2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
There are some words that just sound good, that are attractive all by themselves. A great example, which the Gospel reading especially brought to mind, is ‘penultimate’. It’s a fine old Latin word that means ‘next to the last’. Not the last, not the ultimate, but next to that, before that. The penultimate things are not the ultimate things, but the things that are a step down from them, things that come before them.
Penultimate is a great word to hear and ponder as we listen to these wonderful Biblical stories about the end of all things, about “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” and the day of the Lord burning like an oven, and how not one stone will be left upon another. We always hear stuff like this as we get close to Advent; it’s good for us, and these saying are really all about that little word.
Let’s start with the temple in Jerusalem. In the first century, the temple was absolutely the center of Jewish religion, history, culture, civilization and civic pride. It was a beautiful temple, one of the best in the region. Solomon himself had designed it, and King Herod had recently completely renovated it—making it quite a bit bigger and a whole lot more elaborate. In its thousand-year history, the Temple had never been as glorious, as extensive, or as popular as it was when Jesus and his disciples visited. In fact, it may have been the largest man-made structure in the world at that time. It was certainly seen as the ultimate thing in Israel—and as central, indeed indispensable, to the plan of God and the fate of the nation.
When Jesus and his disciples visited the temple for the first time, the disciples were like a bunch of tourists in the big city, staring around with their jaws hanging open, pointing at everything and saying “wow” a lot. Jesus isn’t quite as impressed, and he says two things about the Temple.
First, he predicts, quite correctly, that the Temple would soon be completely destroyed—that not one stone would be left upon another – which is exactly that the Romans did about 35 years later, after an unsuccessful Jewish rebellion.
That’s the first thing Jesus says. The second is more subtle. As he predicts the destruction of the temple, and the chaos that goes with it, Jesus also says, (again quite correctly) “the end will not follow immediately.” The temple will crumble, there will be problems, but things will go on pretty much as before. There will still be much to do. There will be people to help, and evil to resist, and prayers to say – just like before the Temple was destroyed. So, the temple falls, but “the end will not follow immediately”.
That must have been a hard thing to hear. It was almost impossible for anyone in Israel to imagine the destruction of the temple. What would be even harder to imagine was the destruction of the temple and the rest of the whole world not coming to an end right then. After all, everyone knew that the Temple was the ultimate thing, the final thing: if it went, everything else was sure to go, too.
But that was wrong. The Temple was not the ultimate thing after all, it was only one of the penultimate things, something that was next door to ultimate, maybe, but that’s all.
All of creation did not hang on it. The main thing, the one truly important and indispensable thing, is God, and what God is up to. Everything else is penultimate.
Recently, the vestry of the church voted to intentionally welcome LGBT people, people who the church has historically hurt, people that in order for us to be a truly welcoming we have to do more to reach out too. So, we displayed two pride symbols, a large flag that hangs directly outside our doors and a flag that is permanently affixed to our church sign. This has been a huge win for our church, a needed step forward and one that we will continue to support and take. And at the same time, for a small minority, it was too bold a step. Because of this the vestry voted to take down one of our two pride displays, the large flag directly outside our doors will come down at the end of the month and the smaller flag affixed to the church sign will remain.
I am going to be honest with you, this decision is really difficult for me because it is not something I agree with. While, I don’t agree with it, it is my understanding that the vestry voted this way in hopes of reaching a via media, a middle way. The vestry is writing a letter to the congregation about this so you will also be able to hear directly from them.
The via media, it is a latin phrase that means the middle way or the way between two extremes. This idea comes from the philosopher Aristotle who argued that when discussing and arguing about virtues meeting somewhere in the middle actually took more courage than sticking solely to your own side. This phrase was adopted by the church at the very beginning of Anglicanism when we, the Episcopal Church, were referred to as the via media between the Roman Catholic Church and the Puritan Church.
In recent theological discussions, the via media has grown into an understanding of holy middle ground. Because the argument from theologians is that the via media takes the christ on the left side and the christ on the right side and meets together in the middle, a place that is holy and sacred.
In this sacred middle ground, I hope that we find peace and move forward. Throughout the past two months, a few things have become clear: we need to start talking about the ways we can be more welcoming. As someone said in the listening session, “it is one thing to put up a flag, it is another to be ready to welcome all.” How can we be the welcoming church that we hope to be? And the second thing that has come to light is that even when we disagree we can still worship together and see the christ in the person across the aisle from us.
The Episcopal Church is changing. For some, change is really hard and for others, like me, this change has come slowly. The Episcopal Church has already made a public and bold statement that all are created in the image of God and welcomed in the leadership of the church. For years, we have proudly ordained LGBT people and in 2015 we redefined marriage. The Episcopal Church no longer defines marriage as between a man and a woman but rather between two loving adults. These are the Canons or the Laws of the church and this is the direction the church has taken. Taking down a pride flag does NOTHING to change the direction of the church and it says NOTHING about the humanity of LGBT people. I know there will be people who will be deeply hurt by this flag coming down next week and I want to honor that place of hurt. Like I said, this is also really hard for me.
Ultimately, though, this is all penultimate. God has already spoken on this matter when we were all created in the image of God. Taking down one of our two pride flags won’t change the love of God and it won’t erase the christ in us. We have a difficult road ahead of us because there has been deep hurt on both side and today doesn’t erase that, taking down the flag won’t change that. At some point we have to move forward and walk boldly ahead into the church God is calling us to be, not the church of the past. Let us come to the via media and see for ourselves what the sacred middle ground can be.