a sermon for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28C)
When the disciples walked through the great temple of Jerusalem, they marveled at it’s opulence and grandeur. They had never seen anything so amazing in their lives. But Jesus saw only ruins.
One of the privileges that you allow me as your rector is the opportunity to speak each week in a very unique way. A sermon is a very one-sided message in which I am given the freedom to speak on a wide range of topics, simply because you have granted me authority on spiritual matters here at St. Simon & St. Jude. And every week, I do my best to weave three distinct threads together into a coherent theological reflection. The first thread is God’s story, or what God is saying to us through Scripture. The second thread is my personal story, who I am as a human being with a particular point of view. The third thread is the congregation’s story, or how the experience of the membership of St. Simon & St. Jude might be affected by the events around us. As we all know, privilege never comes without responsibility, and I take my responsibility as a preacher very seriously. I study the passages of Scripture for the week. I read and try to understand commentaries on that scripture. And I try to craft a message that reflects, to the best of my puny ability, what God might be doing in the world around us today. I realize that you put a great deal of trust in me and in my preaching, and I pray that I never betray that trust. I say all this because I’m about to walk very close to the 3rd rail of preaching – talking about politics in the church – and I ask your patience and indulgence.
This past Wednesday, the day after the election, I had an experience that I’ve never had before: three different people came to see me to discuss the outcome of the election. All three were in something that might be described as shock. These people were not cry babies or whiners complaining that their candidate didn’t get elected; they weren’t the kind of people who always insisted on always getting their own way. They were thoughtful, serious folks; people we admire and respect for their compassion and genuine concern for their fellow human beings; people who we would consider disciples of Jesus Christ. Later that same day, our daughters called just to check in with their mother. All of them wondering what this particular election meant for themselves and their friends, and what it meant about the future of our country.
Then Friday, I heard from two other people, both solid members of this congregation. One wanted to share with me an article that expressed his frustrations. The other, someone whom I’m quite sure voted for the President-elect, called to express his concern for those he knew were frightened and grieving – grieving because, for them, the election seemed to be a validation a pretty grim view of the world. One of the things I’m proudest of here at St. Simon & St. Jude is the breadth and diversity of our points of view. Every week, left-wing liberals and right-wing conservatives come together to kneel at the same altar and share the same bread and same wine. And so it sorrows me to see one side or the other in any significant pain. Where is God in all this?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are at the great temple of Jerusalem. It was built by King Herod and was an architectural jewel in the middle east – a vast marble building with incredible mosaics on the gleaming white walls, a large marketplace for buying and selling, a worship space and an inner sanctuary where the Holy of Holies resided. Although the temple was dedicated to the Jewish people, it was intended to be an everlasting monument to Herod’s power and wealth. As they walked through the temple, the disciples were impressed by everything they saw: the enormous pillars, the soaring archways, the grand rooms filled with statues and scripture. But Jesus saw something different. He saw the temple in ruins, stone after stone crumbling and falling to the ground. And all this, he said, will be accompanied by civil unrest, wars and persecution.
Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? But Jesus did not intend for it to be grim. He intended for these to be words of hope for his disciples – people who were living under an occupying power, people who were unsure who their friends were, people who wondered whether or not they believed in the same things, or wanted to live under the same rules. To these disciples, those who followed Jesus, he promised, “Don’t be afraid… not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, writes that in this passage, Jesus is more concerned about how we see the world, than the destruction of it.
Do we see what Jesus sees? If our eyes are fixed on only that which is temporary, on those things that are big and new and expensive and powerful, we might miss seeing the permanency of those things that last. If we only seek that which is obvious, and grand and powerful, we may overlook the beauty of that which is hidden or even repulsive at first, but which ultimately grows to be the greatest treasure of all.
What do we see when we look at the world? What do we see in our church? In our nation? In the world? In each other? Because, that which we see is that to which we can testify – to which we will give witness.
What we see determines what we have chosen to see. This is not a “stick your head in the sand” kind of optimism or a “pollyanna” kind of philosophy. It is the true claim of the true hope we have in God – our God who is still present and powerful when it looks like the church is powerless in the face of all that seems to be working against the Kingdom of God.(1)
Jesus never commanded his disciples to agree with each other – differences in the way we see the world are only natural. But he did command us to love each other. Before we are able to testify to the world, we need to quit calling each other idiots and “deplorables.” We need to deal honestly with the deep terror, the desperation and helplessness which is felt by people across all segments of our society. Only then might we begin to see the world the way Jesus sees it.(2)
To those of you who wonder what all the fuss is about – why so many are mourning and carrying on as if this one election is the end of the world – I say to you, “be patient.” Many of your brothers and sisters are grieving now, not because their candidate lost, but because they truly believed that the kingdom of God was at hand, so close we could almost touch it, and we let it slip away. Many of the words they heard from the winning side sounded like a complete rejection of what we know in our souls the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom where the dignity of every human being is honored and revered, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, religious tradition, or ethnic background; the kingdom where all people can live without fear, isolation or exclusion; the kingdom without walls and without violence against the weaker members of society. They are grieving now, because the vision they see for the world seems so much farther away.
And to those of you wonder how so many your friends could have possibly voted the other way – how they could possibly have supported a man who seems to be the antithesis of Jesus Christ – I say to you also, “be patient.” The vast majority of these people aren’t racists, misogynists, or homophobes. The vast majority don’t hate people just because they are different. They are still your neighbors, still right here by your side. But many of these brothers and sisters have felt betrayed by our rulers – betrayed by the men and women who have grown richer and richer while they have struggled just to keep a roof over their heads or find jobs that pay more than a fraction of what they made twenty years ago. They understand what the kingdom of God is, but disagree on when, and how, it will be fulfilled.
Do we see what Jesus sees? And if we do, are we willing to testify to it? If we see women as equals to men, will we speak up when they are mistreated. If we see African American people as people whose lives truly matter, will we speak up for their civil rights? If we see someone who has lost a job, who is struggling to make ends meet because his job has been shipped overseas, will we also testify to the economic injustice for him? If we see God as loving and affirming, will we speak out for those who may live differently or love differently from ourselves, as also deserving of our love and affirmation? If we consider ourselves disciples, if we see the world as Jesus sees it, are we willing to testify to it – in spite of the consequences?
Leonard Cohen, a poet and song writer of my youth, died this week. One of the first songs I learned to play on guitar was, “Suzanne.” (I learned it in the 7th or 8th grade because I had a crush on a college-aged counsellor by the same name at Camp Weed.) Part of the song goes like this:
Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.
For 2000 years, Christ has called on the Church to see the drowning people of our community – the poor, the hungry, the unemployed, the exiled, and the refugee. Regardless of who our president is, the work of bringing about the kingdom of God still falls on us. Christ still calls us to seek and serve him in all people. He still calls us to respect – and defend – the dignity of every human being. Christ still calls us to help the drowning men and women of the world see Jesus through our word and example, and to set them free.
Now more than ever the Church is called to be witnesses to God’s kingdom on earth. We are called to give our testimony, our witness, to God’s vision for the world. We are called to give voice to those whom Jesus sees, especially in the face of those who see only the temples and the towers of the rich and powerful.
Thanks be to God.
1) see “Saying What We See” by Karoline Lewis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4750
2) see “Wisdom’s Hour: A Reflection following the Election” by Cynthia Bourgeault. https://cac.org/wisdoms-hour-reflection-following-election/