On November 15, 2017, arsonists set fire to the Masjid Al-Salaam mosque, in the town of Petersborough, in Ontario, Canada. No one was injured in the fire; thanks be to God. The fire was set around 11pm, which was just 30 minutes after the building had emptied out.
The building experienced significant damage and would be closed for months during the repair. Peterborough Police Inspector, Larry Charmley, was quoted in a newspaper article that “…this is a tragedy…and we are treating this as a hate crime.”
But it was what happened next, that really caught my attention. The Christian churches in Petersborough reached out. One church offered the mosque space, so that they could continue worship. Another church gave them space for their meetings and education. Another offered office space, and space for storage.
And then, the churches started a crowdfunding campaign among the whole community, and in just a few days, enough money was raised to cover the cost of the building repairs that went beyond the mosque’s insurance coverage.
The Imam of that Islamic community said “This was amazing. We weren’t sure what we were going to do. It felt like the walls were tumbling down around us. It is so good to know that this community supports us when there is tragedy. It is what we should all hope for, all the time.”
Our Gospel story today is about what happens on those days when it feels like the walls are tumbling down around us. To be honest, it is one of Jesus’ most challenging teachings. It challenges us because in it, Jesus talks about the things we don’t like to think about; he talks about destruction…and loss…and death. But he also talks about what God does…and about what we do when these things happen.
So, Jesus’ followers were admiring how amazing the temple in Jerusalem was. They were talking about its overwhelming beauty. And they were right. The temple had been through a rebuilding project that had taken 80 years to complete. King Herod the Great had spared no expense:
- He’d built new foundation walls and had expanded the structure.
- He’d charged the most talented artisans in the region to use the best materials to create a building that would take your breath away.
- The interior was rebuilt with white marble slabs that were 12 feet wide, 12 feet high and 67 feet long.
- Blue, scarlet, and purple Babylonian tapestries made from fine linen formed the veil at the temple entrance.
- King Herod installed gold and silver-plated gates and gold-plated doors throughout the structure.
The temple was simply stunning.
So, imagine the surprise…no, the shock really, of those who were bragging up the building when Jesus turned and said to them: “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.” The walls, Jesus told them, would come tumbling down.
And Jesus was, of course, right. It was just 40 years (ballpark) after Jesus’ crucifixion, in a battle called the “Siege of Jerusalem,” that the Roman army destroyed that magnificent temple. They took it all the way down to the ground. Except…for the one wall, the one that still stands today. It has come to be known as the Western Wall. You may have seen photos. It is a place where Jewish, and other, religious pilgrims go to pray.
But on that day 2,000 years ago, those who heard Jesus, they had to be horrified. They asked: “When, Jesus? When will this happen?”
Of course, Jesus doesn’t give them a timeline. Instead, he goes on to talk about everything that will happen. He talks about wars, earthquakes and hunger. He talks about the disciples being arrested and killed. He talks about betrayal, and persecution…
He is talking about the end. The end of all that they know. The end of the things they can count on. This was not a pep talk.
But…then Jesus concludes with a word of hope. He says: “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Jesus is reminding them that in times that are good, and in times that are hard, they are not alone. He is telling them to not be afraid. He is telling them that the things they fear, do not have the last word. He is asking them to endure all that will come. He is promising them that at the end of the day, there will still be love.
Dr. David Tiede, one of my teachers at Luther Seminary, talks about the value of endurance for those who are disciples. He writes that “The early Christians knew all about the ‘endurance’ of stoic grit, toughing it out, and their endurance was often tested. Endurance is itself a gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Endurance is a gift of God’s grace.”
I know that many of you know what this is like. I’ve heard your stories. I know that you have had to endure a lot. A lot. Health problems…broken relationships…problems financially…the loss of people you love. I know that for many of you, there have been times when it has felt like the walls were tumbling down around you.
But Jesus is telling us today that new dreams arise when old ones crumble; and that there is always…always light.
Allie is an amazing young woman who grew up in Owatonna, and here at Trinity. I met her in my first year at Trinity as a pastor, when she was in my confirmation small group. She was great! And I developed a deep respect for her. She gave me permission to share her story with you.
When Allie was 14, someone noticed that her eyes had just a little bit of a yellowish tinge to them. She should get them checked out. The next week she and her parents, Mike and Nancy, took her in to see the doctor. 48 hours later, the tests came back. Allie had significant issues with her liver. The doctors ran more tests and confirmed what they’d feared. Her liver was failing…quickly.
At age 14, Allie was going to need a new liver…a transplant.
Allie’s need was significant enough that she was placed at the very top of the transplant list. There were countless doctors’ appointments, and days spent over at Mayo in Rochester. In addition to looking for a match for a transplant, the doctors and nurses were working hard to take care of Allie’s existing liver…to extend its life.
And, of course, they waited. The waited for word that there would be a liver. They waited for days…for weeks…and the waiting was terrible…nerve-wracking. As every day passed, Allie and her family knew that the risk was going up. And they felt powerless. Life as they knew it, just the month before, had fallen apart. It felt like the walls were tumbling down around them.
A month went by, and Allie’s family were here at Trinity for worship on Christmas Eve. Normally, they would have traveled to be with extended family in Ohio. But that year, they had to be here, near the hospital. It was hard to celebrate when there was a cloud hanging over their heads. Really hard.
But it was at the Christmas Eve service candlelight service here when everything changed. During communion, Allie’s family came forward to receive the bread and the wine. And then they returned to their pew and sat down. But Nancy, Allie’s Mom, wasn’t there. She hadn’t returned to her seat. Mike looked around, but she was nowhere to be seen. Which was odd. A few minutes later, Nancy returned and sat down. Her eyes, Allie told me, were kind of teary. She had stepped out into the narthex because she had gotten the call. It was the doctor. They had found a liver. And it was a match. Allie told me “Mom looked at me and gave me this kind of a nervous smile. And I knew. I just knew.” Allie and her family lit their candles, sang “Silent Night,” and then went home.
The next two days were a blur, Allie said. But on December 26th, the transplant team did their work. And now, 5-years later, Allie is a college student at Auburn University. She is active…busy…she is in a sorority…and she is thriving.
I spoke with Allie a couple of days ago and we talked about her experience. She told me that that whole thing was so surreal. Overnight, everything changed, it all went wrong. The walls were tumbling down.
But she told me that she thinks about that phone call from the doctor, the phone call that brought hope, and new life. And that it came not only on Christmas Eve, but right in the middle of Christmas Eve worship. She said she thinks about it a lot. I asked her what she thought it meant and she said, “I really can’t even really put it into words.”
Her Dad, Mike, told me that that Christmas Eve changed their lives, and their faith. They were reminded that there is always hope…always light.
Now, I know that these stories don’t always end this way Allie’s did. I’ve seen too many times when the stories end sadly.
But even in those moments, Jesus reminds us, there is light. There is resurrection. There is a promise and a hope that we can cling to. A promise of something greater than just the walls, or simply our lives here.
Because after death, resurrection always follows. And with resurrection comes new life, and hope, and love.
The walls in our lives. The structural ones…the physical ones…they will someday fail us. These walls will come down. It is the nature of the world that things we create are temporary.
But that is not the end. Not at all. A friend of mine, Pastor Phil Ruge, a pastor in Eau Claire, said last week that “Jesus provided a promise to hold his people when what was most dear to them was destroyed.” Let me say that again: Jesus provided a promise to hold his people when what was most dear to them was destroyed.
Structures will fall, lives will end and the walls will come tumbling down. These things are temporary. But Jesus promises you today that love…his love…never ends. It will hold you, carry you and sustain you, now…and forever.
My friends, we place our hope in something far greater than anything we can create or build. We place our hope in Jesus.
Thanks be to God!