Nov 28 | “When monuments fall,” (Sermon, Advent 1 2021)

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 â€˜Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

Luke 21:25-36

There is something so special about coming home to the west coast after a long trip. Whether the time away is two weeks or two years, to be greeted by the art of Bill Reid at the Vancouver airport; to drive home through rain or rare sunlight and drink in the vastness of the ocean, whispering cedar trees, moss carpeting old growth branches and forest floors, and the cobalt embrace of those mountains is powerful and comforting.

I think of the particular delight I felt many years ago after coming home from nine months living in the UK and seeing how big those trees were. Surrounded by the broads, marshes, and comparatively friendly woods of Norfolk, I’d forgotten how big trees could be. I’d forgotten the haunting chill at the base of my spine that accompanied the early morning call of a raven; the smell of the sea that sometimes met my nose six blocks from shore; the way a cloudy day could turn the landscape into a painting done entirely in shades of blue – a true Advent tapestry.

When I lived in England, the home that bore and nourished many of my ancestors, I felt tied to history through the landscape but also the architecture – public houses, town squares, churches, standing stones. Here, much of the ancestral architecture of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples has been lost to history or actively destroyed by settlers. Here, it’s elders that hold the stories, and the land itself. This is in keeping with God’s truth, for it is land that owns and keeps us, not the other way around. While so many of us believe that we are the supreme architects of civilization, the land silently builds us, cell by cell, until it is permitted through the grace of God to unbuild us, to repurpose us again.

On this day when we’re walking into Advent, the season of prophecy, and celebrating 45 years of women’s ordination in the Anglican Church of Canada, I share words from Bishop Yvette Flunder, pastor of the City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland, in a 2017 sermon titled “From Monuments to Movements.” As she reflects on her life in California she says,

“The San Andreas Fault yawns and moves and stretches consistently and constantly because we are upon a living earth. We build dead buildings on a living earth. And our history tells us no matter how fabulous and magnificent we build our architectural renowned structures and monuments, they are dead structures on a living earth, and they can be utterly destroyed in seconds by a certain kind of seismic event. Even our monuments have to respect our movement.”

She goes on to briefly talk about how buildings in California are retrofitted for earthquakes, saying,

“We try to make a building act like living things act. Palm trees know what to do. When the earth shakes, the palm trees lay down and then they come back up, because they have roots, and because they are living in a place indigenously. Even with everything we do, with the multiple billions of dollars we spent in San Francisco, some of our buildings still fail because the earth is a mighty living thing. Those of us that are of the church and in whichever way we acknowledge and worship the divine, we must know the difference between being a monument and a movement.”

In today’s Gospel, in response to a crowd admiring the stonework of the Temple, Jesus says, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Scholars of history know that this proved correct. The Temple was razed to the ground in 70 CE, Rome’s retaliation for the brave revolt of the Jewish people against imperial rule. Of course, what brought down that monument was not earth but Empire. The glory of Solomon, a beacon to Jews for five hundred years, a monument built to celebrate the incredible resilience of a movement, was reduced to rubble by the Romans, who stole the spoils of the temple, including its holy vessels and sacred menorah, to finance the building of the Colosseum in Rome.

The Gospel of Luke was composed after the destruction of the Temple, while conversations about why God would allow such a horrific act were getting heated. The infant church was beginning its long and painful split from Judaism, which poured love and work and scholarship into the movement that had always shored up the precious monument of the Temple. A monument is not an inherently bad thing, but a movement will always outlast a monument. In this prophecy of Jesus, the writer of Luke shows us a man who, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel before him, confers a sacred meaning to tragedy. Movements can stand up to earth and Empire because they are led by prophets.

And indeed Jesus also says that the land itself will become a prophet. There will be signs in the heavenly bodies and the sea. He tells the crowd that just as they would look to fig trees to know the season – and they would have, as people of the land – so they can look to the world around them to predict what is to come. “When you see these things taking place,” he says, “you know that the Kingdom of God is near.”

And friends, latter-day children of Jesus’s message, what do we see?

Many who have come in the name of the Lord claiming to be our saviours, who only lead us astray.

Wars and insurrections.

Earthquakes, famines, and plagues.

Arrests and persecution of righteous seekers of justice. Corrupt court systems that punish them while allowing oppressors and murderers to go free.

Betrayal, splitting of families along political lines.

Cities and wilderness surrounded by armies, overrun with police who tear-gas and beat and abduct the citizens they’re meant to serve and protect.

Signs in the sun – heat domes, infernos, drought. The roaring of the sea – floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes.

The Jewish people could not by any means have stopped the juggernaut of the Roman Empire from shattering their beloved monument to God’s unending salvation.

Our earth, never a monument but a living thing, is now beginning to treat us, humanity, like a monument, shaking us, scorching us, flooding and drowning us, leaving us homeless, not in spite of us but specifically because of us and our actions, because we consistently refuse to turn aside from our monuments, monuments which, unlike the Temple, glorify greed rather than God. Empire shattered that monument, but Earth is shattering ours. A prophet can topple Empire. A handful of them can even topple something as monumental as a doctrine enshrining thousands of years’ worth of church-sanctioned sexism.

But there’s no toppling this planet. It’s our home.

Is there no good news to be had?

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Already there are people standing up and speaking out. Just as prophets within the church and in every time and place challenged Empires and authorities, the Indigenous peoples of the world and our children and grandchildren are leading us.

They are the living sign. Our redemption is drawing near.

There are as many ways to respond to the call to climate justice as there are people on this planet, and you know the ones to which you are called. If you don’t, pray. It will come to you. I trust you. I trust that God speaks to you, and will tell you what to do.

Bishop Yvette says, “Our history is filled with monuments. Thank God for earthquakes.”

In this season of Advent, we herald with hope everything that is to come: life, peace, joy, and love. When the procession passes by on its way to a new earth, led by prophets and children and gods who do ridiculous things like clothe themselves with precious human flesh, will we join in their song, and will we follow?

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