Sermon, 11/14/21: Do not believe everything that you think!

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25 Pentecost

Canticle: I Sam. 2:1–10; I Samuel 1:4–20; Hebrews 10:11–25; Mark 13: 1–8

As Jesus came out of the Temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Mark 13:1

At an electric traffic signal, while driving on Friday afternoon to the parish, I came along side an SUV which sported a sticker that read: “Do not believe everything that you think.”  I chuckled aloud and wondered why I couldn’t have thought of that catchy phrase and had it copyrighted.  And as I sat at my desk, contemplating the lectionary appointed for this 25th Sunday after Pentecost, I read again the following:

As Jesus came out of the Temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’  Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’  Mark13:1ff.

With the SUV’s catchy phrase still fresh in my mind, an unanswered and unanswerable question occurred me.  Was the response which Jesus gives this unnamed disciple, his way of saying “Do not believe everything that you think”?  Given what we know about the character and ambitions of Peter, James, John, and Andrew, who later came privately to Jesus, we can speculate what was on their minds: ‘What will replace this temple?  Where will we fit in?’  All appropriate questions from those men who had given up all that they had in order to establish the kingdom of God as Jesus had described it to them. 

However, I know not what the unnamed disciple thought when he expressed his awe and wonderment of the great edifice before him.  Let us not forget that the group closest to Jesus were not city dwellers, but were the blue-collar men of their era, from small villages that did not sport stone buildings with spires.  But I could and can image or suggest several thoughts, for you and I have been in that disciple’s situation at one time or other in our own lives.   

Just this week I had watched on YouTube a video of the rededication of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, a building second only in size to the Basilica in Rome, dedicated to Christian worship.  For decades nicknamed by New Yorkers “St. John’s The Unfinished,” it took a fire to reignite the push to finish this beautiful, awe-inspiring structure. And the restoration took over a decade.  Stone carvers, required for a project of this nature, are in slight supply in the USA.  And we cannot ignore the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, which essentially was demolished in our own time by fire, and which will take decades to rebuild.  We know, as well, that cathedrals took centuries to build, and that in most instances, the original architect/builder never lived to see his work in its completed form.  But I digress.

What thoughts went through the mind of the unnamed disciple, I do not know!  Just sheer wonder for sure but, looking up at and amazed by the size and material of the Temple, could he perhaps have thought, “Our religion is better than that of neighboring Syria.  Our God is stronger than those of Egypt!  Our temple attests to our future, that Israel will rise again as a great nation.”  What did the unnamed disciple think?  The feelings that prompted this exclamation surely gave rise to other feelings and questions.  And Jesus’ response was, like the sign on the SUV, ‘Do not believe everything that you think!’

Theologians more learned than I, especially as they read the words, “I shall tear down this temple and rebuild it in three days”, state with biblically based validity that Jesus was attempting to show what kind of death he was to die.  One of the gospellers stated as such.   However, I propose another understanding of Jesus’ concern, especially as presented to us in today’s gospel.  I propose an urgency, a this-earth-centered directive that we dare not ignore.

What was so distressing to Jesus about, first, the unnamed disciple’s reaction to seeing the imposing Temple in Jerusalem and, second, about the hidden agenda of Peter, James, John and Andrew?  What was it that Jesus should launch into the equivalent of a doomsday diatribe?  What did they think, i.e., believe, that that building was the dwelling place of God?

On the surface, nothing about their praise of the beauty of the Temple should have upset Jesus.  Religious Hebrews were expected to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  The Temple was holy, as it was dedicated to God.  None of us had the privilege of seeing the Temple that stood in Jesus’ day.  However, this much we know: it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.  That is to say, it was architecturally pleasing to the eye.  Millions who travelled pre-COVID to Rome to see the Sistine Chapel, or to Vienna, Austria, to St. Stephen’s Cathedral on Cathedral Square, or to listen to organ concerts in the gilded Baroque Churches on the villa-lined Ring Strasse, or stop off at the Cathedral in Florence, Italy, where one can climb, step by dizzying step, into the tower that stands separated from the church itself, and stand in awe of the architectural beauty of those structure. 

Even for those among us who may never leave America’s shores, are often moved in reverent silence or a voiced “wow.”  Make a pilgrimage to our own National Cathedral, the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, in Washington, D.C., where, just a week ago, the State Funeral for recently deceased General Colin Powell was held.  You will understand the awe of the unnamed disciple. 

May I be so bold as to suggest that we have other cathedrals, not of a religious nature in a traditional sense, but which evoke the same awe and wonderment which the unnamed disciple expressed?  Here, no farther than five miles away from Teele Square, we encounter cathedrals of a different nature, but which, nevertheless, call up within us emotions similar to those of the unnamed disciple: our gilded dome Capital Building at the top of Beacon Hill. 

We do not have in Boston the tall cathedrals of Manhattan or Hong Kong, but we have the Pru (Prudential Building) and the John Hancock Building.  We do not worship in those places, at least not in a traditional sense.  However, do we not stand in awe and wonderment of what we have accomplished and what might and power they show to the world?”  And some hundreds of miles away, but still reachable in a day’s journey (or within hours, should we fly), does not our National Capitol, built by slaves, but desecrated 6 January 2021 by insurrectionists—do these buildings not evoke memories of temples built to honor Greek and Roman gods?

So, why should Jesus become upset? Why the shocking tirade?  If he claims to be the Son of God, why would he not want God to be glorified?  To answer that question requires only a brief reminder of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary.  In that praise of God is to be found Jesus’ rejection of what the Temple had come to signify.  Mary sings: “He (God) has put down the mighty from their seat.”  Religion, as it would appear, at least on the surface, was reserved for the rich.  It was, and still is for us Christians today, that which disturbed Jesus.  Biblical Israel, for all our desire to elevate that nation above all nations, as almost godly and without fault, was no less a classed society than is the United States of America.  The poor were not truly welcomed to share in the beauty, for they could not afford a wedding garment, i.e., their attire gave them away as being unworthy of remaining in the temple precincts except to pay their dues.  That symbol of privilege had to be not simply dismantled but destroyed!

Prior to the pandemic, I believed that I encountered a temple made not by hands, the kind that Jesus proposed and the Prophet Isaiah envisaged.  It was a Friday afternoon when I took the 71 bus from my home in Watertown into Harvard for a review session with several students at the Science Center.  For the 15 minutes ride, I stood, not because there were no seats, but because I would be sitting for ca. 3 hours behind a desk.  And because I stood, I witnessed temple-building in its living, miniature form at the Watertown/Cambridge line where Star Market is situated. There, a woman, laden with a pizza box, her own heavy shoulder bag, and a paper CVS bag, boarded the bus. 

As she sat down, the CVS bag ripped and its contents fell onto the floor.  A woman sitting opposite her bent over from her seat and retrieved several of the items and returned them to the woman.  Seated next to woman #1, a third woman reached into her own bag, pulled out a plastic bag and gave it to woman #1.  “Thanks” and “you’re welcome” were exchanged.  And then a conversation developed between woman #1 and woman #3.  When the three women began to alight from the bus at Harvard, thanks were again exchanged and I thought, Butler, that was why the Prophet Isaiah was so giddy, so effusive of praise of God’s new Jerusalem, and what Jesus wanted his disciples, and anyone else who might be listening, to understand.  God’s temple was established and magnified in people. 

On a random Friday evening, God was in that place, in a temple not made by hands.  Three quite different woman, each previously unknown to the other and to the rest of us on that trackless trolley, demonstrated the Good News proclaimed by Christ, namely God the Creator seeks to build community, to reunite us all to God, but using human actions to bring it about.  Woman #1 was African American.  Woman #2, judging from her attire, was Muslim.  Woman #3, from her appearance and accented English, was Asian.

Serious commitment, not to talking, but to doing, is what God has called us to be about, living out the values of love and justice each day of their lives.  And frankly, as a mere parish priest, I do not think that God is too terribly interested in our rhetoric, or even, dare I say, in our theology, or our buildings, however much we need them and appreciate them.

The sticker on the window of the SUV read: ‘Do not believe everything that you think.’  That was precisely the message, so I believe, that Jesus imparted to his disciples and tells even us.  The glory of and to God is not to be found or constrained in and by a building, however magnificent the Temple may be architecturally.

So, if not there, where?  What, indeed, are the true stones out of which the temple of God is made?  That question remains as stark, unadorned, and as penetrating today, as it did then.  The Good News of Jesus of Nazareth is: Each of us carries within ourselves a different kind of stone, one that contributes to that temple not made by hands.  And to that our Creator God who entrusts us with this crucial building block, I utter my humble thanks and sing high praise.  Amen