Today in the Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem looking at the Temple and the disciples are marveling at its adornments. From everything archeologists have discovered, this Second Temple in Jerusalem was incredible. It was made of huge limestone blocks, and some of the walls were 16 feet thick and about 130 feet high. And it stood above Jerusalem in the site where the first temple had stood, literally overlooking everything.
Herod the Great was the ruler who was responsible for renovating this temple and making it into something bigger and more spectacular than it had been. While Herod was king, he expanded the temple and added to the façade and gave it special adornments, which were probably the same adornments that the disciples are marveling at in the Gospel today.
Look at these beautiful walls and the marble finish and the gold that gilds the Temple in its splendor, they would have said. And as the disciples are looking at this incredible structure and all of its glory, Jesus, in an almost offhand way, tells them that all these things they see will be thrown down, and the temple will be destroyed.
Imagine me saying: soon enough, in your lifetime, this building will not longer be here. We will drive up Chestnut St., go past the statue of the Puritan, and here instead of Christ Church Cathedral there will be a Popeye’s. Or perhaps just an empty field. You know, the building where Phyllis and Charlie Larson were married, up on state street, is now an empty field.
Several years ago I went to Detroit to see the house where my father grew up and where my sister and I spent countless hours of our summer visiting our grandparents. And it was a shock, driving up their street, to find that my grandparents’ house which was so prominent in my memory is now an empty field. As are many parts of Detroit.
It would have been inconceivable for these disciples and people in Jerusalem to imagine that the temple would be destroyed and is ruins turned into an empty field. Because the temple had existed forever. Well it had existed for about 600 years, which is practically forever. In the year 70, at the end of a conflict between the Jews and the Romans, the Roman Empire came and tore the temple down. Parts of it were made rubble, parts of it were looted and carried away, some of the spoils of the Temple were used to build the Roman Colosseum. And the rest became an empty field.
So what do you think as you stand looking at the empty field where your grandparents house once stood, or as you walk by the empty field where you got married in a building that is no longer there, or as you look at the empty field where your Temple used to stand over the city? Well, I guess you have two choices: you can choose despair. You can become overwhelmed by the loss and the grief you feel because things have changed.
And believe me, many people choose despair. We see that all the time in life. And we see some of that in churches as people have begun to come back from Covid in the last several months and they realize that things are not the way they used to be back in 2019. Remember the good old days of 2019 and we had our ministries and our community was intact. And its not that way any more.
We are not an empty field, but we are different as a church. Our attendance is off. Our ministries are not what they were before. And people are not always comfortable with difference. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but Episcopalians can be kind of routine in what we do. We like things to be kind of the same from week to week, and we like to know what is coming and what we can count on. And we enjoy new things, just in small quantities. Just like how people say- we love having kids in the church as long as they’re quiet. And we try and manage change.
But how much can you manage change really? I think the only way to manage change is to invest in that which does not change. And this is at the heart of the Gospel today.
Part of what’s powerful about this passage is that Jesus is introducing the disciples to change, but it is not just introducing a little bit of change, but he is introducing them to a tidal wave. Not only will the temple be destroyed, he says, but their lives will be destroyed as all around them wars and insurrections and earthquakes and famines and plagues will bring dreadful portents from heaven. And the disciples, themselves will be arrested and persecuted and betrayed and hated and some will be killed.
And all of this Jesus is presenting to the disciples as a way of encouraging them to focus on the one stable thing in life, which is God. Christianity 101 says, and this is worth remembering from time to time, that Jesus warns the disciples various times about that if they continue to follow him their lives will become unmanageable. He says in various places about how difficult it will be for those who follow him, for they must give up control. And he says it again today – don’t even pretend to think you can manage your life.
Don’t prepare ahead of time what you’re going to say, Jesus says to them. You know those moments when you are about to talk with someone and you are busy rehearsing what you are going to say? Don’t do that Jesus says. The spirit will give you what you need. Don’t try and control everything. If God wants an empty field, there will be an empty field. You cannot control God. So you must have faith.
Tuesday morning as I was driving here, coming up Chestnut Street, I saw a big hole in the ground right at the corner. And it’s still there. What a great reminder that we can’t even count on the ground below us for stability. Because the ground beneath us is not permanent. These walls are not permanent. The sun above us will one day burn out. These hearts within us and the breath we take minute after minute are but short lived and quickly passing.
And so what do you think about as you ponder the impermanence in life and the state of change and the fact that none of this is really ours, and we can do little to manage it, and nothing we can make or do will last. So we can know that and choose to despair, or we can know that and invest all we have in God.
Everything Jesus says today is to help prepare the disciples to invest in him and in God, to choose faith. He throws everything at them, telling them all that will come and turn their lives upside down. But that despite that, he says, not a hair on their head will be hurt. But by their endurance they will gain their souls. An enduring faith that lasts is one that is not put in what we can build or make or do, but put into the one for whom we build. And we build for God.
We put our faith in the one for whom we build. And since I have been back from sabbatical the last couple of months, as I look around and do things and contact people to invite them to come back or as I think about the Cathedral budget and hope we can meet the budget through our pledges, I think about this again and again, that this is not my church to build but it is my faith I am building by doing these things. I am building my faith with you.
You are building your faith with me. You are building your faith today by being here. We build our faith by showing up on Sundays and adding or prayers, and by doing things like supporting square One or volunteering at the drop in center or working a camera or calling on another person to share with them good news.
I build my faith by this calling people and visiting them. And sharing my hope and enthusiasm for the love of God in Jesus Christ. And by not worrying so much about what used to be, but striving for what God wants.
You know what happened to the Jewish community after the Temple was destroyed in the year 70? I remember learning this from Mark Shapiro: The Temple was the center of religious, cultural, and social life, and so its destruction turned everything upside down. And the people could no longer perform sacrifices. They could no longer fulfill their obligations laid out in the scriptures for how their sins were to be cleansed.
And so without this centralized place of the Temple, the people did not give up. The religion became less about what you did at the Great Temple and more about the prayers you did in your own life, in your home, with your family on the Sabbath, with your community in your local temple. And from the destruction of the Temple, the religion changed and the rabbis developed out of what the Pharisees used to do. Remember, you don’t see any rabbis in the Bible. All this came because the Temple was destroyed. So instead of one great Temple, the religion developed many smaller ways for people to find God.
God did not die when the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, instead God became more accessible to the people. For the early Christians, especially those who heard this Gospel in a church in someone’s house, it would have been after the year 80 or 85, which is when Luke was written. Which means that the people who heard this story already know the Temple was destroyed because they had lived through that.
And they knew that Jesus’s prediction was right. And they could see for themselves that despite everything that happened with the Temple’s destruction and the persecutions of the early church and the changes that came about in the world, that the community went on and the faith did not die and the people continue to find Jesus Christ in their midst as he predicted they would.
This early group of Christians saw that the strongest thing built by human hands on the face of the earth was, in the end, fragile and could be broken. But that Jesus Christ was still with them. And they found him in their prayers and in their midst and in their worship, and in their hearts. They saw that the world had turned upside down and became chaotic. But that they still had faith. Jesus was right.
Our faith is strengthened by change when we accept that change is part of life. In my own lifetime and in yours we have seen so many changes. And we can see all these things as empty fields and choose to despair and mourn their loss. Or we can be motivated by passages like this today and put our hope and invest ourselves in the eternal changelessness of Christ in God.
I wonder, do we believe that Jesus is still here like those early disciples knew that Jesus was still there after all they went through? Is Jesus still here in our Cathedral after all we’ve been through and the changes of the past couple of years? And do we believe he is going to be here in the years to come? If so, do we believe he is worth investing in and giving to of our time and energy and resources?
This week I was reminded again of why I pledge and give my time to the church: I do so as a way to choose faith over despair, and invest in my own spiritual growth, and so I can learn to be a better disciple. I could invest in so many things all of which will one day fall, but what would I gain? This way I gain my soul
Please join me in making a pledge to the Cathedral for building something that will last. And in the year ahead let’s see what we can do together with Jesus in our midst. And if Popeye’s calls, tell them the answer is still no. We plan to be here for a while longer.