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One Trillion Dollars?!The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, November 18, 2018:
Daniel 12:1-3
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

The following appeared in newspapers around the world a couple days ago. I quote from The Guardian newspaper in the UK:

Amazon is going to fail, Jeff Bezos, the tech company’s founder, told staff recently.
In an all-hands meeting with his staff, the world’s richest man made the surprising warning that Amazon, currently valued just short of $1tn and regarded as the most fearsome retailer on the planet, would one day face its own demise.
“Amazon is not too big to fail … In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years,” Bezos told staff, according to a recording that was heard by CNBC.
Bezos was addressing a question about Sears, once the world’s largest retail chain, which filed for bankruptcy in October – collapsing in large part after its failure to compete with Amazon.
In order to stave off Amazon’s demise, Bezos said, Amazon would have to “obsess over customers” and avoid looking inward.
“If we start to focus on ourselves instead of focusing on our customers, that will be the beginning of the end,” he said. “We have to try and delay that day for as long as possible.”

Early this past week, a parishioner shared with me how for two nights in a row they’d dreamt of Trinity United Church in Downtown Kitchener — (and I share this with their permission). How it was an historic and impressive part of the downtown core. And how the community that met in the building shrunk over the years, moved in with a neighbouring congregation, and sold off the building that had become a burden.

I thought, “meh, maybe I’ll mention them in my sermon on Sunday, seeing a parallel with the gospel reading.” (But probably not…) And then Thursday came, and Trinity was in the news, having been engulfed in flames in the early morning hours. “OK, I’ll probably mention Trinity on Sunday.” And then the next day, another fire. “I’m definitely going to have to reference Trinity United on Sunday.”
Luisa D’Amato in Saturday’s Record writes this:

It was once a place where the message of Jesus shone as brightly as the glowing pink, blue and yellow light of its stained-glass windows.
Trinity United Church in downtown Kitchener has seen baptisms and weddings and funerals for 112 years in its sturdy red-brick building.
Today, it’s a pile of charred rubble, with several fires started there in the past few weeks. The part of the building that is still standing will be demolished soon.

She notes how, a few years after the dissolution of the Out of the Cold Program of which Trinity was a part, some people would find their way back in search of shelter from the cold:

They lit fires to keep warm. Someone called the fire department Thursday after smoke was seen pouring out. About six homeless people, plus the YWCA emergency shelter for women next door, were evacuated.
Then, a day later, someone else lit a different kind of fire.
…Kitchener fire prevention officer Rick Brooks thinks it was set deliberately to burn the building down.
What a miserable ending to a place that once brought so much comfort to so many.

We can all relate to the gospel story in some way. Whether it’s a retailer or a technology at the centre of our lives. Or a guitarist who develops arthritis and can’t play anymore. A landscaper who becomes allergic to grass. Or a pillar of the community, the nicest most trustworthy guy or gal, who one day takes off and leaves behind their spouse and kids. The last person you’d ever expect to do that. There are going to be some things in life that we expect will always be there, always be steady, foundational, rock-solid, at the centre of our society, or of our self-understanding… until they’re not.

Jesus points to this when he says “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” And he was right, basically. It wasn’t toppled down; it was burnt down, about 35 years later, during a war between the Jewish population and the Romans. And there hasn’t been a temple since.

What Jesus says stuns the disciples, who, like true country bumpkins, were transfixed by the enormous structure. (And you can get a feel for how massive it was, on the cover of the bulletin.) The historian Josephus wrote that some of the rocks that made up the Temple were as big as 25 feet long. Impressive when you don’t have university degrees, computers, or cranes.

So Peter, James, John, and Andrew — the first disciples called by Jesus — they ask him for some clarification. And later, Jesus’s words about the Temple are going to be slightly twisted and used against him. ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands” someone will say at his trial. And when he’s on the Cross: “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days.’”

People aren’t comfortable with this message of impermanence. We all have our foundational stories, and heroes we look up to, or whatever else that we put our faith in. Theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as our “ultimate concern.” We all have an ultimate concern, whether it’s about Jesus saving us, or about making as much money as we can. Everyone has an ultimate concern; everyone puts faith in something. And sometimes that with which we’ve been most concerned fails us. Or is burnt to the ground.

But as we’re going to be singing in just a little bit, the offertory hymn goes: “Christ is our cornerstone; on him alone we build.” If our faith is in Jesus, we’re told, it’s not in vain. Though that’s easier said than done, of course. Remember, he’s a criminal hung on a cross. Not as obvious a source of security as, say, Herod’s Temple that Josephus said shone like gold.

But the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that it’s Jesus’s death — an ugly death, but nevertheless a perfect offering of himself in love — is what serves as a full, perfect, sufficient sacrifice, once offered, on behalf of all of us.

And with that sacrifice made, we can stop fixating on our own standing with God, and trust that “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus.” And set free from worry, we can “provoke one another to love and good deeds” and “meet together… encouraging one another.” And so the focus moves away from the outer things, like the Temple, or whatever else we might put our trust in. And instead we develop inner practices of compassion freely given and freely accepted. Hebrews cites words from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” A move from the external rules to a more inward understanding, and appreciation, and following of God’s leading.

So in these times of transition in the Church, and in times of great suffering, we as Christians can face the changes and chances of this fleeting world with the refrain that “Christ is our cornerstone, and on him alone we build.” And if this is so, then we can see and face challenges, not all as failures and disappointments, but as birth pangs, as Jesus said; the beginnings of something new. As St. Paul wrote:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

So today we hold in our hearts the people of Trinity United Church downtown. A congregation that persists to this day, though meeting in a different place (St. Matthew’s Lutheran). These fires, though, could very still bring them feelings of pain. But as Christians we trust that this need not be seen as a miserable ending, but as birth pangs toward something new. Amen.

©2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter