"Not one thrown down", Proper 28C, 14 November 2004, Luke 21:5-19
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Proper 28C 2004 Luke 21:5-19
Jesus said to his disciples when they were talking about the decorations of the Third Temple, “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 disciples found this hard to believe. The smallest stones in the structure weighed 2 to 3 tons. Many of them weighed
50 tons. The largest existing stone is 12 meters in length and 3 meters high, and it weighed hundreds of tons! The stones
were so immense that neither mortar nor any other binding material was needed between them. Their stability was attained
by their great weight. The walls towered over Jerusalem, over 400 feet in one place.
Inside the four walls was 45 acres of bedrock mountain shaved flat and during Jesus' day a quarter of a million people could
fit comfortably within the structure and its courtyards. So the disciples found it hard to believe that so great a structure
as the Temple could be so quickly taken down and made to disappear.
The disciples wanted to know when this would happen. And what signs would there be to warn them that this was about to happen.
They were afraid. Afraid of the unknown. Afraid of change. Just simply afraid, period. And some were so afraid that they
were in denial about the whole thing. They just couldn’t believe it.
But forty years later it happened. As a major act in repressing the Jewish revolt, the Romans tore down the Temple and scattered
the Jewish people in the Diaspora throughout the Greco-Roman world that lasted until the formation of the modern State of
Israel half a century ago. (1)
The Temple – the church building of its day and the center of ancient Judaism – and the Temple cult, the worshippers
of the day, were gone from the Temple Mount –were gone from Jerusalem, indeed from most of Palestine.
Although Jesus disciples couldn’t believe it could happen, we latter day disciples, we Episcopalians, are aware of the
fragility of our Anglicanism and its structures.
But there is good news. We have just returned from a three day conference at the Cathedral of Saint Phillip in the Diocese
of Atlanta. Its theme was Going Forward Together: A Conference for Clergy, Staff, and Lay Leaders Promoting Health and Unity
in the Episcopal Church. It was the Church at its best, rising above the partisanship too evident in the current crisis.
In part what I am about to say is a report on what I found there. But most of what I have to say is a way to think and to
hold to the things we love so dearly about our Episcopal Church -- indeed why some of us fell in love with the Episcopal Church
and the via media at an early age and, leaving the denomination of our birth, steeped ourselves in classical Anglicanism,
some even winding up as priests of the Church, if you can imagine that. And equally it is about a way to think about keeping
all the stones of the Temple one upon the other and none of the stones thrown down. At least that is our hope.
There were four keynote addresses at Saint Phillips Cathedral. In what I think now was the key passage in his keynote address
– and indeed of the whole conference – one of the noted theologians of the church had this to say:
“Faith, hope, and love are core Christian virtues. But faith must embrace doubt, for the opposite of faith is not doubt
but the quest for certainty. Hope must embrace despair, because the opposite of hope is not despair, but pessimism. And
Love must embrace hate, because the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. To be Christian is to be willing to live
with uncertainty, even as we bet our very lives on the truth of the gospel. To be Christian is to be optimistic about the
future, because we have faith that the future is ultimately God’s future. And to be Christian is to live a life dependent
on God’s help as we strive to manifest God’s suffering love as the means to conquer evil and do all that we can
to abide faithfully in God’s reign until it comes in its fullness.
“It is for good reason that over time, three “parties” emerged in the Anglican tradition. There was an
Evangelical party that identified with the Puritan Calvinists who emphasized Scripture, an Anglo-Catholic Party that identified
with the Roman Catholic Church who emphasized tradition, and a Broad Church party that identified with a Reformed Catholicism
who emphasized reason. We were held together by a respect for and love of each other and the experience of sharing a common
life of prayer and mission. But we have, I believe, reached a time in history when some extreme Anglo-Catholics and some
extreme Evangelicals want to define our tradition by revisiting the Elizabethan settlement and make it turn out differently.
What the theologian said about revisiting the Elizabethan settlement crystallized what I had been gnawing about in the edges
of my mind and heart and soul for some weeks. For the Elizabethan settlement of the 16th Century is what has made the Episcopal
Church and the Anglican Communion possible. What also has been part of this gnawing is a growing awareness that the result
of any revision of the Elizabethan settlement would be that we would no longer be who we are. And the reasons for that are
many and complex, probably too many for this sermon. Perhaps I will explore this in a series of newsletter reflections.
In its essence, the Elizabethan Settlement aimed at inclusion of as many people and positions as possible. Pragmatically
it was shaped so that only the most radical Protestants on the one hand and only the most extreme Roman Catholics on the other
could not fit themselves within its embrace. It has been aptly described as quietly hiding a moderate Protestant theology
– the 39 Articles – within a familiar and traditional catholic liturgy native to England and now spoken in English.
Rather than seeking reasons to burn people at the stake as heretics, it sought their outward conformity, to include them,
and did not insist on rigid and narrow private theological thinking. “Say the creeds in public as they are written,”
the great Queen is alleged to have said, “And interpret them as you will in private.”
Within the great Settlement were the seeds of the middle way, the via media, the recognition that there were many truths,
many of which conflicted with each other and that Holy Scripture was rife with such contradictions. Hence, people of good
will and deep Christian spirituality and profound faith could disagree with one another and yet rally behind the essential
truth that there was one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all”, even as they disagreed over exactly
what faith and Baptism might mean.
In particular, the principle was that no one view should dominate and replace all the others. There have been, of course,
those groups who could not tolerate such a richness of diversity – and especially could not tolerate the fact that their
particular theological constructs would not prevail over all the others.
The 17th Century radical Puritans under Oliver Cromwell were among the earliest of these groups, executing King Charles, and
establishing government by dictator, and a presbyterian form of church polity and theology in religion. In the 18th Century
the followers of John and Charles Wesley’s emotional revivalism eventually formed a separate church in England and abroad
that we now know as Methodist – even though the Wesley brothers remained faithful Church of England clergymen.
In America, the Episcopal Church was one of the few that did not divide into separate northern and southern branches over
slavery and during the American Civil War. It was later in the 19th Century, in 1873 that a small number of clergy left and
formed the Reformed Episcopal Church in protest against the growing influence of the theology of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford
movement in England.
In the 20th Century we are all too familiar with the schismatic splinter groups who formed various denominations styling themselves
“Anglican” or “Anglican Orthodox”, among other, in protest over Prayer Book Revision and the ordination
The current crisis is really not about the gay bishop. It isn’t really about the authority of Scripture. It is about
revisiting -- revising – actually undoing -- the Elizabethan Settlement and insisting that all who call themselves
Episcopalians shall conform to a narrow fundamentalism that disguises itself by appropriating the honorable title of evangelical.
Its rigid orthodoxy demands adherence to narrow views of God and acceptance of the absolute inerrancy of Scripture and its
literal interpretation. They demand of us that we submit unconditionally to their view, which is not the view of at least
80 per cent or more of Episcopalians, as the price of their remaining within the Episcopal Church. It would do away with
the rich diversity and freedom of thought and practice that the Elizabethan Settlement has made possible over the years.
It is a very steep price to pay to appease a group that gives little indication of being satisfied.
If this occurs, we will no longer be able to be who we are, and the people called Episcopalians will be no more. That is
a very steep price to pay indeed. But, said the theologian in Atlanta – in tune with all the other speakers and seminar
and workshop leaders:
“The good news, I am convinced, is that the majority of moderate Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals are uniting with members
of the broad church to birth a new revival in our church that brings our historic tradition to life and applies it to our
own day so that it might continue to be faithful to our charisma within the body of Christ.” (2)
The Atlanta Conference was for me certainly proof of that, of the Holy Spirit stirring and working to protect God’s
people and preserve Christ’s Church for the work it has been given to do, keeping all the stones of the Temple one upon
the other and none of the stones thrown down.”
1. Adapted from eSermons Illustrations for 14 November 2004.
2. The Revd Dr John Westerhoff, “A People of Promise and Hope: Our Unique Contribution to the Christian Life of Faith”,
a paper delivered at Going Forward Together: An Episcopal Conference in Dallas and Atlanta 2004, St Phillip’s Cathedral,
Atlanta, 8 November 2004.