It started as a beautiful summer day. It was June 1, 2011, and I was on my way home from speaking to a group about my work as a trauma chaplain. I told stories of my time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and my time at Virginia Tech following the mass shooting there. I was serving a Parish in the Central part of Massachusetts and serving as Interim Chief Fire Officer. Driving back to the station, an announcement was made over the radio that a storm cell was approaching the area. This was not an uncommon announcement this time of year. However, something about the tone of voice being used by the dispatcher made me think this was serious.
I returned to the Fire House, and the TV was on. A tornado had touched down in Worcester and was headed east. As we watched the path of destruction on TV, the fire radio began to tell the story of destruction in real-time as each affected town came on the radio. Buildings were down, people were trapped, and fire and police crews were out on the rescue.
As the tornado came closer, we sounded the general alarm to bring firefighters and EMTs to the station. We watched in eager anticipation as the storm came closer and closer. It missed the town where the fire station was but hit the town where I was living. The fire company was dispatched to that town, and I raced home, lights and siren wailing to check on things.
Not far from my home was a scene of destruction that I had only ever witnessed on TV. One house was completely gone; the only tell-tale sign that something had been there was the foundation. Another place was shifted entirely off its foundation and close to collapse. It was hard to take in. The very ground beneath my feet and all those things around me that I thought would last forever were gone in the blink of an eye.
In today’s Gospel from Mark, Jesus is coming out of Temple with his disciples. As they walk out, Jesus turns and causally makes the comment that all of this will be thrown down and destroyed. In their dismay, they cannot fathom how this would even be possible. Later in the day, several of the Apostles corner Jesus and ask for an explanation which, as Jesus usually does, is not forthcoming.
Jesus then speaks of watching out for those that will come after him but will deceive the followers. How many times have we heard of the end of the world? Not a year goes by that one so-called religious group or another begins to predict the end of the world. It usually involves sending them large sums of money, which I have never been able to figure out since the world is coming to an end but send them all your money.
There are often tales told after major weather incidents that God had sent the, insert storm here to wreck, insert name of place here, because of, insert sin here. It usually involves liberals, gays, or other such groups that the fine well washed Christians find distasteful this week. But, of course, there is never an explanation of why, when their godsends this destruction good people get killed as well, but it happens, and they fluff it off. But here is Jesus, 2,000 years before these events warning about people just like this.
In my way of thinking, there is also a very unhealthy obsession by some with the end of times. They try and read the signs, not just storms but other things, and usually try and find the answer in the Book of Revelation. I recall a time; I believe it was in the 1970s when red tide hit the clam flats pretty bad; all manner of religious folk were talking about the end of the world and the sure and certain signs that Jesus was coming back. Well, we are still here.
Jesus speaks of this to those gathered with him, and he tells them not to worry about what is or is not coming but to be conscious of the present and the work that needs to be done now.
When John the Baptist makes his appearance, he is telling people to repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Not on some far-off cloud, but right here in the present age. Being a Christian is less about how to get into heaven than it is about creating God’s Kingdom right here on earth.
Now, let me clarify a point here: I am not speaking in a governmental way when I mention Kingdom. This idea that we have to create some sort of Christian nation is poppycock. Nowhere in Scripture that I can find anyway says that we have to make a Christian nation except in your own heart. Scripture is clear that we have to love and care for each other, but we do that from our hearts, not the seat of power in some national capitol.
Jesus tells us to be wary of those who come in his name and make claims, “Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.” (v 6). We have seen it time and time again. How many of you remember Jim Jones, David Koresh, and all the rest of them? Sure, they might start with good intentions, but it always goes horribly wrong. So be very wary of people who claim to be sent from God or who others claim have been sent by God if their message does not square with the Gospel.
We have to keep a close eye out for these folks. They come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. They come saying all of the right things but do not have a love of Jesus in their hearts, and that is how we can discern their message.
I am often criticized as being judgmental when I point out that so-called religious leaders such as Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Joel Olsteen, Paula White, and Franklin Graham preach their Gospel of exclusion. Yet, at the same time, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly a Gospel of Inclusion. Very often, these well-meaning folks will quote me the passage about not judging to avoid being judged. Well, I say, go ahead and judge me, and I believe you will find I have more in common with the dark-skinned carpenter from Nazareth than any of these so-called prophets of our time.
There is one guiding principle for me, and that is love. Jesus said we must, not should but must love each other. He gave us a new commandment, not a new suggestion, and it came without qualification. Nowhere does Jesus say to love everyone and help everyone if they can pass a drug test if they are here legally, if they have the same skin color as you, if they believe the same as you if they love the same as you. No, Jesus simply says, love everyone, feed everyone, clothe everyone and dare I say he says get the dam vaccine to protect everyone!
So, I measure these bible quoting folks against the message of love. Does their message include or exclude? Does this legislation aim to include the most or exclude the most? Does this policy help the most or exclude the most? Does this program feed, clothe, and house those that need it without exception, or is it geared toward a certain few? Jesus tells us that they will know if we are his followers by how we love each other.
Friends, if there is one thing that this pandemic has taught us, we do not need fancy buildings to be Church; in fact, sometimes they can hinder us from being Church. We are Church whether we meet here in our beautiful building, on a beach, or online. We are Church when we are doing God’s work of loving and caring for people. The love of God is for all, not just for a select few, and that all include you, and it includes me.
By the way, that Temple was destroyed in the year 70.
Let us resolve this day to love more, care more, and work to bring about God’s Kingdom here on earth not by fear of judgment but by love.