Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from March 11, 2012
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St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
March 11, 2012
Exodus 20:1-17; Ps. 19; 1 Cor. 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
“Where is God to be found?”
It’s hard for us to imagine what Herod’s temple looked like in Jesus’ day. It was about the size of 4 ½ football fields. At its pinnacle, the highest point, it was about as high as a 45-story building. Herod’s crowning achievement. It was important not only to the Israelites for themselves, it depicted an understanding of Jerusalem as literally the cosmic center of the universe. The temple in Jesus’ day provided a locus of divine presence. It was a cosmic center understood to be the place where heaven and earth converged, what is referred to as the axis mundi, the intersection of the horizontal and vertical planes. As such it was seen as command central for God’s dealings with the world. Imagine its design: at its center is the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest could enter, and even he only once a year on the Day of Atonement. From there it radiated outward by lesser degrees of holiness, to the Court of the Israelites, to the Court of Women, to the Court of the Gentiles. The Temple was contained within the walled city of Jerusalem, and for Jewish holy observances people would travel for miles to this most holy of places, and the population would swell to about a million people. The temple functioned not only as a religious central place for Jews, it was also of central political and economic significance. To get the picture we would almost have to think of it as St. Peter’s Cathedral, the U.N. and Mall of the Americas all in one. With large treasuries and storehouses for materials of all sorts, “it functioned somewhat like a central bank and storage depot. It became the repository of large quantities of money and goods extracted from the surplus product of the peasant economy. Because most of the temple precincts were inaccessible to all but a handful of priests and closely guarded against intrusion, they offered a high level of security for the economic resources of the political and religious elite.” i
Into this place Jesus comes crashing. Parallel passages are to be found in all four gospels. But this one in the Gospel of John is fundamentally different from the story that appears in the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. In those gospels this story appears close to the end of Jesus’ ministry, leading to the passion. In those gospels Jesus decries the temple for becoming a “den of robbers,” upsetting the religious and the Roman authorities, leading inexorably to the crucifixion. Those stories can be understood as Jesus’ anger at exploitation of the poor by religious authorities. But that is not what is going on here. Note that this story appears at the beginning of John’s gospel, in chapter 2. It happens near the onset of Jesus’ ministry. I will leave it for others to debate which is true factually. I’m more concerned with what John’s point was. And I think it comes down to this: where is God to be found?
In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, and earlier, the answer was that God was to be found in the temple. And central to temple worship was the offering up of sacrifices. Animals were available for purchase in the temple so that they could be offered as sacrifice. In fact, since they had to be pure, not worn and weary from days traveling on the road, they had to be purchased there. So for Jesus to say “stop making my father’s house a marketplace!” was to undermine the entire system, it couldn’t function as it did without the purchasing of animals for sacrifice. So the temple authorities, and the Israelites, might well have responded: “of course it’s a marketplace. It needs to be. What’s your point?”
I think the answer is this, the central point of the text: the promise of the Gospel is that in Jesus, God is not localized, or mediated through an organizational church. The promise is that God is with us now and into the future, as close and intimate as it gets. The axis mundi, where the vertical and horizontal planes meet, is revealed to be right here. We do not have to go to a special place, and offer a special sacrifice, to find God. God’s relationship with us is here and now, in the deepest parts of us, with us in relationship, with us in mission, with us in our daily life.
This opens up some very important questions for us: where is God for you? Here? Where else? Do you know God as present in your life once you walk out that door? Is God alive to you in the other 167 hours of the week? I think you could answer that when you’re serving in the soup kitchen or habitat for humanity or restorative justice. Do you see, equally well, where is God in your life as a parent? Your work as a physical therapist? Your involvement with Senior College? Your caring for a loved one? Do you see God in your daily routines, even the most mundane of them? Or is your life carefully divided into parts – your spiritual life, your work life, your family life?
That had been my experience. I simply had developed along different tracks without really thinking about it. My life and career were moving along, and then gradually I started getting involved with a church community and doing spiritual reading and I joined a faith group. So I was developing an intentional “spiritual life” along a parallel track. Then I had a moment several years ago, when my faith life and my work life came crashing together. I had become active at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, and I was participating in a wonderful gathering Monday evenings put on by Pastor Bill Gregory called “Living Faith.” And in my work life I was a Bureau Director at the Department of Environmental Protection in Augusta, it was late Spring, and I was up to my neck in the legislature with several bills pending. I was actually at the State House most days, talking to legislators about an important bill we were trying to get through. Hating every minute of it. I had no sense of God as present in that work. It just seemed a little down and dirty for God, perhaps beneath God’s attention. And then one morning I arrived at the State House late after a doctor’s appointment and noticed everyone was averting my eyes. And none of my fellow DEPers were anywhere in sight. Finally someone pulled me aside and quietly explained that one of my colleagues at DEP had lobbied a bit too aggressively which upset one of the legislators, and one by one they stood up on the House floor denouncing us. Our friends quickly pulled all our bills off the table like a pile of hot potatoes before any more damage was done. I tracked down my DEP colleagues huddled in the Chief of Staff’s office looking like someone had died. There was nothing for it but to go back to the office. That evening I drove to my faith group at the church, feeling like a total failure. Was I in the right job? What good was I doing here? I prayed for guidance. “What do I do now?” And after a while a feeling of calm came over me, “you’ve done everything you can do for now. Let it go.” As it turned out, by Friday some amazing things had happened and we got several major bills though that we hadn’t even dared hope for. My point is not that God worked miracles on my behalf. You know me well enough I hope to know that I’m not saying “God is a democrat,” Or that God was on my side in this particular controversy, or, heaven forbid, lobbying in my place. This isn’t the prosperity gospel, as in “once you let God into your life good fortune will rain down upon you.” What happened was that in letting go I had a feeling of something much, much larger than I, and there was a permanent shift in my heart. After that, I no longer cordoned off a part of my life as a God-free zone. It was the beginning of my connecting my faith and my daily life. I came to understand and look for the reverence in the ordinary things.
I think it works something like this. We start by understanding, and reminding ourselves and each other whenever we can, that God is to be found everywhere, in the most intimate spaces of our lives, and perhaps especially in its darkest and most trying moments. God is there not as a kind of master puppeteer, making all things happen, because that would deny any role for human freedom. God’s presence is one we might see as always opening up possibility for the sacred, for redemption, for emergence of the new in every moment. So the question then is, for each of us, wherever we are and whatever we are doing, is “what might God be up to in this place at this time to care for and sustain God’s beloved world, of which I am a part?” And what can I do to participate?
Sometimes we need our tables overturned to get us to see something differently. We need to be shaken to our very foundations. Awareness of God’s presence in our lives is the mysterium tremendum. The edifices need to crack – sometimes, especially, the edifice of the organizational church — so that God’s light can break through.
So where does that leave church? Does this mean we no longer need church? If we don’t believe God is to be found only in a building, or in Sunday worship, but just as much walking in the woods or out fishing, or with friends or in our work, why aren’t we all out fishing?
We’re here because place still matters, community still matters, perhaps more than ever.
Jesus is present with each one of us, and, relationship with Jesus is not just individual and private, Christianity is not a solo enterprise. Jesus is always, ever, calling us into community. But I don’t need to preach that this Sunday. Because yesterday you provided hospitality to the family of a man most of you never met. For some of you this was a real disruption in a time when the demands on your life are high. But he had once been an active part of this community, and supporting each other in these moments is what we do. That is what this house of God is for, to help us be the hands of Jesus for each other. With hospitality and blessing and food and companionship we reveal God’s presence in community. And there it is. Thanks be to God. Amen.
i Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd Ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 416-417.