The sanctuary at First Presbyterian in Carmi, Illinois is like many in the midwest. Dark wood, simple stained glass, red velvet seat cushions. There’s nothing remarkable about the pews or the pulpit or the piano. The communion table sometimes has real flowers but often, they are silk. There are banners, made with felt and hot glue years ago. Nothing remarkable but altogether my favorite sanctuary. I walk in and feel at home, feel rooted. This is the place where I was baptized and where many decades ago, my great-grandfather, Henry Lewis, hung up his itinerant preaching ways and settled in as the preacher. This is the place where my aunt and uncle eventually became co-pastors and where every member of my family has held some sort of leadership post – acolyte, lector, communion celebrant, Sunday School teacher, choir director, soloist, piano player, usher. This is the place where I first heard the stories of God, told to me around a small table by ancient women who loved me even though I didn’t know their names. This is the place where I learned to sing from a hymnal and to listen for my grandmother’s soprano voice cut clear across the choir loft. This is the place that first claimed me as part of their body, as one of their own. But this is no remarkable temple, no remarkable place. It smells like years of Midwestern summers trapped in never-washed carpet. It could use some better heating and likely a coat of paint. But, is a temple to me and my soul longs for it. It is the place where my flesh sings for joy to the living God for in this dwelling place, with those people, it is clear that The Lord is near.
When Jesus entered the temple in our passage this morning, he was aghast. Forget our tender images of Jesus – this man is not nuzzling a lamb while speaking of the lilies in the field. Instead, this savior of ours is taking his time to plait a whip out of chords and then use said whip to drive animals out of the temple. He then takes all the money the coinchangers had and dumps it out, metal bouncing on stone, spilling in the to the cracks. Jesus takes the tables and flips them over with a frightening agility. His voices raises and he bellows at his people to get out of the temple, to stop this madness, to quit tarnishing his Father’s house.
He yells to get his people’s attention. This is not the way, he says.
This Passover festival was and is the highest of holidays for the Jewish community. It is the remembrance of oppression and the celebration of freedom in the Exodus. It calls for the deepest devotion, the most strident observance, the fullest embodiment of humility and gratitude. But on this day, when Jesus walks into the temple and see his community of faith falling flat. What angered Jesus on this day was not the actual selling of animals and the changing of money but the emotion behind these common practices. His community no longer seemed to care, seemed to have any umph behind what they were doing.
When people came for the Passover feast that year, it was as it had always been. Their actions had become rote, memorized, mechanical. There was no longer the zeal for worship, no longer the fainting for the courts or the ecstatic cries of praise. Coming to worship – coming to the temple – was just what people did because that’s what they had always done. It was like a skeleton without any muscles, bones that had no flesh.
It was a temple – the walls were there, the people had come but – the people weren’t there, weren’t present to the magnificent task at hand – to worship the God that set them free.
The temple was just a building.
This temple is just a building. It always has been.
It started like this, so I’m told: we met in the Fellowship Hall at first, on folding chairs that whispered every time you sat down. There was nothing remarkable about the building – you’ve been over there. The walls are boring, the sound is terrible, the floor is squeaky and easily gathers skid marks from Sunday dress shoes. But it worked. It was where we gathered in the sixties and seventies, as we grew from a faithful few to a couple hundred. There wasn’t much interest in a sanctuary of the proper, Southern kind. Why spend a million dollars on a building we use once a week? We’d rather spend our money on mission, on the city, on Durham. But eventually, the chairs were too uncomfortable and people wanted an aisle to walk down to meet their bride or groom and it seemed respectful to remember a life in a space that at least had better light. So, committees were formed and the task to – and I quote my brother Haywood here – to build "a special place that didn’t smell like spaghetti" began.
It never really mattered what color the walls were or what the windows looked like – as long as they didn’t require tons of cleaning. There was no fuss about the style of pews or the structure of the pulpit or lectern. There wasn’t even a steeple because it was going to be too expensive and that money could be used elsewhere. But, as you know and as we proudly display on the cover of our bulletins, we have a steeple. It came at half price after a church in New Jersey changed their minds – we didn’t even know what it was going to look like until the crane put it up.
It was never about the building. But when the doors opened in 1987, people started flocking here. From a couple hundred to several hundred, families and folks from the city and from Chapel Hill and out in the county came here to worship, to sing and pray, and most importantly, to become part of the body of Christ. People saw here a community where they could belong. It was a place where they could sit comfortably and roll their wheelchairs in with a ramp. It was a place where a prelude on an organ could settle an anxious arrival. It was a place where moms could take their crying babies to a room in the back and still listen to the worship service while nursing. It was a place where those who had trouble hearing could finally follow along in the liturgy because there was an audio system. It was a place where everyone could gather and everyone could be included. It was never about the building. It was about – it is about – the heart of our shared life in worship.
When Jesus finished his angry fit in the temple, the disciples remembered a line from a psalm, "Zeal for your house will consume me." Zeal – ardent interest in something, crazy deep devotion and eagerness and hope. This zeal for God’s house, for God’s temple, for God’s people, will consume our Lord, the disciples thought. This desire beyond desire for us to know God will eat him up until he is no more. A foreshadowing, the disciples realized. A consumption that will lead to our Lord’s death. An unbelievable appetite all for little, insignificant us to know God more will do him in.
There are few categories of people in this world that embody zeal like a small child. Such is evident in our children’s sermons or in the ways children run around this place with boundless excitement. Two years ago this very weekend, you might remember a deep desire that led a small child to this baptismal font. Shannon, a kindergartener at the time, so wanted to be baptized. She had seen small babies held in our arms, watered poured out, promises made, and she knew that such a moment was meant for her, too. Shannon and I met before her baptism and over cups of frozen yogurt at Tutti Frutti, Shannon asked me about this thing we do with the water. She asked me about the water itself and the words we say and what would happen during the baptism and then, then she asked me this which still grips me, "What happens after I’m baptized?" When Sunday came and Shannon and I met at the font, I said our treasured words through my tears, "Child of the covenant, you have been sealed by the waters of baptism and claimed as God’s own forever." And we walked down this aisle – an aisle made possible because people decades ago gave the money and made the plans – Shannon could look into the pews at you and know that the words I just said were real – that she had been claimed by God and that you, we, were the embodiment of that claim. "This," I said to Shannon and to you, "this is what happens after baptism – you look out at your community of faith and know that you are not alone, that you are ours, that we belong to one body of Christ forever."
Earlier this morning, we voted on the purchase of the land adjacent to our property. It is a purchase made in hope. We have no plans for it, no ideas or dreams of what it might be. Right now, it is just a plot of land. For us, it has never been about the building or the property or the place but about the people and about what we do. As we look to our future and we make plans for the land, we remember that what makes us the body of Christ is how we put flesh and muscle and chutzpah on our shared frame. It isn’t about parking spaces or building plans or even how we’ll raise the money. Its about celebrating and embracing the zeal for God’s house that has kept us going for this long.
There’s nothing remarkable about this place. The walls are a boring gray. The windows are plain. The cross is simple. Most of the time, the stoles Chris, Betty, and I wear clash with the paraments. Our sound system sometimes pops and a few days of the year, we have to pull out those whispering folding chairs to make room for all our guests. But you, we, are far more than a mundane, skeletal frame of a church. We are the body of Christ. We are a people who offer the only hugs some of us ever get. We are the people who smile with delight when babies squeal loudly during sermons. We are the people who sing with gusto, even if its off-key. We are the people who weep for our sisters and brothers when we share difficult news. We are the people who make promises to one another and keep them. We are the people who come back, week after week, with a zeal in our hearts for the living, crucified, and risen Christ. We are the body of Christ. May we worship him in his temple forevermore. Amen.