The View from the Graveyard

The View from the Graveyard: Mark 13:1-8

Sunday November 18, 2012 St. John Episcopal Church, Northampton MA

“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For 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.”

The great myth of archeological detective work (which seems at least partly to be true) goes like this: the Archeologist James Deetz and his friend Ted Dethlefsen sat in the cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. It was a hot, late summer afternoon in 1963. Deetz had returned to Massachusetts to teach at Harvard’s summer session and Dethlefsen was his teaching assistant. After a day in the hot sun digging and excavating, the two men found a spot under the cool trees in the old Concord graveyard. And they scrounged up some cold beers. Leaning back on the trees, looking out over the centuries of gravestones, the men noticed the carvings on top of the graves. Carved in the cool granite, the oldest gravestones had a face of an angel of death, wings stretched out, head like a skull, with “with blank eyes and a grinning visage.” They looked in another direction. The slightly less old gravestones had carved cherubim, sweet baby angels with calm faces and pleasant smiles. The looked in third direction, to the graves from a time in between-and the carvings were mixed- not quite the face of death, not quite a baby angel, but something in between. The heads of death had morphed, changed. The cruel teeth on the skull changed into a sweet, heart shaped mouth. The wings of the angel of death became like a halo of hair. And then it clicked. Sitting under the late summer sun among the dead, cold beer in hand, Deetz and Dethlefsen saw what our 18th century forefathers and mothers had done: “the grim death’s head designs are replaced, more or less quickly, by winged cherubs.” The saw it that day in Concord, and found it in Boston and Cambridge and Plymouth and Stoneham. And then it became clear why: “The period of decline of death’s head’s coincides with the decline of orthodox Puritanism. “As the Christians embraced the great awakening, they turned from the fear of death to the hope of eternal life.

May we see something new before our very eyes this day. Let us pray…

We joke and speculate about the “signs of the apocalypse” all the time. You heard it before the election: Governor Romney’s nomination was a sign of the end, as were candidates Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum, Cain, Paul, Perry. You heard it after the election: President Obama’s election is a sign of the end of America, and thus clearly a sign of humankind as we know it. You hear it from Christian Zionists who point to the violence in Israel and Palestine as signs that Jesus is coming back next Tuesday. You’ve heard, or hopefully you avoided, the crass diagnosing that Hurricane Sandy was punishment for East Coast liberalism, Hurricane Katrina was vengeance for New Orleans debauchery, the earthquake in Haiti was a warning sign against voodoo and the epically offensive fellow Christian Rev. Jerry Fallwell declaring that the attacks on 9/11 were prompted by “ the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America.” In America, we have created a hearty industry for manufacturing signs of the apocalypse and the outrage Olympics that follow. Perhaps you’ve even heard of the closure of Hostess snacks and end of the Twinkie, a food product designed to survive a nuclear bomb, as a sign of the apocalypse. For nearly 20 years, Sports Illustrated magazine has run a column called “Signs of the Apocalypse” chronicling the worst behavior in sports. This past August, Massachusetts even made an appearance in the column when the minor league baseball Worcester Tornadoes’ game was delayed an hour because repo men took the team’s uniforms and equipment for failure to pay a cleaning company. We’ve made a secular sport of reading the signs of our times.

And yet.  And yet, we are called to read the signs of our times. As we approach the end of the Church year and the beginning of Advent, the readings turn darker. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus and the disciples exit the temple in Jerusalem one of the disciples says to him, “Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.” Silence. Say way, Jesus? The Disciples are on a perfectly pleasant tour through the temple, taking photos of the impressive building and Jesus whispers, “ain’t gonna last.” The Disciples are square in the middle of a massive change of the dependable institutions of religious life in their time and they’re looking to the stability of buildings and institutions. Sound familiar, Church?

But then the scene changes in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus moves them to a new place. The disciples are pressed right up against the massive stones of the temple, all they can see is what’s in front of them.  And Jesus takes a step back.  Jesus leads them from the chaos of the city and decamp for the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. Up the hillside they climb.  If you start to watch the geography of Scripture, it will tell you something about where God is leading God’s people. Take a step back.

We get too close. We get too close to the things that are overwhelming our field of vision. Or put rightly, things overwhelm our field of vision because we are too close And that thing becomes all we see. You know this. You know you have to move back to see things “right-sized.” We who find help in the twelve-step programs learn this idea of getting ourselves and others “right-sized.” But when our perspective is off, dust bunnies on the floor become signs overwhelming signs of lack of consideration from our housemates. Traffic jams when we have somewhere important to go become furious signs of the entire cosmos plotting against us. Final exams become the entirety of our educational career and indicators of all the potential of our whole lives. The woman taking an eternity in the grocery lines is a sign of how little she regards my precious time. A recent acquaintance forgetting our name becomes a crushing sign of our invisibility. When we’re standing right next to this thing in our lives that threatens to overwhelm us, in order to see what it really is and how big it is, we need to step back. The scientist Carl Sagan writes, “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”  Through a telescope that reminds us how small our own planet is, Sagan finds perspective.  Jesus moves the disciples from their vantage point next to the temple wall to the Mount of Olives to get the right perspective.

Jesus moves the disciples, back away from the thing that’s overwhelming them and up onthe mountain so they can see below. God has gifted this parish with your unique position across from Smith College and overlooking Northampton below. What does that mean for your ministry in this place? Those of us who are thinking about organizational change, turn to Ronald Heifetz’s “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership” that encourages leaders to move between the dance floor and the balcony to get the right perspective.  Or do you remember that final scene from the Secret Garden? Once the spell was broken, her uncle laughing, and the garden was “open, awake and alive,” the young girl Mary’s perspective changes as she declares, “If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”  But this is more than just seeing flowers instead of weeds or putting on rose-colored glasses. Sometimes we need the perspective of death.

Jesus moves the disciples up and away from the city, but most importantly he took the disciples up the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. Even by the time Jesus gets there, Mt. Olivet had already been used as a graveyard for centuries. The graves of ordinary Jews and ancient prophets surround the disciples. Something about being among the graves, among the dead helps get the perspective right. A colleague tells the story of a fellow priest who used his simple wooden casket as a cedar chest for blankets and sweaters. Maybe that’s living a little too close to death. And because I’m a guest preacher, and I doubt any of you heard this story from earlier sermon, I can tell you my best story of living with the perspective of death: My friend Ashley’s grandmother drove around with death in her trunk.  Next to the shovel and first aid kit, in the back of that cavernous Cadillac trunk, sits a granite headstone. When Maureen’s first husband died, the gravestone carver offered her a deal if she purchased her headstone at the same time. And as a good Yankee, she took the deal. Maureen keeps her gravestone in the trunk of her car, needing only to fill in the final date, driving around Connecticut with this weight in the back so that she has a little more traction on slick winter roads.You can drive around with death in your trunk if you’ve got resurrection before you.

You who struggle like all us sinners to practice the Christian life know that we have to go through Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday. And in our death denying culture, we do the most radical thing: Proclaim that death is not the end. We declare that the grave is not our final resting place. Though we grieve, we push ourselves to proclaim that even though buildings will crumble, and stone will fall upon stone, our trust is not in buildings and stones, but in the Risen Christ. We are the people who first carve the angel of death onto our graves but move to chisel out images of cherubim and seraphim.

Those first colonial gravestones anxiously warned the living with such epitaphs as “my youthful mates both small and great/ come here and you may see/an awful sight, which is a type of which/you soon must be.” But, later gravestones, with pleasant angels hovering over the dead, proclaimed “here cease they tears, suppress thy fruitless mourn/his soul—the immortal part—has upward flown/on wings he soars his rapid way/ to yon bright regions of eternal day.”

The discipline is getting yourself to a place where you can see things right-sized. Some find that’s a place of silent prayer when you can let all those crazy thoughts run through your head and get clear. Sometimes it’s the silence of church, or library, or bedroom or per. We have some wisdom from our fellow Christians and our tradition. But only you know where your Mount Olive is. Where do you need to go to see life and death clearly? The good news is that Jesus wants to lead his disciples to a place where we can see clearly, a place where we can see clearly where we are to put our trust.  (preach resurrection)

In the depths of despair, from the graveyard, we practice the discipline of resurrection. We practice and sing it and say it and live it until it becomes true in our live. In 1871, the attorney Horatio Spafford lost all his financial holdings he invested in property in the great Chicago Fire. His only son died later that year. In 1873, Spafford sends his family ahead of him on a family trip as he stays behind to attend to these financial losses. His four daughters drowned in a ship crossing the Atlantic to England, leaving only his wife alive, who sends back the telegram reading “saved alone…” And yet. And yet, he wrote the text for the hymn, “It is well with my soul.” Not because it was yet true, but so it would be. If you’d like, join me.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
 When sorrows like sea billows roll;
 Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

From the graveyard we see. From the graveyard we sing. May it be so, Hallelujah Amen.

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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