A middle aged man goes to see his doctor for a physical. At the end of the examination, he asks, “Well Doc, do you think I’ll live to be a hundred years old?”
“Let’s see,” the doctor said, “do you smoke?”
“No,” the man said, “absolutely not. Never.”
Doc: “OK then, do you drink?”
Man: “Not a single drop in my entire life.”
Doc: “Do you eat a lot of sugary or fatty foods?”
Man: “No way! I’ve always been very careful about what I eat.”
Doc: “Do you drive very fast?”
Man: “Never! I always drive 5 miles an hour below the speed limit, just to be sure.”
Doc: “I don’t quite know how to ask this one, but have you had a lot of girlfriends?”
Man: “Absolutely not. I’m celibate and I’ve been celibate for my entire life.”
Doc: “Then why on earth would you want to live to be a hundred?!”
Why indeed. You and I live in a culture that has mastered the art of denying death. Everything from anti-aging cream to plastic surgery is designed to keep us from facing the reality of our own mortality. Consumer advertising and commercial television keeps us distracted from thinking about death until we absolutely cannot avoid it anymore. At that point, if we so choose, they can give us drugs that will “make us as comfortable as possible,” effectively tuning us out until our bodies stop functioning. Our culture’s goal, it would seem, is to first ignore and finally numb the dying process so that we won’t ever have to come to grips with it.
Of course, the wisest among us don’t wait until that point to reflect upon their own mortality. They find their own way to accept it and even make peace with it. For these people, thinking about death doesn’t have to be something dark or morbid. In fact, it can give their lives a sense of meaning and purpose. People who know and accept the fact that they are going to die live with a conscious awareness that they have a finite amount of time on this earth and it’s up to them to make the most of it.
If you knew that you only had a week, month, or year to live, how would you choose to spend that time? What do you want your life to stand for? When other people look back at your life, what would you want them to remember about you? These are the questions that a wise person asks in the face of mortality.
When we accept that this life will not last forever, we realize that it cannot be an end in itself. Like the man in the joke, we have to ask ourselves: what’s the point of living to be a hundred years old if all you’re going to do is eat Brussels sprouts? The truly wise among us realize that life cannot last forever, therefore the truly wise among us also realize that each life must be lived for something larger than itself. Every mortal life, it seems, is a means to an end.
In spite of our culture’s death-denying attempts to distract or numb us, each of us has probably known, met, or heard about at least one person who made his or her mortal life meaningful by dedicating it to something larger than himself or herself. We tend to respect or admire such people when we meet them. Their examples might even inspire us to look more deeply at our own lives, face our mortality in new ways, and discover meaningful possibilities within us that we hadn’t noticed before. It’s a beautiful thing when that happens.
However, it’s at this point that our cultural programming kicks back in and tends to shut us off toward the next step in our development. Our culture is so individualistic that we don’t even think about the larger social bodies of which we are a part. We tend to stop with ourselves and not notice how it is that an awareness of mortality applies to larger realities.
People are mortal. We know that. We accept that fact, at least theoretically, even if we choose to ignore it for our entire lives. However, not many of us stop to think about other things that share our mortality. These things might last much longer than we do, but they too will one day fade from existence. Families are mortal. Surnames and lineages come to an end through a lack of offspring. Churches and other faith communities are mortal. There comes a point when dwindling membership and a lack of funds causes an institution to close its doors. The same thing is true of entire religions at large. There are very few people on this planet who continue to worship the gods of Mount Olympus in the same way that they were worshiped by Greeks in centuries past. Nations are mortal. The Roman Empire was once the dominant superpower in the world, unlike anything else that had come before it. Where is the great Roman Empire today? Buried under the rubble of history and preserved in ruins frequented by tourists in Bermuda shorts. Species are mortal. Dinosaurs no longer roam the earth like they did 65 million years ago. Finally, even the planets and stars are mortal. One day, our very own sun will burn up all of its hydrogen fuel and explode into a violent supernova, momentarily becoming the brightest star in some distant sky.
If coming to grips with our own individual mortality is difficult, accepting the mortality of families, churches, species, and stars feels almost impossible. Yet, the same truth applies to these larger mortal beings that first applied to mortal human beings: it is in facing mortality that we find meaning.
Let’s look at this idea in relation to this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The story opens as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the great Jerusalem temple, the epicenter of Jewish worship in the first century CE. Jesus, as usual, is walking away from yet another fight with the established religious leaders of his day. In the previous chapter, chapter 12, you can read about Jesus butting heads with representatives from almost every major Jewish sect and community: Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and temple scribes. The conflict between Jesus and the organized religion of his day had reached such a boiling point that Jesus, in his frustration, was about ready to give up on it. When this morning’s passage opens with him leaving the temple, he’s not just out for a stroll, he’s right in the middle of storming out in a huff.
It’s at this point that Jesus’ disciples, in their usual tactless and somewhat dimwitted manner, decide to stop and admire the lovely architecture of this religious icon and national monument of Judaism. They say of the temple, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus is unimpressed. He says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
He’s talking about mortality of the temple: this central symbol of religious and national identity for the Jewish people. They were under the impression that this sacred building would stand forever under divine protection. For them, the temple was immortal. It was an end in itself as a center of worship. The idea had never occurred to them that it might not be there one day.
As it turns out, Jesus’ prediction was spot-on. The Jerusalem temple, like any human being, was mortal. It was eventually burned to the ground by the Romans during an uprising in the year 70 CE. It was never rebuilt. The site where it once stood is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred places in Islamic religion.
The destruction of the temple was unthinkable to the average Jew, but to Jesus it was inevitable. The wisdom of Jesus did not stop with an awareness of his own individual mortality, but extended to embrace the mortal and finite nature of all things. Just as it was for individuals, so it is for temples, religions, countries, species, planets, and stars: to face mortality is to find meaning.
If our great struggle in life is limited to ensuring the continued existence of particular people, places, institutions, or things, then we have already doomed ourselves to failure. Nothing lasts forever. We need to accept that. What Jesus said about the Jerusalem temple, we could say about anything: ““Do you see these? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” All things are mortal.
The sooner we realize this truth, the sooner we can get on with the business of asking the really important questions about existence in reality. Concerning our individual selves, we can ask: “What am I living for? What will people remember about me when I’m gone? What will be my lasting contribution to the world around me or the universe as a whole? What is the meaning of my life?”
We can ask these same questions about our mortal families or this mortal country. The day will come when the United States, like the Roman Empire, will only exist as a chapter in a history book. Accepting the inevitability of this fact, we need to ask ourselves as Americans: “When that day comes, what will that chapter say?”
As Christians, we can also ask these same questions about our church, our denomination, and our religion as a whole. We need to get over this ego-centric idea that God will protect and preserve us from our own collective mortality. Just look at the way Christianity itself has changed over the last two thousand years. We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that the Christianity we practice is identical in faith and form to the Christianity practiced by the Apostle Paul or St. Augustine of Hippo. We identify ourselves as Presbyterians, but if John Knox and John Calvin (the founders of Presbyterianism) were sitting in this church right now, they would be horrified by much of what they would see. Likewise, if a Christian from the year 2412 were to time travel into this sanctuary right now, that person’s faith would likely seem so foreign to us that we wouldn’t even want to call it ‘Christian’ at all. Just as Paul and Calvin have shaped us, our faith will shape the future long after we are gone and the pressing crises of our era have ceased to be relevant concerns. What will be our lasting contribution to that future?
Finally, as members of this church, I think we need to ask these questions about our mortal congregation. This little church has been in Boonville for over two hundred years. We take great pride in our history and our building. Maintaining the integrity and beauty of this place is a chief concern for many people in this room. But all of us together need to hear Jesus saying to us what he said about his own temple: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” This place, this building, and this congregation are all mortal. They will not last forever. “All will be thrown down,” as Jesus said. If our only motivation in coming here week after week is to keep the doors open and the lights on, then we’ve already failed. We’re like the man in the joke at the beginning of this sermon: we have no reason to live for another hundred years. Wise individuals live with a conscious awareness of their inevitable death and then adjust their lives accordingly, so as to make them as rich and meaningful as possible. It is no different with wise churches.
This church will die eventually. Whether it’s in ten years or another hundred years, it will happen. We need to remember that. We need to embrace that truth for ourselves so that we, as a church, can make the most of the time we’ve been given right now. Knowing that this church will one day die and “not one stone will be left here upon another,” we need to ask ourselves, “Why are we here? What is this church living for? What will be our lasting contribution to the life of this community after our doors are closed and our lights shut off forever? What is the meaning of our life together, as a church?” Those are the real questions that we need to be asking, not just once for a special project or a mission study, but continually. We need to set these questions before our eyes like a carrot dangling in front of a horse during a race. These are the questions that need to drive us, propel us, or perhaps lure us forward into the future.
As we explore these questions within the conscious awareness of our church’s impending death (whenever that will happen), I believe we’ll start to see a slow-motion miracle in progress. Even as we are facing and embracing death, I believe that we will also start to experience a kind of resurrection. It’s been my experience and observation that the most vibrant, active, and growing churches are the ones who have found their reason for being, the meaning of their existence, outside themselves. These churches are passionate about spiritual growth and community service. Their members gather together, Sunday after Sunday, not to maintain what they have, but to seek what they desire. There is a yearning deep within such people for “something more.” They are hungry for silence, prayer, scripture, and sacrament. They long to deepen their connection with the sacred mystery of divine love. This love, in turn, leads them out, away from the church and into the streets of this community where love demands to be shared with hurting people through compassionate word and deed. This is my vision of a church that faces mortality and finds meaning. When the day comes that “not one stone will be left here upon another,” such a church will live on in a state of resurrection, even if our doors are closed, our lights shut off, and our roof caved in. Even then, even if our church dies, it will live.
As a church, as individuals, as a country, and as a species, may we be people who live with a consciousness of death. May we face mortality and find meaning. In the midst of these piles of rubble, where stones have been thrown down from the broken remnants of our sacred temples, may we walk together the path of our own, continual, slow-motion resurrection, following in the footsteps of the Living Christ, the Risen One in our midst, the faithful friend who abides with us and guides us on our way.