Gospel: Luke 21:5-19
1st Reading: Malachi 4:1-2a
2nd Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
The first time I walked into this sanctuary, I felt right at home. I was here interviewing in the summer of 2004. The same artist who carved all this beautiful wood, also carved the wood in the sanctuary of my home congregation. Maybe it was a sign that it was meant to be, or maybe it was a co-incidence. That evening, I met the call committee and found a group of faithful people, trying to do God’s work and listen to God’s voice. Then when I was called here to be your pastor, I found the same. And I have seen God at work in you ever since.
First I saw the building. Then I saw the representatives of the congregation. Then I met each of you. Then I saw God through you.
“Some were speaking about the Temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.” These carvings are beautiful in their own right. They create a warmth in this space. They sometimes seem to glow from within because of the kind of wood and stain used to make them. Yet, there is more to them—they call to mind our faith, remind us of the kind of God we have, and who we are in relationship to God and each other. Jesus has his arms open in invitation. He is on a cross of sorts, but he is also raising to new life. The wounds on his hands, feet and sides, aren’t just gorey marks of suffering, but they are marked with a cross—a holy sign of God’s love and presence and sacrifice. The pulpit is carved with words reminding us of who God is and who we are in relationship to God. They are words of encouragement and empowerment for us and all who enter this space, because we need that strength and hope to move forward, because we are God’s messengers and workers doing what needs to be done. The wood around the sanctuary forms a cross on either side, as well as a kind of crown for our true King of Kings, the head of us, the people, the body of Christ.
I have heard many people say how lovely they find our sanctuary, and a few who have a few issues with it, but mainly compliments. Yet, we all know that the building isn’t what it is all about. This is a tool to do God’s work. It is a gift to be used up in service to God’s people.
How can we both honor the building--make it warm and inviting, and use it up for God’s work. We want the church yard to look nice, so that it is inviting, yet, realistically there is only so much we can do. I remember once many years ago, a retired pastor visited our congregation. On his way out, he pointed out the moss growing on the curbs. I thanked him, bewildered. Who cares how much moss is growing, as long as the people are doing God’s work! That’s how I feel about it! I have prayed for that man many times since. Yet, I understand he was trying to be helpful and at the next cleanup day the moss was cleaned up. How much different I would have felt about this visitor if he had first paid us a compliment on something we got right—there must have been something—joined the church and then volunteered to clean up the moss or have it cleaned. Or how would I have felt differently if he had showed as much concern about a ministry we were involved in that could possibly help someone, rather than something so trivial as moss?
We have been having more wear and tear on the building in the past 6 years because it is getting used by the pantry and many different groups that share the space and we may find that an increasing trend. There are fingerprints on the windows, drawings on the offering envelopes, cigarette butts in the outdoor ash tray, debris tracked in on the carpet. Is this a reason for shame or despair? This is reason to give thanks! The space is being used for God’s ministry. It is part of the order of things that sooner or later even stones fall. In the past few years we’ve replaced some carpet that was worn out and stained. Patty and her family painted the social hall because the walls were scratched.
For a time those stains on the floor recieved a lot of attention. Do those marks send a message that we are disorganized, too poor to fix them, or otherwise deficient somehow? Do they represent the wear and tear and disinterest and lack of concern of “those people” using our building? Or do they reflect the natural order of things that this carpet covered this floor for over 12 years, saw how many thousands of feet come through, supported the feet of members and nonmembers, those rejoicing and those grieving, the well-fed and the hungry? That carpet did the work of God without a grumble or a distinction between people. Why then do we try to distinguish—who did this? Children of God did this and it is a beautiful thing that the carpet was used to give glory to God and help people who needed it most.
The marks on the walls were for some a critique of the pantry and tables scraping the walls. But for others they were marks of how many fewer people were going hungry in our neighborhood. They were marks of how many volunteers were coming through these doors, more satisfied, more connected, more hopeful. They were a marking of time reminding us of how long it had been since Tova was married—the reason those walls were painted the last time. They had seen the happiness at that wedding and others. They had seen the tears flowing at many funerals. They had seen laughter. They had been covered for Bible School in fish decorations making the whole social hall into an ocean scene and transforming the entire feel of the room, even inspiring some to say we should paint a mural on our colorless walls. For ten years that paint served God and it slowly wore out.
Who was to blame? Who scratched those walls? Was it those people who don’t care about our walls? Those marks were inevitable—paint scratches. They were beautiful because they were earned, like the wrinkles on all our faces. They were the marks of servanthood. I would imagine that in 10-12 more years you’re going to need to replace the carpet and paint the social hall again, and if it is sooner than that, it won’t be because the space was abused, but because it was used for the glory of God and should be something to celebrate.
Jesus hung there on the cross, broken and bleeding. This beautiful man’s body had been destroyed. Whose fault was it? Was it those Romans or those Jews? Or had he simply given himself away for ministry? Was it in any way a beautiful thing, what he gave up for us? Jesus’ ministry wasn’t about his body, or his survival. It was about the Kingdom of God and our relationship to God. In order to solidify that relationship, God gave the Son, not to be kept pristine and pretty, but to be used up for the sake of the poor, the needy, the lost, the misguided—for us.
When we encounter messes and disasters, earthquakes, famines, ruined temples and churches burnt to ashes, famines and plagues, and even personal attacks, how will we react? Do we react by blaming? Do we feel despair? Do we get distracted and led away by charismatic leaders or latest fad in self help?
Jesus says that these are actually occasions for hope. He reminds us of God’s bigger plan. He reminds us of the natural order of things—that buildings and institutions and kingdoms rise and fall. But that God is in charge and that will never change. Some of these things must fall that are not serving God, but have become distractions and excuses to take advantage of the poor. When they fall that is a good thing. Aren’t there days when it might be good news if the US legislature was just leveled and we had to start all over again?
Someday, this church won’t be here anymore. It will be a heap of rubble or maybe something else will be built in its place. Is this cause for alarm, or hope? Jesus says to remain hopeful. God will still be the one in charge. Someday all our bodies will wear out and we will die. Is this cause for alarm? Or is a chance to rejoice and give thanks to God, as Jesus says? Whether we live or die we are the Lord’s. Someday this country will be no more. Is this an occasion for despair? Or will we see the renewal that Jesus has in mind for all of creation? Do we really believe in resurrection or do we get stuck staring at the heap of stones and beautiful jewels?
Our church building will continue to need maintenance. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have replaced the carpet or painted the social hall. It was time. But next time, let’s celebrate the work that God is doing in this place, that God is wearing this place out with love and foot traffic and relationship. Let us do our work quietly. Let us stop admiring the wood and stone and paint that won’t last, and start admiring God who brings new life and hope when it doesn’t look or feel pretty.