Things Fall Apart
Scripture: Luke 21:5-19
I’ll admit I had a really hard time with this text- Jesus is saying that basically at some point things will go to hell in a handbasket, that his people will be persecuted, betrayed, and even executed..and yet not a hair on their heads will perish? What are we supposed to do with that? I’ll be honest it sounds like a bit of an empty promise, there’s a whole lot of perishing that happens to faithful people in the world, that’s already happened. But there it is, in the gospel of Luke…so what gives? Jesus is confusing at times, elusive, even vague, but not a liar or someone who doles out empty platitudes and peddles false hope. If this isn’t false hope or reassurance then perhaps we’re misunderstanding his audience/meaning/context…so we zoom out, for that “God’s eye view”.
This passage begins with Jesus’ disciples admiring the Temple, remarking on its physical splendor. The temple, as we’ve heard before, was the center of Jewish religious life- this was where God lived. The particular temple was built by Herod, a paranoid, oppressive, traitorous puppet king who used his dirty money to build a beautiful temple not as a way to glorify god but as a monument to himself, his wealth, might, and influence. Like using public funds to pay for a military parade to show off tanks and war machines while children in that school district starve and while our trans sisters, brothers, and siblings are excluded from military service.
So back to the story- what I’m hearing is Jesus’ reminder that the temple isn’t everything. That any human infrastructure will inevitably always fail, and that any human institution built on greed will crumble as well, often spectacularly, and not without collateral damage. What matters is that when it falls, what is our response?
Do we wring our hands, wail and beat our breasts or do we set about replacing it with institutions that advance the kin-dom of God and the fellowship of all humans with creation? If our church were to burn down, it would be at ragedy, and yet our community would still exist. The love we have for one another would still be strong, if the building burned down it wouldn’t erase the work we did in advancing the criminal justice reform bill, or the hundreds of thousands of dollars we’ve tithed in missions givings thus far, nor would it nullify all the wedding, rite 13, confirmation, and baptism vows we’ve made in this space as a community.
What makes us a church? Is it this beautiful building or is it the folks on either side of you, in front of you and behind you? Is it the presence of God that courses amidst us, her holy spirit knitting us together? The temple was where Jesus’ community believed God lived, but Jesus reminded them that wherever two or three are gathered in God’s name, there god is. Whenever we gather to worship and serve god, God is present.
War will happen, institutions will crumble, greed and fear will lead to persecutions and death, but god’s people live on. This text’s immediate context is that of the Jewish people facing the destruction of their temple, war, and persecutions. All these things happened and yet the jewish people have not perished. Jewish life today is rich and thriving, Judaism evolved from ‘temple judaism’ to ‘rabbinic judaism’, centered around synagogues, pockets of community that support each other and jewish life around the globe.
To us, his gentile followers, I think Jesus is reminding us of the cost of discipleship in a world that prioritizes power and money and is rife with subjugation. As long as that is the main value of society writ large (or of those in power), there will alwas be wars, conflict, our foundations will shake, and charismatic leaders will try to get us on board with their whole shebang. Know that this is the way of the world, but stay on my way, Jesus says. If you keep your heart and mind and soul turned toward God and love your neighbor, you wont need a defense in court- what paranoid, power-hungry ruler wouldn’t be confounded by a testimony about how you love your enemy and pray for your persecutors?
The road is long, the life of this movement spans not decades but generations, millennia. And the things we stand for the values we live into will not perish just because our temples fall apart.
The Hebrew Bible passage assigned to this day in the lectionary is from the prophet Isaiah, and it’s pretty different from what we heard from Jesus in the gospel:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
65:18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
65:19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
65:20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
65:21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
65:22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands
65:23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-- and their descendants as well.
65:24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
65:25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent--its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
Ignatian spirituality has, among many others, two principles called consolation and desolation, and I’m about to quote heavily from an article by vinita hampton wright, from ignatian spirituality dog com, so know that the following are her words, not mine.
“A person dwells in a state of desolation when she or he is moving away from God’s active presence in the world. We know we are moving in this way when we sense the growth of resentment, ingratitude, selfishness, doubt, fear, and so on. If my outlook becomes increasingly gloomy and self-obsessed, I am in a state of desolation. I am resisting God or, if not actively resisting, I am being led away from God by other influences.
Desolation also holds many emotions and experiences. If I’m in desolation, I might try to alleviate the discomfort by drinking too much or seeking distraction through more work or social events. The food and drink and activity might feel quite good, but they are not leading me to greater joy, peace, and love. In fact, “false” consolations can help me avoid the true consolation of God’s presence.
I always refer people to two simple lists by writer and spiritual director Margaret Silf. They are quite accurate and helpful when a person is trying to determine if she is in consolation or desolation.
- Turns us in on ourselves
- Drives us down the spiral ever deeper into our own negative feelings
- Cuts us off from community
- Makes us want to give up on the things that used to be important to us
- Takes over our whole consciousness and crowds out our distant vision
- Covers up all our landmarks [the signs of our journey with God so far]
- Drains us of energy
A person dwells in a state of consolation when she or he is moving toward God’s active presence in the world. We know we are moving in this way when we sense the growth of love or faith or mercy or hope—or any qualities we know as gifts of the Holy Spirit. If I am becoming more kind with people, and I experience this movement as life-giving and Christlike, I am in a state of consolation.
Consolation can hold many emotions and experiences. Consolation does not mean that I feel constantly happy or at peace. In fact, sometimes when I am doing precisely what God is leading me to do, I might feel negative pressure from others, or I might find the experience a challenge because I’m growing and learning. Yet if I sense in my spirit that I’m going the right way, this spiritual reality consoles me whether the day is bumpy or smooth.
- Directs our focus outside and beyond ourselves
- Lifts our hearts so that we can see the joys and sorrows of other people
- Bonds us more closely to our human community
- Generates new inspiration and ideas
- Restores balance and refreshes our inner vision
- Shows us where God is active in our lives and where God is leading us
- Releases new energy in us”
Ok me again: I think this is what we see in Isaiah and Luke. In Isaiah we hear a perspective of consolation, being in line with the ways of God, and tightly bonded to our human community, having empathy with all creation. The wolf and the lamb feeding as companions, the people closely tuned to God and listening intently for what God has to say to them.
In Luke, Jesus warns his followers how easily it is to slip into desolation, to lose sight of God’s active presence in the world, to turn to “false” consolations, and to lose that “god’s eye view”, getting mired in the short-term, instant gratification.
I’ll admit, it’s hard to find consolation when we’re facing pain, disaster, persecution, or even death. And yet, turning toward community, grounding ourselves in this movement of justice, compassion, and peace, this thing that is so much bigger than any one of us, rooting ourselves in our values and finding, building community around those values, is what consoles our souls, and gives us the strength to endure the hard, even terrifying times.
Vinita wright says, As we learn to recognize when we are in desolation and consolation, we can respond accordingly: changing course (through prayer, community, discernment, spiritual direction) when in desolation, and staying the course when in consolation.
Consolation strengthens the community, and strong communities make a difference in the world. You heard just a few minutes ago, the promises we all made to Erin, Nate, and baby Parker; that no matter what happens on their journey of parenting and growing up, they will not be alone. Following Jesus, tuning our hearts towards God means that even in our loneliest moments, we are never alone. Jesus calls us to love God and love our neighbor- doing just that builds community that withstands the assaults of the darker forces in the world. Many of our temples will fall, literally and figuratively. What matters is what’s left when that happens, do we scatter into the wind, each one for themself, or do we come together and strengthen our ties, holding each other up, as beloved children of God, and build a new heaven and earth? Amen.