The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

OF RUBBLE AND TROUBLE

Delivered 12/17/95
Text: Luke 21:5-28 (Psalm 84:1-4)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Hmmm. "Wars and insurrections, nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines and plagues... arrests, persecution, some put to death...days of vengeance... great distress on the earth...People will faint from fear and foreboding..." Whoa! What season are we in? What about "Peace on earth and mercy mild?"

Actually, BOTH images are at play this morning. Yes, Christmas is coming - a beautiful time. But juxtaposed against that is a life of great uncertainty for all of us, a time when our institutions, those entities in society upon which we have depended, our temples, are crashing down around us - not one stone left on another. We are left with rubble and trouble.

In Luke 21, the last scene of Jesus' public ministry, he stands at the temple entrance and paints this stark picture of misery. What gets him started is somebody's innocent remark about the beauty of the place - and it WAS gorgeous: huge blocks of green and white marble, the eastern front and part of the side walls covered with gold plate, flashing in the sun; the rest of it gleaming white, so that one seeing it from a distance might think it a mountain of snow. (1) When a captivated pilgrim oohs and ahs out loud at the splendor of it all and starts up a chorus of "How Lovely Are Thy Dwellings," Jesus stops short. "There won't be one stone left standing on another; all will be thrown down." The holiest ground you know, he says, will tumble down around you. Where you stand in awe today will one day be ruins. (2)

Jesus did not have to be a prophet to say such a thing. Every temple is a doomed house. Every structure and system eventually will wear out; it will disappoint, and finally, it will die. Name any you like: a church, denomination, school, neighborhood, family, friendship, vocation, even a dream - they all have a life span and they all come to an end. They may die of natural causes as we who inhabit them die or move on. Or they may die by the violent assault of outside forces. As one commentator has it, "most often our temples fall because we neglect them until they rot, or because we weigh them down with impossible idolatrous additions. In the beginning the temple is a tent, simple and supple with room for a Spirit to billow through. But sooner or later...the thing calcifies, thickens, encrusts, fills up with bad furniture, builds itself to an unwarranted weight until it has to fall."(3)

In our age the landscape is littered with once-beautiful temples now in rubble. Our values are wrecked. Every day we read or hear something to make us cringe. This week we were treated to the news that women in the United States run a much higher risk of being raped than women in Europe, and Americans are among the most fearful of street crime, that according to a U.N. report Tuesday. The article said the US statistics are "extremely high, even allowing for some difference in the rate of reporting" in countries where victims fear social stigma or ill treatment by police. How safe do we feel on the streets after dark? The people of Poland were most fearful with 45.4 percent of people saying they felt unsafe. Czechoslovakia followed at 43.6 percent, and then United States at 41 percent - two out of five of us afraid to go out at night. (4)

At the heart of those problems is our national understanding of what is right and what is wrong. We no longer have one.

At our monthly Presbyterian ministers' breakfast this week, Z. Hollar [a local PCUSA minister, now retired] told of a friend of his, an AT&T executive, who has received a great deal of fulfillment in acting as a "Big Brother" for the past three years to a young African-American boy. The lad is now in 6th grade. One day not long ago, the man asked the boy, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I want to be a GOOD person," he responded.

Terrific answer. "OK. Then what do you want to DO when you grow up?"

"I want to be a drug dealer."

Say what? A bit non-plussed by the combination of answers, the Big Brother pressed for more. "A drug dealer? Why?"

"Because they are good people. They treat people right. They make good money and they can take care of their family and friends."

What is right and what is wrong? Perhaps that young lad is confused because in so many ways, ALL of us are confused. The temple which housed the answers is falling down. The mainline church is in terrible disarray. In the past generation there has been a hemorrhage of members and a concomitant loss of influence in society. About the only press the church receives these days is when some minister is caught in a scandal, or another argument breaks out about sex. The shame of that is that this mainline church for the first 200 years of America's history was the primary shaper of national values - the church taught this nation what was right and what was wrong. But with the mainline church being roundly ignored these days, others are doing the teaching. The mantle falls on entertainers, sports heroes, and yes, even the kindly old neighborhood drug dealer. No wonder we are in trouble!

For example, since ancient times, societies have understood a responsibility for caring for those who are the disadvantaged: in Old Testament language, the "widows and orphans." This was RIGHT! But now? We are in the midst of a great national debate about how much responsibility we are willing to bear. All these "entitlements" (these programs that care for those who need assistance) cost money, and some are not sure we should be expected to spend it. Should people be provided housing and food if they have not earned it? (How about small children?) Should poor people be allowed to be sick, even to die, because they cannot afford the cost of their own medical care? Those are not simply questions of politics, although that is the spectacle to which we are currently treated. These are questions of what is right and what is wrong. If we cannot answer them, the reason is the temple stones have come crashing down.

Speaking of politics, I have always enjoyed following that process...until recently - it is not "fun" any more. Now our political rhetoric has become so mean and nasty that I cannot imagine any reasonably sane individual being attracted to public service. The way to win elective office, particularly at the higher levels, is not to lay out a vision of what might be along with a plan for accomplishment. Rather, it is to attack and attack and attack your opponents for real or imagined shortcomings. The electorate says it finds the so-called "attack ads" distasteful, but we continue to see them (and we will again next year) because they actually work - they convince people how to vote. Once someone is in office, the nastiness continues - here in Guilford County this week we have been treated to hearing a County Commissioner publicly call the County Manager "a Puerto Rican Criminal"...and get away with it. Colleagues refuse to censure the behavior, no matter how distasteful, because of politics.

At the national level, it is not much better - the name-calling between the parties is abysmal. Dozens of elected officials are not seeking re-election because of the new low in the level of political discourse. Colorado's Pat Schroeder, one of those leaving after twelve terms in office, says, "I promised myself when I got here that I wouldn't spend my whole life on the Hill. And I woke up one recent morning and said, `Schroeder, you've gone from toilet-training your children to menopause in this place. You're getting real close to being a lifer.' Unfortunately, the Washington I'm leaving is meaner than it was when I arrived - and that's not good for any of us." (5) Our American political process used to be a lovely temple; it is fast becoming rubble.

The temple of religion, the temple of government. Most of our cities are fallen houses, as is the family. The stones are crashing all around us. Sad. Why do the things we love, the things we count on, always end up ruined?

Edwin Robertson in a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells of visiting Hanover after the war and meeting a German Baptist pastor. The man's church building had been bombed and his congregation scattered. But this is what he confided: At last I am free--free to be a minister of Jesus Christ. I am no longer trammeled by church programs. (6) Hmmm.

Think of Coventry Cathedral laid in ruins by German firebombs. A stunning new structure rose from the ruins, a global witness to peace and to resurrection. Engraved in the floor near the entrance are these words: "To the Glory of God this cathedral burnt." And just outside, carved on the old burned-out walls, a promise: "The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former." (7)

We have reason to be sad when our temples are destroyed. But the message of Christ is that there is a REASON that the temples are destroyed. History has a progression. This is not simply an occasion to feel sorry for ourselves. He says, in the midst of the ruins, is an "opportunity to testify." Even though we are surrounded by rubble and trouble, even though we suffer abuse and persecution for our efforts, we proclaim the Gospel to a new generation and even in new ways to enable folks to hear and respond who have never been able to before.

How? Listen to Jesus. For starters, "Beware that you are not led astray;" do not be drawn off the track. Do not get bogged down in theological details or worry about cosmic questions (such as when will the End come) for which there are no human answers. In other words, do not have your eyes so firmly fixed on heaven that you are no earthly good! He says, "Do not be terrified." Remember who is in charge here - the story of the scripture, from the "In the beginning" of Genesis to the final "Amen" of Revelation is that God is in control - if you belong to God, you have nothing to fear. Jesus says improvise ("Do not prepare your defense in advance"), trust ("I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict") and, to borrow from Winston Churchill, never, never, never, never give up ("By your endurance you will gain your souls"). This is how people in the midst of rubble and trouble bear witness.

Yes, there will be awful times, major collapses. The lights will go out. But despite all that, the good news is that the story is not over; instead it is beginning a new chapter. As Jesus said. "When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

And here is where we begin to get the convergence of those contradictory images we noted at the beginning of all this. Even though we are surrounded by fallen temples, a time of darkness, we are reminded of another time, another place, another dark night. Bethlehem. Suddenly, in the midst of the darkness, the appearance of angels: "Fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy." Redemption. Jesus.

The worst of times. The best of times. Those of us for whom Christmas memories of years gone by are happy ones find ourselves transported into those warm and happy times as soon as we hear those familiar words: "...a decree...Caesar Augustus... City of David...swaddling clothes...Peace on earth..." "Christmas Present is enveloped in all the Christmases Past, and we draw strength not only for all the Christmases-Yet-To-Come, but also for the seasons in between." (8) We draw that strength from Jesus.

Amen!


1. Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VII, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954) p. 360

2. Paul D. Duke, "Ruined Temples," Christian Century, 11/1/95, p. 1011

3. ibid.

4. PRODIGY(R) interactive personal service, 12/13/95, 8:31 AM, AP Online, 6:15 PM (ET) 12/12

5. "Inside the Washington Game," Newsweek, 12/18/95, p. 38

6. Duke, "Ruined Temples"

7. ibid.

8. Sharon Ringe, Luke, Westminster Bible Companion Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1995), p. 26

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