Link to service

Mark 13.1-2, 14.55-59

John 2.17-22

Messiah and Temple

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Jim Latimer is the departing Interim Minister at the Congregational Church of East Hampton not far to our north.  In fact, this morning is Jim’s final service with the congregation.  Jim wears multiple hats.  He is an interim minister; he is a clergy coach, who helps both clergy and congregations navigate through issues of governance, leadership development, renewal and effective ministry; and in his spare time he hosts a series of podcasts as part of his coaching ministry.  Earlier this week I read a transcript of a recent podcast where he interviewed an old seminary classmate of mine, The Rev. Dr. Rochelle Stackhouse.  Shelly graduated two years after I did; I wrote briefly about her in my Friday blog, she is currently a Transitional Interim at the Buckingham Church in East Glastonbury.  She chose as her podcast title, “After Forty Years, Here’s Why I Still Believe in the Parish.”  I really appreciated Shelly’s perspective, and wanted to share some of it with you this morning, because a lot of what she says resonates deep within my own pastoral soul as well, and is yet another of those “I wish I had said that” moments.

But first, a few words from Jesus.

Jesus had a few problems with the church of his day, which is to say, the temple.  The entirety of Mark chapter 13 is a vision of destruction and desolation – the chapter is often called “the little apocalypse.”  It is a vision that Jesus conjures which describes “wars and rumors of wars” where parents turn against children and children against parents, where siblings betray one another and put each other to death.  Suffering and tribulation will afflict the world, false messiahs come and go, the sky will grow dark and the stars will fall from heaven.  Suffice it to say, it is not a pretty sight.  This great and terrible vision is prompted by an innocent comment made by one of his disciples in the passage that began this morning’s service:  “As Jesus came out of the temple, one of the disciples said to him, ‘Look teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.’”  A rather benign observation, right?  It’s almost a throwaway kind of comment you might say just to make conversation.  But it is what set Jesus off on his rant:  “Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left hereupon another – all will be thrown down.’”  And with that, Jesus’ vision of desolation and misery takes off:  “Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes [and] there will be famines.  This is but the beginning…”  Like I said, Jesus had a few problems with the temple, with the church of his own day.  And inevitably, it landed him in hot water.  One chapter later, in Mark 14, after he was arrested and awaiting trial, as the chief priests and council were determining the charges to be brought against him, one of them levels the accusation, “We heard him say ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, I will build another, not made with hands.’”  Of course, this is not about the temple, it is about the resurrection, and because it is, it does not disrespect the temple as much as it looks ahead to a new incarnation, both in the risen Christ and in the church about to be gathered by his spirit.

Jim Latimer asked Shelly Stackhouse to do the podcast because he was struck by something she had said to him earlier.  “You know, Jim,” she said, “in spite of all [its] trial and the beauty and the frustrations, I still believe in the parish.”  I still believe in the parish.  What prompted her affirmation of the parish is, paradoxically, the church’s place in the pandemic-generated phenomenon that’s being called “The Great Resignation.” The church is not immune to what so many other professions are experiencing:  settled pastors, interims, associates, chaplains, clergy of all stripes are leaving their current churches for others, or leaving ministry entirely, or retiring early.  It isn’t just some distant and amorphous movement either; I sit on the Middlesex Association’s Committee on Ministry and Executive Committee, and at this moment more than half our association churches are without settled pastors: Westbrook, Old Saybrook, Essex, East Hampton, Middletown First and Middletown South, come to mind, and I know there are more.  This is a transitional and tumultuous time for clergy and congregations.  And in some ways it feels like the vision Jesus enunciated when there are tremors and rumors and upheavals and deep anxiety coursing through the church.  Which is why Shelly’s words of hope and affirmation, words that are borne of forty years of ministry, prove tonic and speak to my soul.

During the podcast, Shelly wonders,  Is the church over?  Is this great experiment that was started by Jesus, that really was a continuation of the synagogue, this experiment that the Holy Spirit exploded on Pentecost- is it really over?  Shelly cites another classmate of ours, Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes, who is currently the President of our seminary, who found himself asking similar questions:  can the church survive the tremors and tumult of our days? With attendance and budgets shrinking, and people finding other ways of occupying their Sunday mornings, and with so many clergy leaving the calling and small congregations struggling to remain open, to say nothing of trying to remain relevant, will this wonderful blessed transformative experiment of Jesus’ endure?  Both Shelly and Craig note the many ways we have shot ourselves in the foot over the ages:  the Crusades, the Inquisition, churches that supported slavery, churches that currently define themselves not by who is included, but by who is excluded, people of color, the LGBTQ community.  Someone made an online comment to me – or I should say at me – a couple weeks ago accusing our church of being exclusionary because we make a point to include everybody.  Go figure.  And then Dr. Barnes suggests that, in wondering about the future vitality of the church, we may be asking the wrong question.

That question, that wonderfully refreshing question, is not, how do we preserve the institution we call the church, but rather to figure out what Jesus needs us to do in our own time and place, because the church has never taken just one form; it has morphed again and again and again in the course of two millennia.  And if the church is still serving Jesus, and serving other people because of Jesus, then it will continue to live in some form or another.  We don’t need to conform to past expressions of the church in order to serve Jesus, because Jesus is always calling us to something new.

The church that focuses on its own continuity is looking in the wrong direction – the church that looks out into the world and sees God’s children, that sees Jesus’ brothers and sisters, that sees Jesus in our brothers and sisters and asks, how can we share the burden, how can we share the joy, this is what Jesus did, right?  Dr Barnes wrote recently in the journal  Christian Century,

“The church perseveres.  And the only possible explanation for the church’s survival is that Jesus chose to use us to continue his mission of bringing God’s kingdom to earth.  He can certainly work outside the church for this holy purpose, but we find our life in the calling to pursue the kingdom.  Historically, every time we landed in the ditch, as the mainline church has done today, Jesus pulls us out and invites us again to lose our lives to find them.”

And Shelly summarizes Dr. Barnes remarks this way:  If we say that what we are is people of faith who serve Jesus, then we can stop worrying about the future of the church and start worrying about serving Jesus.

“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “’Lord, what large stones and what large buildings.”  Jesus said, ‘Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another.”  Yet – “In three days I will build another [temple], not made with hands.”  What better description for the church of Jesus Christ, the building that is not made with hands.  John’s gospel tells the story in a slightly different way.  “Jesus said, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’  They answered, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?’  But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.”

And what is the body of Christ?  Not any temple or church or synagogue or cathedral, but the body of Christ, the people God has called out and gathered in Jesus’ name.  This temple is incontigent and eternal.

Shelly ends the podcast with her reason for loving the parish.

“So to buy out of the corporatization of the parish, and to buy back into a sense of parish as the Body of Christ, and therefore believe in ourselves as the body of Christ – this miracle happens every time we gather...  So, I believe in the parish church… this is where I connect with the body of Christ, still in this day, with all of its flaws.  And I’m old enough that I know that bodies get messed up after they’ve been around for a while, and they need repair, and they need care, and they need TLC.  But the body is still there, and it can still do amazing things!  This is why I still believe in the parish.”

And as Jim Latimer says in reply, “So we buy out of the corporate model, and we buy into the Body of Christ model.  It isn’t a solution to, Oh, the church is this or that – it’s not a solution.  Because Jesus hasn’t called us to find solutions, he calls us to show up fully in the present and take the next right step for love.”

And this is why I believe in the parish and the church as well, because Jesus can’t be contained in a building or a temple or a meetinghouse, but he is present and alive and at work wherever two or three of us gather in his name.  As Professor Donald Juel writes in his book Messiah and Temple, “The temple not made with hands refers to the Christian community.”  That’s us; that’s you and that’s me.  This morning Jesus is alive in the community we are creating in these moments, just as he will be alive every time you and I embody and his grace and mercy and love.  And if Jesus can be alive in this virtual moment when we are all staring at our screens, then I’m confident that, in some way, shape or form, his church is going to be around for a long, long time.

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