Sunday November 17, 2013 at West Parish of Barnstable, United Church of Christ
The 1717 meeting house of West Parish in Barnstable (can you see the green tarp on the roof?)
Luke 21:5-19 // When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.
We were trying to be reverential. Heads were bowed, hands were clasped in prayer. But somewhere, deep in the background you could hear the light clink of glass hitting glass and the hum of a far off a vacuum cleaner. With our eyes set on the floor below us, I could see a little bit of glitter from the night before still sticking to the shiny, waxed floor. It’s not always easy to be reverential when your trying to have a Sunday morning worship service in a banquet hall. But that’s where Grace Church of the Southern Berkshires met for worship after the wall of their church fell in. Let us pray…
It is not lost on me, and I suspect not on you either, that we’re studying a text about buildings falling down while sitting under the green tarp over your roof in the oldest congregational meeting house still in use today. For the record, I didn’t pick this text! This lesson from Luke is assigned today in the Revised Common Lectionary, the series of Scripture readings that move over a 3 year cycle. By following the Revised Common Lectionary today, we are hearing the same text that many other Christians around the world are studying as well. We are also approaching the end of the church year, and the beginning of Advent. During this time, the Scripture readings get darker, more foreboding. They talk of the end times. They talk of the trials and tribulations to come for Jesus’ followers. As the days get shorter and the light fades for us in the Northern hemisphere, the readings also turn darker as we wait for the light of Christ to enter the world.
Luke tells of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem. This story is set on around maybe Tuesday of Holy Week- Jesus has already entered the city on a donkey, is still teaching and preaching while the leaders look for a way to arrest him. The days of his trial and crucifixion are coming soon. Jesus is giving some final instruction to his followers about what the days ahead will be like.
The people around Jesus are talking about the beauty and impressiveness of the Temple- “adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.” Jesus sees a teaching opportunity. Jesus says in verse 6, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” We are not just talking about a few stones tumbling too the ground, but every, single stone. When the Gospel of Mark tells this story, the disciples exclaim “What large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1) The historian Paula Fredriksen notes that the outer court of the Temple could hold 400,000 people. The Temple is massive. The Temple was impressive, grand, an evocative place to worship and remember the sovereignty of God. Standing in that court, Jesus said “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
The parishioners of Grace Church in Southern Berkshires saw the stones of their house of worship thrown down. Grace Church is actually a merger of two congregations, St. James Episcopal Church of Great Barrington and St. George Episcopal Church of Lee. They’ve had done the hard work of joining into one parish. But before they merged, on July 31, 2008, the rear wall of St. James collapsed. The stones fell onto the priest’s car, a priest that had just arrived at the church 8 months earlier. St. James was founded in 1762 by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, back when western MA was considered a foreign land. It was the oldest church in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and they were proud of those stones laid down in 1857. Those stones that soaked in the prayers of the faithful since before the Civil War; stones that withstood snowstorm after snowstorm; stones that stood long enough to see the same people baptized and buried and their children baptized and buried; stones that had been held together by the mortar of a faithful community- those blue lime stones came tumbling to the ground. After the stones came down, there was a hole you could see straight through in the back of the church.
When Jesus tells the people that the stones of the Temple will come tumbling down, they get nervous. I have sympathy for these people. Jesus speaks of massive upheaval, even more massive than the falling down of a single limestone church. Jesus tells of earthquakes, famines, plagues, arrests and persecution. Jesus tells of the Temple falling, the tearing down of the thing that’s supposed to represent the most stability in their lives. The Temple was the dwelling place of God for a people who had been in exile in a foreign land. The Temple was stable, holy, massive. And now Jesus says it’s all coming down? The people want answers. They want a timeline. They want a meeting with the architect. And probably the buildings and grounds committee and definitely the town historic buildings commission. They want to attend to deferred maintenance. In Verse 7, they asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” They ask, Jesus, could you give us some advanced warning? Could we put up some scaffolding and make some repairs to hold this off a bit longer? Could we prop it up with beams until we can complete our capital campaign? Could we cover it over with a tarp?
Worship at Grace Church in the banquet hall
After the stones came down at St. James, things chaotic and utterly predictable began to happen: the town inspector declared the church uninhabitable, which made sense given that there was a giant hole in the wall. All the non-profits and twelve-step groups and community organizations that had been meeting in the church scattered. When a few parishioners finally snuck back in a month later, the brown paper bagged sandwiches were still on the parish hall tables from the community youth theatre group. In the months that followed, they worshiped in a conference room of a local hospital. They considered offers from neighboring UCC congregations to share space. They moved around, packing up the communion ware each Sunday and storing it in the trunks of parishioner’s cars. In the end, they ended up selling the building, and renting space in a banquet hall, which is where I ended up guest preaching 5 years after the wall fell in. Jesus said to those gathered with him at the Temple in Jerusalem, “this will give you an opportunity to testify.”
But we are unprepared, the disciples wail! We are so used to thinking our preparedness will save us. I am supremely guilty of this myself- that foreboding sense that if I just read more, just study more, just research more, I’ll be ready for whatever comes in our unstable world. But our devotion to preparedness is a bit of a national mania in a country that gives us such television shows like Doomsday Preppers about those stockpiling for the end of the world, and shows like Extreme Couponing about those stockpiling toilet paper ,10 for a dollar. Do you remember the push to prepare for Y2K? As Americans, we think preparedness is an ultimate virtue. Shoot, in America, 75% of people wrongly believe the Bible says that “God helps those who help themselves.” . And no doubt, some preparation is good and life saving. You who live near the chaos of the ocean know better than any that listening to the warnings to evacuate during a storm can save lives. But I think in this, Jesus is pressing on something different, not our practical preparedness but our ultimate trust.
When I read this passage for the first time this week in our weekly small staff bible study, I honestly felt like I had never heard Luke 21:14 before in my life. Ever. I have no recollection of this line of scripture. It is so thoroughly and totally countercultural. Here is Jesus, talking about the unfathomable that the giant stones of the Temple will fall even as he points to the destruction and rejection of his own body. After talking about all the hardships that are to come for Jesus’ followers, Jesus says “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.” Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. And it’s even more strongly put in the original Greek. In the Greek, the verb is an imperative: “Put it in your hearts not to prepare your defense.” It’s a command. How can Jesus make such demands on a scared people who may just be losing everything that gave them stability and security? In verse 15 Jesus promises, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Jesus invites those who can hear him, don’t anchor your faith in these stones, but in the one who rolls away the stone.
Three weeks ago I got to preside at communion touching the pewter that our forbearers used in 1863. To the young child and her grandmother coming forward for communion, I got to offer the very same cup of the new and everlasting life that was offered to generations before them. I love our traditions, too.
But clinging to our pewter and our roofs and our flood insurance and our 1857 Gothic stone churches as if they are God will not save us. Yale Prof & theologian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote in his 1984 book The Vindication of Tradition: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”
This is your opportunity to testify; I’ll give you the words and wisdom. In Luke, Jesus isn’t saying, “look for the silver lining when the stones come down.” It’s not a glib faith that looks for the good when everything around you fails. Jesus isn’t that smug. But he does say: “this is your opportunity to testify.” To say and live what you really believe, deep down. To practice that our faith is not in our buildings, but in our God.
You know this. It is built into the DNA of this congregation. Your ancestors did not sit in jail in London for the freedom to build a new building. Your ancestors didn’t sit in jail, didn’t labor across the ocean, didn’t survive New England winters in order to have a pretty building. The buildings were the tool for, not the same thing as, the worship of God. Our buildings are important, sometimes even critical for ministry, but they are not the same thing as the faithfulness that Jesus invites us to.
After the stones came down at St. James, something new was unearthed outside the walls of the old gothic church. At Advent that year, some church members went down to a local organic farm to make Advent wreaths with the Sunday School kids- which they had to do at a farm since they no longer had an inhabitable church. One of the children said, “wouldn’t it be great if we had a farm to feed hungry people?” And they started to imagine. Gideon’s Garden started out as 1/3 of an acre of donated land on that organic farm. First it was just the church children growing a little bit of food for fun. Now it’s the Sunday School kids, local kids who come afterschool, a summer program with teen mentors and now the children of the migrant farm workers.
When I visited in September to guest preach, they had expanded the farm to 3 acres, with all of the food grown by the children going to the local WIC program and food pantries. There are more people connecting with the church through this garden than ever came through the stone arches of the sanctuary. When the stones came down, Jesus said “Thiswill give you an opportunity to testify.”
I don’t know what’s ahead for our country, or our church, or your roof, or for any of us tomorrow. All I have is this strange promise from Jesus inviting us to relax a bit, to stop our frantic preparations, to “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I will give you words and wisdom.” I think that is the promise that our forbearers in the faith clung to as well. May this promise be the rock to which you cling through the storms ahead. Amen.