Stewardship Sermon given on Sunday, November 13th, 2016 at Christ Church in Garden City, NY
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Herod the great was one helluva king. Now we all know him from our nativity plays at Christmas time, and from what we read in the Gospel of Matthew, or what we remember from watching King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Nazareth, or whatever your favorite Jesus movie is, but if you only know Herod from what you have read or what you have seen on TV, then you only know one side of Herod.
Yes, it is true that he was a puppet of a foreign government. He was a petty dictator, a tyrant, and a religious phony, and yes, maybe he slaughtered 20 or 30 kids in Bethlehem one year…but he also built things. He built big things. He built cities and roads. He built a fortress on top of a mountain (with a penthouse palace for himself of course), a city by the sea, monuments, mines, and most famously of all: the temple itself. So maybe he was a horrible person in almost every way imaginable, but we have to admit that he got stuff done.
Now I should say that he didn’t actually build the temple; it was already there. Herod just made some improvements. He made it bigger and taller and threw gold leaf on anything that would stand still, and they were just putting the finishing touches on this magnificent building when this country prophet named Jesus comes to town.
Now the people are standing around marveling at this great building and all of its adornment and Jesus walks up to them and says: “someday, this will all be gone.”
Now the people are both terrified and indignant at the same time: what? who? how? This building is made of the biggest, heaviest stones anyone has ever seen. What do you mean thrown down? Who is planning to do this? How can we stop them? How can we prepare? And Jesus says to them: “there are many people that will come along and promise you security in this world. Don’t go chasing after them.”
Now Jesus loved the temple very much. He had been worshiping there his entire life. When he saw people desecrating it, it made him angry. He prayed there and he taught there. He travelled on foot for many miles just to worship God in that place. Jesus by no means is dismissing the temple as being unimportant. He isn’t saying that this place of worship doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary, Jesus understands the true importance of the temple. He knows why it truly matters.
That temple is there as an outpost of heaven. As an embassy of God’s Kingdom. It is there to call people to worship and prayer. It is there to remind people that the powers of the world are not the final authority. It is there to teach humility. It is there to foster hope. It is there as a symbol of God’s abiding presence with his children. Jesus didn’t come to that place to worship Herod. He doesn’t walk away from the temple self-satisfied and impressed with what men can build, rather he is reminded of just how much more glorious the Kingdom of God is than anything mankind can conceive or accomplish.
Jesus was right about those stones. A few decades after he died the Romans marched in, fed up with this quarrelsome little country, and torn down the temple stone by stone. They plundered it’s riches, killed its priests, destroyed the holy of holies and burned anything left standing. When they marched away then only thing they left was the four retaining walls from the foundation of the temple mount. And the Romans were confident that they had finished the job. They tore down Herod’s magnificent building, and I am sure they thought after doing so that “there is nothing more to see here so our work is done.” But then the Romans didn’t understand the true power of the temple and its true purpose.
I have been to Israel twice on pilgrimage now and both times I have been utterly blown away by the power of the Western Wall. It is simply the scrap of a foundation wall that the Romans left behind because they didn’t think anyone could ever care about it, but oh how wrong the Romans were. Today, almost two thousand years after they destroyed it, it still remains one of the holiest sites in the world. Day in and day out people flock there to pray, to mourn, to celebrate, to remember, to dream. It is a place of laughter and of tears. Each time I go am amazed by the fact that this ugly ruin, just a few old stones sitting on top of each other, can be one of the most beautiful things in the world. Yes, if you want to see human sinfulness it is all over too: it is a place of division and fighting and pain and brokenness, but if you can look beyond that you will also see that it is a gateway into another world. The temple still has its power because it still directs people to God, and that was its true purpose all along.
We live in a world of uncertainties. Wars and fighting, famines and disease, these things have been more or less constant throughout history. And throughout that same history there have always been individuals going around saying: “I am he.” I am the one that can save you from all of this. Believe in me and I will protect you from all of that uncertainty. Follow me and honor me and I will give you the riches of the world. That is the world we live in and that is a world that desperately needs temples.
We need temples to remind us that nothing we can build on this earth can outshine or outlast the glory of God. We need temples to remind us that we humans are not the ultimate and final authority in this universe. We need temples to remind us that God still dwells with us. We need temples to give us hope, guidance, courage, humility, faith and perseverance. We need temples to remind us that although we live in this world and in this country and place, that we are also called to be citizens of another kingdom. We need temples because our hearts will always need to be directed to worship something other than ourselves.
What do you see when you look at this church?
Do you see pretty stones and woodwork? Do you see gilding here and there? Memorials from ages past?
Do you see an aging structure in need of ongoing repair? Do you see light bills and water bills? Do you see an office with a fussy copy machine? Do you see a social hall? A school with a chapel attached? A community services organization?
Or do you see a temple?
Because that is, in truth, what every church is. This is a temple. This is first and foremost a place where God is to be worshiped. This place stands as a symbol to the community that God still lives here among his children. It is a window into another world; an outpost or embassy of another kingdom. It is a place where we proclaim that in the midst of this tempestuous and uncertain world there is still a rock that we can stand on; that there is still shelter for the broken and the weary and the downtrodden. It is a place where we remember that God is the source of all that is holy, not Herod. It is a place of comfort, of humility, of hope and of prayer. This is a place where people come to meet God, and nothing you do, no ministry, no service is more important than that. If you have any doubt about that just look to Jerusalem. Herod is long dead and the pretty buildings are long gone, but people still flock there because they still find God in the ruins.
If this place is a temple where God is worshipped, which I believe it is, then it must also be a place where sacrifice is made. Now the supreme sacrifice of the church always has been and always will be the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. That is the sacrifice that only he can offer and it is that same sacrifice that we remember each and every time we celebrate the holy mysteries at the altar, but we are called to make sacrifices too.
This temple should be a reminder to us that this world, and all of its pleasures and pains is not the end of the story for us; it is not our ultimate destination. So if we are people of faith, then we need to look at everything we have, our lives, our finances, our time and we need to recognize that without God we wouldn’t have any of it. And without God we wouldn’t have the hope that we have for the future. We have the immense privilege to be citizen of the Kingdom of God, and heirs of salvation. Our lives should reflect the importance of God and when we gather in his temple we are called, I believe, to look at all that God has given to us, and to offer something back. Not as repayment, for we could never do that, nor as pay for play, nor as an attempt to buy our way into the kingdom, but as a sincere gesture and statement of the importance of God in our life. That is what sacrifice has always been: offering God something that is precious to us, recognizing that he has already given us so much more.
Now you may be wondering, and should be asking yourselves, how much God is calling me to give this year. That is ultimately a question that only you can answer. I can tell you that the biblical standard in the scriptures and throughout most of Christian history has been 10%. Some of you may be gripping your seat at this point. This is one of those moments when it is great to just be a guest preacher. I can say the difficult things knowing that if you don’t like it I am wearing shoes I can run in. Of course, all clergy recognize that for some people that may be a stretch, and for others it could just be a starting point, but how ever much you give, let it be significant to you. Let it represent an actual sacrifice and not just something you can spare.
I’ll be honest with you. I have wasted a lot of money in my life. Bought things I shouldn’t have. Invested in things that I shouldn’t have. I am amazed at how much can be spent on totally meaningless things. I regret those wastes, but I can tell you I don’t regret giving any of the money I have ever given to God or his church. Because I know that this is a temple, and that at the end of the day that money isn’t just about balancing budgets and paying bills, it is about building the kingdom of God.
The kingdoms of this world, they come and go. Our rulers come and go and our fancy buildings come and go. Herod is dead and everything he built lies in ruins, but Jesus is alive and his kingdom is still going strong. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right. Let us not go following after every worldly leader that promises us security in an insecure world. Rather, let us see each struggle as an opportunity to testify to our faith in the only King that truly saves us.