Sermon: 26th Sunday after Pentecost

November 17, 2013

Sometimes a story’s setting is incidental; sometimes it makes all the difference. for today’s Gospel reading. The 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” could have been set in any household in the United States, and it would still be the same story of families struggling with race, romance, letting go. But if you take a movie like last year’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” out of its context, there’s no story left. Everything hinges on its being set in a retirement home in India.

Today’s Gospel reading is one in which the setting is vital. We must be able to see the beautiful temple in Jerusalem where Jesus and his disciples are gathered. We must understand that this temple was a replacement for the one King Solomon built which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. This second temple was completed about 515 BC, so by the time today’s story takes place, it was already twice as old as our entire nation. It was built of stone and lavishly decorated. A Roman historian named Josephus reports that “the exterior of the structure lacked nothing that could astound either mind or eye.”

This impressive building had survived for centuries, and Jesus’ disciples experienced it as the center of the world. People went there every single day to transact business, to worship, to settle lawsuits, and in every way experience life. The temple was IT. Looking at the fantastic temple built out of hewn stones—some of which were 60 ft. long and 7 ft. high!—the disciples could not imagine its annihilation. But there in its shadow Jesus announces to his followers that it will be destroyed—not one stone left on another. Their most cherished, solid reality will crumble until there is nothing left. All that they consider sacred will be destroyed. The holiest of holies will crumble.

But that is not the only setting we need to consider when we look at today’s text. There is a second layer in Luke’s story. The disciples are disbelieving, but Luke’s listeners, for whom this Gospel was originally written, would have nodded soberly. For them this was not a prediction of a future calamity, but a history lesson. They knew about the destruction of what seemed indestructible. They had witnessed that marvelous stone temple and the rest of the city of Jerusalem demolished by the Roman army. They were haunted by the events, just as we continue to be haunted by images of the Twin Towers crumbling in New York City. Luke’s Gospel was probably written about 80 years after Jesus was crucified, a decade after the Roman army sacked the city of Jerusalem, killing perhaps a million people, and taking about 97,000 back to Rome with them as prisoners of war. Not only the structure of the beautiful temple, but the entire structure of society as the residents of Jerusalem had known it was gone, gone, gone, gone.

There is a third setting we need to consider when we think about this Gospel lesson. It is right here, right now. Before 9/11, many Americans felt that our nation was untouchable by outside terrors. With the exception of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all the wars in which we’ve been entangled in this century have taken place on other soil. Sure, some of you probably remember hiding under your desk for drills during the Cold War, but those missiles never came. Most people in this room have probably not felt the panic of being in an actual war zone in our country. In a similar way, Christians have not experienced persecution in our country for our faith. We have enjoyed great privilege, actually, as the dominant religion for a long time now. Perhaps, like Jesus’ disciples, some of us cannot fathom a time when security and safety as we’ve come to know them won’t exist.

But maybe some of you have seem the bleak picture or the dwindling numbers on the books and in the pews and find yourself wondering, “Is the ELCA going to die?” or even closer to home, “Is Trinity going to die?” The truthful answer is, “Yes. Someday. Just like all of us. I don’t know when or how, but I know that nothing is eternal except God.” I do not know how God is calling us to be the church in the coming years. Unlike Luke’s Gospel, I am not looking back 100 years and telling you a story that has been recorded in history. I am standing with you and all the other disciples of the holy Christian Church, on the brink of change, trying to understand how to prepare for a world I can’t even picture, can’t even fathom. And I am mindful of Jesus’ urging that we not get caught up with people who say that they have all the answers. I’m glad, because I certainly don’t have any.

The Good News is this: I may not know what the future of Trinity looks like, but I do know that even if this building on Winnebago Street is torn down, stone by stone, the church will go on. Because the church is not a physical structure. And I may not know what the future of the ELCA looks like, but I do know that the church will go on, because the church is not an organizational structure either. The church is not “the way we have always done things.” The church is not a particular person or family or group. We may not know where we are going, but we do know who we are following. And because of that, we know that, whatever happens, Jesus will be there.

The church is the body and blood of Jesus, the living, breathing presence of the Holy Spirit. And the God who created us with all our marvelous gifts and talents cherishes us and holds us close in all places and at all times. Nothing can ever happen to us that God cannot redeem and renew. There’s nowhere we could go to escape God’s transforming, empowering and life-giving love. We may be persecuted, prosecuted, scared to death—collectively or personally—but God will be there. God is with us in the midst of it all, and will bring us resurrection. Of this I am as sure of as I am of anything.

As terrifying as the events Jesus describes, or that Luke’s audience would have witnessed, there is some comfort to be found in today’s reading. Because SOMETHING must have lasted through the destruction of Jerusalem. Maybe the physical temple did not survive, but somehow, here we all are, reading this story together, 2000 years later. Even without the magnificent temple in the center of Jerusalem, somehow the church somehow went on. Not only did life come out of death at that time, but the life of the church has flourished and grown. Since 70 AD, the church has become a worldwide communion of saints. And the worldwide faith community has continued to face all kinds of tragedies, all manner of walls tumbling down. Nations have risen up against nations. The church has endured calamities and tribunals and desecrations; it has been persecuted and prosecuted, attacked and besieged in every way on almost every continent.

I’m thinking today in particular about the typhoon-devastated region of Tacloban in the Philippines. People have lost their church buildings, their families, their homes. I am thinking of the survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and of the deadly tornadoes in Missouri and Oklahoma. I am thinking of our sisters and brothers all over the world who have endured all kinds of natural and human-made disasters. And yet, the church is STILL very much alive. The body of Jesus was destroyed on the cross, but rose again on the third day. Every time the body of Christ is destroyed, it has always risen anew. It has been beaten, but still walks and talks and breathes hope to the hopeless. Despite everything, the church continues to be the Body of Christ, bringing light to the darkness, forgiveness to the broken, comfort to the grieving, healing to the suffering, and compassion to the wounded every single day. The stones of the temple may have been smashed, but the church is doing just fine.

There is no reason to expect that the church as we are experiencing it here and now will be anything like the church in which your great-grandchildren will worship. The Holy Spirit is not a slave to tradition. She blows where She will, always transforming, recreating, and renewing the church. Even if we don’t know what is next, we do know that it will involve new life. Resurrection is just God’s way of doing things. New life always arises from the crumbled stones of everything we thought we knew. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says, and indeed, there’s no reason to fear the demise of the church as we have known and loved it. It may have to die. In fact, it will die because all of us will die. But the church is indestructible, because it is built on Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is alive, now and forever. He’s “risen with healing in his wings”! And so we, too, who were baptized into his death, are also raised in a resurrection like his. We cannot, as Paul admonishes believer, grow weary of doing good. Let us keep loving one another in spirit and in truth, never ceasing to sing praises to God who keeps on making all things new.

Thanks be to God!

~Pastor Susan Schneider

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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