There is a phobia or syndrome
whose name I’ve forgotten,
in which anxiety is centered in the dread
of a human structure collapsing.
When looking at a bridge for example,
or a tall building,
the person will obsess
about structural weaknesses
or points of vulnerability
and what could go wrong
to make it come tumbling down.
I have a mild case of that phobia
but when I was much younger
it was more pronounced.
I could get freaked out to the point
it would sometimes cause me
to get cold and clammy.
Here is an example.
I used to have season tickets
to The Ohio State football games.
For ten years I went to the 105,000-seat stadium
where I was crammed like a sardine
in with tens of thousands of others.
The stadium was built in 1922
and sometimes as the game went on
and fans cheered and shouted with vigor,
I would look above me at those huge steel girders
with rivets the size of my fist,
and all I could think about was…the Titanic.
“Hmmm,” I would muse to myself,
“the Titanic was built in 1911
with defective steel caused by human error
in the manufacturing process…”
Such thoughts led me to think about
should the deck above me fall
as the thousands of bodies up there
started stomping their feet and singing,
“We will, we will, rock you!”
I see the humor in my thoughts,
and I did even then.
But not so much as a kid.
When I was young,
a passenger in my parent’s car
and everyone else enjoying the five mile drive
across one of the world’s longest
spanning the straights of Mackinaw, in Michigan,
I would push my face up against the window
and inspect the cables for fraying as we passed.
Later, as an adult,
flying home from Africa with Katy,
I revealed that the source of my white knuckles
was the thought
of the those little rivets in the wings popping out.
But even more troubling to me
than the idea of the plane crashing, I confessed,
was to then be eaten by a shark.
She assured me that we wouldn’t be alive
when we met the shark.
Well, I call such thoughts, “The Jesus Syndrome.”
Of course I would – but not
because I think of myself like Jesus.
I call it that because
it reminds me there is good reason
to have limited confidence in anything human,
and to always keep the long view,
even while trying to accomplish
the short-term task.
I love the image from today’s gospel
in which Jesus is gazing upon
the amazing Temple,
whose majesty was extolled
across the Roman Empire.
“Yep,” Jesus says matter of factly,
“one of these days those babies are coming down.”
If we think about the first century
and Judean and Galilean peasants
living in those parts,
there would not have been many superstructures
for them to ogle over.
Peasants did not travel far
and they would have had no access to
a palace, Praetorium, and coliseum.
The Temple in Jerusalem
would have been a unique experience
for someone marginalized like Jesus,
because it was a rare architectural giant
they could actually walk into –
even though, once inside, they would have had
very limited access.
Calling my little phobia “The Jesus Syndrome”
also comforts me with the idea
that Jesus had crazy thoughts too.
But this story reveals
that Jesus’ thoughts weren’t all that crazy.
His fantasy about the Temple falling down
turned out to be true.
Thirty-eight years after Jesus was executed
the Roman army reduced the Temple to ruins
and all that remains of it today
is that bitter irony called the “Wailing Wall,”
which rests underneath
the Muslim Temple Mount.
But there is something else to notice here too,
and we get a whiff of it in that squib from Daniel.
Every story has an ending.
Every story has an ending but, like beginnings,
not all endings are equal.
We have been washed and dried
in the Tumble Press of Walt Disney
in which every story has ahappyending.
The United States civic culture
is spun from the threads of happy ending stories
whether old Westerns,
animated folk heroes or romance.
We rarely tell a story
that does not have a happy ending.
At least not in the popular culture.
Some streams of alternative culture
do let the end come with violence,
or without resolve,
but they are perceived to be dark,
cynical and negative.
Still, every story must have an ending.
We tend to think of the Gospel
as ending with the resurrection –
a kind of tortured happy ending, I suppose.
But that is not how Jesus
chose to end the story of his public ministry
in gospels of Mark, Luke or Matthew.
His last public story, in each of those Gospels,
is the one we heard in part today.
It is a story about the endof time
and it is a pretty dog-gone dark story.
In all three Gospels, the last story Jesus tells,
is provoked by some knuckle-headed pilgrim
ogling at the Temple
and exclaiming how beautiful it is.
Something about that sends Jesus
into his darkened depths
to forecast what is going to happen
at the end of time,
when God runs out of patience
or humans run out of options.
This is an element of the biblical narrative
I have ignored most of my professional career.
I have dismissed apocalypse and eschatology,
along with Fundamentalist talk of Armageddon
and the Grim Reaper.
Like most liberals, I focused instead,
on the stories and sayings of Jesus,
which I like a whole lot better.
I am not proud of my self-serving cowardice
but there it is.
We could explain away
the fact that the last public story Jesus tells
in all three Gospels,
is a story about a dark and violent ending
to human history.
But recognizing it is in all three gospels,
I think we have to take it seriously
rather than explaining it away.
Whether it was actually Jesus’ last story
or it was the story-tellers
placing it as Jesus’ last public story,
it was done with intention.
In other words, Jesus was living close to the end
and he knew, even if they didn’t,
that his compatriots
were living close to their end too.
It was plaguing his thoughts
and filling his heart,
so when someone made a stray comment
about the beauty of the stained-glass windows
– oops, I mean the glory of the Temple –
it evoked all that emotion in Jesus
and it came gushing out.
One of the best funeral sermons
I ever heard, was delivered
by a seventy-something year old priest,
talking to hundreds of seventy
and eighty-year-old friends
gathered to say good-bye
to a long-time associate.
The preacher began
by saying to his contemporaries,
that it was an auspicious occasion
for all of them to think about
what they wanted their own lives to stand for.
And then, he went on to ask
specific questions designed to provoke
an evaluation of the distance
between what we say we stand for
and how we actually live our lives.
It was brilliant,
and something I could not have preached
at the time, due to my youth.
I think that may be the kind of thing
Jesus was doing
by ending the story of his life
with a reminder of even the Earth’s mortality.
What do you stand for in this world?
What does your “one small and precious life”
mean in the vast sea of time and space?
Who are you exactly?
Who are you…and what do you want
your life to be remembered for?
As crazy as it may seem,
I think that is a wonderful Thanksgiving meditation.
It connects up with what we are grateful for
because, what we are grateful for
is probably associated
with what we want to be remembered for.
Those things we value most
are probably also the things
that we should want to assist others
So, as we consider what we are grateful for,
we could also ask ourselves
whether or how we have assisted others
with gaining access to them as well.
Some of that is easy and just plain obvious.
We value good, nourishing food
and as we give thanks for it,
we could also ask ourselves when and how
we have enabled others to have access
to good, nourishing food too?
That could lead to a reflection
on those who make it possible for us to eat –
farm workers – immigrant farm workers –
farmers, truckers, and folks
who work at the grocery.
We are grateful for what they produce and deliver,
so what have we done, or what could we do,
to ensure they have access
to good and nourishing food also?
You see, it is an easy equation to contemplate.
This is a great time of year
to do a gratitude inventory –
brainstorm a list of all the people and things
we are especially grateful for.
Then we can do an inventory
of when and how we might be able
to assist others to access
those very things
we have so appreciated ourselves.
It doesn’t have to be a big, complicated list,
and we certainly do not have to carry
responsibility for the whole world on our backs.
I’m talking about simple inventory of our abundance.
There is a kind of spiritual symmetry
between what we are grateful for
and what we may be able to do
to return that very goodness to others.
My guess is, when all is said and done,
we would be pleased to be remembered
for providing to others
what we have been so grateful for ourselves.
Well, like I said,
all stories have an ending,
and all sermons do too – or at least,
we hope they do.
Mine is to give thanks
for this congregation, for our communal
and so to ask, how might we,
as a spiritual community,
encourage and strengthen others around us?
May you have a blessed Thanksgiving this week.
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