A part of lifeguard training is learning how to rescue active victims. The rules for rescuing an active victim includes; speaking to the victim, never swimming directly into the victim and to always use a floatation device as the primary means for the victim to grab onto. These are the rules because a panicked victim is a lethal threat to any rescuer as the victim’s only goal is to keep his or her head above water. In training, I was warned to never get too close to a victim, because their first instinct would be to use the lifeguard as a floatation device by grabbing onto the guard and forcing him under water. We were also taught to keep a floatation device between the ourselves and the victim as a means of encouraging the victim to grab the life ring or torpedo buoy and as the means to help the victim stay afloat while the lifeguard swam them into shore.
All of us live in what feels like a sea of chaos and change. Change is happening so quickly that many feel as if they are struggling to keep their heads above water. It’s hard to keep up in this rapidly changing world and many of us look to the church to be the one thing in our lives that will keep us afloat in this ever changing world. But like a panicked victim, often times, however, what we want to cling to for safety is not designed to keeps us afloat.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is aware of the misplaced trust his followers have in the temple structure. He stuns his followers when he predicts the destruction of the temple. For first century Jews, to predict the temple would fall was a pretty incredible prediction. Physically, the Jerusalem Temple was an imposing structure. It stood a solid sixty feet above street level. Each of the stone blocks used to create this structure weighed at least a ton, if not more. The whole complex was so massive its platform covered the length of three football fields and was probably the width of three football fields as well. The walls that surrounded the temple grounds were also fortified in such a way that it was inconceivable any human force could bring it down.
The belief that the temple was impenetrable went deeper than its structural strength. The temple was believed to be impenetrable because it was the icon of ancient Judaism’s spirituality. According to tradition, the temple was built on the mountain where Abraham attempted the sacrifice of Isaac. It was within the temple that God resided on earth. It was to the temple that ancient Jews made pilgrimage each year to make sacrifices to God. For the average ancient Jew,the temple was not just a structure built of stone and mortar, the temple was the icon of their faith, and as long as the temple stood, the relationship between Israel, Yahweh and the world was good.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus broadens the foundation of the disciples’ faith. Jesus tries to move their trust from the temporal realities of the temple to the more solid foundation of God alone. In many ways, Jesus knew the disciples’ temple based faith would not keep them afloat or support them when the spiritual waters of their lives began to churn and the disciples’ became too tired to swim the choppy seas. Jesus knew that following him would eventually push the disciples out of the temple altogether. And, Jesus knew that only a faith centered on God would keep the disciples afloat in the choppy waters that lay ahead.
Today, we continue to be like our ancient forbears, easily allowing the earthly icons of our faith to become the core of our relationship with God. As Episcopalians, we are often accused of having “edifice” complex as we have are overly attached to our buildings. And there is no doubt nineteenth century anglicans have erected some of the most beautiful buildings in which to worship, as the morning sun shines through antique Tiffany windows. But like all earthly things, buildings have life spans and cease to be resources of spirituality. This happens when rising maintenance costs saps the energy of the gathered community and becomes the primary focus of the community’s mission and spiritual life.
However, buildings are not the only things that distract us and become false idols of faith. Simply take a step back and recount the issues that have caused division in our midst. There you will find more places where sacred icons have become the false gods for our communities. Over the past decade we have allowed differences over issues of social justice, politics, and yes most especially our diverse taste in music cause division among us. At times, we have drawn artificial lines in the sand believing these issues were so sacred as if they were the center and primary focus of our faith. When in reality, most of these issues have minimal importance to our relationship with God.
Seven years ago, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed several church buildings along the Louisiana coast, the affected congregations experienced a sense of renewal and growth. These congregations were forced to hold services without the benefit or the protection of their once beautiful and magnificent buildings. No longer could pipe organs assist with congregational singing. Music had to be simplified as all who were present were called upon to take their part in the making of a joyful noise to God each Sunday morning. In time, each of these congregations came to realize that as beautiful and as wonderful their buildings had been; and no matter how important music once was, all that really mattered were the relationships that had been formed through the gathering of the community of faith.
In theological terms, we define the community of faith as the Body of Christ. It is through our experience of being in relationship with each other that we come to understand our relationship with the divine. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am among you.” What Jesus tells his disciples, and what the church has taught for centuries is that there is something sacred, something transformational within the gathered community of faith. The Episcopal Church has recognized this since its inception. According to the rubrics of the Prayer Book, the celebration of Holy Eucharist cannot take place unless two or more people are present. And, the most recent prayer book reform emphasizes the ministry of all the Baptized. The church and our relationship with God, Christ teaches, is not found in bricks and mortar, in music or liturgical taste, instead, our relationship with God is found and formed in the context of the community of faith.
I find it sad, however, that the gathered community is the asset least valued by most congregations. As Christian consumers, we have been taught, like everything else,that deep abiding relationships with God can be discovered through prepackaged Bible studies and/or hip music that is preselected and pre-segregated for each generation. While all this may make for exciting worship and study experiences, studies now show, it does not lead to deeper, sustainable relationships with God.
What does. . is the act of being community through the breaking of bread together, the sharing of our faith experiences across generational lines and working side by side in an effort to transform the world and each other into the reign of God.
As a congregation, we have innately known this for quite awhile. During the 2011 pledge campaign, the vestry and Finance Committee were pleasantly surprised that the one thing we valued most about the Community of St. Luke’s is the sense of intimacy our small community allows. New members reinforced this as they told us it was the intimacy of our community that attracted them to St. Luke’s and keeps them here.
Look around you and know that you are seated in the midst of Christ, because your are seated in the midst of a community of faith, the Body of Christ.
This does not mean we are perfect, or that we always get it right. What it does mean, is that you are in the midst of unconditional love. As I have said many times to those who are in crisis or actively grieving, while we as a community cannot take the pain or fear away, nor make the path any easier, we can and will hold you up and journey with you to safer waters.
Several years ago, one of my most senior colleagues informed me that our building was the ugliest church building in all Christendom. While I chose not to argue aesthetics with him, what I did tell him is how this building provided shelter to one of the most beautiful communities I have ever been part of.
So whether this building stays or goes. . .whether or not our music is good or bad, from the hymnal or off the internet, whether we worship in rite one or two. . . all of these things matter very little, because none of these things are the core of who we are. What is at our core and is the one constant in our lives and actually can carry us through the tsunamis of change. . is this gathered community, the Body of Christ. And it is this community, that is the one spiritual device we can trust in. . to keep us afloat. . in the scariest and most uncertain times.