I preached this sermon on March 7, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 2:13-22, an account of Jesus clearing out the Temple in Jerusalem.
Just before I started serving at Trinity, Fort Wayne, nearly two years ago now, I took a drive up north, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my grandparents and my father lived before they died, where I spent much of my youth. The old family home, a place that had been an anchor throughout my entire life, was no longer occupied, and my aunt and uncles were planning on selling it, so I wanted to see it at least one more time before that happened.
And you know that old saying, “you can’t go home again”? Well, sometimes you can, technically, but the problem is that either the home has changed so much—or you have—that you feel disoriented, like a stranger wandering into the story that used to be your own, but that doesn’t quite fit anymore.
The house was quiet, too quiet, cleared of most of its familiar clutter, though some of the furniture remained—the kitchen table right where it had always been, the same curtains in the window, the old parlor organ in its usual spot, the armchair where my grandmother read her books before bed. The outlines of a thousand memories, still rich and resonant, but hollow, too, a monument to an era of our family history that had passed away.
And as strange as it might sound, I kept thinking about that empty house in Michigan as I was sitting with this week’s gospel passage from John, where Jesus clears out the Temple in that dramatic scene.
Because although we often focus on the intensely prophetic nature of his actions—turning over the tables, critiquing the economics of the sacrificial system—I think there is a also a deep poignancy to be found here. This is a personal moment as much as it is a public one, because we must remember that, for Jesus, this is not just a religious power center, a building filled with strangers whom he wants to knock down a peg or two. It is, as he plainly says, his Father’s house. He has, after much time away, come back home.
Remember the story early in Luke’s gospel, when Mary and Joseph lose track of Jesus in Jerusalem when he is a young boy? And they search for him for three days…and then they finally find him…where? In the Temple, yes, still himself but also unfamiliar—a bearer of wisdom, engaging in dialogue with the teachers assembled there. And what does twelve year-old Jesus say to Mary and Joseph?
“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
It is a homecoming scene. A memory deeper than memory, a familial instinct has drawn him there, to the dwelling place of his Father, to the place where his own story, just beginning to take shape, finds its larger context.
And so now, as he arrives again in today’s reading as an adult–a bit older, a bit more knowing–what is Jesus thinking, as he enters the Temple for this very different homecoming? Does he remember how he once sat, just over there, as a young prodigy, amazing the onlookers with his insight? Does he remember, perhaps, that certain slant of light across the stones on that long ago day, or the sound of his mother’s voice calling out to him in relief from across the courtyard, when life was newer, when there was still so much to be discovered? Does he now feel that disconcerting pang of regret when you return to a place after you’ve grown a bit too much to be comfortable there, that swirl of familiarity and estrangement when a Father’s house no longer feels like home?
You can’t go home again, no. Not even Jesus. Not in the exact same way as before. Too much has changed. But also, there is too much that must still be done. No time to wallow in what is lost. Life persists. And so our histories must be reckoned with, not recaptured.
In his own way, that is exactly what Jesus is doing, as he braids the whip, as he releases the doves into the sky: he is clearing out the past, because he knows that this story—his family’s story, his nation’s story, creation’s ancient and unfolding story—must now go in a new direction. So out go the sacrificial animals, and the money-changers—out go the old systems, the old patterns, the old and familiar ways of interacting with God, of satisfying our never-ending longing for heaven.
For a new thing is about to be done: a definitive sacrifice is about to be made, in the confines of a drastically different Temple—the Temple of God’s own body, on the altar of Calvary. Jesus, in clearing out the Jerusalem Temple, is clearing the path towards the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city; he is taking upon himself all the memories, all the hopes, all the sorrows that have been held and offered here through the millennia, in the halls and holy places of his Father’s house, and he is carrying them with him, into the next chapter, into his own life and death–and beyond.
What has been is not always what can continue to be. This is as true for us now as it was then. This is true for you and for me in our own lives, and it is true for us as a community, as a society, as a planet.
We cannot go back to what was, even if we have loved it more than anything, because things have changed, and we have changed, and the world needs something different from us now.
And if Jesus fashioning a whip of cords and turning over tables seems drastic, that’s because surrendering to change always is—it requires a certain lack of sentimentality on our parts, a certain fury and fire in the heart, a startled emergence from slumber, to get up, to live, to look forward, to do what must be done now, to say goodbye to what no longer serves us and what no longer serves emerging God’s purpose.
So the question for us today, here, at the edge of whatever awaits us next, is this: What is it that we need to clear out of our lives? What is it that we need to let go of, in order to make space for what will be? What is holding us back from the next chapter in our story, in Trinity’s story, in America’s story, in the human story–what is holding us back from the chapter of the story where we go out once more and meet the world in its pain and its promise and rediscover the beauty and the healing and the freedom that Jesus can offer? What must be put to rest in order to do that? What are we waiting for?
Nostalgia will not save us. It will not save us in the church, it will not save us in this country; it will not save your life or mine. Try as we might (and God knows I often try) we cannot live on memories or longings for what used to be, for the ways things were, even the way things were a year ago. The pre-pandemic world is gone. The “before” time—the time when we did not know all that we know now—that time is gone. We have seen too much now. We can’t go home again.
And yes, we can and we should honor the past for all that it has done for us, for its beautiful gifts, for its lessons, and we can preserve the wisdom of our ancestors and the life-giving pieces of the traditions we have been given, and then….we have to let the rest go.
The old mindsets. The old assumptions. The old prejudices. The old fears. The old lies. They don’t serve anymore. We have to be strong enough, together, to figure out how to be the Christians that the world needs now. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what Jesus has driven us out into this present moment to do.
So let’s do it. With some trepdiation, perhaps, maybe even a tear or two, but also with hope, and determination, and curiosity, and above all, a trust in the Lord, our Lord, who knows what he is doing, even when that thing seems dramatic and strange and hard to us.
You know, when I left my family’s house for the last time, I cried as I pulled out of the driveway. And I knew as I drove out of town that the love that I experienced there, in that place, would be lodged deep in my soul for the rest of my life.
But it was time to go, whether I was ready or not. It was time.
And so I did. And I kept going, down through the forests, through the sleepy old towns, down past the shimmering city lights, and across the wide open fields, back down here. Back to you. To this place and time, the one that I had to live into now.
And I thought: it’s true, you can’t go home again.
But you can make a new home, wherever it is you have to go. Wherever it is that Jesus leads. You can make a new life there, with gratitude for what came before, and with hope for what is coming next.
Not in your Father’s house, perhaps, but on holy ground, nonetheless. The ground upon which we are standing.