The Word is eternal, buildings are not
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jason Burns
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Mass., on 14 Nov. 2021 [Proper 28; Year B]:
Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
There is a Star Trek the Next Generation Episode called “Devils Due” in which the people of Ventax II are horrified because all the signs that predict the coming of Ardra, the devil, have begun appearing. Their mythology says that their ancestors agreed to be enslaved by Ardra in exchange for 1000 years of peace and that they would know it was time by quakes and other signs. Well, the clock is telling them that it has been 1000 years, quakes have increased and they have enjoyed peace so logically they assume Ardra is coming. It turns out that there never was an Ardra and the signs of her return were being artificially created by someone to take advantage of the Ventaxians.
I think we are all aware of the book of Revelations, even if we haven’t read it, which is where the idea that in the end times there will be a great war between good and evil and at the end of it, God will sit in judgement of us all. Mark’s message today sounds quite gloomy and seems to be pointing to the end times described in Revelations, but he isn’t pointing to Revelations and Revelations isn’t even about the end times, but that is a different discussion. What Mark is telling us is that the things we make to feel connected to God, things like buildings, vestments, candles, even ideas will eventually fade away. The temple in Israel was destroyed within 40 years of the death of Jesus and it was never rebuilt, but that did not end Judaism or Christianity. The other thing Mark is telling us is that there are going to be many wars, there are going to be many natural disasters, and there are going to be many people who claim to be Jesus or to know the mind of God, but none of them are a sign that the end is near; they are simply life, they are signs that humans are still being human and that we are still not ready to fully enter the kingdom of God because we are still not focused on God or God’s vision for creation.
I would like us to take a few seconds to look around and soak in our surroundings. What do we see? What do we hear? What do we feel, not emotionally, but physically? This, (stamp floor) is a construct that represents the church, it is a temple, and it is no different than the temple Jesus and the disciples were staring at from atop the Mt. of Olives. And just like that one, this one will someday be gone because nothing made with human hands lasts forever; though we like to pretend it does. We like to pretend that God is only present at certain times and in certain places, as if we can control and contain God.
It feels like we live in a turbulent time, our nation seems more divided than ever, not just politically, but emotionally, philosophically, and even physically. We are afraid of each other; we are afraid to share our ideas for fear that we will be attacked or abused, because that is what happens and it is causing us to retreat into ourselves. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has taken the life of over 5 million people and yet we continue to argue about wearing masks because we find them uncomfortable or believe that we have a right to decide. We continue to argue over how safe the COVID-19 vaccines are, even though we have no clue at all how they work, ignoring that they have been administered 7.5 billion times across the globe, with only 3 confirmed deaths linked to them. To put this in perspective, 458 people die each year from liver related issues linked to the overuse of Tylenol, but we aren’t debating that.
My purpose is not to start a fight about COVID protocols or anything else, my purpose is simply to draw our attention to a fundamental question, which is, where is God in all of these issues? Where is God in St. Philip’s? Where is God in the arguments over masks and vaccines, and all the other things we argue about? These arguments and wars are not a sign that the end is near, they are a sign that we continue to ignore God, that we continue to keep God out there, instead of recognizing that God is in us. Mark’s warning is that our faith will be tested, that we will be distracted, and that the things we construct to represent our faith will eventually be destroyed. The rest of this Chapter from Mark describes many other doom and gloom examples of how we may know the end is near, but near the end of the chapter Mark slips in this: 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” There it is! The entire point. Everything we perceive in the world, everything we have built will bend to the will of time, but the words of Christ Jesus, who is The Word, the one who is the source of all that is good, who resides in us all, will never decay, will never pass away. For the past month we have been hearing about the many ministries St. Philip’s has to offer and we will be hearing about another one today. All of these ministries have something in common and that is that they are not products of this building, they are manifestations of the Word of God as revealed through the lives of the faithful people who call themselves St. Philip’s. The people sitting next to you and the people who are tuning in at home and the work that you do to share the love of God is St. Philip’s.
So that being true, to end I want to plant a question for you to hold in prayer this week, but before I do I want to warn you that you are likely not going to like the question, you will likely have a knee jerk reaction to it and be dismissive of it, and that is okay; that’s all I ask is that you not reject it outright and that you let it rattle around for a week or more. So here it is: If you had to make a choice between keeping this beautiful building or ensuring the continuation of the many ministries of St. Philip’s for another 150 years, which would you choose?