The Right Impression

You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.

It is a mercy, really, that we don’t know his name. It is not always the case, as you know, that disciples who say silly things remain anonymous – just think of poor Peter, for example. But in this moment, the disciple who says the silly thing remains mercifully nameless. He and the other disciples are heading out of the temple in Jerusalem. They have spent the past several days there – listening to Jesus spar with the Sadducees; watching the rich come and go; noticing, at Jesus’ prompting, the generous giving of one poor widow woman. But now Jesus has gathered up his sheep and begun to lead them out of the temple gate. As they wind their way down the stairs of the temple mount, pushing through the hordes of Passover pilgrims, this one disciple can’t help but turn back. He looks up, way up, craning his neck to see the stones stacked seemingly into the very clouds. “Whew!” he whistles, his eyes wide. “What great stones you have!” he says, innocent as a lamb.

Now, to be honest, knowing what we know about Herod’s temple, this disciple’s awestruck appreciation isn’t actually that silly. The temple was, in fact, hugely impressive; it was designed to be hugely impressive; it was constructed to make everyone who saw it whistle in appreciation. The platform it was built upon was in and of itself an architectural marvel, with enormous foundation stones, some of which were as high as this nave and weighed over 400 tons. Herod’s temple in Jerusalem was one of the hallmarks of his reign, an outward sign of his vast wealth and his immense – and immensely dangerous – power. It is no wonder that this little disciple from a backwater in the Galilee gushed a bit over the building, even felt a sense of pride that this was his temple, the mercy seat of his God. The temple made its mark upon him; he was im-pressed, and he thought his teacher would be impressed, too.

So in the face of this disciple’s wide-eyed wonder, Jesus’ response must have felt like the bite of a big bad wolf. “Those great stones? All the better to deceive you with, my dear disciple. Do you see these great buildings? Soon, someone will huff and puff and blow even this stone house down.” This is a devastating declaration. Because the temple was much more than a source of wonder and pride for the children of Israel; it was a mark of their election, a sign of future hope. It had already been destroyed once but had risen from the ashes, a golden assurance to generations to come of the faithfulness of their God. The temple was the locus of God’s relationship to his people, the birthplace of a new kingdom, where the Messiah would come to help his people shed the shackles of their slavery to the godless wolves of Rome. If the temple were to fall, how could Israel be saved?

It’s no wonder, then, that the moment Jesus broke their journey with a stop on the Mount of Olives, the favored (and named) disciples cornered him and pressed him for more details. They must have been shocked and scared. Ever since their youth the ultimate importance of the temple had been impressed upon them; the mark of the meaning of this building pressed into their hearts.  All of their hopes on that temple were founded, a temple their Lord had just told them would most surely fall. How could God work without a temple? And when would all this happen? As they sat gazing across the Kidron Valley at the shining temple mount, they asked themselves desperately, knowing all this, what do we do now?

That temple did fall, of course, razed by Roman troops only forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. But there are still plenty of temples for us to admire. And we are, after all, so easily impressed. Ever since our youth, the importance of these grand, worldly structures have been impressed upon us, and we almost can’t help but to place our hope upon their foundations. And so we find ourselves admiring the temples of wealth, of intelligence, of beauty or health or talent. We find that we have set our hope on the structures of human love, on a foundation of friendships that are sometimes frail and passion that is always fleeting. We find ourselves standing awestruck before the vision of a nation so pure in concept, so right in construct, that we imagine it will continue to be the vehicle for peace and justice in the world until time immemorial. We even find ourselves relying on the temple of the Church itself, impressed by its longevity and its righteous call to serve as the body of Christ in the world.

But today’s Gospel invites us to square our shoulders and to ask this difficult question: what if none of these temples last? A shocking question to be sure. What happens if we lose our wealth, if our mind is ravaged of dementia? What happens if our beauty fades, our bodies weaken, our talents dim? What happens if relationships fail, if love falls away or passion dies? What happens if our nation stumbles, overcome by political divisiveness, greed, or lust for power? And what happens if the Church as we know it fades away, just another vehicle for grace wrecked by all too human hands? What do we do then?

The tricky thing about this is that God can and does work through any and all of these things. All of them are gifts of God – our wealth, our hearts and minds, the gift of our bodies and our talents, the gift of human love, the gift of passion, the gift of a country that is founded on the ideals of freedom and equality, the gift of a Church that strives to preach the Gospel to all peoples and nations, the gift of a glorious, holy temple. But Jesus reminds us that we must not be overly impressed by any of these things, because all of these things fall. None of them is sure to last; all of them can be toppled to the ground so that not even one stone is left standing upon another. And while we might like to imagine that we can predict the way that God will use these gifts to work his will, that is not for us to decide. God will be what God will be. Temples fall. So knowing that, what do we do now?

When the temple of Jerusalem fell, indeed not one stone of the temple was left standing upon another. But there are still stones there. The Western Wall is all that is left – the remnant of one of the supporting walls for Herod’s great temple mount. There one can still see massive white stones, worn by thousands of years of rain and sun and the hands of millions of people who have traveled to Jerusalem only to fall on their knees in this holiest of places. They have stood with open mouths, craning their necks upward, awestruck by the palpable sense of God’s presence in this place, by the energy that emanates from the smooth face of the rocks and the cracks that pulse with prayers. These people, some of you among them, have not chosen to stand before these stones because they are impressed by their size, their age, or their architectural beauty. They have chosen to stand before these stones because they bear witness to the fact that when the temple falls, God is still there.

When the temple falls, God still reigns. When the temple falls, God is still at work. When the temple falls, and the wounded earth whips up superstorms and tsunamis; when the temple falls, and people struggle to find food to feed their families; when the temple falls, and rockets slice the air between Israel and Gaza; when the temple falls, and our most beloved dies, or our business fails, or our lover leaves us, or our mother no longer knows our name, God is still at work. God reigns even in the rubble; God is still sovereign even in the midst – or perhaps particularly in the midst – of suffering. We need not know how. And we need not distract ourselves with worry and predictions of when the next stone will hit the ground. What we need to do is watch and pray. “Beware that no one leads you astray,” Jesus tells his disciples. Beware of those voices sounding in your ears or inside your own heads that want to tell you that because one of these temples has fallen our world must surely end. These current sufferings are just the beginning of something new, the labor pains of a new creation groaning to be born. Let God worry about how that will happen. You just watch and pray, look for ongoing work of God in the world and trust that you will find it in the most beautiful and unexpected places. When you do this, when you let temples fall and begin to hope in things not seen, then your eyes will be opened wide enough to see that each breath is pregnant with possibility, each moment is an opportunity to witness what God is bearing into the world. Each moment will become an opportunity to be permanently and wonderfully impressed with the true wonders of this world – a tiny manger, a bloody cross, an empty tomb. Knowing this, what do we do now? Watch. Watch and pray. Look up, way up, to see what a great God we have. With this God at our right hand, we will not fall.

Posted on November 20, 2012 .