Come to the Waters

Phyllis Anderson—November 15, 2009
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Auburn, California

Mark 13:1–8

There are lots of ways to make distinctions between people. Some people are extroverts and some are introverts. Some people are liberal and some are conservative—whatever that means—and all shades in between. Some like salty things and some prefer sweet things. Through my years of working in the church, I’ve learned that some people are institutionally optimistic and some are definitely not. Whether or not you have ever thought of it this way, I bet you could say which camp you are likely to fall into.

Are you inclined to feel good about the way Jesus works in the hearts and minds of individual Christians—but have no patience for meetings or committees or budgets? Do you feel like the business of running a church detracts from what the church really is—or should be? Are you the tiniest bit cynical about the way the church has evolved through the centuries with elaborate buildings and structures and doctrines and programs and offices and rules and regulations? You probably have a strain of institutional pessimism in you. Most Americans do. Maybe even more Westerners.

But some of you here feel more optimistic about the structures and organization that are very much part of the church. Institutions with all their trappings grew through the years to protect against errors and abuses. Buildings and formal leaders and covenantal agreements are a necessary part of any movement enduring through time. If you are institutionally optimistic, you see the flaws in our institutions, but don’t want to tear them down. You are more inclined to try to fix them, make them better.

I’m more on the institutionally optimistic side of things. After all, I am a seminary president. I am called to the work of building up Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. While we are a small, flexible, and very personal learning community, we are definitely an institution with budgets and meetings and strategic plans.

And we are in the business of preparing people to be leaders in the church: pastors, teachers, missionaries, bishops, administrators, chaplains. We receive men and women who are full of faith and full of questions and full of a sense of God’s call in their lives. We teach them the tradition. We form them in the faith. We challenge them to find God in the social struggles of our time. As an institution we pour all of our collective energy into preparing trustworthy, competent, faithful leaders for you. They will pass on the story. They will inspire new generations. They will baptize and confirm. They will bring you communion in your last hours.

My trip here to Bethlehem in Auburn is an act of institutional optimism. I have come here today to say thank you to this congregation. Every month someone here writes a check for $167. That makes $2000 a year. Because you share some of your money with the synod, the synod is able to help the seminary and many other vital ministries. I’m here to embody that relationship, to make the institutional real and personal. I’ve come to celebrate our relationship as interdependent parts of a great church that has been built by those who have gone before us and is ours to steward in our time.

Now for those of us who care about institutions even a little bit, the Gospel lesson for this morning catches us up short. It speaks of the destruction of a great religious institution. The disciples visiting Jerusalem were awe-struck at the magnificence of the Temple—their temple, the symbol of their religion. They said to Jesus: “See what great stones. What great buildings.” Surely the temple in Jerusalem was a gift of God, built by the people of God, a thing of surpassing beauty and strength. The temple stood for the power of the one true God. It was the place of sacrifice, where you came to make atonement with God.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another. They will all be thrown down.”

The institutional pessimist in all of us cheers. Tear down the temples! Down with pomp and power! Out with the money changers!

The institutional optimist in all of us is struck with horror. What can we hold on to if the institutions that have nurtured our faith crumble around us? What do we make of the promises of God when our temples fall?

The Temple in Jerusalem was in fact destroyed. That is an historical fact. Roman troops under General Titus took the temple by force, pulled the stones apart one by one to extract the gold and then burned the entire structure to its foundations. That happened in the year 70 CE. By the time Mark’s Gospel was written, the temple was already gone. The Jewish people had been driven from Jerusalem to wander as strangers throughout the world, far from the land promised to their ancestors Sarah and Abraham. The person who wrote the Gospel of Mark and the people for whom he wrote it were looking back at this cataclysmic event and trying to make sense of it.

What do we do when our temples fall? Well, it is not an idle question. We know something about building institutions: your congregation, the seminary, the ELCA. We build them—we put our heart and soul into them, imagining that they will last forever. But temples fall. Our institutions inevitably fail us. What do we do then?

First—the Gospel lessons tells us not to lose heart. The writer of Mark wills his hearers to keep their eyes on the prize: on Jesus himself and the promise of his eventual triumph. He tells them not to be surprised at the troubles. He reminds them that Jesus warned them, while he was with them, that there would be persecutions and cataclysms and travails. Even the Temple would fall—until not one stone stood upon another. All this was bound to happen. Jesus assured them: “At the end of all things, the Son of a Man will return in glory to save the faithful elect. We do not know when. All we know is that these troubles are the birth pangs of the new age, the coming of the Kingdom of God.”

Second—The history of the people of God tells us something about resilience. In the meantime—between the catastrophe and the final consummation of all things — the people of God continually adapt and morph and find new ways to keep the faith.

When their temple was destroyed and the Jews were driven from their land, it probably seemed like their religion would be obliterated. But no. It was changed, it was de-centered, but it endured. When Jews could not bring their sacrifices to the temple in Jerusalem, they offered the one true God the sacrifice of prayer. When there were no more temple priests, their rabbis taught them the law in synagogues, which could be built anywhere. Without the temple, the rituals were lived out in the homes and hearts of the people—where ever they were. Judaism was transformed—and renewed.

A lot of people are worried about the future of the church today. The mainline denominations all seem to be in trouble. A good portion of the ELCA is very disillusioned with the decisions that were made at the assembly last summer. It feels like a cataclysm, a fundamental change too deep to endure. But the people of God will find a way. We are enormously adaptive. By God’s grace, we are slowly, painfully learning what it required of us to proclaim Christ in fresh ways to new populations in this pluralistic age. We will be changed. We need to be changed. It will feel like we are coming apart. Old institutions will die and new ones will have to be built. At the seminary we are trying to prepare leaders who can make these adaptive changes, who can shape new forms for our faith.

Even your congregation, that seems so vibrant and healthy, will not last forever. That doesn’t mean it is not worth all your effort, all your prayer, all your support, all your hope. Three years ago First Lutheran Church of Los Angeles closed after more than a hundred years of vibrant ministry in the heart of that great city. It was the mother church of many congregations in Southern California. It had a large, beautiful, Spanish style sanctuary on Wilshire Boulevard, where generations of the faithful were baptized and confirmed and married and buried. But by 2006, it had only about a dozen members.

To close that church must have seemed like death, but new life has come from it. The church was bought by a Korean Presbyterian Church that is thriving there. And the proceeds from the sale of the property are funding a dozen new ministries in that synod. They gave one and a half million dollars to PLTS, to endow a chair in Reformation Theology and History, so that new generations will be formed in this tradition and go out to serve and start new churches. Out of death comes life again and again. Our seminary in Berkeley received new life. It also needs to keep changing and adapting, even dying and rising.

So how are we to regard our temples, these treasured institutions that bear our faith from generation to generations? Neither pessimism nor optimism alone will do.

Love them with all your might; invest in them; make them as good as they can be.

Love them. But lightly. They will all fall. And new ones will rise from their ashes.

Love them, but do not give them your ultimate love. That belongs to God alone, who needs no temple, who will rule all in all when all the temples have fallen.

I echo the response of others: The Lord be with you. I share words from a favorite read: The Cure of Souls: An Anthology of P.T. Forsyth’s Practical Writings, edited by Harry Escott:

“I speak of the Church of course as God sees it, God who sees the end from the beginning. You must also learn to see your church like that, not as a human sees it but as God redeemed it, and as God trusts it, and bears with it and feeds it, and serves it, and waits for it while it grows to the maturity in Jesus Christ.” (Manuscript Addresses to Students, P.T. Forsyth).