Thursday, December 8, 2011

The sacred and the profane: Holy places, Holy people

Southern steps of the
Jerusalem Temple
where Jesus likely walked and taught
I’ve been fighting a cold all week, and I feel as though some of those swordsmen in the reading today from Amos 9:1-10 are at work in my sinuses. I am up late, hence this is getting posted late.

The readings today are as rough as my throat. The prophet Amos is busy dispatching all sorts of evil doers; the Revelation of John 2:8-17 is following in the same violent theme (didn’t we just get done with Revelation? Why are we back there again?); and in Matthew 23:13-26, Jesus is in full attack upon hypocrites, scribes, Pharisees – all the religious authorities in the Jerusalem Temple.

You can be forgiven if you’d rather go back to bed.

One line struck me, though, and it is a familiar line, from Matthew 23:26:
“You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.”
Jesus is talking about something so basic I hope you don’t miss it. He is talking about sacred space and what makes it sacred: People and their sacredness from the grace of God.

The Temple, the most holy place in all of Israel, is sacred because sacred people come there. People don’t become sacred by going there, but rather it is the other way around.

I can imagine how the hypocrites, scribes, Pharisee and crowds might have reacted.

“Wait a minute,” they might have said. “We bring our most valuable things here, our gold, our perfect things, and the Temple makes them sacred.”

“No,” replies Jesus. “It is by what you do and how you act that you make this Temple sacred or you make it profane. You are sacred, or you are profane, and we can only know that by seeing what you do.”

Doesn’t the sacred space make us sacred? No, it is what is inside us that is sacred, and if we are attentive to the sacredness within us, what is around us will become sacred.

I think of the many sacred places I have experienced, from great cathedrals, to small retreat centers and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem itself. I’ve sat on the very steps where Jesus likely spoke these words above. And I think of the sacred space that I inhabit every Sunday, my church in Charlottesville, and all those who come there week after week.

Many hands and many prayers have made these places sacred, and those prayers don’t disappear. It is the people themselves, standing on the borders of the Holy, who by their sacredness make these places sacred.

Nor is it a secret how these people, and the spaces where they dwell, become sacred.

Like the prophet Amos, Jesus tells the crowds how they can keep the “inside of the cup” sacred – it is by how they act to the most neglected and overlooked among us (Matthew 23:23):
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
Our reverence, if it is true, must extend beyond the walls of our sacred spaces, and extend beyond ourselves to the places we go, the people we meet, and the tasks before us, especially with caring for the poor, the sick and the lonely. We will know our sacredness by how we act, guided by the Holy Spirit living among us. And the places we go will be as a Holy as the Temple in Jerusalem. Opportunities abound!

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