“Zeal for Your House”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

March 8, 2015 The Third Sunday in Lent

Psalm 19:1-5; John 2:13-22

 

If you drive north and east from here—up 395 to 290, to 495, to 95, crossing into New Hampshire and then over the Piscataqua River into Maine… and if you continue about two-thirds of the way to Portland, then get off the highway and wind along the back roads for a while… you’ll start to see tidal rivers and mud flats, and you’ll start to smell the salt sea air, and you’ll start to hear the screaming of seagulls as they wheel in the wind. After you pass through Biddeford and Saco, you’ll eventually come to a campground and conference center called Ferry Beach, where I spent many happy summertime weeks as a child. It was my favorite place on earth.

At Ferry Beach, you could get up early, while it was still dark, and walk up the road, and down the boardwalk that crossed the dunes, and sit alone on your towel on the cool sand, and listen to the sound of the waves breaking, and watch the sunrise turn the sky from inky blue, to pale green, to warm pink, to flaming orange. You could make the same walk in the mid-afternoon and find a different scene entirely—sand that burned the soles of your feet, children in brightly-colored bathing suits building sand castles, lifeguards blowing their whistles. You could go at low tide and let the waves lap at your ankles while you scoured the shore for scallop shells and sand dollars.

You could visit the tide pools and watch the hermit crabs clamber across the rocks, and hum to periwinkles to try to coax them out of their shells, and marvel at the strange and beautiful anatomy of the starfish and sea anemones. You could visit the salt marsh and paddle your canoe silently among the egrets and eiders. You could visit the state park and hike through sand dunes and scrub pine forests.

And then you could go and sit on the rough-hewn benches in the outdoor chapel, and you could look up through the boughs of the tall pine trees, and stare into the cobalt blue sky until you felt like you might fall upward into its depths.

 

If the composer of Psalm 19 is right, and I believe that he is, then the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. If the composer of Psalm 19 is right, and I believe that he is, then our favorite places in the world can teach us a lot about who God is. If the composer of Psalm 19 is right, and I believe that he is, then we can learn a lot about the nature of our Creator by paying careful, faithful attention to Creation.

In that spirit, here’s what Ferry Beach taught me about God.

God is endlessly inventive—how else could God dream up such improbable creatures as the sea urchin, the common loon, the humpback whale, the popping rockweed and the stringy kelp and the lacy sea lettuce.

God appears in different ways at different times—as different as the many faces of the ocean: churning gray in a storm, sparkling blue at mid-afternoon, foaming breakers at high tide, peaceful stillness on a quiet morning. Yet just as the ocean is always there, so God is constant and reliable, too.

God shows up in the midst of busyness and stillness, companionship and solitude, activity and contemplation, and God’s presence transforms everything—just as the sky glows with the sun’s radiance at dawn, so the whole world glows with God’s radiance, if only we have eyes to see it.

 

Early Christian theologians taught that we are given two texts for the understanding of our world: the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. Those early Christians studied both, they learned from both, they wrestled with both, they admired and critiqued both, for they believed that by engaging with both scripture and nature, they would have the best chance at understanding God. And so, if those early Christians are right, and I believe that they are… and if the Psalmist is right, and I believe that he is… then the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament declares God’s handiwork, and our favorite places on earth can teach us a lot about who God is.

And so, before I say any more, I invite you to take a moment to think about a favorite place of yours. Call it to mind—go there in your imagination. What does it smell like? What does it sound like? What do you see? What do you feel? Whom are you with? Take a moment to explore that place in your memory, and think about what you have discovered in that place, what that place has taught you about who God is. And then, when you’re ready, turn to someone near you and tell them a little bit about your favorite place on earth, and what that Book of Nature taught you about God.

 

[sharing]

 

If those early Christians are right, and I believe that they are… and if the Psalmist is right, and I believe that he is… then the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament declares God’s handiwork, and our favorite places on earth can tell us a lot about who God is, because this whole earth is an expression of God’s creative impulse, God’s artistry, God’s delight in beauty and diversity. This whole earth sings God’s praises, tells God’s stories, demonstrates God’s mercy and creativity and beauty and love. This whole earth is holy ground, a place where we can encounter the presence of God—which is to say, this whole earth is a temple.

In our gospel reading today, we see how Jesus responded to the perpetration of injustices in the temple. We hear him speak hard words to those who would misuse that holy ground. We witness his zeal for God’s house as he behaves in ways that seem rather, well, un-Jesus-like. In this story, Jesus is no mild-mannered teacher, no tender shepherd, no gentle healer, no mister nice guy. He is fired up; he is on a mission.

The Jesus who wields a whip, who turns over tables, who snatches up purses and pours out their ill-gotten contents, who cusses out the offenders and sends them packing—this is not the Jesus we are accustomed to. This is not the Jesus we are comfortable with. But this is the Jesus we get. And so I wonder, how might Jesus’ zeal inspire our own?

If the Psalmist is right, then the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament declares God’s handiwork, and every corner of creation has something to teach us about who God is. And those expressions of God’s creativity and nurture are surely worthy of Jesus-like zeal.

You don’t need me to tell you about the ways in which we humans have not treated this earth as a holy place. You don’t need me to tell you about the ways we have misused this holy ground. You don’t need me to tell you about deforestation, and air pollution, and oil spills, and aquifer depletion, and mountaintop removal, and soil contamination, and climate change. You know about these things.

So rather than give you facts and figures, stories and statistics, about environmental degradation, what I have for you is a question. How will you be inspired by the zeal of Jesus? What will you do to stick up for your favorite place on earth? What choices will you make to defend that witness to God’s glory?

And lest we get too focused on our own favorite places… lest you think that I care only about Ferry Beach and not about the places you named… what will you do to stick up for someone else’s holy ground? What decisions will you make to protect the place where someone else encounters God?

As we continue our Lenten journey this week, what if we made a practice of doing one thing each day to take care of God’s earth? If each of us here today did so, it would add up quickly—just from now to next Sunday, that would mean 500 or so acts of care for the places we love, 500 acts of stewardship of this good earth, 500 ways of overturning the money-changers’ tables and restoring God’s house, this holy ground. It would mean 500 opportunities to read from the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, and to discover something new about who God is and about who God calls us to be.

Let’s get started.