Restoring the Temple

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

In yesterday's Washington Post there was an online “lead” to an article: “A year after Japan's triple disaster, an uncertain recovery.” It refers to the 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan, one year ago today. That quake shifted a slab of the earth's crust 180 feet to the east, causing it to rise 15 feet and pouring Pacific Ocean waters onto Japan's mainland. 20,000 were killed, with entire towns wiped out. Power outages were triggered, causing meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

This earthquake humbled the scientific community. Again. “Since 2004 earthquake scientists have been caught off guard. . .by huge killer earthquakes in the Indian Ocean, Haiti, China, Japan and New Zealand. . . .'This is a humbling field,'” said a member of the U.S. Geological Survey team. “If you want to be smug, don't be an earth scientist and certainly don't be an earthquake researcher.” He and another seismologist have created a new Global Earthquake Model. Critics have their doubts.

Earthquakes, the Post claims, remain “fundamentally unpredictable and eccentric. . ..Surprises may be the norm for the seismic future, even in places considered hazard-free. The Virginia earthquake in August, which damaged the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, is a reminder that the East Coast could be more vulnerable to tremors than most people realize.”

On August 24, Sam Lloyd, the National Cathedral's Dean, said, “Yesterday's earthquake reminds us that no finite building is God. We will move forward with our faith unshaken, and we will repair the building. . .(We) will make it whole again.” Dean Lloyd spoke amid the Cathedral's own triple disaster, although their catastrophic events were spread over a month. Two weeks after the earthquake, a crane collapsed. But someone else is worrying about the Cathedral now, because Dean Lloyd has resigned. And then, there was the threat of Hurricane Irene, causing still other plans to be changed.

Sisters and brothers, seismic shift happens. Even in churches. And sometimes, Jesus is the one causing those shifts. Turning tables upside down. Humbling us again. Reminding us of our vulnerability. Upending what was routine, even the routine we call the worship of God.

This Gospel story about the cleansing of the temple, which John places after Jesus' first miracle at Cana where he turned water into wine, is a story about a seismic shift. It's about a protest in the longstanding tradition of Israel's prophets. The prophets before Jesus railed against the profaning of temple worship. Against cults arising within their faith communities. Against substituting religious routine – in a “we've always done it for God that way” way – for deep devotion – in a “love God with all your heart, mind and strength” way – no matter what God asks you to do, no matter what you do do.

Jesus, a faithful Jew, had come to this temple, this sacred space, this earthly dwelling place of God. And it was downright magnificent, far more magnificent, I'd wager, than the National Cathedral or All Saints'. In an attempt to win over his “ungrateful subjects,” Herod the Great began a huge temple restoration project in the year 20 BCE, or about twenty years before the birth of Christ. Herod's project of restoration and expansion of the Jerusalem temple was still going on when a young man named Jesus arrived on the day of our story.

What a sight Jesus must have seen! But to him, this space didn't look very sacred. Not at all. The temple was full of people selling things. Sacrificial animals in the Court of the Gentiles, outside the temple. Inside, moneychangers helping people pay their temple tax. It was one-stop shopping, and it was normal. Today we might call this a shopping mall. Some of us might even call it today's church.

The ways of the world tend to invade temples and churches slowly, more like a small river than a tsunami. This invasion – or this failure to keep the first four of the Ten Commandments – is gradual, subtle, almost never intentional, almost always intended to be part of the service of God's church and God's mission. But before you know it, it's like the proverbial elephant in the living room – the elephant, which arrived as a baby, is all grown up now, and we can't seem to find a way to let it out. And the smell? Who knows what to do with that? Maybe we don't even smell the elephant anymore. Before you know it, the church can fill up with cattle and sheep and doves, perhaps some lions and tigers and bears, maybe even an elephant or two! What do we do when that happens, when it's a zoo in here? Maybe the only solution is an earthquake.

During Lent we are having a series of sessions called “Sacred Conversations.” You'll find a notice about these on the inside front cover of your bulletin. As you can see, these sessions are being held downstairs, under this Historic Church, in St. Paul's Chapel. We are being intentional about holding sacred conversations in a space that is officially designated as “sacred.” We also know that “creating sacred space,” part of the mission of All Saints' Episcopal Church, can happen in places other than the buildings on this campus. Sacred space is being created daily – in our homes, our schools, our workplaces – yes, even in our shops and our malls. We can have sacred conversations just about anywhere. I know a priest who has regular office hours, one day a week, at a local coffee shop, where he puts up a small table tent that says, “Tell me your stories about God.”

Here on Church Street we know that sacred space is not just limited to the nave or the chancel of this beautiful Historic Church. Sacred space is not found just at this morning's communion rail or in that corner in the back of the nave, where healing prayers will be offered. Sacred space is also being created by the people of God, seven days a week, in our Great Hall, in our classrooms, in our offices, in our memorial garden. Here on this campus we can easily find many times to sanctify, many spaces to call sacred, many places where we can worship God in the beauty of holiness in many, different ways.

One opportunity for you to create sacred space for yourself and others will, I hope, be found in those “Sacred Conversations.” Today at Noon we will come together to discuss changes in our Sunday morning schedule this Fall, as we plan for a “shift” – from a line-up that has been in place for decades, one with two, simultaneous 10:30 services. . .to a schedule more commonly found all across the country in larger churches, one where the services are consecutive. For some, that kind of change may not feel like very much movement at all. For others, it will feel like a table overturned, or even a seismic shift, perhaps even an earthquake. Is Jesus doing this? Is Jesus entering our temple, overturning our cherished schedule of worship and stirring things up, all in the name of God? Or is this schedule shift just a crazy idea cooked up for the Rector and his cronies? Or something in between? Come and see!

Yes, seismic shift happens. Even in churches. And sometimes, Jesus is the one causing those shifts. Turning tables upside down. Humbling us again. Reminding us of our vulnerability. Upending what was routine, even the routine we call the worship of God. Even something as routine as the rituals of our Sunday morning schedule of services, fellowship and formation.

At 10:30 this morning there will be (This morning there's been) a disruption of our routine. I've chosen to do what has been named “the shuffle,” starting in one service and finishing in another, while preaching in both. There are several reasons for my doing this today, and I'd be happy to talk with you about them. The primary reason is that I decided I would experience in worship what it feels like to be turned a bit upside down, the way some of you might feel sometimes. It is jarring, if not humbling, to find yourself in two places of worship, one after the other, at almost the same time. I don't recommend trying it. I don't think I'll want to do it again. But today, for me, shuffle happens, shift happens.

What does it mean to be the church, the body of Christ? Is it to create a place where we can make people feel good or happy? Or is it to create a sacred space, where we are challenged to think with the mind of Christ, and then, to love as Jesus loves? What might be the mind of Christ for All Saints' Church? What does Jesus have in mind for us? What is God's mission for us in Christ Jesus?

All Saints' has a mission statement: “Reaching out, creating sacred space, welcoming all.” But the Episcopal Church also has a mission statement, on page 855 of The Book of Common Prayer. Would you read it with me, please? Q. What is the mission of the church? A. The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Restoration. It's not just about repairing and restoring the fallen angels of a great cathedral or the front steps of an historic, downtown Maryland church. It's also about the restoration of a people, about cleansing their souls, about healing them and making them whole. A massive restoration project is surely going on at the National Cathedral. Can you imagine what it has been like for that community of faith? Or the religious communities in Haiti or New Zealand? But there's a restoration project going on here at All Saints', too. And human restoration projects are ones that Jesus doesn't hesitate undertaking. In fact, he specializes in them. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” demand the religious leaders of the temple. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus replies, “and in three days I will raise it up.' But he was speaking,” John's Gospel account explains, “of the temple of his body” (John 2:18-20).

It wasn't the magnificent Jerusalem temple Jesus was planning to restore. It was the temple of his body, his vulnerable, broken body, a body like ours. The cleansing of that temple was about Jesus' body, the body of Christ, being cleansed for burial, so that it can be raised from the dead and live again. And here's the Good News: We who would follow this Jesus have also been cleansed and raised by him, to be his body in this sinful, broken world. That's the Good News Jesus proclaims to us, throughout the season of Lent and in every season! The story of Jesus reaches its climax at the cross, but it does not end there. No. The life of Jesus is restored in and through the church, the risen body of Christ. But this restoration project happens in churches and cathedrals only to the degree to which the church becomes the church of Jesus Christ, not the church of the rector or the church of the vestry or the church of the elite or the status quo. It is when we let Jesus do what Jesus does – challenge us, reform our thinking, restore his body, love us into new life – that we truly become the risen, living body of Christ, in our worship and in our world.

Seismic shift happens. Tsunamis happen. Even in churches. And sometimes, Jesus is the one causing them. Turning our tables upside down. Washing us clean. Humbling us again. Reminding us of our vulnerability. Upending what was routine, even the routine we call the worship of God. Even something as routine as the ritual called “our Sunday morning schedule,” our lineup of worship, formation and fellowship. Whether it's quakes or elephants or something else earthshaking we experience in the church, let us never forget that this is God's church, not ours. May God help us to remember, today and every day, that Jesus Christ is in charge of this church, not us.

And the temple? The temple of God's Holy Spirit, the temple that is Jesus' own body, the temple that is the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit that our very own bodies are? Our unpredictable, eccentric Jesus is cleansing and shaking up our temple, so that we might have new life in him. And Jesus is doing this as only Jesus can.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
March 11, 2012