When I read today’s lesson from Luke with its list of dire predictions, it reminds me of a daily email I receive from CNN, called “5 Things.” Every morning, the email lays out the five worst news items from around the world. A great way to start out each day—right?
On Friday morning, the email included these 5 updates:
Number 1: The California shooting on Thursday at Santa Clarita’s High School—with two students killed and five others shot by a 16-year-old classmate. Such tragic news.
Number 2: The impeachment investigation…. Need I say more?
Number 3: The ceasefire of the cross-border fighting in Gaza that started on Tuesday—which launched 450 rockets.
Number 4: The violent political protests in Chile.
Number 5: A return of the “Plague” or “Black Death,” which killed 50 million Europeans during the Middle Ages. The World Health Organization reported that during a recent five-year period nearly 3,200 new cases and 600 deaths—with 50,000 total cases in the past two decades. Today, the ancient plague is back.
While there weren’t any earthquakes or famines mentioned, this email list sounds a lot like the apocalyptic events and other signs described by Jesus in our Gospel reading. Jesus also predicts the destruction of the Jewish Temple.
Eight years ago, my husband Charlie and I visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem with a group from our Minneapolis church. There, we saw a street with filled with Temple stones pushed down by Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago. Some of these blocks were massive. Just one of them could fill this sanctuary.
Today, the remaining foundation stones form the Western Wall, also called the “Wailing Wall.” A place where we prayed side by side with Jews and Christians and Muslims from all over the world. At the Wall, they hand you a piece of paper and pencil, and you write a prayer or hope or message. Then you insert your note between the giant stones.
This tradition is linked to an old Jewish teaching that the Divine Presence of God which dwelt in the Sanctuary never moved from that holy spot. Standing at the Wall praying, I was amazed at how something so gigantic could be destroyed.
I also sensed the immense sacredness of that space. Over a million hand-written prayers are placed on the wall each year. Prayers for healing. Prayers of fear and sadness. Prayers for comfort and guidance and wisdom. Prayers for God’s presence in the midst of anxiety and tragedy and loss.
By the time Luke wrote his Gospel around 85 AD, the Temple had already been destroyed. In effect, for Luke’s original readers what Jesus says here is not a disaster prediction. Instead, it’s a news report of something that happened 15 years before.
For us, it would be like predicting the 9/11 terrorist attacks today, 18 years after they took place. And thinking about the long-term effects of that fateful day.
Many of us (who are old enough) can remember exactly where we were when we first heard the news. I was driving to work at United Way in downtown Minneapolis, when I heard a report on MPR about a plane flying into the World Trade Center.
For the Jewish community to which Jesus belonged, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was their 9/11. It changed their history forever. I’m sure many wondered if their faith would survive. Eventually, the synagogue became the center of Jewish life.
Most early Christians were part of that community. But that event pushed them to new places, too. They had to create ways of worshiping without a Temple. Many gathered in believers’ homes.
In Rome, some Christians worshiped in catacombs—underground tunnels where the dead were buried. Even without a physical temple, they believed the presence of God went with them out into the community.
The history of our congregation parallels that story. Six years ago, St. Mark’s had to sell its original building. The boiler stopped working. The roof leaked. And even though the building wasn’t destroyed, St. Mark’s left the place where we had worshiped for over 100 years. Since then, the building has been renovated and now it’s the Sanctuary Event Center. But our true sanctuary is no longer there.
For three years, St. Mark’s worshiped at Elim Lutheran. Then in April 2017, we moved to the convent chapel at Prairie St. John’s. Eventually the hospital decided to tear down that building to make way for a new facility. And in August we moved here to the synagogue.
So many people have told me how much they admire what we are doing here at Temple Beth El. And members of the synagogue are delighted. Ironically (maybe prophetically), we are a Christian community worshipping in a Jewish Temple—just like Jesus did.
Every week, when I’m preparing my sermon, I’m aware of how, in big and small ways, this new home informs my theology and what it means to me to be Christian in our modern world.
I wish more Lutherans could have this experience. Of dwelling in a space that is not our own. Where another totally different faith community has welcomed us with open arms.
In its original meaning, a “sanctuary” is a sacred place, like a church or mosque or temple. A secondary meaning for the word is “a place of refuge.” During the Middle Ages, churches became legal sanctuaries for fugitives fleeing enemies and authorities.
This summer the ELCA (our national organization) voted to become a “sanctuary Church.’ And while what exactly that means was not clearly defined, the sanctuary movement goes back to the 1980s. Where American Christians began providing sanctuary to refugees fleeing civil wars in Central America.
Today, some Christians are seeking to help migrants imprisoned in detention centers and camping in tents along the Mexican border. Men and women and children, seeking a safe place to live and work and worship. People of faith without a home, facing tremendous hardships as a result of our government’s new restrictions.
Eighty-six years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany who dared to defy an oppressive government. Who, ultimately, was killed by the Nazis for those efforts. As Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seduced the German people, conquered a continent, and brought genocide on the Jews, Bonhoeffer and a small group of Christian dissidents sought to dismantle the Third Reich from within.
In April 1933, shortly after Hitler was appointed chancellor, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay called, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which he presented to a meeting of Lutheran pastors.
His first point was that—especially during difficult and oppressive movements in human history—God calls the Church to be a prophetic voice. To be willing to question the actions, even the legitimacy of the ruling State or government.
And if, as Bonhoeffer goes on to say, certain individuals become victims of the negative effects of the State’s actions, then the Church has an “unconditional obligation” to step in and to help those victims. To become a living sanctuary for them.
Of course, the victims of that time were the Jews and others attacked by the Nazis. What’s disturbing today is that anti-Semitism is once again on the rise.
But Bonhoeffer doesn’t stop there. He argues that the Church is obligated not to just bandage the victims crushed by the oppressive wheels of government, but to become a stick pushed into the spokes of the wheel to stop the vehicle itself.
At Bonhoeffer’s presentation, most of the Lutheran ministers walked out before he could finish. They were so fully enmeshed in the anti-Semitism of their country, they could not see why the Church should do anything to stop it. Which made Bonhoeffer realize that God’s call to be a prophetic voice is a long and lonely road.
Today, I believe God is calling us as the Church to be that kind of prophetic voice. Here. In this temple. In this community. In this country.
A voice for refugees and people of color. A voice for trans and queer individuals. A voice for Muslims and Jews. A voice for all those who are the targets of contemporary racism and bigotry.
That we may bring healing to those who suffer. Kindness to those who are oppressed. Love to those who are hated.
And God’s holy sanctuary to those without a place to call home. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON – Luke 21:5-11
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”