Ozymandias and a Time to Speak

It’s been a rough and weary week for many of us. I started the week at Jefferson Barracks, commending a friend to God’s keeping. Over the course of timg_5671he week, I have ministered to a family dealing with the fallout of an unspeakable act of violence. I have listened as darling four-year old Rose tried to work through her feelings at the loss of three friends, and as her mother Jacque has tried to support her while dealing with her own grief. I have listened to our neighbors grieve the City Council’s decision to rezone a large portion of the neighborhood to commercial. I have talked with friends and relations around the country and here in Washington, people of color, Muslims, mix-race families, immigrants, LGBT folks, all of whom are not just worried for the future but frightened for their safety. I have watched 4th graders sing in honor of veterans who served to protect the freedom of every American, and heard my son name with pride his great-great-great grandfather, William Frye, whose name my father shares an abolitionist who fought on the side of the Union and spent 18 months in Andersonville prison during the Civil War. And even as we have honored veterans who died for freedom, even as we buried our friend with honors for her service, we have seen people around the country begin to threaten other citizens for their heritage, their race, their beliefs.

I am overwhelmed by the events of this week. I, like many of you, have looked for words of comfort. And I am surprised to find them in today’s gospel reading. Which at first glance, sounds like an affirmation of fear – not one stone will be left on stone, nations will rise against nations, earthquakes, famine, plagues, persecution. None of it sounds comforting. In fact it sounds terrifying. But terror is not the point of this text.

In the story of Luke, Jesus has been wandering around Galilee for the last year or so, healing the sick, casting out demons, gathering a following. Now, as the festival of the Passover draws near, he has come up to Jerusalem, where he was greeted as a king. He has been driven the merchants out of the Temple, wept over the city, and come every day to teach, making enemies among the chief priests, scribes, and leaders, who have begun looking for a way to kill him.

The people who have gathered around him are certain by now that this is the Messiah. They expect that he will finish the work of clearing out the corruption in the Temple, and raise up an army to kick out the Romans while he’s at it. He will reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, and together they will become a great nation and take their proper place in the world. Nothing in that plan includes the destruction of the Temple, which was a centerpiece of the Kingdom of Israel, the thing that unified them. Instead, they seem to be intent on reinvigorating it. As they sit there listening to Jesus praise the widow who has given her last cent to God, they are praising the Temple itself, the stones of the building and all the glittery stuff that fills it. They have missed the point entirely.

By the time Luke was writing this story, the Temple has been thrown down. The Romans have destroyed it, and Jerusalem with it. They have slaughtered hundreds of thousands, and dispersed the Jewish people to the winds. The scribes and the Sadducees have been destroyed. All that’s left is the Pharisees in the countryside, and this small band of Christians Jews. And they are all trying to understand what they are supposed to do without a Temple. The Temple was everything. It was the center of their relationship with God. It was their unity.

And Luke looks back to this day, this time just before Jesus died, when he was sitting with his disciples and teaching about the Temple, and finds words that help.

Maybe the disciples didn’t understand it when it was said, but now, as the people are trying to make sense of their world without the Temple, now they can look back and see that there is more going on than they understood, that this Jesus was not the Messiah they were looking for, but he was the Messiah God sent. And they’re starting to get the point.

There’s a poem by Percy Shelley called Ozymandias. In it, the poet describes a desert scene: In the middle of a vast wasteland stands a huge pedestal with a pair of stone legs broken off at the top. Nearby, half-sunk in the sand is the face that once sat on the top of this statue, now broken and worn, but with the sneer of cold command still visible, so that when you see it, you know how proud the king was who once ordered this statue of himself to be placed here. And in case we were in doubt, the inscription on the pedestal reads

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

A great king, who once thought he was the supreme ruler of all, who ordered crowds and commanded legions, who believed that his works were the most enduring and mighty of all, so that they would drive all other pretenders to despair. That he alone could unify the people of the world. And now it stands in ruins, in the middle of the desert. The final lines of the poem tell us

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

In Jerusalem today, there is a place where you can see the original stones of the Temple. They are taller and wider than any human. Standing in front of them, it is hard to imagine how they were ever placed there without the help of industrial machines. The Temple was once among the greatest human achievements ever. And now, like the statue of Ozymandias, it is a ruin. Are you starting to get the point?

This is what Jesus is telling them, telling Luke’s community, telling us. Human achievements are not going to last. Whether it is a statue, or a Temple, or a wall, or a nation. Human achievements are not our salvation. They are not our hope. A Temple will not redeem us. And an election will not condemn us.

All those things will pass away, just as surely as Ozymandias and the Temple did. But in the meantime, Jesus says, we will have an opportunity to testify. We will have an opportunity to stand together as a community of Christ, and our building and our ministry and our human endeavors will be in service to that testimony. Testimony to that which unifies us, to something much bigger than our human endeavors, much bigger than our building or our congregation or even our community. The call that Jesus issues is a call to testify, not to the might of the Temple or to the beauty of the stones or to the wonder of the gifts dedicated there. The call is to testify to the Kingdom of God. Because whatever happens to the Temple or the statues or the stones or the human endeavors, we have a promise that we are bound together, not by our achievements or our earthly allegiances, but by our God.

Our God who continues to break into our world, in both simple and profound ways.

This is the Christian life: looking for the places where God’s kingdom is breaking in. Naming these places, and making space for them.

So I encourage you, as Paul encouraged the Thessalonians, “do not be weary in doing what is right.” It would be understandable if you are weary. It is a natural reaction to seeing the level of anger, hatred and vitriol that has spiraled out of control. Weariness is a normal reaction to the grief of burying a friend, to the trauma Rosie and Jacque and their friends and our town have experienced to losing a battle with city hall after two years. When that spreads throughout the nation as it has this week, it is reasonable to want to withdraw and take shelter from the storm. That is what the Thessalonians did. Expecting Jesus to show up any second, they withdrew, they sheltered in place, and they stopped proclaiming God’s in-breaking kingdom. But Paul told them, as I tell you, “do not be weary.” This is the time to testify, not to ourselves, not to our building, not to our achievements, but to Christ, who is God’s in-breaking kingdom in this world.

When the psalmist
says that God will judge the world with righteousness and equity, it is Christ. This is God’s judgment on the world, God’s Word made flesh, dwelling among us and dying for us. When Isaiah says that God is about to create a new heaven and a new earth, it is Christ. The new heaven and the new earth are being created again each and every day, when we rise again in Christ, freed from our sins, freed from our fears, freed from our need to save ourselves with our own human endeavors.

As Christians, this is how we view the world: through the lens of Christ; through the incarnation – the God who has come to us to be with us even in the midst of our despair; through the cross – the God who has given the Son to die for us rather than turning to the ways of violence and oppression; through the empty tomb – the God who has stolen the power from violence and oppression, and turned even the most violent of acts into God’s redeeming love.

Some days, it is really hard. We drop our Jesus glasses and we can only see through the lens that the world has taught us. The lens of fear, hatred, and violence. The lens that tells us that we have to be against one another, because people who are different from us are a threat. The lens that tells us that we are less worthy because of our age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, size, sin, shame, guilt, grief, or whatever other label has been fixed to us. On those days, and this week has been made up of a number of those days, we become weary. We shrink from the world and we begin to believe all those things. We begin to believe that we are too weak, too small, and too weary to make a difference.

But those hard days do not changimg_4495e the fact that God is still at work transforming this world. Starting with you. Starting today. Starting here. By virtue of your baptism, you have been made an ambassador of Christ. And this sanctuary where we gather is an embassy for God’s in-breaking kingdom. A sanctuary in every sense of the word. A safe space for each of us to be exactly who we have been made to be – made in the image of God, claimed for God’s Kingdom, and sent into service of the cross.

This is the moment to testify. This is the moment to open our hearts and our minds and our building and our community and Christ’s table to anyone who feels unsafe, to anyone who feels unheard, to anyone who feels that they have been labeled, to anyone who has lost hope, to the grieving and the frightened and the widow and the alien and the orphan, to anyone. All are welcome at this table, regardless of who they voted for, what they’ve been through,who they are. At this table we receive a foretaste of the feast to come, Jesus Christ is the host at this table, and all are welcome in his name.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s