Last Saturday afternoon, in my role as president of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Newark, I attended a service out in Livingston, New Jersey, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The reason I was asked to be there in an official capacity was because this was not just an ordinary celebration of the eucharist. No, this was the final worship of this congregation. Declining attendance and lack of funds, accelerated and exacerbated by 20 months of pandemic, had led these faithful people to conclude that their time as the congregation known as St. Peter’s was coming to an end.
This does not mean, however, that their existence as a church is coming to an end. As a body, they are considering joining with another nearby Episcopal parish and making arrangements for the continuation of a thrift shop that has been around longer than I have. Ministries continue even though the place in which they have worshipped will be no more.
At the end of Mark 12, Jesus witnesses an impoverished widow giving all that she had into the temple treasury and remarks upon it, less I think, as a commendation of her faith than as an indictment of a temple system that would receive her offering without making provision for her care. And as Chapter 13 opens, we read
“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” (13:1-2)
Jesus is having none of it. Y’all think this building is so great and indestructible? Just you wait. None of this will be left standing. According to the 1st c. Jewish historian Josephus, this Second Temple was not just any old building. Refurbished and restructured by Herod the Great, the stones Jesus is referring to were 40 feet long, 12 feet high, and 18 feet wide. How on earth would it not stand forever? But it didn’t. It was destroyed by Rome in the year 70. But I’m not sure that fulfilled a prediction by Jesus. I think Jesus was referring to something much more immediate.
This apocalyptic announcement by Jesus surely must have sounded like bad news. The disciple who commented on the magnificence of the temple could be any one of us walking into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine or Notre Dame de Paris or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. So huge. So overwhelming in size and scale. So impermanent, a reality brought home like a dagger when Notre Dame burned a couple of years ago and came within a hair’s breadth of collapsing.
A little later, speaking with just the four disciples closest to him, Jesus goes on to describe the turmoil that is coming, nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom. Earthquakes and famines. And then he says the most curious thing: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (13:8). Jesus, in the last few days of his life describing in this apocalyptic vision not an ending but a beginning. A birth. Because Jesus knows that the tomb is not the end of the story. The tomb is not really a tomb at all. It is a womb. It is the place from which new life bursts forth. There is no resurrection without it.
During the Prayers of the People at the service in Livingston last week, the bishop invited the people gathered to name aloud those people through whose blood, sweat, and tears St. Peter’s had grown and thrived over the years; the ministries they built; the events they celebrated; the saints they buried. All those people who, for decades, had contributed of their time and talent and treasure to the glory of God, building a building and furnishing it with candlesticks and an altar and prayer books and hymnals and stained glass and all the other things that beautify our worship. All those people who made sacrifices to make sure that the children were raised up in the church and the thrift shop had volunteers.
And I was reminded of a comment by a friend and colleague who serves out in Tucson who wrote
Giving doesn’t make you a Saint.
But Saints are never those who don’t give.
Our whole common life is built upon the lives and witness of the Saints. Every word of scripture comes to us from them. Acts of mercy, forgiveness, and love are their legacy. Great buildings and small missions and whole nations have been built by them.
Hymns we sing. Prayers we pray. Liturgies we celebrate. Artwork we revere. Anthems and requiems and motets that stir and inspire us.
In our place, it’s the columbarium garden. The fishpond garden. The Altar. The artwork. The bell, the tower, the labyrinth, and the quiet garden. The organ, the baptismal font, and the candlesticks.
Everything we enjoy together. Every morsel of Bread we take on Sundays. Every sip of Wine. Every meal we make possible in our food bank. Everything we do, are, and aspire to be as the Church is given to us because Saints gave. Saints sacrificed and followed the call of Christ to love.
Giving doesn’t make you a Saint.
But Saints have never been those who don’t give.
The saints of St. Peter’s gave to create a church that lives on in new ways, in a resurrected life that is still unfolding before them.
The saints of All Saints – of Holy Innocents and St. Paul’s and Trinity Church – left us a rich legacy of beautiful buildings and a tradition of service in this community that is ours to continue. As we dedicate our pledges for the coming year, the promises we make of money and time and talent, we are standing on the shoulders of all the saints who came before us.
No, we are not in any danger of closing our doors. But as we prepare to fully open them again, we are likely to feel some birth pangs. Things may not look or feel like they did before. Some of those we knew may no longer be around. You are likely to see some new faces you don’t recognize. But remember, we aren’t in a tomb; we’re in a womb, springing forth into the new life that God promises. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews urges
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for [the one] who has promised is faithful (10:23)
 With gratitude to the Rev. Robert Hendrickson, Rector of St. Philip’s in the Hills, Tucson.