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November 14, 2021

I still can’t believe that it’s gone.  My grandparents’ house has been torn down.  It was a necessary thing to do, for many reasons.  But I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that it’s not there anymore.  The place where we had all of those Sunday dinners and games of canasta and Old Maid, the epic hide-and-seek adventures with my sisters and cousins, the sleepovers and the good snacks.

Of course, my grandparents are no longer here either.  I like to imagine what they’re up to in eternal life, my grandfather telling stories with his signature philosophy – “Don’t mess up a good story with the facts” – and my grandmother admonishing him gently to maybe pay a little bit of attention to the facts.

It’s difficult to accept that buildings don’t last forever, especially the ones that are important to us.  Even when they appear strong and immovable, they will eventually come down. It’s even more difficult to accept that people don’t last forever, at least not in this life.  We grieve for so many who have left us.

The impermanence of everything is what makes the perpetual upkeep of a building and its property so daunting.  Just ask John and Tim and Rich and Elaine and Dana and Jen and others who have been working so hard to take care of the property here while floor tiles insist on buckling and stairs keep crumbling.  There’s an endless list of things that need attention, and we’re so grateful for the people who give so generously of their time to attend to those things.

Will this building be here 500 years from now?  Who knows?  If it is, it might look quite different.  Maybe the flying cars won’t need parking lot stripes?

In today’s gospel one of Jesus’ disciples gestures to the temple with admiration: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and large buildings!”  The Temple was a point of pride, the center of worship life for the Jewish people, the place where they knew they could encounter God in various ways.

The first century historian Josephus was among those to document the wonder of the temple in Jerusalem during Jesus’ day.[i]  Herod the Great had made sure the retaining walls were made of stones that were forty feet long.  The temple’s footprint was twice as big as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis.  Herod had also covered the outside walls with gold so they would shine brightly for all to see.

So the disciple’s awe as he gazes on the temple makes sense.  What doesn’t make sense, at least to his listeners, is how Jesus responds: “Do you see these great buildings?” he says. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  These words were so shocking to those who heard them that they would later be used against Jesus when he is arrested and put on trial.  How dare he say such ridiculous things!  And if talking about the temple disappearing weren’t bad enough, Jesus goes on to describe false prophets, wars and divisions, earthquakes and famines.

Now is a good time to review what we have to remember about all biblical texts.  Each biblical passage or story has a relationship to at least three different time periods.

The first is the world in the text.  In this case that’s the world of Jesus spending time with his disciples as he knows his death is drawing ever closer.  He speaks to them about dramatic events that will happen at some undesignated time in the future.  And as we often hear in the gospel of Mark, the disciples don’t fully understand what he means.  Peter, James, John, and Andrew approach him later in private to ask some follow-up questions, like “When will all this crazy stuff happen?”

That’s the world in the text.  But there’s also the world behind the text.  The gospel of Mark wasn’t written down until decades after the time of Jesus, probably sometime in the midst of the war between the Jews and Rome, a war that took place from the year 66 to the year 74.  The Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70.  So you can imagine that those traumatic events unfolding as the gospel is being recorded might have made their way into the text.  By the time Mark is being written down, it’s not hypothetical that the Temple will be reduced to rubble. It’s quite real.

Finally, there’s the world in front of the text.  That’s our world.  We read these stories through the lens of our own time, our own experiences.  I don’t have to work that hard to imagine dramatic events now that could correspond to what Jesus is describing.  There’s plenty of chaos in our world. A global pandemic, political divisions wreaking havoc everywhere, the worsening manifestations of climate change – storms, wildfires, floods, tornadoes.  We’ve had most of those here in New Jersey just in the last six months.

I’m not suggesting we should be apocalypse alarmists, looking for signs everywhere that the world is about to end.  But I do think it’s worth asking what we might be called to do as people of faith in the midst of chaos.

Remember what Jesus says at the end of today’s gospel: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  He’s saying that there’s probably more pain coming, but it’s part of a birth process.  Something new is being born.  We don’t yet know what it will look like, but we can trust that God is with us in the labor. It’s one of the reasons I love that line in our Prayer of the Day: “Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.”  The chaos might swirl around us, but we can be rooted in God’s faithful presence.  We can be steadfast because God has shown us steadfast love from generation to generation.

We hear some additional wisdom in our second reading from Hebrews, which reminds us that Jesus has made the ultimate sacrifice for our sake and for the sake of the world.  Jesus has opened to us “a new and living way.”  And so what does the author of Hebrews say we ought to do in response?  To hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, to consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.

What might that look like, that provoking each other to good deeds?  How will we find ways to care for the earth so that our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren have a viable place to live?  How will we care for each other, encouraging each other when it feels like we just can’t keep going?  How will we care for the poor and the struggling, those who experience a disproportionate amount of harm when the world is in chaos?

No matter how mighty the building, it will eventually crumble.  No matter how powerful the person, they will eventually die.  Nothing lasts forever.  We could hear that news and turn inward, indulging our most selfish impulses until our own time comes.  Or we could turn toward each other.  We could turn toward the needs of the world.

Today Jesus reminds us that death and destruction are not the final chapter in the story of the people of God.  As my dear friend Audrey West wrote yesterday, “Just as stones can be thrown down from a building to reveal an ending, so, too, can they be rolled away from a tomb to reveal a new beginning.”[ii]

We’re just a few steps into a new beginning in our time.  We have no idea what lies ahead, but we know that we are held up by the strength of God and called to bear God’s life-giving hope to a world in need.

As we take those steps, however tentatively, we sing and we pray.  We’re about to sing the old hymn “Built on a Rock,” a hymn that imagines how the church in its truest sense will stand even when buildings crumble and fall.  Among my favorite lines in that hymn are these: “Yet God who dwells in heav’n above deigns to abide with us in love, making our bodies his temple.”

Making our bodies God’s temple.  What we carry out into the world, what we embody with our hands and hearts and voices…that is the truest version of church.  May God grant us the faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2010-not-one-stone

[ii] Thank you to Audrey for her Facebook post on November 13, 2021: “On tomorrow’s apocalyptic lectionary text:  No matter how powerful the person or how mighty the building, it cannot last forever. However, God’s own Messiah assures his followers that death and the destruction of the Temple do not represent the final chapter in the story of the people of God. Just as stones can be thrown down from a building to reveal an ending, so, too, can they be rolled away from a tomb to reveal a new beginning.”


November 7, 2021

Have you ever cried but tried to hide your tears so no one else would see them?  Maybe you’ve hidden in a bathroom at work or at school so that you could cry alone. You might have even run the water to drown out the sound of your sobbing.  Maybe you’ve locked yourself away in a bedroom or cried in the middle of the night when no one could hear you.

I have a hunch that most of us have hidden our tears at one time or another.  Our world gives us some mixed-up messages about crying.  It tells us that we’re soft or weak or wimpy if we cry.  We’re made to feel ashamed of our tears, so we find ourselves apologizing when we cry in front of someone else.  “I’m so sorry,” we say.  As if crying were a sign of a character flaw.  I think that stigma is especially true for men and for boys, who are often taught from an early age that tears aren’t “masculine.”

There are quite a few tears in today’s readings.  Did you notice?  They show up in all the readings except our psalm. There are a lot of tears in the gospel.  Those tears are understandable given that Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus has died.  When Mary meets Jesus, she comes to him crying.  She is crying for her dead brother, and I wonder if she’s also crying because she’s angry at Jesus – angry that he has waited so long to show up.  Her words suggest as much: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Tears are, among other things, signs of grief.  And grief is usually a sign of love.  Tears means that we have loved someone enough that our hearts are broken when that person dies.  We are forever changed, and we can’t help but express that loss.

So Mary cries.  And then Jesus cries.  He cries for his friend Lazarus, and he cries as he sees his friend Mary grieving for her brother. 

Before Jesus encounters Mary, he’s already had a run-in with her sister Martha.  Martha runs out to meet Jesus on the road, and she is the first to say to him: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  She asks Jesus to do something.  Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.”  And Martha answers: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  I imagine her tone of voice suggesting that she’s not too interested in what will happen later.  Her brother is dead now.  Her grief, her tears, her pain are real now.

That’s just it.  We know that Jesus promises resurrection, life beyond death.  He says as much to Martha when he says to her: “I am the resurrection and the life.”  We hear those future promises in our other readings as well.  Isaiah tells us that God will swallow up death. God will wipe away the tears from all faces.  No more crying.  In Revelation we hear the same promise: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

Those are powerful promises, and I believe them. But in the meantime we are grieving.  For now we still weep.  What about that?

It’s important to acknowledge that in this life grief is real and lasting.  It’s especially important to say that out loud in a time when we have lost more than 754,000 people to COVID in the United States and more than five million around the world.  Each one of those people was beloved by family members and friends and co-workers.  Each one leaves behind a void that no one else can fill.  Each one was unique, created in the image of God.  The same is true of all the people we have loved and lost, no matter how they died.

There’s another part of today’s readings that strikes me as important.  People are not alone when they cry.  Our reading from Isaiah imagines a feast of rich food, of well-aged wines.  That doesn’t sound like a person huddled alone in a closet.  That sounds like people gathered around a table overflowing with delicious food and drink, sharing together in a meal in the midst of their grief – a grief that God will remove when God swallows up death forever.

When Mary goes out to greet Jesus and kneel at her feet, she is crying.  When Jesus looks up and sees her tears, he also sees her friends and neighbors weeping with her.  Her community has surrounded her and feels Mary’s grief alongside her.

Who do you trust to see your tears?  Who do you trust to cry along with you?  That’s what we need when we are grieving – people to sit with us and cry with us and not try to convince us that everything will be OK but instead just be with us in the grief.

We remember on this day that we are part of the communion of saints.  We are joined with all the people of God – past, present, and future.  We inherit the gift of faith from our ancestors, we share it with others and receive it from others in our lives, and we pass it along to the next generation.  That faith takes on new shapes and practices over time, but some things remain central.  The waters of baptism, the bread and wine of communion.  We gather beside the water and around the table to remind each other that we are not alone.  God is with us.  We are with each other.

I’ve shared with you before some of Rachel Held Evans’ writing.  She died two years ago at the tragically young age of 37.  One of her friends, Jeff Chu, helped pull together the new book Rachel had been working on when she died.  It’s out now, titled Wholehearted Faith.  I find it poignant that in the Prologue, Rachel talks about the communion of saints.  She writes[i]:

For better or for worse, there are seasons when we hold our faith, and then there are seasons when our faith holds us.  In those latter instances, I am more thankful than ever for all the saints, past and present, who said yes, and whose faith sustains mine. They believe for me when I’m not sure I believe.  They hold on to hope for me when I’ve run out of hope. They are the old lady next to me in the pew and the little kid behind me who recite the entirety of the Apostles’ Creed on my behalf on those Sundays when I cannot bring myself to say all those ancient words wholeheartedly…They pray for me when the only words I have to say to God are…[ones that] would make even my most foulmouthed friend blush.

As Rachel knew so well, we are a communion of saints.  A community of people created and bound together by God across time and space.  People who are inconsistently faithful but who, in our care for one another, can catch glimpses of that day when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

And so, saints of God, when your tears come, let them flow.  God is with us, and we weep together.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i] Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu, Wholehearted Faith, p. 3

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