November 17, 2019

Pentecost 23C

All Will Be Thrown Down


When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Luke 21:5-19

Our sense of security depends on things holding together and lasting. When destruction occurs we wrestle mightily to get our heads around it. A few months ago the inhabitants of the Bahamas saw their lives shattered by the destruction wrought by a hurricane of apocalyptic proportions.

It was 33 AD. It was another sunny day in Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples were strolling on the Mount of Olives and some of the disciples began to speak about the magnificence of the Temple, which was in full view. It was an awesome sight. The temple was by far ONE of the most magnificent, if not THE most magnificent structure of its day. It’s East-facing golden façade, caught and brilliantly reflected the rays of the Sun. It was the calling card of the One who dwelt therein – the God of Israel.

The noticing by some of the disciples could easily have evoked a shared response of appreciation on the part of the others, as well as Jesus. Instead, Jesus says, “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” The disciples would have to have been thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding.” “You can’t be serious.” “And even if you are, why have you chosen to ruin a perfectly beautiful day with so dire a prediction.”

The temple was, in fact, destroyed by Roman legions in 70 A.D. But in that moment recorded in this morning’s gospel, it was hard, if not impossible, for the disciples to imagine the complete destruction of such a significant religious icon and all that it represented.

We, too, can scarcely imagine a time when the important structures we know and love will be thrown down. We want to trust in the permanence of the things of this world.

The things of this world include the physical realities upon which we stand and among which we move. Who can forget the destruction of the twin towers in lower Manhattan, those symbols of American economic pre-eminence, and how their crumbling before our eyes, shook the fantasy of national invulnerability? Also included in the things of this world are the social structures that define our personal, familial and civic lives, as well as the constructs of our minds that we use as templates to hold our world together.

It is the folly of humanity to seek permanence in the things of this world, and yet it seems to be our nature. We often resist change as if it were an enemy rather than our portal into the future.

Churches are notorious for their entrenchment both in their buildings and in their convictions about the way things must be – after all we have a tradition. We have always done it this way.

Perhaps it is our deep anxiety in knowing our own frailty and mortality, and our own impermanence, that lead us to rely on feigned permanence of many kinds.

The most dreadful change we all face is death. All change resonates in some way with that most personally apocalyptic of moments. All our would-be permanent structures are a futile defense against death. And when these structures are made ends in themselves, they cease to function as the diving boards and platforms, they were intended to be, from which to leap into the vortex of life – the life that is the Kingdom of God within and among us.

Has not God has placed within us a deep-seated need for something that will transcend the limitations of our earthly lives? Do we not crave immortality?

In the extreme there is the business of cryogenics. You can have your whole body frozen for $200,000 or your head only for $80,000. So that either is ready for a return to life when science and technology make that possible. Some hope for immortality through their progeny. But let’s face it, that immortality will be short lived, as I would guess that few of us have any memory at all of our grandparents twice removed.

Those who are fear driven, look for that something in the stuff of the world and the stuff in our lives. They hunker down, circle the wagons, and put their arms around all they can grab in some vain effort at self-protection to quell the fear of death and establish calm within.

Those who are driven by their own egos naively believe that, that transcendent something will be of their own creation. But all our ego bound achievements will go down to the dust with us as well. In fact, the famous will always be few and the forgotten will always be many.

Nothing that WE create will endure. “All will be thrown down”. With these disquieting words, Jesus cuts straight through the immortality we seek in SELVES of our own making.

Certainly, as Luke wrote his gospel the temple’s destruction was an event of recent memory. Amid severe persecution of the Christian community, this disquieting apocalyptic narrative seems to fit the unrest of his time; but what about us, living in this time and in this place?

At times, I discern in the church a pronounced fear of the death. So many churches have dwindling and aging congregations. We can usually discern a desire on the part of some to resurrect the past and to return the church to its former glory. We can often discern a fear about the financial precariousness that is the ordinary way of being for most congregations these days. We can discern an impulse to make decisions from fear – safe decisions, decisions that do not involve risk. We can always discern a resistance on the part of some to any and all change. And so our fear of death, which is rooted in our personal mortality, comes to be played out in our life as a church.

If we choose to occupy this untenable place, in our church life, in our civic lives, in our familial lives and in our personal lives, if we live captive to our fears, we are already dead and burial will be a mere formality. But the challenge of Jesus is to choose, each day, to live life as fully as we can even in the face of “All being thrown down”.

When we make this choice we begin to see that things are not dying, but merely changing, and it is the Lord Himself who is inviting us to go to a new place. WE are not the creators of anything that will survive death. God alone is the Creator of what will be a new tomorrow.

Listen again to the words of the prophet Isaiah.
“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

Here at Holy Cross/Santa Cruz, the seeds of a new tomorrow are certainly present. They have taken root and are sprouting among us. In recent years have added new members to our parish – brothers and sisters who take delight in a multicultural community and in our public commitment to issues of social justice.

The vision that we embraced not too many years ago of being one congregation that worships in two languages has borne fruit in the deepening bond of mutual respect and appreciation ever more in evidence between our Latino and Anglo members.

Our commitment to serving the immigrant community has raised the visibility of this parish in this city, the county, the Mid-Hudson region and the wider church. At the annual Episcopal Charities fund raising dinner on Tuesday evening, of the 99 programs supported by EC only the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network was mentioned by name.

Our church school continues to grow even as it faces the challenges of living in a society that no longer affords the worship of God its rightful primacy on Sunday mornings.

With Bea Moore’s generous legacy our parish has been snatched from the precarious financial situation in which it has struggled for so many years. I trust that you will hear my cry that we honor this gift by increasing our pledge as we move into the future and that we do not use it to simply transfer our financial dependency on the diocese to a new locus of dependency.

Oh, we have a long way to go in our journey to the Kingdom but God is giving us a future and it behooves us to seize the moment and run with it in as many ways as we can.

Of course there will always be a Greek chorus of nay-sayers – of doomsday prophets. What are we to do with the most fearful? Of course, we must love them and strive to bring them along without, however, taking direction from their fears, even as we hold them in their fears.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
November 17, 2019