November 18, 2013

New Structures From Old Stones


Text: Luke 21:8: “...the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Last week we spoke a little about the Temple. We were speaking, just to remind you, of the rebuilding of the Temple—after Solomon’s temple had been destroyed. And we talked about how to the Jewish people the Temple was more than a building and even more than a church; it was part of what Jewish identity was about, the place God had chosen as a place in which to dwell among the people chosen to be God’s own.

Last week’s setting was just before the rebuilding of the Temple—five hundred years or so before the little scene we heard this morning from Luke’s gospel. The Second Temple, the temple that Haggai was encouraging his people to build, is now an ancient building, one revered by the Jews of Jesus’s day. It was a place to which everyone tried to return at least once a year, at the time of the great pilgrimage festival. It was a place that still stood despite everything that had gone wrong for the Jewish people—and that was a lot.

Despite being reduced to occupation and oppression, despite being kept under the rule of Rome, despite the humiliations of their lives, the Temple stood for the special place of the Jewish people in God’s plan for the world. The Temple gave them hope that someday they would be vindicated. The Temple was the place to which the all the nations of the Earth would eventually come. The Temple was the place where the God who had chosen and claimed them for a unique place in the cosmos would finally bring them to their right place in the order of things.

To say it in different words, the Temple was a beloved place. It was not just a symbol, but a source of the identity Jewish people shared. About fifty years before the scene we have before us today of Jesus and his disciples talking about the Temple, Herod—the leader of the Jewish people under Roman rule—had launched an extensive renovation of the entire complex, in an effort to shore up Jewish identity in the midst of an oppressor. And if you think your kitchen project was a mess, just remember that renovation took forty-six years.

And this is the place that Jesus says is going to be reduced to rubble, laid to waste. This place, this most precious place, this most sacred place, Jesus is saying will be destroyed. How can he say this? Doesn’t he care about what the place means? How could a place that has withstood every insult, every assault; a place that has held our hopes and dreams for five hundred years—how could it be destroyed without destroying us?

New Testament scholars have taught for many years now that these words of Luke’s were actually written some years after the Temple was in fact destroyed by the Romans in response to an uprising of the Jewish people. We cannot know whether they were actually uttered by Jesus, or alternatively put in his mouth by an author who had it in view to make a later generation of believers understand that Jesus had foreseen this outcome.

It is an interesting academic question, but for our purposes it has limited merit. The simple fact is that these words are given to us by Jesus, and we are meant to understand something from them.

I have been around this temple of ours for a lot of my life, almost three-fifths of it. It is a solid, steady, strong fortress, a place to protect my weakness and guard my prayers.

It is a place in which I have met saints who challenged and changed for the better my feeble understanding of what Christian discipleship really means. Many of those folks have gone on from this place borne on the shoulders of our prayers, and many of them are sitting right here, pretty much where they sit every Sunday. To this temple I have brought my joys and my sorrows to the altar to be somehow consecrated, my deepest fears and my highest hopes—just like you.

In fact the stones this place is built from were a gift, from a man named Charles Leonard, who owned the quarry they came from. Others gave the windows and the seats and the windows and the altar and even this pulpit and there are names upon names upon names of people who gave the beautiful windows and the paraments and everything else. There are many, many people memorialized here, with their names on brass plaques or in the memorial book.

And yet we should not think the words Jesus spoke of the Temple are any the less true of our Temple.  The day will come, the day will come, when not one of these stones is left on another, when it will all be thrown down. You can almost imagine Jesus and his little band of friends walking down Lowell Avenue on their way to Starbucks and saying the same thing, “speaking about the temple, how it is adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.”

I don’t mean by that to predict doom and gloom. I am simply stating a fact that Jesus would not want us to shrink from. In this little story from Luke Jesus isn’t so much speaking against a beloved building as he is being a prophet of entropy. Everything built by human hands eventually falls into rot and ruin.

Plenty of temples have met the same fate as the Second Temple in Jerusalem. If you ever visit the city of Bath, England, you are visiting a city that was built as a temple site built by the Celts and then adopted by the Romans at about the same time they were destroying the temple in Jerusalem. But if you go there today, you will find pieces of the temple complex, sometimes carved with inscriptions, used as stones in walls around the city.

Everything we build comes to the same end.

Disciples have to know this. More than that, we have to internalize it. The world teaches us to build things with the hope of making them permanent. But our Lord teaches us that nothing is permanent; that we are better off holding on to the things of this world lightly, the better to be ready to let them go when they are either in our way or no longer useful.

It’s not that we shouldn’t build; of course we must build. It’s not that we should maintain and preserve what we build; of course we should. It’s that our faith needs to be kept where it belongs, in God and not in stones.

In the world of the church, we attach a great deal of sentiment to things. I readily confess that I may be even more susceptible to this tendency than the average person. I have a capacious memory for where beloved members of this community sat, or of things that have happened in this space, of baptisms and funerals and weddings and even, when we still did them, confirmations and ordinations in this church.

But the story we have before us today reminds us of something incredibly important and well worth pondering. The Christian Scriptures are entirely unsentimental. There is no room for nostalgia in the New Testament. Jesus’s seeming indifference to the accumulated hopes and memories of five centuries of the center of Jewish life is a pretty clear message about that.

We are meant to be radically focused on our purpose, not on our premises. We are meant to make new structures from old stones when the old structures no longer serve God’s purposes.

Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, spoke the need for Christians to live with “one foot in the air”—not too planted in one place, not too stuck to one position, but nimble, ready to move toward new challenges, new needs, new calls to ministry.

That’s a way of being that takes real discipline, because of course our tendency is to do exactly the opposite—to set down roots, to build and preserve. But Jesus saw that the stones of that old temple were not just going to fall, but that they had to fall—in order to make way for what was coming. God does not need a temple to be a living presence among the faithful; the Holy Spirit has seen to that. God needs a community, a place where the transforming love of Christ can be lived out and made real and extended to wider and wider circles of people.

Now, don’t get me wrong. These stones are going nowhere for a long, long time. This is our shelter, our sacred space, our home. Yesterday a great cloud of workers swarmed the place fixing it up and taking care of it, and that is exactly as it should be.

But it is only a temporary home. It is only a tabernacle where God has set up camp with us, and when God is ready to move us on to new ministries and new challenges we had better be ready to move, too.

And if tomorrow the earthquake or the typhoon or the fire or the tornado came and laid all the stones back on the ground, the building might be gone but the church would still endure—so long as we keep breaking bread together, so long as we still keep covenant with each other, so long as we still gather to seek out and celebrate the presence of God in our lives and share that joy with everyone.  Amen.