This morning, I would like you to imagine being one of the disciples. You have lived your whole life in one of the small fishing villages surrounding the Sea of Galilee. Now, because you have chosen to travel with a young Rabbi named Jesus, you find yourself in the large city of Jerusalem.
Even though the walled city encompasses only one square mile of land, from your perspective, the city was a metropolis. Along the outer rim of the city are the large palatial homes of the ruling class. Once inside the walls, your are immediately inundated with kaleidoscope of color and sound as you walked through the narrow streets lined with vendors selling anything and everything you can imagine from places near and far.
At the far eastern end of the city stands Herod’s monument to Yahweh, the great Temple, only the second temple ever erected to the God of Israel. The Temple was a sight to behold. Its base stood thirty feet above street level. It spanned the length of three football fields and was a hundred yards wide. The massive platform contained a series of walls. The out area was the Court of the Gentiles; anyone could enter this area through the triple gate atop the eastern elevation. Only Jewish males were allowed to enter the center courtyard and then the innermost courtyard leading to Temple sanctuary was the space where only the priests could enter.
This massive structure was supported and lined with blocks of stone at least three feet wide, three feet long and three feet high. Each stone weighed a minimum of 2000 pounds.
As we allow the enormity of this massive structure sink in, we are not surprised that these men, who hailed from the villages of Galilee where most building were at most 12 by 12 feet and only one story in height and being from a place where their concept of a super market was the handful of merchants’ stalls that lined the streets of Galilee, were overwhelmed by what they saw that day.
And one can only imagine what they thought when Jesus began to talk about the Temple being destroyed by human hands. I suspect they thought he was going a bit crazy in the same way his family thought he was going crazy when he last preached in Galilee.
Some forty years later, Jesus prediction came to fruition as Vespasian’s army invaded Jerusalem to put an end to one of the many Jewish uprisings during the first century. To this day, the great blocks of the western wall lay where they fell 1900 years ago, scattered about as if a two year old had dumped a box of toy blocks on the living room floor. Who could have imagined this great structure, in less than a week’s time, would stand in ruins at the hands of Rome.
Historians are unclear as to when Mark wrote his Gospel. Most believe it was written just after the Temple was destroyed. He wrote to a nascent church in the midst of persecution. In the years since Jesus ascension, others, claiming to be the messiah, came to the fore to lead uprising after uprising against the Roman Government. All of them ended in catastrophe. The loss of the Temple was the major turning point in how Judaism understood itself. Without the Temple as the spiritual center of Jewish life, Rabbinical Judaism expanded, Jewish life was decentralized, its spirituality became focused on the life of the local community and the rabbinical instruction of the synagogue.
The early church also found itself facing a new reality.. With Roman persecutions increasing, Rome now focused its zeal on the now small subgroup of Judaism, the Christians, as scapegoats, leading to the purging of Christians from the Synagogues. The nascent church to which Mark is writing now finds itself on its own, struggling to survive in a world hostile to its existence. These were the labor pains Christ predicted, these were the pains that moved the church and the world into a new reality.
Change is a constant, a lesson we choose to either forget or ignore. Who would have thought the church of the 50’s, when Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams and everyone, who was anyone, could be found on their knees praying at public worship on Sunday morning. If anyone had told them the church, as they knew it, would be in decline and on the brink of extinction fifty years later, they, like the disciples, would have stood in disbelief.
And yet this is where we stand today as Pew Research continues to report the non-affiliated stand even with those of us who are affiliated with institutional churches. As we live in a world where personal/institution-free spirituality is now preferred over institutional religion, it is our turn to feel as if we are standing amongst the ruins of the great Temple, as we, like our forebears, groan under the burden of labor as a new reality moves forward.
The late Phyllis Tickle wrote that historically, the Church has gone through times of reformation every five hundred years. She refers to these times of reform as the moments when the church holds a great yard sale trying to rid itself of what keeps it stagnant. Every 2000 years it is believed religion itself goes through a catastrophic shift in understanding as Judaism gave way to Christianity, Christianity is now being opened to an even greater understanding of the divine. With each reform, transition, or whatever one wishes to call it, this world gives way to new ways of being, from the death of the old, to the emergence of new/resurrected life.
Where the ruins of this diocese once lay strewn on busy streets, a new Divine Reign/ a new way of being the Episcopal Church is emerging. In fact, last week’s Diocesan Convention was a celebration of the many ways this Diocese is in the process of resurrection/ how we are in the midst of birthing new ways of being the Church, of being the Body of Christ here in Rhode Island. As the labor pains of closing down congregations has come to an end, once vacant church buildings are seeing new life and new ministries.
Last week we celebrated with The Rev. Meagan Kelly Brower’s reimagining of what the Episcopal Conference Center can be. As camp numbers declined in recent years, she reimagined the summer camp experience as an opportunity for young families to enjoy camp together. The response is overwhelming. In addition, ECC has taken its children’s program to the streets of Providence reaching out to children who before hadn’t had the opportunity to participate in a summer camp experience. In Rumford, there is now the Church Beyond the Walls, a congregation specifically designed to serve the spiritual needs of people who live on the streets of Rumford. A new mission congregation, the Church of the Advent, is forming. It is a church designed to meet the spiritual needs of people with autism.
Now that our time of waiting for a new rector has come to an end, it is easy for us, as members of St. Peter’s, to stand back and be awed by this wonderful, healthy, growing and energetic congregation. But this too, in time, can be destroyed as easily as the temple. Change is constant, change surrounds us and now is the time to ask ourselves what’s next, where do we go from here, what new ways of being the Church need to emerge to continue our and what labor pains will we have to endure in order to continue being the Body of Christ, the ongoing Reign of God here in Narragansett.