church a sacred place
Tenth Sunday After Trinity
Joshua 24:14-24, Psalm 145, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, St. Luke 19:41-47a
Back before I was ordained, before we became Anglicans, Marjorie and I worshipped in a church in inner-city Houston called City of Refuge. We spent six years there. Almost half the members were black and almost half white, with a sprinkling of Latinos and Asians.
We members spoke of our mission using terms such as “intentionally integrated.” Not a bad idea. It was supposed to look like the church triumphant, consisting of those of every nation, people, tongue and tribe, and I suppose to some extent it did.
But as I look back on that time I have the sense that in the interest of merging black and white we made the gospel gray.
For the first four of our six years there we met in the chapel of a homeless shelter. For the last two we worshipped in a building we built across the street. Even before construction began, some wealthy people from the suburbs who were not part of our church approached us with a vision to create a private Christian school for inner-city kids.
We agreed to lease them space in our new building and they launched their school. Soon, the school outgrew the space. The founders raised more money and bought an elementary school building the public system no longer wanted. And our church was without its tenant and a vital source of revenue.
But not for long. A charter school approached us about taking over the vacated space. The rent it paid would replace our lost revenue. A charter school is not a traditional public school but it relies on tax dollars and it teaches a curriculum infused with secular dogma, including Darwinian evolution. We would be inviting worldly knowledge into sacred space.
I reminded the elders that when we laid the foundation we wrote Scripture citations on the tongue depressors doctors use and embedded them in the wet cement to set this building apart for a holy purpose. I argued that it was a sacrilege to bring the wisdom of the world that makes God a liar into His temple.
“All your children shall be taught by the Lord,” God said through His prophet Isaiah, “and great shall be the peace of your children” (54:13). But not here. I heard in rebuttal that God is spirit who goes wherever He wishes. A building is only a building.
The elders joined their voices and led a chorus, proclaiming, “peace, peace, where there is no peace.” I lost the argument, and the world came rushing into the temple.
Today, Jesus is cleansing the temple. St. Luke reports that “He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it.” These merchants are selling animals for sacrifice at the coming Passover celebration. Others are operating money exchanges for Jews arriving from the faraway reaches of the Roman Empire to keep the feast.
Jesus roars, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of thieves.” We take it from this passage and from the account of the cleansing in Matthew’s gospel that His emphasis is not on dishonest dealings per se but on profaning the temple by conducting commerce within its precincts.
The term “house of prayer” in our text means simply a place of worship, encompassing all that attaches to it – confession, absolution, praise, petition, hymn-singing, Scripture-reading, celebration of the sacraments . . . and one other thing. St. Luke tells us immediately after he recounts the cleansing that Jesus “was teaching daily in the temple.”
I promise you He wasn’t teaching Darwin.
Men had desecrated this holy place by turning a house for worshipping God and learning about Him into a profit center. The more things change . . . With regard to opening a church to the teaching of worldly wisdom today, some will ask, “How is that different from worshiping in a school auditorium or movie theater?”
I reply that’s it’s as different as light and darkness. If a school chooses to turn a profit by inviting in the light, even for a few hours a week, let the church rush in to supply it. But that is no warrant for a church allowing the world to cross her palm to admit its darkness.
Our Lord will have none of it. But there’s more to our lesson than the cleansing of the temple. In the Scriptures, the text is elusive without the context; we must examine what precedes this episode.
Jesus has just made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The multitudes lining the roadway have cried out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Surely all is well . . . or well beyond well. After centuries of waiting, of bitter affliction and foreign domination, the people of God are at last receiving their promised Savior and Sovereign. Hallelujah!
But they are chanting, “peace, peace, where there is no peace.” Our passage begins, “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it.”
Jesus weeps because He knows far too much. He knows the people would not rejoice if they truly knew Him and knew His mission. He knows their religion is a mile wide and an inch deep. He knows they will leap for joy over the prospect of freedom from Rome but have no understanding of freedom from sin.
And He knows the merchants and money-changers in the temple are a symptom . . . a symptom of a spiritual disease, and one that has reached epidemic proportions. These masses who have contracted it – not all of His followers, certainly, but the great majority of them – have lost any appetite they ever had for repentance, devotion and discipline in their religion.
They will show up, now and then, for a service . . . and mark that day off the calendar, getting on with their mundane lives and worldly amusements and forgetting their God until the next one rolls around. More than anything else, He knows they don’t truly love Him.
Knowing all this, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. He tells them, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”
Would He weep over Tulsa? I suspect He would. And as Jerusalem represented all of Israel, Tulsa, while it is not a capital, is as good a town as any to represent all of America. Post-Christian America.
What’s going on here? Well, for the past several days, Charlottesville has been going on. Social media is abuzz with commentary on the tragic events there. We have denunciations of racism, reminders that the world went to war over racial hatred, demands to tear down statues honoring Confederate heroes, petitions to rename schools . . . and so on.
Somehow, from this cacophony of indignation, my ear teased out one quiet voice. It’s the voice of one of our own. This brother wrote on Facebook:
“Jesus did many counter cultural things. One of those activities was finding a place where He could be alone and pray. That might have been the most counter cultural activity he did. I am not against action and resistance to evil, but I think we can often seek to wage a war of frenzied response instead of beginning with a realization that our enemy may use the forces of flesh and blood, but the enemy upon which we should focus our warfare is not flesh and blood.
“This is why Jesus seeking to be alone to pray was counter cultural. It is why he never lost sight (of) where the true battle was.”
Israel had her prophets. She ignored them. We have the witness of the apostles as well. Are we paying them any more heed? They lay out the reality of spiritual warfare clearly before us.
In the churches, we bemoan lustily the tumult wrought by the moral decay in our culture. If we are awaiting a time of crisis to move beyond moaning, to take action – authentic, counter-cultural action with prayer at the forefront – I want to suggest that the day is upon us.
We are ill-equipped to engage the battle in the heavenly places because we have not taken up the whole armor of God, put on the breastplate of righteousness, shod our feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace.
Charlottesville happened. Virginia Tech happened. Oklahoma City happened. The Tulsa race riot of 1921 happened. Abortion keeps happening. The day is far spent. What can we do?
I spend no little time considering that subject. We can begin by agreeing that spiritual problems will not yield to political solutions. The battles raging in the heavenly places are a matter for prayer.
I’m reading two books that offer hope – to those willing to seize it. The first is “Desiring the Kingdom,” by James K. A. Smith. He builds a case that Christians, and others as well, learn much more through our hearts than through our heads.
We set our hearts on an image we construct of the good life – that life we consider ideal. Smith argues that our culture shapes our desires at a subconscious level; it teaches us through our hearts what we should treasure.
The culture uses liturgies to implant in us its message about what is desirable. He refers to the liturgies of the shopping mall, the sports arena and the universities and develops in each case a picture of how unknown forces cultivate our passions to engender the image of the good life the wizard behind the curtain wants us to embrace.
At the mall, for example, we enter through sets of doors into a cathedral of smoky glass and chrome. The walls contain no windows; nothing outside the sacred space can tug at our attention. The ceiling has windows; the light from above draws our gaze upward, reverently, to feast on icons swirled in brilliant colors.
The smells of perfumes and, from the food court, brownies and cinnamon buns mingle in a sweet incense. Artful displays beckon us to reach out and grasp things that delight us. If we could simply buy this and that and that shiny object we could surround ourselves with all the things that would complete our life and make us happy. The good life would be ours.
The church’s counter-cultural response to the culture’s liturgies, Smith maintains, should be her own liturgy, exquisitely fashioned over the centuries to arrest our affections and train them on our Lord. Intent on winning minds, the church has been losing hearts.
This is not a hypothetical exercise. We can parade examples of those who have grown up in a parish school or in a church tradition of worship multiple times each week who have strayed from their faith only to experience a trigger that yanked them back into it. Those chants and songs and psalms embedded within them seeped back up to the surface and overwhelmed them.
These are those for whom it is true, “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.”
If we can immerse our children in the liturgy of the church in their formative years they will imbibe the nurture and admonition of the Lord through their hearts. They will go into the world equipped to engage in counter-cultural battle with those cultural liturgies. They will know how to pray. More than that, they will yearn to pray.
But most of us in this congregation here present have little influence over the education of our children today or even our grandchildren, yet we do have responsibility for ourselves. Here we are; what shall we do? Toward the end of his book, Smith gets around to a sobering fact:
If we suppose that spending an hour-and-a-half or so each week in worship will form us into meat-eating prayer warriors and brace us to fend off the culture’s liturgies we are indeed deluded. An aspirin a week will not cure cancer.
The second book I’m reading is “English Spirituality,” by Martin Thornton. This author begins in the Bible and then traces the influences that have shaped the spirituality we have inherited as 21st-century Anglicans. This is the tradition that has given us as its crowning achievement the Book of Common Prayer, which orders and instructs our religious life – to the extent we use it.
Thornton moves from the Bible first to St. Augustine, who gives us the foundation on which our spirituality is constructed. At its center is the Eucharist and flanking it are the Daily Office – regular, ordered prayer – and private devotions. This three-part construct has undergirded Christian spirituality for 1,500 years and it is thoroughly incorporated into our English spirituality.
Weekly Eucharist, daily office, private devotions – these three.
And so I want to suggest, beloved in the Lord, that if we’re waiting for things to get bad to get serious we need wait no longer. The hour is upon us. Christ is weeping over Tulsa. It is time to cease playing at church as man has degraded it and begin being the church as God designed it.
I ran across this line the other day from Christian author Jen Wilkin: “We will not wake up ten years from now and find that we have passively taken on the character of God.”
If we truly wish to be counter-cultural – which is to say, if we truly wish to be Christ’s church – we will set aside those vain things that charm us most, fall to our knees and begin actively taking on the character of God.
For many years now, Marjorie and I have been diligent – not perfect, but diligent – in Morning Prayer. We have been lax in Evening Prayer – until last week when, as I was working on this sermon, we rededicated ourselves to beginning and ending each day in the company of our Lord.
It is not too early – we pray it is not too late – to embrace the ways of our fathers in the faith, to combine weekly Eucharist, twice-daily ordered prayer and frequent private devotions in a spiritual life that gives glory to our Lord and brings peace to us.
Will you not join us? Amen.