November 18, 2018 – The 26th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
Last night’s Celebration of a New Ministry was pretty special. We gathered to celebrate what God is doing in this unfolding chapter in our life together. Everyone worked hard to make it a beautiful night. The Bishop was here. Our friend Clint Schnekloth preached. The music was outstanding. The flowers were gorgeous. The reception afterwards was over-the-top. The evening contained all of the pomp we would expect from an occasion that revels in all things Episcopalia. It felt like everyone left last night with the same thing on their mind: this is a great time in the life of St. Paul’s. And now Jesus shows up this morning and says, “You see all of these wonderful things? Pretty soon, everything will be torn down; not one brick will be left on top of another.”
What’s wrong with Jesus? Why is he in such a bad mood? Why does he feel the need to throw cold water on the whole thing? Normally, Jesus isn’t this grumpy. He’s no stick in the mud. He likes to eat dinner and drink wine with some of the most notorious sinners of his day. Some suggest that Jesus had a problem with the temple itself—that he envisioned his own ministry as a rejection of the old covenant and the temple—but the gospel doesn’t bear that out. As today’s gospel lesson opens, Jesus is on his way out of the temple, where he had gone for worship. This is the place where Jesus had worshiped for his whole life. Borrowing from Luke’s account, it is where Jesus’ earthly parents found the young Jesus—in his Father’s house. No, Jesus’ problem isn’t with the temple or with our own beautiful place of worship. His problem is with us.
We love a pretty building. We enter a sacred space like ours and feel the presence of God. During the week, I get great joy when I walk into the nave and see someone I don’t know, kneeling in a pew, dwelling in the company of the divine. That is one gift our church gives to the community. And there’s nothing wrong with that. God is beautiful, and beautiful things bring us closer to God. We are a sacramental people who believe that God meets us in the physical world in ways we can see and touch and taste and smell. The problem isn’t the things themselves. The problem is how easily we substitute them for God: our holy buildings for the Holy One, our beautiful services for a beautiful relationship with God and with our neighbor, and our pursuit of tradition for the pursuit of our Creator.
How much easier it is to worship the gods we can see than the God who is beyond our sight! How much more comfortable we are encountering God in a sacred space like this than finding him on the edge of life, under a bridge, out in a tent village, on a dark street corner, where we might get dirty or even hurt! How much more enticing is the prophet who comes and tells us that God wants us to be happy, comfortable, and prosperous than the one who reminds us that following Jesus will cost us everything! But Jesus reminds his disciples and us that things will not be easy: “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.” “Do not be alarmed,” he tells us, “for these things must take place. They are the beginning of the birthpangs.”
When they were leaving the temple, in the same way that any of us might if we were standing in Jerusalem or Rome or Oxford, one of the disciples said to Jesus, “What impressive structures and beautiful architecture!” Jesus’ response to the marveling disciple wasn’t a criticism but a reality check: “Do you see these buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” It’s as if Jesus is asking us, “In what are you placing your trust? Where are you investing your hope? If you’re counting on these stones to save you, you’re in trouble.”
We live in a time of great change. The place of religion in society is undergoing a dramatic transformation. A generation ago, Sundays were reserved for worship and family time. In the town where I grew up, if you skipped church, you didn’t dare show your face anywhere until the afternoon so no one would know. Now, a late-morning brunch has taken the place of worship as the place to see and be seen. Back then, a coach who scheduled a team practice on a Sunday afternoon risked being run out of town as an ungodly taskmaster who worshiped the idol of team sports. Now, parents who insist that their children excel at everything will travel with their young athletes to far-flung places every weekend. I don’t blame them. I love Sunday-morning brunch, and I enjoy seeing my children do well on the sports field. The stones upon which our religion is built have begun to crack under the weight of the institution itself. But the problem isn’t the stones; it’s us.
Where are we putting our hope? Can we trust that the power of God to transform this world into the place God that dreams it can be depends not on our beautiful buildings or on our beloved prayer book or on The Episcopal Church itself but only on God? What happens here on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights and occasionally on Saturday nights, too, is really special. And we’re not going to get rid of any of it anytime soon. St. Paul’s is a growing church, but we’re not growing because of what happens within these walls. We’ve had good preaching, excellent music, and fabulous worship for a long time. We’re growing not because we’re a beautiful church but because we’re a congregation that cares more about what happens out in the world than what happens in here.
If we want to see the reign of God, we must look past the buildings and programs and traditions that we love so much. I don’t think we need to tear them down and throw them out, but we need to remember that one day they will all come crashing down—and still God’s reign will come. If we want to experience the fullness of God’s presence among us, we must let go of our attachment to the institutions we love and trust that, no matter what, God’s reign will come. If we want to be a church that exists only for its own survival, we might as well put up a for sale sign in front of our doors. But, if we are willing to be a congregation that exists solely in order to be an agent for the work God is doing in the world around us, we might not know what the future will look like, but we can count on being a part of something amazing.