The arc of the moral universe… Sunday 33, Year B (18 November 2012)

1 Samuel 1.4-20
Mark 13.1-8

Some of us are going on a tour of the Holy Land next year. I’m getting ready to be seriously impressed by the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple’s courtyard. It is all that’s left of the Jerusalem temple that Jesus knew; the rest of it was utterly destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. The Western Wall isn’t much compared to the temple in all its glory, but it still impresses to this very day.

So we can understand one of Jesus’ followers exclaiming,

Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!

Of course, the temple would have seemed just simply staggering to a hick from the backblocks of Galilee.

But Jesus had had quite enough of the temple. He replied,

Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.

No wonder Jesus was all ‘templed-out’. You’ve got to remember the week he’d just had. It started when he drove the money changers out of the temple, declaring:

Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.

Then day after day he had discussion (argument!) after discussion (argument!!) with the religious leaders about marriage and divorce, death and resurrection, paying taxes to Caesar and who was John the Baptist. Jesus won all these arguments, which just made the leaders angrier and angrier with him. And all the more determined to put him away for good.

And then the poor widow came along. She put a pittance into the temple treasury—two tiny coins which were everything she had.

And why did she have so little? Because of the way widows were left on the social and financial scrapheap by everyone. Including the temple system, including the scribes, who grew fat on widows’ misfortune.

No, Jesus could see the temple’s end coming. This state of affairs couldn’t continue. It would be ended one day. A judgement would come. The Romans would put an end to the unrest that was brewing. And that’s what they did, almost forty years after Jesus spoke these words.

This reminds me of words that were spoken by the prophet Rev. Dr Martin Luther King in our own day—well, in 1965:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Tyrants eventually fall. Injustice crumbles under the weight of its own inconsistencies. It may not happen straight away, it may take longer than our lifetime, but it will happen. Justice is God’s purpose—‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.

The temple system institutionalised injustice. It fell.

The Berlin Wall was built in the early 1960s. When I was young, we thought it would stay there for the rest of our lives. Yet in November 1989, it came to pass that the people themselves demolished it with sledgehammers, hammers and chisels, whatever they could get their hands on.

Seemingly-invulnerable institutions like state Communism can fall.

Martin Luther King was right: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.

We saw the same kind of thing with the Apartheid system in South Africa. We now have the pleasure of watching South Africa play cricket, with players like Vernon Philander, Hashim Amla and Alviro Petersen. I can remember when South Africa was banned from Test Cricket because of its Apartheid policies (and it was easier for Australia to be on top!).

Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.

Jesus sits ‘opposite’ this huge temple; he takes a position opposing it, even though he is dwarfed by it. Yet Jesus isn’t daunted; he can see its days are numbered. The temple just can’t go on. It’s still the same today—the arc of the moral universe may be long, but corrupt institutions are doomed, and corruption within institutions will not go on unchallenged.

This week, the Federal Government has said that a royal commission into child abuse will be set up that will cover all religious institutions, state-based organisations, schools and not-for-profit groups such as scouts and sporting clubs.

Some huge, impressive institutions seem to be firmly in the firing line, particularly the Roman Catholic Church.

‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’… Are we looking at something else that will be torn down? That seems hardly likely. For a start, the churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, are not evils in the same way that Apartheid was, or that state Communism was. The churches are a source of much good that happens in the world. Most priests are not child abusers; those that are should be dealt with by the police.

But what about a culture of cover up? What about institutional defensiveness? To the extent that this exists in any church or other institution, it needs to reform or be reformed. Even if ‘not one stone will be left upon another…’, the evil must be addressed and rooted out.

The Uniting Church has welcomed this royal commission. Our church has committed itself ‘to working openly and transparently with the royal commission’.

So should we be worried about what is to come? We should certainly pray. We should pray for the commissioners, whoever they may be. We should pray for those who have suffered abuse, who may suffer even more. We should pray for their abusers, and for those in authority. To borrow the words of our church’s press release, we should pray that ‘the royal commission will provide an opportunity for healing, justice and reconciliation for all those who have suffered’.

What follows this royal commission is of supreme importance. But you know, for Christians it’s more than that. We’re not just looking for a good result. We are hoping for a sign of God’s kingdom breaking into the present. We’re looking for a glimpse of the new creation. We are hoping for something new to be born out of the pain.

Isn’t that what we see in God’s creation? A seed ‘dies’ to bring forth grain, a caterpillar ‘dies’ to bring forth a butterfly?

Isn’t that what Jesus teaches us in his death and resurrection? The death of all hope on the cross becomes a new birth to resurrection life on the third day.

A new ‘birth’ is the clue. What did Jesus say when he sat opposite the temple?

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

The wars and the famines aren’t the end. The end is still coming. ‘Do not be alarmed,’ he says, for these tumultuous events are

but the beginning of the birthpangs.

I don’t doubt that the royal commission will prove to be a difficult time for the Catholic Church, and by extension for the rest of us too. Jesus says, ‘Do not be alarmed.’

What is happening when there are birthpangs, labour pains? Something is about to be born. It is God’s justice that is being born: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.

Do we really expect this to happen? Can a royal commission really produce God’s justice? If we expect the royal commission to be the ‘final answer’, then we’ll be disappointed. But if good things come out of it, then something of the justice of God, the kingdom of God, will break into the present time and bring just a little more light into our present darkness.

Sometimes, the old has to die for the new to be born. Does that sound scary, even threatening? It’s not meant to. Just as a caterpillar ‘dies’ to become a butterfly, just as Jesus literally died to be raised to eternal life, so we may believe and pray that some more justice, reconciliation and healing will come from the royal commission. Amen.

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Filed under Church & world, church year, RCL, sermon, Uniting Church in Australia

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