Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Preaching lab: Leadership in Crisis

For my senior preaching lab, I had the following prompt:

You are six months into a new call when a 24-year-old member of the congregation tells you that she was sexually abused by your predecessor when she was in the high school youth group. Over the next month, you hear of four other women who were also abused. Your predecessor, who served for 18 years in this congregation, retired and moved away from the region two years ago. To the best of your knowledge, few people in the congregation knew about this abuse, but word is now spreading fast and several people, including one of the victimized women, have asked you to speak about this from the pulpit.

Assumptions I made:  I am being asked to preach about the assault before it's been made publicly known.  In my opinion (and my classmates and preceptor agreed with me on this) the wrong place to make the first public announcement of this abuse would be from the pulpit, so I chose not to specifically address the issue, but to speak into and make a space for it.

I would expect the church to follow up on these accusations immediately and with the proper contacts made with the synod, legal counsel, psychological assistance for the victims, etc.

I received this prompt 72 hours before I was to preach.  I had already decided to prepare to preach on whatever the assigned text was for the day, since in a normal situation we would already have bulletins printed and so on.

And here is the result.

Lectionary gospel reading for November 17, 2013:  Luke 21:5-19

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 Jesus 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 Jesus 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. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”


Sermon

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.”

… again?

See, the temple of Jerusalem is a hard-won battle.  The First Temple was built by King Solomon only to be sacked a few decades later by an Egyptian Pharaoh.  It was rebuilt under King Jehoash in only to be stripped of its riches by the King of Assyria.  When the Jewish people were taken off to captivity in Babylon, it was completely destroyed.

But the Jewish people returned.  They built a second temple.  Alexander the Great nearly destroyed it, the Seleucids perverted it with pagan sacrifices and slaughtered pigs, Pompey desecrated the Holy of Holies, but it remained intact.  Herod the Great, about fifteen years before the birth of Jesus, renovated it.  Now it has stood for fifty years, under the thumb of Roman rule and yet still in control of the Jewish people.

It is the center of their life, their worship, their hope.  It is a symbol that God is still with them, that God has come and made a dwelling among the people of Israel.  It is their comfort.  And Jesus walks into it, looks at the marvelous stones and offerings, at this house of worship a thousand years in the making and restoring, the central hope of the whole Israelite nation, and says, “A day will come when all this will be destroyed.”

And this is true.  The temple of Jerusalem no longer stands.  It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, with only a few stones left upon the other -- the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, where Jews continue to gather and pray and weep over another temple lost.

For Jesus to say that the Temple will one day, again, finally and totally be destroyed is to say, “Your hope will be lost.  Your trust will be broken, the world will be in disarray, and it will appear that God is gone.”

In too many ways we live there now.  The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed.  Only a few stones are left upon another.  And just as painfully, our own lives are marked with destruction.  We fight sickness and pain.  We grieve the death of friends too young and family members so well loved.  We struggle with work, with school.  Some of us go to bed hungry.  Some of us go to bed weeping.  We fight despair, and depression, and fear.  There are those among us whose walls have been torn down.  There are those who have had their innocence torn from them, their trust destroyed by abuse or neglect or hatred.  There are earthquakes in our souls, and famines in our hearts, and there are wars and insurrections all around us.

And Jesus has the audacity to say “Not a hair of your head will perish.”  Your family will turn against you, your churches will throw you out, some of you will die -- but not a hair of your head will perish.

This is the stupid, audacious, arrogant promise of Jesus, that if we endure we will gain our souls.  And to those of us who are broken, who fall asleep with empty stomachs or hurting hearts, these words can break us again.

So much of what breaks us is hidden.  We put on a brave smile.  We pretend it didn’t happen.  We fear the accusations and condemnations of our friends and family, that we might hear that somehow our pain is our fault, that our suffering is part of God’s great plan.  So we bear our pain in silence, in what we might call endurance, because we fear the judgment of others.

Yet see what Jesus asks of us.  We are not to endure silently, our mouths closed, our heads bowed.  We are not to run, to hide, to lie.  We speak truth.  We speak of what has happened.  It is in that endurance, that pure and raw courage, that we regain our souls.  If we are wounded Jesus does not call us to bind ourselves up and pretend we can run.  If we are broken Jesus does not tell us to claim we are whole.  Jesus says, This is your opportunity to tell the truth.  Speak it.  Speak it before friends and family, before kings and governors.  Tell of what has happened, and hold fast, for it is in speaking the truth that you will find your soul.

This is the stupid, audacious, arrogant promise of Jesus, that God is on the side of the victim.  God does not run from the destruction of the temple.  God does not turn a blind eye to the tearing down of our own walls.  When all appears lost, God will have the final word.

And we, as the church, are called to endure.  We are called to be witnesses -- to testify but also to witness, to see and to hear and to know.  We of all places in the world are called to be a source of light.  When victims speak, we do not shut our ears.  When our children wail, we do not silence them.  When those we love declare that the temples of their hearts have been torn down, we do not shout “No!  It cannot be!  There must be an explanation, a reason, a flaw of your own.”  We cannot push the pain away.  We cannot extinguish the light of truth.

We are called to stand with Jesus, in the center of the temple, to see the day when no stone is left upon another and yet to believe that God is still here.

We have been commissioned, by Jesus, to stand in the midst of others’ destruction, in the face of hunger and poverty and abuse and neglect and all the ways that sin breaks the ones we love and say:  You are not alone.  We hear you.  We will fight for you.  And we will walk beside you while you heal.

Something new is coming.  For us.  For all that is broken and torn apart within us.  We will speak the truth, and the truth will give us our souls.

Amen.

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