November 14, 2021: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Mary Lee Wile
Nov. 14, 2021 The Rev. Mary Lee Wile
What an interesting gospel lesson for this, our first Sunday back inside St. Paul’s. We hear how one of Jesus’ disciples is awed by the impressive size of the temple in Jerusalem – “Wow! Look at that!” he says – just as we might be thinking, “Wow, look at how beautiful this place is!”
“Look those huge stones!” the disciple says.
“Look at the slant of light through our stained-glass windows!” I muse.
A lot of commentators refer to the opulence of the temple, assuming that in his cautionary response to the disciple, Jesus is seeking to negate the disciple’s attachment to size and grandeur, but as I think about our return to indoor worship, I wonder if the disciple might also be responding to the psalmist’s injunction to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” The temple, like our sanctuary, was designed to be a holy place, a beautiful space in which to worship God. It was their spiritual home, just as St. Paul’s is ours.
For me, ever since I was a little girl, the Episcopal Church has been not only a place to worship, but “home.” I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but my very first auditory memory is of lying on a wooden pew when I was maybe two and a half or three years old, letting the words of the liturgy wash over me. I’m one of those odd ducks who never stopped going to church even in college. And for the last 30 years or so, after the house my grandmother grew up in and the house of my childhood were both sold, I realized that what most resonated as the “where are you from” kind of “home” had become the Episcopal Church. When traveling, I always look for “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” signs the way I used to look for highway turnoffs to Ware, Massachusetts or Demarest, New Jersey, signs that point me home. So I admit to finding it a source of real grief to have been exiled for so long.
And yet, even though I think I’ve known this all along, the ongoing pandemic provided a stark reminder that the Church is actually far more than any beloved building, however sacred and beautiful it may be. For example, as our Presiding Bishop says, learning to worship online “wasn’t always pretty, but we did it…and then realized….no longer centered on establishment, no longer fixated on preserving institutions… by God’s grace we are becoming a church that looks and acts, and maybe better yet, loves like Jesus.” Being exiled may have made us better Christians.
So, while on the one hand, I want to say that it is absolutely worth celebrating that we are here! we are home! — I also hear Jesus say, “Don’t get too attached. None of this is permanent.”
I don’t like to hear that – and yet it’s an important reminder to acknowledge and celebrate that those of you at home can continue to worship with us online. We have learned through these long months that even if a random microburst were to “throw down” this sturdy structure, we are still the people of St. Paul’s; we are still the Church.
I would hate it, but it would not be the end of our story. After all, the second half of today’s gospel reading has Jesus telling the disciples that a lot of bad and destructive events will transpire besidesthe destruction of the temple, but they do not signal the end of things: “the end is still to come.” I rather love the way poet and pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes describes this:
[Jesus] is not foretelling the future:
He’s saying what he sees. It’s what I see.
Things will get worse. Worlds may end.
But this is not the final act.
The final act is the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, and that time is known to God alone. Jesus warns his disciples against assuming the permanence of the temple or trying to predict signs of the end times, making clear that wars and famines and earthquakes and (he’d probably now add) pandemics and political upheaval will — like the poor — always be with us. In other words, don’t get too caught up in the daily news cycle. Even though this moment may feel apocalyptic, even though things may indeed get worse, as followers of Jesus, we are called to respond with love, not with fear or fury or despair or simply by going numb. Jesus offers an alternative response when disaster strikes: get to work. Throughout the gospels, he invites us to follow his example of caring for the wounded, the marginalized, the dispossessed, the homeless, the lonely. The most important tasks he gives us, after all, are to love God, and to love our neighbors. Many of you here and at home are already deeply engaged in such work through prayer and action. By choosing to live this way, this way of love, rather than lashing out or hunkering down to escape whatever onslaught we fear, we free ourselves to live in the peace and the hope of Christ.
The one true Christ, that is.
Besides making very clear that we are not to be bamboozled by those who insist they know the end times, Jesus also warns his disciples about imposters who are presented as the new Messiah. “They will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” I’m reminded of the billboard that appeared in Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia this fall; it had an enormous image of our previous president standing next to the flag, and the words from Scripture: “Unto us a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulders.” Enough people recognized it as exactly the sort of dangerous blasphemy that Jesus warned against that the billboard was quickly taken down. As one commentator said, “Only Jesus is Jesus,” and only imposters will preach alluring messages of fear, resentment, or hatred. In the midst of systemic evil and brokenness, still and always Christians are called to love, and to serve.
So, I’ll admit that the gospel reading today sounds more than a little scary, and yet behind it is much hope. We can worship God wherever we are – and, for now, we can rejoice that it is here in this beautiful, sacred space. And Jesus reassures us that whatever happens in this world, whatever happens in our lifetime, God’s reign is still coming, and all our efforts at kindness and caring will help to usher it in. It’s not our task to figure out when this will occur, but to know that until and beyond then, we are loved absolutely – remember Jesus’ promise to be with us till the close of the age.
And it’s worth rejoicing that we have each other here in this community of St. Paul’s: a beloved community, a family knit together by shared worship, shared hope, shared love. We are far more than any physical structure, however attached I might be to the building. There’s so much we can’t know, but we can know this: Wherever we are, whatever happens, we belong to Christ and to one another.