Come home to Calvary
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2021 Lenten Theme: Visible Unity
In my growing up years, I learned this hymn.
Do not I love Thee, O my Lord?
Behold my heart and see;
And turn each cursèd idol out,
That dares to rival Thee.
The spiritual practices of Lent call us to confess, to turn to God in prayer, to share what we have with people who need it and to fast as a spiritual practice. That is more than giving up chocolate so that the Easter Bunny can bring you some.
In my rural Appalachian religious upbringing, instead of traditional Lent, our teaching focused on idolatry. Think of something to which you are devoted more than God, more than you are devoted to being the Body of Christ. There’s your idol.
Teddy just read the opening of the ten commandments. While the later commandments deal with our relationships with one another, the primary commandments define our relationship with God. No other gods are to come before me. No idols.
Money is the perennial idol. Enough to get by and have a future is one thing, but once those needs met, buying into the lie that we can never have enough money, never enough new things, never enough security (Never enough! Never enough!)—is idolatry. Who is your shepherd? Why shall you want? Who supplies your daily bread? Who made a way through the wilderness and will do so again through the wilderness to come? Money and social clout are false gods. If you want to be free, turn to the living God, the God who can do anything but fail.
Drive out something that gets in God’s way, whether it’s personal or, in today’s gospel, communal. We begin our worship services by confessing our collective sins because, let’s face it, the most egregious sins are the ones we commit in groups. For example, the cultivation of systemic racism. Whether actively racist or passively in denial, we swim in racism like fish unaware of water. Calvary is committed to dismantling what we can of racial inequality. Our next event is an open discussion of the movie Selma.
No wonder Visible Unity is our theme. Visible Unity is the vision professed by the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s newest creed. In the Reformed Tradition, we call creeds “confessions” — historical affirmations of faith. The 1982 Confession of Belhar was originally crafted to offer Christian grounding against racial Apartheid in South Africa. It’s the church’s first creed from the Southern Hemisphere. You can learn more in our Lenten Bible Study at 11:30 today. So, this day, we are called out on our idolatry, caught with the moneychangers in the temple, called to confess and join the journey toward resurrection. Let us pray:
Do not we love You, O our God?
Behold our hearts and see;
And turn each cursèd idol out,
That dares to rival Thee.
2021 Lenten Gospel: John
Our scriptural conversation partner this Lent is the Gospel of John. Although Matthew and Luke, largely based on Mark’s gospel, tell the story of Jesus in similar ways, the gospels contradict one another on details. It’s a little infuriating. But the true strength of the gospel lies outside the details. Have you ever read the minutes of a meeting you attended or a news account of an event you witnessed? We were all there, and yet your experience of the event is quite different from others. The goal of the Bible is not the details but rather to lead us to an experience of God, to bring God out of the abstract and into your living experience.
If John were our only gospel, the details of our faith would be radically different. To begin with, there would be no manger in Bethlehem, no Christmas pageant, no angels singing gloria, no Wise Men, nada. Merry Christmas. Instead, John flings us out into space, describing Jesus not as a little baby but as the light, a life force come to re-create the world. The old, old story has many versions.
This year at Calvary, Lent begins with the cleansing of the temple, chapter 2, which makes the preceding Wedding at Cana analogous to a kind of Mardi Gras for Jesus and Mama Mary. Water to wine? Don’t mind if I do, Lent starts tomorrow, and I’ve got a temple to cleanse! The wedding party is still working with the photographer when Jesus heads out to the temple in Jerusalem.
Today’s gospel lesson is Jesus’ first encounter with the temple authorities. They witnessed him driving the vendors and currency changers out of the temple. They see him lose it and threaten violence. This is not my Savior’s finest hour. Or is it? Jesus is consumed by zeal for God’s house, fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy, indicating his divinity. He is zealous for worship unconstrained by superstition, money, burnt offerings, animal sacrifice.
Then, the astonishing revelation: the temple is a euphemism for Jesus’ very body, crucified and risen.The Apostle Paul writes that our bodies are also God’s temples. Your body the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit.
John Mayer might have called your body a wonderland, but Jesus says there is still room for improvement. What do you need to cleanse from your temple this Lent?
Anti-Semitism is Not God’s Will
We’re enter dangerous territory when we study John without a guide. John depicts the Jews as Jesus’ enemy, a foil to be reviled. That’s why I took today’s gospel lesson from a translation that might not be as popular as others but nevertheless, is grounded in scholarship and calls the church to confess the harm done in Jesus name.
A few summers ago, I studied with John Shelby Spong, a visionary Episcopal Bishop and prolific author. Most of his writings deal with the idol of biblical literalism. Bibliolatry. Spong lays out compelling arguments for the character of Judas in John’s gospel as the root of modern anti-semitism. Even the devil can quote scripture for his own purposes.
It’s time to confess that Christianity keeps psychiatrists in business. The scapegoating of the Jewish people in the Gospel of John is only one of the tables we must overturn. The White church’s subjugation of Black people. The church’s exclusion of women. The church’s rampant denial of science. And yes, the vestiges of the Presbyterian Church’s former stance that LGBTQ are “symbols of God’s broken world.” Even after those tables are overturned, we have still have the persistent assumptions behind them. The moneychangers and sellers of sacrifices symbolize “the very antithesis of what God wants [us] to be.” When the idolatry of biblical literalism falls away, we will an unsettling freedom, “a bottomless pit” Spong says that we soon realize is a limitless yes from a God who can do anything but fail.
Cleansing the Temple on Legacy Giving Sunday?
Perhaps you think I’m saying let’s sing Cumbaya and live in a hippy dippy commune. You didn’t realize that I can hear you thinking out there? I’ll admit, Kumbaya is one of my favorite songs. Highly underrated, but this is not a sermon about unachievable ideals. No, we are called to change the world, and that does not happen quickly. You are the only thing that can help. You are God’s temple, and you are Christ’s Body in the world. Your life is raw potential.
Later, we’ll take up an offering, install our Calvary Foundation trustees and ask you to consider including Calvary in your will. Next week, we’ll approve the budget. You might wonder, “What’s with all the moneychanging in this temple?” On the surface, gold star. Thank you for paying attention. But this passage of John offers a corrective tension against materialism and superstition. We are playing our part in the evolution of the human species as spiritual beings. Were fish to realize they live in water, they would need to form a new relationship with water in order to one day walk on land. Churches running on money, what a paradox!
Richard Rohr teaches that
…everything has a character of paradox in it…including ourselves and most especially God…seeming contradictions, some mysterious parts we cannot understand or explain… Institutions, countries, groups, religions, and persons have many inherent contradictions. Understanding a paradox is to look at something long enough to overcome the contradiction and see things at a different level of consciousness.
Deeper — Cleansing the Temple
So then, what is this paradox of behavior Jesus is modeling for us in John 2? One commentator puts it this way:
Jesus is not just trying to get rid of a few corrupt practices that have crept in to mar something he basically approves of; no, he is trying to put a stop to the whole thing. And this is because Jesus brings, in his own BODY [temple], the fulfillment of…prophecy– which says that ‘there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord on that day’ for everything in the world is made sacred on that day. On that day when God is revealed as Sovereign over all the cosmos, when all the factions and nations and tribes will gather into one, and when ‘living waters shall flow…’. On that day who needs a [temple]! The whole of creation is sanctified by the presence of the Word Made Flesh.
The Confession of Belhar calls us to confess our faith. Let us affirm what we believe:
We believe in the triune God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
who gathers, protects
and cares for the church
through Word and Spirit.
This, God has done
since the beginning of the world
and will do to the end.
And if that’s not enough holy paradox for you, I don’t know what is. Let it be a blessing.
Amen, amen, and amen.
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Since it was almost the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep and pigeons, while moneychangers sat at their counters. Making a whip out of cords, Jesus drove them all out “of the Temple—even the cattle and sheep—and overturned the tables of the money changers, scattering their coins. 16 Then he faced the pigeon sellers: “Take all this out of here! Stop turning God’s house into a market!” The disciples remembered the words of scripture: “Zeal for your house consumes me.”
The Temple authorities intervened and said, “What sign can you show us to justify what you’ve done?”
Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
They retorted, “It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and you’re going to raise it up in three days?” But the temple he was speaking of was his body. It was only after Jesus had been raised from the dead that the disciples remembered this statement and believed the scripture—and the words that Jesus had spoken.