Sermon from November 18, 2012

November 19, 2012

Precarious Structures
Mark 13:1-8

1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

It’s eerily coincidental that the prescribed scripture reading for today would have this reference to the destruction of an architecturally magnificent place of worship. This prediction Jesus made of the large stones of the Temple being thrown to the ground is followed by a warning to not read too much in to any particular catastrophic event, but I must say that it’s hard not to wonder what’s going on when your place of worship get’s blasted by lightening. I think a number of people have wondered if this strike was somehow connected to something they might have said. I was particularly amused by Kelli Reep’s posting on Facebook saying she was surprised this didn’t happen a year ago when she stepped in to the church, but I don’t think any of us should take this personally.

Jesus gave a clear warning about people who like to take advantage of dramatic events and lay claim to special knowledge of what’s going on, and I don’t intend to step in to that blasphemous tradition, but I have come to see that there’s a message associated with this event. It is very clear to me that you shouldn’t stand on top of our tower during a thunderstorm. We have been provided with a good life lesson. I’ve made a mental note of this and you should too. I had wondered why the architects made it so hard to get to the top of our tower, but now I understand – they were protecting us from lightening.

I have also been reminded of the wisdom of insurance. There are probably more life lessons to be gleaned from this event, but I don’t think there were any special messages attached to that bolt of lightening. It did provide a timely image for our bulletin cover this week, and it has provided a great illustration for the very thing Jesus was talking about in this passage – which is that it’s a fleeting thing to be too impressed and overly attached to the things we create for ourselves. And this includes being too impressed and overly attached to our own wisdom or interpretation of what’s going on in the world. All of these things can serve to distract us from trusting in the One Thing that lasts.

The truth is that we love our buildings. I say this as a person who loves buildings more than most people. I have this desire to understand how buildings are put together. I don’t have as much understanding of these things as I would like to have, but I have a craving to know how people put amazing things together. When Sharla and I went to see Crystal Bridges last spring I glanced at all of the paintings, but I was fascinated with that buildings. They are held together by these giant cables, and I kept trying to figure out how that worked.

I’m not in the least bit happy about this lightening strike, but I’m very interested in seeing how our building will get repaired. This is going to involve some creative restoration work, and I love that kind of stuff. I can identify with the disciple who mentioned to Jesus how amazed he was by the giant stones of the Temple. We don’t know the name of this disciple because what he said was so insignificant, but that could have been me. It would have been just like me to not have taken note of all the ways in which Jesus had disparaged the Temple, and to be amazed by the size of the stones.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the wrong things. It’s easy to fill our lives with insignificant busy-ness – particularly when things are going relatively smoothly. When are aren’t wrestling with the various stresses of family emergenicies or workplace trials it’s easy to want to avoid issues of true significance and pour our time and money and energy in to matters of little consequence. And then during times of tremendous upheaval it’s easy for us to fall prey to persuasive rhetoric from self-serving individuals who are more concerned with creating a following than promoting the truth. So whether is’t summertime and the living is easy or we are sitting in a cold apartment without electricity because of a monster storm it’s not unusual for us to focus on the size of the stones and miss the important lessons. We like easy answers and quick fixes. It’s hard for us to see how precarious our various structures really are, and how invested we can be in futile enterprises.

While the insecurity of something as substantial as the Temple was obvious to Jesus, his prediction of the destruction of the Temple was shocking news to the disciples, but then they didn’t even respond with curiosity about what it all meant. They wanted to know when it would happen. They were more interested in having some secret information than they were in knowing how to be faithful to God in the midst of such upheaval.

But Jesus didn’t offer a timeline – he offered some warning, and he also gave them a reason to have hope regardless of what is going on. Jesus didn’t say that things would be easy. He was very frank about the upheaval that they would experience, but he wanted them to see the trauma of their day as birth-pangs and not the absence of God’s grace and presence.

Following Jesus is an exercise in letting go. It’s hard to hear him say that many of the things we hold most dearly – including their own lives – are going to fall apart. And it’s this letting go that enables us to find our way to the source of true life when things start shaking. It’s not an easy instruction that he offered, the loss of our most cherished institutions and homes and relationships and bodies is terribly distressing, but Jesus didn’t want us to trust in precarious structures. He wanted us to abide in the one place that never falls apart.
Jesus fortold the destruction of the temple and the upheaval that would come to to his followers so they wouldn’t just see the troubles of their day as disaster – he wanted them to know that the Kingdom of God is at hand regardless of what may transpire on earth. And this is what we are invited to know as well.

None of us want our worlds to crumble, and I don’t think wrong for us to make reasonable efforts to keep our world’s secure, but it’s also important for us to hear what Jesus is saying in this passage. He’s telling us to not care too much about things that are not of ultimate significance, and by having such wisdom in our hearts we will be more able to navigate the various crisis that we face with faith and not despair.

Jesus had such a different perspective on life. He wasn’t concerned about the things that are generally the most threatening to us, and he valued things that we often consider to be of little consequence. We think our largest threats come from terrorists, criminals, storms, and the struggling economy, but I think Jesus would tell us that our most pressing need is to live with less attachment to our country, our community, our buildings, our fortunes, and even our lives. Jesus wasn’t distressed about the destruction of the Temple. He was upset about what went on in the Temple.

Now you’re hearing all of this from a guy who spent hours last week navigating the process of getting our ornamental chimney put back together. And I’m not apologetic about that. I don’t care about the bricks and the tiles. I care about the community that’s attached to this building, and I struggle with the rest of you to find that balance between taking care of the business of this world and paying attention to the things that really matter. We all spend a lot of time taking care of precarious structures – including our bodies. I don’t think it’s wrong to pay attention to the details of this world, but we need to pay more attention to the condition of our souls.

And this isn’t easy. Often we don’t know the condition of our soul until we face a trial of some kind, and it’s often when we wrestle with great loss that we make the greatest discoveries. Jesus told his disciples to think of trying times as the beginning of birth pangs, and these are trustworthy words for us as well.

I don’t know what new life will come from our crumbling chimney, but I trust that if we will continue to pay attention to serving people and worshipping God out of this church then this exercise in the restoration of our building will be overshadowed by the restoration of our church. I like to think that it wasn’t just bricks and water that came showering in to our building last Sunday night. I’m going to choose to believe that we’ve been empowered by that lightening strike, and that we will not just replace what we’ve lost but we will gain something new.

We’re housed in a precarious structure, but our church is a living body, and by the grace of God we will come out of this stronger than ever.

Thanks be to God.


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