Faith Presbyterian Church

A House of Prayer for All People John 2:13-22

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore
March 3, 2024

A House of Prayer for All People
John 2:13-22

The room is large, with a dusty white tile floor, and dim – with fluorescent lighting that is often turned off, at least in my memory.  The lights are off to help keep the room cool, which mostly works along with a contraption called a swamp cooler, that uses fans blowing over a pan of water keep buildings moderately cooler than they would be otherwise – using the desert heat to cool through evaporation.  There is a thin film of dust on the white plastic chairs that are stacked and unstacked, arranged and rearranged for different events throughout the week.  It seems like an ordinary place, but it is a sanctuary.  The Lily of the Valley church in Agua Prieta, Mexico.

The sanctuary of my childhood was cavernous, at least in my memory, Air Conditioned to keep the Lousiana heat and humidity at bay.  Thick maroon velvet pew cushions three shades darker than the plush carpet softened the room, beautiful with wooden pews, simple stained glass.  Across the front of the sanctuary, sixty something organ pipes stand proudly over the choir – I counted them so many times as a child it’s embarrassing, I can’t recall precisely how many there were.  67?

Another sanctuary dear to my heart and firm in my memory stands on a hillside, with rough hewn rock benches stairstepping down to a fish-shaped chancel.  A big wooden cross stands high above a breathtaking view of the green Guadalupe river – the chapel on the hill at Mo-Ranch.

Some have high ceilings, others are ceiling tiles.  Some are lined with ornate stained glass windows, others have clear views out into the neighborhood around them.  Almost always there are candles.  A table, a font.  Walls that hold the echo of prayers whispered and songs sung over years, decades, sometimes even centuries.  What sanctuaries do you hold in your memory?  Where have you found sanctuary?  Are they the same places?  Different?

I have found sanctuary in a circle of friends, around a salvaged kitchen table.  On a rocky beach, wind whipping my hair and waves crashing nearby.  On a forest trail with nothing but the shush of pine needles underfoot and the birdsong in the air.  Surprising, unexpected places have been my sanctuaries, too: a sticky table at a women’s shelter; sun-baked parking lot; a bedside at a hospital.

See, we know that sacred space isn’t just relegated to in here.  Churches don’t hold a monopoly on what’s holy.  We’ve created sanctuaries, of course, they’re central to who we are: safe, often beautiful spaces for community to gather for work and worship – places to rest in the mystery and wonder of God.  But remember that the first churches were house churches.  And Jesus led a movement, of people sharing the good news from ear to ear, table to table, house to house.  So God isn’t stuck in here.  Or hidden somewhere out there.  Up there.  In here.

When he began his ministry, faithful Jews had to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the temple once a year, often on Passover, to be in right relationship with God.  That’s when our story takes place.

When this passage occurs in other gospels, it’s near the end of the story. Right after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus goes to the temple to worship, and is furious about what he finds there: a marketplace, a capitalist frenzy.  Jesus is angry about economic exploitation – the temple-sanctioned squeezing of the poorest people, those weary, road-worn peasants, through a temple tax and unfair exchange rates. So he throws out the money lenders and the vendors, turns over their tables and drives out the animals brought for sacrifice.  This outburst in the temple is what galvanizes the religious leaders into convicting Jesus, it’s the last straw, the one that makes them say – that’s it, this guy has got to go.

But here we are at the beginning of John’s story, a story thick with theology and symbolic meaning. Scholars say he’s trying to say something different than the other three guys.  His story is the last of the gospels to be written; In John’s world, the temple has already been destroyed.  So it seems like John reinterprets this story to be a sign, a foreshadowing that God doesn’t reside only in the temple; God isn’t stuck inside.  And, as the prophets before have declared, God doesn’t require sacrifices to be pleased with us.  Yes, Jesus is angry at the economic injustice at the heart of temple worship, but that’s not all that’s happening here.  in John’s view, Jesus is the presence of God amongst the people.  Christ’s body becomes the new temple, the place where God is made manifest.  Destroy this place and in three days, I’ll raise it up.

There is an ancient ecclesial understanding that church itself is Christ’s body in the world; our hands, Christ’s hands.  As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?

Our very bodies are a place where God resides in the world!  And not just ours, but every body!   Tiny babies, and precious teenagers filled with sass and the thrill of life’s possibilities, and the very old, frail but filled with wisdom.  A squeegee kid, and a broken Palestinian woman grieving her husband shot dead in a bread line.  All sanctuaries of the presence and power of God!  Does it change us to view bodies as sacred?  Not individual cells, mind you, but whole bodies, our living, breathing bodies, these bodies?

We might need to have some tables overturned to see ourselves and others in that way.  Tables of indifference to the suffering of others, tables of self-loathing or shame about the ways our bodies look or feel or move.  Turn them over, throw all of that away.  Drive it out of your subconscious and stop all of that negative self-talk.  A challenge for the week ahead: See yourself as a place where God’s spirit dwells, and see what difference that makes.  See if it helps you be a little more kind to yourself.  More gentle.  To see yourself as blessed and beautiful, as indeed God sees you.  Carve out time and space to breathe, and rest in the presence of God.  I can’t help but wonder if we might eat more healthfully, move more intentionally if we really understood our very bodies to be sanctuaries of the spirit.  If we saw one another that way, too …. we might devote ourselves more completely to the work of caregiving, peacebuilding, and systems change.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this sanctuary and the building that houses it, our church.  The first half of the 20th century was a time of great property acquisition for the church; we bought land, we built buildings – sanctuaries where God could dwell amongst the people.  But the landscape around us has changed.  Neighborhoods change, culture has shifted, and what it means to belong to a faith community has changed, too.  This building was built for a church of 1200 people!  And it has been lovingly maintained and cared for by our congregation – a team of volunteers who gather each Thursday to paint and garden, to arrange and rearrange, to fix leaks and change lightbulbs and otherwise tend to our temple.

The front of the bulletin is a photo of an architectural drawing of our church that hangs in the Woodbourne Room.  I would guess it was created in the mid 1940’s, when our church was still located down in a big stone building at the corner of Gay and Biddle Streets.  And if you look closely, you’ll see that this rendering wasn’t actually completely built – there’s a whole section of the building that never came to life.  Our building was built in stages – first the sanctuary in 1950-51, then the middle Jackson wing about 5-6 years later, then the office wing, kitchen and fellowship hall about 15 years after that.  Almost as soon as that project was completed, the congregation had already shifted, no longer needing the space on the third floor for Sunday school classrooms, such that the Presbytery offices moved in by 1974.

All of this to say, is that our building was built for a different congregation.  It is an incredible gift, an inheritance, a resource that enables so much lifegiving and transformational ministry.  And we pray that it will be even more of a blessing to our neighborhood and community in the years to come.  As I’ve told you before, a task force is at work to envision exactly how it might do that – to create a rendering of what our church of the future might look like.  We’re talking with partners and neighboring institutions to see what they’ve assessed as the greatest needs in this part of the city might be.  And I hope all of you will join me in praying for our ongoing discernment about how this body might continue to be a blessing – a place where God’s spirit is present and alive amongst the people – for many, many, many more years to come.  What will it look like?  How might it need to change?  I can’t wait to find out.