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Proper 23C, Tr 1, Trinity 18, 10.10.04
Jer. 29.1, 4-7: [to exiles:} build homes, plant gardens, take wives, seek welfare of
Summary: Where would St Mark's be without a building? It would be where two or three were gathered together 'in my name'.
Here is a question for you: Where would Saint Mark's be if this building were destroyed tomorrow?
For several weeks we have been following Jeremiah as he prophesied the fall of Jerusalem. By the time we reach today's reading, Jerusalem has fallen, the temple lies in ruins, and the elite have been taken off to exile in Babylon. In today's reading Jeremiah addresses those in exile in Babylon.
How would you react if you were sent into exile? How much of your sense of self-identity would be threatened if you were denied the possibility of returning to England?
One reaction of the Israelites to finding themselves in exile in Babylon is expressed in Psalm 137. Let me read it to you:
'By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down and there we
wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How could we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem's fall, how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!'
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!'
This psalm is expressing much more than simply a hankering for the good old days. It carries a sense of loss of self-identity.
Many years ago I read a fine study of Israelite and Jewish thought which showed how intrinsic and deeply embedded was the thought of the land, that is, the land of Israel. It is this that was given expression in the Zionist movement to re-establish Israel, and it is this among the more extremist Israelis today that motivates their desire to expand Israel to its ancient boundaries.
Now contrast this with the message in the name of the Lord that Jeremiah delivers when he writes from Jerusalem to those in exile in Babylon:
'Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.'
If Jeremiah's message can be crudely summed up as 'Stop moaning and get on with the job', Ezekiel writing to those in exile goes one stage further, for he adds that God is not stuck back in Jerusalem but he is always where his people are.
Those whose sentiments were expressed by psalm 137 considered this to be heresy.
And when we come to the New Testament, we find a strong anti-temple polemic, as in the end of Stephen's speech in Acts when he says God does not dwell in a house made with hands. In Stephen's case, this proved to be the final straw, and so they stoned him to death. In Paul, we, the Body of Christ, are the temple of the Spirit. In John's Gospel, chapter 2, Jesus is presented as contrasting himself to the Jerusalem temple, saying, 'Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.' (2.19).
It is generally the case that the thrust of all major reform movements gets blunted in time by the succeeding generations. And from no later than the fourth century on Christians began erecting large buildings to house the congregation, and all kinds of places began to be considered to be sacred, with people making pilgrimages to them. If, given human nature, this was a natural development, there can be no question but that it was overdone, and we are still recovering from it, as can be seen when church buildings are closed or sold. For very often some of those who attended regularly were so attached to the building that they never go to church again.
And so I leave you to ponder the question with which I began: Where would Saint Mark's be if this building were destroyed tomorrow?
I believe the answer lies in words from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew: 'Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.'