25thSunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 28
November 18, 2012
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Beware that no one leads you astray.”
I do not think that the precipitous fall from grace of CIA director David Petreaus is one of the signs that Jesus was talking about in this, St. Mark’s Little Apocalypse, but it is worth making comment on. It amazes me that so many are shocked that the moral character of the director of the CIA has come into question. He was the director of the CIA; his job was to skirt the outer limits of morality under the cover of darkness in the violent defense of a specific group of people: us. He ran the drone war. He ran the secret prisons across the globe. He declined to take responsibility when 27 CIA operatives were convicted in abstentiain the courts of our ally Italy for kidnapping a man and shipping him to Egypt where he was brutally tortured. And before this, as a soldier, his vocation was to kill people, or more accurately as an officer, to get 19 year olds to kill people. I had that same job once. And yet what outrages us, what forces his resignation is that he had sex with someone other than his wife? If we were to put this on a hierarchy of sin, I’d rather that he had a lot more sex with a lot more biographers and killed a lot fewer people. I suppose if you are going to betray an oath before God to a spouse you are probably more likely to betray an oath to a nation, so this revelation of impropriety is operationally relevant, but still. We should have been outraged by this man’s conduct in the world way before he betrayed his wife. Truly, if this by all accounts great man had dedicated his talents to alleviating poverty, eradicating malaria or to some other common good, he would have gotten much further in his mission to make this world safer, freer and more secure for Americans as well as for everyone else. His fall is no great loss for our nation, I do grieve, though for him and his family, Ms. Broadwell and her young children and husband. Terrible all around.
I don’t think this is one of the signs Jesus was talking about. I don’t think the General was one of those leading us astray, not intentionally, at least. He was pretty central in the rumors and conduct of wars, of kingdoms rising against kingdoms, nations against nations. I don’t think the CIA can cause earthquakes (that is the natural gas company’s fracking operations.) I am not all conspiracy crazy. All of this stuff is and true. True like Marcus Borg says when he uses the term post-critical naïveté, which means, “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true.” Just like today’s gospel, St. Mark’s Little Apocalypse.
I just want to be clear why I bring up such a thing as this, something so current-eventy, so newsworthy at church. My understanding of the mission and purpose of Christ’s church is all wrapped up in why I think speaking about a disgraced public figure on Sunday morning is not only appropriate, but is important if not necessary. We gather here week in, week out, to pray together. That is what this is, the Mass, a form of common prayer. Prayer is a practice, a practice, as our Catechism teaches us, that is all about responding to God. This practice of responding to God together deepens, complexifies, enriches, makes stronger our relationship not only with God, but with each other and the world we live in. One of the primary fruits of a life of prayer together is learning to make meaning of the world and our relationships with the world. Being here together in a Holy community, saying, singing, proclaiming Holy words, orienting our beings on the Holy Sacrament… these are beautiful things, but in and of themselves are valueless, if not dangerously and narcissistically distracting, if they do not help us live in the world in a way more in line with God’s will, more in line with the true nature of things. Making meaning, discerning the will of God, discerning our part in the vast interdependent web of existence… if being here does not help you, motivate you, enable you to bring all of your faculties to bear on how you live in the world, how you conduct your business, your classroom, your family, your political life, your money, if being here doesn’t inform that, if not define that, your kind of missing the point of the religious life. Certainly the religious life Jesus Christ leads us on is one straddling eternity and the present moment, the finite and the infinite, the now and the forever. Our public and private lives, our religious life, our professional life, our family life… there is no delineation of these spheres, no separation, no boundaries. Our whole lives are a seamless continuum in the eyes of God, therefore our religious life, the meaning we make through our religious life has to inform how we live in the world. It has to inform the choices we make, the leaders we select, the society we aspire to. So following the advice of Karl Barth, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, I preach with the Gospel in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The always and everywhere illuminating the here and now.
Today’s passage, St. Mark’s Little Apocalypse is a case in point of the always and everywhere illuminating the here and now. What does the word apocalypse mean? ______ Revelation. And what does that mean? ____ Right, making known that which was unknown, particularly in the case of a divine disclosure of knowledge or wisdom. Apocalypse has popularly come to mean the revelation of something to do with the end times, but more accurately, what is revealed are mysteries of the future or mysteries of the heavenly realm. In this passage, the 13thChapter of St. Mark’s good news to us, what mysteries are being revealed?
Remember where St. Mark and his community were in history. They were in the time of a major insurrection against Roman imperial hegemony that would end in 70 with desolating sacrilege descending upon the Temple. What a time. How terrifying. What Jesus is saying is that, yes, terrible things are happening, but this is not the end, not yet, it is just the very beginning and you have to be prepared for the long haul. Then the rest of Chapter 13 goes into pretty close detail about the terrible trails and tribulations that the faithful will suffer in these times, but Jesus’ primary warning is “Beware that no one lead you astray.” So what is he talking about?
Wars, famines, earthquakes… these are generic embodiments of all Jewish apocalyptic literature, so they could be just that, poetic references to the future state of things heavenly and otherwise. There is also the real possibility that what was being discussed here were contemporaneous events. Wars, rumors of wars… Roman legions, 5,000 man fighting units moved around Palestine then. Would there be a siege? Are they leaving? A terrible famine blanketed the eastern Mediterranean in the 50s, certainly leaving a deep impression on St. Mark and his community, that famine would have been an abiding memory. And earthquakes? In 60, an earthquake devastated Laodicia, a city in Asia Minor mentioned by Paul. Vesuvius buried Pompeii in 62.
50s. 60. 62. The war of 66 – 70. These dates are all well after the death of Jesus Christ… So either He was speaking purely metaphorically, His prophecy was dead on accurate, or, and what most scholars more or less agree on, these words, the Little Apocalypse of St. Mark are not the actual words of Jesus Christ but were crafted by St. Mark in the spiritof the teaching of Jesus Christ. The words “do not be alarmed,” is a translation of a Greek word meaning literally “to avoid precipitous action.” In this time, yes, there were many messianic, apocalyptic figures running around Israel, our own Lord and Savior and his herald St. John the Baptist among them. There were also insurrectionists, rebel leaders recruiting heavily for those rumored wars to end all wars with the imperial forces. Barrabas, the man freed in Jesus’ stead by Pilate; he may have been one of these. Judas Iscariot, our unfortunate anti-hero, he is associated with the Zealots, a violent movement of extreme religiously motivated rebels; I have an image of 1st century jihadists in my mind.
So St. Mark, with all of this swirling about, rebellion, famine, darkened skies from a distant volcano in his not so distant past, with Jesus Christ on his mind, in his heart and through his pen, he begins to make meaning of the world. He expresses his understanding of Jesus Christ’s message to not be a call to armed insurrection against Empire and her collaborationist allies, but of non-violent resistance to those same dark forces. In the words of Mark scholar Ched Meyers, “Mark prepares the reader for a discourse not of revolutionary triumphalism, but of suffering and tribulation. Against rebel eschatology, Mark pits the death/life paradox of his own narrative symbols and the politics of non-violence.”
Be it the authentic words of Our Lord and Savior, or the spirit of that Savior inhabiting the words of St. Mark, what is clear is that meaning of the movements of the world, the actual day to day movements of the world, making meaning of those, that is a religious imperative. Poverty, disease, violence, corruption, disingenuous religious leadership, injustice of all forms and offering models of life as corrections to life in a broken world; this is what Jesus preached. He did not preach in abstracts but in the concrete realities that he experienced as a landless peasant in the occupied territories of 1st century Palestine. (Israel. Rome. Some things don’t change. God bless the people of Gaza and forgive the people of Israel in this, yet another terrible hour). This is the body and blood of our shared existence that Jesus Christ demands we take deeply into ourselves; demands that we make meaning of; demands we do something about; demands we be something different. “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” AMEN