Stones and Labor

Scripture can be found here

What is the most impressive human-made structure you’ve ever seen? True confession time for your pastor: Though I have seen my share of glorious churches and cathedrals—places like Saint John the Divine in New York, and Notre Dame in Paris; and even Neuschwanstein, that German castle that looks exactly like the Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland… when I posed this question to myself, the very first thing that came to mind was the Jacob Javitz Center in Manhattan. I visit the Javitz a couple of times a year during vacation, in my capacity as unpaid buying assistant for the Garland Gallery—my specialty is books. And it really is an amazing temple, undoubtedly, to capitalism! All steel and chrome and glass, it was actually chosen as the site for the party that never happened, the celebration of the first woman president. They chose it because of the potent symbolism of “breaking the glass ceiling.”

One of the things about powerful architecture is that it grabs your eyes and will not let them go. You’ve seem images of the Sydney Opera House, no? (Kids, you’ll remember it from “Finding Nemo!”) Or maybe the Guggenheim Museum in New York City? Or, even, the Masonic Temple in Binghamton—long abandoned, but still imposing, in a spooky kind of way.

But a funny thing happened to me one time I was in the Javitz center, that temple to capitalism. One year—last year—the New York Now Gift Show took place at the same time as the famous total solar eclipse—the first time one of those had been visible to people across the contiguous United States since 1918. And while going about my shopping, I noticed that day that people rushed outside throughout the afternoon, with their spiffy safe viewing lenses, eager to see, at least, the partial eclipse that would be on view where we were. It was clear to anyone present that day that even the most impressive building couldn’t hold our attention, once the solar system had something fascinating to show us. As Carl Sagan once said, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, first you must create the universe.” The universe—and its Creator—is still the show stealer, every time.

This morning we pick up exactly where we left off last Sunday, near the final climactic scenes from the gospel according to Mark. As Jesus approaches the end of his [earthbound] life, he seems to be musing on the end of everything. We find him, in our passage, leaving the temple, where he has been preaching, and teaching, and engaging in verbal skirmishes with religious leaders who are mighty threatened by his peculiar and compelling brand of authority, accompanied as it is by acts of astonishing power and healing.

As they exit, Jesus’ disciples marvel at the massive stones of the temple. The temple was something to marvel at. Solomon’s original temple, built by slaves much as our White House was, had been destroyed by the soldiers of the Babylonian empire nearly 600 years earlier. A generation after that, Ezra and Nehemiah built a new one, with the permission of the Persian emperor Cyrus. That temple was… lackluster. Scripture tells us, those who remembered Solomon’s wondrous structure cried when they saw it. When Herod the Great came along, he decided an overhaul was in order, and he had the temple expanded and refurbished and rebuilt into something truly magnificent. This is the temple in which Jesus stood and preached, and the one he and his disciples were gazing upon as they walked through the city at the end of a long day.

“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” they said; to which Jesus replied,  “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Now that is a cold cup of water upon their enthusiasm.

And of course, Jesus is right. Within a generation of this conversation, the Temple will be defiled, and looted, and razed to the ground by the merciless Roman armies. Jerusalem and all those who have not managed to escape into the surrounding hillside, will be destroyed.

And it sounds like a harsh statement, a puzzling statement, unless we consider the context in which Jesus makes it. Imagine how he is feeling…

I read some really bad theology the other day.  It tried to make the case that Jesus had no human emotions. I am really puzzled how anyone can square that with the Jesus we meet in the gospels. Jesus has compassion. Jesus is passionate. Jesus gets angry… the gospels tell us all these things, very clearly. So, the idea that Jesus is completely neutral, or removed from human feeling… if the gospels are reliable at all, it simply isn’t true. According to Reformed theology, Jesus is like us in all ways but sin.

So, imagine Jesus’ feelings. The cross is looming. I cannot buy that he isn’t affected by that. In fact, Mark tells us that, on the night before he dies, Jesus says to his friends, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” Jesus prays,  “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Jesus prays that he won’t have to drink the bitter potion of that painful death. This scene takes place a little more than 24 hours after the one we are reading about this morning. 

I think we have a glimpse of how Jesus feels. And we can’t call it despair, because Jesus is clear that he wants his will to align with his Father’s. But Jesus is in a mood to call out the shortsightedness of being impressed by great and glorious human-made structures… even the beautiful and holy worship place of his people. 

“One day this building will be ashes,” Jesus is saying. Those who know the history of our church know that truth very well. On May 17, 1906, our church, or at least, the one that stood where our church stands now, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, and just two pews survived. (You can sit on one of them, if you want, before you go out the Liberty Avenue door after worship.)  

Buildings come and buildings go, and that’s a fact. But it’s pretty clear that Jesus doesn’t want the disciples to dwell on the specifics of these events. When they ask for more information, Jesus is more concerned that they not be led astray by those who falsely claim God’s authority. 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned, “It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell; or to be too certain about any details of the Kingdom of God in which history is consummated.”[i]

Yes, Jesus says, terrible things will happen. But it’s not for you to dwell on that now; this is just the beginning of the birthpangs. 

And with this, the conversation shifts from concern with stones and buildings and wars and destruction, to something entirely different: the image of childbirth. It’s as if Jesus is trying to think of the one thing over which, in a certain way, we have the least possible control. OWe who are or have been modern parents-to-be can plan and prep, and take classes and practice our coaching and breathing. We can prepare the nursery and work very hard to give ourselves the illusion that we are in control, but if there’s anything a first century woman knew for sure about childbirth, it was that it was to be respected as a mysterious and natural process that no one could control, not really, not with an infant mortality rate somewhere between 40 and 50%.

So what is Jesus talking about? What are these mysterious birthpangs? Human-made structures come and go. Fact. But what does not come and go, is the marvelous, majestic, universe and solar-eclipse creating power of God, and whatever it is that God is seeking to bring to birth in us. The question is, what is that, exactly?

When I look back over the conversations Jesus has been having—and, yes, even the arguments—this is what I see:

I see a story about a poor widow who gives all she has.

I see warnings about leaders—especially religious ones—who are hypocrites, caring more about their own image than about the people who have been entrusted into their care. 

I see Jesus directing people away from a focus on “what will I get” and “what is owed me,” an towards a focus on “what do I owe the world” and “how can I help my neighbor.”

And at the center of it all—smack in the middle of the conversations and fights—is the focus, again, on that core of our faith, the greatest commandments. Jesus says:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” ~Mark 12:29-31 

God is seeking to bring something marvelous to birth in us… something more splendid than a thousand Cinderella castles, or Javitz Centers, or cathedrals. God is seeking to bring something lasting to birth in us… something that will outlast the greatest stones of the greatest temples. In fact, God is seeking to bring to birth in everyone, everywhere, in every time and place, the only thing that will last, and the only thing that is more powerful than the fear that is beginning to creep into Jesus’ inner circle, causing the disciples’ knees to go weak and their hearts to pound. The only thing that matters. Of course, it has to be love.  

I suppose love is a predictable end to every sermon. But really, love is the only beginning we can rely upon. It is love that will bear the disciples up when the terrible events of Holy Week are finished. It is love that bears us up when our hearts are broken by loss. It is love that persuades people to try to bring more love into the world, by giving birth or embracing in adoption the children they will cherish forever. It is love that gets us out into the streets to protest racism and violence and to insist, there is a better way. It is love that stands amidst the ashes of places like 200 East Main Street or Paradise, California, and says, “We will rebuild, and it will be more beautiful than ever.” It is love that drives Jesus’ strong words to his disciples, words of comfort and encouragement for what lies ahead. It is love that draws us into communities of faith and purpose, to do, together, things we cannot do alone. It is love that prompted the Creator of everything that is to make a universe so that we could have one another and apple pies and solar eclipses and sunrises and views of mountains and rivers and snowstorms that take our breath away, and prompt us to marvel at their exquisite beauty. It is love that God wants to bring to birth in us, nothing more, but also, nothing less.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: Volume II: Human Destiny (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1941), 294.