Lent 3, Year B, 2009

Oh, Jesus.

Just when we think we know our incarnate deity, just when we think we’ve gotten a sense of his personality, just when we’ve gotten comfortable with him, he has a temper tantrum in the temple and starts causing real havoc.

Our mild mannered man-god starts acting more like testosterone fueled thug than a wise sage.

In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, the cleansing of the Temple comes when Jesus is deeply stressed and close to his death, after he has entered Jerusalem for a final time.  Today’s reading, though, comes from the Gospel of John.  And, you’ll note that this scene takes place in the second chapter of John, right after Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  So, unlike Mark and Matthew, where Jesus is well known and has been ministering for a long time, in John, this radical act of clearing out the Temple is the first public act of Jesus ministry!

Talk about shock value-In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, disciples, Pharisees, Scribes, everyone knew who Jesus was.  So, when he turned over the tables and chased out the money changers, they had some context with which to understand his actions.  In the Gospel of John’s version of the story, he explodes onto the scene, introducing himself to the community at Jerusalem in a bold and violent way.

In the Gospel of John, rather than slowly ingratiate himself through healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, or dispensing wisdom, Jesus has no hesitation about immediately distinguishing himself and claiming religious authority by clearing out the temple.  John’s Jesus is carving out his territory and claiming his identity.

After all, Jesus not only clears out the temple, he also identifies himself as the temple.  He tells the horrified onlookers that if the temple is destroyed, it will be raised in three days.  They think he is talking about the building, but he is referring to his own body.

Jesus is differentiating himself from other teachers, other miracle workers and physically claiming the most holy part of Jerusalem for himself.  To insult his father’s house is to insult him, and Jesus will not tolerate that behavior.

Jesus knew who he was, and he was not afraid to make a scene in order to stick to his principles.

I think we, as Christians, are invited to be a little bolder and to carve out our territory, as well.

Let me be clear-I’m not talking about going after political or economic power or overthrowing the government, or even destroying the companies that make tacky Christian kitch by the truckfulls.

I think we are invited to carve out our own territory of hope and faith in the midst of a culture that is filled with fear right now.

A friend recently forwarded me a column that was found in The New Republic.  The column was responding to an article in The New York Times about the humanities needing to justify their worth in the midst of tough economic times.  While the quote I’m about to read is about the humanities, I think it applies to religions, too.

it will take many kinds of sustenance to help people through these troubles. Many people will now have to fall back more on inner resources than on outer ones. They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings. The external world is no longer a source of strength. The temper of one’s existence will therefore be significantly determined by one’s attitude toward circumstance, its cruelties and its caprices. Poor people and hounded people have always known this, but now the middle class is getting its schooling in stoicism. After all, bourgeois life was devised as an insulation against physical and social vulnerabilities, as a system of protections and privileges secured honestly by work; but the insulation is ripping and the protections are vanishing. We are in need of fiscal policy and spiritual policy. And spiritually speaking, literature is a bailout, and so is art, and philosophy, and history, and the rest. These are assets in which we may all hold majority ownership; assets of which we cannot be stripped, except by ourselves.

As Christians, we have precious assets that we can offer to our friends and neighbors who are hurting right now.

As Christians, we are not rich because of our bank accounts, we are not stable because of rising home values, we do not alter our level of faith when the stock market swings to and fro.

We know that at our core we are valuable because we are created beings who are loved passionately by God.  We know that true power comes when we give up trying to control our lives, and release ourselves to God.

Middle class America has been pretty comfortable for some time now, and in its comfort, it may have lost some of its ability to deal with the very real crisis we are now facing.

When we carve out our territory of faith and hope, we are not being empty headed Pollyannas.  I am not suggesting we go around chirping about how everything is going to be okay if we just believe in Jesus.

I am suggesting that we lead the way in a sense of hope that is rooted in prayer and our knowledge that God will provide us the strength and courage we need to face any crisis with dignity and compassion.  I am suggesting that we can show the world that we can face this economic disaster by banding together and helping one another rather than by frantically scrambling to position ourselves. I am suggesting our faith can give us the courage to be honest about what is really happening in our lives rather than pridefully hiding behind a veil of false appearances just to keep our places in society.

A few weeks ago Lisa Ling did a special report about the foreclosure crisis in California.  She interviewed several people who were handling the crisis in different ways. The first group were representatives of the hundreds of people who were living in tents in a makeshift tent city.  Many of them were there because they were too embarrassed to tell their grown children that they had lost their homes.  They were so caught up in their pride, so rooted in their identity as being people with homes, that they would not seek help from others.  I understand that some families are so fractured that living together is not an option.  However, it broke my heart that these people would rather live in such a desperate way rather than reach out to the people who love them.

Alternatively, another couple in danger of losing their house invited a family to live with them and help pay the rent.  They were honest with themselves and with their friends and family about their financial situation.  Instead of isolating themselves, they reached out.  The couple found a website that matches people who need homes with people who own homes and invited a mom and her daughter to move in with them.  While this arrangement will certainly have its own bumps in the road, I think the flexibility, creativity, and openness of their response really reflected a mature spirituality.

We are stronger when we reach out and ask for help when we need it.  We have deeper relationships when we are honest.  We grow as people when we engage with friends and strangers rather than isolating ourselves.

We have a choice in this economic crisis.  We can act out of fear, or we can carve out our territory of hope and faith and be a witness to the world.


Proper 28, Year C, 2007

Before I begin, I must say that the research and many of the images from today’s sermon are the result of the work of the Thursday night bible study group this month.  I’d like to thank Steve Bragaw, Emily Bardeen, Sherry Hauff, and Elizabeth and Bruce Guss for their insightful contributions.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.                       

In this poem, by Shelley, the reader is invited to picture a looming sculpture, vast in its scale and imposing in its grandeur.  Over time, the sculpture has been worn away and all that is left are two legs and a disembodied head, surrounded by desert sand.  On the pedestal of the sculpture lie the words, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my works, ye mighty and despair”!  This statue has once represented a great King, a great society and yet now nothing is left but ruin.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus overhears some people oohing and ahhing over the temple, which is beautifully decorated with stones and gifts.  The temple was the center of religious life in Jerusalem.  Since the time of David and Solomon, the ark of the covenant, which held the very presence of God, was kept inside a beautifully built temple in Jerusalem.  This temple had been destroyed and rebuilt 581 BCE, and the temple remained a sacred place. 

After he overhears these persons admiring the temple, Jesus acts as a prophet, warning his listeners that this very temple they are worshiping will be destroyed, and sure enough in the year 70 CE, the temple was destroyed by the Romans. 

The destruction of the temple was a symbol of the end of an era.  Since the time of David, controlling Jerusalem had been a fundamental part of the Jewish identity.  When the temple was destroyed, an entire way of framing the Jewish faith was destroyed.  So, it is strange that, when Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple to his listeners, he does not seem dismayed by the news. 

Jesus does not seem dismayed because he knows that  yes, a new era is coming, an era in which a temple to contain God would be wholly irrelevant.

This incident in the temple happens toward the end of Jesus’ ministry.  He is days away from being betrayed and arrested.   He knows that after his death will come his resurrection and that resurrection will change everything.  His resurrection will transform faith.  No longer will believers need to visit God in a static temple.  Instead God will be found in the hearts of all believers. 

And this message of hope is communicated on another level in our passage today, as well.  Many modern scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was written after the year 70 CE.  So, Luke knew about the destruction of the temple when he was writing the Gospel.  He also knew that Christian, during the time he was writing his Gospel, were being arrested, tortured and killed because of their faith by authorities of the Roman Empire.

Jesus words about the destruction of the temple and of an apocalyptic future were relevant to those who received Luke’s gospel.  They were the ones being brought before kings and governors because of Jesus’ name.  They were hated.  They were terrified. 

In this Gospel, Luke reminds the persecuted Christians that Jesus cares for them and that the Holy Spirit will be with them, even as they are interrogated and threatened.  This passage gives them direct advice:  not to try to create their own defense, but to trust the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit will give the persecuted the words they need to speak, when they need them. 

Luke also reminds them, through the prediction about the destruction of the temple, that no earthly authority, whether instituted by religious or civil law, lasts forever.  The power that oppressed them would not oppress them forever.  In fact, the Roman Empire would  not even be a power forever.

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Jewish temple did not stand, and neither did the Roman Empire that destroyed it.  The British Empire dissolved, and our capitalist empire will too, eventually.  The world around us is in constant change, constant flux.  Political power, physical structures, even social norms and behaviors-none of these remain constant forever.

Even our own Greenwood has seen enormous changes over the last hundred years.  In this month’s Crozet Gazette there is an article about Greenwood in the early part of the century.  Greenwood had a train station, shops, a highschool, even a hotel!  When the Langhornes moved into Mirador, Greenwood even had an early form of. . .paparazzi, believe it or not!

And while Greenwood may no longer have the population to start a high school or enough visitors to need a hotel, God’s faithfulness to those who live in Greenwood has never dwindled.  God’s love and affection for his people is not rooted in their structures or political systems or earthly power.  God’s love is the love of the creator for his creation.  God’s love is a parent’s love for his children.  And God continues his relationship with each of us regardless of our external circumstances.

As Christians, we don’t need political or religious structures for our lives to have meaning.  We don’t need to live in the most booming town or go to the most ornate church or be ruled by the biggest empire for God to love us, pursue us, and use us toward his ends.  God’s kingdom is about behavior and belief, not about power and wealth.

God’s kingdom is an active, living, breathing place.  Because it has no temples or structures or giant statues in the desert, it can never decay or be overthrown.  When we participate in God’s kingdom, even our temporal lives become connected to the eternal.  We may not be able to see or feel God’s kingdom, yet it will last longer than any kingdom that has ever been established on this earth.

Thanks be to God!