The week before last I spent a few days in Salt Lake City attending a national church commission meeting. I love Salt Lake City. It lies at the base of the Wasatch Mountains and is organized around what the locals call Temple Square—the complex of buildings that comprise the Temple, Tabernacle, Office Building, and Visitors’ Center. Together they form the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Salt Lake City’s Mormon Temple is one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen: perched high above the city with the mountains behind it, the temple looks like the place where earth and heaven meet. I can imagine a person walking into it (it would have to be a Mormon person as we “Gentiles” are not allowed inside) and thinking, “This has to be the place where God dwells.” For someone to think that would not be a coincidence. The Mormon Temple is modeled on the Jerusalem Temple, built by Solomon in the 10th century BC, destroyed by the Babylonians four hundred years later, rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah two generations after that, and finally destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. In the ancient Near Eastern way of doing things, the temple was often placed at the highest point in the holy city to represent the place where the divine and the secular realms come together and (not coincidentally) to suggest heaven’s blessing on earthly power structures. In ancient Israelite and Jewish culture, the Temple was the one place where a person could have reliable, certifiable, ritual access to God.
For all its impressiveness, though, the Jerusalem Temple and its practices are a big part of what Jesus consistently preaches against. Listen again to the first words in this morning’s Gospel:
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." [Luke 21.5]
The force of Jesus’s critique is not really against beautiful buildings as such; Jesus is ultimately concerned that the Temple has become the symbol of a religious system that presumes to serve as the middleman between human beings and God. As the Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan reminds us, economic, political, and social relationships in Jesus’s day were all based on the idea of brokerage—the ability of a series of middlemen to build around themselves “distinctive pyramids of power” and serve the needs of patrons and clients. [The Historical Jesus, p.59] All social relationships were organized this way. So the people with real power in ancient Near Eastern society were the brokers, the ones who brought patron and client together.
And this is what made the religious system symbolized by the Temple so pernicious and the object of Jesus’s scorn. To teach that the Temple was the authorized broker between you (the client) and God (the patron) was to make it the only place you could have access to God. To preach that only by means of the Temple’s services could you cleanse, redeem, and heal yourself was to Jesus a perversion of Israel’s faith. More than that: since Jesus had gone about Galilee gathering people of every social rank and position around his open table, the Temple stood as a direct contradiction of his witness. In place of the hierarchical patronage system, Jesus offered the fellowship of the gathered table to which everyone was welcome.
So when Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel of the destruction of the Temple, he is engaging neither in crystal ball prognostication about what the Romans will do in another 30 plus years, nor in zealous terroristic threats. He is simply stating a fact: a system based on brokering religious blessings as if they were commodities will collapse of its own weight. It is based on false understanding of how God works. It is, in Martin Luther King’s words, “organized against itself” and cannot stand.
My wife Kathy told me the other day that the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung had a sign with these words in his study: “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” If Jesus stood for or taught anything, it was that God is everywhere all the time, not exclusively in the Temple in Jerusalem but also around a Galilean table. One can have a direct experience of God in the here and now without the interference of brokering people or institutions. Gathered around Jesus’s table, making common cause with others, you and I can experience God’s grace and power now. That is an audacious message, and it is easily misunderstood. It can be misheard as a challenge to all religious authority, and it can be misread as a license to abandon all formal organized worship. So if this is one place but not the only place, if it’s one way but not the only way, how do we connect with God? If places like this—and this is our own kind of temple--aren’t the exclusive abode of the divine, why should we ever visit them? If the prayer book is one way but not the only way, why use it at all?
These last few months I have been making my way through the Collected Poems of Philip Larkin, the great modern English poet who died in 1985. Larkin was hardly a conventionally religious man, yet one of his most compelling pieces is called “Church Going”. It is a poem describing a solitary traveler’s visit to an empty church that has fallen out of use. At the end of “Church Going”, Larkin’s speaker says this:
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground . . .
Here is a tourist, stopping by an empty church and reflecting on the value of a nearly abandoned church building. “A serious house on serious earth it is.” A church is made holy not because it presumes to be the only place you can experience God. A church is made holy by the depth and care of what generations of seeking, questioning thoughtful people bring into it. What hallows a church building is the very fact of the questions that have been posed and pondered by the people sitting in its pews. It’s deepest value lies in being the place where we surprise a hunger in ourselves to be more serious. This sacred space is precious, says Larkin,
because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these . . .
Neither the architecture nor the preaching nor the music nor even the words of the Prayer Book and Bible suffice to make this church building sacred. “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.’ What makes this beautiful place holy is what you and I and those who have come here before us have brought into it—a desire to know and be known by God, a willingness to open ourselves up to the big questions raised by problems that have overwhelmed us, a hope for something better and more just than the day to day grind we experience. It is that willingness to surprise a hunger in ourselves that allows for the precisely gracious way in which God is revealed in this space.
When Jesus announced the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple he was both proclaiming the shortcomings of religious systems and announcing the truth that, since God was incarnate in him God was now incarnate in everyone. So in Jesus’s temple holiness does not radiate from the altar out but from the pew up. In the meal we celebrate and serve together, God is in and for and with us precisely as we bring to that meal our thoughts and doubts and hopes and fears and deepest longings along with a willingness to be surprised into something deep and new.
The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City was dedicated in 1893, so it’s about 120 years old. Christ Church Cranbrook is a little more than 80 years old. The first Jerusalem Temple lasted four hundred years, the second six hundred. In telling us that even impressive structures do not last, Jesus was redirecting our attention ever forward. The life events and weekly cares that shape our lives have made this space the precious place it is. But bidden or unbidden, God is present and is at work doing something bigger and deeper for you and me and the world than we can ask for or imagine. The task before each of us is to bring our hopes and fears, our joys and our sorrows, our willingness to be surprised into deeper seriousness into our engagement with God, each other, and the world both within these walls and outside them.
God really does want to know and love and bless you face to face, without the interfering brokerage of any system—not even the system that I represent. And the reason God wants to do that is hinted at in today’s first reading. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating. [Isaiah 65:17]
God is doing a new thing, both for the world and for you. Be glad and rejoice forever in that new heaven and new earth in which all of us can gather freely around Jesus’s open, generous table and then go out to serve and invite the world. Amen.