Bruce and I had dinner with, and saw the pictures of, a friend of ours who recently returned from a trip to India. On the last night of their stay, the group our friend was traveling with went to the Flower Festival that is held once a year in one of the nearby temples. That morning, literally millions of brightly colored flower petals had been plucked from fields and gardens and gathered, by color, in great baskets. At the appointed hour, in honor and reverence of the god of abundance, the baskets were overturned and the flower petals poured out from the balconies of the temple onto the ecstatic worshippers. Our friend had taken a short video, which gave us barely a glimpse of the sheer joy, exuberance, and abundance of the celebration, which lasted over 2 hours. It looked something like children playing at the sea or lakeshore, dancing in the water, though this water was made of flower petals, and literally shoveling and throwing gold and red and magenta drops at one another, while joyfully chanting the name of God. “It was overwhelming,” our friend said, “life-changing.” “Lost in wonder, love, and praise” is another way to describe it, as the last words of our final hymn will say.
It reminded both Bruce and me of the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned the water in the 6 jars for purification–each containing 20 or 30 gallons–into the finest wine and had the wine steward serve it to the wedding guests after the other wine had run out. It’s also a story of the overwhelming abundance and goodness of God, and it’s the story that John tells just before the story we read this morning about Jesus’ overturning the money-changers’ tables in the Temple. While the other gospels tell this story as part of Holy Week, as the event that solidifies the Jewish authorities’ determination to have Jesus arrested, John places it here at the beginning, in chapter 2, putting Jesus first on the authorities’ radar.
Hearing this story in the context of Holy Week makes it part of the ratcheting up of emotion and danger. But hearing it here at the beginning of the gospel, and particularly right after the story of the wedding at Cana, opens up some other possibilities of meaning and insight. Having just performed a sign that pointed to God’s abundance and joy, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for the great festival of freedom, the Passover, and finds the temple filled with people doing business. The Temple was the house of God, it was said, the one place where God could be found, and there were obligations to worshiping God in the Temple, namely, offering sacrifices. The business being done in the courtyard of the Temple was necessary business, they said, as travelers to Jerusalem needed to change their money into Temple coins to buy animals for sacrifice.
Picking a golden flower petal off his robe and with the taste of finest wine in his mouth, Jesus knows that this is not what the true worship of God is about. It’s not about confining the Holy to one building–as big and glorious and impressive as it is– and it’s not about maintaining an elaborate structure and system, getting lost in the minutia and the busyness, instead of getting lost in wonder, love, and praise.
And here in John, Jesus not only turns over the money-changers’ tables and drives out the animals, but when asked by the authorities what sign he could show for doing these things, Jesus replies cryptically, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They, of course, think he’s talking about the building of stone which has taken years to complete, but Jesus’ followers–those particularly in John’s community–remembered this years later, and knew that he was talking about his body. They understood now that Jesus was saying that God’s dwelling place was not in the Temple but in the Word made flesh, in the resurrected body of Christ, which they were a part of and which was “loose” in the world.
Fr. Richard Rohr writes that “When God is seen as ‘outside’, the sacrificial system will remain. However, when God moves inside, you are the temple and sacrifice is no longer required. The only sacrifice now is me.” (Cited by Peter Woods in “I am listening…”, 3/5/12) “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?” the apostle Paul wrote. What matters if God is inside you–and me–is the integrity of the heart, not mere compliance with the law. What matters is how permeable we are to God–to allowing God in and allowing God to flow out from us. What matters is being willing to be emptied so that we can be filled with God.
“Lent is the great spring cleaning of the Christian life,” one writer says (Alyce McKenzie, Patheos, 3/5/12) “In the early church, Lent was viewed as a spiritual spring, a time of light and joy in the renewal of the soul’s life. It represented a return to a life in which God was once more center and source.” How different an image that is from the traditional notion of Lent as a time of darkness and deprivation, of self-loathing and depression even, which St. Augustine had a good deal to do with and was perfected during the Middle Ages.
In recent years there has been a shift away from “giving up” things in Lent to “taking on” practices, from giving up meat or chocolate or alcohol to taking on habits that we should be doing all the time–praying, or daily reading of Scripture or other spiritual writings, or acts of kindness and service. This Lent we’ve used these rainbow streamers to remind us of different practices– practices of discernment, or sustainability, or spaciousness–with growing lists of suggestions of things to do, things to practice, out in Webster Hall.
But it occurred to me last Sunday, after our 15 minutes of announcements before we could even begin worship, that maybe practices of “giving up” aren’t such a bad thing for our congregation. We know how to take on–more things to do, because there’s always more to do; more good causes to support or learn about, because there are an endless number of good causes; more good deeds to do, because there are always more good deeds to do. But do we risk becoming like the money-changers in the Temple that Jesus overturned? Do we risk getting so caught up in the business and busy-ness that we miss the joy, we never let go into the ecstasy, we never get lost in “wonder, love and praise”? How can we clear out space for God? Might saying “no” be a practice of spaciousness, for if we say “yes” to everything, if we never say “no,” our “yes” becomes meaningless.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God,” the psalmist sings. Speechlessly heaven and earth sing out God’s praise. And the structure of life that Torah, or the law–dharma, as the Buddhists refer to it–provides, is intended to be “soul-reviving, wise-making, heart-rejoicing, eye-enlightening, forever-enduring,” the psalmist goes on to say. There is joy and wonder and wisdom built into the very fabric of the universe, but we have managed to pollute it, domesticate it, fill it up with “stuff,” and business, and lose sight of the Divine which is present in every moment, in every person, in creation, in you and me.
My guess is that deep down what most of us hope to experience–or at least catch a glimpse of–when we come to church on a Sunday morning–in addition to the fellowship and the food, what we really long to experience is God. I hope we do, even occasionally. But, of course, this isn’t the only place where God can be experienced. God is in our homes and at our places of work and school and play, on ski slopes and mountain paths, on city streets and quiet country roads. Perhaps what the church can be, as one preacher suggests, is a way station for rest and nourishment, a “vocational counseling center” to help us all discern what God is calling us to do and be in the world, and place where we can learn and practice how to be vessels of God’s love and light in the world.
“Are you tired?” Jesus asks, in Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation. “Worn out? Burned out on religion? Walk with me and work with me…. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” the psalmist says (Ps. 51), “and put a new and right spirit within me.” The cleansing of the Temple. Spring cleaning for the soul. May we indeed let go of our busyness long enough so that we can be “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark