Tag Archive: The Wizard of Oz

Last Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 21:23-32, preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

I love movies. My brothers and I used to have contests to see who could “name that movie quote.” We’d do accents and imitations, too.   So it was to my great delight when I found out that Pastor Joe knows a great deal of movie quotes. And on Thursday, when everyone in the church was quoting the Wizard of Oz, I was thrilled! That was my favorite movie growing up, but when I hit my teenage years, another movie took its place. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Some of you may think this an odd choice, but come on! Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in one movie with action, history, foreign countries, manuscripts, adventure, and faith – it’s right up my alley! And if you put that movie on when I’m nearby, I will begin to quote it – I can’t help myself.

Well, as I was meditating on the texts for this morning, one of the scenes from Indiana Jones came to mind. Indy is on the search for the Holy Grail and now it’s the climax of the movie. Time is running out because the evil art collector, Walter Donovan, who is in cahoots with the Nazis, has shot Indy’s father, Henry Jones, Sr. He’s done this to make Indy go in and find the Grail so that he can save his dad. The suspense!

Indy knows because of his dad’s research that there are three booby traps before you can even get to the Grail. And the clue to the first one was what popped into my mind: “Only the penitent man will pass.” I remember asking my Dad what “penitent” meant and hearing that it meant the person who is sorry for the mistakes they’ve made and the things they’ve done.

As Indy moves slowly forward, he keeps repeating, “The penitent man will pass.” Creeping through the dark tunnel, he talks to himself, “The penitent man is humble before God. The penitent man… The penitent man is humble. Penitent man is humble… kneels before God. Kneel!” And right as he says it, two razor sharp blades whirl from the stone walls, Indy narrowly kneeling and rolling to safety. It’s a fantastic scene and it’s stuck with me.

But the idea of the penitent passing or entering is exactly what Jesus speaks about in his encounter with the chief priests and elders we hear about in the Gospel.

Previously, Jesus entered Jerusalem humbly riding on a donkey while the crowds shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Then he cleansed the Temple, causing chaos and turning the religious establishment on its head. There, the children in the Temple continued to shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” which really got under the religious leaders’ skin. And now Jesus is face to face with the chief priests and the elders of the people. These aren’t every day Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, or lawyers. No, these are the religious elite – the head honchos of the Temple. And they’ve witnessed the uproar caused by his entrance into Jerusalem and the events at the Temple. They’re already majorly irritated and now Jesus is teaching in the Temple – on their turf. Oh snap!

So they come after him, questioning his authority. Basically, “Who died and made you Elvis?!” They want to know who said he could teach because clearly he’s not one of them. And rather than just answering them, Jesus throws the ball back into their court with a tricky question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

It may sound odd to our ears, but this is the theological equivalent of tossing a grenade in the mix because the chief priests and elders know it’s a trap and they can’t possibly answer. If they say it was from heaven, why haven’t they recognized John the Baptist as one of God’s prophets or been upset because Herod killed him. If they say that John’s baptism was of human origin, then the crowds who do believe and follow John’s call to repentance will be outraged. So they respond with, “we don’t know.”

And Jesus refuses to speak about where his authority comes from, because as he points out in the parable, the ones who need to know where he gets his power already know. Jesus’ parable is about two sons – one who says he won’t do something for his father but does, and one who says he will do something and doesn’t.   Remember the penitent man will pass – this is where the repentant ones come back into the picture.

The son who says he will work in the vineyard, but doesn’t follow through is like the religious leaders. They are people of God, teachers of the Scriptures, and powerful leaders in the Temple. They should know that Jesus is of God, but they don’t. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. The son who says he won’t work, but does it anyway, represents the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners who have heard the word of God preached by John and now Jesus and who have repented to follow God. Contrary to all outward appearances and their roles in society where they are labeled as outcasts, they get it. And they’re entering the kingdom of heaven before the religious elite.

I see two major themes at work here: pride or arrogance, and humility or willingness to grow.   The religious elites are at the top of their game and they think they know exactly what the will of God is – exactly what God is up to. But the sinners are those on the edges of society, those struggling and looked down upon. These are people who know their own hurts and brokenness. They are people who know they have a need. They get the message because it touches them and means something in their lives.

Maybe it is easy for us to fall into the trap of talking the talk, but not walking the walk. Maybe we are relying on ourselves instead of God. Maybe we find ourselves thinking, “well, I may make mistakes, but at least I’m not like so and so!” We might think we’ve got everything neatly figured out. Or maybe we’re feeling tired and in need of grace. Maybe we are remembering those things we did that we’re still struggling with and holding on to, days, weeks, or even years later. No matter which son we are, God calls out and says, “Turn, then, and live.” Don’t live in the tiny confines of thinking you’re above everyone else! Don’t live trapped behind the walls of you’ve constructed of who God is or whether or not certain people deserve God’s grace! Don’t live wrestling with your old demons of sin, guilt and shame! Don’t let your past define you or determine your future! No, turn and live!

We have an incredible gift in the church. We have the gift of times of confession and forgiveness. It is a time to think about our sins and the ways we’ve fallen short and to bring them humbly before God. It is a time to be vulnerable and admit our wrongdoing and our desire to change – to be free of the things that have bound us. It comes at the beginning of the service so that as we come in, weary from the world, from acting like we have it all together and keeping up appearances, we can let go. We can ask for help and know that God has heard our plea and does not delay in forgiving. Christ has freed us from all our sins. It is done. And we confess as a community, acknowledging that we all struggle and that we all need help.

A while ago I was speaking with some people who didn’t go to church and they asked about how we had confession. I explained how corporate confession happened and they said “Wow. That must be incredibly freeing.” I was amazed that even people not part of the church would be moved by the chance to admit their wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness and help. And in that conversation I think maybe a little pride as one of the clergy was put in check by those who also know their need for confession and forgiveness, but who aren’t in a church every Sunday.

Paul writes the following in Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” For our sake, Christ humbled himself and became obedient to God even to the point of death on a cross. Can we develop that same humble and obedient mindset as followers of Christ? Who are we giving authority in our lives? Can we turn from our pride and our arrogance and listen to how God is calling us to turn, live and serve?

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy finally makes it past the booby traps, he encounters the Grail Knight, the guardian of the Holy Grail. But much to his surprise, there are many chalices in the room. The Grail Knight counsels him, saying, “… choose wisely, for while the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you.” We, too, have to choose each day if we are going to walk in the way that brings the fullness of life. Are we going to start each day remembering our need of God and believing that God is at work in us, imperfect as we are? Or are we going to go throughout our day relying on ourselves?

The Grail in the movie is not a lavish, attention-grabbing bejeweled chalice that looks perfect, but rather a simple, common cup. The humility of the cup and of the tax collectors and prostitutes, remind us that to follow God is to admit our need of help, forgiveness, and transformation. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

The Holy Grail from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (From: http://img4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20110317234056/indianajones/images/f/f1/Holy_Grail.jpg)

The Holy Grail from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (From: http://img4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20110317234056/indianajones/images/f/f1/Holy_Grail.jpg)

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!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 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.

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. 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.” Whoa! That’s some text, isn’t it? I picture the disciples walking through Jerusalem as the city is hustling and bustling in preparation for Passover. I imagine it almost as if they’re on vacation, taking in the sights and atmosphere of the great city. Then they spy the Temple, and, even though they had just been in it, it still takes their breath away. The Temple was known as one of the most beautiful buildings in the Roman Empire and for good reason, too. It was constructed with walls of imposing masonry which enclosed a huge area. Topping these walls was an expansive platform, supported by massive piers, some as large as forty feet long, by twelve feet high, and eighteen feet wide.

The Royal Porch of the Temple had a row of Corinthian pillars each standing thirty-seven and a half feet high and made out of one solid block of marble a piece. From a distance, the Temple was said to look like snow since it was stark white in some places and gilt in glittering gold in others. It must have been a truly amazing sight to see.

So, with all this in mind, we hear of one of the disciples in naïve excitement pointing out this architectural wonder to Jesus, admiring the magnificent structure. However, Jesus’ response is not the one they were expecting. He’s not taken in by the imposing and impressive sight. Instead, Jesus tells them the great, towering Temple will be utterly destroyed. At this point, I can just see the disciples turning to stare at Jesus with mouths hanging wide open, complete shock enveloping their faces. How on earth could such a thing ever happen?

After the disciples have heard Jesus’ powerful words, they ask him to explain when all these things will happen and what the sign will be that all of this is taking place. Doesn’t that sound familiar? How often do we, like those first disciples, ask for signs or wish know that we’re making the right decision, or what will happen if we do certain things? I know this is especially true when I make major decisions in my life or when I’m standing at a crossroad and I imagine it’s the same for you as well. We want to know how things will turn out and what exactly is around the bend.

And what of the apocalyptic warnings in today’s reading? In the first centuries, early Christians believed that they were living in the last days. Examining the history, it’s not difficult to see why they believed this. The first few centuries of the Common Era were a period filled with strife, struggle and hardship. As Jesus had declared and Mark’s contemporaries experienced, there were wars between the Jews and Romans, and in 70 CE, the Romans burned the incredible Temple and then dismantled a great portion of it, stone by stone.

Playing off of peoples’ beliefs that Christ would be coming back very soon, there were many “pseudo-messiahs” and false teachers eager to step in to take Jesus’ place. In addition, the early church was plagued by internal conflicts over doctrine and right teaching, as well as by the external conflicts of persecution and even martyrdom. Life was not easy.

Things certainly looked bleak and that must have been exactly what the disciples were thinking, because Jesus tells them, “do not be alarmed.” Actually, this phrase in the original Greek can also mean “do not be frightened,” or “do not be troubled” or, even, “do not be disturbed.” In fact, the form of the verb used in the Greek implies “do not continue being frightened.” I hear in Jesus’ words incredible reassurance and hope. Moving from these words, however the next phrase is troubling again; Jesus says “but the end is still to come.” So, there is going to be an end, but the wars, false prophets, and the destruction of the Temple are not it. Jesus continues to explain that the earthquakes and famines aren’t the end either. No, Jesus states, all of these things – natural disasters, famines, wars, false teachers – are only the beginnings of the birth pangs.

I hear the last words in this passage and I recall The Wizard of Oz, my favorite movie as a child. The Scarecrow, while walking with his companions in the woods, utters one line that pops into my head when I hear Christ’s words to the disciples. The Scarecrow says, “of course, I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.” In other words, things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.

Just as birth pangs are a part of birth and necessary before a beautiful child enters the world, Jesus explains that trials and hardships will mark the disciples’ way before things become better. Patience, endurance, persistence and faith must mark their lives; they should not be troubled or distressed, or be thrown into panic when all the world seems a frightful mess.

So is this passage just about Jesus telling his disciples to hang in there when things are difficult in the beginning centuries of the church? I don’t think so. I think it is appropriate that we hear this text as the days grow shorter and colder, when the landscape is beginning to look bleak and barren. Simultaneously, however, this is also the time leading up to Advent when we will await the coming light of Christ shining in the darkness to illumine our way. Therefore, I hear Christ’s words as encouragement for our lives today. In the midst of a recession, dealing with high unemployment rates, with wars and violence around the world, and other struggles, Jesus’ words are incredibly timeless. Like the first disciples, we are to be persistent and full of faith, not fearing anything the world might throw at us, but trusting that God is in control, no matter how out of control the world seems to spin. God is far bigger than all that might threaten us. It is in these times of trial that our faith is tried and sometimes shaken, but it is also through these difficult times that we have some of the most amazing opportunities for spiritual growth.

In these times, when our faith is shaken and we can’t seem to see the next step, we stand at the foot of the cross and call on God. For me, some of the most difficult, frustrating and painful things I have encountered in my life have driven me to God’s arms and strengthened my faith in ways times of comfort could not have. In the most strenuous times, it’s as if all pretense is stripped away and I am able to be most honest with God, which draws me nearer to Him.

Although all the splendid things we have – cars, houses, money, electronics – will fade away or crumble like the Temple, in Christ, the living, indestructible temple, we have something solid to which to cling. In the crucified and resurrected Christ, we can look forward expectantly to the coming kingdom and reign of God, even in the midst of all our trials and pains.

This promise is made especially clear to us in baptism in which we die with and are raised again to new life in Jesus Christ. Through baptism, we who are fallen, sinful and broken, much like the Temple, have been redeemed and made whole. In baptism, we receive God’s amazing promise that the Holy Spirit will sustain us and we are marked with the cross of Christ, sealing us as God’s children forever. Through baptism into the body of Christ, we become the new Temple, the place in which God dwells. In this new baptismal identity, we are encouraged and strengthened to take up our cross and follow Christ.

It is with the promises of God made to us in baptism, recalled daily, and nourished through Holy Communion that we face the trials of this world. As we encounter these difficulties head on, we look forward with anticipation to the day when the kingdom of God will break onto the scene, ushering in a new age of mercy, peace and justice. Whereas today we may only catch fleeting glimpses of this kingdom in the kindness of friends and strangers, in joyful communion with those around us, or in incredible stories of generosity and love, the day is coming when these glimpses will be the norm.

So when we find ourselves in difficult situations or when we are faced with obstacles that seem insurmountable, we can recall the promises God has made to us in baptism and the comforting words of Jesus to the disciples: “do not be troubled.” Yes, there will be troubles, pain and suffering – there always have been. However, it is important to remember that before pain and death were, God was. One day, the kingdom of God will be realized, bringing with it magnificent joy and a splendor far greater than any man-made Temple could offer. Looking forward to that day, then, may we remember the word of life and the word of hope that God gives to us each and every day. Amen.

© 2009. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Hymn: “Lead On, O King Eternal”:

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