Sunday 1st February 2015, evening
Haggai 2:1-9; John 2:18-22
Revd Kate Tuckett
A few years ago, at a metro station in Washington DC, a man started to play the violin. It was a cold January morning and he played six pieces by Bach for about 45 minutes. During the rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station. After three minutes a middle aged man stopped for a few seconds and then hurried on. A minute later the violinist received a dollar tip, tossed in the box by a woman without slowing down. A few minutes after that someone leaned against the wall but after looking at his watch began to walk away quickly. The one who paid the most attention was a three-year-old boy. His mother hurried him along, but the child stopped in front of the violinist. Reluctantly he was dragged away, looking back all the time. Altogether six people stopped, and he collected $32. When he finished, no one applauded him or even noticed.
The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s finest musicians. He had played some of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million. The event was organised by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perceptions of taste. The inherent question was how do we perceive beauty? One possible conclusion to be drawn may be posed in the form of another question: if we don’t have time to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, what else are we missing in our day?
The readings are tonight about where we encounter God. This morning we remembered the beautiful story of Candlemas, Jesus being presented in the temple by his faithful Jewish parents, and the old man Simeon, who can now die in peace as he now recognises in the Christ child what he has been praying for all his life. And the readings tonight are about the temple, the place of God’s dwelling.
In the reading from the prophet Haggai, the Jewish people have been in exile, without a physical location as a focus for their worship. But they firmly believed that God had remained with them. Haggai instructs them to build a temple not as the home of God, as they have lived through the reality of knowing God without a temple, but as the centre of peace and prosperity for God’s people. The temple was to be the place where all people could come and worship God.
But by the time of Jesus, the temple had stopped being a place open to all. Privilege and prestige and the size of the sacrifice to be offered now dictated where in the temple people could attend. How close people could get to God depended on their role, their tribe, their gender, their nationality and critically their wealth. Jesus is calling the people of God away from these structures of power and instructing them to seek God somewhere else. This will become ever more true in Jesus’ own life. As we move away from Christmas and look towards Lent and Easter, he too will move outside the gates of Jerusalem, and in his body on the cross, entirely defenceless and vulnerable, we will see God far away from all hierarchies of power.
We may read this passage as a warning that any devotion to the life of the church in its buildings and gathering places is a mistake. And this is right to a point: our buildings are only sacred because people gather here to worship. But sacred spaces do exist, and we do an injustice to our life together if we undervalue such spaces. I spent a moment at the end of Friday reflecting that over the course of the day, our building here was host to 15 homeless men and 2 homeless women who slept overnight in the church, and then shared breakfast together; to a group of 4-year-olds who came in to look at some of the special things they can find in church; to a group of Baby Ballet; to a group of over-70s who came for coffee and made the Christingles for this morning’s service; to the cast and visitors to the pantomime in the evening. Spend an hour with Gilly in the office and you’ll see something of the range of people who come to our building, in sorrow and in joy, looking for information, in trouble, sometimes just wanting to light a candle. This is surely part of who we are. Our buildings and the spaces we create within them can point to God.
I wonder if this reading is more about challenging our fixed ideas of where we will encounter God and opening our hearts and minds to where this might be.
I’ve just been on retreat. When I arrived, I met with my retreat guide, who asked me if I had any ideas about what I wanted to focus on during the week. I was broadly going to sort out the shape of the rest of my life, clarify the nature of God and inspire my prayer life to a point of indestructability. He said gently to me that God might have some other ideas, and to be attentive to these.
‘I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ectasy!…..
….sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers….
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.’
Hopkins wrote this at St Beuno’s, where I did my retreat. It’s a beautiful place in many ways, but the countryside is not at all chocolate-boxy. It’s working farmland, and it feels impoverished as an area. While I was there it was bitterly bitterly cold. I found myself returning to the final lines of this poem again and again. Hopkins chose to see an extraordinary spirit of wonder and beauty beneath what was a fairly ordinary landscape, and that vision is open to us too. God is not just at work in cherry blossom and new-born babies. God is there in the sunlight of a muddy puddle, the creases on an old face, a torture victim hanging on a tree.
The sacred spaces of our lives are not confined to where we think we will find God, and certainly not to the times and places of our lives where we buy favour with God. Encountering God in the most joyful, sad, inspiring, melancholic or beautiful spaces may be in the most ordinary of sacred moments – washing up after breakfast at the night shelter; sipping a cold beer on a summer day; hearing a blackbird sing as dusk falls; feeling the hand of a child in yours; weeping over a broken relationship; visiting someone sick in hospital.
In a moment we will share communion. The ordinary stuff of life – bread, wine and water – can mysteriously and powerfully point to God. And God in return points back mysteriously and powerfully to the most ordinary stuff of our lives. There’s a Joshua Bell playing somewhere, always, in the most unlikely places. But we need to be attentive and make the space to hear it.
The promise of the gospel is one of resurrection. It is with the flawed image, the damaged beauty that God does great things. Wherever there is pain in ourselves and the world, God, seen in Jesus, who is the new Temple, offers inexhaustible compassion. In breaking down the barriers of where we are told God resides, working to build spaces where all may encounter God, and opening our own hearts to seeing God’s love, beauty and resurrection power around us, we may find that we meet God and we meet ourselves, that little bit more beautiful and that little bit more whole.
This sermon uses materials from:
Draper, B. (2014), What Matters Most?, Oxford: Lion Publishing
O’Leary, D. (2014), Treasured and Transformed, Blackrock: The Columba Press