Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stones (sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter)

It couldn't have been easy to tear down the temple.

By the time John had written his gospel, by the time Luke had written Acts, and probably by the time this letter of Peter had been composed, the temple in which Jesus had been bar mitzvah-ed and circumcised, where he'd whipped the moneylenders and turned over their tables, and where the first disciples gathered after the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, was nothing but a pile of great broken stones. One wall only was left, and it still stands today. It's called "the wailing wall."

The temple had been an imposing structure. This was the nature of temples in the ancient near east. Each nation, and particularly each large imperial city state like Memphis or Babylon or Rome or Athens, had its god or gods, and each one expressed its power and vitality by building impressive temples. The second temple in Jerusalem was no exception. It was there to express that this nation, Israel, was protected and secured by a powerful god.

And for this very reason, empires that wanted to really crush an opponent nation would not only murder and enslave as many of the nation's inhabitants as it could, but would deliver the most stinging blow by destroying the nation's temple or temples. For the inhabitants of the conquered land, this was a visible sign of hopelessness. It told them that their god or gods had been defeated, that the god or gods of their conquerors were victorious.

There can be little doubt that bin Laden and Al Qaeda had this kind of religious message in mind when they flew their planes into the twin towers. The towers were to them the temples of the United States. Of course bin Laden and his group are not real Muslims, nor were the towers temples to the American people. What Al Qaeda did was simply an act of mass murder. Nevertheless the act produced in us the kind of horror that the Jews must have felt watching the Romans tear down their temple.

Of course the Romans didn't have today's technology. One has to wonder what kind of machines they had to use to so completely destroy a huge stone building. I presume we're talking about catapults, battering rams, team of horses perhaps. I don't think it's easy to take down a monumental building, particularly without the use of explosives. It would have been a pretty significant project. It would probably not have been quick. It would have been slow, brutal.

Stoning a person to death is not quick either. There's a very good but really horrifying movie called The Stoning of Saroya M. that does a pretty good job of showing how slow and difficult it is to stone a person to death. People stand at a distance and hurl stones at the condemned person. Many miss. Many hit other parts of the body, merely causing severe pain but hardly contributing to actually killing the person. It's the stones that hit the head that do the most damage, and the head is a rather difficult target. And even if one hits the head, it's surprising how many parts of the head you can hit and damage without causing death.

From the passage we heard this morning we don't necessarily get that Stephen is being stoned to death here, or why. The people stoning Stephen were not Romans. They were upstanding religious folk. In fact the stoning itself was a biblically mandated punishment for blasphemy. Stephen, recently ordained by the apostles as one of the first deacons, was preaching to synagogue leaders and prominent religious persons about how they had murdered the son of God and how God didn't only dwell in the temple in Jerusalem. These were deeply blasphemous and offensive statements, and this may be a little mystifying to us.

For the good religious people who stoned Stephen to death, God belonged to Israel and Israel alone. God didn't do things like forgive sinners or give sight to the blind. And they certainly could not possibly admit that they could collectively be wrong about any important religious matter, like for example the Son of God.

The blasphemy of Stephen was to suggest that the religious leaders of Israel didn't have God under their control. Strangely enough, many Christians still have this problem.

There were some Christians yesterday who expected the end of the world. Their leader thought he had God under his control. He might have denied this, but having the capacity to predict what God is going to do and when God is going to do it comes down, I think, to having God under one's control.

Other Christians think there is some simple list of things one has to believe in order to be guaranteed life after death. And while there are certainly some truth claims that come with a vital faith, this I think amounts to thinking one has God under one's control.

Others think that piling up good deeds will obligate God to give them what they want, whether its healing or wealth or eternal life, and this comes down to trying to have God under one's control.

And so we build our great monuments, our edifices, be they of stone or of rules or of claims of truth, and we identify these things we have made with God. In so doing however we forget the second commandment: you shall not make a graven image of your God. Nevertheless, these edifices are terribly difficult to destroy.

But destroyed they all will be. Because no matter how big we build them, no matter how heavy the stones, and no matter how large the army we assemble to defend them, sooner or later some bigger army will come along or some machine or bomb powerful enough to tear them down, or some more persuasive idea will tear down all our best ideas.

But Stephen, like Jesus, is a part of a temple that has never been torn down, but has in fact grown bigger and bigger and bigger throughout all the years since. There are stones that make great buildings, there are stones that bring great buildings down, there are stones that bring great people down, there are stones that cover the tombs of the dead, but the living stones, the people who follow the risen Jesus, the cornerstone, are assembled into a great eternal temple that persists from generation to generation and grows and grows and grows. No army, no bomb, no angry mob can bring down this mighty temple.

For we belong not to a god of stone, but to the God of life.


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