Sunday, March 11, 2012

Zeal for Your House

His disciples remembered that it is written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
This past Tuesday I gathered with Episcopal clergy from our area for lunch and fellowship – something we do every month or so.  One of our practices is to read and discuss the next Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Reflecting on the text we heard just moments ago, the clergy as one asked the same question, “What would Jesus think if he walked into our church today?”  “Oh no,” said one priest, “This is the week of our annual rummage sale.”  Others spoke of offerings and collections and ticket sales and fund-raisers of one kind or another.  What would Jesus say about all of this?  Today’s reading just seems to draw out of us this response. 
But I want us to put this aside and approach the text from a different angle.  I want to move our reflection from the negative – what was Jesus reacting against – to the positive – what was Jesus advocating for.  Do you hear the shift in focus?  If we can figure out what Jesus was for then we can explore what inhibits it in our time.  The truth is that the Temple merchants and money-changers where shake-down artists that would make today’s pay-day lending operators blush.  Yes, some churches become too focused on money, and a few ministers have robbed blind their flock, but it is hard to imagine most congregations today reaching the scale of what was going on in the Temple that Jesus entered.
The disciples, in watching Jesus go to work, associated his actions with the ninth verse of the 69th psalm.  In it, the author describes hardships he endures because he is zealous for God’s house.  Zeal is an interesting word.  According to Webster’s Dictionary it means an “intense enthusiasm, as in working for a cause; ardent endeavor or devotion.”  It has a positive connotation, describing something you are for.  And while “zealot” can be used negatively to describe a person fanatical, militant, or bigoted, it also has a positive association as “one who is animated by an intense or eager interest in an activity, cause” or the like. 
Jesus’ zeal – his intense enthusiasm – was for the Temple to be a house a prayer.  One of the best articulations of a what this might look like is found in the least-used service in the prayer book, the liturgy for the Consecration of a Church.  On pages 568-569 we find three prayers: one offered to the Father by the bishop, one offered to the Son by a warden, and one offered to the Spirit by the priest.  As the church is being set apart as a house of prayer, these three prayers provide a rich description of what it should look like.
Everliving Father, watchful and caring, our source and our end: All that we are and all that we have is yours.  Accept us now, as we dedicate this place to which we come to praise your Name, to ask your forgiveness, to know your healing power, to hear your Word, and to be nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son.  Be present always to guide and to judge, to illuminate and to bless your people.
Lord Jesus Christ, make this a temple of your presence and a house of prayer.  Be always near us when we seek you in this place.  Draw us to you, when we come alone and when we come with others, to find comfort and wisdom, to be supported and strengthened, to rejoice and give thanks.  May it be here, Lord Christ, that we are made one with you and with one another, so that our lives are sustained and sanctified for your service.
Holy Spirit, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts, that we may grow closer to you through joy and through suffering.  Be with us in the fullness of your power as new members are added to your household, as we grow in grace through the years, when we are joined in marriage, when we turn to you in sickness or special need, and, at the last, when we are committed into the Father’s hands.
This, I think, is a fair description of what Jesus is zealous for.  His actions point us toward this by pealing away every layer that covers or conceals what is central.  
One of the devotional books I am reading is a work by John O’Donohue called Beauty: The Invisible Embrace.  In it he writes that in China they tell the story of subjects from Mongolia who travelled vast distances to see the emperor.  Once they arrived in Beijing, they had to practice for months the decorum appropriate to that moment of encounter.  When the emperor finally passed, they could not even look up.  The whole journey was rewarded with a glimpse of just of his feet. 
Reflecting on this O’Donohue writes:
When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us...  When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us.  The rushed heart and the arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter the embrace.  Beauty is mysterious, a slow presence who waits for the ready, expectant heart.
In Jesus’ day it was the business of the Temple that worked most forcefully to prevent seekers from encountering God.  I think O’Donohue is on to something important when he identifies today’s biggest impediments as “the rushed heart and the arrogant mind.”  Rushed: the pace of life today is so crazy that is nearly impossible to sit down in a church and slow down long enough to be present to the moment.  Arrogant: coming here knowing what you need from God and when you need it and how you want God to give it to you.  There are times I approach worship the way a college student comes home from school, bursts in the front door, drops off a bag of dirty laundry, asks for cash, and is gone again leaving the parent bewildered and empty. 
We are in the presence of Greatness here, but do we approach this moment in a way that allows Greatness to open up to us?  On the first Wednesday night in Lent, we encountered this statement by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.  And only he who sees takes off his shoes, the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”  What is it that allows one person to see the burning bush while another sees only the berries to pick?  Certainly not being rushed and not having your mind already made up as to what you are looking at help.
This, I think, is what Jesus would help us to understand if he walked into St. Paul’s this morning.  The over-turned tables, freed sacrificial animals and birds, and the coins strewn out over the Temple floor are signs that we are here to encounter Greatness, to be open to Beauty, and to respond with praise worthy of the One who passes by.
His disciples remembered that it is written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”