A Sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 28 – Year B – 18 November 2012
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, 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.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 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 birthpangs.”
For some reason, we are a culture that loves symbols – symbols of power and might, symbols of prestige and accomplishment, symbols of remembrance, religious symbols, even symbols of love. But what happens when the symbol disappears? Does the underlying reason for its existence disappear, too?
About 15 years ago, my mother lost one of her rings. It was her mother’s, or my grandmother’s wedding band and my mother loved it and wore it constantly. It had apparently slipped off her finger while she was gardening. She called the whole family together to help her look for that ring which finally did make a reappearance – but quite by accident several years later. My mother grieved over the loss of that ring almost as much as she did when her mother died. The ring itself was a simple gold band but it represented a strong connection that she felt to her mother that seemed to have become broken when the ring was lost.
About 7 years ago I did an internship at a church here in town. As you might imagine, I paid close attention to what the rector did there as I was forming my own sense of what it means to be a priest. One thing that struck me as curious was that he would always kiss his stole before he put it over his vestments. It seemed too personal a gesture for me to question him about what he was doing, but when I think back on it, I realize that the stole represented a strong connection to something deep and meaningful to him. Without that symbol, would his idea of what it means to be a priest be different?
On September 11, 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed as a result of a terrorist attack. As we remember all too well, it was shocking and stunning to our entire country not only that we would be attacked so brutally, but that so many innocent lives were lost. Whether we realized it then or not, those buildings were symbols – symbols of everything that terrorist organizations resented about America. The terrorists must have thought that destroying those symbols would destroy our collective spirit – but how incredibly wrong they were.
In this morning’s gospel reading, we heard Jesus warning his disciples about the awful things that might take place during their life time, one of which was the destruction of the Temple. As the disciples heard this, they must have looked around in disbelief that such a magnificent structure and everything it symbolized to them could be destroyed.
Why would Jesus have said such a thing? Well, it was actually apocalyptic, a glimpse of the end times and similar to what is found in the entire book of Revelation. It contains predictions of political unrest, natural disasters, and persecutions that Jews and early Christians believed would usher in the kingdom of God. It describes the end of one age and the beginning of a new one. Contained within all apocalyptic predictions, however, are seeds of hope – although they may be hard to find. And these seeds are most often the only things left when the symbol itself is destroyed.
It took 7 years to build the first temple in Jerusalem and it happened during the time that Solomon was king. The temple was literally an attachment to Solomon’s palace and was understood to be a royal chapel with the king serving as high priest. In the minds of the Israelites it was a place where the traditions of God’s saving grace were remembered and celebrated. It was also thought of as God’s dwelling place where God’s presence was mediated through priest and sacrifice. (A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, Birch, Brueggemann, Fretheim and Peterson, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999, 248-249).
That first temple survived for 500 years but then was destroyed when the Babylonians overran Jerusalem and sent the Israelites into exile. Their overriding fear was that If God’s dwelling place was destroyed, where would God be, then? They literally had to rethink what the Temple symbolized for them; and unfortunately, they had plenty of time to do that. Once the Israelites returned to Jerusalem, the temple was rebuilt and a renaissance of worship took place in which the Temple was thought of more as a house a prayer, than a connection to the royal seat of power. The rebuilding was an expression of those seeds of hope that the Israelites still felt, despite what they believed to be God’s judgment against them in letting Jerusalem fall and in the disruption and despair of their subsequent exile.
The temple was an outward and visible symbol of the desire of the leaders and people to put God first. It became the center of devotion and worship for the Jewish people for the next 500 years. And that brings us to the time when Jesus lived.
In his day, Jesus saw the temple as having become corrupt and he compared it to a fig tree that gives every appearance of health but yet bears no fruit (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21). He no longer saw the temple as the house of prayer that it was intended to be when it was rebuilt. It had become a house of slaughtered animals and a mecca for merchants. He predicted its demise which seemed unbelievable to all who heard him; but what was even more unbelievable was that he predicted it would be rebuilt without the use of human hands – without bricks and mortar. What kind of temple would that be? (Mark 14:58).
My guess is that those who heard Jesus had no more understanding of what he meant than our own St. Mary’s children did when 6 or so years ago our then Suffragan Bishop, Bishop Jones spoke to them. He very innocently asked the children gathered around him where St. Mary’s church was. Thinking literally, as children do, they didn’t know how to answer him. They saw him standing right in the middle of our beautiful worship space and couldn’t imagine that he didn’t know where he was – as if he was somehow lost and asking them, the children, for directions. So, Bishop Jones raised his hands toward the ceiling and said: “Is this building St. Mary’s church?” And all the children immediately said “YES!” And Bishop Jones shook his head and said “No, it’s not!” The children were still confused by his answer. Finally he opened his arms as if to embrace them and said “You are St. Mary’s church!”
If his message was lost on the children, it certainly wasn’t lost on me. These structures that make up the “campus” of St. Mary’s are beautiful. In fact they are so beautiful that people who don’t even belong here yet who have spotted pictures of our buildings on the internet or passed them by on River Road want to be married and photographed here. Without these buildings, though, would we still be St. Mary’s church? Of course we would. We don’t come here to worship these buildings or any symbol that is contained in them although that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy being in this space or that the symbols that are in here don’t inspire worship. We come together as a community to worship God together, to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit as we laugh together and cry together and to be the support that we need to be to each other in both Inreach and Outreach.
What Jesus was trying to teach his disciples about the temple and what Bishop Jones was trying to teach our children is that we are the church. Our buildings may be graceful and elegant but more importantly, they are only a reflection of the spirit of this community. Our churchyard symbolizes our past – the saints who have gone before us. We are the present and our children are the future. The bricks and mortar certainly provide space for worship and protect us from the outside but they could never contain the hopes and dreams we have for ourselves or for our children which make up the fabric of our community here. No symbol, no matter how beautiful, could ever do that. Nor would we want it to.