Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
You’ve heard of this idea that there is a “God-shaped hole” inside each of us, right? An emptiness. A void. A space…that only God can fill.
The idea comes from Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century mathematician, physicist, Catholic theologian and well-known wagerer—who, in his writings, theorizes that all of our craving, our striving, and our inability to achieve anything resembling true and lasting happiness is an indication that, “there was once in [us] a true happiness, of which all that remains is the empty print and trace.” We try in vain to fill this void with everything we can, but nothing really works because, “this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God.” [source]…hence a God-shaped hole.
Now, on one level…that’s kind of a nice image…like a missing puzzle piece that is uniquely God-shaped…that when found completes the whole magnificent picture…On the other hand…the idea of an infinite abyss…a void…a vacuum…a black-hole at the center of our being that pulls everything into it…is not an especially comforting idea…but it does make it easy to see how we can get so consumed trying to fill that hole up with absolutely everything…
We try to fill it with being busy, and with our anxieties…with material goods, and every manner of distraction…and at some point…we might realize that since vices don’t seem to fill it …we might try filling it with virtues instead… prayer, and outreach activities, and bible study…and then Jesus comes along and what does he do? He runs everybody out…he cleanses the temple.
Let’s remember, that all those people in the temple…none of them are engaged in anything anyone would consider a problem…or unholy…they are actively filling that God-shaped space…with “righteous things,” … with Godly practices…with time-tested, tradition-laden, religiously prescribed rituals…they are trying their very best to make sure that God is in that space…and Jesus runs them out…clears that space…cleanses the temple.
What are we to make of that? As I thought about it this week, I wondered: What if, instead of trying to find that God-shaped puzzle piece and fit it into the hole in the temple of our being…what if we took our cue from Jesus and instead did everything we could to protect that space…to keep it open, to keep it empty…to keep it void so that God always has a place?
Years ago, I was in a bible study and we were discussing Genesis 3—that’s the Garden of Eden story. You know that after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and are banished from the garden, God puts two things at the gates of Eden…the cherubim—which are fierce supernatural winged beasts—and something called a “fiery ever-turning sword”—which I don’t know what it is, but it sounds really cool. Now for years, I assumed that these fearsome things were put at the gates of Eden to keep us out…to keep us from ever getting back in…sort of divine bouncers. But in this bible study we actually read what the text says, God, “drove the [humans] out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way TO the tree of life.” The leader of this bible study asked, “what if they aren’t there to make sure we can never go back…but rather to guard and protect the path…the way to the garden…so that when we are ready to come home…the path will be open, and there will still a place for us to go?—a spacious, open garden, with the tree of life at the center…
What if, we viewed our spiritual journey—our faith life—not as a series of obligations…a set of standards that we must meet—a group of tasks we should and should not do— and instead viewed it as a ongoing process of clearing…pruning…shedding…letting go of everything that gets in the way…the things that take up space in us but are not God?
What if, instead of trying to fill that hole with God…we instead saw it as our duty to keep it empty…to guard its perimeters…perhaps even enlarging it…giving it more space in our lives…so that there is more room…for God? Does that sound wise to you? Or foolish?
What is in your temple…your God space…that needs to be cleaned out? Could you develop a zeal for keeping it clear?
I wonder… if we were to shift our focus from filling that space…to tending that space…keeping it open, and generous and airy…I wonder…would we begin to discover other spaces as well…other God-shaped holes. Maybe not within us, but between us…where God also is…And maybe by cultivating the space within us, we could we better recognize and more faithfully honor the space between us…the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between us…Where God also is…Could we learn to see God in those spaces as well? Could we learn to see and know God’s presence, trust and experience God’s grace in how we differ…and learn how to honor and celebrate those differences? Because that’s where God is. Maybe then…we could start to see that clear path…back to the Garden…and begin heading there together.