“The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” If you’ve looked at the other side of our campus lately this sentence might be resonating for you in new ways. In some of the conversations I’ve had over the last few months, people with long memories have spoken of the house that once stood on the corner of Sixth and Olive, or of the fundraising and construction of the administration building. We are witnessing to the truth of Jesus’s words, that buildings, however impressive or beloved, come and go, but what endures is the community of the faithful. On this ingathering Sunday it’s helpful to be reminded of such priorities.
The disciples in our Gospel passage are dazzled by the magnificence of the Temple. It looks like a residence worthy of God, something eternal and immovable. But this Temple was new, in fact still under construction, when Jesus and his disciples visited. It replaced a temple built 500 years earlier, after the Jews returned from exile, and that temple in turn replaced the first temple built by King Solomon about 400 years before that. And the Temple that so impressed the disciples would actually be destroyed by the Romans less than a decade after it was finished.
I want you to look at a hymn that we will sing at the 10:30 service. It’s number 665: All My Hope on God is Founded. Look at the second verse: “Mortal pride and earthly glory, sword and crown betray our trust; though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust.”
We love our beautiful church, and we all want to care for it. But what if one Sunday we all arrived and there was no building here? What if the “big one” hits San Diego and we can’t afford to rebuild? Who will we be? What will happen to the church?
Almost exactly 79 years ago, on November 14, 1940, the medieval cathedral in Coventry, England, was bombed into ruin, along with most of the city. In the days following the destruction, the cathedral stonemason noticed that two charred beams had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up on an altar and inscribed the words “Father, forgive” on them. A local priest made a cross from three medieval nails and added it to the display.
Out of those first grief-filled gestures grew the Cross of Nails ministry of reconciliation, as the people of Coventry reached out to the people of Dresden and other cathedral cities destroyed in the war. Today over 230 churches across the world are part of the community of the Cross of Nails. Though tower and temple fell to dust the Church survived and thrived; new ministries came about, and Coventry’s Cathedral was eventually built anew amidst the ruins of the old.
Jesus tells his disciples to be ready to bear witness when all seems lost. He says they will be given “an opportunity to testify”. What does it mean to testify? It simply means telling your story, telling your truth. It can be as formal as a Congressional impeachment hearing, or as informal as sharing your life story with a new friend over coffee. Last Sunday Jeff reminded us of the theme of our diocesan convention: words of Jesus from the Acts of the Apostles, “You will be my witnesses.” This week parishioner Irving Hernandez was in Washington DC to bear witness on behalf of the nearly 800,000 Dreamers in this country. He will share his story with our Spanish-speaking members next Sunday.
In our English services we’ve heard some powerful witnesses throughout this season’s pledge campaign. I’ve been deeply moved by the vulnerability and courage of our parishioners. When we tell our own stories we are compelling, because the truth shines through. Our bishop knows that we need practice at telling our stories, being witnesses to God’s action in our lives. So she made sure that those of us who attended convention had many opportunities to share our stories in dyads and small groups. It brought us together as a diocese, just as hearing our stewardship witnesses here has brought us closer together.
This is the church: people coming together, sharing our stories of God, sharing our pain and our joy, sharing our resources of time, talent, and treasure. We can be church within these sacred walls. We can be church in a parishioner’s back yard. We can be church at Parc Bistro over brunch. One of my first experiences of true church happened shortly after I was orphaned at the age of fourteen. Our house was to be emptied and sold; my adult siblings had to return to their lives in mainland Britain; and I needed to finish out the term at my school in Belfast before travelling to my new school in England. There was a six week period when I would have nowhere to live.
The dean of Belfast Cathedral, our church home, and his wife offered to take me in for those six weeks. Sammy and Isabel were older people, long past the parenting stage of life, but they willingly sheltered a traumatized teenager whom they didn’t know well. Their hospitality still stands out for me as a model of what church should be.
The letter to the Thessalonians offers some pointers on being church. Each member needs to contribute as they are able. The much-quoted statement, that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat”, is about the work of the church, not about living on welfare. This isn’t telling us to let the poor and needy starve: one of the most fundamental tenets of our faith calls on us to feed those who cannot feed themselves. This is about discipleship. The work of the church starts with the liturgy, where we come together to eat the sacred meal. The privilege of Communion comes with a responsibility to participate and contribute. Being merely a consumer of the church’s services is not being a follower of Jesus. Each one of us has the capacity to grow in faith and deepen our knowledge of and trust in God.
The church has longstanding practices that equip us for this growth: structured prayer and reading of Scripture through the daily office; engaging with the sermon on Sunday and applying it to your own life; finding times to be still and allow God to speak to you; acquiring the habit of seeing Christ in others, especially those who irritate or offend you; taking confession seriously; telling the truth and sharing your own story with honesty and vulnerability.
Today’s Collect guides us to inhabit Scripture, to let it soak into our lives, as we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s word. We’ve been reading from Luke’s Gospel for most of the last year: perhaps you have digested Luke’s message of care for the voiceless, those on the margins, the lost and the last and the least. In two weeks we will celebrate the beginning of a new church year, and we will start reading the Gospel of Matthew. How will Matthew’s witness nourish us? What will we gain from inhabiting that portion of Scripture? I encourage you to sit down and read the entire Gospel of Matthew from start to finish some time before December 1. Get a sense of the sweep of the story, from the family tree of Jesus that goes back to Abraham, to the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations.
Stuff happens. Tower and temple fall to dust. Everything changes and decays. People die without warning. Jobs disappear. Homes are lost to wildfires. Families are scattered. But Jesus promises us that in the end, God will win. Even in the most extreme catastrophe, God is with us, and God will always have the last word. In the final words of hymn 665, “Christ doth call one and all; ye who follow shall not fall.”
November 17, 2019
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges