Abandoned Treasures and Marvelous Things: A Sermon for Proper29C, 2019

I follow an Italian social media account called Tesori Abbandonati(Abandoned Treasures). It posts photos of abandoned buildings, mostly churches, palaces, and the like from across Italy. There are similar projects in the US—for example a few years ago, photos of abandoned churches and theatres in Detroit were making the rounds.

Seeing such photos bring up all sorts of emotions. In the case of Italy, when many of the buildings are centuries old, I’m inclined to marvel at the passing of time, the fact that a church or palace from the seventeenth century lacks the architectural or historical significance that would warrant its preservation. In the case of cities like Detroit, different emotions come to the fore—sadness about the decline of a once-great American city, the loss of manufacturing, the racial inequalities that contributed and continue to contribute to the economic despair in many urban centers.

Rural America has similar abandoned treasures. One doesn’t have to drive too far into the country to see abandoned barns or farmsteads, bearing visual testimony to the vast changes that have reshaped the rural economy and society.

Abandoned treasures, monuments to past generations and reminders of the passing of time. No doubt you’re wondering about the point of all this, but our gospel reading, if you think about it, evokes the sort of comments we might make to ourselves or to others when we visited a ruined building. Remember that Luke is writing about two generations after Jesus said these words and perhaps even longer. Most scholars date Luke to the decade between 80 and 90 but there is a growing tendency to move that date even later to the second or third decade of the second century. So Luke’s readers, to the extent that any of them lived in or around Jerusalem, would have experienced the temple primarily as ruins, after its destruction by the Romans in 70ce.

We can’t imagine what so cataclysmic an event would have done to the faith and practice of 1st century Jews. The temple was God’s dwelling place on earth, the focus of Jewish ritual life; in many ways, the very core of Jewish identity. Nothing was the same afterwards. Indeed, scholars distinguish between Second-Temple Judaism, and Rabbinic Judaism, the latter of which emerged in the first centuries after the temple’s destruction and created a new religious tradition based on the interpretation of Jewish law compiled in the Talmud. It is that tradition that continues to shape contemporary Judaism.

The temple’s destruction constituted a crisis not only for Judaism. It did so as well for Christianity. Throughout the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, Luke emphasizes the importance of the temple for Jesus and for Jesus’ followers. His parents bring him as a baby to the temple and again when he is twelve years old. He teaches in the temple when he finally arrives in Jerusalem as we see him doing here. And after his ascension, the disciples return to the temple. The last words of the gospel are: “And they were continually in the temple blessing God.” That’s true as the book of Acts begins as well. Luke shows the disciples going to the temple daily.

It’s in that context, where the temple is a symbol of longevity, tradition, and of the presence of God, that we should listen to this passage. All of that is gone now for Luke’s readers and they are facing a world where the Judaism of which they were a part has rejected them, where there is violence, wars, and persecution. It’s in situations like this that the imagery of this gospel reading and other texts, often comes into play.

It’s called apocalyptic and it conjures up ideas of a universe in which the forces of good and evil are at battle, in which evil seems to be winning, and those of us on the side of good are in peril for our lives. It’s easy to see the attraction of such language and imagery, especially in times not like our own. We are approaching the Season of Advent, and while we tend to think that Advent helps us prepare for Christmas, it is also, perhaps even primarily about Christ’s Second Coming, not just his first coming.

Apocalyptic is both seductive and repellent. On the one hand, it purports to offer insight into future events and to promise a final victory of good over evil. On the other, its violence can be frightening.

We are seeing institutions crumbling before our very eyes. The things in which we had put our trust, our democracy, our churches, some not to be able to sustain themselves in the face of the grave challenges of our time. Truth itself is contested as the very ground on  which we stand seems to be shifting. It’s hard to find cause for hope, or even to think about the future—especially when that future will occur in the midst of climate crisis.

Still, Jesus’ words, meant to comfort his listeners and Luke’s readers in the first century, may comfort us as well: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” In the midst of all of the turmoil and chaos that surrounds us, Jesus promises that he is with us.

Those words remind us where our focus should be. We might be fascinated by abandoned treasures or look for signs of the end times in wars and rumors of wars. We might even despair as we think about all that we have lost and the immense challenges facing us as a community and a nation. We might even worry that one day, Grace Church itself will be featured in photos of “lost Madison” that the State Journal regularly publishes.

Fear, nostalgia, despair. All of these feelings may beset us but Jesus teaches us to direct our focus elsewhere—on him. We can see, throughout Christian history, and even back beyond, God’s continuing care for the world and for God’s people. The Psalm is a hymn to our God who delivered the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and preserved them throughout history. It was a psalm of praise and thanksgiving, in spite of all else that happened throughout the centuries—exile, destruction, and defeat. Even in the face of catastrophe, “Sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvelous things.”

That memory, a memory of liberation gives us faith that God continues to act in history, that God acts for us. Our story is not of defeat and catastrophe—our story is one of crucifixion and resurrection, the cross and the empty tomb.

The wisdom Jesus gives us is the faith that whatever struggles we have, whatever suffering we endure, whatever evil surrounds us, God is with us and God will prevail. Our faith proclaims that God judges the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.

As we reflect today on the past year and begin to plan for next, with our annual meeting later, may we continue to know that God is with us here, that God has brought us this far, and that God is leading us into a future full of hope. God continues to do marvelous things!

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