Open to the Possibility

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
March 11, 2012 - Lent 3B

A lot of people describe the difference between the Old and New Testaments of our Bible as the difference between an angry God and a loving God.  The Old Testament, I often hear, is filled with stories of a God who threatens to strike people dead and, in some cases, actually does so! But the New Testament, that’s all about love – Jesus loves the little children, Jesus healing the sick, Jesus telling us that the greatest commandment of all is to love our neighbor’s as ourselves.  But if we ever need a reminder that this assessment of the Old and New Testaments is an oversimplification of reality, we get it in today’s Scripture readings: Jesus storms into the temple, makes a whip of cords and drives all of the animals out of the temple, overturns the money changers tables and orders them all to “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”[1] 
This is a far-cry from the loving Jesus most of us heard about in Sunday School, continue to hear about on Sunday mornings, and are, as a result, quite comfortable with.  Amy-Jill Levine describes it this way:
[Jesus usually has] really good hair and a long white dress and you know that that can’t possibly be historical. He’s gentle Jesus, meek and mild, and what’s not to like? [But,] a Jesus who’s gentle and meek and mild and everybody loves him cannot possibly be historical. Again, he’s got to be edgy enough for people to want to kill him. . . [2]
Well, today we get edgy, don’t we?  And, to be honest, it makes some of us a little uncomfortable. And, if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then I hope, at the very least, it will end any thoughts you may still be carrying with you that the God of the New Testament is all about love and the God of the Old Testament is all about anger; because, my friends, this Jesus overthrowing tables in the temple, is an angry Jesus!
But, Jesus’ anger is not the point of this temple scene in John’s gospel.  Gail O’Day, in her commentary on this passage, writes, “The scandal . . . is not Jesus’ anger . . . but the authority this human being claims for himself through his words and actions.” She continues:
“Jesus, a complete outsider to the power structure of the Temple, issues a challenge to the authority of the Temple that quite literally shakes its foundations. Jesus throws the mechanics of temple worship into chaos, disrupting the temple system during one of the most significant feasts of the year [the Jewish Passover] so that neither sacrifices nor tithes could be offered that day. . . . Jesus challenges a religious system so embedded in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revelation from God, a temptation that exists for contemporary Christianity as well as for the Judaism of Jesus’ day.”[3]
Jesus’ actions that day in the temple were, in effect, an attempt to bring Jews back to the roots of their Judaism, to bring them back to the place where God – not the temple - is the focal point of worship.
As we hear this passage today, it is our invitation to reflect on our own worship practices.  What has become the center of our worship? Is it this building? Is it the music?  Is it the preacher? the organist? the Sunday School program?  Who is at the center of our worship? If Jesus were to walk through these doors today, what practices would he see in place that have nothing to do with God and everything to do with maintaining the institution of the church? 
Jesus’ anger in the temple in Jerusalem was a wake-up call to the Jews in the 1st century and it should be a wake-up call to you and to me in the 21st century because if we are not being challenged and transformed by God’s revelation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus then we have missed the point of our worship.
In a Lenten reflection, George Councell, the Bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey, offered this observation: “Someone once said that we human beings have two great needs: to be held and to be held accountable. We need both.”[4]  We do need both and we frequently hear reminders of the many ways in which God holds us. For example, in next week’s Gospel reading, we’ll hear: “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.”[5] We also have frequent reminders of how we are invited to hold one another – by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison.[6]  These are words we are comfortable hearing and they are words of good news, Gospel words.  But we also need to be held accountable and those are the words of today’s Scripture – “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”[7] – stop confusing the building and the rituals for our God – these words are less comfortable to hear as they call us to task, but they too are words of good news, Gospel words – words that invite us to be open to the possibility of new life.
Our Lenten series this year offers us an alternative, a way of recharging our spiritual batteries and aligning our priorities – our very lives – with God’s priorities.  Two weeks ago, Galen Burghardt from St. Luke’s offered a reflection on the spiritual practice of discernment – that “intentional practice by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations.”[8] This past Tuesday, we reflected together on what it means to keep Sabbath in our 21st century context - a practice which Bruce Sanguin writes eloquently in Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos offers “a powerful witness to a world gone mad in its allegiance to increasing productivity and efficiency. We stop to enjoy what God has made of creation, breaking our fascination with what we have made of the world. . . and open a door in our heart through which wisdom may enter.”[9] And in a couple of days, we will gather at St. Augustine’s in Wilmette to think about household economics – how we manage our everyday affairs – our homes, our workplaces, our very livelihoods for the good of the whole household of God.[10]
Spiritual practices such as these, suggests Dorothy Bass, offer us the opportunity “to imagine a way of life that prizes an abundance of life rather than an abundance of things to do and things to possess [and] puts a new frame around the world in which” you and I live.[11]  To be sure - like Jesus’ outburst in the temple - spiritual practices call us to task – as individuals and as a community of faithful persons – and perhaps even make us a bit uncomfortable as we consider the ways in which we’ve fallen shorten of recognizing the centrality of God in our lives; but spiritual practices also bring good news, Gospel words as they invite and prepare us to be open to the possibility of new life, open to the possibility of resurrected life, open to the possibility of Easter life.

[1] John 2:13-22.
[2] Amy-Jill Levine, “Teachings of Jesus: Wisdom Tradition,” Saving Jesus (Living the Questions, 2006).
[3] Gail R. O’Day, “John 2:13-22 Reflections,” The Gospel of John in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX, p. 545.
[4] The Rt. Rev. George Councell, “From Ashes to Easter,” (Day 16 of Lent: 14 March 2009),, accessed online 10 March 2012.
[5] John 3:16.
[6] Matthew 25:31-46
[7] John 2:13-22.
[8] Frank Rogers, Jr., “Discernment,” in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, 2nd ed. Dorothy C. Bass, ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 105.
[9] Bruce Sanguin, Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity (Kelowna, BC, Canada: Copperhouse Books, 2007), 256.
[10] Sharon Daloz Parks, “Household Economics,” in Practicing Our Faith, 44.
[11] Dorothy C. Bass, “New Preface for the Revised Edition,” Practicing Our Faith, xx.