Whether you are a cradle Episcopalian, a former Roman Catholic like me, or you come from a very different faith tradition, since you are here with us today, online or in this beautiful nave you must know at least two things: 1. You are welcome here! And 2. You know what a liturgy is. It is the form our worship takes. Outlined in our Book of Common Prayer and in your bulletins, our ancient liturgy is reciprocal between clergy and parishioner. It takes both to weave the words of this worship together. From start to finish, we engage in this liturgy with our whole body as we stand, bow, cross ourselves, kneel and sit. From start to finish we talk to one another, sometimes we even finish each other’s sentences. Therefore, I am absolutely certain, that when I say: The Lord be with you. You will say: And also with you. Thank you! I’m glad that didn’t backfire… Let’s try another one: The peace of the Lord be always with you! And also with you. Excellent. It is as if we are performing an ancient dance. And now for a different one, we have at least four different versions of this one, but I bet that when I say; Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith: you say: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. These words describe beautifully what cannot be understood. They are the mystery of faith. Mystery. It’s one of my favorite words.
Our gospel reading from Mark today brought to mind the word mystery for me. Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples. Many if not all of them are here for the first time in their life. The temple in Jerusalem has been described by historians as a mountain of white marble and gold. The construction and adornment of the sanctuary and its many complex courts, porches, balconies, and additional buildings took up 1/6 of the old city of Jerusalem. It was by all accounts a glorious sight and I imagine it must have been overwhelming to take in if you have never seen it before. Especially when you come from the poor countryside. The colors alone would be startling. When you are used to small brown buildings that blend into the landscape, the sight of a large, sprawling white and gold colored building glistening in the bright sun is sure to grab your attention and keep it. It comes as no surprise then that one of his disciples exclaims loudly: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.“ I can see the other disciples just staring wide eyed and in awe, nodding in agreement. So, here they are, totally enthralled by the splendor in front of them, and Jesus says: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.“ That must have been an absolute shock to the disciples. Yes, they are of course familiar with apocalyptic scripture, but that even a temple as glorious as this one could fall and crumble away is simply unthinkable. How a thing like this can be accomplished is indeed a mystery. Naturally they enquire of Jesus: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Naturally, that is what they ask. I say naturally because we humans like things to be concrete, don’t we? We want to know exactly what will happen, why it happens, and of course when it happens. We want to know this in our day to day life. Mystery may be a favorite word of mine, but I sure don’t want any real surprises now! We have calendars, alarms, and reminders. We love the feeling of being in control. Office hours, appointments, deadlines, spreadsheets and more are created to give us this much valued concrete knowledge of what our day will look like exactly. We plan ahead as much as we can as well. The question “where do you see yourself in 5 years, in 10 years…” is standard at job interviews. We crave control and we live in a society that encourages us to do so. In many ways, we are just like the disciples saying: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” We are so much in love with the feeling of control that we want to be able to schedule the apocalypse itself… an itinerary for the last day, how about that? I can see it now, it will be in the form of an attached pdf file in an email: 10am earthquakes, 10:30am floods, 11:45am noon day prayer and a little break for lunch at noon, before we start that war at 1pm. We don’t like mysteries at all. They are fun to read about, less fun to accept and live through. Over the centuries people have made all kinds of fancy calculations to come up with the exact time and place of the apocalypse. All these carefully calculated dates came and went, no apocalypse in sight and yet I’m willing to bet money that I don’t have on the fact that someone somewhere is calculating the date of the next last day as we speak. Control! How deeply we crave it. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
The disciples ask him this question while sitting on the Mount of Olives overlooking the great but doomed temple. Jesus’ answer is less than concrete. Instead of giving them an itinerary for this event, he warns them about the people that are trying to calculate that itinerary for 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.” Jesus does not want his disciples to be led astray in that manner. He does not want us to be led astray in that manner. With profound pastoral care, Jesus acknowledges that this world is indeed filled with disastrous events that can lead us to think that the end is near. Earthquakes, famine, wars and more were and are a part of this world. However, we are not to fall prey to the false believe that we can somehow take control over these things. Far from trying to pass on some esoteric information to us so that we can schedule the apocalypse, Jesus instead is concerned with how we live during these disastrous events. He didn’t tell his disciples about the destruction of the temple so they can do something about it. He told them so he could instruct them on how to live during times of distress and upheaval. The times he knew they would encounter. These birth pangs as he calls them were a part of the disciples’ life, and they are a part of our life. It is clear from Jesus’ words, that we are not meant to control these events in any way, shape, or form. We are meant to hold on to our faith. We are called to be obedient to God’s will at all times. In times of distress, our faith can shield us. Our faith can guide us to right action in obedience to God’s will. In order to give ourselves over to our faith, we must relinquish our need for control. We must instead embrace not knowing, we must embrace the mystery of it. The time and date of the last day is a mystery to us. Where we are in 5 years is a mystery to us. In fact, it is a mystery where exactly we will be in an hour’s time. If we are trying to control what can’t be controlled, we cannot focus on anything besides that. It is an all-consuming endeavor with no chance of success. Much like Sisyphus in the ancient story rolling his boulder onto the same hill over and over again only for it roll back down over and over again. It is a fate like that that Jesus wants to protect us from. When we embrace mystery, we are freed to live out our faith. We are free to turn our attention towards discerning God’s will for us and for our neighbors and indeed for the world.
Of course, there is no mystery bigger than the mystery of faith, let’s say it together: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I am so thankful to the authors of our ancient liturgy. That sacred dance we perform every Sunday. Every word, every move, all of it addresses God directly. God participates with us and through us. God dances with us. This ritual builds a tangible connection between us and God. Nothing in it is an accident, every word and every move is designed to bring us closer to God. It is not by accident then that every time we worship in this manner, we acknowledge the mystery of faith. We proclaim it out loud and in unison every Sunday, lest we forget. It seems that the authors of our liturgy anticipated our needs. They knew that we, much like the disciples, are tempted to give in to our inner control freak. So they build in this reminder for us. We must remember always, that by embracing the mystery of faith, we are free to truly live that faith. Let’s continue our dance.