A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark on November 18, 2018
1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest in Charge
Letting the Temple Fall Apart: The Spectacle of Freedom in a World of Self-Improvement
Time and again in Holy Scripture we are presented with the pattern of loss as gain, of dying in order to live, the destruction of one thing in order that the new creation might arise. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” St. John tells us. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it, “ as St. Matthew tells us. Lost sheep. Lost coins.
Sometimes we hear all this talk about losing our life in order to gain it and think that it is all about something we have to accomplish under our own steam. We turn losing our life in order to gain it into another strategy of self-improvement that our culture is obsessed with. We diet in order to get thinner. We exercise in order to get healthier. We meditate in order to feel less stressed and lower our blood pressure. We are conditioned to think that happiness, joy, the peace that passes all understanding is something we do and we set about trying to achieve the way we achieve everything else in our go-getter culture—by bucking down and trying harder, by storing up coins in our treasury of self-improvement, by following all the rules and getting everything just exactly perfect.
It’s interesting, however, that this is precisely not the picture we get portrayed in the gospels. Take the story Pharisee and the Publican, for example. The insider who’s got it all together, all his ducks in a pious little row, who has checked all the boxes of priestly perfection, and thanks God that he is not like those other sinners—doesn’t get it. The outsider, the one in last pew of the church who dares not approach and asks only for God’s mercy—that he might know himself to be anointed with the oil of God’s loving-kindness poured out and slathered over everything for the salvation of the world—HE is the one who “goes home justified.”
Or take the example of St. Paul himself. As he writes in the Letter to the Philippians “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul’s Damascus Road experience reveals to him that all his efforts to justify himself, all the boxes that he had successfully checked, actually led him further and further away from Christ.
What’s wrong with all of our efforts at self-improvement? Of trying to justify ourselves? Simply put, they crowd out grace and make ourselves and our accomplishments the center of the story. Again and again we are called to become like little children. Again and again Jesus tells that our openness, our receptivity, our weakness, our poverty is our strength, but we can’t hear it. We want to save ourselves and get the credit for being holy in the process.
Our Gospel for today, however, puts an end to that whole picture of how the spiritual life works. The Temple, the way we’ve built ourselves up by our own efforts, that carefully managed and manicured image of ourselves whose maintenance we think will bring us happiness, is revealed by Jesus to be the very thing that has to fall apart. And the key the spiritual journey is to not resist the falling apart that God inevitably engages us in. The poet David Whyte calls it “apprenticing to our own disappearance.” “I must decrease that He may increase” as John the Baptist proclaims. That’s one way to hear all the apocalyptic language that will come down the pike as we approach Advent, as a reminder that our efforts to save ourselves according to some idea we have of what salvation looks like must come to nothing, must fall apart. Salvation comes at the end of all our strivings and at the exhaustion of all our resources. Salvation comes when we give up and let the Savior of the World save us. “I have good news and better news,” a priest said to me once. “The good news is that there is a Messiah. The better news is that it’s not you!”
The story of Hannah is a beautiful example of the attitude we are adopt to apprentice to our own disappearance, to decrease that He might increase. Hannah is a disaster. She is a hot mess. People think she is off her rocker, or at the very least drunk. Muttering to herself, weeping bitterly in the midst of the assembly she makes a spectacle of herself. But notice the kind of spectacle she makes of herself. It’s a spectacle of her own inability to do it by herself. It’s a spectacle of need. It’s a spectacle of utter dependence and trust in the living God. She throws herself in her barren fruitlessness into the arms of the Lord. Hannah’s façade, her mask of propriety and niceness falls away. She no longer performs according to the script and just givens herself permission to present herself, without apology, just as she is, to her Lord in love. Not strategies, no plans, no techniques… just Hannah, as she is, poured out to God, uncut and unvarished.
The Temple of her poise, the Temple of her self-contained invulnerability, the Temple of having it all together collapses (like they always do) and she is a heap of anxiety and vexation. Sooner or later, whether through illness, the break-down of a relationship, political turmoil, or the loss of a job we find rewarding and fulfilling, everything comes to an end. The stones of our temples are thrown down. This is inevitable. It’s not doom and gloom, but a statement of what it means to be a human being in risky, contingent world of chance and change.
The trick, however, is to learn to see in apparent dissolution not death and destruction, but the promise of new life and deeper freedom. God the Divine Physician loosens the stones of our temples not out of cruelty or spite (like a child delighting in knocking down the building blocks of a sibling’s tower), but in order that we might learn to live from the unshakeable ground of God and God alone. Once we make contact with that ground, once we let the stones be thrown down and resist the temptation to run out to Home Depot and buy a palate of Quickcrete, something truly miraculous happens. Just as with Hannah, new life, new creation, deeper freedom, the birth of joy and peacefulness that is not dependent on external circumstances arise. Our temples tumble down, but God builds in us a temple not made of hands, the temple of Holy Spirit, the place where love cavorts and plays, and makes a spectacle of itself in pouring itself out indiscriminately for others.
Whether we call it letting go and letting God, getting out of the way, surrender, apprenticing to our disappearance, or letting the world of shoulds requirements fall apart, doesn’t much matter. What matters is that we come to the recognition, the awareness, the awakening, that it is God, not our frantic efforts at self-improvement who builds. When we construct according to our plans it always ends up as a fun-house, or a house of horrors. It’s in letting it all fall apart that who God is and what God is calling forth actually has a chance to come to light. “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” as the R.E.M. song croons, “and I feel fine.” We might say, instead, “And I feel free.” My world has decreased and His has increased. We’ve “succeeded” in letting God be God.
Gracious God, you are builder of all that is holy, good, and true in our lives. Show us what temples in our lives need to come down that your love for us might be the unshakeable ground from which we live and serve others. Give us faith and courage when our self-made foundations start to shake to let the walls come down that we might meet you without barrier or boundary. May our lives be built up in you with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone, for it is in in Him that we find the treasure for which we hunger, He is the true temple—the temple of love that plays in ten thousand places. Amen