Sunday, June 30, 2013

Temples and Tennis Balls
(a sermon about following Jesus)

The collect of the day for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, today, includes this wonderful and challenging request of God: “[Grant, Almighty God,] that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you.” And it’s an interesting thought: I imagine each of us as bricks, living stones, cut, hewn, placed and ordered on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, on Jesus himself, constituting, together, a temple for the praise and presence of God.

You will sometimes hear Christians say that the Church is not the building; the Church is the people. And that's absolutely right. (I know we're Episcopalians, but can I get an 'amen' for the Church is the people?) You are the Church - not these walls. The people are the Church. But listen to this: while the Church is not the building - the Church is the people - according to this prayer, the people are also a building, a temple. “Grant that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you.” 

Let me tell you a story, then, about how, once upon a time, temples came to be. (1)

Once upon a time, it took seven days, more or less, to make a temple, once you had the pieces, the main ingredients together. Inaugurate might be a better word, but seven days, again, more or less, is what it took. Six days of organizing, ceremonially arranging and bringing in different things with different functions to equip and decorate the temple so that the temple could do what temples were made to do; lamps and lamp stands for light, curtains, veils, to divide the holy spaces. Each item brought in, blessed, put in place over six days, to create a place where, on the last, or seventh, day, the divine could enter and rest. Temples in the ancient world were places in which gods rested and from which they ruled.   

I wonder if this story doesn’t begin to sound familiar. Six days of organizing, arranging, in the beginning. Light and the dividing of night from day, waters from land. The arranging, right ordering, of creeping things and birds of the air, blessing each thing as it is brought in and positioned for its purpose. By day six: the appointing of stewards, priests, on the earth. And, on the seventh day, God resting, taking up residence in God’s temple, the place in which God dwells, from which God will exercise God’s rule.

When the Hebrew people first heart the creation story involving six days of putting things together and a last day of rest, this is what they heard: the universe, the whole created order, made to be the living temple of God. The ancient Hebrews heard this revelation as the answer to the question, “What’s it all for, anyway?” The universe in which we live and move and have our being is the place where God chooses to dwell. And humanity’s vocation, her special function within this temple, was as priests, the ones who made the offerings, who lifted up creation in the context of this temple for God’s good blessing. 

Our worship has taught us this: “Lift up your hearts!” we say. And all that is with them. Lift them up, put them here, invite God to bless them. We were made to be made a living temple, a place, a holy people, of rest and encounter with the living God. And the New Testament scriptures, alongside our worship, present Jesus as the perfect priest who frees us to join him in the act of offering the world to God for blessing.

A friend of mine has a picture for this freedom; a picture for our function as priests in the temple of creation. (2) The picture is of you and me as God’s big, yellow, labrador retriever, engaged in an unending game of fetch. This is how the game works: when you go out from this place and when you come back and when you go out and come back and then, before God’s table, offer your selves and souls and bodies, when you acknowledge God’s claim on every inch of your life and the whole created order, even the odd and untidy bits like lawyers and dirty diapers and awkward friendships, you are like the labrador that brings back the tennis ball that has been thrown out into the field. 

You bring back the ball, but anyone who has ever played fetch knows that it doesn’t come back clean. It comes back with mud, bits of earth, and slobber, caked on the ball. All of it enters this space. And then, with the dismissal, “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!”, the tennis ball is flung out the doors again; it flies through the air where it lands in new dirt. New dirt that likewise will come back to this place, caked to the ball, as we continue to offer our selves and souls and bodies, as we lift up our hearts, and ask God to bless, to transform, what we bring. And then we go out and do it again.

And, if you have a dog, and do much of this fetch business, you know how pointless it can feel some days. But you also know how this seemingly inane rhythm bears unexpected fruit, and chiefly in two ways: First, there are the paths that begin to be worn on the earth as the dog practices the rhythm of this dance over and over and over. Bare patches in the dirt, skid marks, and clear evidence of the game over time. Spiritually speaking, some people call these thin places. Places where the prayers of people over time have worn paths across the landscape that illumine the presence of God; the stone cathedral steps made soft by the steady, faithful steps of God’s ordinary people. The second fruit of this back and forth dance is the relationship itself between the dog and his master: the bond forged across the time they spend together around this single pursuit, and in witnessing the joy of the other in sharing the game. 

We come in and go out, and over again, and each time we return we bring more of the world into this space to offer for the blessing of God. The coming and going are not two separate realities, but they are the inhale and exhale of the very same breath. This is what it means to be a holy, living temple.

It might sound beautiful. It might sound exhausting. Maybe you can relate to our yellow lab, panting at the master’s feet, on the edge of collapse, still with that sparkle in her eye that says she can’t resist another toss.

In Luke’s gospel, a disciple tells Jesus he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus’ response suggests that the disciple underestimates the vigorous nature of that commitment: “...Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ [And t]o another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’”

Jesus is not a stagnant Savior. He’s on the move. Constantly throwing the ball. Himself set like flint, toward Jerusalem and the way of the cross. Single-mindedly. Relentlessly. Sometimes uncomfortably. As with any commitment worth making, following Jesus will exceed the present ability of the ones who set out to do it, will leave them breathless, and will finally transform their imaginations for what it means to follow Jesus. And isn’t that what they were looking for, what they longed for, all along?

Jesus seems to say to the men in Luke’s gospel, “If you have sought the pearl worth selling everything for, the possibility that life could be actually different and not simply rationalized or repainted, know that the kingdom is here, and this is that moment. That’s what you wanted, and by the definition of your longing, you can’t have known all it would entail. But you see it now. You are free to live it. Go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Single-mindedly, relentlessly, and, yes, sometimes uncomfortably.

We come in and go out, and over again, eyes fixed on our Savior, we follow his lead, and each time we return we bring more of the world into this space to offer for the blessing of God. The coming and going are not two separate realities, but they are the inhale and exhale of the very same breath. This is what it means to be a holy, living temple.

Let us pray. 

Lord, you promise never to leave us or forsake us. Since we are always in your presence, help us always to keep our eyes fixed upon you that we might follow your lead in the never-ending dance of your life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (3)


SFH. 6.30.13


(1) I am deeply indebted in the section that follows to John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (2009)..

(2) I first learned this picture from Sam Wells at a small group session of the Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies at Duke, but you can read about it his book, God's Companions (2006).

(3) Prayer taken from the excellent prayer resource, which is the online version of this book.

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