The Sunday After Tuesday. A Nathan Kirkpatrick Sermon @ The Advocate

The Sunday After Tuesday
A sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate
Proper XXVIII | November 13, 2016

In some strands of the Christian traditions,
The room that we are now in is called a sanctuary;
It comes from a Latin word that means “a place for holy things.”
Whoever the wordsmith was
who first called this place a sanctuary,
You know what she or he probably had in mind:
that this was a place where we were assured of God’s presence
Where reminders of God’s presence surround us.
This was the place where humble bread and simple wine
become Body and Blood,
Where water could claim and transform lives
through the power of the Spirit,
Where the tradition’s texts could be heard and God could still speak,
Where art and music could carry us
mystically into the presence of God.
This is a place for holy things.

It’s is an ancient idea.
You remember that the Israelites
in their sojourns carried with them a Tabernacle,
A physical place where God could be encountered;
As long as it was there, something was certain in an uncertain world.

When the Israelites settled into the Promised Land,
You remember that King Solomon built the most glorious Temple imaginable.
A physical place where God could be encountered;
As long as it was there, something was certain in an uncertain world.

Years later, when the Babylonians invaded Israel,
They destroyed Solomon’s Temple, destroying
The physical place that was a reminder of God’s abiding presence.
In its absence, things were even less certain in an incredibly uncertain world.

Years later, when the Babylonians were evicted,
the people built again, and in 515 BC, the Second Temple was completed.
A new physical place where God could be encountered;
As long as it was there, something was certain in an uncertain world.
It was a sanctuary – a place for holy things.

 

It’s why it was so disconcerting to hear Jesus talk about the coming collapse of the Temple.
The Temple was a sanctuary – a physical place where, in the midst of Roman occupation,
Jews could remember that God had not abandoned them, that God was with them.
In an uncertain life, you could see its shadow against the sunset and be assured
That you were not forgotten or forsaken.

And yet, Jesus says it’s coming down.
When some of his followers are bragging about how beautiful it is,
Jesus says that
that not one stone will be left standing on another.
That as nation rises against nation, as the world reels and rocks,
the sign and symbol of God’s abiding presence,
the place for holy things, would be no more.

To be sure, it’s one of Jesus’ least comforting sermons.
To the people of his day, this sermon would have been
As improbable as it would have been disorienting.

Without the Temple,
Would they ever feel safe again? Could they ever feel safe again?
Where could they know that God was with them?
Where could they ever feel like they belonged?
That they weren’t forgotten or forsaken?

In an already volatile and uncertain world,
In their already volatile and uncertain lives,
Without the Temple,
could they ever be sure of anything again?

Nothing would feel safe, nothing would feel sacred.
Stone-by-stone, the whole world would collapse.

 

And if you remember your history, that’s the way it happened.
In 70 AD, the Second Temple came down –
Leaving only a single wall, what we know today as the Wailing Wall, standing.
And the Jewish world despaired.

Now if you listen around the edges to his sermon,
it is as if Jesus is saying
that the future will require a different kind of sanctuary,
That the assurance of God’s presence will have to come through different means,
That a reminder of your value and worth as the people of God
would have to come from someplace other than the place where you had always known it.
The future will require a different kind of sanctuary.

Which is why Jesus entrusts us to each other.
It’s why Jesus gives us the Spirit – to knit us together –
As a single body, for one another, with one another.
Temples can collapse,
but the people of God will be sanctuary
for each other forever.

And across the early years of the church,
The people of God sheltered and shielded each other.
Lacking buildings, they hid together in tombs and catacombs.
They gathered around a simple meal and reminded each other that God was with them,
That they were precious in the sight of God.
When the Empire came with its spears and swords,
they surrounded each other with love and affection,
protecting the most vulnerable in their midst
with their own bodies if they had to.

The people of God became to each other a sanctuary,
Not made of stone or by human hands.
But a sanctuary made by the Spirit, the Advocate —
The people of God became a sanctuary of a common purpose,
A sanctuary of common love, a sanctuary of common heart.
The sanctuary – the place for holy things – was the community.

It was part of the way that the Church lived its mission:
To restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ.

Over time, as the Church secured structures and built buildings, and
The sanctuary of common heart became again a sanctuary of place.

In England, for more than a millennium, churches were actual sanctuaries for people.
People fearing punishment or retaliation or even earned-justice
All they had to do was cross the threshold
and they were safe and shielded from the world beyond.
They could not be touched as long as they were in a church.

Through history, churches became sanctuaries for immigrants and refugees,
Offering shelter and sustenance, remembering and imitating the welcome
that Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus received in Egypt
when they were fleeing the wrath of Herod at home.

In our own country’s history, more than thirty churches served as waypoints on
The Underground Railroad,
Serving as sanctuaries for people fleeing slavery for their freedom.

One of the problems in the Church, though, is that over time
our sanctuaries of buildings and places
erased our understanding of ourselves as a sanctuary of the Spirit
for one another.
We counted on walls to do our God-given work.

Yet, Jesus’ call remains.
In an uneasy and uncertain world,
We are called to be for one another and with one another,
A sanctuary people.
A sign of God’s presence and peace,
A refuge in an uncertain and volatile world.
A people of safety, a community of love.

This week, I wish Robert Putnam had been wrong.
In his controversial book Bowling Alone, the Harvard political scientist
Cataloged and predicted the decline of community in American life.
He pointed to the simplest of things –
He noted that, in the 20 years before the book came out – so 1980 – 2000,
the number of people who bowled in America had increased steadily
but that the number of people who belonged to bowling leagues
had declined steadily.
And if fewer people were bowling in bowling leagues
That meant that there was less interaction,
Less conversation, less engagement with people
with whom we might disagree
in a context where we can disagree
with fairly low stakes.

It wasn’t just bowling, of course.
He traced declines in membership and volunteering with
Religious groups, including churches and synagogues,
Labor unions, PTAs,
The League of Women Voters,
The Boy Scouts, The Girl Scouts,
The Red Cross,
The Lions, The Elks,
The Junior Chamber, The Junior League,
The Freemasons., The Rotary, and on and on it went.
Fewer members. Fewer volunteers.
Less interaction, less conversation, less engagement.

In the year 2000, Putnam warned that
we were becoming strangers to each another.
And without structures and regular practices of relating to one another,
He wrote that people would suffer,
That organizations and institutions would decline,
That our democracy would be imperiled.
That the very social fabric that had held us together would fray.

In the swirl of emotions that I’ve heard this week in the wake of the election’s results,
From elation and celebration and relief
to confusion and bewilderment,
to sorrow, sadness, anger and protest,
the thing that has become clear is that
as a country, we are strangers to one another.
Republican, Democrat.
Urban, rural. Blue state, red state.
College educated, Not college educated.
Blue collar, white collar. Male, female.
White, Black, Latino. Young, old.
Gay, straight. Trans. Well-to-do, not well-to-do.
Healthy, not healthy. Evangelical. Progressive.
The list goes on.
The priorities of one are perceived as a threat by the other.
The realities of one life are almost unimaginable for another.

This week, we witnessed a relay of fear.
Pundits – there are a few of them left standing –
tell us that millions of those who voted for Mr Trump voted from fear –
Fear of what we have become as a country, fear that we are unrecognizable from what we once were. Fear for self and fear for the world.
And when Mr Trump was announced as the winner, as that part of the country was allaying their fears, the fear was just handed over to so many others –
Fear of what we will become, fear that we will become unrecognizable from what we have been. Fear for self and fear for the world.

And as acts of intimidation and harassment followed, fear has been legitimized.
You have seen the stories:
In high schools and middle schools,
Children have built walls against children and racial epithets have been shouted,
In a college bathroom, a doll with darker “skin” was “lynched” in a shower.
On city streets, gay men have been beaten; women have been sexually assaulted.
Muslim women have been stripped of their hijab.
In our own dear Durham, graffiti-ed messages have demeaned our black and brown neighbors,
In Brier Creek, some twenty miles from here, a woman of Asian descent was told by a complete stranger that she needed to go back to China, that this was not her country (never mind that she is Korean).
You have seen the stories. We are strangers, threats, to one another.

And if that is to change, then we as people of faith must answer Jesus’ call.
Our future will require us to be a different kind of sanctuary.
As important as these walls are, these walls alone will not do our work.
We are called to be sanctuary for one another – with one another.
We are called to be a reminder to the world that God has not abandoned us,
Forsaken or forgotten us.
We are called to proclaim the holiness of all of God’s creations,
And safeguard the most vulnerable among them.
Our work has not changed this week.
The context has changed. Its urgency has changed.
But the work has not.

In March 1861, President Lincoln concluded his first inaugural address this way:
We are not enemies, but friends.
We must not be enemies.
Though passion may have strained
it must not break our bonds of affection.
The mystic chords of memory,
stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave
to every living heart and hearthstone
all over this broad land,
will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

For those better angels to do their work,
For us to nurture our common life,
For us to find community,
We must answer Jesus’ call.
The Temple may come down, for sure.
But we must be God’s sanctuary
In and for our wounded world.

Amen.

The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick, Priest Associate
The Episcopal Church of the Advocate