A sermon preached at St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church, Times Square

November 17, 2004

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church
New York, New York
November 14, 2004

Readings: Malachi 3:13-4:2A,5-6; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

A Zen Buddhist haiku has followed me over the years. It runs, “My storehouse having burnt down, nothing obscures the light of the moon.” From time to time our self-constructed selves, our certitudes, the stabilities which constitute our lives and give us a sense of wellbeing, purpose and safety fall apart, collapse, and we are left defenseless, naked and dispossessed. Our storehouse, in which we have piled high all the things that feed our ego and nourish our self worth, is burnt to the ground. And yet the loss, paradoxically, opens the way to new vision, a new way of seeing and perceiving ourselves: no longer does what we have built and amassed, defended and protected, obscure the light of the moon. That larger reality that transcends us, surrounds us and upholds us we name as God, know is the face of Jesus Christ and experience as the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Our readings this morning present us with several “storehouses.” The first is the day of the Lord which was thought of in the time of the ancient prophets as a day, a time, in which God would vindicate the children of Israel and punish and destroy all their enemies. No matter what indignities Israel suffered at the hands of others, the day of the Lord would be a time of national triumph and an unequivocal demonstration of God’s favor for his chosen people.

Malachi, whose words we have just heard, and other prophets as well, deconstructed the day of the Lord and undermined the way in which it was popularly understood. A day of national vindication? Not at all: a day of judgment focused upon Israel itself and not simply her enemies. The day of the Lord will involve, Malachi tells us, distinguishing between “the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and the one who does not serve him.” What the prophet is saying to his fellow Israelites is: Don’t fool yourselves! There is no assurance of divine favor. There is no protection in the day of the Lord other than the quality of your life: your pedigree, your status, your being counted among the chosen are no guarantees. All must be subjected to the purifying and transforming love of God whom the Letter to the Hebrews describes as a “consuming fire.”

And yet, it is in that very act of purification by fire – the fire of God’s ruthlessly gentle love – that the moon appears, or in the words of Malachi, “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”

In the gospel for today we have another storehouse, the temple in Jerusalem “adorned with noble stones and offerings.” The temple: the focal point and source of Israel’s self identity. The temple seemingly permanent, its grandeur such after its rebuilding that no one could imagine Jerusalem and the nation without it. And yet, anticipating its destruction in the year 70 or possibly reflecting it, Luke reports Jesus saying, “the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

If ever there was a storehouse, a repository of hopes and aspirations, of assurances of divine favor, of personal and corporate identity, it was surely the temple, the dwelling place of God’s glory. And yet, here was one who dared to predict, if not almost call for, its destruction.

Though obedient to the traditions of his people, including worship in the temple, Jesus was well aware in his preaching and in his parables of the danger of religious practices and ritual becoming ends in themselves and leading nowhere other than to self-congratulation; thereby providing more for the storehouse and perhaps even requiring a special wing.

This having been said, no matter how careful we are about managing our lives, things have a way of falling apart and our storehouse burns down, not once, but again and again. Very little in life is permanent or unchanging: jobs that seemed secure are “restructured” out of existence; relationships that were thought to endure wane and dissolve; bodies which were thought to be indestructible are beset by illness and age; and indeed the church which worships the one who is without change, reveals itself again and again as highly changeable.

Here I am reminded that I first came to St. Mary’s some 50 years ago as a callow youth who had been fed a very rich diet of Anglo-Catholicism by several members of the clergy who were on the faculty of the Episcopal boarding school I attended. Also my roommate and his family were members here. He would tell me tales of serving early Mass for Father Taber and how he would tickle himself with the pompom on Father Taber’s biretta in order to keep himself awake. Well, biretta are gone and many other things as well. And over the years, as I look back, so much of what I thought unchangeable about the church and myself in relationship to it has burnt to the ground.

What has emerged and is still emerging is a sense of God as lovingly paradoxical, ambiguous, playful, ironic, wry with an unerring ability to undermine whatever storehouses my ego constructs. Nothing is safe or off limits to God no matter how mundane or seemingly trivial or high flown and sacred. The divine imagination knows no bounds and the ways of God’s love for us can appear strange and unsettling and very painful as St. John of the Cross, and many others, have known and know only too well. “God, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few,” exclaimed St. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross’s contemporary and colleague. I will confess that, after the example of St. Teresa, I have on occasion used similar words myself or at least thought them.

And yet, looking back at the various structures – temples – of thought and understanding I have constructed along the way – about myself and others, my relationship to God and God’s relationship to me, the church and the world – it is very clear that every de-construction, as difficult as it might be to face and to live through, contains the possibility, if only we will look up, of seeing the moon or the sun of righteousness rise with healing in its wings.

Here I am put in mind of Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The paradox is that we find by losing which makes sense only in the living of it. It is only when one sees the moon that one realizes that the storehouse was an obstruction.

St. John of the Cross speaks about going through the dark night of the soul in which everything is stripped away including all sense of consolation in God’s presence, and we are obliged to travel on by faith, hope and love – love in this instance is not a matter of emotion but of the will. “By your endurance you will gain your souls,” Jesus declares at the end of today’s gospel. There are times when endurance is the only expression we can give of our faith, hope and love in the face of loss – a temple destroyed, a storehouse burnt down, a self-construction undone.

We do not, however, endure on our own. God in Christ is always with us in the Holy Spirit even though we may feel abandoned and alone. The sacramental life of the church, which this parish has so boldly proclaimed over the years, and particularly the eucharist, is the constant reminder in all seasons and circumstances that we are ultimately companioned by the one who says, “this is my body, eat; this is my blood, drink.” The one who endured the cross is with us in all that we are called to endure – often as a silent companion whose gift to us is not assurance but courage to live what is at hand.

Then, at some moment, beyond expectation, comprehension and in marked contradiction to where we find ourselves the moon shines, the sun rises with healing in its wings and we are made whole not on our own terms so that we can erect a new storehouse, but made whole by God’s profligate and unbounded love in which we discover our freedom and our joy.

With this new awareness, this surprising discovery, our need for certitude diminishes as does our need to construct an edifice of our own righteousness and self-worth, and we begin to understand the words of the risen Christ to St. Paul when he prayed to be delivered from the shame of his self-perceived imperfection which he describes as a thorn in the flesh. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

As we prepare to begin in two weeks time a new church year, may we be given the grace to endure whatever de-construction and re-construction may life ahead, both in our own lives and in our life together as limbs of Christ’s risen body in this curious and sometimes fractious yet truth seeking household of faith we call the Episcopal Church.

And may we, as a nation which has erected a vast temple in which to house our own self-interest, often at the expense of others, be given the grace to undergo a transformation of consciousness that allows us to see that the sun and the moon of God’s righteousness – God’s compassion – rises and sets over the whole world and all of its peoples calling us to a new moral value in which power takes the form of service which brings healing in its wings.

My storehouse having burnt down, nothing obscures the light of the moon.

Amen.