A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 8, 2015 (III Lent, Year B)
The summer before I started 8th grade, my family moved from Baltimore to New York. In a lot of ways this was a major shock to my system but in retrospect one of the most broadening experiences of my life. I went from a house in a suburban neighborhood and a school with a vast expanse of athletic fields to a row house in Queens and a school that was a thirteen story building. Goodbye carpool lines, hello subway.
One of the many decisions that year was choosing a church soon after we got settled. My parents decided this would be a family decision — sort of a small bone to toss the kids after ripping us away from all that was friendly and familiar and devoid of Yankee fans.
So over a number of Sundays we went church shopping. Since we lived in Sunnyside, just over the 59th Street Bridge, we started with visits to some of the stunning churches in Manhattan. We went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and St. Thomas Fifth Avenue and Grace Church in Greenwich Village. All impressive examples of church architecture with incredible music and clergy straight out of central casting.
Setting was important to me. We left a beautiful church in Baltimore with gorgeous stained glass windows and thick interior columns and marble floors; a place that oozed holiness and just looked, felt, and even smelled like church. But after going to all these fancy places we always left feeling like something was missing and would start plotting our venue for the next week. As we started to run out of ideas, one of my parents suggested we at least try the small Episcopal church that was walking distance from our house.
Frankly, I didn’t even know it was a church. It didn’t really look like one from the outside — it sort of blended in with the other red brick buildings on the block. No flying buttresses or soaring spires. Just a squat building with a little garden on the side. Entering All Saints’ that first Sunday morning was equally uninspiring. The floor was red asbestos tile — that was my first impression. And they had, horror of horrors for a music-loving family, an electronic organ. Not that there was a choir. The place wasn’t shabby, it just wasn’t my idea of what a church should be.
But there was something about the young, energetic rector and the welcome we received from the small and very diverse group of parishioners that brought us back the next week. And the week after that. Suddenly I was acolyting every week and my mother was singing in the newly formed choir of three people and my father was reading lessons and my brother and I made up half the youth group.
The point is that this completely changed the way I understood church. It dawned on me that it wasn’t about Tiffany stained glass or acoustics or silver chalices. It was about two things: the community and Jesus. That’s it. That’s what church is really all about. But it took a process of grieving the reliance on outward beauty to get to that place. It was something I knew intellectually — that church isn’t ultimately about the building or any of the external trappings — but it took this experience to learn it internally.
We often approach the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple with preconceived notions and it’s easy to foist our own expectations upon him. “See, Jesus got angry too — he’s just like one of us” or “That Jesus was such a rebel — look at him sticking it to the man.” But one of the major themes of this somewhat jarring story is what Jesus is saying about how and what we worship.
For Jews — including Jesus — the Temple in Jerusalem was the very heart and epicenter of their faith. According to Scripture the original Temple was built by King Solomon in 957 BC. It housed the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence which traveled with the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses for 40 years. Once they had a permanent location to house the Ark — which held the original tablets containing the 10 Commandments — the Temple was built and it served as the literal House of God. And, according to the renderings and models that have been created by architectural historians, it was a most impressive structure.
The Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 when the city was sacked. After the fall of the Babylonian empire, a second Temple was completed in 515 BC. This one stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
This history is important because many Jews, including Jesus’ original disciples, couldn’t imagine worshipping God without the Temple. In other words, like me, those who worshipped at the Temple probably had strong ideas about what a house of worship should look like. And here was Jesus not only saying the Temple would turn to rubble but that he would raise it up in three days.
The problem with the Temple worship, and this was Jesus’ point, was that the Temple had become an idol in and of itself. And it’s understandable. We fall into the same temptation with our churches. We get attached to them. We love our sacred space here at St. John’s; it’s been an inspiration to generations of worshippers over the years; we’ve all donated time and effort and money to maintain it. And theologically, it makes sense — this is holy ground. And an incarnational faith encourages the embodiment of the holy. This space is sacred because it is where we gather week after week to encounter the divine presence. It is our Temple.
But here’s a secret: the Christian faith isn’t about the building. It took me a long time to figure this out. And it took Jesus’ followers a long time to figure this out as well. It was only in light of Jesus’ resurrection that they understood what Jesus was talking about when he proclaimed on that day, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Oh really? came the reply, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”
If Lent is a time to strip away the external trappings of our faith to focus more intentionally on our relationship with Jesus, this account fits right into the season. Now, I’m not suggesting we should ignore the stewardship of this building and let it fall apart from neglect. We need this special setting and it is indeed a sacred place. But if we spend too much time and attention on the practical at the expense of the spiritual, the balance can pretty easily get out of whack.
Yes, we need to have the roof shoveled and the ice dams broken and the snow plowed and the parish hall repaired. Yes, we need to pay for the boiler that gave up the ghost a couple months ago (you’ll be getting a letter about that this week). And as long as the church building points us toward God rather than serving as a distraction from God, we’ll be just fine.
Because ultimately we don’t need a building. We just need one another and Jesus.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck