Sunday, November 17, 2019
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he 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.
Once upon a time, early in the 19th century, there was a very grand church with a famous pastor, named the Broadway Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was one of New York City’s premiere meeting places. Famous politicians spoke from its pulpit. Mendelssohn’s oratorio, “Elijah” had its American premiere in that space.
Eventually, the congregation sold the first building and moved further uptown, into what is now Herald Square. The second building was also a grand edifice, with famous pastors, including one who was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. The second building didn’t last long as the first, as the railroads made the church an offer they could not refuse.
The third and last building, constructed at the end of the 19th century, was the grandest of them all. It was known as the Cathedral Church of Congregationalism, occupying half a city block near Columbus Circle. It was known as the world’s first skyscraper church because its office tower rose ten stories. It’s ornate gothic sanctuary seated 1600 people. And once again, well-known preachers were called as pastor.
But then everything changed. In those years after the Second World War, as people moved to the suburbs, the church’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Membership dwindled while the costs of maintaining such an edifice increased. Finally, in 1969, in a contentious vote that split the congregation right down the middle, it was decided that this building would be sold to developers and that the great Broadway Tabernacle would become “a church without walls.” Instead of maintaining a building, they would use their money to build a ministry for the poor of New York. But lofty ambitions and hard-nosed reality are so often not the same. And instead of turning outward in mission, eventually their homelessness turned them inward.
By the time I became their pastor in 2006, the grand experiment of “the church without walls” had worn very thin. And so it was my job to help them see past their homelessness and to look toward their potential. And we did have some success. The congregation doubled in size. Our ministries expanded. We turned our attention outward. But we were never able to fully escape the specter of our homelessness. And I was haunted by the fact that this once great congregation, with an enviable building in a city full of enviable buildings, had no walls of its own.
In January 2018, on my very first Sunday as your Senior Minister, I looked up from this pulpit and in the congregation was my friend and mentor, the Rev. Dr. Bonnie Rosborough. Bonnie had been my predecessor at that “church without walls.” She knew well the struggles of that homeless flock. After the service was over, I found Bonnie standing by my office door waiting for me. We embraced and then she put both her hands on my shoulders and with a twinkle in her eye, announced: “Baby, you’ve got walls now!”
And isn’t that the truth! These magnificent walls, this grand house, this architectural gem is a blessing that I am grateful for every day. I sometimes walk through this room, when no one else is here, and I think of all the prayers and baptisms and weddings and funerals and praise and love and sacrifice and music that have filled this space, and I am overcome with gratitude for these walls and all the stability and history and sense of permanence they represent.
One day, Jesus and his disciples were walking by the temple in Jerusalem. And oh my, what walls those were! It was one of the marvels of the ancient world, constructed during the reign of Herod the Great. The first century historian, Josephus, described the Temple like this: the retaining walls alone were composed of stones that were forty feet long. The temple platform was twice as large as the Roman forum; four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis. And the outer walls of that monumental structure were covered with pure gold. It was said that if one looked at the Temple for more than a few seconds as it reflected the sun, one risked blindness.
Well, the disciples were quite taken by this sight. And no doubt they expected Jesus to share their excitement. But Jesus simply replied: “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
And that is exactly what happened. In the year 70 of this Common Era, the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and utterly destroyed the Temple and most of the city. It was exactly as Jesus had predicted: not one stone was left upon another. It was an apocalypse, in the most common use of that word. But more importantly, it was an apocalypse in the truest sense of that word. It was a revelation, an unveiling.
When the grand Broadway Tabernacle was erected, no one could ever imagine that there were be a time when not one of its stones would be left upon another. When the World Trade Center was built, no one could imagine that there would come a time when not one stone would be left upon another. When Herod’s Temple was dedicated, gleaming in the sun, no one could imagine that there would come a day when not one stone would be left upon another. And no one could imagine that standing in the rubble of one’s dreams that a truth that saves was waiting to be revealed.
Temples and Tabernacles and skyscrapers are but metaphors for our grand illusions of permanence and control. But no matter how carefully they are constructed or how much it costs to build them or how much they are admired by passersby, in the end, they all crumble and fall.
In her book, God in Pain, the great preacher Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the relationship between rubble and dust and disillusionment and revelation. She writes: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion – about ourselves, about the world, about God – and while it is always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”
In recent months, without my ever realizing it, I was, once again, in the midst of a huge construction project. I was building one of my favorite Temples called control. Without my ever realizing it, I was spending every waking moment laying brick upon brick in what I imagined my perfect world would and should look like. This is a world where nothing bad happens. In that world, my parents will live forever. And Marcos and I will have years of healthy and happy retirement. And our country will heal. And climate change won’t destroy us. That is the Temple of my dreams. And its construction and its maintenance take a great deal of effort. And still I couldn’t understand why I was so tired and frustrated and irritable.
But then one day, right in the shower, I experienced a true apocalypse; an unveiling. And I realized what I had been doing. And I realized, yet again, that I am not God. And I realized, yet again, that I was called to trust in God in the midst of life’s uncertainties. And I realized, yet again, that what God has actually promised me is not rescue, but presence.
And that is exactly what Jesus said at the end of this passage. Jesus described life as we experience it: unpredictable with wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, persecutions, and family betrayal. But then, in the midst of all of that chaos, Jesus made this promise: “Not a hair of your head will perish.” In other words, the One who made you will never forsake you. And on that foundation, you can build your lives.
Thanks be to God. Amen.