Recently my wife’s cousin bought a church in England that she and her husband are going to transform into a summerhouse. This might sound strange, but in world filled with senseless waste, it’s nice to see there is a growing trend of restoring and repurposing old buildings especially ones with unique architectural structure. By their shear beauty and ornateness, churches seem to be the hot ticket item for these type of renovation projects.
(Showing slides of various renovated churches) Just this past summer, I had a wonderful time at a gastropub in Grand Rapids housed in the refurbished sanctuary of a historic funeral home. Things like this are happening all over the world. In Boston, the Holy Trinity church was transformed into high end condominium complex. In the Netherlands, an aging cathedral received new life as a bookstore. Instead of tearing down this old neighborhood church, Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts incorporated the structure into its building plan. And somewhere out there in Germany, an old church has been turned into a skate park; which, by the way, has me rethinking the space in Fellowship Hall.
I have visited many wonderful churches, cathedrals, and basilicas in my lifetime. St. Paul’s, in the Vatican, is probably one of the most impressive I have ever seen. There is not enough time today to describe its astounding beauty. Suffice it to say it offers us a wonderful window into heaven. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is another such place. In fact, this massive building was so awe inspiring that when the Muslim invaders stormed Constantinople in 1453, they kept the church pretty much in tact.
In Mark’s Gospel this morning, Jesus and his disciples are leaving the Jerusalem Temple for the last time. One of his followers comments on the impressive beauty of this enormous worship center. It was an architectural achievement, and is still considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Herod spared no expense to impress the wealthiest and most powerful rulers of the day. And it worked.
Let me put this grand structure into some perspective. The Temple measured 3 football fields wide by 5 football fields long. The enormous stones of its foundation measured as long as 40 feet. And a few still exist as part of the Western Wall. The front of the main temple entrance was 22,500 square feet. It’s been reported that this wall was covered with so much silver and gold that in the bright sunlight it blinded anyone who looked at it. The surrounding complex included sprawling courtyards, colonnaded courts, grand porches and balconies, covered walkways, and monumental stairs. A spectacular sight for sure.
The Temple, of course, was the center of Jewish worship. It was their closest point of contact with God. And by its very geographical location, it also put God in the center of the known world. So when Jesus publically declares, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down,” you can imagine the controversy it created. Even his disciples couldn’t comprehend it. It makes me wonder what our reaction would be if someone made a bold judgment on our beloved church. Would we listen to that person, or crucify him?
Sitting on the Mount of Olives, Jesus takes in the beauty of the Temple in all its splendid glory. And as he does, he warns his disciples to remain faithful to their commitment to God. He knows that we will face trials. We will get distracted by shiny objects, and get pulled off course. Many of us will fall on our face more than once in our life. But through it all, we must remain faithful to the hope and promise of God’s love. We must be like living stones, as Peter tells us, built upon the cornerstone of Jesus Christ, the New Temple, made not by human hands but by God’s divine Word.
As living stones, we have a dual purpose. The first is to be life-giving and essential to the building of God’s world. A young man named E., the grandnephew of (M.G.), was only a teenager, and a freshman at Calvin College, when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car into a tree. He would not survive the accident. But because he was an organ donor, five other people received a new lease on life. Through his promise and commitment to being an organ donor, E. is a living stone, life giving and essential to the building of God’s world. In our faithful commitment to the word and works of Jesus Christ, we too become life giving.
The second purpose of a living stone is to serve as a royal priesthood and be the altar, and the light of Christ to the world. We are called, as a church to become and build up a community that enriches our environment with life giving love. This spiritual house that our mothers and fathers built is still alive because it continues to bring hope, peace, joy, love, sanctuary, and salvation to all who enter through our doors.
As part of this church, we are called to be a living stone, serving the spiritually hungry in our community. But our ministry can only go as far as our people and our financial support allows. This building, just like the people she serves, needs TLC, tender loving care. And this takes commitment, a promise to both our faith and to our community. As we build our spiritual house, by living out Christ’s word and examples, we become part of something that cannot be destroyed. We cannot lose sight of this. This is important to remember. Through Christ the temporary becomes eternal.
We must pay attention to the words of Jesus who tells us not to be fooled or distracted by the trials and tribulations of life. They are only birth pangs of what is to come. We cannot take our focus off God, no matter how bad the world may seem...no matter how scared or afraid we might feel...we must remain faithful in order to be faith filled.
The recent terrorist attacks in Cairo and Paris are stark reminders of Jesus' prediction. War and violence seem to be getting out of control. Even nature is giving us reason to be concerned. Weather patterns are shifting due to our environmental damage. In the Pacific Ocean, the Ring of Fire is busy, igniting violent earthquakes without warning. And of course, there are famines in Africa and Asia, and here Montcalm county where 25% of our neighbors don't have enough to eat. We are not to fear these things, but be faithful to the One who has all power over all creation. We must be committed to being living stones...reborn and made alive in Christ who has entrusted us to be peacemakers, and caretakers. Without Christ as the cornerstone of our faith and faith community, we are nothing more than dead stones, tossed to the side of ancient history.
Let’s face it, temples crumble and churches die. Both Roman and Jewish records tell us that Herod’s marvelous wonder of the ancient world was completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, roughly 30 years after it was completed. I’m not sure, who other than (L.S.) may have personally witnessed its destruction. But I suspect some of you are old enough to remember April 2, 1951. This was the date an arsonist took to the streets of Greenville. He lit up 3 local churches, including ours. While our basement fire was quickly extinguished, the Methodist church was completely destroyed. What we glean from this experience is the same lesson learned on the streets of Jerusalem. Things that are made by human hands are temporary. But those made by God are everlasting.
Today, there is an average of about 1,000 new churches opening up around our country every year. However, in the same time span, 4,000 churches close down for good due to lack of interest or financial support. This beautiful and historical church is just as vulnerable to financial failure as it is to fire. Therefore, we cannot lose sight of this gospel truth: what is made from dead stones is only temporary. But what is made with living stones of God will live forever.
Next week you will be asked to fill out a card to commit to the financial health of our church. Historically speaking only 20% of our members make this commitment. We all need to be commitment to pledge support...and uphold our promise to our faith and to our faith community. For this is one of the most important ways we show our faith and reliance to God.
As we celebrate Donor Sabbath, let us prayerfully consider what promise we can make, and what financial contributions we can commit to each week or each month. Jesus, like the prophets before him and the Apostles after him, casts God's judgment on the Temple. He is speaking to its commitment to God, its worship and its worship leaders.
Our faith, like our worship, is meaningless if it is lifeless like the cold, dead stones of the ancient Temple. We cannot simply worship on Sunday, but must worship daily. We cannot simply do the bare minimum if we are going to survive. We need to do all that we can to live faithfully and to commit fully to the promised hope of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
This is what it means to become living stones. By our commitment to our faith, we bring new life to ourselves and to others. As living, life-giving stones...built upon the cornerstone of God's eternal Temple, we move beyond the temporary, into everlasting life. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ...as it was in the beginning, is now and forever will be...Amen.