John stands out as one of my favorite hospice patients. He was in his mid-60s and dying of lung cancer. When our hospice team arrived for his initial visit, he welcomed us into his home. He was personable, very friendly, and extremely intelligent. Each of our team members introduced themselves and gave a brief introduction to their role on the team. When it was my turn to discuss spiritual care and the role of the chaplain, he listened very politely and then informed me he was an atheist. I said, “Really? Me to … I’m a ……. theist. I just put a longer pause in the word.” We both laughed and I then told him that my role was not to convince or convert him – my role was to help him find meaning in these last days, weeks or months of his life. I asked him where he found meaning in his life and he said, “My family, my music collection, and science – especially cosmology and physics.” I told him I liked science too (which seemed to surprise him). I offered to have us try out a couple of visits and if he felt it wasn’t helpful, then we could quit – no harm, no foul. He agreed and we began to have visits every two weeks. They were the LONGEST pastoral visits I’ve ever had with anyone. Seriously! I would get to John’s house about 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon and we’d talk about all kinds of things … and then look at our watches and realize 4 hours had passed.
I intentionally avoided God talk with John because I didn’t want him to see me as the stereotypical Christian out to win his soul for Jesus before he died. In the words of the baptismal covenant, I needed to respect the dignity of every human being – even if that other human being didn’t believe in God. However, in every single visit, John would find a way to interject God talk. It started out as cynical jibes about the “Santa Claus in the sky” people believe in and how he could, with his intellect, probably get me to lose my religion. I told him, “That’s what you think! You’re a little late in the game – I lost ‘religion’ back in 1975 when I became Episcopalian. It’s Christianity’s original ‘disorganized religion.’” That’s when he told me his middle daughter had converted to Christianity and was married to the son of one of our Episcopal deacons. God does have a sense of humor!
As John and I entered into a deeper trust relationship, the cynical comments slowly ebbed away. John shared with me his fears about having a bad death and how he’d never seen a good death. We began to talk about how cosmology and theology were beginning to converge, especially in string theory. And then he told me about the God he didn’t believe in – the one he learned about growing up in a stern, severe Calvinistic faith tradition.
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m bashing John Calvin. He gave much good to Christianity in the Swiss Reformation – especially when it comes to God’s passion for social justice. But Calvin was not a trained theologian – he was an attorney by education. And so, it is not surprising that Calvin’s image of God is that of judge and jury rolled into one. The God that John heard about in his church was a harsh judge who saved some and damned others: a God just waiting for you to mess up so he could smite you! When he shared this with me, I said, “Wow … that’s not the God I believe in either John. Maybe I’m an atheist!”
John then asked me, “Well, if you don’t believe in that God, what God do you believe in?” I replied, “John, I believe in a God who is beyond the rules. A God who is beyond tribal religious affiliations where some are ‘chosen’ and therefore ‘saved’ and others are ‘unchosen’ and therefore ‘damned.’ A God who is way beyond the ability of my pea brain to comprehend and yet so intimately within me that this God lives between the subatomic particles of stardust that make up my body; a God who passionately loves all of creation and infuses that creation with life and light; a God whose fiery love has consumed me before I could even comprehend loving myself; a God who is more me than me. That’s the God I believe in John – a God beyond the rules.” John appeared a bit stunned by my answer because it took him a few moments to reply. He said, “I’ve never heard any clergyperson talk like that about God.” I said, “Maybe it’s about time you did.”
A few weeks later, I had my last visit with John. I didn’t know it would be, but after all he was in hospice care. During our visit, John turned the conversation towards God. He said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about our last conversation – the one where you talked about the God you believe in.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about it. You know … I could believe in that God.” I was stunned. He then leaned toward me with a conspiratorial grin on his face and said, “Maybe … we need to rescue God from religion.” I said, “Yes, John. We need to regularly rescue God from religion.”
That’s Jesus is doing in today’s gospel: rescuing God from religion. The Jewish system of worship had evolved from a God who was wild and free – who showed up not through elaborate rituals but in burning bushes and pillars of cloud and fire. A God worshiped in a tent of meeting or at the ford of a river – a God without boundaries. But as the people became settled, the image of this God was tamed – boxed up in an Arc of the Covenant and housed in a Temple made by human hands where only the High Priest could enter. This Temple structure also developed a system of purity laws creating spaces where only some people could enter and others were excluded. It was a system which imaged God as wholly other and separated from humanity – a God “out there.” And when we image God as completely out there and separate from ourselves, we will always image a God of judgment instead of a God of mercy and grace. It is only when we realize that God is within and through and between all things that we can image a God who through mercy and grace can achieve justice.
Jesus isn’t just turning over some tables just to stick it to the man – he’s turning over the very image of God! When Jesus references tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days, John’s gospel tells us the Pharisees don’t get it. They think he’s talking about a cold, stone building. But Jesus is talking about his body and the God who lives between the subatomic particles thereof. And what is true for Jesus is also true for us. As the great mystic St. Paul said in 1st Corinthians 6: “… do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Or as 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart puts it, “God is more you than you.” And when we image God as infused in and through and between our entire being, then and only then can we know God’s love, mercy and grace and trust it will lead us into justice.
And isn’t this what our liturgy says? Our Rite 1 Eucharistic prayer states it most eloquently: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.” The sacrifice is no longer a dead animal – it is living and it is us. God wants us … all of us: our selves, our souls and bodies. And God wants a “reasonable” (not perfect), “holy” (whole and at peace with God) and “living” (not dead) sacrifice to incarnate the good news of his love, mercy and grace to a hurting world.
So yes, John, I'm carrying on the work we started: to rescue God from religion. From where does God need to be rescued for you? From what false images does God need to be liberated? Are you ready to be loved completely and passionately by God? Are you ready to love the God beyond the rules?