On Friday mornings this semester I’m taking the 19 tram to the Theological School at Trinity College and teaching a class on Spirituality and Prayer. Last week I began our time by asking the 12 students in the class to check in and share a bit of their present situation by finishing the sentence, “if I were a plant, I’d be...’” The answers were wide and wonderful, with responses like a rose, a gardenia, a storm-tossed eucalyptus, and a bare branch with some promise of new growth. So next week I am going to begin by asking: “if you were a worship space, what would you look like?” Since I get to think about this early I already know my answer! If I were a worship space I would be a circular room with doors and some windows and four artifacts hanging on the wall, equally spaced, one in each direction, plus an altar placed square in the middle. Seven things in all
I’d start with some clear and simple windows - so we can see, light and air; both important things and a very scriptural way to begin with. Look at the first chapter of Genesis, starting at the creation, void, darkness and a wind from God, then God creates light and sees that it is good! We can lose sight of that: that breath and light, good in our sight, are prime vehicles of grace and spirit. So we can take a breath and see where ywe are, where we’re going, who we’re with, what’s good and bad, what matters and why. For all that we need God’s light and air from the very start. So room for the air to move and windows to let the light in. Probably some candles too, but most of the day I’d let the light come through the windows in this particular room.
Then on one wall, I’d have the Ten Commandments; maybe both the version from Exodus as well as the version from Deuteronomy we’ve heard today, plus a few more good laws from the Hebrew scripture. Since we’re talking personal preferences I might have the line from Micah, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God; the speech in Deuteronomy that starts, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor”, Plus some other lines from the Psalms, I am always surprised by “The river of God is full of water” and “In the temple of the Lord, all are crying glory”. I would also throw in a few inconvenient truths so I don’t get lazy: lines like “Do not lend money for usury, or lend food for a profit”. plus the big ten: “I am the Lord your God, don’t have others Gods, don’t use my name wrongly, keep the sabbath, honor your parents, don’t kill, no adultery, don’t steal, lie, covet or desire anyone or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” These are important truths, and we need them in prominent places! But we don’t need them to be a God in themselves. There’s a danger there. They are means of discernment and service, but not the thing itself, and to make these laws into little deities on their own is like honoring the dinnerware but not eating the meal!
So to balance it out, on the other side of this circular room, Jesus’ summary of the law from Matthew’s Gospel: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And there is a second like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' The whole of the Law and the Prophets depends on these two commandments."
So the summary set right across from the other verses: lines and laws from scripture, so we can look back and forth, move from one side to the other: law and love, imperatives and incentives, what we need to do and why, but keeping them in close contact so that the law doesn’t get dead and rigid, and so love will keep fresh, won’t go all stale and sentimental; keeping a little tension between the two in that back and forth motion, while keeping room for light and grace in the middle because some important and deeply faithful questions can come up in that space, lively questions:
“If a marriage has gone dead, does it make sense to stay in it? Is divorce and remarriage in that case an instance of adultery? If parents are abusive, do they need to be honored, is it a sin to say good-bye? If a hungry child needs food on the Sabbath, can we gather food in the field, buy meat in the market, steal it if necessary? Would that be all right on the Sabbath? Is there room for a Sunday brunch with an old friend? And what about war, the line says don’t kill, but what about killing the guy that’s threatening to blow up the plane, the plan, the playing field, the schoolyard? Is this my neighbor? Is this someone loved by God, need this person be loved by me?
Moving back and forth between law and love in a life and death dance between God’s given grace and our taken necessities can be tough, and there are often not easy answers in the middle, but it can also means your questing and your questions and the quality of your answers are fresh in the air and light of the present day. It’ll keep you busy, and that’s no bad thing!
So two more things for rest and recreation; first, a crucifix. For the Lord of life died on that tree, and while I still don’t have all the answers as to why, I am convinced that this is the truest picture of how and where God’s love does not stop, but instead comes closest to the failure and ultimate loss of life for everyone. One big cross with Jesus right there, but maybe a place for others too; temporary pictures nearby as they come to mind: pictures of casualties of fire, flood, war and famine, of HIV and old age, of sagging heart and sad souls, bad drugs and gang wars, victims of powers and principalities, economics, lust, desire and greed. Pictures of the places where everybody gets lost! Right next to the crucifix.
For Jesus is there as a sign that God’s love, grace, wisdom is right there too, Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. That’s where Paul is right! Because the last place you’d want to look is where the greatest hope can be found.
And last, across the way an empty cross as well, maybe even a gold one. Because the crucifixion is not the last word on the way. We walk the way of the saviour, the tenuous road between the light of the law and the gravity of grace so that we may be surprised by the empty cross, the hope of resurrection, to be ever surprised that the world is this large, surpassing all we could ever understand: because standing beyond the crucified end is an open promise that God’s love is beyond death, has defeated death, shown it to be lie, points to the ultimate truth of love, this Jesus, who stands there for life, life for us.
And perhaps that’s one of the reasons why he went to cast out the money changers out of the forecourt of the temple in the Gospel reading for today. It was known to be an unjust system, where merchants, often in collusion with temple priests, making unfair profits from pilgrims, with overcharging as the norm. But (and this might be a more subtle issue) it was also a way to turn these transactions of temple tax and sacrifice into a theology of “you get what you pay for” instead of “all is yours by Grace”, and that makes the temple too narrow for this wide drama of love and redemption and death and life and love.
So Christ has given us another temple and another table in the middle of a sacred place, as well in the middle of our lives, where he meets us in the wide field between law and love and life and death, where we can take our questions and quandaries, and meet him in a enduring and surprising answer of light and grace. The altar in the heart of the church is one of those tables, and there are others. And I think that is why we are here.
Teachers can do terrible things sometimes, even give unannounced quizzes, so I will leave you with this one. “If you were a place of worship, what would you look like?” Because, of course, you are.