Palm Sunday, 2015
Our journey through Lent began on Ash Wednesday, which now seems like a long time ago. And yet, every Wednesday, a small group of us gathers for mid week Eucharist, and together we pray the litany of penitence from the Ash Wednesday service so that we are ever mindful of the fact that we are all works in progress, constantly in need of God’s forgiveness and healing.
For weeks I have participated in this litany, and it wasn’t until this past Wednesday that a particular line from the absolution stood out to me in a new way. We pray that God will grant us true repentance and the Holy Spirit, so that “those things may please God which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy…”
I bring this to your attention because in many ways this is why we participate in Lent and the services of Holy Week...to remember that we have been forgiven and that we are constantly returning to God to make our lives pure and holy. We journey with Jesus during this most difficult time because it is not only an invitation to us to acknowledge our brokenness and need for healing, but also as a way of remembering all that was done for us out of the deep love of God.
I think this is why the words get stuck in my throat when we all say “Crucify him” during the passion gospel. Couldn’t we just skip over that part or at least not say it so loudly? For obvious reasons, the answer is no. But I think it makes us uncomfortable because of the awareness that we have of how those words were originally spoken with such anger and hatred. We want to think that we’re above, beyond, and more evolved than those who could say such horrible things. And yet, these two simple words remind us of the times we have not acted from a place of love. They remind us of the explicit and implicit ways that we have participated in the death, destruction and humiliation of others in the world and the creation itself. If we believe our brothers and sisters contain the image of Christ within them, then whether we are conscious of it or not, we routinely participate in the ongoing crucifixion of Christ in the world around us. And this is a hard reality to face...and this is part of our journey that begins on this most solemn day.
Today, we entered into kairos time--God’s time. You can’t mark God’s time on a clock; it’s fluid. God’s time is an opportunity to reflect on the love we’ve been given, to acknowledge our brokenness, and to be open to transformation. Over the course of the week we will pray, extinguish candles, wash each other’s feet, join with faltering friends in a meal, keep watch, and experience the empty tomb. And we will also celebrate the resurrection. I invite you into kairos time to explore the complexity of our Christian life together.
Let us pray.
Holy God, whose only Son gave himself to us without limit and without reserve, and who fills us with the love by which to love others: enable us to give ourselves to our enemies and friends so that they may know the immeasurable love which is in Christ Jesus our Lord; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (adapted from Raymond Hockley in The Wideness of God’s Mercy)
Sin. It’s a three letter word that makes me so uncomfortable, that I rarely preach on it. In fact, going back through my previous sermons, I only ever preached on sin one other time...ever. I think I’m uncomfortable talking about sin because somehow to me it means that I’m a no good, very bad, terrible, horrible person. Yet, in our confession that we say each week, we say have sinned against God and our neighbor--that we have not loved God with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves, that we need forgiveness for things done and left undone. When we say it together, somehow, “sin” isn’t as uncomfortable. Somehow to me it means that I’ve made some bad choices, said things that I shouldn’t have said, that there are relationships that I need to reconcile. The “sin” in our corporate confession points me in the direction of working towards healing and forgiveness. But man oh man...to personally say that I have “sinned” or that I’m a “sinner” and my skin crawls. Perhaps that should be something I work on for Lent--next year, or maybe the year after--just not right now.
In the reading we have from the Book of Numbers today, we have a great story about sin. Here we have the early Israelites, the chosen people of God, wandering and complaining...again. If you’ve read the story of Exodus and Numbers, you know that wandering and complaining is part of the deal for these early post-Egypt followers of God. Even though God, working through the prophet Moses, has done pretty amazing things for these early Israelites--bringing about the 10 plagues, freeing them from the slavery of the Pharaoh, crossing the Red Sea on dry land, providing manna and quail for them to eat in the desert, and sheltering them from the attacks of other rulers and armies--during those 40 years in the wilderness, the people do a whole lot of complaining. Verse 5 reads, “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.” It would be easy for any of us to think “what a group of ungrateful people---don’t they get it? Don’t they understand that God has done some pretty awesome things for them?” We might even think of them like children or younger siblings (or even ourselves as children)...bratty, complaining, whining, and annoying.
And God’s response might seem like the response of a fed-up parent--God sends poisonous snakes in their direction to bite them, and according to the text, many die. But that’s not really what we’re supposed to learn from this story. The crux of this lesson is what happens after the snakes appear; the people acknowledge their sin and God provides an opportunity for healing and reconciliation. When we acknowledge our sin, there is an opportunity for forgiveness.
This is what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel of John as well. In the verses just before today’s readings, we learn that Jesus is speaking to the Pharisee leader Nicodemus, who is trying to understand how Jesus interprets the Kingdom of God. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is one of immeasurable love for those who believe and who in faith, seek healing, reconciliation and forgiveness.
John 3:16 is probably the most well known of all bible verses: “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”. This is extravagant, immeasurable, self-sacrificing love. It is the love that was present in the creation, it is the love that brought the people out of Egypt, it is the love that became incarnate in Jesus, and it is the love of the crucified and resurrected Jesus that inspires all of us to go out into the world empowered by the Spirit.
But this love does require something of us--both as a community, and as individuals. It requires that we name and acknowledge our sin, and then ask for forgiveness. God’s love requires that our deeds be exposed to the light, so that we can be forgiven, healed, and renewed. To receive God’s love, we have to realize that we walk amongst snakes--some of which are of our own making.
Sin. It’s a three letter word that makes me uncomfortable...and yet, it’s something that I need to acknowledge so I can be brought into the light of God’s amazing love.
In keeping with my Lenten practice of sharing poems and prayers, I invite you to reflect on this prayer of confession that I adapted from Enriching Our Worship, volume 1.
Let us pray:
God of all mercy, I confess that I have sinned against you, opposing your will in my life. I have denied your goodness in the lives of others, in myself, and in the world you have created. I repent of the evil that enslaves me, the evil I have done, and the evil done on my behalf. Forgive, restore, and strengthen me through your incarnation, my Savior Jesus Christ, that I may abide in your love and serve only your will. Amen.
I’m always amazed with the story of Jesus cleansing the temple when it comes up in the lectionary. In the synoptic gospels, this act of Jesus comes right before his arrest and trial; in the Gospel of John, this action comes right after his first set of miracles (which began with the wedding at Cana and the turning of water into wine)...following the chronology of John, it’s at least two years before the arrest and trial of Jesus. So it’s a bit unclear, from a historical perspective, when exactly the cleansing of the temple happened in the course of Jesus’ ministry.
But history and chronology aren’t what I find amazing about this story.
John Calvin, the great Methodist theologian, wrote that Jesus has three roles--prophet, priest and king. According to Calvin, the cleansing of the temple is an example of when Jesus acted as a prophet. In the Jewish tradition a prophet was someone who pointed out to the leadership when things had gone awry in relationship to God. If you go back to the Old Testament...even today’s reading about the 10 Commandments...it is the voice of the prophet that calls people back into right relationship with God. When the people of the covenant fall out of right relationship, the prophet is their to lead them back. We have a great history of this, beginning of course with Moses, all the way through to John the Baptist.
So Jesus as a prophet cleansing the temple is an interesting interpretation. At the time of this story, the Jewish temple was existing in a world that was surrounded by “pagan” influences. For obedient Jews to come to the temple for worship, prayer and sacrifice, they needed to exchange their secular goods for sacred goods. While this exchange may have best been done outside of the walls of the temple, for whatever reason, it had become acceptable practice to allow the exchange within the temple courtyard. The sacredness of the temple had become a bit lazy in trying to accommodate the secular culture. Jesus the prophet is calling attention to this laziness, this sliding down the slippery slope, to remind people that the temple was a sacred place, not a place of commerce.
But Jesus also acts as the priest and king in this passage because of his foreshadowing of his own death and resurrection. By taking on the role of the temple--by becoming the place of God--as priest, he is offering an opportunity for reconciliation, and as king, he is claiming his identity as the Messiah.
Again, all of this is interesting and really great stuff to chew on, but it isn’t what I find amazing in this story.
I think what I find amazing is Jesus’ anger. It’s an anger that I find both frightening and energizing. Throughout the gospel, we are presented with a Jesus who is humble, who is a healer and teacher, who is concerned for the “least of these”. Yet, here we have a Jesus who is fired up, angry, and frankly, dangerous. What happens in the temple is more than disruptive...it’s violent. Tables are turned over. In my imagination, I see coins being thrown around the room, doves escaping their cages, grains spilled on the floor, people cowering in corners, trying to find a safe place to hide from his whip. In my imagination, there is yelling and perhaps even crying, and I see the disciples gathered together whispering to each other trying to understand what is happening. The scene has exploded.
For a years, theologians and spiritual activists have used this scene to illustrate the church’s call to fight against the powers of domination and oppression. I remember being taught in seminary that if change was going to happen, we needed to be prepared to turn over tables. And that’s exciting and dramatic! To overturn oppression, to serve as the prophetic voices in our communities, to reclaim the sacredness of life, we were prepared to be fired up and call attention to problems! This is good, juicy stuff!
But what does any of that have to do with where we are in our Lenten journey at this time and place in our lives?
So what if this scene in the temple becomes a metaphor for our inner lives. Where in your life has the sacred been replaced by the secular? When have you chosen the option that is easier, more popular, less inconvenient, as opposed to making a choice that may be harder, but is more just or equitable? When have you compromised your integrity or your values, your sense of knowing who you are, in order to make someone else happy, or to please them? I know these are things that I am constantly wrestling with, and surely, I’m not alone.
Perhaps this scene in the temple is a metaphor for when Jesus comes back in and claims us as sacred. Perhaps he is turning over our inner tables--our conflict, self-doubt, and feelings of incompetence or unworthiness--in order to help us be right relationship with God and ourselves.
And that’s part of our Lenten journey. We’re wandering in the wilderness, being faced by temptations and wild beasts, so that we can be resurrected with Jesus into new life--a new life of wholeness, healing, and restoration. Our tables need be turned over from time to time to help us remember this.
Admittedly, I can’t take full credit for this idea of inner tables being turned over. I found this amazing prayer from Jessica Gazzola on a blog I follow:
It’s hard to identify exactly when they moved in – the voices making promises, selling their fixes, displaying their idols. Echoing inside our head, the temple has become a noisy marketplace.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
It’s foolishness! There’s nothing to quell our desire, no law to bring peace to our troubled souls. But the One who was sent knows human nature well.
Christ have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Cleanse, purge, drive out all that bullies you. Let zeal for your house consume you.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.