Third Sunday in Lent

March 3, 2024
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

We live in a post-enlightenment world. We all grew up seeing models of our solar system with the planets making their orbit around the sun. That is reality as we know it. The principal way we conceive existence and our place in the universe is a scientific one. And then, as people of faith, we add to that a kind of vague religious concept, that somehow (we don’t how), God is just kinda’ there – out there? everywhere? Who knows? But what’s certain, is the physical, scientifically understood universe we inhabit. We are children of the enlightenment.

But it hasn’t always been that way. And I’m not saying it was better before the enlightenment, as if science were wrong or suspect. I don’t believe that all. Science helps us understand God’s creation and how God is making it. However, when we read the Bible, we’ve got to understand: It is a pre-enlightenment document. The people then had a wildly different worldview.

Their sense of the physical realm and the spiritual realm were far more integrated. And for the Hebrews, the Jewish people at the time of Christ, the whole universe was conceived as “God’s domain.” As the prophet Isaiah declared for God, “Heaven is my throne and Earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1).

So in their cosmology:

Beyond everything was the “realm of God.” Then there were the “waters above” (a kind of ocean outside the stars). Then there was the firmament (this barrier between the waters above and space itself), then space (with the sun and the moon), then the sky, then the earth.

And of all the nations of the earth, God chose the Israelites as the “chosen people.” God was with them in a distinctive way – their God, the most powerful God, who fought their battles, who dwelt with them. So where was God to be found? With them. In Israel. And the center of Israel was Jerusalem. And the center of the Jerusalem was the Temple Mount: first came the courtyard for the Gentiles (where non-Jewish people could gather), then the Jewish courts – for women, then men. Then came the inner court for the priests only. Then the temple itself: first the Holy Place, then the Holy of Holies – a kind of throne room – which was to house the Ark of the Covenant: God’s throne on Earth. All of creation was God’s and God’s dwelling place. But especially here. This is where you went to find physical proximity to God.

And as I consider this ancient cosmology, with the of the Holy of Holies as the center of everything – God’s dwelling place on earth – with all these radiating tiers of proximity to it, I find a kind of parallel cosmology (if you will) in the way “we do” religion – “we” of the liturgical, sacramental Christian tradition.

The altar now becomes as the Ark of the Covenant, the throne, upon which God is seated. How? In the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, the “Real Presence” (as we say) of God in Christ: lifted up – becoming in that moment, for us, the center of the universe. Then it radiates out from there. We gather around this table to eat – to consume this presence, and to carry it out within us, through this body, the Church, then through the narthex, to the parking lot, to the diaspora of our homes and work, and on and on…

And not just at St. John’s, but in every church, at every altar, through every Eucharist. Like so many raindrops on a pond: Christ here and here and here, and from each, God’s grace radiating out – across the pond, across the world…

When I stand at the altar and break the bread, when the light is just right, I see in that moment, in that action – crack! – a thousand fragments of dust – Christ dust – released into the atmosphere, an unstoppable explosion of God’s grace bursting into the world.

And that’s just it: it is grace. It is Christ sacrificing himself and giving himself away for the well-being of everyone – friend and foe alike:

“Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do.”

“Take, eat, this is my body. This is my blood.”

And so we do. And as we do, as we eat this body and drink this blood, it becomes our body and our blood. That’s how food works. We become what we eat. And so we become as Christ – radiating out from this altar to become grace for this world, “no longer living for ourselves alone,” as we say of our mission, “but joining in God’s restoring work, that all people and creation might flourish.”[1]

And just as the temple courts were designed with space for the gentiles to come and gather in welcome, worshiping proximity to this God of the Jews, it’s worth asking of us: What is St. John’s “Court of the Gentiles?” Is there a gathering place here for people who aren’t exactly members of St. John’s, but who have a place of belonging all the same? The answer is “Yes. Absolutely, yes.” Look at the parish calendar for any given week:

  • Tonight it will be “Healthy Livers,” a large AA group for men and women
  • On Monday afternoon, there’s a Dementia Care-Givers Support Group
  • That evenings it’s the Scout Troop – one we’ve sponsored for decades
  • On Tuesday mornings, Jeff Waters teaches a painting class, open to the whole community, as is the Tai Chi class Susan Bonilla leads at the same time.
  • In the afternoon, the Peninsula Youth Orchestra practices here.
  • Later that evening, there’s a Food Addicts recovery group
  • On Thursdays, The Youth Orchestra is back, using three rooms.
  • Then they clear out for the English Language Learners group that St. John’s sponsors, in partnership with others from the community.
  • Once a month, we open the narthex on Thursday mornings to host a Veterans Café.
  • On Saturday mornings there are two AA groups, one for men, one for women
  • And then, of course, there’s Sunday morning, when guests are with us, curious if this is a community where God is honored and the love of God is evident.

That is over 200 people, every week, coming to our church, to our “Court of the Gentiles.” Now, for most of them, what brings them are the programs being hosted here. And that’s great. The programs we host all foster good things – things we believe to be part of the Kingdom of God. And, when they are here, they belong here. This space at St. John’s is for them.

Now, some of them have churches of their own. Most do not. And in this post-Christian world of the Pacific Northwest, all that many people know of the church is what they see in movies or hear on the news. And what’s being said of Christianity in the news these days, with the rise of the “Christian Nationalist” movement, is anything but the self-sacrificing, grace-filled, love your neighbor, Put-down-your-sword-Peter Reign of God that Christ taught and modeled and gave his life for.

And if coming to a support group or band practice at St. John’s is the closest proximity our neighbors are going to have of the Christ who gives his life away each week on our altar; and if we, their hosts, have been feeding on the host – that Body of Christ; and if we are coming to resemble that Christ, on whom we feed, by God, there’s one thing they should experience here. And that is grace.

It is a grace expressed in hospitality and warmth. It is a grace that meets them where they are and is willing to go out its way for their good. It is a grace that has well-functioning systems to make it easy to share our space. It is the gracious spirit already alive in our community for one another, now stretching its arms more widely in recognition that this church, St. John’s, is not our church alone. It is St. John’s, Gig Harbor for Gig Harbor.

When Jesus arrived on the Temple Mount, it was the Court of the Gentiles he came to… and was infuriated with what he found there. What should have been a House of Prayer for all nations had become a mockery. That space, designed expressly to bless the foreigner, had been taken over as a convenient space to make money from the Jewish pilgrims arriving at the temple, just trying to do what they were supposed to do according to the law in making offerings and sacrifices.

God have mercy, should Christ arrive in the church of our generation and find all the ways it has jettisoned its mandate to “love your neighbor,” seeking instead pathways for its own advancement and influence in society.

But, you know, Christ does come to St. John’s, to our Court of the Gentiles, two hundred times a week and more. He comes as the alcoholic, seeking hope, sobriety, and community. He comes as the elderly woman, looking for support in her Valley of Dementia. He comes as the immigrant, training his tongue to the language of his new land. He comes as the thirteen-year-old, lugging her cello behind her.

For this is Christ’s church, Christ who has taught us, “Whatever you’ve done for the least of these, you have done for me.”

And it is with this mindset that St. John’s is developing its Community Engagement ministry: How do we use our space to bless our neighbors? And how do we do it well? How do we expand the spirit of love and community and hope that is fostered here to become love and community and hope for our neighbors? How do we be like Jesus, meeting people where they are, with compassion?

This ministry is still in its infancy, but it’s begun. The Veterans Café we host was developed by it. Every outside group that meets here is now grafted into it. And if you’re interested in becoming part of this ministry – conceiving and developing mindful ways of blessing our neighbors with the love of Christ through this church – go find Jeff Dolven after the service (he’ll be at the back). Give him your name. And, together, we can be Christ, radiating out from his altar and into the narthex, the Parish Hall, the Hunt Lounge … and the world.

This world is still curious. “What it is these Christians do?” “Who do they say God is and what this life is about?” And, at the most basic level, from that gut of our corporate human yearnings, “Is there love there? And will they love me?”

And, please God, may the answer be, “Yes.”

[1] Based on St. John’s “catechism” of our parish mission, to Be Like Jesus.