  Jesus tells them to not be alarmed by wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, or even those wildfires we have seen this week as somehow predicting the beginning of the end times.  Instead, Jesus is constantly focused on his disciples living out his teachings here and now.  Jesus is focused on his disciples co-creating the Kingdom of God as we’ve been hearing throughout all of these chapters of Mark over these last 12 weeks in the Lectionary (since the beginning of September.)

We know what Jesus has been teaching throughout Mark’s Gospel with that particular focus on serving one another.  As Jesus taught, the first will be last and the last will be first.  People shouldn’t lord power over one another because following him isn’t about being the greatest.  It’s about being the servant of all.  The Kingdom of God is about welcoming and protecting vulnerable people in Christ’s name, people who are hurting as we’ve seen in California and beyond.  It’s about examining ourselves and our words and actions, knowing that we have the capacity to cause great harm and to spread God’s extravagant love.  It’s on us which way we choose to go because we have free will and God isn’t going to force us to love God, to love one another, and to love ourselves.  Not when God desires authenticity and genuine love.

We can’t be so focused on determining the signs that could mean the end times that we neglect to care for one another in Christ’s name now.  So Jesus’ conversations with his disciples in Mark Chapter 13 can serve as a warning to be present and to pay attention.  Because our focus needs to be on Jesus—his life, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection.  Especially since no matter what happens in our lives or in the world around us, even knowing that buildings won’t stand forever and sometimes disasters will strike, God remains the ground of our very being.  God remains the calm in the storm, the solid rock on which we can stand.

Which can make us think about people who embody goodness in tumultuous times.  People who seem to focus on helping others as opposed to using natural disasters to somehow make it all about them.  Our world lost a legend this week when Marvel comic book writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee died on Monday at the age of 95.  So many people have enjoyed his comic book characters both in print form and on the big screen.  Though Stan Lee truly revolutionized what a superhero looks like and his creativity can inspire.  In an interview that he gave to the New York Times in 2015, Stan Lee recalled that when he first became a comic book writer, the stories that he was writing were juvenile and there wasn’t much depth to them.  He said to his wife Joan that there’s gotta be something better than this.  And her advice to her husband changed everything.  Joan told Stan to write one book the way that he would want it written.  Simultaneously his publisher asked him to write a superhero book.

Stan Lee didn’t want to create a superhero like Superman or Batman.  He wanted something more original (in his mind) where he could play up the personality of the characters and come up with some real surprises for his readers.  From those conversations came the Fantastic Four, Spiderman, the Hulk, X-Men, and all the other characters that fans the world over have come to love.  Stan Lee tried to take these fantastical characters and make them seem real.  He wanted them to have their superpowers, but also show the things that worried or frustrated them.  He wanted to write a well-rounded character, not just somebody who was stronger than anyone else and could beat up all the bad guys.  This is part of why Marvel comics and movies have done so well and are so compelling.  Stan Lee wasn’t afraid to show conflicted and complicated characters who happened to be superheroes.  At the conclusion of the interview, Stan Lee was asked what he would want people to be left with at the end of his career.  His reply was, “He wrote some good stories.  I don’t think about that much.  When I’m gone, I really don’t care.  It doesn’t do you any good when you’re gone.”[5]

We live in complicated and uncertain times.  We see lands and buildings consumed by flames.  We see people fleeing in terror.  We wonder if divisions can ever be mended.  If there are ways that we can come together across our differences.  Some days we may even wonder where God is in the midst of it all.  Remember that Jesus warned his disciples, even and especially in the midst of chaos, to not be alarmed.  To not concern themselves so much with reading the signs of the times that they would forget to keep Jesus himself close.  For in Christ we somehow can feel peace that surpasses our human understanding even when the storms rage around us.  And for that, we can give thanks.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 13:1-2, New Revised Standard Version.
[2] Mark 13:7-8.
[3] “Crews gain ground against California wildfires as search for bodies goes on,” CBS News, November 15, 2018 https://www.cbsnews.com/live-news/fires-in-california-camp-woolsey-paradise-wildfire-evacuations-death-toll-map-2018-11-15-latest/
[4] Rodger Y. Nishioka, Pastoral Perspective of Mark 13:1-8 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B, Volume 4, 308.
[5] “Remembering Stan Lee” NYT News, November 12, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQGKjlTbIWg.