A Tale of Three Temples

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-27-_-_Expulsion_of_the_Money-changers_from_the_TempleA sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 4, 2018.  The scripture readings are Exodus 20:1-17Psalm 191 Corinthians 1:18-25, and John 2:13-22

Listen to the sermon HERE

Those of you who know a little history about our church know that we are sitting in what is really the third Church of the Holy Trinity.  The first parish was founded in 1864 at 42nd Street and Madison Avenue (where air rights are currently selling for zillions of millions… but never mind). The parish grew and so, a new building was built on the same spot in 1873—a huge building that supposedly could seat 2,300 congregants. Because its tile and brick patterns were so colorful, it was nicknamed “the church of the holy oil cloth” by one critic. Over time, leadership changed, demographics shifted, and the parish declined.  When Holy Trinity asked the Diocese if it could move northward a few blocks, they were told that there were already enough churches in that area—so Holy Trinity would need to look farther north.  In conversations with St. James’ Church, a plan eventually developed whereby Holy Trinity’s property would be sold to help pay the debt of St. James, the two would combine, but a new mission with a church would be established in Yorkville.  Thus, with the gift and vision of Serena Rhinelander, our current building was built (St. Christopher’s Mission House in 1897 and the larger church in 1899.)

I’m reminded of our “three churches” by our Gospel today, in which there appear three churches, or rather—three temples.

The first temple we hear about this morning is the physical temple, the one that was standing in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of religion, culture, what NT Wright has described as the “heartbeat of Jerusalem.” The temple was the place where God and people met. There the veil was thin between heaven and earth. It was the place of pilgrimage and procession, of incense and intrigue, it is in the area of this temple that Jesus enters and causes a disruption. The Gospel of John places this cleansing of the temple early in the Gospel, setting the tone for all that follows. John has the disciples recall Jesus’ prophecy: “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

This brings us to the second temple in today’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of the temple of his body. He speaks of himself as a temple, because it is in him that God meets humanity, in Jesus that God is known and loved and worshipped, through Jesus that God makes possible sacrifice, intercession, forgiveness and life eternal. Paul extends this image to include us as well when he asks the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Jesus is the prototype for this new understanding of temple. His cleansing of the temple, the physical action of overturning the tables of the moneychangers and trying to restore purity and sanctity to the physical temple foreshadows his work on the cross.

Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus restores, purifies and makes holy. And, he is, indeed, raised up on the third day.

There is the temple that is made of stone. There is the temple of the body. But there is a third temple in today’s Gospel. It is the temple of the imagination and perhaps it is just as strong as the one made of stone.

Before the actual temple was built by Solomon, there was a dream and a desire to locate God, to have a place that was special to God, a place set aside and made not only holy, but especially holy. And so after years of waiting and praying, God allowed Solomon to build. Years later when the people of Israel were taken off to Babylonia, they remembered their temple and they wept. They remembered the songs that were sung, the worship, the glory. And this became an enormous inspiration and encouragement. By the time of Jesus, the temple was the center of a well-developed system of power and money and status and commerce.

The temple had become many things for many people. For some it was source of income—certainly the taxes sustained a lot of people. For some, to be associated with the temple meant prestige and protection. For the Romans, the temple pacified the people to a certain extent—it kept them at worship and out of trouble. As long as they couldn’t see beyond the incense, they would be blind to injustice. But to the vast majority of people, those faithful and unfaithful who simply tried to get through life–the temple must have represented a mystery—a place where prayers and sacrifices might be offered. Or perhaps they weren’t offered– you really never knew if the priest offered your sacrifice or not, did you? And who was to say whether God would listen?

This third temple, this temple of the imagination, had grown into much more than a physical place for meeting God—part symbol, part magic– for many it had replaced God. It was in the way of God. It was in-stead of God. Which brings all this talk of temples home to us.

This morning’s Gospel points to many different directions. It could easily serve as a fruitful Gospel for all of the Sundays in Lent. The cleansing of the temple points us to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the events we re-tell in Holy Week. The Gospel, set against the backdrop of the other readings, points us to the complicated relationship between law and grace, between what God expects of us and how we live our lives.

But for me on this day, the Gospel invites me to think about the temples in my life. Are there things that have become for me like temples, things that get in the way of God’s presence? Are there temples of my own making that need to be cleansed or knocked down?—are there thoughts or opinions or ideas that God would overturn this season? Have I inherited temples from others—have I learned from the church in some way particular habits or attitudes that need to be cleansed or thrown out? Or are there things—pretty things, nice things, comfortable things, things I may have worked hard for, things I saved up for and finally bought, making them mine, mine, mine—are there things that God might be trying to overturn in my world this season?

As the people of God in THIS place, let us give thanks for our several temples—or churches—the first two, and the one we’re in today—but let us be mindful of the need to cleanse, renew, tear down, and rise again, as we follow our Lord and Friend Jesus, who died and rose again, showing us the way forward.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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