Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – November 17, 2013
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
This Gospel, taken at face value, is pretty scary. Some of the experiences mentioned in it—nation taking on nation, earthquakes, famine, viruses without apparent cures and a host of other dreadful circumstances, like the threat of terrorism, corroborate for us the gloom and doom picture that this text presents.
The number of people in the Philippines confirmed dead from the recent typhoon now stands at close to 4,000 and the final figure is likely to rise still higher. One week after the storm, food and supplies are now beginning to reach survivors, but aid agencies say the logistics of distribution are enormous. The number of injured stood at 12,487, while 1,187 people are officially listed as missing, 1,871,321 have been displaced.
This natural catastrophe raises the red flag around the integrity of our own infrastructures in the face of potential disaster, something which is typically a point of contention in political debate both in local and national elections. Wherever we land on the philosophical, political, or theological spectrum, I think we can all agree on one reality and truth about many of our time-revered institutions: we need something new.
Old approaches and paradigms, former strategies, and previous programs don’t seem to work in many areas of life including, and maybe most especially, the Church. United Methodist Minister, Jim Harnish, in his book, You Only Have to Die, told this story of the revival of a once-dying city parish to which he had been assigned: “How well I remember the board meeting when I told them, ‘I’ve got some good news for you tonight and some bad news.
The good news is that despite what anyone thinks, this church can grow. After nine months with you here I can promise you that there are some things we can do that will make a difference.’
One of the board members asked, ‘What is the bad news?’ I responded, ‘The bad news is that we can only be born into a new, fresh congregation if there is some death. The good news is that there can be growth, the bad news is that it won’t be painless.’ As providence would have it, it did grow, but not before something died in order that something new might be born.”
Perhaps our anxiety about national and local infrastructure, like the angst of any congregation facing the need for change, can help us understand the reaction of the audience to whom Jesus was speaking in the first century. As Jesus was teaching outside the temple, someone in the crowd calls attention to the beauty of the building. The temple whose demise he foretold stood at the heart of Jerusalem. It was the most prominent and sacred structure in that city.
It also occupied the center of their culture. It was a symbol of God’s dwelling among the Hebrew people. By predicting its destruction, Jesus was proclaiming that the religious institutions of Israel had lost their life-giving properties and pointing to a new kind of temple in the Kingdom of God.
The temple brought traders who sold sacrificial animals and craftsmen who provided various ritual objects. More than 20,000 people were employed there by the priestly hierarchy. Scores of pilgrims visiting the temple created a huge tourist industry. How could such a significant edifice and the very foundation of their lives be subject to destruction? If this focus of their religious, cultural, and economic strength is demolished, what would be left for them?
As in many instances, his listeners were not able to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. Jesus was talking about a new relationship and covenant with God—one built on love and not just rigid, legalistic regard for the Torah. He was trying to tell them that old ways needed to make way for the new. They did not get it.
And it is easy for us to miss his message as well. Whereas we might construe this Gospel text nightmarish, I believe that God would have us see it as the forecast of a dream. For it paints us a reality beyond what is. What is now is not what God will bring in the fullness of time. This Gospel is meant to encourage and support us as we hope, wait, and endure together until the realm of God is firmly established and we are all living in the new heavens and a new earth.
In the interim, God wants us to have a foretaste of that kingdom in the here and now. God wants us to at least stand on the threshold of a “new world.” In order to do that—just as in the case of the congregation of the dying church to whom that minister was sent—we have to let go of an old one.
This morning fourteen of our teens will be recognized for their willingness to explore the possibility of being confirmed in the Episcopal Church. Along with the adults who have accepted the ministry of serving as their mentors on this journey, we will all promise our support and prayers for them.
We have intentionally framed this time of exploration for them as one that has no strings attached, one in which they may decide to participate in the rite of confirmation at some point—or not. In short, we are trying to do confirmation exploration differently—bringing something new out of the old—and I raise this in the context of the teaching Jesus offers us today.
It is a provocative and challenging message and it is something to which the church needs to pay attention. We can admire the beauty of our temple—this grand building— for it is, indeed, a treasure and the center of our life as community. However, just as the religious institutions of Israel had lost their life-giving properties, we might take a good look at the institutional church and ask if how we do and live as church points to a new kind of temple in the Kingdom of God. Where do we need to let go and do things in a new way.
Just a few of many examples are the way we communicate the Good News within and outside our doors. Old methods no longer work well nor do they reach populations who need to and maybe want to hear it. Electronic and internet communication must become our friend. Another is the way we do Christian formation and education, especially with our children and youth. And here I am not singling out this parish or any in particular but rather the church –at-large. The traditional Sunday School is not, in my opinion, the most effective way to present the ancient truths to our youth. We need to find a new way.
Then in our own lives, I wonder if there is any circumstance or situation that needs something new to happen, a new strategy, a fresh start, an innovative undertaking. Is there the need to dismantle some “temple” –some infrastructure that you have built as a means of manufacturing a sense of security—in order to make room for newness to come into your life.
We live in a time when old approaches, former strategies, previous programs don’t seem to work in many areas of life. Conventions and habits can be restrictive as well as reassuring. What we see as our “temples” of security and self-protection can become our barriers and obstacles to our seeing the realm of God among us.
Sometimes the undoing of the old world can be difficult, even painful. God can and does intrude in order to bring us both the destruction of the old and the raising up of the new. If we will allow God to do it, God will come into our lives and make a way where we don’t see any way.
Where we may think nightmare, God proposes a dream. Where we see an ending, God sees a beginning. Creation is not something that God did once and for all, but rather something that God continues to do every day, all around us, and even within us, if we are willing to let something go in order that something new might be born.