A sermon for Epiphany 7 from John Reardon. John is a former Catholic priest fulfilling his internship at St Martin’s as part of his application to have his priesthood recognized in the Episcopal Church.
You Are God’s Temple
One of my favorite short stories by Flannery O’Connor is entitled, “Temple of the Holy Ghost.” It tells of two fourteen-year-old girls from a convent school making a weekend visit to relatives out in the country. These young pseudo-sophisticates facetiously address each other as “Temple One” and “Temple Two,” based on the nuns’ admonition that if a young man should “behave with them in an ungentlemanly fashion in the back of an automobile,” they should say, “Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” During their stay in the country, Temple One and
Temple Two are escorted to the local fair by two local boys. When they return home, they tell their twelve-year-old cousin about their encounter with a reality to the likes of which they had not been exposed before. They had gone to a tent in which the male audience went to one side while the female audience went to the other, only to have a person in a blue dress show them how this person had been endowed with both male and female bodily parts.
O’Connor wrote in the mid-twentieth century, at a time when our culture had not yet reached our current, if inadequate, sensitivity and respect toward intersexed persons. In O’Connor’s world, such people were still the stuff of circus shows. But O’Connor’s vision cuts through her culture to make this individual, whom she labels a freak, a prophet whose difference reflects the glory of God. The intersexed person tells the audience, “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen.” The two schoolgirls do not know what to make of what they have seen, but their younger cousin hears the message.
The cousin is a thoughtful and intelligent girl. She has ambitions of becoming an engineer, but reflects that she should go further. O’Connor writes, “She would have to be a saint because that was the occupation that included everything you could know; and yet she knew she would never be a saint. She did not steal or murder but she was a born liar and slothful and she sassed her mother and was deliberately ugly to almost everybody. She was eaten up also with the sin of Pride, the worst one. . . . She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick. She could stand to be shot but not to be burned in oil. She didn’t know if she could stand to be torn to pieces by lions or not.”
This girl, so capable of honest self-appraisal, imagines a scene in which the intersexed circus performer preaches. She pictures the preaching and response, with the preacher saying, “’God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,” and the people saying, “Amen. Amen.” “God done this to me and I praise Him.’ ‘Amen. Amen.’ ‘He could strike you thisaway.’ ‘Amen. Amen.’ ‘But he has not.’ ‘Amen.’ ‘Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple, don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?’ ‘Amen. Amen.’ ‘If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.’ ‘I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.’ ‘Amen.’”
Saint Paul tells us, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” What a striking image. We can easily picture beautiful churches, temples, and other houses of worship, with all the ways their architecture designs them to point toward the sacred. But how often do we stop to contemplate that each of us, and all of us together as the Church, are tabernacles in which the Holy Spirit dwells? And that in every human being we encounter, we meet someone created by God and called by grace and thus deserving of the respect we would give to any temple? To be in this kind of relationship with God is to be called to holiness, called to be transformed to be like God in God’s holiness, that dimension of wonder, separateness, purity, awe-inspiring power, and great mystery to which we advert when we use that word.
To be in this kind of relationship with God is to have one’s world turned upside down. Paul says, “If you think you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Leviticus intersperses God’s mandates with the starkly repeated statement, “I am the Lord.” This is not a set of instructions but a characterization of what it means to be in covenant with God. Don’t do a savvy thing like maximizing the efficiency of your farming. Leave something deliberately because those other Temples of the Holy Spirit, the poor and the alien, need to eat, too. Don’t do a smart thing like using all your personal advantages and privileges to your own advantage, but refrain from taking advantage of those other Temples of the Holy Spirit, the deaf and the blind. Don’t use your cleverness to manipulate your listeners with well-crafted falsities. Honor those other Temples of the Holy Spirit by speaking the truth and behaving fairly and honestly in all things.
Jesus amplifies the message even further. To be in a relationship with God, to get a sense of how God’s lordship over creation works, you have to be more than a little foolish by any worldly standard. Put up with insults and injuries. Do more than is asked or required of you. Give to those who beg and lend without checking out the creditworthiness of the borrower. Love not only your friends but your enemies. Greet those you don’t even know.
To be in relationship with God is to be a holy freak and a holy fool, a temple of the Holy Spirit through whom the graciousness of God shines upon a world whose values desperately need to be turned upside down. It is to recognize that the Spirit of God dwells within ourselves and within others, and thus to see and honor God’s presence in all the temples set before us. It does not mean we have all the answers to the complex problems of our world. But it does open our eyes and hearts to seeing the world from God’s perspective and setting priorities accordingly.