Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up

February 24, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

In this text today, we have Jesus in a wild, firm, senseless, baseless challenge to the authorities. This, of course, is the only kind of challenge possible to the authorities: Wild, senseless, baseless and effective. Go ahead and kill me, he says, I won’t die. Go ahead and kill us, he says, and we won’t die. Destroy our outer shell, if you want, but don’t think you can kill the spirit within it.

I often like to open the service with words that summarize for me what we are about here. I’ll repeat them today because they add power to what Jesus was saying about the indestructibility of the temple. “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” I was glad when invited to the temple, this gorgeous shell that conches the spirit. “Our help is in the name of the Spirit, who made heaven and earth.” We have a big help. It is eternal. It includes all the time and all the space, before us and after us. Our help is not in violence, or in good grades, or in flossing, or in our personal brand. Our help is not in what we do or don’t do, accomplish or don’t accomplish. Our help is in the name of the Sovereign Spirit, who made both heaven and earth. ‘Through us, I like to continue, the ancient city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt and the poor of the land will be sheltered.” Once we acquaint ourselves with the power of the Spirit, things we think are impossible become impossible. The ancient city of Jerusalem thrives. The poor and oppressed are sheltered. In this liturgy, I conclude with the powerful words of the psalmist, echoed by Jesus today. “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Not every night, and not every morning but in the great getting’ up morning, weeping stops and joy emerges. Jesus wild senseless, baseless challenge to the authorities fits right into the grammar of this psalm. Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Make me weep night after night but don’t worry about weeping. Joy will come one morning.

I want to attend to the grammar of Jesus’ affrontery today and to the grammar of liturgy. Note we employ a comma. Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. You may weep all night long, but joy will come in the morning. People of the comma are not violent. On the other hand, people who have only periods in their grammar are violent. Violence comes when we put a period where God has put a comma. We chose this very statement for the God is Still Speaking Campaign, now over a decade old. Why did we choose it? Because we believed we were developing a church that could stop violence by stopping the period people and becoming the comma people. We weren’t just messing around with grammar although grammar is always a good place to go into the gospel. Why grammar? Because grammar is a lot like the structures that support empire. It is a set of rules, contexts, patterns, behaviors, things you are supposed to do. Grammar is also a thing that when you don’t do it, people think they have the right to correct you. The grammar police have a strong army. Grammar is surely a good thing, and as an English major I want to assure you that I fully respect grammar. Grammar and empire have only one thing in common: they are both structures. They are structures for thought. One is benign, the other murderous. Grammar helps us talk and hear and listen. It is a good thing. Its patterns are deep within us. As Winston Churchill famously said, when corrected for ending a sentence with a preposition, ‘That is the kind of insult with which I will not put up.”

Empire, like grammar, is a structure. It spends a lot of time telling you to stop, where to stop, how to stop, how to enjoy what it is doing to you. In our pop lab yesterday, on reproductive rights, we told stories about how the grammar of sex in our religious and cultural backgrounds became empire within us. Don’t get pregnant. If you do get pregnant, you are bad. And it is your fault. How dare you imagine having an abortion? Once we find out that you are bad, we like to rub it in.

Think of the normal grammar of violence, empire’s favorite tool. You want to rise? You want to build up the temple that we have destroyed? Try as you may, you can’t. That is the grammar of empire. Try to take back what we have stolen from you and we will put you in prison or beat you up or do both and if that doesn’t work, we will kill you. We may even torture you. Empire has the grammar of a period. Stop. It says. Stop. Hard stop is actually what it means: if you don’t stop, we will make it hard on you. We intend to protect our right to have what we have stolen from you. Stolen? Yes, first the land. Then the freedom to earn a living off our labor. Then Williamsburg. Gentrification is just the latest land theft, one that has a long and dishonorable history in these so-called United States. Violence has its source in the protection of the theft. Even though my heteronormative marriage is not threatened by other kinds of marriage, many people, like me structurally, think they must protect their marriages. Their violence is usually verbal but not always. Violence protects the theft of identity from people who are different; it also protects the theft of land. It protects the theft of energy and oil. It protects its right to exploit labor – and even says things to people who are earning $8.00 an hour, “you know, this is for your own good and the good of the nation.” I am reminded of the trickle down theory and whom it trickles upon. Violence likes you to think it can’t be stopped.

Back to the period and the comma. When we set out to challenge the religious right as the United Church of Christ with a slogan – I know David meets Goliath once again – we were actually challenging homophobia, as slyly as we knew how. We knew the biggest weapons against gay people were scriptural, or better put, scripture abused. We knew that scripture had turned into a weapon because it was considered static. Period. You have heard those stagnant arguments enough. God said lying with a man is wrong and it is wrong period. We said that God did say some things through scripture about homosexual behavior, very few in fact, but that since God was still speaking, we were waiting for the comma of love to emerge in the church and its renewed reading of scripture. Therefore, never put a period where God has put a comma.
God is still speaking.

When I think about why people do violence, I see that they are placing periods where God has put commas. Empire is a big fat period, plopped down on human history and nature. Stop here, keep these power arrangements eternal. Period. Even the slightest challenge to authority gets them going. Why? Because any threat to the static power arrangements is perceived as possibly successful. That’s why it is so much fun sometimes to be an activist. We raise our eyebrows to the arrangement and say things like really? I could tell you that question marks are as powerful as commas but today my friend is the comma.

Today I want to rejoice in how easy it would be to stop the next war. Never place a period where God has placed a comma. Don’t let the period people end their sentences with periods. Develop communities of commas that challenge static cultures of periods. Never let people get away with saying, “That is just the way it is.” Or “There is nothing we can do about it.” Or “This is how it is supposed to be.” Or “it must be my fault.” With these sentences, ending in periods, you moved into a gentrified neighborhood and didn’t even know it. Instead, imagine with me a world full of commas, of continuation, of the opposite of stability which is flow and flux.

We can stop the next war, if we can learn to value a neighborhood of flowing commas challenging a nation-state of periods. Were we to develop alternative energy sources, on local levels, with power spread out and around, we would be rebuilding the temple that has already been destroyed. Without such a rebuild, we are contributing to the next war. Why? How? Isn’t that a bit extreme? I don’t think so at all. Every second that Congress and the White House dither around with God only knows what, things like sequestration and the invasion of women’s bodies with rules, they are not paying attention to rebuilding the economy or to climate change or sources of energy. When they dither, every single day is lost to the power of the comma. Every day. Do you not imagine there will be more violence to protect what oil there is? Do you imagine that the dithering does anything whatsoever to protect the poor from being blamed for their poverty? Does the dithering not just ignore the pervasive racism that keeps people down and out and stuck and stopped and frisked or detained or deported? Doesn’t the dithering leave enormous assets of human power stuck and sitting on the table? Is it not possible that the people who think they own the land and air will force more and more people to work at lower and lower rates to keep their static systems going? Especially if they can get a good crisis going?

What Occupy Sandy did in modeling mutual aid during Storm Sandy is the best work in commas I have seen in a long time. Why? Because they were showing us how to keep neighborhoods safe in the wake of ecological terror. They were connecting and letting energy flow between people. I may be harsh on Congress and the President, accusing them of fiddling while we burn, with ignored capacity and power. I can be equally harsh on ordinary people, like you, and me who have commas to make ourselves. These commas are not necessarily advocacy, but they include advocacy. They are much more in the positive development of neighborhood or church or family as antidote to empire. What Evan describes in his remarkable book is what is needed. We need to rebuild circles of trust. What is a circle of trust? It is surrounding each other with commas. It is speaking to each other with the word “and” not “but” in our voice. What we do among ourselves is the comma work. When we just think we need to get them to change, we are just fueling their foolish periods. Beware advocacy, advocates. Join resistance and comma work to activism and things might even change. Build a circle of trust here at Judson, in your home, at your work, at brunch this afternoon. Release the asset and the energy in your own self and your own circle. Take unused energy off your table and use it. Every time we say that violence is inevitable, we forget that the temple is going to rise in three days. That weeping may last all night long, but joy comes in the morning. Assure each other that these sentences with commas are true. Dispute the period people every chance you get. Do so calmly, carefully, with an Alleluia on your tongue. Sparkle with the repose of the comma. In its flux and flow, you find your peace and stability.

Everywhere you look, you see the unfinished, unfinished work, unfolded laundry, unbuilt additions, unraised children and unpaid bills.. You stop, or you get stopped. It doesn’t matter which. A period has come into your life, a stuck energy, a blocked flow, and an aneurism of the spirit. Empire does violence to us and we also do violence to ourselves. We become our own periods, when all around commas are begging for attention.  Hear the Joy of the Comma once again: Destroy this spirit and I will raise it up in three days. Amen

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