Pentecost 26.18 “Strangers, Then and Now” Mark 13:1-13
The end of our Gospel today can’t help but remind you (if you also have read too many books, mostly of the wrong sort) of the ending of Albert Camus’ classic mid-century modern novel “The Stranger”. Great as TV beer commercials and Coen Brothers movies are, there are some things in books you can’t get at all from TV, fast or slow. The ending of “The Stranger” and the ending of our Gospel would be a couple of those things…
You may recall “The Stranger” is the story of Meursault, a young Frenchman living in Algiers in the late 1930s who is alienated from his family, friends, work—from pretty much everything. He kills an Arab on a beach one day because the sun was in his eyes. He doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. And because of those two things he’s sentenced to death. He’s not the most likable character in fiction, but he does make Elijah look good by comparison. In the final scene of the novel, Meursault is sitting in his prison cell just before dawn, and hears the sirens of the police cars coming to take him to the gallows. And he says to himself:
“…for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” Ah. What a wonderful world that would be!
Now, many readers have gone, “Huh? I don’t get it! How is getting greeted at the gallows by a large crowd with cries of hate something to hope for? What a weird guy! Are most French novels like that?” (Uh, pretty much!). Those are great questions. You have a lot of great questions. To answer them, though, I’m afraid you might have to read books. I don’t know of any TV shows that can get you there…
Jesus says something awfully similar at the end of our Gospel reading today (while Jesus is quite different from Meursault in several important respects, He also was a Stranger, led to His execution by a large crowd who greeted Him with cries of hate). He tells His disciples not to worry about stuff like this: they too will be dragged before councils, beaten in the churches, brought before rulers and kings, arrested, delivered up, betrayed by family, friends, but it will all be fine because the Holy Spirit will give them great exit lines, even better than Meursault’s (!), and they will be hated by all for Christ’s sake, but embrace it baby, thrive on it because this is what the gate to Heaven actually looks like! (Maybe I NIV’d that one, a little bit, myself?).
What a weird saying though! Why would Jesus say stuff like that? Do you think He really meant all that stuff? Well, let’s look more closely at the story to see if we can answer that. But before we do that, I’m going to lay my cards all on the table, face-up, so you can better see if the text supports my conclusion. And here it is: I think the reason most people don’t get Jesus’ sayings in this “end-times discourse” is because we have a totally different idea of “success” than Jesus has. I think most people then as now would say that a “successful” church is one that is large, popular, growing because it is well-loved by all, because it’s a peaceful, gentle sort of society of nice people doing nice things, showing the love of God which makes everyone feel good and want to do nice things, too. Together. If the Church isn’t like this—if it’s small, harried, harassed, hated by all for Christ’s sake, then most would say that’s a fail.
But, by that standard, Jesus and His church especially in the early days were abject failures. They were strangers on earth, like Meursault, greeted less with shouts of acclamation than cries of hate. Why? Well, because a very large crowd greeted Jesus with cries of hate, one Friday morning, led Him to a rocky hill just outside old Jerusalem’s city walls, and executed Him with extreme prejudice! So, if they treat us like they treated Jesus, it must mean they see us as pretty much the same; and if He indeed is Lord and God, that would be cause for happiness. It’s not the hate, the suffering, the dying we love. It’s the being like Jesus that consummates our joy, makes it complete. That’s my thesis. Let’s see if the story backs it up…
The apostles have just arrived with Jesus in Jerusalem at the beginning of holy week. They are like tourists on their first trip to Disneyland. They ooh and ahh at the magnificent buildings of the temple, the pomp and circumstance, the huge, enthusiastic crowds. And when they ask if Jesus has ever, in His life, seen anything so wonderful as this(?!), He says, laconically, “Disneyland will burn down.” Sorry, NIV’d again! He says there won’t be one stone left upon another that shall not be thrown down. Now, for the disciples, hearing Disneyland will burn down is the worst. The happy place with happy throngs destroyed? This is most distressing to them! They go find Jesus and ask, “When? What? Why?”
Because Disney’s… uh, the temple rulers were against the Lord of Life, that’s why! Because they’d invented a phony and totally self-serving way of life and worship. Because they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God. Because they crucified the Lord of glory. Jesus proclaimed a Heaven that could only be received by beggars as an undeserved gift. But they insisted they could earn it, by their self-chosen worship and works. And the world loved that.
Why was Meursault a stranger? Because the world’s idea of goodness seemed absurd to him. Seeing, at the end, it was the world running against the grain of the universe, not him, made their rejection and hate a sign of being on the right path, difficult though that way might be…
Jesus showed the world that our ways and works are evil. That death is not not natural but is the result of our trying to be God ourselves. And the temple chiefs, the Pharisees, the Romans, the powers-that-be, killed Him for that(!). But when He rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, taught and ate with His disciples, they saw who was right and who was wrong. The Stranger they condemned turned out to be the Lord of Heaven and Earth.(!!!).
“You will be hated by all for My Name’s sake,” Jesus says, “But he who endures to the end, embracing the cries of hate, the scorn, the shame, the poverty of spirit, shall be saved.” Why? Because to share the failure of Christ becomes, for us, success. To have the same cries of hate that greeted Him the day of His execution hurled at us…? Well, we’ll wear that as a badge of honor, forever! That’ll make our joy complete. Being thrown down as Jesus was thrown down is the surest sign of being raised up as He was raised up the third day.
Losing with Jesus, in the way of the cross by which He lost, is better than winning with the world—their cries of hate sound like music in our ears. The site of His suffering and dying and burial becomes for us the true Holy Place of the world—where something like real glory shows. While the world will always count such faith absurd, in the extreme(!), we Strangers of earth are citizens of Heaven where Peace surpassing all understanding guards our hearts + minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.