Finding the Lessons

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Lent 3B March 4, 2018

Jesus' cleansing of the Temple, Cathedrale d'Amiens. 

Prayer


O God, the living fountain of new life, to the human race, parched with thirst, you offer the living water of grace that springs up from the rock, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Grant your people the gift of the Spirit, that we may learn to profess our faith with courage and conviction and announce with joy the wonders of your saving love.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you int he unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on John 2:13-25

"I read the cleansing of the temple as a stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his own day and in ours."

"Subtle as a Sledge Hammer: Jesus 'Cleanses' the Temple," The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, Daniel B. Clendenin, Journey with Jesus Foundation.

"Followers of Jesus confess that Jesus is King and the emperor is not. If the consequence of challenging the imperial powers is death, as it was for Jesus and many of his followers, so be it."

Commentary, John 2:13-22, Marilyn Salmon, Preaching This Week,WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

"Is the community good news for the poor or is it chaplain to the rich who oppress? Mark with telling irony contrasts the widow and her poverty with the oppression of the temple authorities who exploit widows (12:38-44). Lent is also a time for the church to take a good look at itself."



"First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages in the Lectionary," Lent 3, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.




I guess I want to begin my reflection with, "Wow."  This passage never seems to get easier to read. It also challenges my thinking about who Jesus is for me...most days.  So, I think it deserves some very important reflection.

First, the cleansing of the Temple is a sign. It is a sign that the messianic age is upon us, and a call for purification in the presence of the Messiah.

Second, in the face of the authorities desire for a sign, Jesus gives them one by cleansing the Temple.

There are many mixes of imagery and theology. We cannot ignore the imagery that comes to mind about our own faith and religious traditions. We can imagine too the sacrifice of Christ's body in comparison the prophesy regarding the destruction.

But as I sit here on this particular day I ask myself what needs to be cleansed. It is Lent and I am wondering in a particularly reflective mood, what is it in me that I need to have cleansed by the Grace of Jesus, his mercy, and his forgiveness.

Not out of shame, believing that I will then be worthy...not out of a desire to be perfect...rather to ask myself the question where do I do things, or not do things, that need to be cleansed and transformed by God.

You see more often than not (I think - only you preachers can tell me) we spend time talking about how everything else needs to be cleaned out...our culture, our church, our politics, our...whatever.  On this day I am reminded of that habit I have of cleaning my desk before I do the work.  A necessary thing - sure - more often than not a diversionary tactic.

It is always easier to see the easy work of cleaning out someone else's temple than it is to clean out our own. Or to spend time shaking the fist at the organization, culture, or institution vs rolling up our sleeves, entering the arena and getting our hands, feet and face dirty with the sweat and blood of ministry.

The tables that need turning over in my life are: my belief that there is no power greater than myself; that I can control people's reactions; that other people are responsible for my happiness; that cynicism is an appropriate response to believe there is no good in the world; that if I am allied with the right people I will be safe; that faithfulness means attendance; that my excuses are really pretty good; that what I most often do is my "best;" that I am right; and that politics will save us.

I have to drop my shields and move out vulnerably.

I guess I want Jesus to turn my tables. I pray for grace and wisdom so that my need for self-esteem is replaced with God's forgiveness and love.  I hope the tables are turned so that my sarcasm will be transformed into spiritual joy.  I hope God will help me replace my selfishness with self-giving and my dishonesty with honesty.  May I seek others instead of myself; seeing them as God sees them.  That my fear may be overwhelmed by God given courage.  That I won't blame but be accountable.  And that in all these things I will have a humble and contrite heart.

There is a danger in this lesson though and that is to let the church off the hook. We can talk about the tables being turned "out there" and the tables being turned "in my life" but does this have anything to say to the church.

Well, in fact I think that is much the point. This is a favorite Gospel lesson to Heist. I mean that Jesus as a prophetic voice in his time is speaking clearly through word and action about the Temple itself. Centralized religion makes a commerce out of the gospel that is meant to heal people and the world. Centralized religion will require sacrifices be made to uphold its system of power. It will require obedience to the priest and in the case of this particular Temple we must remember it is requiring obedience to the occupying power. Religion that supports a different kingdom than the Kingdom of God is not the faith of Jesus. So it is that we might well examine our own centralized structures of attractional church and governance driven church structures.

The mission of God in Christ Jesus will always be limited by the time and energy spent on the structure. When the structures serve itself more than the world in God's name then the structure needs its tables turned.



Some Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

"And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why, until we all become human beings at last, until we all 'come to maturity,' as he put it; and then, since there had been only one really human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we're like him, he said - 'to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ' (Ephesians 4:13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that."

"Paul," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.

"What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us and our own snowbound, snowblind longing for him."

"Emmanuel," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.

"In this week's passage, he shows how the particular divisions plaguing Corinth can be given the same diagnosis. And here is where things might start to get a little more personal."

Commentary, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (Epiphany 4A), J.R. Daniel Kirk, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.




Paul tells the truth - the non-comoditized Gospel of free love and grace does not make sense in our culture. A Gospel without shame and plenteous forgiveness is nonsense in a world of commerce where everything from feelings, narratives, personal journeys, and real products are traded based upon a supply and demand basis. 

The reality is that no matter what divides the church at Corinth or divides our own church there is a pretty simple understanding of conflict - people who are willing to argue their own perspective vs a humble perspective that begins at the foot of the cross, offers one's whole self to God and others in response to the grace of Jesus, and opens themselves up to the movement of the spirit. There have forever been and will forever be great debaters in the church - but debaters rarely get much accomplished.

We will never know the Gospel through wisdom or some philosophical theological principle.  For all faith and belief is rooted in the context of hands on ministry. Knowing God is experiencing failure, guilt, brokenness, suffering, and rising in glory because of the hope that is in us and the grace given to us.

The very proof of this is God's saving work without the great debate! God acts. God depends not upon our theological wisdom. And, furthermore, God does not choose us because of what we know, understand, or are able to convey. God chooses us out of God's desire to have us as his very own. 

This is what we boast in our Gospel - God chooses us. God makes us, God chooses us, God dwells with us, God invites us to dwell in harmony with one another. That is a Gospel worth boasting.



Some Thoughts on Exodus  20:1-20

"The Decalogue, when viewed as a part of this series of tests that were to shape the people's identity, is thus not only a series of laws but a fertile ground from which blessings and health and prosperity can grow from God."

Commentary, Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Callie Plunket-Brewton, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

"It has been said that we need a far more rich and comprehensive theology of marriage if we are ever to tackle effectively the epidemic of adultery. I agree, but is there still place for a sermon on adultery?"

"Let's Not Talk about That (Adultery!)" John C. Holbert, Patheos, 2015.


"The Decalogue was God's direct address to Israel: 'God spoke all these words' ('words,' not commandments)."

Commentary, Exodus 20:1-17, Terence E. Fretheim, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

Oremus Online NRSV Text 

Today’s Old Testament reading is the Ten Commandments. In fact this passage came up previously last summer during the season after Pentecost Proper 27A. So if you missed it you can circle back around, or perhaps look at a different one of the commandments. I also know in the Episcopal Church there may be more liturgical use of the commandments during the season of Lent.

The work for the people of Israel (and for the people who claim to follow Jesus today) was to learn to “love as God loved and loves” wrote Stanley Hauerwas in The Peaceable Kingdom (78).

What is interesting and somewhat important for us today is to on the one hand lean into this deep meaning offered by the passage and elucidated by Hauerwas and at the same time reject the Constantinian and Enlightenment/Reformed diversions from the story. Hauerwas defines these typical approaches to taking out the gospel in such passage in this way. The impact upon our reading, preaching, belief and practice is shaped by a “Constantinianism” that offers “the conviction that Christianity is about being religious in a general and diffuse sense.” Meanwhile the Enlightenment/Reformation “makes Christians into apologists to and for the modern world. (See Hauerwas, Scripture and Ethics, 111) Moreover, he cautions us to not make this about “advice” or about how to live in particular “circumstances”. In other words the Ten Commandments are not an ethical prescription to be filled by the loyal disciple but instead they are about a kind of community that is seeking to live into the blessings and grace of God.

For the Christian who lives between Constantine and the Reformation we find it all to easy to embrace the scripture as a list of moral imperatives – a biblical ethic. Again, Hauerwas, “The problem of revelation aside, however, the view that the Bible contains a revealed morality that can be applied directly by the individual agent, perhaps with some help from the biblical critic, flounders when considering the status of individual commands.” (71) When we do this it is all to easy to dismiss their meaning. What I am getting at is that the nature of the community seeking to respond to God’s freedom is essential, the tradition of handing along that response and then the response to Jesus’ ministry is essential. What this helps us to understand is that our own response is not one of a person alone. Christians inherit a tradition wherein the biblical story is part of a very real community that stretches over millennia and arcs towards the end of time. Moroever, that the ethic of such a community is one defined by holding community, tradition, and its scripture in hand. Scripture in this way becomes, as Hauerwas offers, “revealed reality” instead of “revealed morality”. (72) This then leads us to virtues – which is the Christian manner of approach.

So it is that when we return then to the Old Testament and read the commandments we are able to hear them in a different manner. We may instead of hearing a list hear the virtues. The community today is invited to seek to learn to love as God loves. In this way then we see a community attempting live out that learning. We might do well to return to our own Book of Common Prayer to read our approach in just such a context.

Q. What do we learn from these commandments?
A. We learn two things: our duty to God, and our duty to our neighbors. 
Q. What is our duty to God?
A. Our duty is to believe and trust in God;
I. To love and obey God and to bring others to know him;
II. To put nothing in the place of God;
III. To show God respect in thought, word, and deed;
IV. And to set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God’s ways.
Q. What is our duty to our neighbors?
A. Our duty to our neighbors is to love them as ourselves, and to do to other people as we wish them to do to us;
V. To love, honor, and help our parents andfamily; to honor those in authority, and to meettheir just demands;
VI. To show respect for the life God has given us; to work and pray for peace; to bear no malice, prejudice, or hatred in our hearts; and to be kind to all the creatures of God;
VII. To use all our bodily desires as God intended;
VIII. To be honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for all people; and to use our talents and possessions as ones who must answer for them to God;
IX. To speak the truth, and not to mislead others by our silence;
X. To resist temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy; to rejoice in other people’s gifts and graces; and to do our duty for the love of God, who has called us into fellowship with him.
Q. What is the purpose of the Ten Commandments?
A. The Ten Commandments were given to define our relationship with God and our neighbors. 
Q. Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?
A. Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.
Our New Testament refers back to the Ten Words in a very particular way. In Mark it appears that God in Christ Jesus is the God of the first commandment. Jesus is the Kyrios and the Logos. He is the living out of the these commandments as God comes into contact with the people and powers of his time. (Hays, Echoes of Scripture, 62.)

Luke picks up the theme of this passage from Exodus more in line with the language of community. He understands that these are woven into discipleship life - as Hauerwas was reflecting. Specifically in the Gospel of Luke chapter 18, Jesus not only encourages these as a way to follow but goes on to discuss five out of the ten. Jesus goes so far as to move beyond simple coveting to ownership and sharing what we have. (Ibid, 209) God is at work in the world and so we are to be at work in the world. Luke makes it clear that the sabbath itself is a time when God is working and we are to echo that work by joining Christ and the Creator by releasing those bound by the religious and the powerful. (Ibid, 269 and 282.)

Again, our work is not simply to live in isolation over and agains the world but to live out these ways of being in the world and free others from the powers that bind them.

Let us turn to our Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. From his Ebor lectures delivered in 2011 we discover that for Rabbi Sacks the "words" of God to God's people are a principled foundation for healthy society. He writes that there is a difference between a social and political contract and a covenant. These are covenant words. He says:
"A contract is about advantage, a covenant is about loyalty. A contract is about interests, a covenant is about identity, about belonging to something bigger than me. From a contract, I gain, but from a covenant, I am transformed. I am no longer the person I once was, but am part of something larger than I once was. Thus, a social contract creates a State, but a covenant creates society."
And,
"If we take the Darwin-Tocqueville story and the biblical story together, what do we learn? From Darwin and Tocqueville, we learn that species survive, and humanity survives, only on the basis that there is not only competition but also cooperation. From the Bible, we learn there is such a thing as a State and a society, but they are different things. The State is created by a contract; the society is created by a covenant."
First, this really is a must read! What Rabbi Sacks is revealing is that God's words are far from  being the supporter of the nation - as many pretend. Instead they are the rood of good and healthy society.

He writes,
"...That we must remember what we seem to have forgotten, namely, the importance of families, communities, congregations, voluntary associations and charities. It is in these groups, these arenas of cooperation, that we rehearse our altruistic instincts, which are as fundamental to what makes us human as our instincts to competition. These instincts form the ecology of freedom because without them, we would have only the market and the State, and that is not enough for human beings to survive."
Society itself is judged by a people who chose to live differently within its midst. The people who live by the words/commandments live within a different kind of kingdom and by doing so they are a different kind of people.

All of this boils down to a very important concept within our tradition. God does not have a prophet, or a leader, or even a Christ. God has a people. We are God's people and we are to be a blessing of Shalom of peace to the world.

We are not simply people after peace and justice but we are people who are deeply rooted in a tradition that seeks to tell our story through virtuous action of being peace and being justice. We are a people of character and a particular one at that.

We are to be virtuous citizens not only on Sundays, not only within the walls of our homes; we are to be virtuous citizens at work in the political and social environs of our community. Global and national society will only work if we are a people of character caring for one another through our very relationships across the boundary of state or the "right" of the individual. In other words, I may have the right to leave you out in the cold but as a person in a covenant with God I have a different responsibility.


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