Sunday, March 4, 2018

No Walls: Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

A good friend of mine, Deacon Kevin McGrane, shared an awesome little story on Facebook earlier this week. The story goes like this:

St. Peter and Gabriel the Archangel had a puzzle on their hands. Peter, as the keeper of the keys of heaven, was doing his job, sorting people out when they showed up at the Pearly Gates, letting some in, and keeping others out. The problem was, Gabriel kept encountering some of the very people Peter had given the thumbs down to later, walking around the golden shiny streets of Heaven, bold as you please. Gabriel would take their names, then go check back with Peter. Sure enough, Peter would swear up and down he had given a bunch of them the old heave-ho.

Neither one of them could understand it. They did a check around the perimeter during a lag time, using some cherubs (who needs drones in Heaven?) and the wall was intact. It was a beautiful wall, in fact. It was YUUUUUUGE, you could say, even.

Anyway, soon another big surge of people came up, and Peter went back to sorting, with the same result: people who weren’t supposed to get in were picking out their condos on those streets of gold. Gabriel finally asked one of them, “What gives?”

“Well,” the lady replied, “I thought I was done for. That guy named Peter denied me entry and I walked away, but then over the top of wall was this guy, whistling to get my attention, peering at me over the top of the wall. He held out his hands, reached out and grabbed me, and pulled me over the top, telling me sternly not to tell anyone. He had an unusual name.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” Gabriel muttered, disgustedly, --who obviously had not given up irreverence for Lent.

“Yeah! That’s it!” the woman exclaimed.

“What?” Gabriel asked, confused.

“Jesus H. Christ—That’s what he said his name was. Beard. Sandals. Calloused hands. Hair in dreadlocks. He pulled every one of us over that wall that would come to him. Said that was his job, to pull us over that wall, no matter what.”

Gabriel didn’t have the heart to tell Peter, but the mystery was solved.

It’s hard to reconcile that Jesus with the Jesus we think we see in today’s gospel. Or is it? Let’s take a closer look.

Even though the Gospel of Mark is highlighted this year in the lectionary readings, today we hear John’s version of Jesus cleansing the Temple, and it differs in several important ways from the versions in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In those other gospels, this episode happens at the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry, after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem which we remember on Palm Sunday. It is depicted as being a large part of the reason for his arrest and execution.

In John, however, this incident happens right after the first of Jesus’s miracles at the wedding at Cana. Jesus’s actions here are specifically linked to preparations for Passover. That means Jerusalem is full of pilgrims. Obviously, people did not want to drag sheep, cattle and birds along with them on their way from their homes to Jerusalem, so those merchants in the Temple were doing a brisk business. In addition, pilgrims used this opportunity to pay their Temple Tax, which could only be paid in temple currency, rather than Roman or Greek coins, which is why the money-changers were there.

It’s interesting what jumps out at you when you listen carefully to this story. Unlike most paintings we see of this scene, the scripture itself states that Jesus uses the whip of cords only against the animals, not against the people selling them. That can be a surprise to us. 

We sometimes like to focus on the sudden violence of the scene: we imagine feathers flying, and Jesus standing there like Indiana Jones, whip in hand, and all those grubby merchants scattering before him like a bucket of marbles dropped from a second-floor window.

But Jesus’s response is measured in John’s gospel. John doesn’t tell us Jesus is angry. John describes Jesus as filled with zeal-- an important distinction. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus admonishes the ones selling doves to stop making God’s Temple a market-place, and turns over the money-changers’ tables and pours out their coins, creating an accounting headache more than anything else.

But to me, the important point here is the verse where he talks of his body as the Temple—the place where God dwells among us. Just like in last week’s gospel, he speaks of the destruction of the Temple, and we may get so wrapped up in that that we miss the hope and promise embedded after that: in three days, that body will be raised up again. Even in the midst of Lent, we turn our faces toward Easter, and we remember God’s amazing promises to us.

Jesus is challenging the Temple ceremonial system because it was exclusionary. The problem of the sacrificial system as it existed in Jesus’s time was that it could exclude the poor. If one couldn’t afford the Temple Tax; if one couldn’t afford to travel; if one couldn’t afford even a dove, as Jesus’s own parents had offered at his naming, one could be excluded from full participation in the rites of the Temple, and by implication, from the presence of God. The Temple was where you went to experience God. It was the place that centered the community. And turning it into a marketplace excluded those who couldn’t afford it, further separating and marginalizing them. And we still have to guard against that tendency today, in some parts of the Church. Jesus is saying here that we shouldn’t erect any barriers between anyone and God, or think that anyone is unworthy of God’s love.

Jesus insists, instead, that his body is the true place where God and humanity meets. Jesus, not buildings, not even rituals, is the center of a community of faith and hope and, above all, LOVE. Jesus’s recasting of the Temple as his own body has several things to teach us, and these are meant to be comforting. In this time of declining congregations and revenue, it’s important to remind ourselves that God isn’t merely found in a building, as magnificent and spiritually uplifting as some of our churches, such as Christ Church Cathedral, can be. Not that giving is not important—it is! But your giving to any parish, ultimately, is more about supporting this beloved community of believers and its vital work in witnessing and interceding and worshiping than it is about supporting a building. WE are called to be the sanctuary, the home of Christ’s love, not any one building.

We forget that God’s love for us never stops pulling us toward union with God, because God loves us with an everlasting love, precious beyond words. We, on the other hand, know our flaws, and our faith flickers because we think we know better. We forget who we are. Poet William Wordsworth, in his poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” reminds us of our true identity as God’s beloveds:

The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy! 

Wordsworth reminds us that when we are young, miracles dance before us every day. Clouds and baby turtles and inchworms proclaim the goodness of creation to us. The stars in the sky sing to us the truth of God as only music can, just as this morning’s psalm proclaimed, and with our innocent hearts we didn’t need to strain to hear it. We trailed clouds of God’s radiant love behind us, and took it for granted. We knew where our home was: God.

As we get older, though, it’s all too easy to forget that we are precious and beloved of God, that God calls us and claims us and never gives up on us. The cares, tears, and disappointments of the world too often press too heavily upon us, and we build walls around ourselves in the name of protecting our weary and battle-scarred hearts. All too soon we aren’t protected by those walls so much as locked in and locked out by them, and the heaviness in our hearts weighs us down too much to be able to scale those walls by ourselves.

God claimed us for Godself at our creation. In taking on life in a human body, Jesus swung those hands down from the top of that wall and started lifting, and he has never stopped.

Jesus’s proclamation in our gospel today in meant to remind us that his body itself is sacred space, welcoming to all. It is the point of overlap between the sacred and the secular, where God’s love calls us to turn and repent, to remember who we are: and to be who we are called to be. Beloved. Precious. Made for God, and made for each other. Knowing all our joys and sorrows, our tears, anger, and fear, nonetheless in Jesus God becomes one of us. It’s in Jesus’s body where God and human are joined in love.

And even more than that, Jesus’s body, that body which will be handed over, broken, and rise again, hallows and sanctifies us, because he calls us to be HIS BODY in the world! What a beautiful and tender charge he places upon us! If we truly are Christ’s Body in the world, his healing hands, his loving gaze, his merciful presence, then we are also to embody the meeting place between God’s mercy and the hurting places in the world.

The Body of Christ is here, beloveds, and it is here, in our hearts, where heaven and earth meet. In declaring his body as the Temple, he declares OUR bodies temples, too. When we remember that God became flesh in Jesus, we are reminded that Jesus embodies the beauty of God’s love for us, and for our bodies: toned, flawed, lumpy, old, young, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, indigenous, rich, or poor. All precious. All beloved.

We are reminded of the beauty of God’s love for us as the Body of Christ when we collectively gather here at the altar rail, and are fed with the sacrament of his body and blood.

We are reminded of the beauty of God’s love for us as the Body of Christ when we are invited to God’s banquet after the consecration with the words: “Behold what you are,” and we respond “May we become what we receive.”

Tenth century monk and mystic Symeon the New Theologian expressed this when he wrote of Jesus’s radical welcome and acceptance of us, holding nothing back, which we are then called to ourselves embody: 

…open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged,
is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.(1)

One of the gifts of Lent, tied as it is to the reawakening of the earth in springtime, is not self-denial, per se, but that we have the opportunity to center ourselves again in the knowledge that we are God’s. We are called to understand ourselves individually and communally, as the Temple and Home of God through the love and lifting of Christ, and to give that Temple a good and thorough cleaning. We spend forty days being called back into acquaintance with ourselves, naming all the stones in that wall that shuts out the light so we can tear it down low enough that we can take the hand of The Holy One, whose outstretched hands give us just the boost over the wall that we need.


Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

1) Michaelangelo, detail from The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, 1477-1480, Vatican City.
2) Giotto, Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple.
3) Indiana Jones and his bullwhip.
4) Detail from a window by Emil Frei and Associates in St. Stephen's Church, Ferguson, MO.
5) Stock photo, "Trust."

I am indebted to Debie Thomas for her Lectionary Essay, "The Temple of His Body,"  at Journey With Jesus, for getting me started thinking about this poem. She quoted this poem at the end of her essay, and I thought, "Wow, that looks familiar." I opened up my kindle version of The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, which I last read about six months ago, and was stunned when it opened to this poem, which was the last thing I had read in that book. I took the hint, and included it here, too.

Preached at the 8 and 10 am services on March 4, 2018 (3 Lent B) at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, MO.

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