For most of my school breaks in college, I would come home, and I could not wait to do so. I would finish up my last final, board that Greyhound bus for that four hour journey. And as the scenery passed by the window, my longing to be home would grow. I longed be in a place where I did not need to explain or prove myself to anyone. Where I would be cared for and where my needs would be met with love.
I had this little ritual that I would do as soon as I got home. I’d drop my back pack at the front door and then just walk quietly through the house room by room. It was reassuring and somehow grounding to find everything as it should be. The pillows with their crocheted covers that my grandmother had propped up on each end of the couch. The round piece of stained glass was hanging upstairs in the stairwell refracting the afternoon sun into brilliant colors all over the white walls of the hallway, and my favorite stuffed animal on the pillow on my bed, where I had left her.
All was right. It was good to come home.
But before we go any further, let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Jesus knew what it was to come home. The Temple had always been that place for him. It had been ever since that time, that we can read about in the Gospel of Luke, when he was twelve and his parents had taken him up to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. When the days of the festival were over, and his parents left for home, Jesus was not with them. He had remained behind in the Temple sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and posing questions to them. And when his frantic parents retraced their steps to find him, he replied “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” – and I think those words are still ring true for him, now as the grown man that we meet in the Scripture passage for today.
There was no other place, I think, where he felt more himself than the Temple. For there in the innermost holy of holies of the Temple, the presence the one Jesus called “Abba,” the presence of God’s glory resided. The Temple was the meeting place of heaven and earth and as such it was the epicenter of what it meant to be Jewish. To go up to the Temple was to go home. To return to the touchstone of faith. It was a place belonging. A of connection with the community of faith across time. It was a place of God.
In the Scripture for today, as Jesus decides to make the journey from Galilee up to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, I imagine that a smile coming across his face when he comes around that final bend in the road and catches that first glimpse of the Temple there in the distance, atop that hill, radiant in the midday sun. And I imagine that a kind of longing begins to rise within him, so much so that he picks up his pace leaving the disciples scrambling along behind him, trying to keep up. Upon entering the winding streets of Jerusalem, Jesus jostles his way through the crowds and street vendors until he finally gets to the stairs and taking the steps two at a time arrives at the top, steps through the gate and emerges onto the courtyard of the Temple.
Now, I bet that what happened next, what our text from the Gospel of John this morning describes, was the very last thing in the world the disciples who were with Jesus that day expected. I bet they expected Jesus to emerge onto the courtyard, to find a nice place in the shade somewhere and then to spend the rest of the afternoon teaching in that astonishing way of his.
And it strikes me that turning over the tables of the money changes and driving out the animals may very well have been the last thing that Jesus expected either. His actions that day, could very well have taken him by surprise as well. It was with a heart full of longing, that Jesus steps into the courtyard but in an instant he realizes that something has gone wrong. Something is not right.
Instead of being a sacred place set apart, the Temple that day felt instead very much a part of the hustle and bustle of the world around it resembling more the market place through which Jesus had come in the city below than the House of God. Or in the words of one commentator, the Temple while very much fulfilling its function, coins were being exchanged, animals bought and sacrifices made, had lost it purpose.(1) In the busyness of transactions, the belonging, connection and encounter that was what had made the Temple home was a risk of being lost. Temple practice had become a kind of business onto itself rather than a place to encounter a God who was in the business of transforming and liberating. And so like those great prophets of old who loved the people too much to let them turn away from the God that loved them, Jesus set about over turning all that had gone terribly wrong.
Yesterday morning as we were making cards to include in the hygiene kits that were being packaged up for Boston Warms, I was talking with one of the young people in the church and we were lamenting how wrong The Church had gotten it in so many ways and in so many times throughout history. We were lamenting the many examples of how the church across time has gotten caught up with caring for itself as an institution more than for caring for the world and all God’s people and creatures in it. We were lamenting how readily religion can stray from serving God to serving its own self interests, from being a way of living with God in the world to being simply caught up in the ways of the world.
So I was grateful that the words of Adam, who was our liturgist last week continue to ring in my ears and perhaps yours as well. Adam said to us last week that he was glad that the liturgist is the same person to leads the Prayer for God’s Grace and the Call to the Offering, or the Service of Sharing we call it here. He said he was glad for that because it reminds us that the church is not a market place. We do not place our coins in the offering plates as a way of purchasing something, we do not give as a payment engaging in some kind of transaction. Instead we give to the church as an expression of gratitude for already having fully and freely received God’s grace and steadfast love.
I am grateful for Adam’s reminder, and it makes me wonder what Jesus would find if he bounded up the front stairs of our church and came striding into this gathering place? Would he find our church living deeply into its purpose of being a place of belonging where one knows what it is to be home, to be loved and treasured not for what one has done but for simply for being a beloved child of God? Would he find our church living deeply into its purpose of being a place of connection where bonds of love are forged in a community of care and compassion? Would he find our church living deeply into its purpose of being a place of encounter, where we are able to glimpse something of God?
Now I have said, that the purpose of church is to be a place of belonging, connection and encounter but that is not exactly right, is it? For the degree to which church can be live out its purpose is the degree to which church, like the temple so long ago can be the dwelling place of God on earth. Matt Fitzgerald, a UCC pastor who served the Wellesley Hills Congregational Church said that if anyone questions whether God exists, they should be able to answer that question in the affirmative by looking at the church. For church is to be the body of Christ in the world. Just the love of God was made manifest in the person of Jesus, that incarnational love of God, is now to be made manifest among us as we live in the Way of Jesus as church.
And why is that important? Because our world so desperately needs to see a way out of our transactional, prove your worth, individualistic, violence prone way of being and to find a way into being a transformative, grace-filled, community of care that is absolutely overflowing with an abundance of love. Because each and every one of God’s children needs to know what it is to come home. That is why, I believe, Jesus lived and why he died and why he lives on as the church lives into the love that he is.
Now it is my greatest hope that if Jesus were to come up those stairs and into this gathering, he would not be provoked by what he find here to start overturning tables and send coins scattering. It is my greatest hope that if Jesus were to take those front steps two at a time and come through the doors into this gathering he would feel at home, hopefully he would even recognize some of himself in this place. For we are a church that was founded upon and seeks to daily live into the inclusive love of Jesus. Relationship not accomplishment is what we most value. The reason we are here, the purpose of our being is to by the grace of God to make manifest the Way of love in the world.
So as we do the good work of this church. As we pack kits for Boston Warms, as we work to bring water to more and more houses in Nicaragua, as we begin our stewardship campaign at the end of the month and make plans for the year ahead, let us continue to do so as an expression of the boundless love and grace that is the starting place of all we do and are. Let this church, let our lives together continue to be a place of belonging, connection and encounter. Let our life together be a dwelling place of God, the body of Christ, a place of home. And by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, may be remain ever faithful to and vigilant of our purpose of love made manifest in the World. Thanks be to God
(1) W. Hulitt Gloer. Homeletic Perspective. Lent 3 Year B. “Feasting on the Word.”