Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sermon for Lent 3B 2009

Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22

From Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday here at St. J's there are twelve services in which the Scriptures are read. This doesn’t include Wednesday night GBD and the LifeCycles Bible Study groups which add six more bringing us to eighteen. This is a lot of grappling with scriptures whose main focus is preparing the people of God to participate in the experience of the crucifixion of Jesus. The Old Testament readings in Lent focus on Israel’s salvation history
We were reminded over the last two weeks of God’s promise to Noah to never again destroy the earth and God’s people, and then last week, we heard about God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah to bring about that which seemed impossible to them and make them the parents of many nations. And indeed, God was and through all time continues to be faithful to these promises. This week we hear another Old Testament reading in which God makes a covenant with a particular people. In the covenant God made with Israel through Moses ,the Ten Commandments, are God’s instrument for forming this people their unique relationship with Yahweh.
The Gospel readings over the last few weeks have been from Mark, telling us the story of Jesus life and ministry to help us understand more about who this incarnate redeemer was who chose to undertake this crucifixion journey. We see him calling disciples, healing, teaching, even transfigured. But always Mark makes sure that we know that we are focused on the fact that this is Jesus, the Son of God, and at least since the Transfiguration, the one who is heading for the cross.
Today, at first glance, it seems we make a shift. Both of the stories we heard in the Old and New Testament readings are familiar to us. We have heard them in church and Sunday school since childhood. We have seen the pictures depicting these events, maybe we have even seen the movie of the Ten Commandments. And we may have reactions to these stories as well. Or to their contents. The Ten Commandments. Laws. Rules. The “Thou Shalt Nots.” More things to feel bad about that we do not measure up to. And this Jesus who is making whips and getting angry and creating havoc in the temple precincts. Well, he just makes us more than a little uncomfortable. I mean, where did our gentle Jesus meek and mild go, anyway? Frankly this might be some of the stuff we’d all just as soon ignore.
And yet….if we are willing to take that deeper look, there is much here that is worth the discomfort. Those commandments for instance. I don’t know about you, but in my religious upbringing, the notion that they were about relationship was not something that was up there on the radar screen. But in reality that is exactly what the commandments are about. Theologian Larry Gillick says that while the commandments can be heard as have-tos and should-dos, they can also be heard as forms of seeing and respecting God’s presence in all of life’s relationships.
The “sinfulness” of things, the breaking of commandments really is about the breaking of relationship. That first one about having idols and false gods, for example…..We know that it is easy for us to get off track, out of right relationship, with God, with others, with the better part ourselves. We can lose sight of what is important. Work, money, success, stuff, anything can become all encompassing to us….can become….gods. We become so focused on “the one thing” anything….that we lose sight of what’s truly important. And when this happens, well, things fall apart. We have only to look around at the current state of things in our economy for a little evidence of that. And honoring the Sabbath…well, maybe that is about slowing down long enough to remember that everything is holy, and we need time to catch up, not on our work, but on how God is at work among us. Sometimes we try so hard to do it ourselves, forgetting that we really are not in control, can’t do it alone. Perhaps keeping Sabbath better would help us remember that we really are not God after all, we really are not in charge, and don’t have to do it all.
In a relational view, breaking the commandments is saying loud and clear that I value what you have more than I value you and will go to whatever lengths to take it from you, whether it is your property, your spouse, your reputation or your life. There is no honoring here for one another as a beloved one of God. There is little justice, little goodness, little right relationship. So it seems that maybe rather than a set of constricting laws designed as something to should and ought us into submission, the commandments really are invitations to fullness of life in relationship with God and with each other.
Jesus as an observant Jew of his time would have been well-schooled in the “ten laws.” He would have understood them in depth as he understood the Hebrew Scriptures. He would have understood about the covenanted relationship and the faithfulness between God and God’s people and the importance of not letting anything stand in the way of that. And if he saw something that did stand in the way of that relationship happening, especially in sacred space, it may well have been enough to arouse the kind of anger we see in him in today’s Gospel. Jesus would not have been angry because the sacrificial animals were there for purchase, or because the money-changers were there changing coins from all over the realm into the temple currency. That business was necessary for the temple to be a place for the people from all over to come and make sacrifices in worship. Certainly it was easier to travel and purchase your animals in the temple courts than to bring them with you across the country. Possibly, as some scholars suggest, it had become a corrupt and exploitative economic system that made sacrifice increasingly impossible for the poorest of worshipers, and made access to God dependent on economic circumstances. Everything Jesus was about would have been offended by this. In his mind, no obstacles could be put in the way of being able to access God’s grace and compassion. No limits can be put on the way to God’s forgiveness. If the temple itself is the limit, then even it must be destroyed.
Unlike in the other three Synoptic Gospels where this scene happens much later, in John’s version Jesus comes on the scene early in his ministry. He is still an unknown quantity, fresh from his first miracle. The disciples are still trying to figure out who he is, what he is about. And in this moment he is about change and liberation, about allowing access to God and eliminating whatever might be interfering with access to that relationship, whatever form that interference might take.
So, too in our own temple precincts, we find our own chaos and rabble, our moneychangers and our dove sellers, and Lent is a good time to reflect, to ponder, and to cleanse….what kind of interference do we have going on that limits our access to God? What is it that we need to be purified of during these days of Lent? Perhaps a relational review of those commandments would not be a bad place to start.

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