Sunday, November 15, 2015

Appearances Deceive

Mark 13:1-8
November 15, 2015

            On a podcast I listen to called Selected Shorts, I recently heard a short story read about a cautious man. This is my paraphrase of the story.[1]
This cautious man had always been cautious. He was a husband, a father, a businessman. He took care of the people he loved. He did what he could to make sure they were safe and protected from harm. But he, his wife and his children also lived and worked and played. One day the man’s house burned to the ground. He rushed home to see his house destroyed, but his wife and his children were safe. The man was terrified. Yes, he still had his family, but what if? When he rebuilt his house, he built it of materials that could not burn thinking that would ensure his family’s safety. But even with an inflammable house, he realized that robbers and marauders could still find a way into his home and harm his family. So he built a moat and filled it with dangerous animals. He built a wall around the moat which went around his house to keep that which could harm away from his family. He feared that even these physical structures could still not keep danger out, so he hired guards to watch for danger on a regular basis. Fearing that the guards might turn on him, he hired more guards to watch the guards. But still this cautious man was not satisfied that his family and his home were protected from all danger. So he built protections around them specifically. But that wasn’t enough, so at last he had them enclosed in pods. They were able to breathe and be nourished inside the pods; they were on monitors to make sure that all of their vital signs stayed within the normal ranger, but no illness or danger or harm could reach inside and take them from him. For a while he would visit them in their pods, but whenever he did their vital signs, their heart rates and blood pressure, would swing wildly high and low. The cautious man realized that his presence affected his wife and his children too much, so he stopped visiting them. He hired other people to tend to them while they stayed safely in their pods.
But one day a servant came to him and said that his daughter was dying. She was wasting away in her pod designed to keep out all danger and harm. So he had her taken out of the pod. The cautious man had his wife and his other children taken out of their pods. He realized that being alive is not the same as living. The cautious man removed all the obstacles to harm that he put in place. He fired the guards who guarded the guards. He filled in the moat and tore down the wall. He opened the doors of his house. He was still cautious. He still wanted his family safe and protected from harm, but as long as they were alive they would live.  
My original intent for this sermon has changed in these last days. It changed because evil has been alive and well this past week. It reared its ugly head in the horrific attacks in Paris on Friday evening. It also made its presence known through devastating suicide bombings in Beirut and Baghdad on Thursday and early Friday. In a period of 24 hours, hundreds of people were killed, hundreds more injured, and people in three cities who were just living their lives had their lives altered irrevocably.
Since September 11, 2001, we have had one other terrorist attack with the bombing at the Boston Marathon. While it may seem that the violence of terrorism is low, the latest statistic that I read was that we have also not gone one day this year without gun violence claiming the lives of at least one or more people. Not one day. Evil and hatred and violence have many names, and take on a variety of appearances, but the result whether it is on a large scale or small is the same. Devastation. Loss. Destruction. Senseless waste of lives.
The world’s response to the terrorist attacks in Paris has been heartening, just as it was on September 12th. It seems that in times like these we remember that we human beings are more connected to one another than we are otherwise. But along with the response of shared mourning, sympathy and support, there have been other expected responses. We want to know why. We want to know who. We want to know what can be done. Fingers are being pointed and blame is being assigned. Sometimes the blame falls on the people who deserve it, but too often it lands on those who do not. Brene Brown said that blame in sociological terms is “the discharge of pain and discomfort.”
Our pain and discomfort are great. They are so great that we not only blame, we try to find better ways of preventing these atrocities from happening again. I am all about safety and prevention. I’ll gladly wait in long security lines at the airport if it means I have a better chance of arriving at my destination safely. But even as I say that I realize that the appearance of security deceives. When the disciples pointed out the large stones and large buildings of the temple in Jerusalem, I suspect that they believed that nothing could bring those buildings down and turn those stones into rubble. But Jesus told them otherwise.
“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
That was probably not the response they expected. Later, when Jesus sat opposite of the temple on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John and Andrew went to him privately and asked him to tell them when this would happen. What will be the signs? How will this be accomplished?
It isn’t surprising, really, that the disciples wanted to know the end. That way they could be prepared for what was to come. Don’t we sometimes wish we knew this as well? I can’t even read a mystery without turning to the end first. I just want to be prepared for what’s going to happen to the characters I’ve become attached to. The disciples want to be prepared, and so do we. We want to be secure and safe. We want to be certain of what will happen. So just like the disciples we ask to be told about when this end time will come. Tell us when our temples will be torn down. Tell us what to look for, watch for, so we can be prepared.
But Jesus said, as he did at other times and in other places, that this was not the question they should be asking. That should not be their worry. Instead beware of those who will lead them – and us – astray. Beware those whose appearances deceive. Beware those who come in his name and claim to be doing his work, but their appearances deceive.
I tried for a long time to think of examples of people who fit this bill. We can look to history, to Hitler and Napoleon and other tyrants and dictators who unleashed evil on the world under the guise of good. We could point to current politicians and leaders and prophesy that their intent is the same – evil in the name of good. But what I kept coming back to is that it isn’t necessarily a person who presents a deceiving appearance. It seems to me that what is truly deceiving is the idea of Certainty and our belief in Security.
O how we long to be certain that what we believe is right and other beliefs are wrong. O how we long to believe that if we build enough walls and patrol enough borders and keep the wrong people out while we hunker down within that we will be secure and safe. We want to be like that cautious man and wrap the ones we love in pods of protection. But that is a falsehood. That is a falsehood that leads us astray time and time again.
The older I get the more reluctantly I realize that certainty and security are illusions. They are smoke and mirrors. They blow away with the slightest of breezes. So what is left? The only answer I can find is faith – faith that God is with us, faith that good will overcome evil, faith that we humans were created to and for love. That’s the key, isn’t it? Love. We were created out of love to love – to love God, love our neighbors, love ourselves. We were created and we are called to love without limits or boundaries. The amazing thing about love is that the more we love, the more love grows. Love expands us.
But the problem is that we say in great faith that love is stronger than hate and that good will triumph over evil. We proclaim that in the end Love wins. And then we go back inside our walls and wait for the cosmic arm of God to reach through the heavens and make it happen. Yet it seems to me that Love will only truly win when the people who say it actually live it.
Isn’t that what Jesus did? He lived and died as though Love would win. Love is not a passive emotion in response to the atrocities that are happening all around us. Love is not a nicety, a cliché or a bumper sticker that we say when we can think of nothing else. To Love is our most defiant act of rebellion in the face of evil. Love is defiance. Hatred just cannot stand up to it. That is why we love our enemies and we turn the other cheek and we give the shirts off our backs because it diminishes evil’s power. Love is our defiance against evil. Love is our rebellion against those who hate us. Love lessens our need for security and certainty. Love triumphs over hatred and good wins out over evil, because we who claim Love also live Love. I think that we are called not only to recognize those people and especially those ideas whose appearances deceive; we are also called to love them. Our lives, now more than ever, cannot be just about living. They must be about loving. We must love defiantly as if our world depends on it.
It does.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] Selected Shorts, podcast – I searched the site to find the actual title and author of this story to no avail. If you know the origins of the story, please let me know.

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