When our children were young and had been sick, Joy and I always waited at least 24 hours after they were free from fever before sending them back to school. We wanted to ensure their recovery and to keep our children from spreading germs at school. This practice frequently meant that the children were feeling pretty good on their last day at home.
Patrick was enjoying one of those rebound days when he was about eight years old. Joy returned to work as a teacher and I worked mostly from home that day. However, I had one very important meeting at the church. I would be less than ten minutes from the house for a little over an hour. Patrick could call my cell if he needed me to come right home.
Sure enough, fifteen minutes into the meeting my cell phone rang. The others at the conference table heard me answer, “Patrick, are you okay?”
“I ripped off one of the kitchen cabinet doors. I was just walking by and the handle grabbed the loop in my cargo shorts. The door just came along with me.”
Stunned silence on my end.
Please understand that this is the same child who, to his older brother’s horror, had once jammed a new roll of toilet paper in the upstairs toilet to see if it would flush. News flash. It didn’t. And water runs downhill. As Patrick had explained with a smile and a shrug, he was just curious.
Sensing my speechlessness and that I needed some further explanation for this particular debacle, Patrick said in a voice clearly meant to ease my anxiety, “My pants are okay. I got the handle out of the loop.”
All I could think to say was, “We’ll fix the cabinet door when I get home.”
Despite my own primitive carpentry skills—duct tape and gorilla glue are my tools of choice—Patrick and I managed to repair the damage. The wood inside the cabinet had been split by the force of the incident. It was not a pretty sight even after we got the door hung.
For the most part, the closed door hid the damaged wood. Casual observers saw nothing. But those of us who used the kitchen regularly knew that the cabinet was never quite the same.
We all do some damage in life. And truth be told, we all sustain our share of damage along the way.
From our own pain and fear we say hurtful things we don’t mean. Sometimes we say and do mean things because we have harbored petty, ungracious, or narrow thoughts unworthy of our status as one of God’s own children. Our compassion for the misfortune and suffering of strangers frequently falls short of the example set for us by the saints.
And strictly speaking, we all bear cracks and scratches that the casual observer is likely to miss. We’ve been betrayed, let down, and left out. Ignored or rejected or ridiculed or gossiped about. Every one of us has been worn down by imperfect love, love gone wrong, and love that breaks our heart.
That’s life. We all create and show wear and tear. Sometimes we’re the Tasmanian Devil wreaking havoc. In other times and places, we’re the Velveteen Rabbit, worn shabby by loving well. On occasion we’re just somebody else’s punching bag.
In Jesus, we encounter the very same love that brought us out of nothing into this harrowing, delightful, wearying, energizing world. The force that created us is also the force that restores us. The trials, the sorrows, the failures, and even the willful missteps of this life become the very openings into which God pours eternal life.
Christ has come to nurture our spiritual growth. But this is very hard for us to see when we think that he came to take our punishment. Jesus came to shape us into a new creation, to lead us into an eternal future. He didn’t come to pay the price for our dismal past.
Jesus is making this point when he cleanses the Temple. Money changers and animal sellers ply their trade in the outer edges of the Temple environs. Jesus famously drives them away.
Some have assumed that to do such business in the Temple domain offended Jesus. But that’s not the case. Animal sellers were very important to how the sacrificial system worked, and Jesus would have accepted this.
An animal given as a sacrifice had to be unblemished. Traveling from many miles away risked injury and disease to any animal you carried with you. A nipped ear or a bruised thigh rendered the animal unsuitable for sacrifice, and the whole trip would have been a waste. Better to buy an acceptable sacrificial beast on the Temple grounds.
No, the trade in animals as such wasn’t a problem. The sacrificial system of the Temple was the problem. Or more accurately, the way in which that sacrificial system had come to be understood was the problem.
By clearing the Temple, Jesus was announcing that the sacrificial system of the Temple was coming to an end. Jesus is a new and different way of infusing human life with God’s life.
Here’s the sacrificial system in a nutshell. Humans had fallen short of God’s law. In order to make things right with God—to make atonement—humans made an acceptable sacrifice. The underlying assumption was that God was offended by our sin and that a price was paid to placate his moral indignation. These animals were punished in our stead.
In other words, to paraphrase Richard Rohr, the Temple’s sacrificial system was designed to change God’s mind about us. By contrast, Jesus came to change our minds about God.
By dwelling in our midst, Jesus changes who we are. Jesus does not come to take our punishment. Instead, Jesus comes to restore us from our broken relationships and our shattered hearts, our misguided wanderings and our destructive self-absorption.
Jesus does not come to make up for a past that we didn’t get right. He comes to nurture and shape and guide us into the future that only he can give.
Jesus does not erase our past. Neither does he hold it against us. In his hands even our worst moments become the stuff of eternal life.
Here’s a brief example of what I mean. A woman once told me that her now deceased husband had suffered terribly from diabetes, losing both legs to that dreadful disease. She wanted to know if he would have legs in the afterlife.
My answer initially dismayed her.
I said that he would not have legs as if he had never lost legs. Instead, he would have legs that had been lost but were now restored. God will honor his suffering not by acting as if he had never lost his legs, but by giving him glorious, powerful, beautiful, incorruptible legs that announced God’s triumph over the suffering he experienced in his legs.
Those legs would be like the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet and side. Not gone but transformed. Not disfiguring scars but dazzling marks of love’s triumph.
We can repair much of the damage we do and much of the damage done to us. We can and should make amends, forgive the wrongs done to us, and do the hard inner work of making peace with our past.
But our repairs will be only that. Repairs. Imperfect even at their very best. Especially deep within where only those who know us best might see. God goes beyond repair.
Jesus does the work of restoration, an art that none but God himself can master. In Christ, God our creator is making us a new creation.
This sermon was preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in West Monroe, Louisiana.