This is the message from last week at my church. We took a quick break from the lectionary to hook up with our mother church, Heartland Community Church, and do a two part series called “Temple Jenga.” If you are a pastor feel free to copy and steal everything.
2014.05.11 – Temple Jenga
About 1000 yrs ago a group of Vikings led by Erik the Red set sail from the coast of Norway for the vast Arctic landmass we know as Greenland. Greenland was (and still is) largely uninhabitable. It’s just this massive Island covered in a sheet of ice. But, along the southwestern coast they found 2 deep fjords that were shielded from the harsh North Atlantic winds & salt spray. As they sailed upriver, they began to see green, grassy slopes appearing through the fog, dotted with wildflowers & shrubs. They saw thick forests of willow, birch, and alder trees.
They settled there & formed two colonies about 300 miles apart that were known as the Eastern & Western settlements. And they began to raise sheep and goats and cattle. They turned the grassy slopes into pastureland, and hunted seal and caribou. They built a string of parish churches and a cathedral to rival those back in Norway (picture). They traded actively with mainland Europe. They tithed regularly to the Roman Catholic Church. They were: law-abiding, economically viable, fully integrated European communities, & at their peak they were around 5000 people. They lived in Greenland for 450 years—& then they vanished. And until recently, nobody knew why.
This story is told in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse. Diamond is a Pulitzer Prize winning Geographer. He studies why civilizations collapse (Mayans or Easter Island). For a long time we assumed it was always the result of wars, drought, or some cataclysmic events. But what we now know is that they collapse because they were not committed to the holistic stewardship of all of life… they become too focused on perpetuating their own culture & lose track of the big picture.
Diamond writes archeologists still come from all over the world to dig in Greenland & they are all looking for the same thing. (I read this and I’m thinking evidence of a war, or disease, drought). But what they’re looking for is fish bones: & they never find them. The Vikings who colonized Greenland were surrounded by some of the most fertile fishing waters on planet. And yet we can tell by studying the ruins… they were starving. So the question is, why would a society that was sitting on top of the richest food source the ocean has to offer starve to death?
The answer is that the Greenland Norse had a cultural taboo against eating fish. It simply wasn’t done. Vikings elsewhere ate fish, even exported dried fish—but these Greenlanders had some sort of strong cultural taboo against eating fish. (food taboos were common in pre-modern world). Anybody have their own private food taboo against fish? How about against fish at the Chinese buffet? That’s just good common sense.
Anybody watching Vikings (BBC)? I’m hooked. It’s wrong on so many levels and yet still I watch. They portray the Vikings as seafaring raiders. But they thought of themselves as farmers & ranchers. In large part, they raised cattle—it was a huge status symbol for them: real men raised cattle… they didn’t eat fish. So when they settled Greenland: they cleared forest for pasture, & began cutting down trees for barns, homes, firewood. The deforestation removed the critical footing for the thin fragile arctic soil. Over time the livestock over-grazed the hillsides, and wind and rain erosion began to carry away all the topsoil. Pretty soon the crops wouldn’t grow, and the livestock couldn’t be fattened, so food became scarce… and even though they were sitting on top of millions of North Atlantic Cod (which if lightly breaded and deep fat fried is amazing when served w/chips), all archeological evidence suggests that the Norse would rather starve than eat a fish.
They could have learned from the native Inuit people… How to survive by using fewer trees; how to burn seal blubber instead of wood, fish, & hunt seals in winter when they were at their most vulnerable (instead of raising so much livestock & taxing the fragile land). But the Vikings despised the Inuit. They called them “skraelings” or wretches.
When archeologists dug through the ruins of the Western Settlement, they found plenty of valuable wooden objects: Crucifixes, bowls, furniture, doors, and roof timbers… which means that the end came too quickly for anyone to do any scavenging. They can tell from the skeletons left behind that the people suffered from horrible malnutrition. They found the bones of newborn calves—meaning that in the final winter they gave up on the future & ate the young animals. They found toe bones from cows that equaled the exact number of cow stalls in the barn—meaning they ate the cattle right down to the hoofs. They found the bones of dogs covered in knife marks—meaning in the end they even ate their own pets.
What they didn’t find were any fish bones. It seems right up to until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.
What Diamond demonstrates thru the telling of this story is that most vanishing cultures do at least 2 things wrong: They do a lot of other things, but they all seem to do these two. First, they become highly invested in boundary markers. Boundary Markers: cultural markers that define who’s in/out. Things like needing to raise cattle, build roaring fires, and never eating fish – those are boundary markers. (that’s the 1st thing). Second, they use the world around them selfishly. They become more concerned w/perpetuating their own culture that with the overall well being of the world. The Greenland Vikings tried to recreate a way of life that worked fine in Norway… but Greenland was too fragile for it. By the time they knew they were in trouble it was too late.
When Vanishing Cultures Vanish, they always do these two things: they become highly invested in boundary markers (defining who is in/out). And they become more concerned about the perpetuation of their own “way of life” than, the well being of the world around them.
We’re in Part 2 of Series called Temple Jenga: talking about Mark 13, and Jesus’s strange conversation at the temple in Jerusalem just before he’s killed. We have Jesus and his Disciples walking around the temple, marveling huge stones (the stones @ base of temple were massive), when Jesus launched into this mysterious apocalyptic diatribe. And the heart of his message centered on the Temple.
He says, “Do you see all these great buildings? …not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Mark 13:2
If you know this gospel well, you know that all along Mark has been building a case against the temple. And in chapter 13 it’s coming to a head… and to understand it, we need to try and think like an Israelite. We start w/the idea that most cultures at that time worshipped creation right? Or at least some part of it (sun God, rain god).
But the Hebrew people were different. They worshipped one God who was distinct from creation. In fact, to the Hebrew mind heaven wasn’t where you went when you died. Heaven was the place where God lived and reigned with God’s angels. (it was less like a place, than another dimension).
So there was heaven, where God reigned & ruled; & there was earth, that God had created and called good. And they thought heaven & earth were created kind of overlapping… earth was bathed w/God’s presence (but God was distinct from it). And the whole thing gets hijacked by human brokenness & what they called sin. So the earth becomes disordered & corrupted.
So there was: heaven, the place where God reigns, earth which is now disordered & corrupted, and the temple… and it was the last place on earth where heaven & earth still overlapped:
In the temple 2 major things were happening: 1) God was present with his people; 2) God was redeeming what was broken (sin). But in the Gospel of Mark (all gospels), Jesus moves against the temple, because it’s longer doing what it’s intended to do. If you remember the temple had these layers of decreasing holiness:
- The Holy of Holies: holiest place on earth, where the presence of God and the Ark of the Covenant were.
- A little less holy was the Naos, … only for priests.
- A little less holy the inner courts… only for Jewish males.
- A little less holy to outer courts, for women, for the gentiles.
- A little less holy was the Holy City, Jerusalem.
- And then came the Holy Land—Israel… & finally
- Wilderness: which was far away from the temple as can get (not holy).
And yet in the Gospel of Mark, Ch. 1, the first time we see Jesus, you remember where he is? He’s in the Wilderness being baptized by John the Baptist. And the 2 things that are only supposed to happen at the temple are happening in the wilderness with Jesus. You’ve got the presence of God (dove & the voice), and the forgiveness of sins (John’s baptism was for forgiveness of sins).
So in Mark’s gospel, all the things that used to only happen in the temple, start to happen wherever Jesus is. He moves thru the gospel bringing the presence of God & forgiveness of sins. The difference is, JS does it w/out all of the boundary markers, & he does it not for the survival of the Jewish people, but for the life of the whole world…
The next time we see Jesus in the temple (Ch. 11), he’s turning over tables & yelling & screaming & disrupting the commercial businesses. And this whole confrontation happens in the place called the court of the Gentiles, right? So, this is supposed to be the place where even those who are not part of the Hebrew people can come and pray, and worship, and make sacrifices, and be in God’s presence. But, instead it’s become a Persian bazaar where the high priest & temple rulers were getting rich, bilking people.
Jesus says, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?’ But you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’” Mark 11:17. Instead of making the temple a place where God’s presence extends to all nations… scan credit cards & sell indulgences. And Jesus confronts them, chastising them (almost gets killed). PT: So by the time we get to Mark 13 & Jesus’s odd discourse (they will tear down the temple & I’ll build it up again in 3 days), the temple has become the symbol of everything that’s wrong w/the Hebrew people.
If you think about it, they are doing what vanishing cultures do. They become highly invested in boundary markers, and they’re so concerned about perpetuating their own Jewish way of life, that they have forgotten about their obligation to the world. You know the story of Hebrew people was always story of obligation. After creation got hijacked, things got worse & worse until one day nobody was listening to God… until Abraham… contact. Abraham could hear God.
So God says, “Abraham, come over here! Come out away from the others & let me talk to you. Let me teach you who I am. Let me show you what I’m doing in the world.”
And God began to hammer God’s image back into Abraham’s people. And God thought, “If I can form these people in my image, then the rest of the world could see me again… through them!” So Israel was meant to be a nation of priests, right? Priest are always mediating the presence of God to the people, they were blessed to be a blessing!
They had an obligation to the world.
The temple was constructed toward that end. But instead, they set up boundary markers, & kept most people out, (protecting their culture of clean & unclean), and they stopped caring about the wider world. So God enters in, & Jesus succeeds where Israel fails. Jesus becomes place where God is present & sins are forgiven.
And then, (and this is the twist of all twists) Jesus says, “After I’m gone… you guys, my followers… you’re going to be the place where God is present & where sins are forgiven.”
And this is talked about most often in 2 ways.
First: the church began to be talked about as the Body of Christ. This is Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church. (1 Cor. 12: 27) “You are the body of Christ.” The “you” there is plural, it’s talking about all of us. The church is the body of Christ. We are the way Christ is present in the world.
Second, the church began to be called the Temple. In 1 Cor. 6:19 Paul says, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…” And the language here is tricky, I won’t bore you with the Greek… you know what, why not? I’ll bore you w/the Greek. Here’s what it looks like: τὸ σῶμα ὑμῶν. (to soma humon). Let’s read this out loud together… no?
What’s happening here is a technical thing. I’m not a linguist, but the scholars teach us that this phrase pairs a singular noun (body) and a plural genitive pronoun (of you). So if we were to read it literally (and if we were from Texas), it would say, “the body of ya’ll is a temple.” Why that matters is that he’s not talking about your body. Anyone get told that? We tell this to teenagers: your body is a temple, that’s why you can’t smoke cigarettes. I have a friend who used to say “The body is a temple & temple could use a little incense.” Don’t tell that to your kids.
The point is that if Paul was talking about your personal body, he would’ve used a plural form of body. But he said “the body (singular) of ya’ll (plural) is a temple. So, he’s talking about the Church. When we come together as the church we become the temple: the place where God is present, and the place where sins are forgiven. Paul uses this over and over: 1 Cor 3:19 “You are God’s temple & God’s spirit dwells in you”, 2 cor. 6:16 – “We are the temple of the living God.” (all of us together). God is present in is temple… and we are the temple (church). God is also dealing w/sins in his temple.
In Acts we have this story of the upper room: when Jesus appears, tongues of fire, (Pentecost). The analog in John says, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” Jn 20:22-23
It’s like JS is saying, “Remember how I became the place God was present in the world instead of going to do some sacrifice at the temple, I just forgave people’s sins? That’s the ministry I’m giving you. Not that you are God now & can forgive sins. But you are going to become the place where I am present in the world forgiving sins… you are now my body & you guys are the temple.”
Peter talks about it differently in 1 Peter 2; “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
So your body isn’t a temple, your body is a Living Stone. And when it comes together w/other living stones in the church, it becomes formed into the temple… which means a couple of really important things: 1) My life really only becomes intelligible in context of church; when I come together w/other living stones, I come alive in a whole new way. 2) It means that my life matters… because Jesus has chosen to live on in the world in & through us. Your life matters to the world… not just to your children, friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, but to everyone in the world who struggles under weight of brokenness into which we were born.
Because, God’s solution for the brokenness is Christ; and the primary means that Christ is present in the world is that is forms us into living stones, calls us together in the church & build us into his temple… the place where God is present forgiving sins and healing our broken hearts.
And the only way to blow it, is to start doing what Israel did… which is to say: to start doing what vanishing cultures do… setting up cultural boundary markers & forgetting our obligation to the rest of the world.
And the painful reality is… we do this stuff all the time. I mean let’s just tell the truth, we set up boundary markers all the time.
We’ll set up boundaries around our BELIEFS: and if your beliefs aren’t in line with our beliefs, we’ll try to put you outside boundary of our group.
We’ll set up boundaries around our RELIGIOUS RITES & PRACTICES. You have to be baptized and confirmed by the right church or you can’t receive communion, you can’t really be a part of us. You have to say the sinner’s prayer & walk down the isle—this was my tradition. You had to feel really, really, really bad about your life (never mind that you are only 7 at this point and haven’t really done anything wrong). So you need to come forward and say a specific prayer. We don’t even trust you to say the prayer right so you are going to need to repeat it after me. (I see that hand). Some people say you have to be baptized by the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues or you are not a true Christan.
We’ll set up boundaries around MORALITY, if we don’t like your lifestyle, then you’re on the outside (…completely blind to our own moral failings). When it’s all said and done the people who struggling the most: struggle with their own sexuality, struggle with addictions, struggle w/doubts… The very people who need God’s presence & forgiveness, they can’t get past the boundaries. So we end up being like the temple rulers, rejecting sinners on behalf of the God who is determined to welcome sinners. That’s what vanishing cultures do…
Sometimes we get really concerned about the success of our churches & church culture forget about our obligation to the life of the world. As Churches: I see this in our utter preoccupation with church growth. Honestly, I think God don’t care about churches getting bigger. What God cares about is the world & all the people in it. We exist for the life of the world. Churches have become far too concerned about what makes us grow & what kind of programs we need to compete w/other churches for a shrinking market share.
We exist not so we can grow huge, and create the ultimate church experience then… go have brunch, y’know? We’re living stones, built into a holy temple together & we are meant to be a place where all kinds of crazy people come & meet God & God deals w/all their brokenness.
That’s why we exist: to meet the world at the point of its greatest need w/ the presence & forgiveness of God; that’s what the temple is for!
In JoCo, when kids get in trouble w/the law, often time the courts will order them to go through this thing called “Strengthening Families.” They pull whole families in & do parenting classes, & life-skills, and counsel the kids & parents together—a whole curriculum. And our church is trying to become a host site. We’re struggling to make it happen (lots of people & resources). We’re having to ask help from other churches, but it’s a tough sell. These folks will never: come to worship / volunteer / tithe (most are ordered to be there by the court). We have to be okay w/that. We’re not doing this to grow our church bigger. We’re doing this because we’re on the hook for our community. We can’t just do the stuff that builds attendance, we have to do the stuff that helps the world around us to flourish.
This is what the church is for! We exist because God is on a mission of redemption! The world has been hijacked: poverty, injustice. People all around us are enslaved to addictions, pain, fear, regret, & shame… And churches can’t just keep on building more & better buildings… and more and better programs.
If the life of the church becomes just about the quest for the ultimate worship service & not about the life of the world, then we’re doing what vanishing cultures do… and ultimately God will organize against us.
There’s a text in the OT, where they are explaining how the temple was actually constructed. This piece was cut this tall. These widows had recessed frames. The nave had this many side chambers… it goes on and on. But there’s this one detail that jumps out at you. 1 Kings 6:7 “The house was built with stone finished at the quarry, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron was heard in the temple while it was being built.”
And there’s an old rabbinic belief that as the stone was harvested, it miraculously came out of the quarry in just the right dimensions to fit with what they were building at the time down at the temple. They didn’t even have to shape it at the job site. Every rock came out of the ground with exactly the right shape so that it could be fit together into the temple…
So the rabbis taught: God has cut each of us out of the quarry, & made us living stones; all different shapes & sizes, & he fits us together & then uses us—the body of Christ, the temple—for the life of the world. And so this means that your life is actually unintelligible apart from your participation in the life of the church. Without the church you are just an uncut stone…
But when we join together you become miraculously formed; cut just right from the quarry… ready to be fit into place in our temple. And together we become the place where God is present in the world & where sins are forgiven. And as this happens we begin to fulfill our obligation to the world. We actually begin to become human as human was meant to be.
I just think about Ed Corbin, one of our homeless members who literally died on our front steps a few weeks back… at his memorial Jim Schmidt reminded us that for the longest time Ed wouldn’t come inside, stay outside. It took him a long time, year or more to come inside and worship. When he finally did he was here most weeks for 5 years.
Ed needed a walker, but lived in the woods so instead he pushed an empty wheel chair around to add stability. You get so used to seeing someone around every week, you almost start to take it for granted that he’ll be there, pushing that empty wheelchair around the parking lot for exercise… going slow as can be. It was actually pretty funny to watch him… like he had an imaginary friend.
Sometimes I would mess w/Ed while he was walking slow. Once I said “Ed, why don’t you sit down in that thing?” He didn’t miss a beat… “I cain’t… I’m in to big a’hurry!” All said in this low growl of a cigarette addled voice. Another time said, “who you pushing around there, Ed?” He didn’t miss a beat, looking around in feigned surprise: “Where’d he go?”
So on Palm Sunday when we all stood around, somewhat helplessly, as the paramedics tried to revive him… it was a bit surreal. Like a disturbance in the temple… a wound upon our body. And it was just shocking… I remember we prayed together & then we walked inside to gather like living stones and to worship…
That morning I saw a side of our church I’d never seen. I mean, we’ve been through a lot of hard things together, but this was different. This was like something you read about in books. But as we walked inside and began to gather for worship I was acutely aware of how all the pieces fit together. That we had worship leaders who were so gifted & sensitive to the moment… they knew just how to lead us in that place. Watched Cole sticking to Elijah like glue… Elijah H. was close to Ed & was standing by him visiting w/Ed when he collapsed. You could see Cole doing what he was born to do, after Elijah had been wounded doing what he was born to do. People who needed to process found someone to process. People who needed to cry found a shoulder to cry on… talk found a listening ear. That week got several texts checking in on me to see how I was doing & sent a bunch myself. I realized this was happening all over our body all week.
In and of himself, Ed was terribly broken. He came out of the quarry that way & he made a mess of just about everything he touched. On his own his life was never going to image God. But when he was a part of us… it did. He became a living stone & God fit him into his temple called Redemption Church. His life mattered to us… even his brokenness mattered to us. And when he was w/us he was part of the body of Christ, the holy temple.
I don’t know what the state of Ed’s soul was when he died. I know that he died among friends. I know he died knowing that God loved him & if there was any hope for his hopelessly addicted soul it was in Christ. I know he knew we loved him too… But even more than that, he died knowing that he was a part of the temple…a living stone.
But if we had put up boundary markers? I don’t care how low you set the bar, Ed would’ve never made it through the front door… too broken. If we were only concerned about our own needs & having the ultimate church experience – folk like Ed wouldn’t factor in… standing out front smoking, lighting one cigarette with the butt of the last.
But I’m telling you when he was a part of us, our church became more beautiful. It became more like the body of Christ; I don’t know how to explain it… he became a living stone whose broken life fit with us.
So let me tell you the good news… if you feel like YOU are too broken to matter to this world, because you’ve made such a mess of your life. If you are in the throes of addictions or depression. If you are struggling with your sexuality, or plagued by doubt, anxiety, fear, anger, regret, shame. Then you have come to the right place. Your life can make sense here w/these people, even if it doesn’t make sense anywhere else.
And what you’ll learn if you stick around is that the God who set the world in motion & who watched it run completely off the rails. This God has never stopped working for its redemption. This God didn’t leave us here alone, to struggle in the darkness. He entered in—he took on human form. He taught us about God’s kingdom. He showed us how to live & how to be a new kind of person. He was killed for it; but God raised him from the dead. And he breathed on his people the Holy Spirit & that Spirit has travelled down through the ages & it’s in this room right now. And it can take your life & make you a living stone & build you into this temple… u’ll find God’s presence & God’s forgiveness. You will find that this God will stop at nothing to heal your broken heart: