The Memory of Sacred Things

West Side Moravian Church
March 19, 2006

Scripture: John 2: 13-22; Psalm 19

Memory stories

How do you remember? Lent is a time for remembering. Traditionally, Lent is especially a time to contemplate our own failures and to retell the story of Jesus' sacrifice for us. But there other things to remember as well, and today's scripture helps to make this clear.

How do you remember the events that you want to remember, or that you need to remember? How do you remember a child's first step, or the death of a 7-year-old, a housefire in the early morning or a campfire by the lake, an auto accident, a struggle with cancer, a long conversation among three friends at dusk, a wedding day, a fragrant summer sunrise?

Most likely, you tell a story. You want to be honest in your memories, and merely listing facts would not be fully truthful.

I've met people with each of these memories, and I've had a few of those memories myself. So have you. And each of us, remembering these stories, tells them differently.

Jesus in the Temple

How would you remember the church picnic? How would you remember the church picnic if your friend tipped over the chicken booyah kettles and threw the bratwurst into the street? That's roughly what Jesus' disciples experienced when Jesus invaded the temple and turned the merchants out. How would they tell that story? How would they remember it?

We hardly need to say that they left a lot of the story out. Like most of the Bible, this story leaves vast territory open for our imagination. We don't know the weather or the time of day. We don't know the names of the merchants or how many of them were in the temple that day. We don't know where Jesus found the cords, or how he formed them into a whip, or how he let the sheep out of their pens in order to drive them out of the temple precinct. We can only imagine the men in the currency exchange scrambling on the ground after their coins, for the Bible story does not describe them at all. John isn't being dishonest by leaving this out; Jesus' disciples simply found none of these things important enough to remember.

Other facts the Bible story does tell. We know the season of the year, just before Passover. The story tells us the kinds of animals being sold, the ones used for the Passover sacrifice. We learn that Jesus not only spilled the coins, but turned the tables over. These facts were important enough to remember and to tell.

To these facts, the story adds some explanations. When Jesus said, Stop making my father's house a marketplace!, we learn that his disciples thought about Psalm 69, verse 9: My devotion to your Temple burns in me like a fire; the insults which are hurled at you fall on me. When Jesus tells the people that he can build up this temple in 3 days, the story explains that the temple Jesus was speaking about was his body. These additions change how we understand the story. They also serve to tie this story back to the glories of the time of King David and forward to the time when Jesus would rise from death.

Remembering the sacred

One way we could remember this story would be as a story about the Jewish leaders. This could have been a story about mixed-up priorities on the part of leaders who let merchants take precedence over worship. But in the Biblical telling of this memory, those leaders are relegated to a minor role.

This could have been a story about the people, God's people, who came up to the temple to honor God and to do their duty at Passover. It could have been a story about the merchants. Were they simple shopkeepers trying to feed their families while providing a needed service to religious pilgrims? Or were they avaricious predators taking advantage of people far from home? The story could be told in these ways, but it wasn't.

Another way to remember this story would be the story of "the cleansing of the temple". This is the way the story is told in the other gospels. Remembering the story from this point of view makes the merchants evil invaders in the temple; their presence pollutes the holy place and makes it a hideout for thieves in the telling of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Those gospels also place the story at the last Passover, just before the crucifixion. Remembering the story in that way means that Jesus' visit to the temple redeems the holy things for holy purposes. just as he would soon redeem God's holy people.

John's memory never mentions thieves. Besides, he tells the story at the beginning of his gospel, when we are first being introduced to who Jesus is.

How does John remember the story? John's story is about Jesus' own holiness. John remembers the sacredness in Jesus' character and he tells honestly how unsettling that was.

When John ties these actions back to Israel's past he refers to Psalm 69. That psalm begins, Save me, O God! The water is up to my neck. John remembers that for Jesus, My devotion to your Temple burns in me like a fire; but he knows the psalm goes on to say, I am like a stranger to my brothers.

John also looks forward. When the question of Jesus' authority is raised, John remembers the obtuse reference that Jesus makes to his future resurrection. John points out honestly that even the disciples didn't understand the metaphor of rebuilding the temple until after Jesus had in fact been raised. Because of the way John remembers and tells the story, we remember that Jesus carries God's authority even over life and death. John's telling testifies that Jesus is the Holy One of God.

Telling our stories

The story of Jesus in the temple is an extraordinary event. We would be dishonest, however, if we only told the stories of unexpected events. Our lives are filled with the ordinary and our memories of the ordinary also shape our lives. How do you remember a Sunday brunch? A trip to the doctor? Coming home from work? How do you tell the story of an evening reading your Bible?

Nature a path to God

Once I watched the sun rise over Lake Monona and it took days for the sound of the solar symphony to get out of my ears – even though there was no sound. When you last told someone about the sunrise, did you mention the colors? the increasing brightness of the day? Did you describe the way the sun gradually appears from behind the earth's horizon – movement too slow for the human eye to see but quick enough to engage human anticipation?

Psalm 19 begins with some observations about the sun. Curiously, the psalm leaves out all the details in order to focus only on the larger story. Psalm 19 tells us how God has built a house which makes the sun so happy that it sings for joy and runs like a high school track star from morning to evening!

The psalm does a better job than I of pointing from the sunrise to the larger story. What does it mean to say that the sky announces what God has done? What does it mean to say that the sun is like a happy bridegroom, like an athlete eager to run? Celestial objects surely don't have human emotions, but those similes evoke a sense of being in the right place, ready and able to warm and light the earth. Which is, from our point of view, what the sun does.

I'm a little envious of the sun when I read Psalm 19. God has made a home for me, too, but I don't feel quite as much at home as the sun seems to be here. This poem isn't about me, but it is about discovering the happy role that God provides for the sun – and for each of us.

Are we not a holy nation? Are we not sanctified to God? God provides for each of us, as much as for for the sun.

The author of the psalm didn't see a different kind of sunrise. The psalm is completely honest in its poetry. No speech or words are used, the psalm admits, no sound is heard. The difference is that the psalm remembers the rest of the truth, the holiness which God placed in creation.

Scripture a path to God

The second part of Psalm 19 speaks about the Bible. How would you tell the story of reading your Bible? What do you remember, what do you think is important enough to share with others about reading the Bible?

The law of the Lord is perfect, says the Psalm; The laws of the Lord are right. It is true enough to say, The law of the Lord is perfect. But perfection is sufficiently remote and unattainable that admitting the perfection of God's message doesn't have many practical implications.

Psalm 19 says something else. The psalm doesn't only say, The laws of the Lord are right. It also says, those who obey them are happy. Do we remember this when we tell our story? We are not fully truthful when we tell the story unless we remember not only that God is right, but also that God wants happiness for us.

The judgments of the Lord, says Psalm 19, are always fair, and that's good. Fairness is a wonderful ideal worth seeking. Even better than fairness, the words of God are sweeter than the purest honey. I'm a fan of fairness and justice, but honey! That can distract me from almost anything.

My father wrote about reading the Bible when he told the story of his grandmother, Mary Ann Johnston Cardinal. Here's a part of what he wrote about her:

In Green Bay her father operated a brickyard and she helped to wait on table for the employees. In that way she met Joseph Cardinal (one of the employees) who became her husband. In 1862 she saw the first railroad train come into De Pere … She never attended school, but she learned to read and write very well. …

She was brought up Methodist …. I remember the joy she found in reading the large-print New Testament and Psalms, even when she needed a magnifying glass and bright sunlight to make it out because of cataracts in her eyes.

I never knew my father's grandmother, but I do remember the sweetness in the word of God when I read his story of Mary Ann Johnston Cardinal and her large-print New Testament. My father tells us some facts about her life. He ties her story to the story of Joseph Cardinal and to the history of northeast Wisconsin. And he adds his explanation of why this old woman would sit in her rocking chair by a sunny window struggling to make out the words in her Bible.

To God through ourselves

I've already said that Psalm 19 is honest. The last portion of this psalm brings honesty closer to home, to the stories we remember about ourselves. No one can see his own errors, it says. That's a shortcut way to say three things:

  1. I know I must have more faults than come to mind.
  2. Just because I don't see any errors doesn't mean that I didn't make any.
  3. Everyone else is having the same problem, so I should probably cut them some slack, too.

Poetry is such a succinct medium. Just one line brings us so much to remember. And yet our faults are not the central message. The psalm doesn't bother to list even one fault. No one can see his own errors, the psalm begins, but it continues, deliver me, Lord, from hidden faults! Who is the central player in this memory? Not "me" but the Lord. This memory is truthful not only in admitting failures but in connecting us to God's deliverance.

Again, the psalm says, Keep me safe, also, from willful sins. Then it completes the thought by saying, then I shall be perfect and free. The truth in this memory isn't merely that we have a tendency to sin. We all know that and we don't like to think about it. What the psalm remembers is that freedom is near. The truth isn't merely that we are imperfect. The psalm remembers that when God keeps us safe we can be perfect and free.


How do you remember? What facts are important enough to remember and to share? Like the gospel and the psalm, let us be honest enough to forget what is not very important and to remember the larger story of God's love and power. We live in the presence of God and all our memories are there.

The power of God. The sweetness of God. The freedom of God.

Our lamb has conquered!

Scripture quotations from The Good News Bible (Today's English Version),
© 1966, 1971, 1976 by the American Bible Society.