This is the sermon I delivered today, which has a lot of Gettysburg in it–my integrative seminar professor would be so proud. It owes a great deal of inspiration to my home congregation’s pastor, John, who preached on the wrong text last week with both grace and style. And it owes its editorial chops to Janine…what kind of best friend will sit up with you at 10:30pm on Saturday night to work on a sermon? The awesome kind.
25th Sunday after Pentecost
I didn’t realize until I came to seminary that the Jerusalem temple, the temple that Jesus is standing outside of in today’s gospel lesson, was the Temple: it was the only officially sanctioned place of worship for all of the people of Israel. This Temple was an icon: not only was it at the heart of Israel’s worship life, but it represented Israel’s history, and its hope for the future. You see, the Temple that Jesus is standing outside of is actually the SECOND temple that had been built there. The first one, built during the time of Solomon, was destroyed in the 6th century BCE by invading Babylonians. Even though it was rebuilt, and was, as the disciples observed, a pretty impressive place, there wasn’t a single Jew in all the land who wouldn’t have known the story of how this Temple had once been pulled down, and had to be rebuilt.
The Temple stood for the people of Israel herself: a people who had been pulled apart and cast into exile. Even though Israel had been let back into the promised land, the land didn’t belong to her anymore: at Jesus’ time, Israel was in the hands of the Romans. The people of Israel, the people of the covenant, saw themselves living in a time of transition: God was punishing them for past sins, letting them live at the mercy of their oppressors, but the time was coming when God would send a Messiah to restore Israel to her former glory. The Jerusalem Temple was a sign of that hope, but it was also a monument to Israel’s greatest tragedy.
So when Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another”….well, this is not the news you want to hear from the man you hope is the Messiah. Jesus isn’t promising a restoration of Israel’s former glory. Instead, he seems to be guaranteeing a fate that sounds eerily similar to the very worst event in Israel’s history.
Sometimes people think that if you believe in Jesus, life will be sunshine and rainbows all the time. Life is just going to work out; it’s going to be easy, you’re just going to be able to figure out your problems. They’re never going to overwhelm you. But here in the text today, Jesus is debunking that myth. He’s not promising his followers a “Get out of the apocalypse free” card. What he’s promising is that the end will be only the beginning.
Jesus’ prediction about the Temple came true. The second Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, in response to a Jewish uprising. It has never been rebuilt: what is preserved in Jerusalem today stands as tribute to a temple that has been destroyed not once, but twice.
But it’s amazing what power that temple still seems to have, even in its brokenness. This fall, I got to see a very small piece of the Jerusalem Temple at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. At an exhibition for the Dead Sea scrolls, the museum had imported a single block from the Jerusalem Temple for part of its display. It was a very impressive stone, a sand-colored block about the size of a twin bed. And every single crevice it had was stuffed with small pieces of paper on which had been written prayers, prayers from the crowd that was visiting, many of whom were probably not even Jewish. This was an echo of what happens at the Western wall in Jerusalem, one of the remaining ruins of the Temple, where millions of prayers are wedged into cracks in the wall every year. Even this tiny remnant of the Temple, sitting out of place in a museum in Philadelphia, drew out the prayers of countless people, and gave them a place to lay them down.
I’ve been reflecting on the way that historical artifacts and places seem to draw us in this way, especially on this weekend. You see, tomorrow is Remembrance Day in Gettysburg, and this week has been crowded with people in period costumes, marching up and down Seminary Ridge and through town. Tomorrow, scores of people will gather at the National Cemetery for a ceremony that will commemorate the Gettysburg Address, a speech which itself commemorated the fallen of the battle of Gettysburg.
I got to thinking about that speech as I read through the gospel for this week. The disciples ask Jesus for a sign: how will they know when the terrible events he’s predicting are going to happen? And Jesus replies: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
During the battle of Gettysburg, nation had not only risen against nation, but brother had risen against brother. The earth shook with the thunder of hundreds of cannon, and the soldiers who fought could tell you a thing or two about wars and rumors of war. The battle of Gettysburg had the highest number of casualties of any battle in the war, and left almost 9,000 men lying dead outside a town of only 2,400. If any day seemed like the end of all things to the people of Gettysburg, surely it was July 5th 1863, the day after the battle ended, leaving three dead men for every person alive in town.
Yet Lincoln, in his famous address just a few months later, refers to this battle, and the war that still raged on around him, as the birth pangs: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” In the midst of the horror and brutality of the war, Lincoln was able to hold on to a vision of what was to come next: a birth of something new, something important, something that promised life in the midst of so much death. And in honor of that sacrifice, and the vision that gives it meaning, thousands will gather tomorrow.
What battle are you fighting? What temple are you defending? What is it in your own life that you’ve poured yourself into, to the point that if it crumbled, you’d feel like your very self is ending? The question I’m asking is what St. Augustine called ordo amoris, the ordering of loves. The answer to this question, your battle, your temple, that is what lies at the heart of your spirituality. When those battles are lost, when those temples are destroyed, we can truly lose ourselves, because into these things we had poured our last full measure of devotion. But it is precisely when we are poured out, empty, and lost, that God can step in, reorient us to face the cross, and fill us with a life-giving grace.
When I walk my dog across the Gettysburg battlefield, I often think about the soldiers who fell, but it took me a long time, really, to get around to thinking about the ones who survived—especially the ones from the South. This is the worst part of a Civil War: there is no clear-cut winner. I was raised to think, in my precious Yankee way, that the “good guys” won the war: that slavery was abolished, and the Union was preserved, and it all ended happily ever after. But it didn’t. The South that lost the war was devastated, physically, emotionally, even spiritually. After all, each Confederate soldier had placed all his faith in the righteousness of his going to war. He was fighting for everything he believed in: his dignity, his political voice, his family’s welfare, their ability to survive by farming, and, yes, his right to own slaves, the issue where all of those concerns coalesced. The Reconstruction was long, and it was painful, and for many a Southerner, it was an apocalypse—the end of the world as he or she knew it.
But the Civil War also created space for a fundamental question to be re-asked: What is humanity? What rights does it include? To whom does it belong? To white men only? Or to black men? Perhaps to women as well? There is grace in this question, and there is life, and there is a new nation waiting to be born, with a different and better definition of equality—an equality that truly does mean to include all people.
To have the temple that is at the heart of you torn down is a terrible and painful thing. I hope that you do not face such an ordeal. I don’t believe you need to; a God who requires us to suffer in order to become the people God wants us to be? That’s not the God I know. That’s not the God who died on the cross for us.
But if you have faced, or are facing, something in your life that seems to require the last full measure of your devotion to cope with…if you are faced with a loss or a change that is threatening to swallow you…if you are faced with your own little apocalypse, then trust in Christ. Trust in the resurrection God who can bring forth order from chaos and life from death. Remember that apocalypse means, “to reveal,” and that what this disastrous reorienting can reveal to you is Christ.
It is this Christ who gives us the nerve, in the midst of such pain and anxiety, to say, “Everything’s going to be all right.” This hurts, but it is the kind of pain that leads to new life. This is not the end. These are the birth pangs. It is Christ who allows us to say: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”