Restoring Hope Among Ruins and Tombstones
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Trees around Immanuel had a rough week. Winds up to 30 miles an hour blew through on Thursday and Friday that knocked most of the leaves down. I noticed Oaks and Maples fared the best. Even so, we know the brilliant yellows and flaming reds of fall must soon give way to winter. The fall leaves are quiet and gentle reminders of more challenging realities we mortals face.
Impermanence and evil are fierce and heartless foes. Jesus said, ‘Not one stone will be left upon another. All will be thrown down’ (Mark 13:2). It’s one thing when people and places we love come to their natural end. It’s ten times worse when death and destruction comes by our own human hands.
In Paris, terrorists again kicked the legs out from under whatever hope we might have that our 14-year war on terror was ending. In Greenland a glacier the size of Manhattan but four times taller than any skyscraper fell into the sea this July. (on July 23, 2015). Not three miles from here in Uptown late Tuesday, the naked infant body of a baby girl found lying in a patch of grass near Weiss hospital knocks the wind out of us. Events like these can empty our spirit. They literally knock the ruach and penuma out of us. They leave us gasping for the sacred breath of God. There is not one stone left upon another in us. All is thrown down. Our gospel challenges us a very hard question: where can we find hope even among the ruins and tombstones of our very own lives and dreams?
In our gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples are leaving the city of Jerusalem, just hours before his arrest and crucifixion. As they walk, the disciples are delighting at the splendor of the temple and of many other tall buildings they see in the city. They are unprepared for the bewilderment they will experience when they lose Jesus, and some four decades later, when they will the temple is destroyed.
In Jesus’ day, the temple in Jerusalem was one of the most impressive sights in the world. The second rebuilding led by King Herod had been underway since before Jesus’ birth. It was not finished until after his crucifixion. When Jesus and the disciples sat looking at the temple from across the Kidron valley upon the Mount of Olives, they were speaking of a brand new building.
By all accounts, it was staggeringly large and opulent. The temple had a perimeter circumference of two-thirds of a mile. Its marble walls stood 150 feet high and were constructed of blocks weighing many tons. The temple was both religiously and architecturally the center of Jewish life. It is no small wonder that Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed became the basis of their legal case against him (Mk. 14:58). To the Jewish leaders and the followers of Jesus, the temple appeared to be indestructible. Its demolition was physically an symbolically unthinkable. Yet, the Roman army brought it down in 70 C.E.
How do we rekindle our hope sitting among ruins and tombstones? Jesus taught us there is but one place to store up our treasure. Only one place where moth and rust cannot destroy and thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19). The house that time and sinful violence cannot bring down is built stone by stone as we say yes and let the Holy Spirit build us into a living sanctuary of hope and grace. We become a temple made without human hands (Mark 14:58) through our baptism into Christ. Our hearts of stone are replaced with hearts of flesh as we feast at the Lord’s Table (Ezekiel 36:26). The terrible human capacity for death and destruction has become in us an even greater power of life and love.
We experience evidence of God’s grace at work in our own despair and anguish in the face of tragic loss. We see the power that builds community rather than destroys it in the courage of first responders, the listening compassion of caring friends, and the prayers of people of faith around the world. The late great and gentle Presbyterian pastor and TV personality Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” There we will find hope to fill our empty hearts again. We find strength to restore our soul.
Research confirms what we already kinda knew—families that thrive and marriages that last are created day by day from just two building materials: kindness and generosity. St. Paul wrote, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Kindness, generosity and the fruits of the spirit are the building materials we will need to repair the breach, to restore our hope, to fulfill our mission to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. Of course, in order to do this building work we need certain tools. Fortunately, I just happen to have one of them here. (A child’s snow shovel).
Yes—the snow is about to fly again in Chicago, but I daresay this won’t help you much. No—I am not about to suggest that when you find yourself deep in number 2 God hands you a child-sized shovel. But some of you might recognize this shovel. It stood by the front door of the church along with three or four others just like it most of last winter. In the right hands it is a powerful tool to build a sanctuary to withstand life’s storms from simple kindness and generosity. This one of the shovels pre-school and play group children use to help our Sexton, Luis Vargas clear the snow. One of my favorite memories of Luis is watching him laughing and thanking children zooming up and down the front ramp, some holding their shovels backwards, pushing and pulling the snow. Just one look at this shovel, or if you’ve ever tried do a job with very young children, and you’ll know, help isn’t really the right word to use for what they managed to accomplish. It is but one example of the kindness and generosity of spirit with which Luis has welcomed guests, young and old, to Immanuel for nearly 20 years. We are going to miss him.
Vincent van Gogh, is supposed to have said, “To believe in God for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, or a stuffed one, but a living one, who with irresistible force urges us towards more loving.”
God’s word does not wither. God’s will shall not be in vain. The book of Daniel and the gospel of Mark show us that Jesus’ message was meant to kindle hope even while we stand among the ruins and tombstones of our lives. It is a call to embody the undying life of God’s grace. It is the gift and call to become the distributive justice-compassion that God intends for the world. It is a call to build a living sanctuary from simple acts of kindness and generosity wrought from our own hands and imagination. You are part of the incarnation, the personification of God’s Kingdom – together with anyone who participates in the struggle to make it real here and now. As in days of old, it is now, our sure and certain hope rests upon it.