The Rev. Canon Stephen Huber
“He came out of the temple and said, ‘Not one stone willbe left here upon another. All will be
thrown down.’” This kind of talk makes those of us who hang out in places like this nervous. If you are visiting with us today from out of town, and flew into Reagan National airport, you beheld a sight that most of us who are local cherish. As your plane was descending, and then later when you were in a cab, or a rental car, heading into the city, you saw this place, Washington National Cathedral, floating above the skyline.
Our Dean Sam Lloyd writes in the Cathedral’s vision document, New Century, New Calling “Indeed, a visitor to the nation’s capitol sees a city presided over by two prominent hills. On one, the United States Capitol where the destiny of our country is shaped. And on the other higher promontory, the nation’s House of Prayer. You have to admit, whether you are a believer or not, this great symbol of our nation’s spiritual moorings is impressive.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Jerusalem for Passover. The temple in Jerusalem was also impressive. In fact, it was one of the most magnificent structures in the world. Donald Trump hasn’t even come close to building anything like it. Originally built by King Solomon, it had been torn down twice when Herod began the project of rebuilding around the time of Jesus’ birth. It was not fully finished until after his crucifixion. So what Jesus’ disciples were marveling at was a new opulent complex. It was the size of twenty-four football fields, with walls of marble that stood 150 feet high. There were spectacular gates and arches and extravagant gold overlay all about. Oh how our Fabric and Fine Arts Committee would have loved it. And much like this Cathedral, people came from far and near to pray or simply to be taken in by its majesty. If you go to Jerusalem today, the Temple’s western wall still stands as a place of pilgrimage and prayer.
We’ve been working our way through Mark’s Gospel this year. Jesus is now near the end of his life, and he’s trying to use every opportunity to teach his disciples about the way things are in God’s Kingdom. It’s also clear, particularly in this Gospel, that Jesus isn’t often impressed with the things that impress us. But it would be a mistake, I think, to assume that Jesus did not love the Temple. It was the center of Jewish life, the symbol of their spiritual moorings. And Jesus regularly prayed and taught there. Later, when the authorities came to arrest him, he said, “Day after day, I was with you in the Temple, teaching.” He cared deeply about the integrity of its ministry. And that’s why a couple of chapters before today’s text we see Jesus completely losing his cool and flying into a rage with the temple money changers and merchants. Turning their tables over, he yelled, “It is written, my house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.” Here at the Cathedral, we have a security department to deal with people like that.
Like us in this temple, Jesus recognized its beauty and valued its purpose, but he was also aware that in spite of its grandeur and lofty ideals, the failure to embody the life of God or to be a light to the nations was rampant among his people. And for too many the temple had become an idol of worship rather than a means to worship. Jesus wept over just how this holy site had become too often unholy. It had become a place of comfort rather than a call to conscience up against the prevailing culture. We can identify with Jesus’ frustration. Here in this National Cathedral, we struggle how not to become just a voice of American civil religion. In other words, an endorser of all the consumer, individualistic achievement-driven values of our culture in religious packaging. This is not just a challenge institutionally, but a challenge personally, I suspect, for most of us.
So to the utter shock of Jesus’ disciples, he says, “Do you see these great buildings, not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down.” This kind of threat or prediction didn’t go well with the religious leaders, and so they built their case against him. “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands and in three days I will build another not made with hands.’” The next day Jesus was hanging on a cross. Jesus, of course, was speaking metaphorically about his death, when he said that “not one stone will be left upon another,” because he knew that he would have to die, to be beaten down, in order for us to move through his life and wounds to connect with the heart of God. And he also knew that unless our temples, beautiful as they are, lead us toward a vision of God’s Kingdom on earth and away from worshiping the idols of our hearts that put Jesus on the cross in the first place, then they too become mere idols.
There’s a story that in the early years of the thirteenth century, St. Dominic made a pilgrimage to Rome. The pope took him on personal tour of the quite opulent Lateran Basilica of St. John. Alluding to the reply of Peter and John to the lame man in Acts of the Apostles, the Pope boasted, and perhaps with some tongue in cheek, “No longer need we say ‘silver and gold have I none.’” And the humble Dominic answered, “Ah, yes, and at the same time the church can no longer say, ‘Rise up and walk.’” This passage from Mark’s Gospel evokes thoughts and predictions about the end time. It’s called the little apocalypse. And certainly people throughout the ages have thought the end was near. But apocalypse also means revelation. Jesus warns us not to be led astray by false prophets and that wars and rumors of wars will take place and that nation will rise against nation and there will be famines. Well, don’t we know all of these things to be true right now? Did you read the newspaper this morning? And then he says, “These things will be but the beginning of the birth pangs,” not only a message about the end time, but a warning about our own time as well.
Preacher James Powell writes, “Can’t you read the times? Can we not see in the decadence of our culture, in our inability to achieve peace, in the on-going blight of starvation and disease, in our hollowness that all of our entertaining diversions and technological wizardry cannot fill. Is this not a sign of the bankruptcy of human life lived out in independence from God? How much more war, how much more hunger will it take before we stop fighting the birth pangs that urge us on to a new life?” Of course the irony, as Powell points out, when we are not vested in the world, and only when we know that this life is not our final destination, are we actually liberated to work with courage and hope.
On the Sunday before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr., preaching right here from this pulpit, said, “We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlisle is right, ‘No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope.” Standing with his disciples, looking at the Temple they loved, Jesus knew that he was the stone of hope.
The abundant riches and new life that God intends for us come only when we are willing to give our lives away, as Jesus did, for the work of building God’s Kingdom on Earth. Of course, when we begin to give our lives away, we find that we are never far from the wounds of Christ that are simply the wounds of the world. But we won’t likely do that if we believe the future is entirely in our hands.
Toward the end of the Bible, the first Letter of Peter urges us “to be like living stones, built into spiritual house.” If we will allow God’s grace to transform us into living stones, if we will allow ourselves to be open to giving birth to Christ in our lives, then even when the stones of the Temple and this Cathedral or any other church no longer stand, the new life that comes from the birth pangs that might just have been aroused for the first time in one of these houses of prayer, grand or small, will live on. Douglas John Hall, in his book Confessing the Faith, reminds us that “a church’s life is always a becoming and not a being” and certainly not a having. It is, therefore, a community on the way that has not yet arrived. And that is why we like to say that this Cathedral will actually never be finished because we will never be finished until our souls are one day joined in perfect union with God. Amen.