August 24, 2014, Pentecost 11 – Lego Blocks and Lively Stones
Following the recording of the sermon, there is music for meditation played by William Matson on the Irish harp. Click here to listen: 110101_001
In our upstairs hallway we have a dresser. There are two drawers in the dresser, and both of them are full to the top with lego blocks, and besides that there is a bucket of legos on top of the dresser. We have been collecting legos for many years in our household, ever since our big children were little children, and now their children like to come and build things out of the same legos their mamas and papas used to play with.
When we got the legos, lo those many decades ago, they came in all kinds of cool sets. We had pirate lego sets and knights and kings lego sets, doctor legos and construction worker legos, Star Wars legos and Harry Potter legos. But the thing is, that now what we have is thousands of little plastic colored bricks and there is not a single thing left of all those fancy sets except a crown here or a magic wand there, a ghost from a long-demolished castle or a parrot from a long-disintegrated pirate ship. Other than that, all those old sets of legos, all those fancy constructions the kids were so excited about long, long ago, are pretty much unrecognizable.
It’s not just legos, though. Every human construction, from civilizations and empires to religions and codes of ethics, everything built by mankind, is certain to go the same way as my children’s legos. Those works of man’s hands that seemed so grand and glorious, developments and discoveries that shook our world, human power and might that seemed unconquerable – for better or worse, none of it can escape the certainty of being swallowed up by death and decay and corruption, sooner or later. That’s exactly what Jesus warned his disciples about when they were showing him the Jerusalem Temple one day, in awe of its beauty, its size and its grandeur. Jesus looked around at it – and it was an incredible structure, and perhaps even more importantly, it represented centuries of tradition – and he said, “Do you see all this? Not one of these stones will be left on another.”
At that time he was warning them about the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans that would happen in their own lifetimes. But it is an inescapable pattern that the things of this world, and the efforts of human strength, and the most brilliant endeavors of the human mind, none of these things can stand up to the inevitability of death and decay. The most magnificent castle will eventually crumble and turn to dust; the most brilliant civilization will eventually become corrupt and fade away; the most powerful man will eventually take his last breath and die. Death is the unconquerable tyrant that has held the kingdom of this world captive ever since the first man and woman chose to go their own way, and sin wormed its way into God’s new and perfect creation.
The only escape, the only possible remedy, to this hopeless condition the world found itself in, was an infusion of life, abundant life that had the power to set the whole world free from its bondage. And that is what Jesus came to do, because life is what Jesus is. Jesus asked the disciples, “What are people saying about me? Who do they think I am?” And they answered him, “Well, they’re thinking of all the things they’ve heard about the Messiah – they think you might be John the Baptist, come back from the dead, or Elijah, or one of the prophets.” “How about you?” Jesus asked them, “Who do you see when you look at me?” And Peter answered him, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
And for once, Peter got it right. “Blessed are you, Peter, son of Jonah,” Jesus said. “Because you didn’t come up with that answer by any human wisdom or effort. My Father, God himself, revealed that to you.” This was a turning point of Jesus’s ministry, the unveiling of the next stage of his plan. It wasn’t enough for Jesus to do over what the great men of the past had done. Jesus came to bring the only keys that could unlock the chains of sin and death and set the world free, the keys to the kingdom of heaven that would put death to death. And then he did what no one, human or demon, could have or would have expected him to do – he gave the keys to us.
Starting with Peter and that ragtag assortment of fishermen and tax collectors and other plain old people he had gathered to himself, Jesus began to build his Church, and it was going to be, and it is, a force to be reckoned with. The Church was built to be an unstoppable opponent of the forces of sin and death, because Jesus invested his Church with the living power of heaven, so that that which is set free by the Church on earth is also free in the realm of heaven, and that power which the Church binds on earth is bound fast in heaven as well. And the Church is us, who make our prayer to the Father “thy will be done on earth as in heaven”.
And that’s where it stops seeming very believable, because from what we see of the Church, from what we personally know of the Church, it doesn’t seem like a very effective force for the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes the Church even seems like it’s working for the other side. The problem is that we are not always seeing the real Church, the glorious building of living stones. What we, and what the people of this world, too often see, is the outer shell, the lifeless human construction, made up of buildings and traditions, denominations and rules.
Like elaborate buildings made of legos, when we think we are looking at Christ’s Church we see the Episcopal set and the Roman Catholic set, the Methodist set and the Baptist set, the Amish set and the Congregational set. And as much as we love and enjoy the set we live in, all those constructions are no more than temporary facades that are passing away like all human endeavors, destined to crumble away into unrecognizable piles of rubble sooner or later.
But the true Church of Jesus Christ is where we want to do our real living. No matter what outer form we find ourselves in – and as creatures in this world we do live among the forms and structures of the world – our real life, our true belonging, is inside, where we find the beating heart of the Father, and the life blood of the Son, and the warm breath of the Spirit. The true life of the Church is the undying life of heaven, and within the Church, we live together with his children from all times and all places, all denominations and all traditions, and together we hold the keys to unlock the chains of this world. As the true Church of Jesus Christ, we are a force to be reckoned with.
But the power we wield is not of this world: it is not political or economic, it is not intellectual; it’s not even moral. It is right and important to work hard at our jobs and to create beautiful things. It is right and important to obey the laws of our land. It is right and important to cherish the traditions and rituals of our faith. But all of those things are no more permanent or alive than buildings of plastic bricks that will certainly fall to pieces in time. The power of the Church is not and will never be in legislating morality or demonstrating superior morality.
The power that the Church has in Jesus Christ is much, much greater than those things: it is power that gives life: the power of grace and forgiveness, the power of compassion and kindness, the power of transformation and restoration, the power of healing and hope. These are the keys that bind the powers of evil and unlock the chains to set the captives free. These powers are alive and unbreakable; they cannot be stolen; they will never rust or rot away. They will not die, because they come from the One who is life itself.
A good example of what I am saying happened this past week when the people who kidnapped the two little Amish girls were caught and arrested and put in prison. The world has the power to keep that man and woman contained, and it has the power to punish them for the terrible suffering they caused. But only the Church has the power, in Christ, to bring life into the situation. Reading the newspaper accounts you could tell that even the reporters were struck by the unworldliness of the Amish as they offered forgiveness instead of recrimination. That was the power of the kingdom at work. I pray that we, the members of his true Church, may all stand out more and more in stark contrast to the powers of this world as we offer the keys of life to the people around us – to our family and our neighbors and perhaps especially to those people who consider themselves our enemies. We have something to offer that is desperately needed in a dying world. Jesus Christ came for that very purpose; he called us for that very purpose; and he will not fail.
That’s why Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth: “O death, where is your sting? Where is your victory? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gave us – his Church – the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”