What really matters? With what should we be preoccupying ourselves? What really matters in this life and beyond?
This passage of Mark’s gospel that we heard today was either written just before or just after the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 CE, in which the Temple at Jerusalem was destroyed. Which means that the stones that Jesus and the disciples are looking at in today’s story are just about to be thrown down, or have just been thrown down. Which means that at least part of the gospel message for those who first heard these words from Mark, and for us who hear them today, is to remember that even when the places and things of our lives and this world are destroyed or being destroyed, that is not the end of the story. Difficult and challenging and full grief, yes. But not the end of the story.
We might be tempted to hear this passage from Mark and begin to worry about the end times and like the disciples, wonder when they will take place. Yet Jesus says that, in fact, worry is not that with which we should be preoccupying ourselves. What then, Jesus? What really matters? With what should we be pre-occupying ourselves?
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. -- Hebrews 10:18
We get clues in our passage from Hebrews today, where we are reminded that by Jesus we have been cleansed from sin – there are wonderful phrases here about how God is writing the Law on our hearts and minds and about how our “hearts (are) sprinkled clean” and therefore, how we should “provoke one another to good works.”
The use of the word “provoke” is worth pausing on for a minute, I think. When I was growing up with four siblings, “provoke” was what we did to make trouble with each other – which in turn got us into trouble with our parents. When we look around at the world today, we see all kinds of folks provoking each other in negative ways: on social media, at our school board meetings, and especially in our political arena where politicians provoke each other in ways that break down their ability to work with one another to craft policies and law that help the citizens of our country and the world. Worse yet, many politicians are provoking their constituents in ways that cause danger to those people and to those around them.
This is not the kind of provoking that the writer of Hebrews is referring to – of course! “Provoke each other to good works,” we hear. This kind of provoking is about building up, not breaking down. This is John Lewis and other Civil Rights activists provoking good trouble. Remember who it is that has freed you and me from the chains of sin and let this be a catalyst to how we live. For if Jesus has freed us by love then it is only by love that we in turn can free others; that we can build things that matter in this world in a way that reflects the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier who is beyond this world and yet created this world in love, redeemed this world by grace in Jesus and the cross, and who is provoking us by the Holy Spirit to participate in the love-work of Jesus – who gave us the new commandment to love one another even as we have first been loved by God in Christ.
The love-work of Christ is eternal – this is what really matters! And this love-work of Christ will exist and continue to act no matter what – even when all the stones of every building of this world have long since ceased to exist.
And even now, even in the midst of this world that at times seems like it is caught in a constant storm-surge of misery, there are so many points of light. Did you know that in Nigeria, a country deeply divided along religious lines, especially between Muslims and Christians, there is a growing movement being organized among young people to meet violence with peace-building? Thanks to the work of the African Faith and Justice Network, the grief and loss of past violence is being transformed into youth-led efforts to forge a different path forward. A new peace and love ethic is being raised up amidst the rubble of conflict.
And in case we missed it, even our own government that struggles to be anything resembling functional did renegotiate the Farm Bill that supports, among other things, SNAP food benefits – which not only grow to meet the needs of people dealing with food insecurity (which as we know has been made much worse during the pandemic), but also supports the people who are making a living through growing the food that SNAP helps people to buy.
When we catch ourselves or others sinking into despair because of all that is wrong with the world and our lives we need to look at each other and say “not a stone will be left in the end.” Yet still God’s love-work will persist. Still Christ’s resurrection promise is living within each of us and God is yearning to reconcile the whole of creation to God’s self. Instead of worrying about all of the things being broken down, we can be preoccupied with discovering where Christ’ new life work, Christ’s new love-work is building up the things that really matter. And we can roll up our sleeves and provoke each other to join in this work. Amen.