It was only back in March that I stood squarely on the Mount of Olives, opposite the terraced tombs, Jerusalem’s city walls, and the remains of the Second Temple…and gazed across the valley at the Temple Mount.
The sun-kissed golden Dome of the Rock gleamed from its prominent perch, atop the site Abraham ascended in order to sacrifice his promised son Isaac in a previous age.
Mount Moriah…where over time the stones of the altar that Abraham built gave way to the well-hewn and quarried foundation stones of wise king Solomon’s Temple.
And hundreds of years later, as the Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and that magnificent monarchical monument came crashing down in flames, it was this same site which saw the Second Temple arise after generations of mourning, exile and ashes.
The last of those Second Temple stones, which eventually fell at the hands of the Roman army in 70 CE are all that are left of what was that once mighty Temple to which Jesus refers today in the Gospel.
The Western Wall…also known as the Wailing Wall because of the laments and prayers that get uttered and inserted in its cracked places, forms the base of the Temple Mount, which is today crowned by the Muslim mosques, Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, upon the site from which Mohammed the prophet is believed to have ascended into heaven.
I looked upon this very geographically small, yet symbolically rich, piece of land from the Mount of Olives, where Jesus had once stood and uttered his apocalyptic claim that “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down,” and I looked behind me at the stones of the church that marked the spot where Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before being arrested and eventually crucified.
We humans have been building and building…since the days of the tower of Babel… adding stone upon stone to erect the edifices in which we play out our hopes, dreams and lives.
And year after year, generation after generation, the stones we pile upon each other come tumbling down.
From Jericho to Jerusalem…New York to Nagasaki…construction and destruction are part of the human landscape, and at times it can feel fruitless to keep investing in building up when all the world seems to be falling down.
Is this what Jesus is referring to when he talks to the disciples on the Mount of Olives?
Is he forecasting doom without the recourse to something more promising and hopeful?
Jesus warns the disciples that they will hear of “wars and rumors of wars” and after the events of this past weekend in Paris, I imagine that we will continue to hear such talk fill up the space in our media outlets.
It is extremely horrific and tragic that gunmen sought fit to express their frustration and anger at the world order by massacring over 150 people as part of an organized ISIS terrorist attack in Paris.
I think of the lives lost…the living stones of each of these victims that have been cut down in an act of violence…and the sadness their families and loved ones must be feeling now.
What comfort can they have in their moment of loss?
Who can still their tears or stem the tide of vengeance that threatens to rise against those who have caused them such pain and anguish?
Jesus spoke to the disciples about the beginning of “birth pangs,” and as anyone who has delivered a child or assisted in the delivering of a child into this world knows, there is a great deal of pain and anguish associated with the process.
There is confusion.
There is uncertainty.
There is the feeling that at any time something could go wrong and all hope could be extinguished in an instant.
But Jesus instructs his followers to not be waylaid by such fears…to not be deterred from the promise because of the fears that rise up and seem to loom larger than it.
Think about all those times the stones of the Temple Mount were cast down.
Jerusalem and its buildings crumbled into ruin, time and time again, because of wars, and it must have taken a huge act of faith for following generations to once again lay stone upon stone and see those buildings rise once more.
And yet, part of what Jesus seems to be getting at today is that while the buildings we raise up may be impressive and important, there is some greater form of building to which we are called…one that will not so easily succumb to the winds of war.
The enduring Temple…the one that is built on the chief Cornerstone that “the builders rejected,” Jesus… the crucified and resurrected one…is made of living stones bound together by the mortar of love and community.
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” says our patron saint Paul, and he goes on to describe how these living temples together form the mystical Body of Christ…the greatest Temple that has ever been built…which persecution and hardship could not, and will not destroy.
In fact, the Temple of the Body of Christ, which “moth and rust cannot consume” is the only construction I know that is capable of overcoming the wars and rumors of wars that our world will always contain.
It does so not by being immovable and inflexible like a cold, fixed and shuttered castle keep, but rather by opening its gates to the stranger, and by reaching forth its living hands in love.
I think of the misguided mindset of the ISIS terrorists who brought death and destruction to Paris this weekend.
The goal of those attacks was to not only inspire fear and confusion, but to convince the world that Muslims in general cannot coexist with Western societies.
Like cold fixed stone, ISIS demands and promotes a black and white ideology in which the world is clearly divided between “us and them.”
This black and white ideology has been under serious threat due to the way Europe has been welcoming the refugees that have been fleeing the war zone in Syria that ISIS has created.
Just like in our own Joel Nafuma Refugee Center here at St. Paul’s, the hospitality and kindness extended to refugees is a marker of the Temple that cannot be destroyed…it is the fundamental action and signature of the mystical body that has been born into this world through the Passion of Jesus Christ.
“Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut,” says the prophet Isaiah, and continuing this openness and receptivity is the only way to resist the destructive actions of doom groups like ISIS.
Seeing helpers rushing to assist the wounded…witnessing the wisdom of voices who refuse to conflate ISIS with Islam in general (because make no mistake, they are incompatible)…watching the love and support for victims spread across social media and remind us that we are indeed connected and constructed in a way that is unbound by geography, language, and race.
I can almost hear Jesus saying to his disciples upon that Mount of Olives, “Do you see THIS great building? Do you see, as impressive as these physical spaces are, that there is a greater building into which you are being called?”
Perhaps they could not see it then…and perhaps it is hard for us to see it as well.
But the Temple made up of living stones…with Christ as the head, the chief cornerstone…was coming into being…was being born even as they gazed upon those great Second Temple stones on Mount Moriah that day.
And no less is it continuing to be constructed in our own time…as we live into the life, love and mission of God in Jesus Christ.
Yes there will be wars and rumors of war…and yes there are those who would seek to promote destruction and division for their own sinister purposes.
But our focus must always be on building that which cannot be destroyed.
Our hope in this dark hour is in knowing that it is not time to scatter stones, but rather “to gather living stones together.”
Because when the world comes tumbling down…it is God’s people who
see fit to build up together.
How will you add your voice and the temple of your body to the greater construction effort that God is doing among us today?
Paris, the world, and God’s kingdom await your answer.