A sermon for the third Sunday in Lent

It was just before 4 in the afternoon when someone noticed smoke rising from the red brick chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, the Episcopal seminary in Alexandria, just south of Washington DC.

The date was October 22nd, 2010, and up until then it had been an ordinary fall day. But in that moment, everything changed.

They called 9-1-1 and the firefighters arrived almost immediately, but “very soon,” as the dean wrote in a letter to the community, “it was apparent that the chapel was already in flames.”[1]

No lives were lost, and through the efforts of those responders no other buildings were lost, but there wasn’t much the seminary community could do but stand and watch as their beloved chapel burned to the ground. Immanuel Chapel had been the spiritual heart of the institution since 1881, and the sense of loss that community experienced was devastating.

So many memories are embedded in those places where, over years and decades, we have gone to pray. The places where we have known God’s presence.

Virginia Seminary’s graduates remembered praying out their doubts and uncertainties and hopes about life and vocation in that chapel. They remembered praying in solitude, and praying together. They remembered the baptisms, the weddings, and the ordinations they had celebrated in that space.

We Christians are all about memories. We remember what God has done for us. We remember what Jesus did and what he said, how he died and rose again.

The things we do here in church become more all the more meaningful over time as the memory of having done them before—we and others like us over time—meld together in layers that grow stronger through repetition and support our faith.

I think that any of us who have ever loved a church can understand their heartbreak. When you come together in a community again and again—to pray, to meet God in the celebration of these sacred mysteries, to lift voices in song and hearts and prayer—how can you not carry tender feelings for the place where that happens?

And anyone who has ever known the rhythms of seminary life will understand that this grief would be all the more intense because of the way seminary life revolves around the chapel. When the chapel at VTS burned down, I’d just begun my full-time studies at General Theological Seminary in New York—GTS is a friendly rival to VTS—and I was still getting used to the patterns of Morning and Evening Prayer, Holy Eucharist, and Compline, the beautiful service of night prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.

Every day the chapel bells called us to rise, set aside our books, and gather in the chapel—and by the way, the chapel at GTS is called the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, so maybe a little bit of foreshadowing there.

So the Virginia Seminary community lost its chapel to a fire and experienced a terrible grief, and yet the deeper truth was immediately clear: The church of Christ “is not a building,” as the dean wrote, and God continued to be present in that community, even when the chapel was gone.

And that is the also point of the story of Jesus in the Temple as John tells it in this morning’s Gospel.

One thing that’s important to know about John is that it was the last of the four Gospels to be written, maybe as late as a hundred years after the birth of Jesus. By then, the Temple in Jerusalem was gone. It had been destroyed in the year 70 by Roman armies who smashed a Jewish revolt against the Empire.

This was a devastating loss not just for all the sentimental reasons the Virginia Seminary community experienced, but because the Jews had believed that the Temple was not just a place where they met God—it was the place, the only place where God was truly present with them. Where would they find God now?

And when the beloved community of John’s Gospel looked back, they remembered that Jesus had already given them the answer to that exact question. He said:

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.[2]

He was speaking of the temple of his body.

This is the miracle of the Incarnation: that God lived among us, slept and ate and walked with other human beings in an ordinary human body, and by doing so, changed everything. Now we meet God in Christ—and, in the body of Christ, which is us, and all those like us. Now the most important place we encounter God is not in a building, but in living human flesh.

In this Gospel we see that Jesus is a faithful Jew who has gone up to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the feast that recalled Israel’s Exodus experience, a powerful reminder “of hope and redemption” through God’s providence, and a “central religious experience[s] in the life of Israel … “[3]

He respected that building and what it stood for, or he wouldn’t have been there. And as an observant Jew, he shouldn’t have been surprised to find people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers at their tables. They were there for a purpose, so that people could meet the requirements of the law.

If you came from far away, it would have been difficult to bring an animal along with you for sacrifice, and even if your sheep was able to make the long journey by foot, it most likely would not still be the perfect, unblemished animal that was required by the Law.  So you brought money from home and purchased your animal when you got to the Temple.

The other three Gospels put their emphasis on the corrupt business practices of the merchants involved in these transactions, but that’s not the point John is making. John describes Jesus fashioning a whip and driving the animals from the Temple. He tells the sellers of doves to get them out of there, too. As they go, he overturns the tables and pours out the coins of the money changers. His Father’s house—the place where God lived—should not be a marketplace, he says—and when he’s challenged on that, he goes on to talk about how he will raise the temple in three days.

He is telling us that he himself will be the temple where we meet God.

Surely this is good news. God is with us, Christ is right here among us. We are not alone.

I believe that with all my heart, and yet I find myself wondering if there wouldn’t be a lot of things we’d change if we really believed that this is true. If we really believed that the place where we meet God is not in this building … but that we ourselves—and all others like us—are living temples of divine presence.

We’d have to do more than pay passing lip service to our baptismal promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”?

We’d have to learn to talk to each other across our differences in a way that was respectful of those differences, and that was not about simply insisting that our way is right but on dialogue to find our way to the common good?

And wouldn’t we have to favor people over things, always. Wouldn’t we have to favor people over rules—wasn’t that what Jesus was doing when he cured people on the Sabbath?[4]

Didn’t he say that making people well and whole—signs of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom—ought to matter more than keeping the rules?

Wouldn’t we have to favor creating conditions where all people can flourish over protecting the wealth of the rich?

Wouldn’t have to favor ensuring the safety of schoolchildren—and of churchgoers, for that matter—over protecting the profits of gun-makers?

Wouldn’t we have to take seriously the clear Biblical imperative expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures and carried through in the teaching of Jesus to welcome the stranger?

Wouldn’t have to take seriously the understanding of our own selves as places where others might encounter God—so that everything about the way we live and speak demonstrates God’s grace?

And maybe we’d be asking ourselves if our parish outreach budget and the effort we put ought to balance both the energy and financial resources we invest in this building.

It’s true that when we have visitors here from the deanery or the diocese, they’re always impressed at how well our facility is maintained. The diocese supports us in this, and provides resources to help. But the point is that we don’t maintain a building for its own sake.

The purpose of the church as a building isn’t to enshrine our memories—no matter how important and cherished those memories may be—or to comfortably enhance our own feelings of personal holiness. A church should an instrument of faith, a place where all who would gather here feel welcomed, a place to be fed and then sent back into the world.

In October 2015–five years after the fire—a new chapel was dedicated at Virginia Seminary. The Consecration service was attended by a constellation of Episcopal and Anglican luminaries. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was the preacher. He said:

This building will only be what it should be, if we are built on Jesus. There is no compromise with that message. Without it this is a museum of interesting social anthropology. With Jesus as its focus and centre it is a channel of the breaking in of the kingdom of God.[5]

May our beloved church, too, be a channel of the breaking in of the kingdom of God, a place from which we go out to meet God in all the places where God is waiting to be found. Amen.

[1] All information about the Virginia Seminary chapel fire comes from https://www.vts.edu/page/immanuel-chapel/chapel-fire#, accessed March 2, 2018.

[2] John 2:19-22 NRSV.

[3] Bowser, B.M., “Unleavened Bread and Passover, Feasts of,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:755-756, quoted in Sacra Pagina.

[4] Matthew 12:1-14; Luke 13:10-17; Mark 3:1-6.

[5] “Archbishop preaches at Virginia Theological Seminary,” https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/speaking-and-writing/sermons/archbishop-preaches-virginia-theological-seminary, accessed March 3, 2018.