Twenty-fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, November 15, 2015
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
A fault line in the Atlantic Ocean tore through the seabed sending its shock waves toward the Iberian and African coastlines 260 years ago on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755. Directly in its path was the Portuguese city of Lisbon. At the time Lisbon was one of the wealthiest cities in the world and the capital of a vast global empire.
The earthquake measuring 9.0 or higher generated a tsunami that devastated the city within minutes. It was followed by a fire – sparked by candles that were lit in people’s homes – and turned the city into an inferno for days.
In his account of the cataclysmic disaster, Mark Molesky, an Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey provides us with an account of its impact on Western thought in his book, This Gulf of Fire. It is subtitled The Destruction of Lisbon or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason.
In a review of Molesky’s book Emily Cataneo, a freelance writer, points out that one of the most important legacies of the earthquake was the debate it provoked among those who sought to make sense of the tragedy. She writes: “In the years following the quake, theologians, politicians, writers, and philosophers all weighed in on pressing questions: How could a beneficent, all-powerful God permit a holocaust like this? Was God to blame for the earthquake or should thinkers focus solely on understanding the natural causes of earthquakes and tsunamis? Was Lisbon’s decadence . . . to blame?” (The Christian Science Monitor Weekly, Boston Massachusetts, November 16, 2015, page 40).
Three of the most influential thinkers of that time were Voltaire, Kant and Rousseau. There is no doubt there were those who took to heart Jesus’ response to disciples who wondered about the signs that would signal the end of the world as they knew it. “There will be earthquakes,” Jesus said. “Do not be alarmed; this (and other things) must take place, but (even then) the end is still to come” (Mark 13:7-8)
Voltaire, Kant, Rousseau and many, many others were profoundly affected by the destruction of Lisbon. In our own day and time, we too wonder about the signs. It would seem that nothing has changed over the last two and a half centuries.
There are wars and rumors of wars. Nations continue to rise up against nation, kingdom against kingdom. There are earthquakes and famines. Surely the disciples who were with Jesus the day he told them that the temple would be destroyed in their lifetime were convinced that the world, as they knew it, was coming to an end.
It was Peter, James, John and Andrew who asked Jesus privately about the signs that would signal that the end was near. First, he warned them about those who would lead them astray – perhaps a priest, perhaps a politician. Then he warned them about natural disasters.
It would seem that we live in similar times filled with our own challenges and doubts. We find our own faith battered by fear and the cynicism of others. Rather than trust in God’s steadfast and abiding love, we find ourselves overwhelmed by doubt and fear.
When I met Rodger Nishioka several years ago at a meeting in Honolulu, he was serving as an Associate Professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Nishioka’s own observation about what happened that day when Jesus left the temple bears scrutiny in light of what we see occurring in our world today.
“As Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple, the disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ (Mark 13:1) as if to suggest that the stones and the buildings appear immovable. Nishioka writes, “Jesus startles them with his prediction that even the great stones that form the temple will one day be thrown down. As they sit together on the Mount of Olives gazing at the magnificent temple, the disciples must have found Jesus’ words troubling, if even a little hard to imagine.” (Feasting on the Word, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2009, page 210).
Jesus tells the disciples not to be worried and sets before them a way they are to live in the days ahead. He cautions them to not be preoccupied with the destruction of the temple or the end of the world.
It would seem that we are no less tempted to focus all of our attention on the end of the world. But Jesus sets for us a way to live.
Amid whatever death or despair may envelop our world and amid the desolation and disease that may strike our own lives, we put our trust and hope in the One who is faithful. Whatever difficult times may come, they cannot outlast the God whom we have come to know in Jesus Christ.
In 2003, a commitment was made to restore the exterior walls of this church. When the church was first built it appeared as you see it today.
Because the mortar that was used to bind the lava rock together was melted coral, it began to deteriorate and turn into sand. There is no record of when it was decided to shore up the structure of this building by covering the outside walls with cement, but it was done.
Over time the cement began to buckle and break away from the wall. It was then that there was talk of restoring the exterior walls to their original condition. We learned that there was a new adhesive that could bind the coral and the lava rock without any deterioration.
When the restoration was completed in 2004, we began to wonder how those who first built this structure were able to find the lava rock needed for the walls you see surrounding us today. We knew about the location of a heiau or temple across the street.
Some say the wall of the heiau that faced the church was very high. Following the breaking of ‘ai kapu or eating ban in 1819, many of the heiau including the one located nearby, fell into disuse and disrepair.
In the decades that followed our Hawaiian ancestors must have felt like the world was coming to an end. Like the large stones of the temple in Jerusalem that fell, so it was that the large stones of the heiau here in Mākena also fell.
It would seem that the signs were all around them. They had already witnessed the catastrophic decline of the kanaka maoli within a generation. The native population dropped from over 800,000 to 40,000 following exposure to Western diseases.
In time they would see the loss of land through the Great Mahele or land division that led to private ownership. That was followed by the overthrow of Lili’uokalani in 1893 by American business interests and the loss of the nation.
The world as they knew it was coming to an end. Yet despite the signs of what was a series of apocalyptic occurrences in the life of our Hawaiian ancestors, by God’s grace, despair was transformed into hope and the emptiness was filled with new life.
I remember saying to an archaeologist who came by one day, “The lava rock had to come from somewhere. Could it be that it came from the heiau?” I asked.
He replied, “It is very likely.” Although there are no records to confirm that that was the case, we have cause to celebrate the very real possibility that the physical foundation of this church has been established upon the stones of an ancient heiau.
We also have cause to celebrate the spiritual foundation of the early church that is rooted in the affirmation of faith made by Peter. When Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peters answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16).
Jesus answered, “I tell you . . . on this rock, (upon this affirmation of faith) I will build my church.” So it is that the spiritual foundation of this church is the affirmation we share with Peter.
It is also the conviction we share with the psalmist: “In you, O Lord, we seek refuge; do not let us ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver us. Be a rock of refuge for us, a strong fortress to save us. You are indeed our rock and our fortress” (Adapted from Psalm 31:1-3).
We may look upon the conflicts and wars and the earthquakes and famines as what must take place before the world comes to an end. We may despair.
But the final word is not that all will come to an end. Instead, it is about a new beginning. Jesus said, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mark 13:8). Rather than be overwhelmed by despair, we hold fast to the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ. Amen.