A Sleight of Heart

Mark 13:1-8


Magician Nate Staniforth displays a five-rupee coin
to a stranger on the streets of India.

Nate shows the five-rupee coin and
then closes his hand over it.

With a magical sleight of hand,
Nate maneuvers the coin within his fingers.

When he opens up his hand,
the coin is gone. It has vanished.

Ahmed, the stranger Nate met in the streets of India,
responds with a surprised mouth and widening eyes
as he experiences fear, doubt, and then pure joy.

The coin is gone!

Ahmed laughs. Putting his arm on Nate’s shoulder,
he keeps laughing. Ahmed’s wife is down the street;
could Nate show the vanishing coin to her, too?
And his brother was not far away;
could he see it, too? 1


“Look!” The disciples declare.

Marveling at the Temple, they gush,
“What large stones! What large buildings!”

Ooooo … what a gorgeous house of worship!

A surprising feat: the Temple’s retaining wall
consisted of stones forty feet long.
A sizeable feat: the Temple occupied a space
four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis.

Reportedly, so much gold covered the outside of the building
that anyone who looked at it risked blinding themselves.2

Under the safety of cloud cover,
the disciples feasted their eyes on this beauty!

There’s something satisfying about a well-built worship space,
whether it’s the cut of a stone or the curve of a pew.

Even today, famous and well-built churches
will draw visitors from around the globe.


There’s something about greatness that draws our gaze.

Therefore, what follows comes as a shock.
Jesus replies, “Do you see these great buildings?
Not one stone will be left here upon another.
All will be thrown down.”


Jesus replies, “Do you see these great buildings?”

Do you see?

It’s a startling question to ask
when the disciples have just said, Look!

Look! says one.
Do you see? asks the other.

Something has already been missed.
A sleight of hand has already occurred.
The disciples get stuck on the detailing of the stones.
The dazzling architecture draws them in;
they forget the Temple’s original purpose.

The purpose of a house of worship is to say:
Look! Look within. Look around.
There is a magnificent force that dwells in our world.
Don’t forget to drink in that holy energy.

Don’t forget …

Don’t get distracted by dexterity of the hands,
whether it be that of a builder or a magician.

Dexterity points to something else.

Magician Nate Staniforth explains that
a magic trick in and of itself is nothing.
You can’t look directly at a magic trick
or you get lost in the details of how it could happen.
Rather, you have to look through
the magical moment of surprise like a telescope.
That moment of magic reminds you of something you already know …
or maybe something you knew and forgot along the way.3

Staniforth says that well-done magic reminds us
that it’s okay not to have all the answers or all the information.
It brings us into direct contact with mystery,
with awe, with childlike delight.

Like the laugh of Ahmed in today’s opening story.

The magic trick isn’t the thing.
It points to the thing.

Our building and our rituals are not the thing.
They point to the thing, to the mystery which is God.
Like a telescope brings us into contact with the stars,
our holy spaces bring us into contact
with a God who wants to dwell within us.
A God who wants to graze our soul with a touch,
glimpse our heart, and encounter our being.

A sleight of hand occurs
as we ossify structures and systems.
In the story today, the disciples have just come
from inside their religious building
where they witness religious authorities
devouring widows’ houses and cheating the poor.

Enamored by their building,
the disciples miss out on the reality
of how those in their religious community
embodied their faith. It was like a magic trick
that says, “Look here! Look here!” as
the magician does something else behind their back.

Jesus tells them to notice the widow
who gave everything as she was cheated.
Jesus tells them to notice the religious leaders
Who cheated the widow of her housing.

In contrast, Jesus continues to bring us back to the questions:
How are you caring for the poor?
How are you treating one another?

In response to the leaders’ trick of displaying piety
and minimizing responsibility to one’s neighbors,
Jesus says it will all fall down.

There will be nothing left to idolize, Jesus is saying,
until there is only God. Only Love.
Love for neighbor. Love for self.

With dexterity, and a sleight of heart,
Jesus moves to open the door of our inward parts.

Asking us, What do you see?
Then coaxing us, Look closer. Look again.
To what does your own telescope point?

Empires are torn down. Tyrants fall. Systems die. God remains.

The genre of today’s passage is apocalyptic literature.
This genre conveys that one day things will look differently
than they look right now.
And we are invited to be part of the process
of living into the world that has yet to come.

Certainly, Harriet Tubman, nicknamed Moses,
did that as she led enslaved peoples to Freedom’s Land,
and the nation felt the birth pangs of a freed state for all people.
One did not know what or if it would come,
but Tubman kept her focus on Freedom’s Land,
which was at the core of her faith as a Black Christian.

The North Star led her forth.

In regard to our current state of racial unrest,
writer Adrienne Maree Brown says,
Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.
We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

In Greek, the word apocalypse means to uncover,
to peel away, to show what’s underneath.

This is what Jesus is doing.
To paraphrase Brown,
Jesus is saying to the disciples,
Things are getting uncovered.
Let’s hold each other tight and pull back the veil.

The gift Jesus gives us is one of a transformed gaze
where we can look beyond grandeur. And worldly illusion.

After all, God will not be domesticated.
The worship building is not the epicenter of God’s salvific work.
God is not bound by mortar and stone.

Use the telescopes you have, yes,
but always look for the star that will lead you to Freedom’s Land.
That star is Jesus,
even when Jesus makes us uncomfortable,
as we shift in our spot, wishing we could cling to permanence.

Certainly, I want to cling to permanence.
It makes me feel safe.
Yet, the journey of faith and life
will include rubble, ruin, and failure.

And while that may be disheartening,
the gift that it gives us is truth.
Truth can never be shaken or destroyed.
And that truth leads us to freedom and love.

Let us pray to be free of everything
that keeps from that center,
centered on the star that is Jesus
leading us to Freedom’s Land.

Oh, freedom!

Let’s hold each other tight and pull back the veil.

This is what Jesus does as he sits on the Mount of Olives
looking at his building of worship.

Jesus’ steadfast love will remain in the days and hours to come
as he is arrested and tried, and the evils of violence, self-delusion,
and self-absorption are laid bare for the whole world to see.

You who bristle with defensiveness
and uncontrolled vitriol:
Do you see Jesus’ defenselessness?

And what endured? What endures?

Truth. And love.

Love endures even through
a state-sanctioned killing of an innocent man.

Even then Jesus’ words remain:
Do you see?

See as God sees. God is near.
You are near to God’s heart.
Draw near, for you move God’s heart.
It is the steadfast love of God that empowers us to endure.
For Love remains even as the world is shaken.

Watch for life-saving love.
Be life-saving love.
Receive life-saving love.

Our teacher-rabbi-savior Jesus says,
What’s happening is not a death but a birth.

He’s not telling us to look far into the future,
but to be present to what is right before us today.

This is the beginning of the birth pangs, Jesus says.

In other words, the end, an ending is always around.
What you might not be aware of, if you don’t watch,
is God’s beginning.

Yes, there is an end going on right now.
Don’t be concerned with the day or hour of that ending.

Watch! Ask yourself:
Where are the beginnings afoot?

We miss small, invisible beginnings
when we focus on loud, cataclysmic endings.

What God offers is much quieter than that;
what God offers is a sleight of heart, a dexterity of soul,
that surprises us on a starlit night
and whispers to us:
My dear, my great love, I have always been here.
I have simply been waiting for you to come.


1. This story comes from Nate Staniforth’s book Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World.
2. This description of the Temple comes from this Journey with Jesus commentary by Debie Thomas: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2010-not-one-stone .
3. This paraphrase comes from Nate Staniforth’s book Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World.

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