Monday, March 26, 2012

Lent 5B. 25 March 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select the Fifth Sunday in Lent.


"Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus.' Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified."   John 12:20-23


            The Bible has a rather interesting place in the history of books.  It is one of the first bound books, and continues to be printed and distributed in many forms.  I have lost track of how many copies and translations of the Bible I own.  My guess is that every one here has at least one copy of the Bible at home, and it's probably what is known as the King James Version.  I love the King James.  There are parts of the Bible that I still prefer in the King James, simply for its eloquence.


            Yet, despite it's prevalence, it is not the most accessible version for the modern reader—in fact, I would guess that if we still read from it on Sundays, I would probably need to preach twice a long, because I'd have to offer the lesson again in contemporary language before I could even speak of its meaning.


            It may be that one of the reasons most people—even "every Sunday Christians"—don't read the Bible on their own is because they feel that the meaning is so rich that they can't just read it.  I grew up reading the Bible on my own, usually once or twice a week—sometimes more—at bedtime.  When I was a teenager, I found it particularly meaningful to read the Bible, because it had a way of soothing my adolescent anxieties.  It was like a bath for the soul. 


            I truly don't mean this to sound sanctimonious, but it seemed to me that when I would read the Bible that by the time I put the book down, it felt as if God had cleaned up my soul, and returned me to a proper frame of mind. 


            People who come to church every week are used to hearing the Bible, but we're used to hearing it in the form of lections, or lessons.  In seminary, we used the Greek word pericope,[1] which literally means "cutting."  The text is cut from the Bible to be used in a liturgy like Morning Prayer or the Holy Eucharist.  And the lectionary writers have worked hard to make those cuttings the most helpful and instructive and interesting sections of the Bible. 


            But we lose a lot by doing that.  Paul's letters were not written to be read by section.  Attention spans being what they are now, we can't read an entire letter on Sunday or many of us would get up and leave.  We need the cuttings so that the pulpit has time to explain what has just been read. 


            Yet we lose the flow of the stories, and we lose the context and the themes that recur.  For instance, if you were reading Luke's gospel from beginning to end, you would notice a special emphasis on Jerusalem.  The turning point in Luke's Gospel is when Jesus "sets his face" toward Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is like it's own character—like a dark cloud on the horizon, looming large, threatening overshadow or overcome the ministry of Jesus. 


            If you read Mark's gospel from start to finish, you will notice the emphasis Mark places on what scholars have called "the messianic secret"—Jesus sternly orders the disciples and others not tell anyone that he is the Messiah.  Jesus sternly orders people who have been healed, "Don't tell anyone about this."         


            Today we read from John's gospel and John places an emphasis on "the hour" that is coming.  Those of you who joined me in December for the Advent study may recall Raymond Brown's structure of the gospel as "The Book of Signs" and "The Book of Glory."  The Book of Signs (chapters 1-13) reads like a list of stories and teachings that revealed who Jesus was, even though many did not see it. 


            You read through John, and you see where some of them got it and some of them didn't, but the signs were there—Jesus is the One, Jesus is the One.  There was the sign.  Did you see it? 


            And the story is all going to culminate at "the hour." That's the climax.  We hear about it in his very first sign—the changing of the water into wine.  Mary tells Jesus that the wedding party has run out of wine, and you remember what he says?  He says, "Woman, what is that to do with me?  My hour has not yet come."  (John 2:4) 


            When he visits with the Samaritan woman at the well.  And she says to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  Our Samaritan ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say that Jerusalem is the place we should worship God." 

            And Jesus says to her, "Woman, believe me the hour…"  The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…The hour is coming...when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…" (John 4:19ff)


            A little later Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, the hour is coming when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God…Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out…" (John 5:25ff)


            What hour?  The hour when the signs are no longer needed.  The hour when he is glorified.   And all of this begs the question, how will we know when the hour has come? 


            This is not an hour on the clock, or an hour of the day—we are not talking about minutes and seconds.  We know that.  You see the dark clouds when you're mowing the grass and feel a sudden gust of wind, and you know it's time to put the mower away and finish up before the rain.


            The woman learns that she is with child and she begins to plan for the baby.  Furniture is moved in.  Diapers are made ready.  Books are read.  The hour is coming.


            You think preparation is about being ready, but it's not.  No one is ever really ready for the hour to come.  You just know it has to come when this and this and this, and a couple things we don't even know about will rise, and gather, and associate. 

            And then, what we were once waiting for will arrive as if it has been here all along.  Something in the anticipation brings it forward, making the actual arrival almost unremarkable. 


            We carry "the hour" around with us in all shapes and sizes.  The hour at which we must make dinner, or go to bed.  The hour we are called upon to speak, or pay the bill, or do the laundry.  There are things in life that simply must be done, and an hour must come to do them.


            The hour that is the hour is death.  But John didn't really write it that way in his gospel.  Death is what you think will be the hour, but with Jesus, things are never quite so simple.  You see, for Jesus, the hour is the hour for him to be glorified—and being glorified is the culmination of the mission the Father has given him.


            To John's understanding, Jesus has been sent into the world as the living Word—the Word of God made flesh.  And as Jesus moved about preaching, healing, and reconciling, he was fulfilling this mission—revealing bit by bit who he was.  "And to those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God" (John 1:12)—like himself.


            If you were to read John's gospel from chapter one to chapter twelve—from which we are reading this morning—you will notice that the signs are all for the people of Galilee and Samaria, places where the people who would have heard Jesus would have been either Jewish, Samaritan, or what are called Gentiles—people who are not of Israelite background, but would have been surrounded by the culture of the Hebrew people. 


            You could liken Gentiles to being like the ordinary, non-Christian folks in the Shenandoah Valley.  They might not consider themselves Christians, but they're not going to fuss if they go into a funeral home and see the cross, or what have you.  They understand that the religion around them is the main one, and they don't feel one way or the other about it.  It's just the religion around them.  (I would love for every single one of them to feel the Spirit of the Living God and come to church, but that's another sermon for another day.)


            The point is, that until now, in John's gospel, the people who have heard about Jesus, and been around him, have been mostly people in what we now call the Holy Lands.  But in this lesson, when the Greeks come to Andrew and Philip…well, that is a major turning point.  The Gospel does not really swivel on this moment, but there is a slight change in the direction of the wind, because the Greeks are not from there.  And when they come to see Jesus, it indicates that the hour has come.  The hour when he will be glorified.  The hour when Jesus and everything he stands for and teaches and proclaims, will no longer be just for the people of Israel and Samaria and Galilee. 


            When the Greeks come, it means that the hour has arrived when Jesus can no longer be considered a minor travelling prophet and healer, but the Savior of the World. It has all been leading up to this in John's Gospel.  The signs have been getting bigger and bigger.  Culminating in the death and return to life of his friend Lazarus.  That's real point on which the gospel turns. 


            And as you come through chapter twelve and Mary anoints Jesus feet—and it's understood that the anointing is for his burial—you know that it won't be long now.  So when the Greeks come…that's it.  It symbolizes the whole world "going after him."  (John 12:19)   The hour has come.  (Pause.)


            Next week we will rehearse the story of the Passion of Jesus—the account of his crucifixion and burial.  I am so grateful that the Church decided, somewhere back in the fourth century, to hallow this time with a yearly rehearsal of the death of Jesus, because I'm not sure we could force ourselves to do it otherwise.


            It is not easy to do it, even though we do it every year.  There are many people who will avoid coming to church entirely until Easter, for many reasons.  They don't like Lent.  They don't like Holy Week.  It is too sad and difficult—even with the resurrection around the corner—to come and pray.  Or perhaps they don't see any reason to do this.  If Jesus was raised from the dead, why talk about his death?


            But I think Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would disagree.  They each gave us an account of Jesus' passion, and they said, "Read this.  Get yourselves together, and read this.  Eat some bread and drink some wine, and read this.  It is in the reading and sharing, praying and loving that you will be the Church.  It is in gathering together and welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, you will be the Church. 


            You will be more than Jew, Greek, Samaritan, Gentile, Male, Female, Republican, Democrat, Independent.  Read this.  Think about it.  Have a little bread and wine.


            For behold, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." 





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

[1] Pronounced: puh-RIC-opee

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lent 4B. 18 March 2012.[1]


            From our Old Testament reading:[1]

            The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. [2]

            And now from our Gospel lesson:

            Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."[3]

            The story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness can be a little confusing.  When we think of snakes being mentioned in the Bible, we think of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and we think of snakes as being evil.  When Moses and the Hebrew people were making their way to the Promised Land, they got attacked by poisonous snakes.  Actually, the Hebrew literally reads, "fiery snakes." 


            The people are dying; there is panic and confusion.  They go to Moses and say, "Moses, pray for God to get rid of these snakes."  Moses prays, and God does not take the snakes away.  Instead, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, and when the people look to the pole, they'll live.   And sure enough, it works.  How does it work?  Well, I'll tell you.  (Pause.)  I don't know. 


            There are some interesting theories about it.  One theory is that the bronze serpent works psychologically—that if you get bitten, you will focus on the wound, and obsess about it, and die.  But if you take your mind off the wound, and believe that you'll get better, you will.  It's like a placebo.  It works because you believe it will.


            Another theory is also psychological.  If a snake is on the ground, alive—in its natural habitat—it represents a significant threat.  But if the snake is just the form of a snake—in other words, like a dead snake—and it's up on a pole where you can look at it, and see that it has strengths and weaknesses just like you do, then psychologically, the snake doesn't seem quite as terrifying, so neither does the wound.


            But there are other reasons why we have this story in the Bible.  Back from way before the people of Israel, back in Greek civilization, back even further than that, you will find the symbol of a snake on a pole.[4]  Even though we tend to think of snakes symbolically as evil, historically they are a symbol of healing.  In fact, a snake shedding its skin is an ancient symbol of rebirth, or resurrection. 


            When Moses lifts up the serpent in the wilderness—and I want to be very clear about this—he is not creating an idol.  The people are meant to look at the snake, not worship it.


            Now look at our Gospel lesson.  The context is Jesus is talking with Nicodemus.  Nicodemus, you will recall, is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews.  He comes to Jesus at night, because he's afraid to show genuine interest in Jesus in public.  Nicodemus is a scholar; he has an open mind. 


He says to Jesus, "We know that you are from God.  No one could do what you do without being from God." 

Jesus responds, "You can't understand what I'm about unless you can be born from above."

"How can you be born after having grown up?" ask Nicodemus.



Jesus responds (and I'm paraphrasing loosely here) "Nicodemus, you don't understand me fully, because your way of looking at God is all wrapped up in keeping stale little rules, and stale little festivals, and you've missed the point.  Do you remember when Moses lifted up a serpent of bronze and people got healed of snake bite?  Well, whoopee.  But when I, Jesus, am lifted up, whoever believes in me—whoever looks at me—will have eternal life."   


Now let me pull that apart.  The serpent of bronze was just a placebo that worked.  The people wanted healing from a snake bite, so God provided it.  God used an ancient symbol to provide healing.  But Jesus says, "That was fine for then, but it wasn't the whole answer.  God isn't interested in small time healings; God is interested redeeming your whole being." 


Moses lifted up a bronze serpent.  Nicodemus, you thought that was big time stuff, didn't you?  Well, whoopee.  A snake on a stick.  So what?  But consider this, God so loved the world that he didn't just dust off an old symbol and say, `Well, that'll hold them…they'll be all right.' No, no, no. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that when he is lifted up and people look to him, they'll never die.  They will have everlasting life.  You see, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be redeemed through him."  (Pause.)


And Jesus' vision of redemption is so much more expansive than just "gettin' to heaven."  I remember back when I worked for the Salvation Army, one of my co-workers said, "Why do you want to be a priest?"  I said, "Well, what do you mean?" 

She was a Salvationist—an actual member of the Salvation Army, the church.  She said, "Why would you bother with the same people every week?  It doesn't matter."  I said, "Why do you think it doesn't matter."  She said, "Well, they're saved, right?  If they're saved, you move on to the next."


See in her mind, she thought of salvation as something you get—and then that's it.  You're getting into heaven.  But wait a second.  It's much bigger than just getting your ticket punched.  When Jesus rises from the dead, he demonstrates God absorbing the pain and sin of the world, so that we can be restored completely.  And that's not something for just the "sweet bye-and bye;" it's also for the "sweet here and now." 


Still, a lot of people will run from this.  They like the God who just does the nickels and dimes.  They want a snake on stick that they can look at and feel better, and then move on—because you see, when you are confronted with the big answer to the little question, it means something will have to change.  And it's hard to change.


You see it in the doctor's office.  Patients who come into the office and say, "Doc, my back hurts, give me some painkillers."  Now, the real prescription may be a combination of many things.  Rehab, exercise, lifestyle change, and medicine might be a very small part of the equation.  But they don't want the big answer; they want the snake on the stick.  "Give me the medicine, and leave me alone."




I used to see it in the shelter, countless times.  They'll do anything but change.  They'll live by the rules; they'll get a job; they'll work themselves out of the shelter, and then six months later, there they are—lost the job, lost the apartment, lost the girlfriend, lost their deposit.  And you look at them, and you realize that little bits of help are not going to make a dent in their problem.  The real prescription is intense social work.  Maybe alcohol or drug rehab, counseling for childhood neglect, career, social, networking skills. 


But even if those options were paid for and open to them, they can't envision going through it, maybe because this is how it was with their father or mother.  They've always scraped by—that's just life for them.  You try to give them the big answers—and it's  "Uhm….yeah…thanks…can I just have the snake on the stick?"


About five years ago I was getting gas and on the other side of the pump was a guy getting gas for his motorcycle.  He had on black leather from head to toe, and he seemed to me to be the kind of man who works in an office all week and rides his bike on the weekends. 


I don't remember how we got to talking, but he asked me, "Do you have a motorcycle?"

I said. "No"

"You should get one," he said, "they're wonderful." 

"What do you like about it?" I asked.

He said, "Well, let's say you have an argument with your wife.  Now, you go out on your bike for thirty, forty minutes, and it's like…  You smoke marijuana?"

"No," I said.

"Well, it's like smoking marijuana…you just feel all relaxed and wonderful.  Makes you forget all your troubles."  He looked down at his bike, and just ran his eyes over it.  What was he looking at?  Chrome and leather?  No.  A symbol of independence, freedom?  No.  He was looking at his salvation.  His ticket.  His medicine.  His anesthetic from an unhappy existence. 


I looked at the bike, too.  It was five and a half feet long, beautiful chrome, polished, well-worn leather saddle bags.  Anyone looking at that bike would have thought—that's a nice bike.  And I did too, except that when I looked at the bike, after that conversation, it looked like a snake on a stick.  (Pause.)


The real answer might have been painful for him.  A serious conversation with his wife—a serious engagement in the problems they had together, and it could get messy.   I can understand wanting to run from that, but it seems to me that God is always hoping we will choose the real solution over the quick fix.


When I was in seminary I had a friend who said, "God's will is always for wholeness.  God is always trying to bring wholeness and health to whatever is going on." 


In everything Jesus did, he was bringing about wholeness, even if it meant a little pain in the short run.  So I'll leave you with that today.


He didn't just turn a little jar of water into wine.  He didn't just catch a few fish.  He didn't just wake up Lazarus for a couple minutes before laying him back inside the tomb.  He didn't shrink back when they came after him and nailed him to the Cross. 


The Christian Faith is not about quick fixes and half answers.  It's about an enduring relationship with God, who, in Christ, redeems it all.   





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


[1] Adapted from Lent 4B.  22 March 2009.

[2] Numbers 21:4-9

[3] John 3:14-21

[4] There is plentiful information about the Caduceus, the Rod of Asclepios, and the Nehustan (which is the Hebrew equivalent) that would take the sermon off course at this point.  But the symbolic history is fascinating, if you're interested.  It is very likely that the story of Moses erecting the Nehustan was part of oral tradition that explains the presence of a bronze serpent on a pole in the Temple.  People would offer incense to the bronze serpent—again an ancient symbol—possibly leading to the telling of this story of Moses as an etiology.  The Nehustan was removed by King Hezekiah as recorded in 2 Kings 18.4 for becoming an idol.  Cf. The New Jerusalem Bible Commentary, pg. 88 and the HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible, fn, pg. 241.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lent 3B. 11 March 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select the Third Sunday in Lent.


"The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Make a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple." John 2:13-15



            We have come to the mid-point of Lent; well on our way to Easter.  After the next two Sundays we will come to Palm Sunday and enter into Passiontide.  Passiontide includes Palm Sunday and culminates so beautifully in the Triduum Sacrum, the Holy Three Days leading up to Easter Day. 


          Easter is the principal feast of the Church year.  Each Sunday is meant to be a minor version of Easter—each occasion of Christian burial is meant to be a mini-Easter.  But there is something special about the actual Easter Day, and for me—and I think for many devout Christians—you don't really arrive at Easter in heart and mind unless you join in the solemn observance of Holy Week.   


          God hangs a silence in the space of that time—a beautiful, holy silence that is, for me, the most delicious spiritual time of the Christian year.  There is something about the Church undertaking these holy liturgies that recall the year that the Passover was at hand, and Jesus drew his disciples into the upper room and washed their feet, and fed them in the wondrous meal we all know. 


          It is a welcome change to gather in silence, to remember the saving acts of God,  and to go home in silence.   There is a beauty to that; there is a feeling of palpable holiness and wonder, mixed carefully with the expectancy of Easter Day.  I hope you will join me in the liturgies of Holy Week as much as you can.


          The timeframe is, of course, the Passover, which dates back to the Exodus from Egypt— historically, it is the single most unifying event in the life of the Hebrew people.  Still to this day, devout Jews will gather at the family table, and the child of the family will ask the question that has been asked for thousands of years by Jewish children, "Why is this night different from all the other nights?"


          It is the most holy time of the Jewish year.  Jesus went up to Jerusalem in the days leading up to the Passover.  And he went up to the temple.  It is impossible to describe the importance of the temple.  I have often spoken of it with you.  To speak of the temple is to speak of a place of enormous power.  Political power, religious power, symbolic power.  We have nothing like it—nothing to compare it to in our modern world.  We have plenty of large buildings and complexes, but none of them are the absolute hub of so much authority and power and hierarchy. 


          The temple was the place where the Torah, especially as it regarded sacrifice, was enacted and carried out.  The sacrificial system was unbelievably complicated.  It required sacrificing the right animals in the right way by the right person—who would be a temple priest, a Sadducee. 


          Since devout Jews were compelled to follow the sacrificial system in order to obey the Torah, they had to visit the temple.  So you can imagine that people came from all over the Holy Land to take part in these observances. 


          I remember Dr. Robert McFadden at Bridgewater College teaching us that the Holy Land is roughly the size of the Shenandoah Valley.  To my mind, of course, the Shenandoah Valley is the Holy Land, but you know…  So imagine people from all over the Valley having to come to this central spot, at one time or another, to take part in these rituals—or I should say, to pay to have these rituals performed. 


          It would likely be much less expensive to purchase the requisite animals for sacrifice in your hometown, and bring them the temple, but you probably wouldn't do that for several reasons.  First of all, the combination of animals would indicate to others what kind of sins you committed, which may be embarrassing.  But beyond that, getting them across the land and into the temple would be a logistical nightmare.  You've got to wrangle them, feed them, take care of them.  You might get to the temple and the priest might not find your animal suitable.  So what do you do then? 


          It is far more sensible, even if much more expensive, to buy the animal or animals when you get there.  So you save your money for Jerusalem.  It's not cheap, and as with any city, there are thieves to look out for.  (Pause.)


          The temple had been set up to be a place of obedience to the Torah, but logistically—to do what God told Moses—a system like this had to be developed.  And over the course of time, that system had become corrupt.  With this many people, and with these sorts of financial transactions, the temple was big business.  If you wanted to make money, the modern axiom held true "location, location, location"—get a place in the temple, or near the temple, pay the fee, get a corner, set up shop.  It's like shooting fish in a barrel.  Hundreds of people a day coming to this central location.


          And Jesus goes up to the temple.  He sees all of this.  He sees the man at the money changer's table, trying to get the right money to buy the right animals so that he can then get in the other line to pay the priest to offer the animals so that God will forgive him. 


          Look at the money changer behind the table.  He inherited this business from his father, and he knows the system.  Everyone gets a little kick back.  Is it a percentage, or is it a flat fee for the space?  I don't know.  But everyone knows that a money changer is not just taking a five, and giving back five ones.  You can take a bag and hold it by the side of the table, and it can look like the money's going in the bag, when really it's going under the table. 


          Or, maybe it's all above board, it's just that the exchange rate is high.  Twenty cents on the dollar?  You could do better across town, but the line is long and, you know…this is the big city.  "What's wrong, sir? Can't afford it?  Look.  What do you expect?  This is Jerusalem."


          Now, just for moment take a look in the eyes of that man—the man who has come to Jerusalem.  He is the son of a tanner from Jamnia, about thirty miles from Jerusalem, near the Mediterranean sea.  He's a nice man—his wife and their three children are huddled together in the courtyard.  They walked from Jamnia over the course of several days, and they're tired.  If you look in his eyes, you will see a man who is trying to do the right thing—he is trying to please God, and he is trying to make a living to support his family.  He is trying to hide his fear that the money changer is taking advantage of him.


          Jesus sees that man from Jamnia—harassed and helpless, like a sheep needing a shepherd.  Think of all the men—all the people—who have grown up with this system around them.  And because the Torah says what the Torah says, they have to do this.  This is what it means to be faithful to God.  This is what it means…


          And Jesus makes a whip of cords, and he drives the animals out of the temple.  He overturns the money changer's tables and pours their coins out on the ground.  John says that Jesus said, "Take these things out of here.  Stop making my Father's house a marketplace."  If you know this story, it's likely that you remember Luke's version, "It is written: `My house shall be a house of prayer;' but you have made it a den of robbers."  (Luke 19:46)


          Well, this caused a stir, of course.  The animals had to go somewhere.  I would imagine that their handlers went after them.  The money changers probably gathered up the money as fast as they could.  Did they leave the temple?  We don't know.  None of the gospels tell us if they left permanently.  I think it's rather unlikely that Jesus' outburst was enough to rid the temple of their presence, but that's not really the point, is it?


          Remember, the days are drawing near for the Passover.  It is the holiest time of the year, and what is temple?  The temple is the place where God and humanity intersect.  It is the place where the Arc of the Covenant is kept, deep in the inner recesses of the temple—guarded by a round the clock watch—in a place called the Holy of Holies.


          Jesus is also the place where God and humanity intersect—he is the person who is both God and man.  Jesus is trying to break down the religious corruption of the temple to free people from the misunderstanding that God desires these sacrifices.  And by doing it at the time of the Passover, he foreshadows his Passion.  The violence he brings to the temple at the Passover will be brought upon him at the Passover—and in both cases, Jesus will be ending the sacrificial system—by offering himself, once and for all.


          The people asked for a sign.  "What sign can you show us for doing this?"  Explain yourself!  And Jesus said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  They said, "This temple has been under construction for forty six years, and will you raise it up in three days?"  But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.  After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this…"  (Pause.)


          By cleansing the temple, he is marking a transition from a theology of sacrifice—where you had to do this and this and this to be in relationship with God—and restoring the faith to a primary relationship.  Even King David had said, "Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, but you take no delight in burnt offerings.  The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."  (Psalm 51:17,18)


          I think the anger we see in Jesus is the anger of seeing people, like the man from Jamnia, trying to be in relationship with God, and feeling like they just can't make it.  Either they're fighting a system like the sacrificial system of the temple, or they're fighting something else—something they heard somewhere that had turned the corner from helpful advice to "you must do this." 


          Or maybe you were told somewhere along the line that if you did X, Y, or Z that God would never forgive you.  I cannot tell you how many people live their lives in the frazzled existence between Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and Easter never comes.  They go through life with bad religious messages playing in their minds, and every time they pass a church—if they think about it—there will be a wave of shame that comes over them.


          If you feel that there is some "ought, must or should" in your religious background that is preventing you from a deeper communion with God, then let Jesus drive those things out. 


           If there is anything at all that you have done, any movie that plays in your head that brings up shame and remorse, then let it feel the whip of cords, because God does not want anyone to live under the burden of a guilty conscience.   In everything that Jesus did, he gave freedom to people who felt that they were worthless, or unable to know God. 


          With Jesus, there is freedom, not condemnation.  So come and be reconciled.  There is nothing to stand in your way.  Jesus will not permit anything to stand in your way.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lent 2B. 4 March 2012.


            The day began as most days begin.  Coffee, breakfast, news, children.  The bus pulls up in front of our house and Peter bravely marches off to kindergarten.  "Mornings and seven, God's in his heaven," shower, Morning Prayer, Rite Two in the bedroom chair.   It looks to be a standard day.  There is a sermon to be written.  Emails to be answered.  Old business and new business. 


            But there is a dark cloud on the horizon, because there is a phone call I need to make.  And it's not the kind of phone call I like to make.  I enjoy calling up with no reason in mind but to know if things have changed, how someone is feeling, if there is anything I can pray for, or do.  But this is not one of those calls.  This is the call where I will be needing to give some bad news.


            Actually, it isn't bad news, really.  Few things in life really are as simple as bad and good.  It's usually what we like and what we don't like.  So the news I have to give is really in the category of news that the other person probably isn't going to like, and that leads me to wonder how they will treat me.  And this, of course, gives me some anxiety. 


            It's not fun.  They probably won't be mean, but even if they hide it, it may be under the surface and people are not always predictable.  I remember hearing that expecting people to be nice to you just because you are nice to them is like expecting a bull not to charge you because you're a vegetarian. 


            It is hard to give bad news.  I don't think many people really like it; and if they do, they're probably not the sort of people who have a lot of friends.   There are people who are somewhat impervious to the anxiety of doing it, and they are called psychopaths.  Some people are diagnosed, but many are not.  Psychopaths have a general disregard for the emotions of others.  They don't mind inflicting harm on another person, because they won't feel it.  They have little remorse for their actions.  They may even enjoy hurting someone else.  This type of person may hold back because they know it's wrong, but the decision is made intellectually, rather than emotionally.  But most people are not like that.  Most people don't like to fight—don't like to argue—don't like to do things that may end up causing anxiety or pain in another person's life.


            So it is hard to give bad news.  And there is a difference between giving bad news that you can control and bad news you can't control.  It's easier to say, "They were out of apples."  "The store was closed."  "The phone was busy."  Than it is to say, "I have decided I'm not going to do that; I'm going to do this."  Not so bad, really, when the news doesn't extend much beyond ourselves.  "I'm not going to go this morning; I will go this afternoon."  But so much worse to have to say, "I'm changing this; and you are going to have to change, too."

            Wow.  Talk about a recipe for a difficult conversation.  Consensus is not part of the conversation.  The dynamic is more like a parent talking to a child.  "We're going to the store; you need to put your shoes on and come with me."


            Somewhere are around age 3 we begin to rebel against this kind of interaction.  Life goes downhill from 3, you know.  We don't want another person's thoughts to control our behavior, and from then on, getting along with other adults means this kind of delicate dance of power and persuasion.  (Pause.)


            So imagine the disciples who had been following Jesus—watching him, listening to him, helping him out.  Imagine the fun.  I mean, it must have been fun.  Instead of fishing all night, they're on the road with Jesus.  Town to town.  Meeting people.  Feeling like they're part of something bigger and more important…  Imagine the adulation and respect they would have received for being chosen by Jesus to follow him as a close companion.  The crowds are everywhere, but when it's time for him to retire for the day, they get to be with him alone. 


            One day, they were making their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, which was a city-state; like a metropolitan area.  It was thought to be an area of mostly gentile people, far to the north, on the southern slope of Mt. Hermon, in the Leontes mountains.  They're not anywhere close to Jerusalem.  They're out in the hinterlands.



            And they're walking along, and talking.  You know what it's like.  Walking and talking.  It's a different sort of conversation.  Not a lot of eye contact.  There can be comfortable silences when you're on a walk that you can't really have when you're sitting across the table.  You can talk about anything.  It can be funny one moment and the next moment things can get serious.  You share the path.  There is a bond there.


            And while they're walking along, out in the hinterlands—far from the prying eyes of the crowds and the tape recorders of the scribes and Pharisees—Jesus asks them, "Well, boys…who do the people say that I am?" 


            It's an interesting question, really.  He's had some time out there by now.  His name is getting out there.  People know he's a very good preacher, a prophet.  People know that he has done some pretty amazing things.  Miraculous healings, provide food for many people who were hungry.  There have been people who were deaf or born blind who have heard and received their sight.  Who do the people think he is?


            So they take turns answering from their experience.  "Well, Rabbi, uhm…you know…some have said that your ministry is very much like John the Baptizer.  After all, when John was imprisoned you continued to preach his sermon about repentance and the kingdom of God coming.  You seem to talk about the kingdom of God a lot, and fulfillment…and certainly everything you do seems to be fulfilling the scripture."


            "Okay.  Anyone else?"


            "Well, there's also Elijah, of course.  The Passover meal always reminds us of the cup of Elijah and the chair and place at the table we set for Elijah, expecting him to return and announce the coming of the Messiah.  Some say you're Elijah.  And frankly, Rabbi, if John is not Elijah and you are not Elijah, then the barre is probably set a little too high."


            "Basically, Rabbi, the people are confused.  They don't know what to think.  They like you; they admire you, but they don't know who you are."  So Jesus asks them, "But who do you say that I am?"  And Peter responds, "You are the Messiah."  "You are the One we have been waiting for."  Jesus sternly orders them to tell no one.


            It is probably what Jesus wanted to hear them say, but he couldn't let them get too excited, because he has some difficult news to tell them.  It's not going to be easy.  The problem is that it's going to sound like bad news.


            He begins to tell them that he will need to undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said it very openly to his disciples.  He knew the day would come when they would need to learn that the Messiah is not going to be a political dynamo who is going to kick Herod and Caesar out of control of the Holy Lands. 


            The messianic hope until then was a holy hope, but wasn't big enough.  God had more people in mind than just the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God wished to extend his affection to the entire human race.  It would be a spiritual kingdom, not a political one.  And it would be open to everyone who has eyes to see it.


            It is going to mean that Jesus must suffer at the hands of the religious authorities.  It is only by their rejection and violence that the righteousness of God could be seen in Jesus.  It is only after humanity has had a chance to put life to death that eternal life can really begin.


            It doesn't make sense though, when the man who says it is walking right beside you.  It sound like suicide.  It sounds like someone who is not thinking clearly.  So Peter does what the sensible man would do.  He's the leader; he knows you care.  Peter pulls him aside.  It's the decent, respectable thing to do.  Just a little word in his ear.


            "Jesus, don't talk like this.  It doesn't have to be like this.  It really doesn't.  There are places we can go.  There are people who are willing to open their home to you.  There are women lining up around the block who would be thrilled to marry you and have your children. 


            "We could all do it, you know?  There are thirteen of us.  If we all married, that's twenty-six people.  If we started telling the crowds about our plans, we could build a village, and you could be the rabbi.  We could do things right for a change!  Forget Jerusalem.  Forget the scribes."


            "Look.  Hear me out.  We're coming to Caesarea Philippi, okay?  It's…what? 120 miles between here and Jerusalem…  May be a couple three days walk to Nazareth, if you wanted to visit.  We could tuck into the side of a mountain somewhere.  Caesarea Philippi is big enough to get what we need.  We've got water.


            "Come on, Rabbi.  Think this through.  If they put you to death, think about the rest of us.  They'll come for us, too, you know?"


            And Jesus turns away from Peter and while looking at the other disciples he says, "Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."


            And then he calls to the crowd that had been following—probably at some distance—and gave them the news, as well.  "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me."  If all you care about is this life—and trying to get ahead, trying to make it big—forget it.  "Those who want to save their lives will lose them; and those who lose their lives for my sake will find them."

(Pause.)  It's hard news to give.  And it's hard news to receive.  (Pause.)


            Let me ask you something.  How old were you when you first heard this lesson?  The reason I ask is because I can't really remember, but I do remember when I was a child and was just starting to bump into these themes of genuine discipleship.  You start off with God is love, and "Jesus loves me, this I know." 

            You learn about Noah, and the call of Abraham.  Out come the Ritz crackers and lemonade, and it's all just fine.  This is Church.  There doesn't seem to be any bad news here.  Prayers are simple.  People are friendly. 


            But I remember somewhere along the line… Sometime around the Spring of the year when this lesson walked into the Sunday school room and sat down at the table; and told us that if we wanted to follow Jesus, that we'd not only have to watch him die, but that we would have to be willing to take up our cross as well.  If we wanted more out of Church and God than just Ritz crackers and lemonade, then we would have to be people who are willing to give our time, our resources, maybe even our own lives.


            Jesus said that.  He said it to the crowds and he said it to his disciples.  It's hard news to give.  I sometimes wonder if Jesus may have wondered if, when he told them, he'd turn around to see them all leave him.  I don't know.  It was a possibility.  But they stayed.  Some may have left, but Mark doesn't tell us that.


            It's still very hard news to give; and I'm giving it to you today.  Some of you might decide to get up and leave, or maybe your body will stay, but in your heart you will say, "No, thank you." 


            It seems to me the question of whether you stay or go depends largely on who you say Jesus is.   





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.