On Running the Risk of Longevity
November 14, 2021
Daniel 12:1 and 3
At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered… Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
Mark 13: 1-8
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 birth pangs.
Today’s sermon is titled On Running the Risk of Longevity.
Down the road my neighbor, John Sandri, has started a project in his front yard. John is a visionary, in my opinion. He is the mastermind behind Broadfork Landscaping and he is also a stonemason. His current project has really captured my attention. It began with him digging a curved pathway about two-and-a-half feet wide. His yard is sloping but he cut the pathway to be exactly level. I almost ran off the road the first morning I saw it; I knew right then that something very interesting was underway. Next there appeared a load of stones of various sizes and John laid them all out so not one was touching another, so he could see at a glance the precise size and shape. Next there appeared wire guides, only four of them, spaced out along the pathway. They are wider at the bottom and taper in slightly at the top, resembling an upside down V with the point squared off. He has just begun laying the first layer of stones.
I found out through the grapevine that John is building a five-foot, free standing, dry stacked stone wall. This means he will use no mortar at all to hold the stones in place. The fact that the wall is curved is an additional challenge, but that is not all. When complete, the wall will have a square opening as a passageway through it. Traditionally, the passageway would have been constructed for sheep to pass through. This particular project is so challenging, its completion will earn John another level of certification in the mastery of dry stacked stonework.
Working with stone is a long-term commitment. It is not a speedy process but the product will last for generations upon generations; if well built, it may last forever. Forever is a concept that is difficult for us to grasp. Instead, humanity has, for millennia, been infatuated with predicting the end of time. We hear this in our scripture readings for today and we hear it from the cultural outposts that seek to explain natural disasters and a global pandemic as signs of the end times.
Our fascination with apocalyptic narratives has a long, long history. We even have a word for it: eschatology, from the Greek root eschatos, meaning “last.” Eschatology is defined as “the study of what is thought to be the final events in the history of the world or of humankind.” Why this fascination with apocalyptic narratives? We see it in the major religions of the world, in popular literature and in film. I have to wonder if it is not easier to focus on some theoretical “end” rather than accept the responsibility that the implications of our choices may have an effect long after we cease to exist? I am not sure; I have to think more about this.
The author of our First Testament scripture reading today is thinking about the same thing. The passage is from the book of Daniel. The collection of writings we refer to as the book of Daniel were probably written by at least two different people because some of the writings are in Hebrew and some are in Aramaic. Biblical scholar John Collins describes the book of Daniel as “cosmic in scope and political in focus.” It was written during a time of great social and political upheaval. The Hebrew people were driven out of their home and into exile in the foreign land of Babylon, with little hope of ever being able to return. From such a bleak perspective, we can understand why each mounting tragedy could be seen as supporting evidence for the end of the world. There are some circumstances where I can imagine the end of the world might be welcomed as a sweet relief. Oppression, poverty, physical and mental illness, and deep grief are some examples that come to mind. Listen again to the words from the book of Daniel, “At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered… Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
600 years after those ancient words were recorded, Jesus warns his disciples that there will be hard times ahead for them, too. They are already under foreign occupation by oppressive, unjust Roman forces. When Jesus promises that the very stones of the temple will one day be overturned, his disciples are eager to know when. They ask, “When will this be, and what will be the sign?” Some of them may live to witness the destruction of the temple by Roman forces in 70 A.D. But their teacher draws their attention away from the pending doom and his advice to them is timeless.
Jesus tells them, “Beware that no one leads you astray…many will come in my name and lead many astray…when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place…” I hear the message, “Stay focused, Friends. Be discerning in whom you listen to and in what you hold as true. It may get worse before it gets better. There will come an end.”
Friends, I imagine that historians will look back on our current times as the time when the age of information went off the rails and led us into an age of disinformation. It is more difficult than ever to determine true from false. We can not even rely on what we see anymore. Modern technology is making it possible to create deepfakes, images that look and sound authentic, but they are not; they are the product of a computer expert who can make the image do and say whatever they choose.* A recently aired 60 Minutes episode (Oct. 10, 2021) warns us that we will soon have to devise a way to certify that a video is authentic and accurately portraying real events.
Jesus’s words echo across the millennia.“Do not be led astray,” he says. What are we to do? I am taking my cue from the stonemason down the road. He is making something that will last for hundreds and hundreds of years. He is not thinking about the end of the world; he is taking the risk to create something that is as close to permanent, as close to eternal, as anything can be.
What can we learn from his work that may help us in how we build our lives? After all, just as each stone will give shape to that wall, all the choices we make give shape to our lives. Are we willing to run the risk of longevity? Are we willing to assume the responsibility that the end of the world may not be right around the corner? Can we own that how we speak to one another, what we do, and how we spend our money will be like stones placed, either carefully and constructively or haphazardly and dangerously, across the landscape of our lives, forming an enduring legacy even when we cease to exist?
Assuming the responsibility of longevity is an act of faith, Friends, and it is a risky venture. We will be remembered for how we constructed our lives and whether or not others felt safe and welcome in our presence.
In closing, here is what I think we can learn from the stonemason down the road, from the ancient Hebrew author and from our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. Make your pathway through the uneven cultural landscape of this modern world. Make it carefully. Think about it, plan it out and take great care to make it level because it may carry the weight of generations upon generations. Choose stones and place them carefully, one upon the other. Balance is key to making something strong and lasting. It requires great faith to run the risk of longevity. Do not be afraid, instead, “shine like the brightness of the sky, like the stars forever and ever.” So be it. Amen. *https://www.cbsnews.com/news/deepfakes-real-fake-videos-60-minutes-2021-10-10/
In the sacred silence, another world begins to unveil itself to us. Distances become irrelevant and the spaces between us are of little consequence. Our neighbors’ concerns are held tenderly, as if they were our own, and in these moments we are limitless…our capacity to love is infinite, for in these moments we are part of All That Is. God is within and all around us as we meet the demands of our lives. God grant us vision that sees beyond our shortcomings, vision that sees behind the violence, vision that shapes a path from where we are to where you want us to be.
Benediction: I leave you with these words from the book of Romans, chapter 15: “May the god of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”