Building Basics: A Marilyn McCord Adams Sermon

The following sermon was given by the Rev. Canon Marilyn McCord Adams at the Church of the Advocate on Sunday, November 17, 2013.


Luke 21:5-19

“As for these things which you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down!”

photo by Thomas Fisher
photo by Thomas Fisher

From the Advocate’s point of view, few texts could seem more untimely.  Doesn’t the bible say: there is a time to build and a time to tear down.  Surely, we are in the build-up phase!  Yes, we know, our already antique white-frame church will fall into ruins.  But we are spending more than we have to refurbish it for another century’s run.  We don’t have to remember “no stone upon stone”!  We have pictures of the church shrink-wrapped in pieces creeping down the road on a truck.  For how long did the main box just sit there, waiting for the foundations to be poured?  Where was the steeple parked until the frame was steady enough for it to be hoisted into place?  We are veterans of construction delays and surprises: shrunken bead-boards, walls put up and then taken down again for rewiring and insulation.  How long was it before the windows could be fitted in?  Wasn’t it more than 40 days and 40 nights that Noah’s flood held up our parking lot?  Our eschaton is “in by Christmas… well, maybe Ash Wednesday…  at least by Easter.”  “O God, the last throes of a construction project is no time to remind us that what we are building up, will eventually be torn down!”

Of course, Jesus was prophesying the second destruction of Jerusalem, an evidently traitorous prediction that helped justify his execution.  However fixated Torah’s God seems to be on temple floor plans and decoration, God’s chief complaint against Israel is not the buildings.  Jesus does not condemn Herod’s remodel for bad taste.  Jesus does not say that God objects to old-age down-sizing into much smaller quarters than Soloman originally built.  Many houses of worship have been destroyed down through the ages.  But, equally, many remain as monuments to the gods they honored and to the society that built them.  Schism has shut congregations in rump dioceses out of their buildings, while many mainline church buildings stand empty.  Whether a religious community has or lacks buildings is not the key issue.  Biblical prophets down to Jesus declare: God destroys Israeli institutions–the temple, the city, the Jewish state–because the body-politic has lost its way spiritually.  The principal problem is its esprit de corps.  

For the Advocate, the last three years have meant major transition and discernment.  Israel didn’t cross the Jordan and enter the land to become like other nations, scrambling to win the international power sweepstakes.  Israel in the promised land was God’s social experiment.  God called Israel to model what life together with God in community was meant to be.  The Advocate isn’t moving into a building to blend into the mainline religious establishment.  The Advocate is moving onto Merin Road because it concluded that the time had come when land and building would be more skillful means than ever-so-well-organized plastic boxes.  Jesus is not second-guessing that judgment.  Jesus is reminding: the important thing is to keep focussed on what plastic boxes and buildings are in aid of.  Jesus is telling us not to forget the mission God gathered us for, warning us not to lose touch with the Holy Esprit de corps.

The Advocate is called to pioneer.  Pioneering strips you down to basics.  Certainly, up to now, the Advocate’s life-style has been materially minimalist–life without clutter, only what we can carry, only what can fit into those ever-so-well-organized plastic boxes.  But travelling light is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual strip-down: a back-to-basics willingness to strip away smoothing disguises and to stay in touch with raw realities; a disciplined commitment to live without masks.

Church attendance may be down, but people are starving spiritually.  What are they hungering and thirsting after?  We exist to help them name it and to accompany them on a journey that gets in touch with it.  To do this, we have to meet them, to spend time with them, to listen hard, to turn ourselves inside out, upside-down and backwards to figure out what they may be saying.  To be worthwhile companions, we need to become translators, to learn, invent, and teach new languages.  We have to imagine new rites to dramatize inchoate fears and seething angers, to “act out” hopes and dreams to make them somehow concrete and real in advance.  To be helpful pioneers, we need skill at holding on and letting go, the better to let fundamental questions and fresh discoveries shape daily life.

The Advocate has been an experiment.  It continues to experiment with how to do this.  But etymologically ‘experiment’ is derived from ‘experience’.  We can’t help others get in touch with core issues and flounder to express them, unless we are willing to keep on being pioneers, to keep on journeying ourselves.  Back to basics!  What are we hungering and thirsting for?  What is it that at the bottom of our hearts we have always wanted?  What does that desire demand of us in relation to its object and transcendent source?  What do we need to change to prioritize it?  What impact does that priority have on our lifestyles?  …on how we treat each others in our families and among friends?  …on how we relate together in community?  …on how we show courtesy to Mother Earth and work to change society?  Where do we need to grow?  What do we need to outgrow?

Of course, some Advocates did, but many did not begin yesterday.  Hair color and wrinkles testify: some of us have been on the road a long time.  We have evolved language and discerned directions, blazed trails and taken less travelled roads.  We have let our spiritual longing and our attempts to respond to the transcendent Other shape our lives.  But precisely because we are old-timers, we know: we will always be beginners, because there is always more.  Sometimes spiritual desires erupt like a volcano, but more often they seep into consciousness.  What presents at the surface is only a hint and metaphor of what is really going on at the core.  Exposing our deepest desires means taking off one mask after another.

Different issues dominate the changing seasons of life: loneliness vs attachment, betrayal vs commitment, meaningful work vs unemployment, success vs failure, bounty vs loss, nurturing children, caring for the aged.  There is wrestling for the meaning of life, the meaning of suffering, and the meaning of death.  Making our peace with one, doesn’t necessarily mean coming to terms with the others.  Fresh experiences crash through hard-won understandings.  Pioneers are experimenters for life.

photo by Thomas Fisher
photo by Thomas Fisher

Pioneering requires distinctive virtues.  Relentless candor keeps us in touch with raw issues and guards against self-deception.  Restless intolerance is ever outraged at human degradation, impatient with failures of loving-kindness, where human decency is concerned never agrees that good enough is good enough.  Pioneer insatiability refuses to pray the Common Worship collect: “show us your glory as far as we can grasp it; and shield us from knowing more than we can bear.”  No!  Pioneers can’t get enough of God.  Pioneers keep calling on God to enlarge our capacity, nag the Holy Spirit into showing us those things that we haven’t yet been able to stand.  Pioneers require the courage of their curiousity and chutzpah, barging in (as they do) where angels fear to tread.

Pioneers have to be open for rough and tumble, but that doesn’t mean being grumpy all the time.  Pioneers know how to combine discontent with gratitude for the capacity to journey, for the richness of the company, for the excitement of discovery, for all they have learned.  Pioneers also know how to combine frustration with confidence, because they more and more experience that the One towards whom and into whom we journey is travelling with us.  ‘God’ is our name for the One who is infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  ‘Christ’ is our name for God-with-us, taking hits in the trenches, running on out ahead of us to die on the cross and rise from the dead.  Eucharist is our way of fessing up to what’s wrong and binding ourselves to one another and to the One with whom all things can come out right.

Stone upon stone?  We are the stones.  You are the stones, the basic building blocks.  Jesus’ charge to us is, ‘stay alive!’