Shaped to endure
I’m pretty sure we’ve all been in the situation where we’ve wanted sympathy, comfort and encouragement- all at the same time. Maybe it was our fourth grade math homework, which we were convinced was “so unfair” and “so hard.” We probably whined to our parents how our teacher was so mean to assign it and we’d never get it done. Our parents probably encouraged us by assuring us they knew we could get it done, that yes, it was hard, but if we stuck it out we’d eventually be finished. (Candy may or may not have been offered at this point.) And we probably did manage to get most of it done, grumbling a little while longer.
Or maybe we’ve come home from work as an adult and complained about our day at work to our spouse, full of woe over our new boss. “They’re so difficult to get along with”, we might moan, “and their new policies are causing all this change. Plus, I just know they’re talking about me behind my back-I can’t imagine what’s going to happen next.” We keep going with this until we get that strange blend of “I know, that’s terrible” and “I know you’ve got this” that we’re craving- we are looking for someone to tell us that not only is it going to be all right, but we are going to make it through this, and getting there is not going to be unbearably hard. We long for words of comfort and healing for our weary souls, as well as ones that give us courage for whatever lies ahead.
Our Old Testament and Gospel readings today are precisely this sort of “both/and” situation, offering us radically contrasting images of what the future looks like for God’s faithful people. The reading from Isaiah paints a picture of joy and delight- endless gladness and rejoicing, a time when weeping has ended and health, peace and prosperity belong to all God’s beloved. On the other hand, the Gospel story gives a pretty frightening image of all kinds of trials- wars, famine and disease, persecution and betrayal to the point of death- but oh, by the way, if you stick it out you will “gain your souls.” This is a flat-out description of what sounds like pure disaster, and we can’t blame our poor disciples for asking “Teacher, when will this be?” After all, on a day when dangerous weather threatens, we expect WGAL to tell us exactly when it will occur: “The tornadic
thunderstorm will be over Shippensburg at 4:30 pm, Newville at 4:40 pm”, etc. So to see these two sharply different readings as filled with both comfort and encouragement, even invitation- is going to take a little work. When humans are frightened and unsure of what the future may hold, our fear and anxiety can easily overcome us- that’s as true now as it was then.
What is really important to know here is that, despite their very different character, these two stories actually speak to two very similar situations. In our reading from Isaiah, God’s people have returned from their long season of captivity in Babylon, a frightening and uncertain time that began with the destruction of the First Temple and most of the city of Jerusalem around 586 BCE. Not long after they returned, they undertook not only the task of building a restored community but began construction on the Second Temple, which would take decades to finish completely and stand until the destruction of it- and Jerusalem- in 70 CE. It is this second massive destruction that Jesus is considered to be prophesying about in today’s Gospel- and most likely by the time this Gospel was widely known this event would already have happened. It is extraordinary to realize that these readings are connected to the life and destruction of arguably the two most significant buildings in salvation history- God’s faithful people earnestly believed that God’s Presence was abiding within them. Regardless of the human excesses and faults that are given as reasons for their destruction, they were places of tremendous beauty and sincere worship in the lives of countless believers. The prediction of their catastrophic destruction, the actual events, and the work of rebuilding and reshaping a faithful community are all deep and significant parts of both these narratives.
These are stories that represent change for God’s people on a scale we can hardly imagine- a homecoming after decades of exile, great sacred buildings destroyed amidst death and chaos- but we have the ears to hear, because we know how change makes us feel. As I half-joked in the beginning, responding to the challenge in any upheaval makes us long for both affirmation of our trials and words of encouragement and strength- we’re looking for both comfort and company. Change makes us afraid- even if it’s wonderful, like returning from exile; even when the event or the news we’ve been longing for is good news it can still be stressful and exhausting. The new job, the new house, the new baby, the new relationship- amazing and terrifying, all at once. We desperately need words of both courage and hope- the promise that we can and will persevere through the weariness of the struggle to gain the reward. In our lives of faith, this is even more deeply and vitally true, because the reward promised is the everlasting one that by this endurance we will gain our very souls- as Paul says, if we do not become weary of doing what is right.
At our diocesan convention this October, as we launched our Shaped by Faith initiative through which we hope to discover what is “right-shaped” for our diocese, our key note speaker was a brilliant new friend by the name of Duo Dickinson. Duo is both an acclaimed architect and a man of deep faith who acknowledges that God is the true Architect of all things; his Facebook page proclaims that “Beauty is God’s handwriting.” When he meets with people to discuss a sacred space and tells them every care must be taken in the building to the glory of God, people understand- yet if he says that these buildings could be gone tomorrow, that they are just things, and that God is what lives- it is disturbing to all. Duo’s true gift is the understanding that what he- and indeed all of us- help to shape is completely shaped by God in the first place, despite our deep desire, like St. Peter, to build tabernacles to the glory of God.
Our current generation of faith communities is shifting to a place where, like the disciples in our Gospel story, we do not know what exactly to expect next, where we are sensing that the familiar “shape” we used to count on is no longer the same. This was true for Jesus’ disciples and followers as well- those first and steadfast believers who left everything to be shaped by Jesus and in turn, would shape this reality of loving and serving in Jesus’ name that brings us here today. We all want to be part of the shaping even as our faithfulness demands we accept that it is out of our control, that often when we long to build it is because we believe that what we build, we can control. And yet, in Duo’s wise words: “the unending truth of God in our lives is nothing we ourselves can construct.”
Last spring, we watched in grief and horror as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned in Paris, France and in the aftermath the world tried to process what meaning could be found and what it meant to go forward with both endurance and hope. Some longed for immediate rebuilding, some wanted the money gifted for rebuilding to go towards mission instead, some wondered if institutional Christianity might somehow be there in the ashes- and whether, like the phoenix, it would rise from them and transform itself with new fervor and meaning. To ask these questions with honesty and Gospel-directed vision is to remember with great clarity Jesus’ prophetic words that not one stone will be left upon another, that all will be thrown down. Here I rely again on the truth of which Duo reminded me: “Jesus was you and me, but he was also beyond humanity. Jesus, to me, was a third way: beyond the despair of our humanity and the daunting intimidation of the Infinite, he was both the hope of humanity and the unmerited grace of God.” Jesus taught us that the stones can fall and we will still find God- all the hope and encouragement we could ever need to persevere and endure.
Whether they are enormous temples or breathtaking cathedrals or lovely little churches like St. Andrew’s, sacred buildings are profoundly meaningful to us and we do indeed find God there. But we also know that God’s redeeming work given to us in the person of Jesus and the continued guidance of the Spirit can be found elsewhere as well, in the beauty of our created world, and in the gift we are to each other as we share comfort and encouragement and love. As we worship in this place we proclaim that “we celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection, as we await the day of his coming”, a statement of confidence that our lives of endurance and hope will bring us to the blessed truth of our souls’ reward. We did not make this world, nor can we make the next one, nor can we preserve our current one- but we can choose to seek God always, in this world and as we long for the one to come. Amen.