Sermon for 11/13/2022, by Rob Scala
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."
They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?"
And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray, for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately."
Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.
So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.
But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Life is complex and often seems random. We want to have a fulfilled life - to be safe and happy. To that end, we craft for ourselves our own stories. Stories that add order to the world and show how we fit into the world. I believe we start building our stories from childhood, and they become so much a part of us that we are rarely aware of them.
I am one of seven siblings. The older ones were within five years of me and had a big influence on my life. As a young boy, my older siblings were bigger, stronger and smarter than me. They could read and do multiplication tables. As I grew up I learned that I can do those big kid things too. I was physically small, but I made up for it with my academic achievements. That got the attention of my scientist parents. These are some of the stories that I told myself.
I am big and powerful and loved.
I am insignificant. At the mercy of powerful figures.
I am being tested.
I am unappreciated and underestimated.
Achievement is the path to happiness.
I am an imposter - I don’t really know that much.
I can do anything anyone else can do.
I am selfish and a disappointment.
I think these stories were useful for a child growing up in a competitive family. But they can be counter-productive
I recently drove to Pittsburgh to help my mother move to a new assisted living facility in Baltimore. I felt a sense of dread. Mom was happy with her friends at her current facility. She had lived in that community for 67 years. But she needed more and more help, to the point that my siblings would need to visit her weekly. And she was running out of money. The solution was to move her to a facility in Baltimore, which is less expensive and closer to most of my siblings.
On my drive, I played scenes in my head about the upcoming weekend. I expected Mom to be sad and maybe angry. I hoped that Mom and I and my siblings would not get on each other’s nerves, and would be able to properly honor the transition Mom was going through. I noticed the old stories playing in my head. I’m a disappointment, I am powerful, I am being tested, I am insignificant. My stories were part of my dread.
I had recently re-read a book by Pema Chodron entitled “When Things Fall Apart”. Pema Chodron is an American buddhist nun. The book talks about finding a way forward in difficult and uncertain times. She describes from many angles the ways our old scripts capture our thinking and cause suffering. How our tendency to label ourselves as good or bad, victor or victim, virtuous or shameful, gets in the way of experiencing the world as it is. She urged a “middle way” in which we put aside our stories and labels and accept the unknown and shaky ground.
I recalled her book after a few miles on my drive to Pittsburgh. I could see that the stories I was telling myself weren’t the complete picture and would not be helpful.
In the passage from Luke we just heard, Jesus was preparing to leave the temple after giving a series of lessons to his disciples. Some of them were crowing about how beautiful the temple was, and how holy they were. They must have had an uplifting experience with Jesus. The beautiful-temple story must have made them feel safe and virtuous.
In my imagination, I can see Jesus stop at the door after hearing those comments, turn around, and proceed to set them straight in no uncertain terms. They clearly hadn’t understood his teachings.
So he told them the temple would be destroyed. Add more
They asked when will this happen? How could they avoid this catastrophe?
He said it will be bad, really really bad. Nations will rise against nations. You will be persecuted. You will stand trial. You will be betrayed. You may be put to death.
That must have gotten their attention. As to how to avoid the catastrophe, Jesus’ advice was this - “Avoid false prophets” and “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.”
That last instruction - to make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance - seems odd at first. Why would he say not to prepare? Isn’t that utter foolishness?
Now imagine one of Jesus’ disciples, years later, being dragged into court, and learning that he would have to testify next week. It would be hard for him to know the best way to save his skin, or the best way to protect his friends, or the best way to further his cause. That all depends on the outside political situation, which may be changing daily. It depends on the people involved in this trial. It also depends on what is most important to him. This unlucky disciple would likely, in his fear and confusion, fall back on a story of defiance, or of victimhood, or of ignorance, when preparing his defense..
The more challenging course of action is to not choose a story. By fighting the urge to paint himself as a victim or a victor, this man could open himself up to new insights. He could more clearly see the intentions of all the players in the drama. He could even find compassion for his captors. He could, in effect, receive wisdom from above.
I don’t know how many, if any, of Jesus’ disciples were put into a position like this. But I believe that everyone, every human, experiences challenges on a daily basis where our habitual way of thinking constricts our minds.
Jesus encourages us to go into the unknown. To not seek assurance or solid ground. To stop worrying and calculating. To not seek an immediate resolution to our problems.
The wording is interesting. Jesus could have simply said “not to prepare your defense in advance”. Instead he added : “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance”. This is not so much a tactic for success as an invitation to enter a different state of mind. He wants us to change direction.
Pema Chodron says it this way - “Usually we feel that there is a large problem and we have to fix it. The instruction is to stop. Do something unfamiliar. Do anything besides rushing off in the same old direction, up to the same old tricks.”
I ended up having a very nice drive to Pittsburgh. I was able to stop over-planning and put aside my unhelpful stories. I’ve found that when I’m able to do that, I feel a warmth in my chest, a force from outside entering my body, and my mind opening up a bit. I gain clarity and perspective.
After the drive my family had a wonderful four days working and playing together.
The instruction is powerful in its simplicity. We don’t have to follow multiple steps. When we are overburdened by the weight of our challenges, all we need to do is to stop.
I will close with a reminder of a priceless gift Jesus left us - the gift of example. Jesus’ ministry was on a collision course with the Jewish state. Knowing that this would end badly, Jesus wasn’t ruled by his fear, anger or disappointment. Instead he kept his mind open. He prayed. He understood the entire situation and chose to serve God’s purpose. He chose to continue to teach his friends. He offered a last supper as a model for future generations. He maintained grace until the end.
That is an example of a life well lived.