Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Girls in the Clubhouse

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Scott Walters of Christ Episcopal Church and 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 inside out.

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 further inside.

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, perhaps.

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 ground.

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 changed? Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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