“What large stones and what large buildings?” If you have ever been to the Holy Land, you know just how big those stones really are. I have a picture of me standing in front of a Herodian block of stone, far, far taller than I. Of course, that doesn’t take much effort in my case, but still. Massive. Impressive. No wonder the disciples were agog and amazed. I certainly was. And suddenly, this story made sense. Suddenly, I completely understood the astonishment of the disciples. The impetus for awe is typically justified — and on many levels.
“What large stones?” There’s a sermon right there. We love bold. We love big. We love better. That’s the human motto, in every form, it seems. The bigger, the better. The disciples are no different than we are and we are no different than the disciples back then. While we tend to trust in our two-thousand-plus-years insightfulness or insist that the disciples are less than insightful, Jesus calls out the truth of our humanity — both for his past and for present disciples. Regardless of time, regardless of proximity to Jesus, regardless of so-called illumination, disciples across the age are attracted to splendor and grandeur. We are drawn to the biggest and the best. The most influential. The most powerful. The most anything. We love superlatives. Lest we think we are any more knowledgeable than Jesus’ first disciples, we are not. We only know different attractions, manifestations, and incarnations of magnificence, especially when it comes to what it means to be a Christian.
Membership numbers, programs, innovation. Stewardship campaigns, “transformative” preaching, Christmas pageants. Christian education, moving worship, building projects — there is no end to what large stones we seek to erect. Our large stones are meant to draw the attention and wonder of onlookers. Our large stones are put in place to attract potential members. Our large stones are even constructed so as to secure the dedication and continued wonder of our own flock. Our faith, our religious life, our churches are not free from the want for prestige, for desire of greatness and grandness, for a yearning for a majesty beyond comparison. In fact, when it comes to faith and how we do church the penchant for better is frequently even worse. Why is that? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it a belief that church is really just one big competition? Is it a sense that God really doesn’t mean what God says? That God doesn’t really keep God’s promises?
On the brink of his own arrest and death — I know, weird here and now but where we are in Mark — Jesus’ lesson, to his disciples, to us, is critical. As Jesus’ ministry comes to a close in Mark, it will be all too easy to fall back into a kind of mode of expectation that seeks to compare Jesus’ kingdom with those of this world. As we look toward to the end of the church year and Reign of Christ Sunday, it is easy to be convinced that bigger and better are marks of God’s church. As we get settled into our fall program schedules, it is easy to disregard that God’s criteria for success in ministry is not bigger and better but faithfulness. That what God cares about is not the “blank-est,” but our best — and there’s a difference between those two.
“What large stones?” is something we are quick to notice but we are not as quick to ask what stands behind the perceived greatness. There is always a backstory of which we are not privy. We cannot tell from the outside the story the lies on the inside. We cannot see in first impressions what has made possible the result or the efforts to get there. We cannot know what it took to make our amazement possible.
In part, Jesus is asking us to ask what’s been overlooked in the past for the sake of what is viewed in the present. And, usually such large stones do not come without a significant price. That which and those whom we prop up, admire, wish to be, or envy, have particular reasons and rationales for being what and who they are. If we knew the truth about how the greatness came to be? Well, we may not like what we hear. We may start to realize that such greatness is not worth the overhead. And we may begin to understand that another’s striving for greatness has come at the expense of others, and perhaps the cost of one’s very self.
“What large stones” is a phrase never without sacrifice, either the sacrifice of others or the sacrifice of who you intended to be, wanted to be, and thought you could be. Sometimes this sacrifice is positive, but we can never think that the greatness of another is achievable on our terms. Our tendency is to see this greatness and think we could have done better, rather than inquire about how the greatness came to be. Sometimes this sacrifice is negative, because the allure of grandeur then throws all others under the proverbial bus or the grandeur itself takes over the soul.
In the end, “what larges stones” is itself a statement of faith and it’s a statement of faith that Jesus asks us to reconsider.