Sermon for Year B, Proper 28
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
November 18, 2012
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him,
‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’
Then Jesus asked him,
‘Do you see these great buildings?
Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”
What happens when the Temple’s destroyed?
Or in other words,
What happens when one of the most important
Things in your whole life is suddenly gone?
Jerusalem, the city where the Temple was located,
Was beseiged by the Romans in the year 70,
Around the same time Mark was writing his gospel,
And the Temple was destroyed by fire.
There was only one eyewitness at the time – a man called Josephus.
Josephus wrote that as rebels fought Romans in this battle,
The fight came closer and closer to the Temple;
And that, quote, “without awaiting any orders
And with no dread of so momentous a deed,
But urged on by some supernatural force,
[A soldier] snatched a blazing piece of wood and, climbing on another soldier’s back,
Hurled the flaming brand through a low golden window that gave access …
To the rooms that surrounded the sanctuary.”
“...No exhortation or threat could now restrain the impetuosity of the legions;
For passion was in supreme command.
Crowded together around the entrances, many were trampled down by their companions;
Others, stumbling on the smoldering and smoked-filled ruins of the porticoes,
Died as miserably as the defeated.
As they drew closer to the Temple, they pretended not even to hear Caesar’s orders,
But urged the men in front to throw in more firebrands.
The rebels were powerless to help; carnage and flight spread throughout.
Most of the slain were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed,
And they were butchered where they were caught.
The heap of corpses mounted higher and higher about the altar;
A stream of blood flowed down the Temple’s steps,
And the bodies of those slain at the top slipped to the bottom.
When Caesar failed to restrain the fury of his frenzied soldiers,
And the fire could not be checked, he entered the building with his generals
And looked at the holy place of the sanctuary and all its furnishings,
Which exceeded by far the accounts current in foreign lands
And fully justified their splendid repute in our own.
As the flames had not yet penetrated to the inner sanctum,
But were consuming the chambers that surrounded the sanctuary,
Titus assumed correctly that there was still time to save the structure;
He ran out and by personal appeals he endeavored to persuade his men
To put out the fire, instructing Liberalius, a centurion of his bodyguard of lancers,
To club any of the men who disobeyed his orders.
But their respect for Caesar
And their fear of the centurion’s staff who was trying to check them
Were overpowered by their rage, their detestation of the Jews,
And an utterly uncontrolled lust for battle.
[Let me just stop a moment and say that Josephus worked for Caeasar as he wrote this,
So he was ready to give the benefit of the doubt to Titus.
Now, to continue, quote,]
“Most [soliders] were spurred on, moreover, by the expectation of loot,
Convinced that the interior was full of money and dazzled by observing
That everything around them was made of gold.
But they were forestalled by one of those who had entered into the building,
And who, when Caesar dashed out to restrain the troops,
Pushed a firebrand, in the darkness, into the hinges of the gate.
Then, when the flames suddenly shot up from the interior,
Caesar and his generals withdrew, and no one was left to prevent those outside
From kindling the blaze.
Thus, in defiance of Caesar’s wishes, the Temple was set on fire.
While the Temple was ablaze, the attackers plundered it,
And countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered.
There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank;
Children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered;
Every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war,
Whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistance.
Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide,
The groans of the falling victims were heard;
Such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile
That the entire city seemed to be ablaze;
And the noise – nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.”
The Temple. Gone.
In the end, although it is holy and blessed, and set apart, it burns like any other.
Meanwhile, today, Jesus is agitating.
In the second chapter of John,
We read of his confrontation in Jerusalem over this building complex
And the system that actually steals widows’ homes away from them.
He drives out the money-changers and turns over their tables.
“What sign can you show us for doing this?” they ask.
A sign? Jesus says. You want a sign?
Destroy this Temple, and I’ll raise it up in three days.
John adds rather smoothly that Jesus is talking about his body.
In Luke, Jesus the twelve-year-old is the master of the Temple;
He’s found there by his worried parents,
As he confounds the teachers and stuns his listerners.
In Matthew, Jesus cleanses the Temple, calling all the vendors robbers,
And in the same breath, curing the lepers and the blind,
As the children surround him in the Temple
And call him out by title: “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
Everyone who wrote a gospel, had a specific use and purpose for Jesus in the Temple.
It’s complicated, like always.
But not one gospel writer was ignorant of the fact
That the Temple was gone. It Was History. Reduced to ashes and rubble.
Everybody knew it.
“Do you see these great buildings?” he’d asked them.
“Not one stone,” he’d said –
“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
The house of God, that had sacrificed the smoking of flesh animals,
Was itself now cinders.
What then? What? …
In our country, in our day and age,
There are hard-won stories about congregations whose buildings burn …
Stories of people who rise up out of the ash
And somehow, through the tragedy and the ruin, they manage to find themselves
The same people of God they’ve been all along;
Who somehow renew, build again, or don’t build but are just as happy.
Some with insurance, some in new places, some in new buildings. New hope, new life.
And others who just aren’t able to make the turn, and who walk away in grief.
In Jesus’ day the case was more extreme, for this was the one and the only such Temple.
The second such Temple built – now gone, just like the first.
So with the Jewish rebellion slowly extinguishing,
And with thousands of Jews sent away to work the mines in Egypt,
And with many other Jews being used for the amusement of the empire,
There was then no hope of rebuilding.
But people of faith, I want you to understand,
By their nature and because they believe in hope, are naturally inventive.
A new teaching was issued forth, which was actually an old teaching.
The word began to spread :
God is no longer just on clay tablets or just in buildings!
Write his law on your heart and affix his word square to your mind,
Where it cannot be taken away!
Some also said, In time … in time, a third Temple will rise:
And it shall be a house of prayer for all people.
Even so. Today we hear Jesus’ condemnation of the building in front of him,
And we have to ask ourselves
The question from the very beginning:
What do you do when the center of the world is torn away?
The long view of history is simply this:
Many people across many times and cultures have lost their sacred temples,
Their libraries and sacred texts and artifacts,
Along with their land and their livelihood,
And over time, perhaps even their language, their ways, their very sense of self.
Some rose up and went about their way; some did not rise; most are trying.
I believe, brothers and sisters, that it comes to this:
Where is God, and what is God up to?
For if God truly is intimately interconnected in all of life,
Then God is immediately and totally accessible, with no mediation at all.
A temple may help, a priest may aid, but no mediation is truly necessary.
That is a fact, and whether we want to acknowledge it has nothing to do with it,
Except that acknowledging it puts us in the flow of God in life,
Rather than our meager attempts to block that flow.
God is immediately and totally accessible, meaning everywhere all the time.
If we do anything here other than to offer ourselves in worship,
It is simply that we help to remind ourselves that that is so,
And we invite others in so that they can crack that truth open for themselves.
And if God is immediately and totally accessible,
Then it follows that God is always and everywhere giving God away.
Where is God, and what is God up to?
God is in all times and places, even in our ragged and petty hearts,
Loving creation totally, without exception,
And just giving God away.
What else could Jesus Christ and the message of the cross and empty tomb possibly be?
It also follows on that wherever you find this, …
Whenever you stop long enough to really connect with it,
Whenever you know beyond knowing that you really and truly are loved
By a force that is continually giving itself away, …
You find it’s like a warm spark on a cold morning,
And you want to breathe on that spark because of course you don’t want to lose it,
And you want to move that spark onto something that you know will catch fire –
A little kindling of some kind, stubble or straw –
And more air over the surface of it as begins to catch and warm,
And you want to feed it with twigs and small branches
And little logs and thick logs
And you want to warm up your whole being in it;
And of course, you want to call others over to it, too,
Because if God is in the business of giving God away,
As audacious as it sounds, … so should you.
In our day, in our time,
That act of kindling and breathing and stoking the fire –
It happens with giving away money and giving away time,
And it happens with giving away the things we’re best at doing
And are most naturally inclined to –
Sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others, and expecting nothing in return.
Three of the most precious commodities in our lives –
Our money, our time, and our talents –
That’s what it takes
To turn a spark into a roaring blaze.
The sort of fire that does not destroy,
But rather purifies the giver.