Isaiah 64:1–9 and Mark 13:24–37

In the Name of God: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit: The One God. Amen

“Keep awake: the Son of Man is coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

The Gospel for today, Mark 13, is one of the most difficult texts in the Bible. It is an apocalyptic text, speaking to a time when there was crisis, possibly just before the fall of Jerusalem. The setting is the Temple Mount. In verses 1 and 2 of Mark 13, it reads, “As Jesus came out of the Temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, 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.” Imagine, if you were standing across the Potomac, looking at the majestic monuments and buildings of government, and someone would say, “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” First off we wouldn’t believe it, and secondly, I suspect we would ask, “when will this be?”

Jesus’ words are hard for us to hear. Jesus is calling for a new creation. Jesus is calling for us to be transformed. Jesus is challenging the political and the religious structures of the day. Jesus challenges the temple. Jesus challenges the church. Jesus challenges the law of the temple and about the stone edifices that we have built.

Last weekend I was in New Orleans for the bicentennial celebration of Christ Church Cathedral. Amidst all of the destruction that New Orleans has faced as a result of Katrina, the cathedral celebrated its 200th birthday. It was really a great celebration. On Thursday morning, Morning Prayer was read in the place that Philander Chase did the first Episcopal prayer service in New Orleans. That evening an incredible jazz program by Irvin Mayfield and his band performed at the cathedral, inaugurating “All the Saints”, a piece of music that had been commissioned by the cathedral. Not only was the cathedral full and its adjacent chapel, but 400 people stood outside to hear that incredible concert. Friday night was the Bicentennial Evening Evensong and then on Sunday, the Festival Eucharist. All the events were glorious celebrations in a city that truly has experienced suffering and destruction since Katrina on a scale that most of us simply can not comprehend.

Friday morning the dean of the cathedral arranged for me and two colleagues from Cleveland to visit the sections of New Orleans most tragically hit by Katrina. The dean asked Father Roger Allen, chaplain at Holy Comforter to give us a 2-hour tour of the city. What I was about to see, I was not prepared to see. What I saw in Father Roger was a person who truly is a servant, a priest who knows what it means to lose absolutely everything except for life itself.

When we got in Father Roger’s car, it did not take long to drive to areas that had “taken lots of water.” The thing I had not comprehended, and I still have a hard time comprehending, is the extensiveness of the damage. We literally drove for miles, moving from one parish to another, all totally destroyed by Katrina and the breach in the water wall. Miles and miles of homes that are no longer inhabitable, totally destroyed by the water. Homes that will have to be torn down.

While we were driving Father Roger told us, quite matter-of-factly, that his home had taken 9 feet of water. Not until a half hour later did Father Roger ask us if we would like to stop to see a home that had been destroyed. The three of us all agreed, but Dean Tracey from the cathedral in Cleveland asked the right question. She asked, “is the home, your home, Roger, and the response was a simple, “yes.”

As we stopped in front of Roger’s home, Roger gave us a face mask to put on so we would not breathe in the mold. Then we walked into his bungalow and I was not prepared for what I was going to see. Besides all the mold that had grown all over the walls and floors, major appliances had been lifted up and moved by the force of the nine foot wall of water that had burst into his house. All of Roger’s books in his office stood in a state of ruin. Tracey saw on the mildewed carpet a photograph of Roger and his wife, Elisabeth, on his ordination day, the photograph itself hardly recognizable.

But the moment that nearly undid me is when we walked into the Allens’ bedroom. Immediately to the right was a walk-in closet where Elisabeth’s clothes were still hanging—all destroyed, totally unsalvageable. As I peered into that closet I was reminded of the pain when one returns home from the funeral of a spouse or partner. The house empty, but the clothes and everything else remaining, but in this case everything destroyed. I became silent. There were no words to express my profound grief, not only for Roger and Elisabeth, but for the tens of thousands who were facing the same kind of death and loss.

As we were about to leave the Allens’ home, Roger stopped at the front door and he looked up to the archway. As he looked at the mold he made the most incredible statement. He said, “look at all the beautiful designs the mold is making.” To be honest I saw no beauty in this destruction, but for the person who had lost everything but his life, his family and his priesthood, he saw beauty in the mold.

On this first Sunday of Advent, Father Roger has a lot to say to us as we prepare ourselves for the Incarnation of the birth of Jesus. Father Roger helps us to put into perspective what is really important in life. The Gospel for today is a warning: “Keep awake: The Son of Man is coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Jesus is calling for a new creation. Jesus is calling for us to be transformed. Certainly the people in New Orleans understand what it means that one stone will not be left upon each other; all will be thrown down. The power of a hurricane and a wall of water from a breached water wall made homes and businesses look like they were made out of match sticks.

Undoubtedly, to different degrees, we all become involved in the 27 shopping days before Christmas. Maybe some of us were even involved in the shopping frenzy last Friday at Wal-Mart when people were trampled as the store doors opened in Grand Rapids, Michigan or as a brawl broke out in Orlando as laptops were thrown 20 feet in the air. While both of these examples are extremes, many of our lives will become equally frenzied as we prepare for Christmas. But the Gospel today gives us a different warning, not the warning that there are only 27 more shopping days before Christmas, but “Keep awake: the Son of Man is coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

Father Roger has put into perspective what this Advent is all about. Here we have a priest who has lost everything but life itself and his major concern is not his own loss, but to make sure that he and the church are there to help people rebuild their lives. Is this not what the Gospel for this morning is all about? We do not know the day or the hour, but priests like Father Roger help us to appreciate what is really important in our lives as we reach out to those who have nothing. For what the Gospel is all about, what Jesus’ life is all about, is to reach out to the poor, the hungry, the infirm—those who have lost everything.

As we stood at the front door of Roger’s home, he looked up at the archway and said, “look at the beautiful designs the mold is making.”

“Keep awake: the Son of Man is coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

In the name of God. Amen.