Once we picked our collective chins up off the floor on Wednesday morning this week, I think we saw the fruit of something that has been growing in our country for at least 15-20 years. But maybe it’s been longer than that and I’m speaking only from my personal experience. You all will know better than I. In any case, it seems to me that despite the system of checks and balances that is built into our government, we have lifted the office of President a notch above all else. It’s kind of like the quarterback on the football team, or the pitcher on the baseball team—when the team wins or loses, it is our tendency to point to those positions (depending on the sport) as key to the outcome of the game. And I think we’ve come to a point where we view the Presidency (or maybe its parties or policies) in a similar way. Here’s what makes me think this: when I watched the reaction unfold on Wednesday morning, what I saw were a whole lot of people who were feeling like the outcome of this election is the end, or at least the beginning of the end, and a whole lot of people who were feeling confident that all their greatest hopes and dreams will now suddenly and seemingly magically be realized.
Now, that seems innocent enough, perhaps even normal enough. But here’s the thing; think for a minute about the status of pitchers or quarterbacks in their respective sports, especially at the pro-level. They’re paid more, right? They have better name recognition. Millions of people buy their t-shirts and follow them on Facebook or Twitter. We idolize them. And I think we have gotten to a point in the United States where we idolize certain policies, or certain parties, or even the Presidential office. I think this is why the reaction to Tuesday’s election outcome was so visceral on both sides. If we saw the Presidency (or even policies or parties) for what they are, one piece of the whole, we would have felt joy or sorrow depending on whether or not our candidate won, but I’m not sure the emotion would have been so completely raw, so extreme. Now, I in no way want to downplay the very valid concerns of some, and the very real joys of others, as a result of Tuesday’s election. These need exceptionally careful attention by our elected officials at the local, state, and national level, and it is my prayer that all voices will be heard and heeded.
What I want to do this morning is consider this matter of idolization and allegiance. Earlier in the service, we heard the 146th Psalm. Listen again to verse 3. It says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” In the words of one of my colleagues from a blog post this week, “Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton are not gods.” And I might add that neither is Barack Obama, or the Bushes, or any others. But this fellow pastor goes on, “The DNC and GOP are not your community. The USA is not your kingdom.” My friend is exactly right, and yet how easily do we slip into that mindset? How quickly do we get so wrapped up in campaign politics or just politics in general that our allegiances begin to shift? How often do we build up idols that fit the mold that best serves us? How often do we glorify the mortal instead of our God? A lot, it seems, because the impression I got on Wednesday is that we all feel like our whole lives are on the line every four years when these elections come around.
Which brings me to our gospel reading for this morning: Jesus’ foretelling of the destruction of the Temple. This is our lectionary text for today. The lectionary is a three-year cycle of Scripture passages that guide us through the major themes and stories of the Bible. I have been preaching now for almost ten years; this is now my fourth opportunity to preach on this text, but the first time I ever have. I do not like this passage, and so I always push it aside when it shows up in the lectionary and I find something else to preach on instead. But this week, with some gentle guidance from a well-respected colleague and mentor, I decided it was time to absorb this passage, to let God speak to me, to us, through these words; to hear the message of the destruction of the Temple as we think about how our hopes and dreams rise and fall with the electoral counts every four years.
Owen has these burp cloths he likes. I guess they might also be classified as cloth diapers, but whatever way you look at them, they are not blankets. Nevertheless, these little square cloths are Owen’s security blanket of choice. Nevermind that we have over a dozen beautiful hand-made baby blankets nicely folded in the linen closet, Owen wants the little cloth diaper. If there are two available, he will gladly carry one in each hand. Oftentimes, you will see Owen with the cloth waded up in his fist pressing it against his cheek or ear. In the morning at breakfast time, Owen will bring his two cloth diapers and Snoopy to the table, where he will insist on placing them within reach, next to his food, and he will carefully cover Snoopy up with one or both of the diapers. These little squares of cloth are certainly a great source of security for Owen right now. And God forbid you remove a burp cloth from Owen’s grasp, or deny him access to one when he is tired or out of sorts; that’s only guaranteed to make things worse! I see it regularly right now with Owen, but just give some thought to the reaction of a child when his or her security blanket is taken away.
I think this must be what the Israelites were feeling as they heard Jesus foretell the destruction of the Temple. I think this is similar to what we feel as we have looked at our country in recent years and where we are now. You know, for the Israelites, the Temple was central to everything they did. This was the place of pilgrimages, of sacrifices, of worship. But most importantly, it was the dwelling place of God—deep inside the Temple, within the Holy of Holies, God resided. As a faithful Jew, the Temple would have been central to Jesus’ life of faith as well. Can you imagine Jesus saying these words? Can you imagine hearing Jesus predict the destruction of God’s dwelling place? I don’t think I can underscore just how devastating this would have been to the people who were hearing what Jesus was saying in this moment. And I don’t think their feelings are at all unlike the devastation we feel when our parties, or policies, or candidates don’t win the day. It’s like something that is central to our lives and to our identities has been stripped away, it’s like our security blanket has been snatched right out of our hands.
So, on this Sunday after Tuesday, where do we go from here? That is a heavy question, one we have probably lifted many times over many years. And it’s precisely because this is such a heavy question that I don’t think there’s any easy answer. But as Christians, we have one calling above all others, to follow Christ, and so that’s where we begin. Christ must have known throughout his ministry that in order for God’s purposes to be fulfilled, the Temple would have to be destroyed. But I don’t think that meant it was easy news for Christ to live with or to share, because he was a faithful (if sometimes irreverent) Jew. Still, even with that knowledge, look at how Christ conducted himself throughout his ministry. He was going about, building relationships with people. He was lifting up the marginalized; eating with the tax collector, healing the sick, forgiving the sinner. He was teaching great crowds of people, feeding the hungry, and sitting at dinner with the outcast. He was building relationships with throngs of people, and in turn those people were building relationships with God. So what remains when the Temple is gone, when it seems that our security has been stripped away?—community, relationships—with God and one another. And it is relationships that we, too, must strive after today and every day.
And here’s the thing; our relationship with God must be our highest allegiance, and that in turn means that we have to be about the business of loving others and building relationships with our fellow humans as well. What we have seen unquestionably in the United States in recent years is that when we put our highest allegiance in our idols, and in particular the idols of policy, party, or President, relationships break down; severely. “Do not put your trust in princes….” Listen again to the end of Psalm 146: “The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow…”
So where do we go from here? Whether we were rejoicing on Wednesday morning or mourning, the task before each of us is no different, and it would be no different if things had gone the other way. In the midst of chaos, confusion, and uncertainty we have an “opportunity,” as Christ says, “to testify.” We have to remember who we are, whose we are, and why we are, and then we must live our lives accordingly. When we seek security in idols or false allegiances, everything will crumble. So we begin by laying aside our idols; the false gods that have divided us and led us so astray, and the policies that have served our own best interests rather than those that require the greatest self-sacrifice. Then, we have to offer our highest allegiance to the highest power, God in Christ Jesus, and we cannot stray from that path, ever. Finally, we get busy following the will of the Lord and the way of Christ Jesus; a path articulated in Psalm 146 and many times more in both the Old and New Testament, most especially by Christ himself. We build community by building relationships with others, and especially those who are cast-out and marginalized; the powerless, the folks who have never felt secure in anything ever before.
This is no easy task; Christ never said it would be easy. But here’s the thing—we’re not doing ourselves any favors by trying to preserve or rebuild the temple of our false allegiances. Our greatest security is in Christ Jesus our Lord, “by holding fast, [we] will gain [our] lives.”