Third Sunday in Lent - March 7, 2021
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Exodus 20:1-17 + Psalm 19 + 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 + John 2:13-22
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ. I speak to you today in the Name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
When I was in the 6th grade my English teacher, who also happened to be the school drama teacher, decided to carry out a little exercise in one of our classes. She went around the classroom one by one and asked each of us to respond to the same question, “when you grow up, how will you measure your success?”
To any adult in the room, the answers would have no doubt been as telling as they were predictable: A big house, a sports car, “I want to be president…or a famous baseball player…an actress,” and so on. Her hand slowly stretched and bobbed, index finger extended as she moved through the classroom row by row, allowing her finger to rest invisibly atop each of their heads, from the front of the classroom where she stood, signaling it was their turn to speak.
As responses were offered row after row, I was desperate to think up an answer other than the truth. Other than the one thing that came to my head when she posed the question. But, when her gentle finger came to rest squarely in my direction, unable to think of anything else, I blurted out the only answer that I had been unable to suppress: “I want to be holy,” I said.
Unblinking, her eyes continued to the next student just behind me when in an instant they suddenly darted back as if only now hearing what I had said. Her finger stopped, motionless, still pointing at me, not with any intention, but more as if she had simply forgotten to lower her arm. Looking clear into my eyes with a penetrating glare I could not discern if she was angry or serious or just confused. But it was enough to embarrass me. “What did you say?” she asked unblinking, in a low hushed tone. “I want to be holy,” I said…this time far more sheepishly.
The room was oddly quiet as her stare continued for what felt like a long while (though I doubt it was more than a few seconds) before her countenance softened to a warm glow as one side of her mouth began to curl into a smile. “That’s very mature,” she said finally, in a quiet and reassuring tone that I wondered if only I could hear. Her eyes locked squarely on mine even as her finger slowly, almost mechanically, found its way to the student behind me.
“I want to be a rock star,” I heard a voice behind me blurt out…and so the exercise went on. But I had stopped listening. I could not shake the feeling that I had done something wrong or said something stupid… something embarrassing.
So, when class was dismissed and I was packing my books to leave, I was startled to hear her call my name. “Vinnie,” she said, “Can you stay behind a moment?” I nodded nervously, and continued to pack my book-bag trying, if nothing else, to look busy as the classroom slowly emptied out and the chatter of my fellow classmates dissipated down the hallway. As I walked to the front of a now-empty classroom, she was leaning back, half-seated on the edge of her desk. Ankles crossed and arms folded over her chest.
When I got as close to the front of the classroom as I dared, she warmly tilted her head, looking down at me, as a broad smile spanned across her face. “That’s very mature…” she repeated. “Thank you,” I said, matter-of-factly – unsure how to respond. “So, what does that mean to you?” she asked after a moment or two. I shrugged, unsure of how to put it into words. Unsure, really, of what I meant. “I want to be a priest,” I said finally. “A priest.” She repeated calmly. “Yes,” I confirmed, “a priest.” “Well then I hope you do,” she said.
As I reflected on the readings given to us today, it was this memory that kept surfacing because it seems that one of the common threads throughout all of them is the question of “holiness:” What is holiness?
The Ten Commandments establish the foundation for what would become the Holy Nation of Israel, a People set apart to be light on the hill for all nations. The book of Leviticus, with its constant refrain, “Be Holy as I, the Lord, am holy,” would build upon these basic parameters, to further govern a people now settled in an agricultural society: Rules to govern land usage, dietary restrictions, sexual prohibitions, religious seasons, times, and rituals. And so on.
External observance of religious rules helped Jews respond to the question, “Who am I before God and community?” To be holy was often defined by what one did not do: “Do not be like the nations with their filthy and disgusting practices, with their idolatry and drunkenness and orgies. Be holy, as I am holy.”
But with the ministry of Jesus, a new intensification not of outward behavior but inward intention, takes center stage. In his efforts to draw Israel back to the heart of the Torah, rather than a mere legalistic observance of rules and laws he challenged his listeners:
“You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye,” but I say to you, If someone strikes you on the right cheek offer no resistance. You have heard it said, “You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. You have heard it said, “Do not commit adultery” but I say to you, do not even look at another’s spouse lustfully.
Intention, not merely behavior becomes the measure of holiness, which is what seems to raise the ire of Jesus’ when he confronts the money-changers in the Temple, as we witnessed today. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” he demands, in what was no doubt a pre-meditated display of prophetic theater meant to shock from complacency all who witnessed it.
And in Paul’s powerful reflection on the Cross today, he turns the world’s understanding of Jesus’ messiahship on its head. He does not flinch from the scandal – indeed the absurdity – of a crucified messiah, but boldly proclaims the “foolishness of God” – a stumbling block to any Jewish conception of an awaited militaristic messiah, and complete folly to Greek philosophical speculations about the inviolability of God who remains forever transcendent above pain, above death, above the created realms.
Thus, in Christ, holiness becomes not a thing, or a goal, or an idea. Holiness becomes a person. The Holy One in our midst. Jesus of Nazareth. The Christ. The One whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, whose weakness is stronger than human strength.
What if we all stopped looking at holiness as a thing we do, a thing we achieve by following certain prescriptions or rules or laws and ask whether it might not be simply who we are in relationship to God. The ethical lives we strive to live, the religious observances we seek to be faithful to, are not the cause of our holiness, but the effect. The virtues we struggle to embody are no more the cause of our holiness than giving a bouquet to our beloved is the cause of our love for them. Both the life of virtue and the bouquet of roses are the fruit, the overflowing, the outpouring, of a love and relationship that precedes them, indeed that lies at the heart of them.
I am not suggesting our religious rules, laws, and prohibitions don’t have their place: they are markers – guideposts, guard rails – to keep us on the path that is narrow. But to stop with them is to live a juvenile spiritual life, which is why Paul says, “If you live by the Spirit, no law can touch you” (Gal 5:18).
Religion has a way of turning on itself. Teachings that were meant in their context to free us become hardened into new rules that must be observed, “observed…or else!” Relationships that were once spontaneous, now become required. The intention is good, but the outcome can diminish a life once lived in the Spirit into a kind of death by legalism. The very thing that stifles the Spirit: spontaneity, the flow of love.
And thus, for the Christian, holiness is not something we ‘become’ – but is something we already are by nature of our relationship with Christ in the Spirit. And thus, it comes to expression not so much in the following of rules and laws, but in those moments when Christ becomes more clearly manifest in each of us, even as we diminish.
And perhaps that is all that is required of holiness: not that we strive for it. But that we let go of striving, so that what is already there may simply be made manifest. As John the Baptist so eloquently says before disappearing from the pages of scripture: “Christ must grow greater, I must grow less.”
As long as we live out of a consciousness in which we are convinced “I am not holy, but someday I want to be,” we will live from a place of spiritual scarcity rather than abundance; a place of inadequacy, rather than as heirs to eternal life; a place of unworthiness in which I must prove myself holy, rather than a place of gratitude for being made whole and holy by the power of the Spirit who loved me into being.
I wonder, at 53, what my 6th grade teacher would say if I told her I don’t want to be holy anymore. Would she be disappointed that I had become jaded, caved into a world that celebrates materialism, fame, and money?
Perhaps not, if she gave me time enough after class to assure her that I don’t want to be holy because I realize everything is holy now. That in Christ, heaven and earth interpenetrate each other. That all ground is holy ground. All water is holy water. All bread is Eucharist. All life—not merely human life—is sacred. And death. Death is holy too.
I wonder if she might nod approvingly, with her warm confident smile, relishing in my ‘maturity,’ until I reached the part where I insisted on the overwhelming truth that she too was holy. I wonder if she could accept that in her own heart…or if there were too many years of lies convincing her otherwise. If she could admire a student from the outside, but not let the truth of his insistence to settle deep in her soul.
And I wonder if each of you can receive that overwhelming truth into your own soul, today. Perhaps Christ will need to turn over a few tables in your heart in an act of prophetic theater to get you to see that you are indeed a Temple, the Holy of Holies, the house in which his Father dwells. I wonder if he will have to evict a den of thieves, or just a few money changers, whose currencies are the voices of past trauma or insidious lies that have cheated you out of the truth of who you are as a holy child of God. Whatever it takes, I believe even now Jesus is making yet a new a ‘whip of cords,’ ready to do whatever it takes to reclaim you, his Holy Temple, from all that would desecrate it.
In this holy season of Lent then, allow Christ to do his work in you. Allow yourself to be reclaimed by his love. Indeed, perhaps no work is more urgent than for us to simply get out of his way. For each of us to stop trying to prove ourselves “holy,” just long enough for God to prove that indeed, Divine foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.
And so as we journey this Lenten season together, I pray that your false temples be torn down, that Christ evicts the money changers of your heart who have swindled and cheated you, exchanging the truth of your holiness with the lies of the world. And I pray that when his cleansing work is done in you, you awaken to a new way of being in which your holiness shines for all the world to see as the very presence of Christ dwelling in you.
+ And May God bless you, the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.