Where Do You Encounter God?

by The Rev. Elizabeth G. Maxwell

LentWhere do you encounter God?

For faithful Jews of Jesus’ day, and surely Jesus himself was one of them, the ultimate locus of divine/human encounter would have been the Temple in Jerusalem. Beautiful and awe-inspiring, hallowed by prayers and history, focus of the sacrifices commanded in the Torah. It was an obligation and joy to worship there at significant moments of one’s personal life and in the liturgical year: We hear elsewhere in the gospels of Mary and Joseph offering sacrifice there after the birth of their first born, and going to the Temple at Passover with the 12 year old Jesus, who fell so deeply into holy conversation in his “Father’s house” that he did not accompany his parents home in a timely way.

In today’s gospel again we find Jesus in the Temple, but the mood is very different. He is uncharacteristically, unexpectedly outraged, maybe even out of control, consumed by zeal and anger. He makes a whip of cords, he drives out the large animals being sold for sacrifices and demands that the people who sell doves to the poorer worshipers take them away; he overturns the tables where Roman coins bearing the (idolatrous) image of the emperor can be exchanged for shekels to pay for the stuff of religious ritual.

The story is told in all 4 gospels, but John, from whom we hear it this morning, differs significantly in his telling from the synoptic writers. They place this story of Jesus cleansing the Temple in the last week of his life; in fact, this very public “acting up” is one of the chief catalysts for the decision of the authorities — both religious and secular — to seek his death. John, on the other hand, puts the story at the launch of Jesus’ public ministry, as if to say — this is what it is all about. The whole meaning of Jesus’ work is foreshadowed in this beginning.

In the synoptic accounts, Jesus furiously says, quoting Isaiah: “It is written, my house should be a house of prayer for all people, but you have made it a den of robbers!”

The emphasis is on the corruption of the temple — the way that the religious authorities are out of touch with the grinding poverty of the average worshiper, the way they have colluded with the Roman occupiers to gouge the people who must buy sacrificial animals at a steep mark up to fulfill their religious obligation.

In denouncing the exploitation of the poor and the collusion of religious and imperial power, Jesus acts firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who value ethical behavior, especially care for the marginalized, above beautiful liturgy. Amos: “I hate, I despise your feasts and take no delight in your solemn assemblies — but let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Hosea: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Micah: “What does the Lord require, but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus also stands in the prophetic tradition in his vivid use of symbolic action — rather like the march to Selma that we commemorate this weekend, or the street theatre of Act Up or Occupy Wall St. I am reminded of an essay by feminist theologian Beverly Harrison entitled “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love”. We almost never see Jesus angry in the gospels, although anger is surely part of the prophetic tradition. There are things that should make us angry — and that energy can be a powerful force both of destruction and creation; the overturning of all that robs people of their God-given dignity and humanity, the fierce opening of a space for justice and love. Much of my anger, for sure, is not righteous — but sometimes, sometimes, it gives me courage to stand up, to speak out and to act in the service of what is right. Sometimes the things that evoke our outrage are a locus for a deeper meeting with God. The energy of our anger can be holy.

John, too sees Jesus in the prophetic tradition in this moment in the Temple, but his emphasis is a bit different. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” are the words John’s Jesus says.

Corruption? Indeed. Clearly we need to be aware of every temptation — then and now to commodify the holy or exploit God’s worship and God’s people. But animals for sacrifice must be unblemished. As scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer points out, it’s a serious problem if you bring an animal from home and it doesn’t pass muster! It is a service to sell animals that will be acceptable, a service to change imperial money into Temple coin. In John, Jesus is subtly but surely ending the whole sacrificial system; Temple worship is impossible in these terms.

John always tells a story to make a theological point, and here the message is that Jesus himself is the new temple. At the beginning of John’s gospel, we heard that the Word has become flesh and lived among us — but the word “lived” can also be translated “tabernacled”, recalling the early nomadic experience of the children of Israel, when the divine presence traveled through the wilderness with them in the ark of the covenant: wandering and intimate, fragile and close, but also absolutely, awe-somely holy.

In a few chapters, Jesus will tell the Samaritan woman that God is to be worshiped not in Jerusalem nor on the holy mountain, but in spirit and truth. John is telling us that Jesus himself is the locus where we can encounter God: the true sacred space is his incarnate, and risen, Body.

By extension, we who are the Body of Christ, the church, are also sacred space: God dwells in our midst, and each of us individually is the temple of the Holy Spirit. We carry the life of God in our very bodies. We are challenged to be alert — to be ready to find the holy in our interactions with each other, however mysterious that may seem — and in our own depths, more mysterious still.

Where do you encounter God?

This story pushes us to look anew at our beloved sacred spaces. This one, the Church of the Ascension, is so beautiful, and for many of us, it is indeed a place where we meet God. It is a place that moves us to praise, that helps us in the habit of prayer. Sometimes, when you come into a church you have worshiped in often, the very space helps you drop into an awareness of the Spirit.

At the same time, this text raises important questions. It challenges us with the prophetic call to prioritize justice over liturgy. It asks whether our cherished holy spaces become ends in themselves — and thus idols — rather than doorways to the true and only God — and resources for God’s work of love. And perhaps most of all it reminds us that in Jesus God has become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, so that all flesh is a revelation of the divine. Can we perceive it?

This is a boundary-pushing passage, and the questions it raises are to be lived rather than solved. They return again and again for us as church and individually.

As I pondered the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple, I kept being reminded of one of my own most profound experiences with sacred space. As many of you know, I was for many years the Associate Rector at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea. Like Ascension, Holy Apostles is blessed and challenged with an historic building, much loved, much prayed in, and also subject to financial limitations and (particularly in my early days there) deferred maintenance.

Indeed, two weeks before I arrived the church was closed because of leaks and falling plaster, and during my first ten months there we worshiped in the parish hall while work was being done on the roof. We had some weekday services in the narthex of the church, which was deemed safe to be in, and that is where a small group of us were on Monday of Holy Week 25 years ago when someone (from the 12 step group meeting in the parish hall) rushed in saying “your church is on fire!”

What happened after that is a blur — the shrieking fire engines (it was a 3 alarm fire eventually), the colleague who lived on the third floor of the parish house rushing in calling out for his partner and their dog to get out, trying to pull out some of the vestments from the sacristy, the smoke and the flames pouring through the roof of the church and the growing, foreboding sense of how serious this was. I will never forget seeing the firefighters punching their hoses through the church’s stained glass windows — our greatest historic, artistic treasure. I learned later that if they hadn’t done it the whole building might have combusted from the heat.

We stood on the sidewalk and people came — parishioners, of course, and neighbors, huddled together in shock as one does at the bedside of a dying friend. I will also never forget that Bishop Walter Dennis, our bishop suffragan at the time, came to be with us too as the church was burning, and when the fire was finally out he had us join hands, there in the smoky evening, and he led us in singing the doxology.

I will also never forget that the next day the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen served 936 meals by candlelight in the mission house, and a guest — the first of many — asked how he could help the church rebuild.

It was Holy Week, as I said, and by Easter we knew we would indeed rebuild, although I suppose the vestry might have chosen to do something else. It took 4 years and lots of construction drama and delays (which may be why I’m somewhat sanguine about delays in the rectory renovation here). We were offered space to worship at General Seminary during that rebuilding period, and it was beautiful, and we were grateful, and it was not ours. It was also during that time that the decision was made to make the nave of the church a flexible use space with no pews, so that the soup kitchen could have its main dining room there.

I will also always remember processing up 9th Ave. when the church was finally restored — going home and finding that the beloved sacred space was both familiar and disconcertingly new.

Where do we encounter God? I bumped into God all through that experience: in an old, prayed-in, cherished building, in devastating loss, in a circle on the sidewalk, in the daily work of mercy and advocacy, and most of all, in the community of faithful believers, struggling to see God in each other, in the world around us, and in a new and unexpected thing God was doing. I saw how precious church buildings are; I learned in a whole new way that the place where God dwells is not a building.

Where do you encounter God?

Let us pray.

Holy God,
Whose presence is known in the structures we build,
and also in their collapse;
establish in us a community of hope,
not to contain your mystery,
but to be led beyond security
into your sacred space, through Jesus Christ.
Amen.1

1(from Janet Morley’s All Desires Known)

Preached at the Church of the Ascension on Sunday, March 8, 2015

One Response to Where Do You Encounter God?

  1. Marilyn Moorcroft says:

    The above sermon was lovely and moving. I shall try to read more of them on line, as I am hard of hearing and cannot hear your sermons well in church.

    Thank you for providing them on line. See you next Sunday!

    Marilyn M.

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