Sermon for Lent 3 B (2009)

Sermon for Lent 3 B
March 15, 2009
Michael Coffey

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

Isn’t this as a good a time as any to have our tables turned over?
Isn’t this time of Lent,
and more so this time of distress and re-evaluation in our economy
as good a time as we ever get to let our tables get turned over?
Isn’t this the right time
to let some anger at what has been going on wake us up,
and see what new ways of ordering our lives might emerge?

The story of Jesus in the Temple is surprising.
Wow.  He’s really angry. 
A little violent, even, at least toward the furniture.
He’s driving out the animals and confronting the people.
Everyone was stunned at what was happening.
We assume this is all for some good reason.
But he’s got the anger management people,
and the sensitivity training people,
and the animal rights people offended at his outburst.

Why is Jesus so angry?
He is angry because the things done in the name of God,
or religion at least,
are driving people away from God and neighbor.
Access to God is being contained and controlled
as if anyone had the power or authority to do that.
Instead of coaxing people into a transformed life with God and neighbor
religion and economic life are pulling things apart.

So, is this the time for us to rethink how our economic life
changes our relationship to God and neighbor?
It sure feels like many of the assumptions and practices

we have all been living and accepting
are no longer sustainable or viable.
They are not creating a just, fair, and livable human community.

It seems like a time when our tables have been turned over
and we are all a little stunned at what has happened.
Fortunately for me,
I don’t have to have the answer to that problem.
I’m a preacher and a theologian,
not an economist or banker or financial adviser.
I won’t presume to have any expert opinion or relevant authority.

But since I am up here as preacher and theologian
I do need to talk about prior matters,
underlying assumptions that impact all the rest of our lives:
our economic life,
and our connection to God and neighbor.
And the one major assumption I’m going to have us take to heart
is that we are in deep need, now and always,
to take the first commandment with profound seriousness:
to place God above all else.
And whatever the solutions are to our distressed economic life,
we might all agree that God has most certainly
not been at the top of the list of priorities in life.

This is one major claim in all of Scripture:
our lives are ordered rightly
when nothing but God is our highest devotion.
We all know what the other gods are
that get a lot of devotion and attention from us all.
Power, money, status, nation, institutions, self-interest,
and religion, dogma, and morality.
So the claim is:
If we don’t get this right,
we can’t the rest of it right, either.
If we don’t have God in the right place in life,

then we can’t order our lives in a way
that brings peace and community and blessing.

This is why the Bible and Jewish tradition
understand the giving of the commandments
as a great gift, a blessing, a life-giving word from God.
Ordering life according to the commandments
brings the life that really is life.
Now, we have a lot of baggage about all of this,
understanding the God’s law shows us how sinful we are
and drives us to seek God’s mercy through Christ.
That’s not wrong, of course,
but neither is it complete.

As Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim says:
It is important that we seek to capture
some of the positive force of the word "law":
                                * to be concerned about the law is to be concerned with the well‑being of people
                                * the law preserves life
                                * the law instructs us and helps us to develop wisdom and maturity
                                * the law promotes good
A most basic claim we all should make
regarding Old Testament laws is that these laws,
both individually and in their entirety,
are a gracious gift of God
for the sake of the life, health,
and well being of individuals in community.
Keeping the commandments in a community of faith
becomes a means of knowing God in our midst.

Of course, what we first encounter with the commandments of God
is a singular devotion to the God of Israel.
God is above all,
God that is not self,
God that is not the current powerful ruler,

God that is not under religious authority.
And, since it is this God of Israel
and not some other god of our fashioning,
then at the same time
we must place the needs of the neighbor
above all other claims.

Now I think we can see why Jesus is so angry
when he confronts the messed up world of economic activity
and religion and access to God:
If this is messed up,
everything is messed up.
Access to God cannot be confused with
resources of wealth or power
and especially not with religious authority to control God.

This story is often called “Jesus cleanses the Temple.”
But Jesus doesn’t “cleanse” the temple,
as if it could go on with the same assumptions
about when and where and who has access
to the God of our singular devotion.
Jesus doesn’t cleanse the Temple.
He de-authorizes it as a means
of living in relationship with God and neighbor.
He de-legitimizes human systems of wealth and control
as a means for controlling God.
It is not God who is placed under human systems of wealth and control.
Under the first commandment,
it is human systems of wealth and control
that must be placed under God.

And then in John’s Gospel at least,
Jesus radically and offensively says
that his self-giving love in his own body
will be the Temple, the source of access to God.

So we have this in these readings:
God is known where the commandments are kept.
God is known where Jesus’ self-giving love
 is practiced by his followers.
They turn out be the same thing.

Early Christians realized that if Jesus brings access to God
freely and gracefully and uncontrollably,
then there is no locale for God.
There is no holy place
where God is contained,
and religious authorities can restrict access,
and financiers can profit from it.
Christians, when they got it right at least,
realized that they themselves did not control God
but did always enjoy God.

For the church it turns out that the holy place, the temple
is always here, wherever here is,
the time is always now
the fullness of God is a hidden, mysterious, gracious reality with us.
There is no holy land or place for Christians.
There is the gathering of people with God in Christ
where God and neighbor are rightly ordered.

Now, I know we hold our sanctuaries dear,
and they are treasured and important places for us.
But let’s turn a table or two over.
Where is the holy place in this place?
Is it back there? 
Is it up here? 
Is it in the bread and wine?
It is, it seems, most notably and properly found in the gathering,
in the community, not in any individual,
but in gathering in Jesus’ name,
and sharing his self-giving love

in word, and kiss of peace, and bread and wine.
We’re talking about liturgy and architecture in our adult class.
And in thinking about a liturgical space,
we quickly realize there are four areas of focus,
four ways in which God is made known to us:
The font.
The reading desk.
The table.
And the fourth, which is easy to forget,
the gathered people.

Christian faith is more about holiness in time
rather than place or person,
It is about holiness in event
rather than written words or fixed orders.
Christianity has no single holy place,
no geographical focus,
nothing to defend or set up walls around.
When you live in the reality of the always gracious presence
of God made known to us in Christ,
you are always with God here and now,
you are never lost or devoid of God’s reality.

All of this sanctuary, and any sanctuary, then, at its best,
is the magnifier of the presence,
like a lens on a microscope, or a telescope
capturing the light that is both eminently distant,
and imminently close.

The Bible is a profound word
where God is so much above all other claims
that the whole religious enterprise,
along with all economic enterprise,
 is up for grabs
and is severely critiqued.
Tables are turned,

Presumptions are driven out.

It means my job is in severe jeopardy,
at least, if I thought my job were to control access to God.
I think my job in the leadership role I have
among the gathering of faithful folks,
is to keep pointing to what I don’t possess,
keep guiding to where I am merely a fellow traveler,
keep sharing what I do not own,
but like the air,
is here for all of us.
Sometimes we need only take a deeper breath to get it.
Maybe this gathering is where we take a deeper breath,
like when you get out into the mountains or the desert
and you realize your breathing has been shallow.
Take a deeper breath.
Let your shallow breathing relax.

If the tables are turned on all our assumptions
who how God is available to us,
and how God might be controlled by us,
then we can open ourselves up to the fullness
of the God that is among us in community:
Bread and wind shared in Jesus’ name,
Keeping the commandments out of sheer gratitude,
Breathing in the silence and the music.

If you aren’t finding God so readily available
here and now and when you’re walking down the street
and in every meal,
and in economic uncertainty as well as prosperity,
then it’s time to have our tables turned.
God is more ready to be the first thing in our lives
than we are ready to believe.


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