In l980, a Taiwanese artist named Tehching Hsieh photographed himself punching a time clock every hour on the hour for one whole year. Mr Hsieh, an illegal immigrant, who had jumped off an oil tanker when he arrived in America, said the goal behind the project was to “investigate the nature of time and methodically observe time’s passing.”
Mr Hsieh’s work speaks to the past year of COVID-time even some 40 years on from when he performed it. This week ahead marks one year since the Cathedral closed the doors of its building and moved online. One year since masks, physical distancing, working from home, this thing called “Zoom”---a year since all of these became an everyday reality. One year of what feels like a world-wide methodical observance of time’s passing.
For the folks we might ordinarily recognize as the “time clock” workers: grocery clerks, custodians, health care workers, garbage, recycling, and other shift workers, for many essential staff, this time has not been so much routine as it’s been a constant upheaval with weekly sometimes daily changes to safety protocols. For the public, who access essential services, lining up to pay for groceries, say, this, ironically, has become something of a time clock exercise: sanitize your hands; wait on the yellow dot spaced six feet behind the person in front of you; approach; use card---no cash; stand behind the plexi glass to pay; follow the one way system out and repeat the next time you come.
Mr Hsieh’s work has inspired me to reflect on the nature of time and its passing especially after our own ‘time clock’ year, which has felt to me like we all got cast as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. And what I find most compelling about Mr Hsieh’s work is that a human being could put themselves, their own body, at the centre of such an enduring task.
When critics asked him why he performed the piece, they assumed Mr Hsieh wanted to make a political statement on the “the tedium and conformity of industrial labour”. But he responded saying he simply wanted to explore the “universal circumstances of human life.”
Certainly if there’s one thing this global pandemic has made us aware of, it’s the way that each one of us has found ourselves, our very own bodies at the centre of this enduring, persistent virus. For some, you have been on the front lines; many of you rejigging your home, school, and working life to protect the elders or other vulnerable members of your family. Some of you have taught online and been taught online; some have contracted COVID-19 or had family members die from COVID 19. While the impact of COVID has disproportionately affected some parts of the world over others, all of us, in one way or another, have found our own selves, our own bodies at the centre of this universal pandemic.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus says to the chief priests in the temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
They are astonished and reply: “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”
And the text tells us that Jesus was not in fact talking about the literal temple, but “the temple of his body.”
Jesus the performance artist has put himself, his very own body at the centre of this enduring institution of the temple where people have come to buy materials for worship required by Jewish Law. Jesus puts himself in the heart of the action, turning over tables in anger, to be clear, not to denigrate Jewish rituals, but to draw attention to a virus of sorts that has infected the temple community.
In Jesus’ first-century context, that virus is an economic policy where Roman officials have made sure the chief priests take the profits and put them into the Roman coffers. Jesus shows up right before Passover when sales are up. He makes a scene to point out how the market is benefitting a few at the expense of many. This is a matter of redistribution of wealth and Jesus is here to preach a gospel of universal access.
Now, one of the central doctrines, the core principles of the Christian faith is something called the incarnation. It’s the idea that God puts God’s self, God’s own body, at the heart of the action by becoming human. God does this as an expression of love and enduring interest in the universal circumstances of human life. This is made known profoundly in the person of Jesus, God who is born of a human mother, raised with all the complexities of family life, lives amidst systems that bring about community and ones which lead to exclusion and death. Jesus the performance artist, God’s own self, God’s own body at the centre of the human journey.
The invitation of the Christian faith is to consider how your own life reflects the incarnation of God, how your own offering of yourself in home, work, and neighbourhood can be an expression of love and enduring interest in the universal circumstances of human life.
I have seen members of this Cathedral community and beyond live out this faith each and every day of the past year. But rather than me attempting to list off those ways, I would like you now to please take a moment to consider who it is you want to thank God for.
As you reflect on this upcoming one year anniversary of the pandemic, post a comment in the chat, hold that person in your heart. And please, please take a moment to observe your own performance art this past year: the ways that your very own self, your very own body, has been at the centre of this enduring pandemic. Jesus is there with you.
Works referenced in this sermon:
“Tehching Hsieh: the man who didn’t go to bed for a year” accessed online at
Alicia D. Meyers and Marilyn Salmon, “Commentary on John 2:13-22” accessed online at Working Preacher:
Special thanks to James Dunlap for assistance with the English pronunciation of Tehching Hsieh’s name.