Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost.
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many 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 birthpangs.
When news of yet another mass shooting hit her screen, the poet Jan Richardson sat down to do the only thing her heart still knows how to do when it is broken: write.
“Look, the world
is always ending
the sun has come
it has gone
Two thousand years earlier, I think the Hebrew people might have understood the beauty of Jan’s poem. In 70AD, in vengeance for a Jewish rebellion that had begun four years earlier, the soldiers of Emperor Titus destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, carrying away its treasures as spoils of war.
Not a stone was left on stone.
We don’t know exactly why or when the author of Mark started writing down the stories of Jesus, but I wonder—I wonder if it was because, when his heart was breaking, it was the only thing he knew to do. Our best guess is that Mark was written around the time the temple was destroyed, about the time Roman soldiers tore down God’s home.
Mark tells us how the disciples blithely wandered around the temple, remarking on its beauty, its architectural majesty: “Jesus, check out these stones and buildings!” one of them says. “Surely nothing could ever move these,” they imply. For Mark’s first readers, that innocent line must have been a gut punch. A few more years, and they’d be gone.
Jesus knows that, too. “Do you see these great buildings?” he replies. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
The loss of the temple must have felt like the end of a world—maybe not the world, but a world, a world where Jews had one monument to call their own, one symbol of their national majesty, one reliable meeting place with God, one hideaway from Rome’s prying eyes. That world was gone, as stones tumbled down into dust and ruins.
The miracle, I think, is that when Mark wrote about it, he managed to find a thread of hope.
Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple—and then goes on to talk about what seems like the end of the whole world: famines and false teachers, earthquakes and wars. Horrifying stuff, to be honest. But, Jesus says, don’t be alarmed. The world may be ending, but that end is giving birth to a new beginning. The pains are labor pains, he says. Hold onto hope. Hold onto God.
In joy and in sorrow, hold onto God.
In a few minutes, we’re going to listen to our song for today, “My Lord, What a Morning.” You may know it, or you may not. It’s in our hymnal, but I don’t think we’ve ever sung it here.
It’s beautiful, and joyful, and sad. And I think that’s on purpose.
“My Lord, What a Morning” grew out of a community that had been holding tight to God through many generations of pain, a free African American community in the north in the 1700s. They rejoiced in their freedom, but they also knew the deep pain of living in a world where their freedom could be granted, but wasn’t a given.
My Lord, what a morning, the song begins.
My Lord, what a morning,
Oh, my Lord, what a morning
When the stars begin to fall,
When the stars begin to fall.
You will hear the trumpet sound
To wake the nations underground,
Looking to my God’s right hand
When the stars begin to fall.
The world can end, they sang. We’ll be holding tight to God.
What is amazing about this hymn is that it’s not clear whether it’s a song of joy or pain. Until the 1850s, when the hymn was printed, that last word, mourning, was spelled two different ways. Morning, like daybreak, and mourning, with a u, like grief. 
And the thing is, I don’t think one is right and one is wrong. I think the song means both. What pain, when the world we know and love ends. What joy, when it makes way for the God we love even more.
Today’s scripture is sometimes called Mark’s little apocalypse, and that is not because he describes a world that is ending, but because he describes a world that is being revealed—a new world being born.
The word apocalypse, despite the way it’s used now in books and movies, doesn’t really mean suffering or pain or violence or judgment. The core word at the center of apocalypse means to free, to release; the word originally meant to reveal or uncover something—to see a truth that has been previously obscured. To let the truth loose upon the world.
As one pastor wrote, “Apocalypse happens whenever and wherever what is dies in order to make room for what is God.”
The world is always ending somewhere. The world is always beginning somewhere, too. That process can be joyful. Or it can hurt like the dickens. But it’s usually both.
In 2014, on a June evening, I witnessed the end of the world, and the beginning of one too, in a freezing conference room in downtown Detroit.
I was attending the PCUSA General Assembly, where hundreds of Presbyterians get together and make decisions about the future of the church. We were in the midst of a vote that would change the Presbyterian church, and for better or worse—change always comes with grief. The issue on the table was the ability to marry LGBTQ+ folks, something the church had wrestled with for decades. We’d heard the arguments for both sides. Most were respectful and full of integrity. A few were ugly. Now the votes were being tallied.
I was holding my breath because I knew, either way that vote went, there was going to be pain. Massive, awful, faith-shaking pain. And I knew that whichever way that vote went, there was going to be joy. Triumphant, victorious, faith-making joy.
And I really didn’t think that cavernous conference room in Detroit was big enough to hold it all. All that joy and all that pain.
With all the new technology, it took less than a minute to tally the votes. But before the decision was announced, the moderator asked us to take a moment and look at each other.
“Take your eyes off the screen,” he said, that screen where the votes would be displayed. “Look at each other. This is your church. These are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of you are about to rejoice, and some of you are about to despair. I’m asking that when the vote is read, we keep a moment of silence. And that you commit to working with those people on either side of you, however they voted, to make the PCUSA a witness to Jesus Christ.”
I happened to know that the people on either side of me voted differently from each other on the issue, because they had told me. But in both sets of eyes I saw a weary hope, and a steely resistance. However it went, this was their church. They wouldn’t give up on it.
The vote was read; the motion passed. You could feel the energy in the room—the pain and the joy surging in equal measures towards the rafters. But we sat quietly, and we sat with each other. We made space for the change that had just happened; the church that was gone, and the church that could be. I have never been prouder to be Presbyterian, seeing the respect that each person in that room showed to all the others. Allowing grief and joy to coexist in the life of the faithful. What a morning.
I know there were folks who whooped it up that night. I know there were folks who wrote letters of resignation to their session. I don’t want to pretend that a moment of silence meant everybody was just fine.
But I do know that something had ended, and something had begun, and God had been with us the whole way, and we had done our best—our level best—to hold onto God.
Before we left that evening, we sang a hymn. I honestly don’t remember what it was. But I remember the woman on my left sang alto, with tears streaming down her face, and the man on my left sang base, and together, even though we had all voted differently, our harmonies were beautiful.
The world is always ending. December 7, 1941. September 11, 2001. March 12, 2020. You could add your own dates to that litany. The day the diagnosis came. The day the divorce papers came through. The day they died. The day you lost your job. The day you lost your faith.
But in all these endings, God is composing a beginning.
Theologian Debbie Thomas writes that on the Mount of Olives, “Jesus teaches his disciples what to do and how to live when the walls come tumbling down. Contrary to what our hysteria-hungry, “if it bleeds, it leads” culture so often encourages, Jesus insists on calm strength and generous love in the face of the apocalyptic.
… Don’t give in to terror,” she continues. “ Don’t despair. Don’t capitalize on chaos. God is not where people often say he is; he doesn’t fear-monger. He doesn’t incite suspicion. He doesn’t thrive on human dread.
So avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments. Be perceptive, not pious. Imaginative, not immature. Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. For me, this is the great challenge of the Gospel. Not simply to bear the apocalypse, but to bear it well.”
I am challenged by her words; chastised, even. Do I have the strength to bear the end of the world and bear it well? Do I have the strength to sing both with grief and with joy in the same breath?
Friends, there are stars falling all around us. Markers we used to use to know where we are, and where we’re going. But keep your eyes on God’s right hand, at Jesus Christ, even when your world is ending. Maybe especially when your world is ending.
Because he’s the only one who knows how to come to the end, and get to the new beginning.