The following sermon was written by the Reverend Scott
Walters ofChrist Episcopal Churchand is published here with his permission.
Places become sacred in a variety of ways. Sometimes we mark
the site of a remarkable event. Countless plaques in Virginia towns mark the
places where George Washington slept. Jacob placed a stone at the spot where
the door of heaven opened and a staircase dropped down to the earth.
Housing something special—the bones of a saint or a splinter
of the true cross or of Joe DiMaggio’s bat—might sanctify a place. Building
with lots of gold and ivory and jewels and rare, precious things also seems to
do the trick. Or sometimes we mark a place as holy simply by what we decide to
do there—how we decide to interact.
For instance, the clubhouse in our backyard didn’t seem to
have any intrinsic value. Dad built it not from the finest of building
materials and the rarest of woods, but from a couple of cast off Hammond organ
crates he got from his friend, A.P. Vohs, who owned a music store in
Fayetteville. Fastening the crates together, back to back, made for a fine
little house with a gambrel shaped roof like a barn.
So the clubhouse wasn’t built on the site of a miracle, it
housed no relics, and it wasn’t made of anything special. We sanctified it by
meeting there to discuss gravely important neighborhood matters. Matters like
whether or under what circumstances a girl might be allowed to enter the
clubhouse. The great councils in charge of sacred places are always debating
such things. Because once it’s agreed that a place is holy, defilement is a
real and present danger. Hence the perennial worry about women.
But leave it to Jesus to complicate things. We thought we had
a pretty good handle on how places are made holy and how to protect them from
desecration. Then Jesus turns the definition of holiness almost completely
It’s not hard to imagine curio shops and little shrines,
maybe chapels built from organ crates still marking all the places where Jesus
stopped and did something miraculous just in the first chapter of Mark. He’s
been baptized by John at the Jordan River and tempted by the devil in the
wilderness. He’s cast out an unclean spirit in the Capernaum synagogue and
healed Andrew’s mother in law of a fever in Andrew’s house. Now he’s healed a
man of leprosy and headed out to the countryside.
But Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in marking places where
something special happened. Nor does he preserve holiness by protecting it. In
fact, strange as it sounds, Jesus seems to have a habit of sanctifying places
as he defiles them. Holiness and defilement don’t seem to be opposites to
Jesus. They seem to be in the most intimate sort of relationship.
Since few of us have much interaction with lepers these days,
a detail from our gospel reading that would be obvious to first century folks
might be lost on us. Jesus touched a leper. That is, in the process of making
one man clean, Jesus becomes unclean himself. And while the story suggests that
he was forced out into the country by those adoring crowds, there’s another
reason why Jesus would have had to leave town. He was effectively a leper
himself now. So he would be forced to inhabit the places where the impure and
the unclean had been banished. Which means that holiness was moving, not away
from defiling things. It was moving, with Jesus, from synagogue, to home, to
town, to the fields where the diseased and the unclean people lived. Holiness,
as Jesus lived it, seemed to be in pursuit of the defiled.
Keeping what’s holy, keeping what’s precious to us safe from
risk and contamination it is natural. We do so with regard to our food and our
children and even our towns and our architecture. We don’t keep food in the
bathroom. We don’t send our 4 year olds to the mall on public transit. We don’t
build strip clubs next to schools. We also don’t build houses in which the
front door opens into a bedroom. Holiness codes are related to all these very
natural actions and impulses. If something is holy, protect it, be careful with
it, keep it safe and pure.
Something similar is reflected in the architecture of this
building. It’s no coincidence that the doors to the street are on the west
side, and the altar and sanctuary are at the far other end to the east. The
fact that the pulpit is up here rather than back there is telling too. We
understand this arrangement intuitively. Precious things are supposed to be
But Jesus was always disrupting the way people understood
their place in the world. He was always disrupting notions of family and
religion, of violence and justice, of wealth and poverty, and today, of
holiness and defilement. Holiness and defilement are interwoven concepts rather
than opposites, in Jesus’ mind. In fact, if we’re paying attention to his
story, we may decide that the only real reason, or the only Christian reason,
for setting a place or a person apart as holy is to invite excluded people
across the boundary we’ve just created. Because there is a great and sacred
power at such boundaries.
Think again of this building. You probably know that it’s a
longstanding tradition to leave the doors of Christ Church unlocked and often
wide open during the week. It’s a simple act of hospitality. Someone might need
a place to pray.
But they keep the doors open to Target and Cregeen’s Pub and
the State Capitol all day too. What’s the difference?
There’s a triangle, a little patch in the veneer of the prayer
desk right below this pulpit. I often sit there, you might have noticed. And
every time I see that repair, I remember being told of a man who went berserk
in here one day years ago, throwing things around, beating up the pulpit,
carrying out the flags. I’m not sure whether it actually is, but in my mind,
that careful triangular repair is a mark of that rampage. A sacred sign,
It’s unsettling just to describe the event. Lots of us love
this place. We’ve seen marriages and baptisms and funerals here, and for more
than 170 years people have been saying their prayers here Sunday after Sunday.
So you don’t have to be too fussy about housekeeping to feel a little horror at
the idea of someone throwing candlesticks and knocking down crosses. It’s more than
just bad manners. It’s a desecration.
But it happened, of course, because the doors were unlocked.
I happened because this is sacred space consciously put at risk. And there is a
peculiar sort of power in a sacred place that stands intentionally, even
defiantly unprotected. It is always, then, a boundary between the sacred and
the profane, a place on the brink of defilement.
How in the world do we get from Jesus healing a leper to the
dangers of open church doors? Well, time after time, Jesus challenged not only
our assumptions about what makes a place holy, but our whole relationship with
holiness. Jesus reordered life in the temple, in a home, in the nearby
villages, even in the countryside. True holiness happened one time when Jesus
exposed himself to the leper’s disease, transcending a sacred boundary, even
transforming a field where the unclean ones were forced to wander into holy
Leaving church doors open is not one of the most costly or
profound acts of Christian discipleship. Granting girls entrance to the
clubhouse might have been. But we need clear reminders that Jesus’ relationship
with holiness wasn’t just relevant to the first century Jewish community with
all those curious dietary laws and holiness codes.
Jesus’ touch of a leprous man is a challenge to us. It marks
out the holy places of our lives not as those most protected, but as those
boundaries where what’s most precious to us is vulnerable to those who are
strange to us. Jesus spent so much time at these boundaries, don’t you think he
was calling us to do the same in our own time and place.
Which begs the question, Who are the ones beyond the pale in
our lives? Who are the unclean, the untouchable, the unthinkable? And it might
not matter most whether we think poor people or bankers or the mentally ill or
fundamentalists or gay people are the unclean ones. Jesus just says, “Go there.
Go to that dangerous boundary between your conception of the sacred and the
profane. You’ll find that the ground there is charged with holiness. People are
changed, even healed, by the grace of God in such places.”
An unclean spirit in a Capernaum synagogue, a woman’s
persistent fever in a home, leprosy in the streets of a nearby town, the
countryside where the unclean ones roamed. Jesus sought out those places where
the holy and the defiled were frighteningly close. And he marked those places
as the truly sacred ones in our world, places of great transformative power.
So where do you think Jesus is calling you? Where do you
think he’s calling us? Where do you think the space between the sacred and the
unclean in our lives is most powerfully and most beautifully thin? Wherever it
is, shall we go there together, like the crowds outside Capernaum, to be