Sermon; Proper 28B; Mark 13:1-8
Every time I read this particular passage, I always feel like I'm reading Little Red Riding Hood: “My, what large stones you have! My, what large buildings you have!” And while that may sound funny, I think these two stories do have something in common – and that is a call to pay attention.
Today's gospel is from Chapter 13 of Mark. This chapter is known as the Marcan Apocalypse. For those participating in the Revelation discussion, this chapter will sound very familiar as we hear about wars, false Messiahs, sacrilege, famines, persecutions, the sun and moon being darkened, and stars falling from the sky. And like the moral of Little Red Riding Hood was to pay attention and not be deceived, this chapter ends with Jesus telling us to keep awake.
This admonition to keep awake shouldn't just apply to watching and waiting for the end of days. It really should apply to almost every thought Jesus gives in this apocalyptic chapter. Keep awake, for you do not know when the time will come. Keep awake and do not be deceived by false messiahs. Keep awake to persecutions for your faith (pro tip: people saying Happy Holidays is not persecution). Keep awake and pay attention to these large stones.
The first paragraph of today's gospel is particularly appropriate for us here at Saint John's. It's easy to imagine Jesus walking out of this building and one of his disciples – any of you, or me – pointing out to him how beautiful this place is. We do that all the time, don't we?
A couple of weeks ago while Pieter, Verna, and I were ringing bells for climate change awareness we had two people wander in through our open doors. They were from New Market and wanted to see the church, and they just happened to get lucky enough that we were there with open doors. So with Pieter and Verna ringing bells, I gave them a quick tour and their reaction had the typical “oohs” and “aahs” in all the right places. And I told them that I got to work and worship in the best place in Hagerstown.
Look what beautiful woodwork and lovely windows we have. But not one stone, not one window, will be left here; all will be thrown down.
We talked about this at my lectionary study group – especially when I said I can relate to that unnamed disciple. Seriously, just look at how amazing this place is. It can take your breath away and move you to tears at times.
One of my colleagues relayed a story about a former congregation who, according to him, was overly focused on their building to the point, in his opinion, of it becoming an idol. “What that placed needed,” he said, “was a well-placed lighting strike to burn it to the ground. Then they could get busy being the Church.”
How many times have we heard something similar? How many times have we heard, “The Church is the people, not the building?” And in some respects that is correct. The Church is more than a place. The Church is the body of those faithful people who feed, clothe, and shelter those in need. The Church is the people who visit, care for, and pray for people in the community. The Church is the people who proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to all people.
There were nods of agreement around the table and a feeling of, “If we could just get out from under our buildings we could get on with being Church.”
At which time I pushed back a bit.
“Yes,” I said, “Church is the people, but Church is also the place.”
It's important for people to have a place to gather for worship. That's why there are places called Angkor Wat, Chichen Itza, Stonehenge, Notre Dame Cathedral, and many, many others. It's important for people to have a place where they can experience the holy presence of God on a regular basis. It's important to have a place that often anchors the faith. It's important to have a place where we can not only gather together, but to also be sent from and to which we can return. Place is just as important as people when it comes to Church.
People are the Church, there is no doubt about that. We are the body of Christ living in the world today. We are his hands, feet, eyes, and mouth. This place is also the Church because it is here where we gather to worship, to pray, to be fed, and to sit in the presence of the Lord.
People and place are two sides of the same coin that is faith.
Jesus was right: all these things will be thrown down. These things will not be thrown down right now, or tomorrow, or next week, but they will be thrown down at the end of days. Until then, we are the Church and this place continues to be the Church. Until then, the Church is both.
For now, we must continue to walk a line between place and people. For now we must not elevate this place over and above the people who gather here and the people whom we serve. For now we must not make this place an idol that crushes us, but continue to treat it with the care, respect, and honor that the house of God deserves.
And until those last days we must continue to be the hands, feet, eyes, and mouth of Christ. Until then we must continue to feed, clothe, and shelter those in need. Until then we must continue to visit, care for, pray for, and proclaim the gospel to those within our walls and those outside our walls.
The Church needs both people and place. Unlike the disciple and Little Red Riding Hood, let us not get distracted from what we are supposed to be seeing. Instead, let us heed the words of Christ to keep awake. And let us consider how to provoke one another (our people) to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together (in this place).