Open the Tabernacle: 7th Sunday OT

Fr. Bill Peckman was pastor a few years back of St. Clement Church in Bowling Green, Missouri. He was also chaplain at a summer camp (sounds like a great guy). Well this one particular July weekend he was away at camp, so it was a visiting priest who opened St. Clement for the 9am Sunday Mass. He immediately saw, and even more immediately smelled, that the church had been vandalized. Fr. Bill made the three hour trip back; I’ll let him describe it:

“My Church sits dormant.  It is lifeless.  No sacraments can be celebrated in her right now.  Late Saturday night, she was desecrated.  Her confessional, baptismal font, holy water font, presider’s chair, lectern, altar, and tabernacle were smeared with human feces.  The Holy Oils were emptied into the carpet.  Her books used for Mass destroyed.  Her vestments soiled with wine.  Worst of all, the Blessed Sacrament within the tabernacle desecrated…”

Think what an outrage that is. What a direct and targeted offense, not just to other people, but an offense directed right at God… for someone to go into a church, God’s house, a temple, and desecrate it. Would you do that for a million dollars? That’s not just a rhetorical question, like, really ask yourself, would you? I know you wouldn’t. I’m just asking you to feel for a second your horror at the very thought of it. Got that? Feel it?

Then hear this: “Brothers and sisters: do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” That was 1 Corinthians 3:16. The same idea is echoes a few chapters later in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body.” Paul is pleading with them against sin… why? Because they are God’s dwelling. We are God’s dwelling. We, our bodies, we are Temples of the Holy Spirit. We have been washed in the saving water. We have been anointed with God’s Spirit. Don’t defile the Temple!

You wouldn’t come in here and spread filth around. You wouldn’t do that in a million years. You wouldn’t do that for a million dollars. Unthinkable. Never. But you know what? If you could see yourself through God’s eyes - if you could see yourself the way God sees you - you’d feel just the same about committing any sin. This is key, now: it isn’t that you shouldn’t sin because you’re supposed to be holy. It’s that you shouldn’t sin because you are holy. You are baptized and anointed, you belong to Jesus, and you can’t set that aside. Sin fits into your life like vandalism fits into this sanctuary.

And Jesus makes it clear that we are to look at each other the same way. Even our enemies.

Fr. Peckman wrote the day after: “We must pray for those who perpetrated this attack. We cannot give into the anger or fear such an attack can muster. We cannot respond to sin with sin. We will rise above this and show not only the larger community but the attacker themselves that the fullness of God’s mercy can be found at St. Clement.”

A week later the Bishop came to preside at the special prayers for a desecrated Church, ending with Eucharistic Adoration. By then, police had identified the person who committed the vandalism. Fr. Peckman said, “My parishioners have responded beyond any hopes that I would have expected. Not one asked what we were going to do to the woman who visited this tragedy upon us. Not one. Instead I had multiple request as to how we might help her. This is the way of Christ. No vengeance. No fear. No overreaction. Just mercy and forgiveness.”

I think in some ways it’s easier to find that mercy in these bizarrely outrageous cases. It’s so over the top that your first reaction might be “who did what to you? What are you carrying that came out in this way?” Maybe it’s actually harder for smaller, more mundane offenses. But anytime someone hurts you and your response is “what can we do to help her?”, you have truly taken to heart the words of Jesus: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.”

Forgiveness is still our strongest witness short of martyrdom. What would you say was the most powerful moment of Christian Gospel witness in our nation in, say, the last ten years? I know my answer. I’d point to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That’s where a young man walked into a Bible Study in June 2015 and took nine lives. His motive was simple, straight up racism. Members of the church, especially families of the victims, found themselves looking into camera lenses, with microphones held out to their mouths, being asked for their response. Eventually, they even testified in court with the defendant sitting right in front of them. Not all of them responded the same, but many did. Again and again, these broken-hearted, crushed, grieving people spoke of forgiveness and mercy. And America listened, and America saw, and we were just in awe of the power of the Gospel in these people’s witness.

There was a similar story in the Amish community of West Nickel Mines in Pennsylvania in 2006. And I can’t help but think of the incredible story of St. Maria Goretti, whose relic is under our altar at St. Kateri.

If you could see yourself the way God sees you, you’d never commit another sin. If you could see others the way God sees them, you would forgive and love every one. Because all these stories are not just ours. The Emanuel AME Church’s story wasn’t only theirs. The West Nickel Mines story, and Maria Goretti’s stories weren’t only theirs. They are all the story of Jesus Christ, forgiving and praying for his enemies: “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.”

That story can shine in us, too, just like He told us two weeks ago: our light must shine before others. You are God’s temple, and it’s the power of God’s mercy that you have to draw on. Whoever you need to forgive, you can. If you’ve been struggling with a grudge, struggling to find mercy for someone, here’s a hint: stop searching inside for your own mercy, and start reaching for God’s. If you can’t find love of your own, tap into God’s love for them. Open the doors of the Tabernacle that you are and let that love out. You’ll find there’s enough of it of for you and the person you need to forgive, both.

You have to know that forgiveness isn’t about your feelings. This mistake is a big obstacle for a lot of Christians who struggle to forgive. Forgiveness is an act of the will. It is choosing to love and to will the good of the other person, choosing not to insist that they get what’s coming to them, but to hope for their eternal happiness and salvation. Jesus commands us to do that. He doesn't say “have warm, happy feelings about your enemies,” or “start enjoying the company of your enemies,” or even “stop feeling the hurt your enemies caused;” He says “pray for your enemies.” That’s an act of the will, not a feeling, and you can do it the moment you decide to do it. Then keep doing it, over and over.

The last line of that Gospel reading was “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What are we supposed to do with that, we who are so very, very far from perfect? Ah, but we are the Temples of the one who is. When our love doesn’t measure up, when our mercy runs out, when our virtue falls short, the grace we need is there for us. Love with His love. Forgive with His mercy. Call on His strength. You are God’s temple.


Popular posts from this blog

Given Up: 19th Sunday OT

What is WRONG with you? (Lent 2020 and the Predominant Fault)