By Father N.J.A. Humphrey
Feast of Dedication
18 November 2018
The gospel we just heard is appointed for “The Anniversary of a Dedication of a Church.” I don’t know about you, but I find that there’s a strange incongruity in hearing this particular gospel at such a celebratory occasion: Jesus driving out the moneychangers from the temple. I would expect a more triumphant and joyful reading, but no, instead we are presented with a scene of Jesus coming to a sacred space that had been corrupted and polluted by sin and greed, in serious need of a cleansing and a reality check. Jesus literally shakes things up, and the chief priests and scribes, who are supposed to be the stewards and custodians of that sacred space, are offended by his actions. And why are they offended? Because buying and selling in the temple, the moneychangers and dove vendors are at the heart of the temple’s business plan. It would be like Jesus storming Bingo Night at the Catholic Church…or maybe even coming in here and tearing up our pledge cards as we gather them in.
For us, then, the gospel lesson in this context is a cautionary tale. “And [Jesus] said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” The moral of the story for us is: Just because a building was once erected to the greater glory of God does not mean that its current stewards and custodians are actually using it that way. Perhaps our business model is in danger of eclipsing true business of the church. Thus, our gospel calls us to an examination of conscience as to our own actions and attitudes towards money, whether your leadership is motivated by greed in asking for your pledges, or whether we are all indeed focused on the mission that our pledges make possible: that this place should be a house of prayer. This gospel is a call to face reality.
This call runs precisely opposite to the preacher’s temptation in a sermon on the anniversary of the dedication of a church to whitewash history and to celebrate only those things about our past that we would like to remember, and not address the inconvenient truths of history. For if we did address them, we might be forced to deal with them. Take, for instance, the fact that we rightly rejoice in the beauty of what I consider the crown jewel of the Gilded Age in the Point neighborhood, yet if you look closely, the jewel, after 124 years of wear and tear, looks like it could use at the very least a good polishing. It’s chipped and banged up in a few places, too. It’s not stretching the metaphor to say that this jewel has come loose in its setting in the crown.
Now the fact that we’ve been living with “shabby chic” for decades is understandable, given our past lack of resources. I have to believe that if our predecessors had had the wherewithal, they would have kept this place shipshape. But the roof of the nave (from the Latin for “boat”) is leaky in several places, so this vessel isn’t entirely seaworthy.
Of course we have to remind ourselves that those who were charged with caring for this building had other pressing priorities—priorities I share, like preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments and making disciples of Jesus and serving our neighbors in Jesus’ name. But we need to be a little more house proud, I think.
Thankfully, there is some hope on the horizon. Unless I’m mistaken, even though we haven’t yet made our pledge goal for 2019, we already have more dollars pledged to St. John’s than at any time in its history. Next year, which marks the 125th year of the existence of this building, will, I believe, be filled with great accomplishments. My goal is that by the time I stand before you a year from now, some major capital improvement projects will be well underway, and we will really be in the mood to celebrate.
By the time this church turns 125, I believe that we will at least have a plan for restoring our roof, if not actually be in the midst of that work. Don’t worry, the historic tiles will remain. It’s the underlayer that needs to be brought up to date so that the building is watertight again. And guess what we can do once we have a watertight building? We can re-plaster the church, remove our ailing 1894 Hook & Hastings organ and have it completely cleaned and refurbished. We’ll spruce up the rood screen and re-point all those stones on the outside of the church, particularly the ones facing the parking lot. And we will do all of this not simply for ourselves, but so that we can draw more people into this house of prayer, because when people see that we care for our house, they will know that we will care about them, too.
There’s so much to be done, but I believe that 2019 will be the year we really begin to do it, and to plan for a future that restores our earthly temple so that it more closely resembles the heavenly Jerusalem. In this endeavor, we rely not on our own efforts but on our Lord who, having cleansed the temple, is ready to lead us through our present into a future that ends in glory. Which brings me back to our gospel text for this morning.
Within the gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’ judgment on those who have not treated the Lord’s temple as the sacred space it undoubtedly is, there is also to be found the sound of great joy. This sound of joy comes from those who embody the future: the children who shout, “Hosanna to the son of David!”
At every Mass, we say or sing “Hosanna in the highest,” echoing the children in the temple who cried “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Do you know what “hosanna” means? It means “please save us.” Addressing Jesus using the kingly and overtly messianic title of “Son of David,” the children in the temple shout, literally, “please save us.”
At the same time, the “please save us” is a cry of joy. How so? By the time of Jesus, the colloquial meaning of the word “hosanna” had changed from being a cry for help to being a cry of happiness. I suppose the best analogy for how a word has come to mean the opposite of its original meaning may be illustrated by the uniquely New England exclamation, “wicked.” If you hear a New Englander saying “wicked,” it’s a positive thing, often said in admiration: “she’s wicked smaht” or “that lobstah’s wicked good.”
In this case, the children’s “hosanna” is a particular kind of joy. It is the joy of someone seeing their prayers answered. And it is this joy that I am looking forward to celebrating with you in 2019 as we celebrate our 125th year in this holy temple.
But back to those children in that temple. In this context, then, Hosanna is the joy of anticipation at being saved, joy at the arrival of a savior. So the two meanings, a cry for help and a cry of happiness, are not mutually exclusive but rather integrated.
As a church that supports a choir school, we are literally teaching children how to sing “Hosanna to the Son of David.” We do this as a way of focusing ourselves on a living future, not on a dead past. Thanks to the grace of God and your generosity, we are emerging into a new era, joining with those children and the saints and angels as we proclaim, “Hosanna in the highest.” When we do so, we are expressing both our joy and our prayer that God will continually save us from sin and death, and yes, even from ourselves.
When I look around at the incredible legacy that our founder Peter Quire left us, I am moved to shout Hosanna! When I see the memorial inscription the donor of this building, Sarah Titus Zabriskie, placed over our west doors, I am moved to shout Hosanna! When I pray the daily office or celebrate Low Mass in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament that Sarah Morris Fish Webster donated, I am moved to shout Hosanna! When I stand in this pulpit and look at this rood screen, given in memory of Fr. Frederick Charles Beattie, I am moved to shout Hosanna! And I am counting on you to give us all a reason to shout Hosanna in 2019.
Look around you. What would you do to preserve and restore this jewel of a church? What would you do to ensure that this house of prayer will always be used for the purpose for which it was built? As beautiful as its decoration may be, this building is not a museum but consecrated space, holy ground. And as such, may we always be moved to shouts of joy and prayers for deliverance from sin, to consecrate anew at every Mass both ourselves, our souls and bodies, and the sacred spaces in which God’s holy people pray.