Noticed a cartoon recently with a man dressed in alternative clothing standing on a street corner with a sign that read, “The end” and underneath it “is not near”.
How easy is it for us to read the newspapers, watch the evening news, listen to the talk back radio shock jocks and politicians, and conclude that, in fact, the end is not just near but has already begun. Perhaps it has already occurred.
The streets seem less safe, the values we have lived by have all but disappeared and the institutions we have come to trust and disappearing all around us, including the church. The church is significant as it has been the custodian of stability, morals education and intricately connected to the fabric of government and economic life. This has and is changing faster than we would like.
We would like things to stay the same. We have liked what we had and we don’t want it to lose our position and our place in society either as a church or vicariously as a member of the church.
Yet our understanding of what ‘the same’ is, is often inaccurate and biased by where we live, who we few up with and the archetypal stories that are dominant in our domain. We want Australian values to remain and fear the changes seeming to be occur in our society, challenging what we believe the past was like. Very rarely does the past and our interpretation of it come together seamlessly.
One of the medias present fears is the refugees who appear to be introducing Islam into our nominally Christian society. Did you know that Islam in Australia pre-dates European settlement? From 1650, Muslim fisherman from South East Asia communicated and traded with Aborigines from Australia’s north. Some inter-marriage occurred. In the 1860s, some 3000 camel drivers – with camels – came from Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent contributing to the exploration of the Australian outback, working on both the railway line between Port Augusta and Alice Springs, and the Overland Telegraph Line from Adelaide to Darwin, which connected Australia to London via India.
What we fear is the threat to our way of life is often not the real threat. The real threat is fear itself. It undermines relationships, casts suspicion on the innocent and brings about rifts in our society where there is no valid reason for divisions to occur.
Jesus points to the temple, the second temple built by Herod and an extremely impressive temple it was, and predicts its collapse, an unthinkable thought for those whose lives were intricately entwined in its existence. Herod’s Temple was one of the larger construction projects of the 1st century BCE.
The old temple built by Zerubbabel was replaced by a magnificent edifice. An agreement was made between Herod and the Jewish religious authorities: the sacrificial rituals, called offerings, were to be continued unabated for the entire time of construction, and the Temple itself would be constructed by the priests. Later the Exodus 30:13 sanctuary shekel was reinstituted to support the temple as the temple tax. This was the background to the Widows Mite we read about in last weeks Gospel.
The Temple Mount was originally intended to be 1600 feet wide by 900 feet broad by 9 stories high, with walls up to 16 feet thick, but had never been finished. To complete it, a trench was dug around the mountain, and huge stone “bricks” were laid. Some of these weighed well over 100 tons, the largest measuring 44.6 feet by 11 feet by 16.5 feet and weighing approximately 567 to 628 tons, while most were in the range of 2.5 by 3.5 by 15 feet (approximately 28 tons).
How could such a building simply be torn down with no stone left in place? Impossible. The temple was not just important for Jewish worship but was a symbol of the symbiotic relationship between the Romans and the Jewish temple elite. They believed that while ever they allowed Rome to levy taxes and to benefit from the trade in and around the Temple, they could get on with their lives without risk of persecution. It was their insurance against devastation. It didn’t work. As we know in 70 CE the temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt.
Jesus understood something others failed to see. There comes a time when political expediency requires a change of direction, old ties are cut and new ones commenced. Whatever relationship the Jewish authorities had with those in power would last only as long as it was of value to those in power. When it was not useful any more, it would cease. And it did.
A problem for the Anglican church in Australia has been its privileged position in the English hierarchy and that we are primarily a white Anglo-Saxon church. We came out with the first fleet and were tired directly to those in power. We had our position because of who we were a part of – the English authorities. We lived in and off that position even when the political and demographic landscape changed.
And we didn’t see the changes coming, which would move us from the centre of society and its decision making to the edges. We are now a church in exile. Due to the changing demographic and political landscape, the rise of secularism, the move towards radical inclusivity in terms of relationships for example, we are marginalised.
For example, a story in the Age and the SMH had the following headline on Tuesday:
A controversial religious instruction program is being taught at preschool
As we stand in front of St Paul’s cathedral or even out the front here we can echo the words of incredulity of those listening to Jesus. We cannot believe what we have built may, one day, exist no more. But Jesus says this is not the end, that is yet to come. Tough times are here but life is possible and a life that recognises and worships God is available to us if we partake in tearing down what we built and build something new.
I would suggest that Jesus was alluding to more than the bricks and mortar, but to the accommodation the Temple leaders had made to remain within the governing power base. The church today has been moved out of the centre of political and moral life and has the amazing opportunity to reinvent itself in the image of God, as the true voice of God, uninhibited by the restrictions of political expediency necessary to survive at that level.
Living in exile gives us permission to rethink what faith and religion looks like to abandon the assumptions that bound us to power and to reposition ourselves as prophetic, mystical and proactive in terms of social justice, inclusivity and hospitality. We no longer have to ensure we are speaking with the same voice as those in power, politically or economically. We can speak of and for God. We can, for possibly the first time, embrace and practice the companionship of empowerment.
For the early Christians, this was their strength. They were not implicated in the power structures of their time. They were free to be true to the Gospel and were unafraid of the consequences.
The challenge for our church, at all levels, is to recognise the crumbling remains of past glories and to embrace the freedom of exile. I would like to finish with two quotes from the movie, “The Best Exoctic Marigold Hotel”. The first comes from Judi Dench’s character Evelyn who says: “There is no past that we can bring back by longing for it. Only a present that builds and creates itself as the past withdraws.” The second, and where I will finish, comes from the ever positive Sonny: “Everything will be alright in the end….if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.” Amen