Sunday, November 15, 2015

Out of the Ruins, New Life!

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
November 15, 2015

Year B, Proper 28: The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 1:4-20
The Canticle of Hannah
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

Out of the Ruins, New Life!
            In my weekly email to the parish I wrote how Thanksgiving came early for me this year.
            As many of you know or will soon find out I’ve been writing thank you notes to everyone who has made a pledge of financial support to St. Paul’s for 2016.
            It’s something I’ve thought about in the past but I always made excuses that I just didn’t have enough time.
            But, after our vestry retreat a few weeks ago I resolved that this year I would do it.
            And, although it has been time consuming, it has been such a gift to me each time I’ve sat down to write my thank you notes, each time I’ve reflected on not just your financial generosity – which is very important and amazing, of course – but also the many ways that you give to our church.
            I’m glad to say that I’ve had to write a lot of thank you notes because our stewardship campaign has been such a success, with most of you pledging – some for the first time – and many increasing your pledges from last year – we’re almost where we hoped to be so I hope you last holdouts will go “all in.”
            We truly depend on your pledges – and on you paying your pledges – in order to do the many ministries that make this such a vibrant and exciting church.
            But, you know, this church did not always raise money by asking parishioners to pledge their support.
            No, back in the 19th Century, this church paid its bills by charging what were called “pew rents,” which means exactly what it sounds like.
            Each year parishioners would rent their pew and that pew would be reserved for them whenever they were in church – it’s why, I believe, our pews are numbered. It’s a practice that is pretty much extinct in the church but lives on in some synagogues, which raise funds that way.
            Back in the 19th Century not everybody at St. Paul’s thought that pew rents were a good idea. In fact, some people felt so strongly about pew rents that they broke away from St. Paul’s and formed a new church, St. John’s “Free” Episcopal Church.
            Eventually they built a magnificent stone church over on Summit Avenue that about 100 years ago was known as the “Millionaires’ Church” and was the biggest Episcopal church in the whole state.
            Over time, though, the membership of St. John’s shrank and in the 90s the church was closed and, as many of you know, eventually the once magnificent building fell into disrepair and became the crumbling ruin that can be seen today.
            Today’s gospel passage got me thinking about the ruin that is all that’s left of the once-magnificent St. John’s Church.
            We pick up right where we left off last week right after Jesus and the disciples have observed the poor widow drop her two small copper coins into the Temple Treasury.
            Jesus and the disciples leave the Temple, which was the religious and civic center of Jewish life – the place where, in a sense, God was believed to dwell – the magnificent structure that was considered one of the marvels of the ancient world.
            They leave the Temple and one of the disciples, sounding a lot like a country boy on his first trip to the big city, says, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
            Jesus, apparently unimpressed, responds with what must have been a shocking prediction: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
            And, that’s exactly what happened. In the year 70, 40 or so years after Jesus’ earthly lifetime, the Romans destroyed the Temple – the place where, in a sense, God was believed to dwell - burning it down, looting its treasures, leaving just a ruin.
            Today all that remains is a large retaining wall, the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall, where Jews pray to this very day.
            It’s probably hard for us to imagine how shocking, horrifying, terrifying, this must have been to the Jews of the first century, including the Jews who were followers of Jesus, the people who were some of the first readers and hearers of Mark’s gospel.
            What was once a magnificent structure was now a ruin.
            No surprise, lots of people believed - and apparently some Christian leaders proclaimed - that the destruction of the Temple meant that the end was at hand and Jesus was about to return.
            After the Temple was destroyed, the people of Israel endured a time of, to use the words of Hannah in today’s first lesson, “great anxiety and vexation.”
            So often, it feels like everything is ruined, doesn’t it?
            Sometimes, it feels like humanity itself is a ruin.
            I know all of us were horrified but, sadly, not shocked, by the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night. Innocent people killed or injured while going about their business, eating in a restaurant or attending a rock concert – lives lost and ruined in a flash of violence.
            Sometimes, our own life can feel like a ruin.
            Suddenly we have a new and frightening pain or a lump, or we get a phone call heralding bad news, or words are said that can’t be taken back, or a relationship gets broken, or we find a pink slip waiting for us at work.
            But, in today’s gospel Jesus warns and promises that this great darkness, this time of great anxiety, is not the end, but the beginning of the birthpangs – not the end, but the beginning of the pains of new birth – the pain of new life being born.
            And, Jesus was right.
            Jesus was right because God specializes in creating new life out of ruins.
            Here’s the thing: the Temple may have been destroyed but Judaism wasn’t. God gave the people of Israel new life, freed from sacrifices in the Temple - new life, loving and serving God, studying and reflecting on the Scriptures, anywhere and everywhere.
            And growing up beside Judaism, not always comfortably or peacefully, was Christianity - Christianity that took the Good News of Israel’s God to the ends of the earth, the Good News of the Son of God to places far, far away from Jerusalem.
            And, about Paris.
            You know, it wasn’t that long ago that much of Europe lay in ruins after the horrors of World War II, a war fought bitterly between those old enemies, France and Germany.
            And yet, out of the ruins of that horrific war a new, previously unthinkable, friendship was born between those old enemies. In fact, I was struck by the fact that when the attacks occurred France and Germany were battling it out again, but this time on a soccer field.
            And, after the attacks, the chancellor of Germany said this to the French people: “We, your German friends, we are so close with you. We are crying with you.”
            God specializes in creating new life out of ruins.
            And, God creates new life out of the ruins of our own lives, too.                                   
            As a priest, I’ve been privileged to see it happen over and over again.
            An illness or some other crisis provides the opportunity for people to pour out so much love and support, the opportunity to remember what’s most important.
            A broken relationship is healed through forgiveness, reconciliation, and a lot of hard work.
            The pain and panic of unemployment make way for a reassessment of priorities, make way for new opportunities and growth.
            Yes, God specializes in creating new life out of ruins.
            Oh, and about the ruin of St. John’s…
            On Thursday night the Jersey City Zoning Board approved Garden State Episcopal CDC’s plan to build a 47 unit condominium development at St. John’s.
            The project will set aside some units for affordable housing and others at market rate, and there will be much-needed new community space located inside what was the nave of the church.
            And the entire exterior of the ruined church will be preserved and restored: it will be magnificent once again.
            Yes, God specializes in creating new life out of ruins – new life out of ruined humanity – new life out of the ruins of our lives – and, yes, even new life out of ruined old churches.
            Out of the ruins, new life!
            Thanks be to God.