a sermon for 25th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28B)
Jesus knew that putting faith in human institutions was folly. Nothing built by human hands lasts forever. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Back in the summer of 2001, Rindy and I decided to take the girls to New York City for a vacation. We were small town tourists going to the big city and we saw all the sites and wandered all over the place and took lots of pictures. For our daughters, it was their first time to see a broadway show, the first time to visit the Statue of Liberty, the first time to ride a subway. Of course, the real attraction of New York is the city itself. The money and power there is HUGE! And the buildings are AMAZING! It’s the richest and strongest city on the planet.
One day, we went to the top of the Empire State Building. At one time, the Empire State was the tallest building in the world. But if you visit there, you’ll find that it’s just an office building – nothing much special about it. To get to the top, you take a series of elevators and then stairs, and finally you come out on an observation deck where they filmed a bunch of movies, like Sleepless in Seattle and of course, King Kong – twice. So, we took a picture of our daughters there, standing at the top of the Empire State Building, and behind them in the distance you can see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Six weeks later, the Twin Towers fell. It was an act of evil, an act of war, an act that changed our entire worldview. Because as terrible as the loss of life was in that attack, and the death of 3000 people is horrific, it was also an attack on our institutions: the economy, our military at the Pentagon, and our government. As a nation we lost our innocence, we lost our sense of security, we lost our confidence.
And not one stone was left upon another; all was thrown down.
A lot has happened in the world since that summer. There have been uprisings in Palestine, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, revolutions in Syria, Libya and Egypt. There have been scores of shootings in schools, movie theaters, and even churches. And, now, just this weekend, we have witnessed a terrible attack on Paris, the City of Light. Make no mistake, this was an act of pure evil, an act of war. It was an attack on the people of Paris, and also on the institutions they hold dear.
If this were not enough, we have also seen just how devastating mother nature can be. Who can forget the loss of life in the Thailand Tsunami, or Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, or even the 1000 year floods right here in our home town.
Wars, floods, and acts of horrific terror and violence. These destroy lives and property, yes. But they also cause a profound sense of loss by the survivors. When our homes and our lives are threatened, it’s hard to regain our confidence in our institutions, even after we rebuild. In many parts of the world, it’s no longer safe to assume that the government will protect its people. Here in this country, it’s no longer safe to assume that our schools and churches are unquestionably secure. And for thousands of people here in Columbia, it’s no longer safe to assume that their homes will not be washed away the next time it rains.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are wandering around the streets of Jerusalem like tourists. They’re taking in all the sights of the big city and they are filled with awe and wonder. They see the Roman soldiers keeping order. They see the mighty palaces and the giant temples. “Look at these buildings, Jesus! The stones are HUGE! And the buildings are AMAZING! This must be the greatest city on the planet!”
Amazed, the disciples asked the same question we have been asking since 9-11. “When will this happen?” How will we know when the end is near? Tell us the signs so that we can prepare. Tell us, Lord, so we can be ready. If we can’t rely on our institutions, what can we rely on?
Only God. God is the source of all light and life. God is the ground of all that exists. God was here before all of our institutions and will be here long after our institutions are forgotten. Through Christ, God broke into this world in human form. Through Christ, God broke into human history to walk through the streets of Paris and climb the skyscrapers of New York City. Through Christ, God comforted the victims shootings at Emmanuel AME last summer, and helped the victims last month’s flood rebuild. Through Christ, God has announced the birth of his kingdom, and the one true hope for all the world to live in peace.
No matter how strong we build our buildings, how much we arm ourselves and our military, or how much money we have in our economy, there will come a time when all of our institutions will fall. In spite of all the signs and signals, the fact of the matter is that there’s no way to prepare for a 1000 year flood or a tsunami. We can’t prepare for a set of coordinated attacks in a city as open and free and beautiful as New York or Paris. We can’t prepare for some crazy person walking through the doors of a church or school with a gun. We can’t prepare for some crazy cell in our body causing cancer.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight against the forces of evil and darkness. We are called to protect all innocent life, here and around the world. But we can’t spend our lives looking for signs of the end times because if we do, our lives will be filled with nothing but darkness and fear.
The signs and the institutions won’t save us. Only God can do that.
Yesterday, Jennifer Strudwick posted an article about a woman who has stage 4 cancer. Despite the signs of her impending doom – blood tests, x-rays and CT scans and all the other diagnostic miracles of modern medicine – she continues to live a rich and full life everyday. And she has done so for 18 years. When she was asked how she managed to live so long with such a terrible disease she said, “a diagnosis can’t kill you; we’re alive until we die. People say I should take a nap or something. [But] I don’t want to miss one minute of life. I don’t want one minute to pass me by.” And so she has been saved – she has lived one day at a time, day after day, for 18 years, in spite of the signs that said her end was near.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption… For in hope we were saved.” Jesus said that all of these signs – the wars and floods, the earthquakes and famines, senseless acts of violence and catastrophic illness – are but birth pangs of the coming of God’s kingdom.
Only God can save us. Whenever God casts his light into the darkness, we are saved. Whenever the love of God confronts human evil and hatred, we are saved. And whenever we turn aside our fear of the future and live in the present moment by our hope in Christ, we are saved to live in the ever present kingdom of God.
Thanks be to God.