Begin With the End in Mind

Just over thirty years ago, author and business executive, Stephen Covey, published his wildly popular book entitled, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold more than 25 million copies. The second habit that Covey describes is the habit of beginning with the end in mind. According to Covey, beginning with the end in mind means that our lives should be guided by a vision for the future, a desired direction and destination. We should be intentional about imagining who and what we want to be. Just as you would never start constructing a house without first creating a blueprint to follow, we shouldn’t go about the work of building our lives without first discerning a vision and developing a sense of mission and purpose to guide that process of growth and development. In everything we do, we should begin with the end in mind.

Now, you’re probably wondering, “What do Stephen Covey and the habits of highly effective people have to do with the season of Advent?” (I’m really glad you asked!) The season of Advent marks the start of new liturgical year. Today is New Year’s Day according to the Christian calendar. Today is a new beginning. And yet, did you notice that our gospel reading is not about the beginning but about the end? There is nothing in our gospel today about getting ready for the birth of a baby, but there is a lot about getting ready for the birth of a new creation. There’s nothing about in our gospel today about getting ready for the commencement of a new liturgical yearbut there is a lot about getting ready for the eventual consummation of all things. In other words, the season of Advent is all about beginning with the end in mind

So, what does that mean? What does it look like for you and me to begin with the end in mind? In the gospel reading today, Jesus speaks about signs in the sun, moon, and stars. He speaks about a time when the heavens will be shaken, a time when people will faint from fear and foreboding. Jesus speaks about distress and confusion among the nations of the earth. All we have to do is add a global pandemic to the list, and Jesus could be reading the headlines from the latest edition of the New York Times! But notice that in the midst of all of this impending doom and destruction, Jesus tells his disciples to do two things: stand up and lift up your heads. We you see these things beginning to take place, stand up and lift up your heads. In other words, in the midst of the confusion and chaos of the world around us, we are called to live as a people of conviction and courage

First, we are called to live with CONVICTION. To stand up and lift up our heads implies that there is something worth believing in. There is something worth fighting for. There is something worth standing for. We believe that God has a vision for all of humanity. And not just for all of humanity, but all of creation. A vision of healing and restoration. A vision of abundance. A vision of new life and new creation. And so, to be a people who begin with end in mind is to be a people who live with the conviction that the present condition of the world is not the end of the story. We stand up and lift up our heads, because we believe that one day God will renew all things. One day there will be no more pain or sorrow. No more disease. No more injustice. No more hatred and division.

So, we are called to live with CONVICTION and we are correspondingly called to live with COURAGE. To stand up and lift up our heads means that despite the challenges going on in our world and in lives, we can be confident in God’s promises. We can stand with courage knowing that God is working all things for our good. We walk by faith and not by sight. In just a few moments, we will join Chase and Jen in renewing the promises of our Baptismal Covenant. We commit ourselves to live a particular kind of life. We commit ourselves to the radical ethic of serving and loving one another as Christ as served and loved us. We commit ourselves to strive for justice and peace among all people. We commit ourselves to seek wholeness and to respect the dignity of every human being. The promises we make in our baptismal covenant are not for the faint of heart. They require conviction and courage. They require us to stand up and lift up our heads. They require us to hold fast to God’s vision for the world. They require us to begin with the end in mind.

And all of this is really hard to do. Because we look at our world and we see so much brokenness, so much pain, so much distress and confusion among the nations of the earth. That it can be hard to even glimpse God’s vision. So, in conclusion, I invite you to consider the follow analogy. In 1501, the Renaissance artist Michelangelo began work on his massive sculpture of David. He was forced to work with a slab of marble of inferior quality that had already been worked on by several other artists over a period of nearly 40 years. The large marble slab had been neglected and exposed to the elements for 26 years before Michelangelo was granted the commission to complete his masterpiece.

According to tradition, later in his life when Michelangelo was asked how he accomplished these amazing works of art, he is reported to have said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I ever start my work. It is already there, and I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I ever start my work. Michelangelo looked at an inferior, neglected and forgotten piece of marble and he saw something beautiful. Michelangelo looked at what others had rejected, and he saw a masterpiece. All because he began with the end in mind. 

My friends, do you and I have the conviction and foresight to look at the world around us and see God’s masterpiece? Do we have the vision to look through the brokenness and fear and pain and catch a glimpse of God’s dream for humanity and all of creation? Do we have the courage to take out our chisels and to chip away at injustice, division, hatred, and all that seeks to separate us from God and one another? As we begin this season of Advent, as we begin this new year together, my prayer is that we will begin with the end in mind, that we will stand up and lift up our heads, and that we will commit ourselves to be a part of God’s dream, God’s vision, God’s mission for each one of us, for this church, and for the world. 

Who Will You Follow?

It measured over 36 acres in size. It took nearly 80 years to complete. It was comprised of massive limestone slabs measuring 9 feet high and 24 feet wide. The limestone was covered by the finest of marble. The doors and gates, and pinnacles were wrapped in the purest of gold. It was so white and so dazzling that the ancient historian Josephus compared it to a “snow covered mountain” when viewed from a distance. Of course, I am describing the extravagant and extraordinary Temple of Jerusalem during the reign of King Herod the Great. This is the Temple where Jesus spent the last days of his life teaching and sparing with the religious leaders. This is the Temple where the curtain separating humanity from Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God’s presence was torn in two when Jesus breathed his last breath on the cross. And this is Temple where the disciples looked up in amazement and declared, “Teacher, look at these massive stones and enormous buildings.” Look at the grandeur! Look at the beauty! Look at the power! Look at what human ingenuity can do! Look at what the wonders of technology can accomplish! To which Jesus responds, “One day it’s all going to come crashing down.”

Now I have to admit that it is a bit awkward on Giving Sunday as prepare to offer our gifts for the support of buildings and structures and programs and ministries, to hear Jesus remind us that one day our great human accomplishments will all come crashing down. It’s a bit unsettling to hear Jesus talking about war and rumors of war. About earthquakes and famines and geo-political conflict. But what’ even more unnerving is the fact that this dramatic apocalyptic teaching represents the last word from Jesus in the gospel of Mark. These are his final instructions to his disciples. In the very next chapter, he will be arrested and put on trial. So, how do we make sense of these dramatic final words from Jesus? 

I think at this particular moment in his life, as he is preparing for his impending death, Jesus is challenging his disciples to face the same question that he has been asking them since the very beginning – Who are you going to follow? When everything you thought was stable and secure and indestructible comes crashing down, who are you going to follow? When the circumstances of the world around you grow increasingly chaotic and confusing, who are you going to follow? When the future seems uncertain and everything you have always known seems to be slipping away, who are you going to follow? This question lies at the very heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

In our gospel reading today, the disciples, after listening to Jesus describe the impending destruction of the Temple, come to him and ask, “When will this be? Tell us, when is all of this going to happen?” But in classic Jesus style, he doesn’t answer their question. Instead he give them a warning: “Beware that no one leads you astray.” You see, for the Jesus, this is not a chronological issue, this is a relational issue. Jesus is not concerned about the calendar. But is very much concerned about commitment. Jesus does not seem to be worried about following a timeline, but he does want to ensure that his disciples follow the path that he has been leading them on since the very beginning. Beware that no one leads you astray. Who are you going to follow?

The Greek word that is used here literally means “don’t let anyone lead you off the right path.” Don’t let anyone cause you to wander. Don’t let anyone entice you to go roaming around in the wrong direction. The implication here is that Jesus has shown us a particular path to follow, a particular way to live, a particular mission to fulfill. In fact, the earliest days of the church, Christians were simply called “followers of the Way.” And so, Jesus issues this warning, “Beware that no one leads you astray.” Now I don’t know about you, but I am prone to wander. There are so many things that seek to distract me from following the way of Jesus, so many voices that try to get me to wander off pathway of righteousness. Every day we are bombarded with distracting voices that want to lead us astray. 

Some of these distracting voices are profoundly personal. In our baptismal liturgy we acknowledge that there are sinful desires that seek to draw us from the love of God. We all have areas of our lives where we stray from the path. We all have patterns of behavior, mindsets, and attitudes that cause us to wander. We all have moments when we wittingly or unwittingly choose to act and believe in ways we know are contrary to vision God has for our lives. In those moments, Jesus comes to us with forgiveness, grace, and compassion, but he also comes with conviction and he asks of us, “Who are you going to follow?”

Some of the distracting voices we experience corporately. The voices of materialism and consumerism. The voices of greed, pride, and human arrogance. The voice of what we might call “comparative analysis.” That’s where we compare ourselves and measure our self-worth against everyone else around us. He’s got the better job. She’s got the nicer car. They’ve got the bigger house, the happier family, the larger bank accounts.” In the midst of all of these distractions, in the midst of all these competing voices vying for our attention, Jesus comes to us and says, “Who are you going to follow?” 

And then, of course, there are some distracting voices that are quite literally global in nature.  When we turn on the news or read the paper or check in with our social media accounts we hear about wars and rumors or war. Natural disasters. Horrific acts of violence. Deepening political division. Economic uncertainty. Temples and towers, symbols of human achievement – things we think are stable and indestructiblecome crashing down all around us. And in the midst of all of these ongoing challenges in our world, we come face to face once again with this most basic question, “Who are you going to follow?” 

Jesus said, “Beware that no one leads you astray. There will many who come in my name.” There will be many who come claiming to bring peace. There will be many who come claiming to speak truth. There will be many who come claiming to offer salvation. But Jesus came to show us particular path to follow, a particular way to live, a particular mission to fulfill. And nothing will be able to stop the mission of the kingdom of God. As we gather here this morning, just as Jesus predicted, the gold from the pinnacle of Herod’s Temple is long gone. The hallways lined with the finest marble have all be reduced to dust. The enormous limestone slabs now lie in heaps of rubble. But the mission of God continues. We are still the people of the Way. We are still following the pathway of righteousness. In the midst of the challenges. In the midst of the distractions. In the midst of all that seek to draw us away from the love of God, Jesus comes and taps us on the shoulder, and says, “Who are you going to follow?” And I think we all know what our answer should be. 

Jesus Blinks

I have two confessions to make to you this morning. The first confession is that I am not a big fan of made for TV movies based on the Bible. Now you may find this surprising. You may think that as a pastor and priest, I would be excited to see the Bible being prominently featured on primetime television in front of millions of viewers. But, you see, that is precisely the problem. The Bible is featured on primetime television in front of millions of viewers and most of the time Hollywood gets it wrong. For example, we have known for a long time that Jesus was firmly rooted in the social and cultural life of the ancient middle eastern world. And yet, until a few recent exceptions, we persisted in depicting Jesus as a fair haired, blue eyed western European, who almost always speaks perfect Elizabethan English, as if Jesus somehow knew Shakespeare!

And there are some mischaracterizations of Jesus that go deeper than his accent or the color of his eyes. For example, in 1977, Robert Powell portrayed Jesus in the classic six-hour television miniseries simply called Jesus of Nazareth. In preparation for the role of Jesus, Powell practiced not blinking. And throughout the entire six-hour miniseries, in which Jesus is featured in almost every scene, he never blinks! The idea was Jesus should appear to be in control, constant in wisdom and strength. But what happens is that throughout the whole movie, Jesus seems somewhat disconnected from our humanity. He seems to be just one step removed from the reality of our world. He seems unaffected by the actually experiences of our lives. And he certainly never shows weakness or vulnerability or pain. Now most people would agree that Robert Powell’s portrayal of Jesus was powerful and persuasive, but there’s just one problem! It’s not the Jesus we encounter in the gospels. It’s not the Jesus that says to each one of us, “Come, follow me!” The Jesus we are called to follow is the One who enters into the reality of our lives. Into the reality of joy and the reality of sorrow. Into the reality of celebration and the reality of disappointment. Into the reality of life and the reality of death

The Jesus we are called to follow is the Jesus who shows up at the grave of his friend Lazarus. And despite the fact that Jesus knows himself to be the resurrection and the life. Despite the fact that he knows the power he has to bring forth Lazarus from the grave. Despite the fact that Jesus knows the end of the story. Despite of all of those things, Jesus grieves the loss of his friend. And in the face of that grief, not only does Jesus blink. He weeps. Jesus acknowledges the pain of loss and the devastation of death. This is not a Jesus who is removed from the reality of the world. This is not a Jesus who is unaffected by the actual experiences of life. This is not a Jesus who is refuses to show weakness or vulnerability. This is the One who has entered into the very fabric of lives in order to bring healing where there is hurt and hope where there is despair. Not only does Jesus blink. Jesus weeps with Mary and Martha and their whole community in the midst of their pain. 

My brothers and sisters, there are times in the midst of the chaos and confusion of this world when we need to know that Jesus weeps with us. Times like the present – when we pause to remember over five million lives lost in a global pandemic. Times when hate and fear dominate our discourse and diminish our capacity to love and respect our neighbor. Times when we are divided by ideology and separated by race and creed. Times when we face the experience of loss and grief in our own lives. Times when we, like Mary, cry out to God in despair and say, “If only you had been here, this would not have happened!” In all of these moments of brokenness and pain, not only does Jesus blink; he weeps. And he is with us in the midst of the confusion and hurt of this world. 

But, of course, we know that is not the end of the story. The same Jesus that weeps at the grave of his friend is the One who raises his friend to new life. The same Jesus that enters into the reality of death and despair is the One who overcomes the power of death once and for all. The same Jesus who experiences the pain and brokenness of our humanity is the One who heals us and makes us whole. Yet isn’t that the paradox of our lives? That we live in this place of tension. That we live in this “in between place.” The paradox is that in the spiritual life we experience joy and sorrow, hurt and hope, life and death all at the same time. And it’s messy!

Now, remember I said I have two confessions to make to you this morning. The second confession is that I have spent a lot of emotional and spiritual energy trying to figure out this spiritual paradox, trying to resolve this spiritual tension, trying to get out of this “in-between” place. For a long time, I thought at some point surely I will arrive. At some point, I will find myself living in the fullness of the abundant life that God has promised. And I still believe that day will come. But right now, the deepest purpose of our spiritual life is often found in the paradox, in that place of tension, in that “in-between” place.

And, this morning, on All Saints’ we gather to enter into that “in-between” place. In just a few moments we will gather at the font to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism, a symbol of new life and new birth in Christ. And then only moments later we will name and remember before God those who have died in the past year. Life and death. Joy and sorrow. Celebration and grief. New and old. We find purpose in the paradox. We find meaning in the tension. We live in that “in-between” place. Like Mary and Martha, we resist it. We fight it. We anxiously want answers. We desperately want resolution. But when we surrender. When we let go. When we allow ourselves to enter into that “in-between” place, we discover that Jesus is already there. 

Surprised by Unity

Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” The great summary of the law. The great ethic of love that lies at the foundation of the moral vision of both Judaism and Christianity. These powerful words have echoed across history and thousands upon thousands of sermons have been preached on the seemingly simple commandment to love God and love neighbor. In fact, at our 10:00 AM service, our Youth Group will be sharing their own interpretation of these famous words of Jesus. But for us gathered right now, I would invite us to explore a dimension of this story that can easily be overlooked. And that is the fact that this encounter between a particular scribe and Jesus is a remarkable story about unity in the midst of division. It’s a story about agreement where you might least expect it. 

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, let’s just say Jesus and the scribes don’t exactly get along. In fact, not getting along might a gross understatement. It all begins back in chapter one, when Jesus is hailed by the crowds as one who teaches with authority, not like those scribes. Then things begin to really heat up in chapter two, where the scribes are the ones who first accuse Jesus of teaching blasphemy. In chapter three, the scribes make the allegation that Jesus is actually being controlled by Beelzebub, the prince of demons. In chapter seven, the scribes pass judgement against Jesus because he doesn’t wash his hands according to their custom. In chapter nine, the scribes attempt to undermine and weaken the relationship between Jesus and his followers. And in chapter eleven, when Jesus finally enters into the Temple in Jerusalem, the scribes are among the first to begin developing a plot to kill Jesus. Of all the groups that oppose the ministry of Jesus, the scribes are the ones who get the most airtime in the gospel of Mark. The scribes – members of the ruling religious class. The scribes – the ones responsible for drafting legal documents. The scribes – the ones charged with interpreting of the law. What we can say with confidence is that the relationship between the scribes and Jesus was strained at best. With one notable exception in today’s gospel reading.

In today’s reading, one of the scribes approaches Jesus. The exchange begins much like the other exchanges that have taken place in the gospel thus far. The scribe asks Jesus a question. And Jesus gives a response. But in this particular case, the scribe agrees with Jesus. In fact, he takes the response from Jesus and he goes one step further by saying that the command to love God and neighbor is more important the whole sacrificial system taking place in the Temple, in which they were standing by the way. Jesus then responds with a commendation, you might even say a blessing, when he says to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Now we have no reason to believe that this particular scribe was somehow set apart from the rest of his colleagues. He most assuredly would have been aware of the accusations being made against Jesus and the plot to take his life. He most assuredly would have had his own misgivings about Jesus. And yet, on this particular day, in this particular moment, with this particular scribe, we witness the remarkable surprise of unity in the midst of division. There is agreement and even blessing where we would least expect it! This is a story that breaks down the paradigm of “us” versus “them.” And if it breaks down the paradigm of “us” versus “them” in the ministry of Jesus, perhaps it can help us breakdown that paradigm in our own contemporary context as well. So, this morning, notice with me what is NOT present in this story.

First of all, there is no animosity. Unlike other encounters in the gospel of Mark, this encounter appears to be characterized by mutual respect and acceptance. At the very beginning of the story, we are told that the scribe goes to Jesus because he has noticed how well Jesus has been answering other questions. In other words, the scribe is drawn by curiosity. He is intrigued by the wisdom of Jesus, and as a result, there is an authentic human connection. 

Secondly, there is no suspicion. In other encounters with the religious leaders, we get the sense that neither side is quite convinced of the integrity of the other. In these other encounters, there is an underlying distrust and distance between those involved. But not in this story. There is no hint of distrust. There is no hint of suspicion. Instead, there is an openness and willingness to engage and learn from one another.                

Finally, there is no ulterior motive. And that’s important, because in the two encounters with religious leaders immediately preceding this one, the ulterior motive is explicitly stated. The religious leaders wanted to trap Jesus in his own words. They wanted to catch him on a theological or ethical technicality. But in this encounter between this scribe and Jesus, there seem to be no ulterior motives. Just an authentic human encounter between two people from very different ideological positions who are both seeking the kingdom of God. There is no animosity. No suspicion. No ulterior motive. In many ways, the character of this exchange between the scribe and Jesus embodies the content of their exchange: love God and love neighbor. 

Imagine with me for a moment the various political and ideological factions that are present in our own contemporary cultural context. Perhaps you can even imagine a particular person in your own life with whom you disagree. Imagine what would happen if we could approach one another without animosity, without suspicion, and without ulterior motives. Imagine what would happen if we could authentically embody the ethic of love that Jesus calls us to follow. This is a story that challenges us to break down the paradigm of “us” versus “them.” It challenges us to be open to authentic human connections. To be open to be surprised by unity in the midst of division. To be open to find that even those with whom we disagree might not be far from the kingdom of God. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”