Protecting the Sacred

(Sermon given at Grace St. John’s UCC, on Feb. 24, 2013)
Today in Jerusalem, one can see the remains of an imposing wall built by Herod the Great as part of a massive temple renovations project. That temple stood for less than 100 years before being destroyed by the Romans. For centuries, the one wall was all that could be seen from the once glorious temple complex. While recent archaeological digs have uncovered more traces of Herod’s renovation, that Western Wall remains the most revered site in all of Judaism. It is the place where every Friday evening worshipers gather for Sabbath prayers.
Just above this wall, on top of what the Jews know as the Temple Mount, are two more places of worship. These are Muslim holy places built on the very site where the ancient Jewish temple stood. According to Muslim tradition, it was from this mountain that the prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven and received the Quran from God. And so this place is revered as the third holiest site in all of Islam.
It is this contrast of competing claims between two religious and cultural groups that is central to the Middle Eastern conflict today. There are Israelis willing to give up all occupied territories and even to withdraw the Jewish settlements in these areas, if it means real peace for their nation. And there are Palestinians who would settle for autonomy over these fairly small and scattered parcels of land if it would bring an end to the violence. But the one issue over which seemingly no one is able to compromise is the fate of Jerusalem. The city holds such an important place in the history, culture and religions of both peoples that neither is willing to allow the other control of it.
This reverence for Jerusalem and conflict of perceptions over it is nothing new. It goes all the way back to the time when David captured the city from the Jebusites and made it his capital. Ever since then Jerusalem has been the most important city in the world for Jews. And ever since then there have been competing claims about the meaning and purpose of that city.
Jerusalem, was, of course, the capital of Israel when it was a unified and independent kingdom under David and Solomon. And when the kingdom was divided, it remained the capital of the southern nation of Judah. For more than 400 years the descendants of David sat on the throne in Jerusalem and ruled over an independent Jewish state. When the Babylonians conquered Judah, they first deported the members of the royal family, a staggering blow to the nation. but the final, crushing defeat came when the city of Jerusalem itself was destroyed.
In the time of Jesus, there was no independent Jewish state. Nor was there a descendant of David on the throne. Judea was a small province of the mighty Roman Empire, ruled by a Roman governor. Furthermore, Jerusalem was no longer the capital. Herod had built a new city on the coast named Caesarea and moved the capital there around the time Jesus was born. Still, the city of Jerusalem held tremendous significance for the Jewish people. It was a reminder of their proud history, a symbol of their independence and grandeur in the past. It was place of refuge for them from the Roman world. This was especially true of the Temple itself.
By Jesus’ time, and under Herod the Great, a massive renovation project was begun. The courtyard surrounding the temple was greatly enlarged. Great ramps and walkways provided easy access to the temple. And the temple itself was completely refurbished. The renovation began nearly 20 years before Jesus’ birth and continued for another three decades after his death.
It was this temple, more than anything else in Jerusalem, that gave the Jewish people their unique identity. For the identity of the Jews was as God’s Chosen People, and the temple was regarded as God’s special dwelling place. It was here that the people came to offer sacrifices and prayers. It was here that the priests sought God’s will for the people of Israel. It was here that Jews from all over the world came to celebrate the great feasts of their faith and to recall the acts of God on behalf of their ancestors. in short, it was at the temple in Jerusalem that God’s presence was most keenly perceived.
But the picture that Jesus presents of Jerusalem in today’s passage is something quite different. he does not regard it as a place of refuge or a place where God’s presence is especially made known. Jesus identifies Jerusalem as the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it. Jesus recognized that conflict and the violence that came out of the reverence for this distinctive place. He realized that the special significance attached to Jerusalem was at times used as an excuse to persecute and oppress those who were different.
There is, you see, a dark side to placing too high of a regard on a particular place. for once someplace is identified as special or holy, then there will certainly be those who believe it their duty to maintain that sacredness, to protect the place from those whom they regard as a threat. The irony is that it is in this act of trying to protect the holiness of a place that some of its special nature is lost.
Think of the famous “render unto Caesar” story from the Gospel. The Temple authorities decided it would be blasphemous to accept foreign coins bearing the images of other gods, so they required travelers to exchange their coinage for Jewish coins in order to pay their taxes. This meant exchange booths were set up, eventually charging very high rates of exchange, causing many people to go further into poverty while they themselves became wealthy. It was this practice that Jesus condemned, which led to his death. So in the name of keeping Jerusalem and the temple holy, the authorities committed the most unholy act imaginable. They killed the Son of God.
Jesus was correct in identifying Jerusalem as a city that kills prophets, but he is not judging, he is expressing sorrow and compassion. He wants the city to be the holy place it claims it is, a place of refuge, a place where God’s presence will be made known.
And in a sense isn’t that what we have come here to find? We come here seeking a place of shelter. We call this place where we gather for worship the sanctuary—the same word we use to describe an area where animals are protected. We come here seeking to meet God and to know of God’s presence with us. But like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, we all too often sabotage our own efforts. And rather than the church being a safe place it becomes a threatening place. Perhaps that’s because we are looking for the wrong kind of refuge.
Some come to church seeking a place to hide from the world. They want a place to escape from the cares and worries of life, like some spiritual spa. But church was never intended to be a vacation from the rest of life. There is certainly value in getting away from all the pressures and stresses of everyday life, but the purpose is to strengthen us for our life, not escape from our life. Worship of God requires thinking deeply and feeling deeply. Becoming aware of God’s presence means that we also become more aware of God’s creation. Worship should be an act which heightens our senses rather than dulling them. So being a part of the church means being open to more involvement with the world, not escaping from it.
What, then, is the refuge, the sanctuary which the church has to offer? First, we are God’s people. God loves us and promises to care for us, and this also means we have other people to turn to as well. The church should be a refuge in the sense that it should be a safe place to be. This should be the place where we can share our deepest secrets and our darkest fears—maybe not with the whole congregation, but with someone here who will understand and accept us. The rest of the world cloaks its intentions and fears being open: we, as church, must always remain transparent and open.
The problem we run into is that we fail to understand precisely what the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time failed to grasp. They tried desperately to protect the Jerusalem temple and ended up destroying it. We all too often do the same with the church. We try to protect the specialness of “our” church by making certain ideas or subjects off limits. And if we feel that the church is somehow vulnerable or in a precarious position, rather than really searching for what it is we treasure, we try to control discussions and the thinking of others around us. We have made the critical error of being emotionally invested in a particular outcome, thereby closing ourselves off from the movement of the Holy Spirit. And we do these things because we are terrified that the sacredness and specialness of our church might somehow be defiled if we don’t attempt to intervene.
The truth is, these reactions have the opposite effect than the one intended. If there are ideas people have that are somehow not okay to discuss, then the church is no longer a sanctuary for those who hold these ideas. If the church is not a safe place to talk about something, or a safe place where we can challenge each other to be our best selves, then it has ceased to be the church that Christ intended. The fruits of the Holy Spirit do not include private meetings, secret agreements, attempts to sway others’ opinions by working behind the scenes—especially when these acts result in disturbing the unity and peace of the congregation. Jesus still longs for us to be gathered under his wings and to find shelter. And we still refuse to be gathered in because we have our own ideas about how to proceed.
But if we come together seeking shelter rather than escape; if we come with the intention of finding God’s presence in one another; if we come with an attitude that provides safety for others; if we come with an attitude that individually we know nothing but collectively we can truly discern the mind of God, then we, too, shall find safety. We, too.


About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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