Sermon preached by the Right Reverend Ian T. Douglas
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – November 18, 2012
+In the name of the One Holy and Triune God. Amen
From our Gospel this morning: “Jesus asked: Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon the other; all will be thrown down.” Now that’s an interesting piece of scripture for a 275th anniversary celebration of a church! “Not one stone will be left upon the other; all will be thrown down.”
Sometimes our best laid plans and dreams collide with Holy Scripture. Here we are celebrating the 275th anniversary of your wonderful parish – and Jesus is prophesying about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Here we are confirming and receiving these seventeen sisters and brothers in their Christian sojourn along the Episcopalian/Anglican way – and Jesus is telling us about the end times. Here we are honoring Pledge Commitment Sunday and the ingathering of your pledges to support this parish – and Jesus is preaching about the transitory nature of life. Doesn’t quite seem right – or does it?
This is the penultimate Sunday of our liturgical year as next week we mark the end of the season of Pentecost with a celebration of the reign of God in Christ the King. And as is the custom on this penultimate Sunday of Pentecost, we hear lessons that force us to consider the meaning of all reality and the apocalypse. Our readings force us to go beyond our immediate experience to ask the big questions, such as: Will there be an end of time? And: What is God up to in the big picture?
In our first lesson from Daniel, we catch a glimpse of what the prophet believes will be the culmination of the Jewish people. The book of Daniel is set in the period of the Babylonian occupation, the early sixth century BCE. The Babylonians had moved against Jerusalem, ransacked the temple, and carried off a group of Judean leaders, including Daniel, back to Babylon. In the first part of the book of Daniel, we learn about how God watches over and protects the people of Israel during their captivity in Babylon. We hear the familiar stores of Daniel passing through the fiery furnace, and his being spared in the lion’s den. The second part of the book follows with three visions of Daniel concerned with world politics and the coming of the reign of God. It is here that we learn today that at the end of time when all will be destroyed, God will deliver all God’s people. Daniel tells us that even the dead, those who sleep in the dust of the earth, will be raised to new life with God and each other. It is an incredible hopeful vision, hope in the face of destruction, life in the face of death.
The destruction of the temple is picked up again in our Gospel. Here Jesus similarly offers a prophetic vision of what will come to pass. Jesus had triumphantly entered Jerusalem, and no sooner had he arrived then he entered the temple, overturning the tables of the money changes and challenging the religious and political authorities. By temporarily disrupting business as usual in the temple, Jesus dramatizes that a new order has come and that the old will be passing away.
And then when his disciples comment on the grandeur of the temple with its massive stones and buildings, Jesus replies: “Not one of these stones will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” But he adds: this destruction will not be the end, for when all seems to be coming apart, when there are earthquakes and famines, when nations rise up against nations, it will not be the end but rather the beginning. Like birth pangs, the pain and hurt that surrounds us is a sign of new life, new possibility. Like Daniel, Jesus offers us an incredible hopeful vision, hope in the face of destruction, life in the face of death.
And why do we as Christians, as inheritors of the stories of Daniel and Mark, accept this seemingly outrageous supposition that in the end all will be well? We buy it because we believe in a God who became one of us in the incarnation of Jesus, fully human and fully divine. We buy it because we follow a God who joins us in our pain and suffering, the deaths and destruction of our lives, by dying an ignoble and horrendous death on the cross. And we buy it because we know that in the end, this incarnate God, Jesus, triumphed over death by rising to life again on the third day. Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we believe that destruction and death are not the end of the story, but rather hope and new life will always triumph.
This is what the author of Hebrews is referring to when the writer describes Jesus as the great high priest who has offered a single sacrifice for the sins of the world. For the author of Hebrews, the dying and rising to life again of Jesus, replaces the actions of the high priests who once a year entered the temples’ Holy of Holies making atonement for the transgressions of all. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection there has been one final sacrifice so that all people can enter into a new relationship, right relationship with God and each other. This is what God is up to in Jesus. God’s purpose, God’s mission, is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (as our catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer says.)
It is in God’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ that we can begin to see how the prophesies of Daniel and Jesus make sense for this the celebration of your 275th anniversary as a parish, [make sense for this service of confirmation and reception,] make sense for this Pledge Commitment Sunday.
Two hundred and seventy five years ago, this parish was founded as a missionary outpost to share the good news of God in Christ here in the Connecticut colonies. And in 1786 the first Anglican bishop outside of the British Isles, Connecticut’s own Samuel Seabury consecrated your third church building (his first as a bishop in the Americas) as a place where the Body of Christ could come together to celebrate and herald God’s reign here in Norwalk. And in your anniversary commitment to embrace all people through “Opening Doors, Welcoming All” you extend the reality of hope in the face of destruction, life in the face of death. In welcoming all you play your role in God’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
And those of you who are being confirmed and received today, are saying publicly and explicitly: “I want to be part of the story.” I want to be part of the story of God’s mission that began in creation, that was clarified in the law and the prophets, and that culminated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. You are saying: I want to be part of that catholic (universal) witness to God’s mission that flows through the see of Canterbury and has been manifest in The Episcopal Church in this parish, in this Diocese of Connecticut, across the United State and throughout the Anglican Communion. We, your sisters and brothers in Christ welcome you into this corner of the Body of Christ, the Episcopal/Anglican way of witnessing to and participating in God’s mission to extend hope in the face of destruction, life in the face of death.
And that same mission of God is what we are called to own anew here in your Pledge Commitment Sunday. In a few minutes each and every one of us will be invited to affirm our baptismal covenant as we promise to follow the triune God in our lives of worship, forgiveness, proclamation, service and justice making. And then at the offertory, we will present to God our pledges, our financial commitment to support this parish, this diocese, and the wider Episcopal Church in our common service to God’s mission. When we put that pledge into the plate, we are not saying here is my piece of the financial bottom line of St. Paul’s. No we are saying: I thank God that I have been called into the mission of God by virtue of my baptism and I pledge to do and give my all to be about God’s work to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. What a great way to say to a broken, hurting, and needy world that in Christ there is indeed hope in the face of destruction, life in the face of death.
So I end with a word of thanks. Thanks to this Parish of St. Paul’s on your 275th anniversary, and thanks to each and every one of you for your participation in God’s restoring and reconciling mission by virtue of your baptism. Thanks be to God.