By the sweat of your face you will eat bread—until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.” (Genesis 3:19 CEB)
On Ash Wednesday we recognize our human mortality. But sometimes we say ashes to ashes and dust to dust (or in this case soil to soil) to imply that we are dirt, that we are worthless. When we say that we came from dust and return to dust what we are really implying is that we are interconnected with the earth beneath our very feet.
We are part of the wholeness that God creates. To suggest that we are dust is to suggest that even the dust is worthy of the love of God. We are integrated into creation not separate from it.
Sin. We also focus on sin on Ash Wednesday but I think we misunderstand. We think of sin as something we’ve done wrong when sin is by definition not a mistake but a separateness from God. And so in this passage from John, Jesus offers us a way out of sin.
He is more than the image of the shepherd who cares for us and gives us personal salvation, though he is all that for Christians. Jesus is the signpost pointing us toward the One who loves ALL people, the One who loves each of you.
So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. (John 10:7 CEB)
Jesus is the gate. For his followers Jesus is the opening through the 12-foot concrete fence topped with barbed wire that we have constructed to separate ourselves from God. Jesus is the gate which swings wide so that we can find green grass and abundant, life-giving streams.
And, so, because Jesus points us toward God we do not have to sin. The promise of the shepherd means that we do not have to be distant from the One who loves.
We come before you today, a hardy but small group gathered in your presence, gathered to worship you and thank you for all that you have done and will do for your people.
We rely on you because you are a steadfast God. And, yet, God…
And yet, God, we turn on our televisions and read the news online. We hear of more violence and impending war in Ukraine. We pray that Russia does not escalate matters in the Ukraine but we know our righteous indignation is hollow.
As Americans we know we have intervened in the affairs of sovereign nations when it has suited our purposes. As beneficiaries of power and wealth, our nation has manipulated matters in places like Guatemala not as a matter of helping but because it suits our country’s needs.
Help us to hear the words of the prophet Micah through the ears of the Guatemalan and Ukrainian people as the prophet calls out,
Hear this, leaders of the house of Jacob, rulers of the house of Israel, you who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice! Micah 3: 9-10 CEB
Help us to hear the voices of the Guatemalan and Ukrainian and so many other peoples through the Psalmist who cries out,
“Don’t let the feet of arrogant people walk all over me; don’t let the hands of the wicked drive me off.” Psalm 36:11 CEB
Help us to hold our leaders accountable to your ways of love, your ways of justice, your desire for peace for all of your people not just those of us who live in powerful nations. Lead us toward personal and communal actions that respect and honor the dignity of all peoples within and outside our own nation.
In our worries, in our feelings of guilt, in our feelings of helplessness, we turn to the One through whom we know you best. We turn to you through Jesus.
I offered this prayer at the Condon United Church of Christ on March 2, 2014.
Standing in the river plateau as it cuts a canyon through the rock, I am overcome by my own smallness. That smallness, however, does not manifest in feelings of irrelevancy or in being unimportant to the One. The smallest part of creation is of consequence. The big and little are both vital to our Gaian whole. This is evident in the tiny details in which God reveals godself most fully.
Stand your ground laws favor aggressive behavior. In this way they are reflective of much of our American culture of bravado and violence. They are not reflective of Jesus’ teachings. Regardless of their intent, which I perceive as dubious, the implementation of these laws are racist in result.
As a follower of Jesus, I made a commitment not to American culture or capitalism or even to democracy. My faithfulness is to God. I am committed to trying to live consistent with the teachings and model of Jesus. And so I choose to stand with Jesus rather than unjust laws.
“But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.
(Luke 6:27-31 CEB)
I don’t know why. The kids knew we were going — we talked about it for weeks in advance. We’d been going up to Jerusalem three times a year for the festivals since they were babies. And still they had to be cajoled to get dressed in their traveling clothes. They had to be reminded to pack their bags.
“Keep calm, mom,” they’d mock me. “Keep calm and carry on. We’ll be ready on time. Honest.”
Then they’d giggle.
That’s when I’d send their father in to deal with them. I just might’ve killed them otherwise. I figured killing your children was not a faithful way to begin a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover.
Even in my irritation, I could see that.
In the time of Jesus, there was not a temple in every community. Today, of course, there is a synagogue anyplace there is a community of Jews.
Unlike us, weekly worship in community was not possible during Jesus’ lifetime.
We are blessed by the foresight of those who did the fundraising and had the vision to see to it that this building was built. Still, I imagine there were probably some feelings of loss over the old building.
Change is always accompanied by grief.
God always seems to come along with us, though. Wherever we gather God is present.
I think we are particularly blessed by this beautiful sanctuary. Imagine for a moment all of the saints who have worshiped here. You can almost feel their presence, can’t you?
I’ve had people tell me that they come here during the week when they can’t make it on Sunday. “I come into the sanctuary and pray,” they tell me. I’ve heard people at Summit Springs tell me the pleasure, the peace and the joy they feel when they look across the street to see our stained glass window lit up at night.
Can you imagine what it would be like if you could only come to church three times a year? Can you imagine if it took a day’s journey or more to fulfill your religious obligations? What if — after a long journey on foot with your children in tow — what if someone prevented you from entering the sanctuary? What if what this person did made it impossible for you to worship after you’d invested days in getting to church?
Yeah. I knew the vendors in the temple took advantage of us. It’s a lot like when you go to the airport and you pay five dollars for a pack of gum. The vendors in the marketplace outside the inner temple knew we couldn’t carry live animals with us from home. They also knew we needed animals to fulfill our religious obligations.
If we were going to be faithful to the Lord, we had no choice but to pay the prices.
I’ll never forget the year we made the trip for the Passover. Just as we got to the marketplace on the temple grounds — you know the place where we could purchase our animals for sacrifice — this guy starts throwing a tantrum!
He was shouting. He was yelling. He was threatening the vendors with a whip.
“Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business,” he screamed. (John 2:16 CEB)
I didn’t know what we were gonna do. We’d dragged the whole family on the pilgrimage. The children were looking forward to the festival. It was a lot of effort to make the trip and then — this guy! — this guy had kicked all the vendors out of the temple.
I was ready to chew him out. I’m a lot like my Aunt. The women in my family aren’t improper — usually — but we don’t hold back either. My husband must’ve sensed I was getting tense and angry. He took my hand and said,
“Keep calm and allow the temple leaders to deal with him.”
The gospel writer — who was not the apostle John but another — is providing us with a theological explanation for the religious and cultural shift that is happening in his time. Scholars tell us, our anonymous John is a Jewish Christian writing to other Jewish Christians around the year 100 of the common era.
That is, he’s writing 70 years after Jesus’ death. The Temple in Jerusalem has been gone — destroyed by the Romans — at least three decades before John puts pen to parchment.
Still, the destruction of the Temple, which was the center of religious practice for Jews at the time, is a relatively recent memory. For us, it’d be as recent as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and more significant because the absence of the Temple meant a change of lifestyle, a change of religious practice.The loss of the Temple was devastating for the Jewish people. It hastened the end of Temple Judaism and the already emerging development of rabbinic Judaism.
After the year 70, the Temple could no longer function as the center of religious practice. This change was coming already but when Rome destroyed the Temple, the people had no choice.
And, so, when John tells this story in his gospel, he uses it much more metaphorically than Matthew or Mark or Luke.
By placing it near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, rather than near the crucifixion like the others do, he shifts the meaning.
When Jesus throws out the moneychangers, he makes it impossible for people to practice their faith. Of course, the temple leaders are gonna challenge him.
If you came here on Sunday morning and some stranger had moved things around, hi ad thrown some things out on the lawn, you’d rightfully ask by what authority they were doing so.
Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”
(It was reasonable during the time to ask for some sign from God that Jesus had the authority.)
Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”
The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. (John 2: 18-21 CEB)
John was brilliant! What poetry!
What he does here is take the event, or the story, of Jesus’ throwing out the moneychangers and he uses it to explain that, for the Jewish Christians he’s writing to, that Jesus is the access point to God.
Jesus functions similarly for the early church as the Temple did for Jews before the year 70. (Now, Judaism itself also found new access points to God but that’s not John’s concern at the moment.)
John has used this story to metaphorically remove the Temple as a path to God.
This is true for Jews, whose faith was evolving and transforming, as well as for the followers of Jesus who were just now — in the decades after the destruction of the Temple — becoming a separate religion from Judaism.
You see up to this time, Christians were simply a sect of Judaism which, of course, was the faith of Jesus.
This partially explains why John’s tone is so incredibly anti-Jewish and why he is so nasty about “the Jews” in his gospel.
John is seeking to separate from Judaism. His community is no longer a part of the local synagogue. The break, the divorce if you will, was not amicable.
From all that we know it was pretty darned painful. The writer of John apparently was still a bit on the bitter side from the experience and that’s reflected in his tone throughout the gospel.
Nonetheless, John’s gospel has much to teach us about our faith. Though we need to be cautious to avoid mimicking antisemitism in our own following of Christ –
— who we know was himself a Jew —
the still speaking God can and does continue to speak through the Gospel of John.
Remain calm and listen for the Holy Spirit in the fourth gospel.
If John can take the story of Jesus clearing out the moneychangers and lay a new metaphor on it, I should be able to apply meaning to our current situation.
So, how does this all apply to us? What message does today’s gospel reading have to say to us?
Consider John and his community’s context. Judaism is under major transformation after the fall of the Temple. No one knows what is going to happen.
The Temple and its practices have served as the primary organizing influence on the faith.
At the same time, there is a subgroup of Jews who believe the teachings of Jesus are the path forward… but as is typical in times of change, not everyone agrees.
I see a connection with our time. Consider that we live in a era when the church is floundering and is increasingly viewed as irrelevant.
We all know that the church must find a way to change that. Some want to keep doing the same thing we’ve always done and hope that people will miraculously come back and start filling pews again.
But just as the Temple wasn’t coming back for the Jewish people, that is not going to happen for us.
Where is God? Haven’t we done all that we were expected to do?
The Jewish faithful made pilgrimages and made the required sacrifices. Jews practiced hospitality and shared with the stranger. We have tithed and formed women’s groups. We’ve sent missionaries around the globe to help others. We developed Sunday Schools and built larger buildings when the numbers swelled.
So Where? Where is God now?
We have an empty sanctuary. In many ways this sanctuary is as dead as the Temple. Rather than being destroyed in an act of violent destruction, however, our holy place is simply fading away.
It’s hard to remain calm and carry on when everything we thought was so, is rejected by the world.
Where? Where is God? God is here. Do you not perceive the Spirit calling.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19 NRSV)
For some Jews in the post-Temple period, God encouraged faith structured around the emerging rabbinical Judaism, a more congregational model of faith. For other Jews and a lot of Gentiles in the post-Temple era, God’s transforming power manifest through the incarnation in Jesus resulting in a new religion that we call Christianity. And just as our faith has gone through major transformations before, it is doing so again today.
Historically, each time God called God’s people to transformation, folks were confused and anxious. They didn’t know what to do.
Each time God called God’s people to transformation, some clung desperately to the past. They were afraid of what they couldn’t see.
Each time, however, God has remained faithful to humanity and there have been those who have heard the voice of resurrection. They have trusted in Jesus as our temple.
They’ve said, “Keep calm and trust in God. God is doing a new thing; Do you not perceive it?
Friends, now’s the time! God is calling us to give up our reliance on our buildings and our institutional structures. God is calling for us to let go of anything — anything — that does not serve to further the realm of God on earth.
Our ministry is not inside these walls. The world is aching and writhing in horrible pain. Why are we sitting here? Our ministry is out there!
We have a choice. We can either keep on doing what we’ve been doing — and die — or we can change.
God is calling us to keep calm, trust, and jump out of the stained glass window. Amen.
This sermon was delivered at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, January 19, 2014.
It wasn’t our daughter’s first protest or maybe it was. (Around the same time we’d protested at the Federal Courthouse in solidarity with native American activist Leonard Peltier, who is still in prison after 37 years.)
We gathered in the church parking lot of Memorial Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Louis after worship. We shared sandwiches and cookies out of plasticware before walking the two blocks to the Shell station on the corner where our march from Shell to Shell to Shell would begin. Our goal as people of faith was to shame Shell Oil out of South Africa and to build awareness for the boycott of the company until they did so. As my wife and I pushed our infant daughter in her stroller, we chanted “Free Mandela” and “End Apartheid! Boycott Shell!”
We were young and believed in the impossible. We believed that our action in north St. Louis could change the abhorrent conditions under which Africans lived thousands of miles away. Years have passed. Decades have come and gone. More times than I’d like to admit I have doubted that real change is coming.
As my baby girl nears thirty, I wonder whether hope is justified in a world in which food programs for children and adults are cut and banks get bail-outs. I am discouraged by a lack of empathy for the poor. I wonder if justice will ever come when our prisons are filled with black men and Leonard Peltier remains in prison. I wonder if peace will ever come after more than a decade of military action in Afghanistan. I weep when the first reaction to conflict in the world is to use military force.
I wonder if love can overcome death, as the Christian narrative tells me, when it doesn’t seem like we can even love one another.
And then I look at the life of Nelson Mandela. An imperfect man in a far from perfect world, his life is testament to love overcoming death. The extravagant love of the One will overcome the impossible as it did in Mr. Mandela’s life.
Though love doesn’t overcome at the speed I’d like it to come. It does come. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”