Just stop it! This rash of stabbings and vehicle assaults must end. So too must the occupation and explosion of settlements which fuels some of this rage. There must be a just peace in Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine in whatever configuration. That means the cessation of all violence in all of its forms: terroristic actions by persons, policies, governments and their agents, legal fictions and economic violence. Violence on all sides must cease. There is no other way. Just peace.
1 Kings 8:41 And, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, when such a one comes from a faraway land because of your Name— 42 For they shall hear of your great Name, and your powerful hand and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 you, you shall hear in the heavens, your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls out to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your Name to be in awe of you, as your people Israel, and so that they may know that your Name has been invoked on this house that I have built. (RGT, Revised Gafney Translation)
I preached on this text the last time it came around in the Revised Common Lectionary. (You can find that sermon here.) Today, hearing it read again I was struck by it all over again.
Solomon prays an interfaith prayer. He does not just pray that God would hear him and his people – which is a fine prayer. He prays that God would hear the prayers of foreign people who come to this holy house to pray. Solomon doesn’t pray that they would be converted to his religion which is often how Christians pray for peoples who are not Christian. More than that, his prayer bespeaks radical welcome to holiest place on earth from his perspective. When I was in India in 2007 I was struck by the way in which churches opened themselves to Hindus who worshipped Jesus as their God in the Hindu cosmology, making room for them, sometimes building additions to welcome and accommodate them. American Christians are far less welcoming to sister and brother Christians across lines of race, ethnicity, denomination and theology – especially of sexuality and gender performance.
I think about the conflict over who can pray and how and with what holy objects at the Kotel, the Western Wall, all that remains of the structure towards which Solomon is praying and it seems that Solomon’s male descendants who are so busy policing his female descendants have missed the lesson he is teaching here.
All of us I believe could benefit form some of Solomon’s Iron Age theology. He had his problems to be sure. But he has said more than a mumbling word here.
A sermon on the Purification of the Virgin Mary from Luke 2:22-39
Hymn of Preparation: “Home,” from the Wiz.
There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. For good and for ill, there’s no place like home. Sometimes we just want to go home. Sometimes we just want to run away from home. Some just want a home to turn to, loving arms to embrace and comfort us.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
For many the emblem of home is the kitchen, often mama’s kitchen table. The table is a sacred place. It is the altar of the home. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. Themes of the Presentation – add in the light of Epiphany, candles on the altar and table for Candlemass and we’ve got the full suite. We could almost pronounce the benediction. Almost.
These festivals may not be your festivals, and that’s all right because obscure liturgy is the order of the day in the gospel. Luke is counting on that obscurity and the good will of his hearers and readers to accept his liturgical reimaginings. The Feast of the Presentation is a combination liturgical midrash and time travel. The baby Jesus was a newborn at Christmas, a toddler at Epiphany, an adult at his baptism and is now a babe in arms again. He was eight days old in the previous verse just before our lesson at his bris, his circumcision. He is forty days and forty nights old in the first verse of today’s gospel when he comes to the temple remembered here today. (Does being brought to the temple at his mother’s breast at the appointed time for the appointed service count as “suddenly the Lord will come to his temple” from Malachi?) Until Malachi, only Isaiah called God “the Lord” using that particular word, ha’adon, and only five times; each of those times God came as the Holy God of Warriors, or Lord of Hosts. I don’t think Sweet Baby Jesus was that cranky.
But that’s the story isn’t it? That this baby was that God. That is certainly Luke’s point. And if he has to rewrite Torah to make his point, so be it. Luke has that it was “their” purification, but the Torah only calls for the purification of the mother after childbirth. That is the Torah-obligation; there is no liturgy prescribed for a “presentation.” Luke subtly acknowledges the change, they were there for “their purification,” and brought the baby along, secondary clause.
This is the purification of Miryam, Mary, forty days after giving birth to a male child – a different interval would be called for in case of a daughter. Some scholars reckon the difference as an indication of the different amounts of labor each contributes to the society. She is taboo for seven days, hence her availability for the circumcision on the eighth day and restricted to a lesser degree for thirty-three days. She owes a restoration offering – the translation of hattat as “sin” here misses the mark; she has not sinned and not just because she was a virgin mother. She will also contribute to the ongoing, established twice-daily regular burnt offerings. The restoration offering is a small bird but the burnt offering was a lamb, because God really likes a good barbeque, is something of a red meat eater or smeller and is attracted to and soothed by the smell of roasting flesh according to the Torah. If a woman was too poor to afford a lamb for the burnt offering she could double up on the poultry offering as did the Blessed Virgin. (Is that why you have to have chicken for a church supper?)
It is her offering, her practice of her Judaism, her fidelity to Torah that we celebrate today. Today the Virgin is contributing the sacred meal, setting a most holy kosher table. She sets the table for the holy meal and feeds her family – not Joseph or the Holy Infant here, but Elizabeth and Zachariah are priest clan, their rations come from the holy table. Mary has fed them today. When Joseph disappears from the pages of the Gospel it will be Mary who keeps a kosher Jewish home, celebrates the High Holy Days from Rosh HaShannah to Yom Kippur and the pilgrim festivals Passover and Pentecost all at the altar of her table. Where do you think Jesus learned the importance of table fellowship or even how to set a table? Today’s offerings mark her return to her community, she can go home and be welcomed in the homes of others and at their tables and show off her new baby.
The Virgin’s offerings mark her transformation and restoration. It is her day. In the Church, the language Presentation rather than Purification came about in part as a desire to move away from the old concept of blood taboo that has been particularly stigmatizing to women. And that’s not a bad thing. But in naming the feast the Presentation of Jesus, the Church has moved the focus of the feast from the Virgin Mother to her Son, making it one more literal, wooden, proof-text. The Church couldn’t help itself. It read “suddenly he will come to his temple” from Malachi through the lens of the John the Baptist and perhaps also through the eyes of today’s gospel in which Luke adds in the separate tradition about the redemption of the firstborn. And rewrites Torah, again.
Exodus 13:2 calls for the consecration of “everything” and therefore everyone that “opens the womb,” Hebrew scholars, that’s kol, “all,” “each,” “every.” All the firstborn are holy to God, not just “males” as Luke has rewritten the Torah: Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord. The Torah doesn’t say “male.” Not even the LXX has “male” there, nor even the Targum. All of us who are firstborn are holy to God, including me and the Blessed Virgin. Sorry little brother. Luke has mixed and mangled in the tradition about the redemption or ransom of firstborn children from later in Exodus. That’s tricky because God calls for the sacrifice of the firstborn animals and ransom of firstborn human males but girls are not ransomed, but fortunately not sacrificed either. Now there is a Jewish ritual of redeeming the firstborn son, pidyon haben, but it was not practiced in the time of Jesus.
Being included or excluded from religious rituals and language because of your gender, race, orientation, theological convictions or other attributes is part of what makes a sacred community feel like home or utterly alien. Many look at the purification of women after childbirth and find it to be completely alienating. But perhaps it was a welcome and welcoming experience for the Blessed Virgin. She was returning home.
The temple and its liturgies offered a home space for the itinerant family. Home in Galilee was behind them and ahead of them for now; the Egyptian sojourn a couple-few years away. But the temple was familiar, beloved, home to their God and the visible manifestation of their faith. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. After immersion, separately in one of the mikveh pools on the Temple Mount, they come through the Huldah gates across from the tomb of the prophet Huldah, the only woman buried in the temple complex. Surely the prophet Anna prayed at her grave. The gates are twelve great-stones high – I was only two and a half stones high when I stood at the gate. There are another six stones above the twelve-stone gate in the outer wall. And it is only a third as high as the 60 foot (40 cubit) Holy of Holies. The Virgin would be half the size of my fingernail here.
Passing through the prophet’s gates they would cross the Court of the Gentiles where they could buy their offering and entered through one of many gates, perhaps the Gate of Offering (mid, back, right), into the Court of the Women – which wasn’t just for women. Here they would have met Anna and Simeon. Somewhere on the stairs leading up to Nicanor’s Gate – rich folk have been naming stuff in God’s house after themselves for a long time – on the stairs Virgin would lay her hand on her offering and hand it to the priest who would take it through the gate into the court of the Israelites where the outdoor altar was. Joseph could have gone with him and taken the baby. The wall between the two was open as were the gates. Mary could have watched the sacrifice and offering. On the other side, in the court of the Israelite Men there were cages and kennels and the altar so broad and wide a dozen men could walk around tending three or four different fires, each big enough to burn a whole ox. They had a ramp to drag the dead weight of the big ones up, having slit their throats, hung them on hooks and drained the blood before placing them on the altar.
All of this because of the One present, dwelling within the soaring height of the Holy of Holies. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. The temple was God’s home on earth. The altar of burnt sacrifice was God’s table. The Holy of Holies was God’s private space where God was present within. It is the presence of God that makes a building a temple just as it’s the presence of love and family that makes a house a home.
A chair is still a chair
Even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home.
When we gather at this table, will you see yourself as coming home? Visiting? A welcome guest? A tolerable and tolerated guest? Or do you feel unwelcome? This is Black History Month when home takes on a different resonance for me than it may for you. I am reminded that I have not always been welcome at this table, that I have not always been seen as fit to preside at this table. But I have been extended a radical welcome, anchored in the womb of the Virgin Mother, the kitchen space where Baker-Woman God crafted the Bread of Life in her very body and blood.
Let me extend to you that radical welcome. It is the welcome of today’s gospel. The point of all Luke’s rewriting is this: The Holy God of the awesome, towering, holy temple has come into our midst as Mary’s child. And we who are gentiles, who would be stoned if we crossed the low row or tombstone-shaped stones at the inner boundary of the Court of the Gentiles, we are welcome. We are welcome as women and men together, like Anna and Simeon. We are welcome whether we are called by God like the prophet Hannah, Anna or are lay folk like Simeon. We are welcome whether our offerings are the stuff of our poverty like the Virgin, or the sign of privilege like Nicanor. We are welcome. You are welcome. Welcome home.
You've probably noticed that there's something different about our readings today. (See collect and lessons) Our propers commemorate the destruction of the Temple observed on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the summer month of Av in the Jewish calendar. That day is today. Let us remember.
The Israelite monarchy was a mess. A long time ago David brought the tribes together, including many that had nothing to do with the others – two even refused to cross the Jordan and settled instead on the other side of the Promised Land – with them David forged a nation that dreamed of being an empire. Later, Solomon expanded and undermined the nation. He weakened it with his taxes and spending; he sold off pieces of the Promised Land to pay his bills for the temple and for his own palace which was 10 times larger than the temple and, he forced people – his own and foreigners – into virtual slave labor for years at a time to serve on those building projects. It got so bad at one point that the man he sent to recruit new workers was stoned to death for returning to one village one too many times. And then, even though he released them, the workers went home to live in poverty because they weren’t able to tend their crops or raise their herds while they were working on his projects.
After Solomon came Rehoboam but his son and heir was not even half the man he was. Most of the people of Israel refused to recognize him as king. They decided they would rather have one of Solomon’s servants, Jeroboam and went all the way to Egypt to bring him back from exile. Now there were two pieces of Israel: one led by folk who could trace their ancestry directly back to David and the other by a series of soldiers and bureaucrats and sometimes their children when they were able to pass the throne down from one generation to the next. And every once in a while, one of them was also able to claim authentic Davidic heritage. Israel and Judah were constantly under siege. The nations surrounding them were always nibbling at their borders, small nations who had once been governed by them and the mighty empires all looking to gobble up the two tiny nations. Even mighty Cleopatra would one day lay claim to part of Israel Land and she got it too; she and Herod fought over it so much that he tried to put a hit out on her but somebody talked him out of it.
But before that, the Assyrians came. They destroyed the northern monarchy. Nine and a half tribes of the twelve tribes of Israel were decimated and dispersed. All that was left was the tribe of Judah in the south with some Benjaminites, some Simeonites and whatever refugees made it in. The loss of the capital city Samaria was devastating. People in Judah struggled to make sense of it by saying that can’t happen here. That happened to them because they were sinners. But we, we live with God. God lives in our midst. They pointed to the temple. They recited the psalms that celebrate the presence of God in the midst of Jerusalem, that promise the protection of God, psalms that promise Jerusalem, Mount Zion where the temple is – was, will stand forever.
The throne of David was also supposed to endure forever. But even we who understand that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of David must acknowledge that there was a time, a long time, centuries, when no one from the line of David sat on his throne, because when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple he also destroyed the monarchy. Israel ceased to exist as an independent, self-governing nation. It would be restored in the time of the Maccabees and the monarchy would return until the Romans destroyed the temple again and Israel would be re-established as a nation in our own modern history.
But 587 years before the time of Mary and Jesus, the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and set their sights on what was left of Israel, the monarchy of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar taxed the last king of Judah to the breaking point. And when he had had enough and rebelled then Nebuchadnezzar had the pretense that he was looking for; he moved his whole army across Mesopotamia and he savaged the nation of Judah.
There are eyewitness accounts scattered throughout the Bible in Jeremiah, Obadiah and 2 Kings from our first lesson:
And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, and laid siege to it; they built siegeworks against it all around. So the city was besieged until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine became so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city wall; the king with all the soldiers fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, though the Chaldeans were all around the city. They went in the direction of the Arabah. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king, and overtook him in the plains of Jericho; all his army was scattered, deserting him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, who passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah; they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon.
The destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar was theologically incomprehensible. Nebuchadnezzar’s assault was as unimaginable as – not the events that we remember from September 11th, for the towers had been struck previously – but rather as unimaginable as the assault on Pearl Harbor, and, as incomprehensible as the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as unfathomable as was Japan’s ultimate surrender to her own citizens.
There was a time when no one could enter the most holy space in the temple except the high priest, and then only once a year. Tradition says that he wore bells so that people would know if he was able to survive in the presence of God and, that he had a rope around him so that if he dropped dead from proximity to the holiness of God, his mortal remains could be pulled out for burial. And yet, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops not only entered the most holy place, they butchered it with battle axes, hatchets and hammers, chopping it to bits, burning everything that would burn, melting down the gold and silver and bronze for the Babylonian treasury. And they took a few choice vessels, used to worship the God of Israel back to Babylon for their king as trophies.
And there was not even a puff of smoke. There was no strike of holy lightening; no burst of fire from heaven, no hailstones, plagues of Egypt, no earthquake or sinkhole; the earth did not swallow them whole. Nothing happened. It was almost as if the temple was empty.
Listen to the psalm:
4 Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there.
5 At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes.
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it to the ground.
… they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.
It must have seemed like the stories passed down from generation to generation and the promises God made either never happened or were null and void. It may have seemed like the stories of Exodus were irrelevant fairy tales. Imagine, if you can, what it would have been like if the assault on and collapse of the Twin Towers was followed by an assault on and collapse of our government, defeat of our military and forced exile of our citizens: no homes, no jobs, no healthcare, parents separated from children, dead bodies heaped in the streets, everyone subject to robbery, rape – if not murder – on the way to incarceration in an over populated refugee camp with out any social services.
And the Israelites wrestled with their devastation. They tried to make sense of it all. They thought that perhaps it was because they had sinned as had the rest of Israel. They thought that God allowed their destruction as punishment. But then they thought God could not have given permission to the Babylonians to do all of the things that they did to them. They cried out in the book of Lamentations that Jews all over the world will read today remembering and mourning:
1:10 Enemies have stretched out their hands
over all her precious things;
she has even seen the nations
invade her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
to enter your congregation.
11 All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength…
2:11 My eyes are spent with weeping;
my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out on the ground
because of the destruction of my people,
because infants and babes faint
in the streets of the city…
20 …Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have given birth to?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the Lord?
21 The young and the old are lying
on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men
have fallen by the sword;
in the day of your anger you have killed them,
slaughtering without mercy…
4:3 Even the jackals offer the breast
and nurse their young,
but my people has become cruel,
like the ostriches in the wilderness.
4 The tongue of the infant sticks
to the roof of her mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
but no one gives them anything…
10 The hands of compassionate women
have boiled their own children;
they became their food
in the destruction of my people…
20 The Lord’s anointed, the breath of our life,
was taken in their pits—
the one of whom we said, “Under God’s shadow
we shall live among the nations.”
5:11 Women are raped in Zion,
virgins in the towns of Judah.
12 Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders…
20 Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
and are angry with us beyond measure.
Our lectionary doesn't commemorate the destruction of the temple which is a shame because the destruction of the temple, and its repeated destruction after the founding of the Church, shapes our very faith. The first destruction of the temple in 587 BCE gave birth to our scriptures and some of its most important theology, as people sought to explain what had happened, told one another the stories of their God and passed down the knowledge of who they were and who their God was to their children and their children’s children in exile in writing for the first time. They wrote the Scriptures. And as they wrote they recorded a theology of return and restoration. Exile would not have the last word. They believed that God would bring them back to their Promised Land in a Second Exodus. And they crafted a wholly new theology of God, a theology of divine accompaniment. They realized that God was not just rooted in the Holy Land. But that God was with God's people, wherever they were in the world. And if God's people were in exile, then God was in exile with God’s people. That’s good news for us today, and for people who suffer around the world and across time.
Everywhere God’s people are, God is: with Native persons herded onto reservations, Japanese American citizens interned in camps, South Africans banned to Bantustans, European Jews crowded into European ghettos, American Blacks crowded into inner city ghettos, political dissidents sentenced to gulags and reeducation camps, warzones and hospitals and mental hospitals and prisons. The theology that emerges from the exile in the Scriptures is that God is with the suffering people of the world wherever they are. This is an Immanuel theology.
When Israel return to their land the broken temple reminded them of the day that Nebuchadnezzar evicted them and their God from their home. Rebuilding the Temple became a national obsession. That’s what our gospel lesson is pointing to. How could Jesus say he would destroy the temple? It had taken them so long to rebuild it to make it as good as Solomon’s. Better even. They were never satisfied. That’s why Herod kept revising it, kept renovating it, kept adding to it. Of course Jesus was taking Immanuel theology to the next level. He was talking about the temple of his body. Paul took it further in the Epistle and wrote of the temple of all our bodies. That wherever we are, not only is God with us, God is within is.
While we rejoice that God is present with us and within us, we remember the temple today and we mourn its loss and the devastation caused by war in every age. We perpetuate the memory of the temple in our own services, in our prayers and even the configuration of our churches. We stand with our Jewish sisters and brothers and lament that human hands destroyed the house of God in an attempt to subdue their people. We remember the temple of our ancestors, we mourn its loss. We lament the violence that plagues our world. And we turn to God for comfort. God who dwells within and among us. Amen.
I am reflecting on what it is like to live in Jerusalem for forty days and forty nights, a month of Sundays, or, in my case, two months. Visit the blog, with reflections, images and slide shows: Living in Jerusalem: 40 Days and 40 Nights. There's a space on the blog to sign up for email updates.