Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sermon: The Promise of Renewal

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Promise of Renewal

Jeremiah 31:27-34

27The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

            Today is the fourth and final sermon in our Lenten series on the Promises of God. Each week, we have heard a text and sought to understand what God can be promising to us. We have heard about God’s promise of presence, the promise of overturning, the promise of whosoever, and today, the promise of renewal. Throughout our Lenten season, we have turned our prayers to God in these specific and direct ways, including Ash Wednesday when we wrote our prayers, and sent them back to God in a fire. We have written our prayers, and woven them together into a tapestry of truth-telling.

On these slips of paper are the words and names

and hopes of us – this gathered congregation –

that we have collectively given back to God.

What a sacred, beautiful and honest work of art

we have created together. Here, in our worship,

we have prayed these prayers, and sought out

what it means to live into God’s promise to us.
            This is also the time for us to consider our Lenten journey, and observe how we have changed during this time of reflection and self-denial. In giving up eating in restaurants, I, for one, am fitting into clothes I haven’t worn since before Sloan was born. But Lenten disciplines aren’t about what we get from them, they are about how we open ourselves to change. If you have taken on a discipline during this season, consider how your life and rituals and patterns have adapted to your intentional choice. I used to take a little cream with my coffee. In this season, I have left behind the dairy I thought so necessary. Now, I am an adaptable creature, who can consume coffee without any modification. I am liberated. I am changed.
            Today, we are expecting to hear about God’s promise of Renewal. This is the greatest hope for us, isn’t it? That we might find new life, new strength, new hope. Renewal is the promise that it will get better, that we will have the resources, that we will be transformed. It is the goal of our Lenten journey, in short, and our Christian journey, in full. As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “Lent is our season of honesty. It is a time when we may break out of our illusions to face the reality of our life in preparation for Easter, a radical new beginning. Lent is a time for honesty that may disrupt the illusion of well-being."[1] So, as we approach Palm Sunday, the Passion of Holy Week and the promise of resurrection, we do so with the hope and anticipation that we shall have a new beginning because of this season of deliberate awareness.
            It seems fitting, then, that the prophet Jeremiah should bring our closing word to this season. The prophet Jeremiah came from Anathoth, a village in the hill country of Benjamin, one of the tribes of Jacob – also called Israel – in the north of Judah. He was the son of a priest, the grandson of a priest, and his line of succession made it no surprise that he might be called to serve in the temple.
            Jeremiah’s story seems like a fairy tale, set in an ancient land in a far away place, rustic and humble. His is the story of a man – a simple man – who was appointed by God to be the voice of one crying out. His voice sounded like Moses, resonated with the same authority. This man, Jeremiah, was to be the voice of reason, the voice of love, the voice of redemption to a people who were broken and scattered. It was Jeremiah of whom it was said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5)
            By the time we meet Jeremiah, the Israelites have endured assimilation into the Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah, along with the tribe of Judah, witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the holy Temple, the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the death of King Josiah.  Most of Jeremiah’s words to the people are cries of lament. Jeremiah incessantly warned his people to mend their ways, to return to God, to take up the faithfulness of their ancestors and to live into the promise of what God would do.
            As we encounter our text today, we do so, not as Christians with an eye to the promise of the resurrection, but as broken and scattered people, with only prayers of lament and sorrow in our throats. Jeremiah has preached repentance, to no avail. So now, his sorrowing is past, and he uses the gift God has given him – that of prophecy and truth-telling – to preach a new covenant.
            The days are coming, says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors – a covenant that they broke. But, I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, for they shall know me, for I will forgive them and remember their sin no more.” This is the only Old Testament passage where "new" modifies "covenant.” The law remains a key point of continuity between old and new; but it will be written upon the heart, no longer a written Torah. [2]
            Here, God is telling the people of Judah that despite innumerable attempts to remain faithful and live into the old covenant – the old promise of faithfulness and steadfastness – that the old covenant is irreparably broken. It is here, in this passage, that we learn something altogether wonderful about God: God does not turn away from the people who consistently break covenant. Rather, God finds a new way to be in relationship with them. 
            If this is what we are striving to do in our own lives, seeking to live out in our own way, then this promise of renewal is about more than just being changed or turning over a new leaf. This promise of renewal, at its core, is about forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s about relentlessly seeking out ways to be in relationship with the most challenging of people, simply because we love them. It is about setting aside expectation, and re-evaluating how we can make it work.
            What God promises to do in this passage is utterly radical. God tells Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” If you consider the ways in which the society of the Israelites was created and sustained, it was all done through the temple and in the course of religious life. By saying that the law – which had been in the hands of the experts to interpret and implement – would be written on the hearts of the people, God is saying that there would no longer be a need for the world to function as it had. God says, “No longer shall they teach one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me.” Knowledge of God, then, is inherent in their very being. The law is no longer written on parchment, a limited, finite, protected entity. Now, the law, which isn’t just rules, but the way in which to be in life-giving relationship with God and others, is written on the hearts of all. “They shall all know me, the Lord says, from the least to the greatest.”
            This new covenant is about what God chooses to do for us, in our hearts. Now, the law is not to be logically understood. Now, there is a new covenant that is so close that it is physically in our hearts, coursing through our veins. What flows from our soul, what fires our passions, is not just biology, but relationship. As our hearts beat, our life is renewed, God’s promise is renewed, and we live into the covenant that God is ours and we shall be God’s people. This is the commitment of God; the covenant; the promise. That we are God’s. Now, forever.
            It is the last verse of our text today that demonstrates how this is possible. God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” If I’m being completely honest with you, I have such a hard time with the language of forgiving and forgetting. So often, my attempts to forgive turned into an ongoing relationship that was harmful. The delicate balance between forgiveness and boundary-setting is tricky to navigate, and I know that if I forget previous wounds, I risk being vulnerable to them again. It is the remembering that keeps me safe. But, this is not about our relationship with one another, per se. This is about God’s ongoing relationship with us. Despite our repeated refusal to keep covenant with God, God chooses not only to continually engage us, but to re-define the covenant itself. God forgives, and forgets, and we are the only ones who benefit from this. This tells us so much about God, and God’s insistence on relationship with us, because “God does what Israel cannot: God forgets. In response to their failure, God refuses to recognize it. In response to their infidelity, God calls them faithful. In response to their sin and brokenness and very real wretchedness, God's memory has to be pushed and prodded to find any recollection. God forgets.”[3]
            So, the divine memory of our relationship with God is no longer marred, but beautiful. It is less like the threadbare tapestry, worn by perpetual erosion, and more like a beautiful work of art, restored to its fullness. Written on our hearts is not just the law, but the promise that we are God’s people. Our response, then, must be some kind of radical generosity, which alone can break the cycles of resentment and revenge. As God’s people, we must learn to live as people guided by our hearts, called to serve the Lord, love others and change the world by living differently in it. “The way back to God, says Jeremiah, is the way of forgiveness.”[4]
            In this, is the promise of Renewal.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

O God who answers prayer, I come before your throne.
O God who answers prayer, I come to you.
By awesome deeds you answer, with deliverance you answer.
You are the God of my salvation.
You are the hope of all the earth. – Psalm 65 [5]

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon: The Promise of Whosoever

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Promise of Whosoever

John 3:14-21, NRSV
      And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
     ‘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.
     ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

            This is one of the best known passages in all of scripture. Almost all of us have heard the famous line, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever liveth and believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16 has become a verse that is synonymous with evangelical Christianity, and this guy, in particular:
Rock 'n' Rollen and Rainbow Man, best known for wearing a rainbow-colored wig and, later, holding up signs reading "John 3:16" at stadium sporting events. This verse is the definition of bumper-sticker theology. If you ask just about any Christian what they believe, some version of this one verse will likely arrive as the answer.
            I’ve always had trouble with this verse, because it seemed to me to be the way that people were able to narrowly define what it means to be Christian. “Whosoever lives and believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life,” seems like the instruction for how we make an appointment with the realtor for one of God’s mansions. It also makes it seem as though eternal life is a prize to be obtained, and that the only way to do it is by living and believing in Jesus.
            But, in order to be fair, we must put John 3:16 back in context with the rest of the pericope. Our text is a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to visit him in the dark of night. Nicodemus said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony…And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,[1] that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
            Jesus makes reference to a very strange event in the Hebrew scriptures here. It is in Numbers 9:21 that we learn the story of when the people spoke against God and against Moses. So, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.  This manages to get the attention of the Israelites, because they come to Moses and confess that they have sinned by speaking against the Lord, and ask him to intercede on their behalf. God tells Moses to “make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” This is a very strange story for Jesus to recall to Nicodemus, indeed. It’s one that’s not particularly flattering to the Israelites, but it does reveal something interesting about God.
            Regardless of the density of the chosen people of God, and their continued refusal to trust in the steadfast love of their creator and sustainer, God always listens. God continually forgives. God eternally reconciles.
            But Nicodemus can’t hear that. Jesus speaks his language – after all, Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel and the scriptures should be as close to him as his own breathing. Jesus references this strange passage in Numbers, for the sake of its reinterpretation: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Nicodemus finds this perplexing “because it demands that he let go of all that he has accomplished and understood. Some things are hard to grasp not because they are conceptually subtle, but because they ask so much of us. We don’t want to understand, because if we understand, we are implicated.”[2]
            This was typically how things went between Jesus and the Pharisees. He continually overturns their long-held perceptions of passages and offers new interpretations of the law. He frustrates the Pharisees completely. This conversation is difficult for Nicodemus for the same reason it’s difficult for us, because, so often, we hear John 3:16 as “a threat for those unwilling to accept God’s love. Because rather than heard as an invitation to participate in spreading God’s love it’s a summons to exclude those we think God does not love.”[3] So, who, then, does God love?
            Jesus talks clearly about who is saved and who is condemned. This language is dangerous for us, because it establishes some kind of salvation clique in which some are out and some are in. Jesus says that, the light has come into the world, and “those who loved darkness more than the light are condemned” (v. 19); take just a moment to remember when it was that Nicodemus came to visit Jesus: in the dark of night. John Wesley says that, “This is the condemnation - That is, the cause of it. So God is clear.” If we are to study this passage, we cannot ignore the language around condemnation. But, it seems, also, as though this is the only thing we derive from it. I cannot imagine that Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are intended to be the plum line for us to decide who is worthy of the love of God. John Wesley continues, saying that, “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world - Although many accuse him of it.”[4] Our core understanding of this text cannot rest in the fear of condemnation.
            So, we return to the question: who, then, does God love? The answer is clear: “God so loved the world,” which, if we’re being honest, is not a particularly loveable entity. The course of human history has not demonstrated the world to be a place where love wins. It is a place filled with anger, jealousy, greed, destruction. And yet, we have this simple assurance that God so loves… the world. And everything and everyone in it.
            If this is so, then “it is possible to read the whole of Scripture, from creation to the eschaton, as God’s love story for the world. It was, after all, divine love stronger than well-deserved judgment, that carried Israel during the time of exile, and it was God’s love that sent Jesus to be God-With-Us, Incarnate in the world, where he taught that love is not merely for those who look and think and believe like us (or the Pharisees), but even for our enemies and those who persecute us.”[5]  
            Many years ago, when I first arrived at Saint Mark, I had the joy of meeting long-time member, Joseph Hackett. Joseph was a man for whom faith was a gift that resonated from him with ease. He was a remarkable theologian, and his pulpit was the hairdresser’s chair behind which he stood. Joseph had always been a church-goer, a faithful follower, a believer. But, when Joseph grew up and began to discover the fullness of who he was, he faced rejection from his church, his family. This led to years of depression and worry, as he perceived the distance between him and God, a chasm which could not be closed. But, when he found Saint Mark, a community that welcomed all, he said that he felt the worry and shame melt away. It was in this community that he realized that, “God has blessed us so abundantly. It was here that I learned that God loves me, thatI was precious to God. It was here that learned that ‘whosoever’ included me– that Jesus died for me.”[6] My friend, Joseph, unlocked this text for me. What once was a passage so commonly used as the narrow lens through which to view Christianity, suddenly became the open door of God’s love for everyone. It is John 3:17 that reveals the core of this text, for me: ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Does this not tell us the very nature of God’s being in relationship with us? That God sent Christ, not to condemn, but to save? Just as Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
            If you’re wondering why this is so important to me, it’s because my heart for ministry is with those who have been excluded from the fold. My heart is with the broken, the lost, the lonely. This is why, week after week, we make it a point to say that the doors of this church are open. It’s because the promise of God’s love is available to all, and it’s simply our job to invite and welcome people in to the community. It is here that we are privileged to share in the most beautiful parts of life together – baptism, the common meal, sharing our prayers, passing the peace. This is not just a place where we gather to be social, this is the locus of our strength and hope.
            It is here, in this place, where we live into the light and promise of God’s eternal love. It is here, in this place, where we learn to love those who are unloveable. It is here, in this place, that we come to worship the God who first loved us, and not just us, but the whole world. It is here, in this place, that the broken are welcomed, the lonely are comforted, that the meek are empowered. It is here, in this place, that the world is turned on its head and we live into the promise of Whosoever.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray:

If you wish, close your eyes and imagine this scene:
 The light, just breaking into the darkness of the morning.
It touches everything, shines on the whole world.

The shadows of early morning fade as the sun moves across the sky, and emblazes light onto every surface of the world. 
What in our world,
                                                            The church,
                                                                        Your own life
                                     Is most in need of God’s love today?

Invite God into the place where you hold these thoughts, images and feelings in your heart. Take a moment to remember that God loves the world. The whole world. Everything and everyone in it. Ask how you can share that love, even to the most unloveable.

[1] Numbers 21:7-9, “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
[5] Paul C. Shupe, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 2, Pastoral Perspective, p. 118.
[6] Saint Mark UMC Capital Campaign Video, 2007.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sermon: The Promise of Overturning

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Promise of Overturning

John 2:13-25, NRSV

13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, 'Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a market-place!' [1] 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

23When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

            The very first thing we should do upon encountering a text is to ask us what it says about God and our relationship with God. The problem with the text today is that it tells us something very complicated about God – that God has feelings.
         My dear friend from seminary, Rev. Casey FitzGerald, is a Biblical Storyteller[2]. She tells this story in her podcast this week, and made reference to the striking picture of Jesus that this particular text paints of him. When we think of Jesus, we tend to picture this:[3] 

(You should know that my grandmother had a print of this in her home, which was complete with glittered stars upon which Jesus could cast his gaze.)

          But, Casey highlights for us the problem with this vision of Jesus. It softens him, making it seem as though God Incarnate's most laborious job was finding a light source to keep behind his head at all times. This painting, by a German man named Heinrich Hofmann from 1890, is entitled, ironically, "The Agony in the Garden." I find this funny because Jesus looks less like a man in deep despair and more like, as Casey describes, “Malibu Jesus,” who maybe needs a good barber.   
          The problem with this text is that it shatters our image of a benign embodiment of the one true God, and encapsulates the scope of power and emotion that God-With-Us must feel. In short, this text dashes our hopes of the Malibuification of Christ. That's part of the reason hearing children read this text underscores its irony. There is nothing sweet about this story. This isn't "love your neighbors" or "blessed are the meek."
            No, This is Jesus, our beloved Jesus, 
                   making whips out of cords and driving out the tender lambs and the calves.
            This is Jesus, our outraged Jesus, 
                   pouring out the coins of the moneychangers and overturning their tables.
            This is Jesus, our prophetic Jesus, 
                   screaming that the doves had no place in the temple.
            And yet, even in his outrage, it seems as though the offended parties had the audacity to stand up to him. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” they ask. Just prior to this incident in John’s Gospel, Jesus performed a miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee when he turned water into wine. Really, really good wine. The text tells us that, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11). The overturning of the tables, Jesus’ big, adult temper-tantrum, occurs at least 85 miles away from Cana. This means that it’s highly unlikely that the onlookers and moneychangers could have heard about the miracle that he had performed.

            The disciples might have believed and understood his glory, but the men with empty dove baskets did not. And they were angry. They wanted something in exchange for what they had lost. They wanted something good. They don’t ask for money, or their livestock. They must have heard him when he shouted, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” This is no timid child. This is the voice of one, crying out from the echoes of the prophets of old, borrowing Zechariah’s words, “And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day!” (Zechariah 14:21).
            So, Jesus gives them a sign. Let those who have ears, hear: “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up!” Despite the literal interpretation of his audience (“It took 46 years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in 3 days?!”), the author of John’s Gospel is kind enough to pencil in the meaning: Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.
         Suddenly, the rage and anger have a home. This is not about money or maleficence. This is about the death of the incarnate God, and God’s refusal for our actions to destroy what God has promised. 
That’s what this text is telling us. 
        We spend years building up a temple, a church, a ministry, a business. Then, suddenly, one day, it exists only to serve itself. Whatever the beauty, the creativity, the original purpose was of our idea… it’s gotten lost in spreadsheets, projections, net losses and profitability. Even in relationships, what begins as the most beautiful notion of romantic and unconditional love eventually devolves into a series of squabbles over whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher. Every parent has stared deeply into the eyes of their infant - gazing with hope and wonder, only to find that approximately 13 years later, those same eyes seem to do nothing but reflect mutual exasperation. Over the course of time, our best intentions become inwardly focused and self-sustaining. Almost as soon as they begin, the institutions of our lives become engines for their own survival.
            Jesus is calling attention to this because, for the temple system to survive, “it had to function as a place of exchange for maintaining and supporting the sacrificial structures. Jesus is, then, is calling for a complete dismantling of the entire system.” But this is terrifying to us. It’s terrifying to the hearers. If the temple isn’t necessary, then what do we do?? How do we find God? Worship God? Where do we seek God?
            When Jesus drives the animals out of the Temple, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and demands the end of buying and selling, “he is really announcing the end of this way of relating to God. God is no longer available primarily, let alone exclusively, via the Temple.”[4] So, how do we determine the location of God’s whereabouts? Our colloquial understanding is that God abides “in heaven,” which implies that the God of Gods is confined to a very nice residence in the sky. This, however, is exactly the kind of limitation that Jesus is pushing against. If we are truly going to seek out and find the Presence of God, then we must figure out who Jesus is and what Jesus means. “This deeper engagement also underscores the Johannine theological theme of abiding…If the temple symbolizes the location and presence of God, Jesus is essentially saying to the leaders that he – the one whose body shall be destroyed and raised up again - is the presence of God. Where one looks for God, expects to find God, imagines God to be are all at stake for the Gospel of John. In Jesus, God is right here, right in front of you.”[5]  
        This means that when Jesus shows us this marvelous display of righteous indignation, that Christ himself is modeling for us how we are to be truly present in the world. Sisters and Brothers, it is not a matter of if or when but a matter of how Christ overturns institutions. If it were up to me, the institutions of government, economy and social status would be overturned immediately. I’m growing tired of the fight, the struggle, to both be in the world, but not of it. I’d love it if these perceived barriers were removed from our path immediately, but God doesn’t seem to work that way.
Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, the embodiment of it. We are bound by the law, but Christ has come to set us free. In this moment of overturning, Jesus models incarnational theology – meaning, what it looks like for God to be in this world with us. God overturns the tables, not out of sheer rage, but because the institutions that bind us do not bind God! The Incarnation is God’s way of lovingly engaging the world in the most real and visceral way. By living. By suffering. By dying. By being rebuilt. By abiding. 
            Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the three Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 were part of the Selma Voting Rights Movement and led to the passage that year of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark federal achievement of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. Activists publicized the three protest marches to walk the 54-mile highway from Selma to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery as showing the desire of black American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote, in defiance of segregationist repression. Representative John Lewis describes his experience as a member of the march, saying, “I thought I saw death. I thought we were going to die.”
          President Barack Obama, in his remarks commemorating the Marches in Selma said, "What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate."[6] This is righteous indignation. This is the overturning of tables, slowly and surely, that the unjust institution would be torn down and re-built in 11 days, with voting rights for all.
         The same is true for our call to Biblical Obedience, over and against a mandate to uphold the rules in the Book of Discipline. Bishop Mel Talbert, also a champion of the Civil Rights movement, teaches us that “Biblical Obedience is a call for us to claim our identity as it relates to the Bible, to speak truth to power, and decide that laws that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons and allies in the life of the Church are immoral and unjust and are no longer deserving of our loyalty and support. It is a call to declare our beliefs and start doing the right thing. Jesus was asked by a scribe, “Which is the greatest of all the commandments?” Jesus simply said, “There is only one God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” It is time for us as people of faith to live into those commandments. It is time to see ALL human beings as our neighbors. That is Biblical Obedience.”[7] 
        The church cannot exist only with the hope of self-sustenance. Rather, we must overturn the need to do things as they’ve always been done, liberate ourselves from the perpetuation of the institution, and discover the radical over-turned way we are called to be in ministry and service to the world. Our task as Christians is not to balance our budget or provide a community place for fellowship and food. Our task as Christians is to live in this world with the awareness that God abides here, with us. Now and always.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Amen and Amen.
Let us pray:
If you wish, close your eyes and imagine this scene:
        ...Business as usual… then the violence of Jesus’ anger… the shock of the onlookers…Pause with the scene for a moment, and let it unfold in your imagination.
                                    What in our world,
                                                            The church,
                                                                        Your own life
                                                                        Makes Christ this angry now?
Invite God into the place where you hold these thoughts, images and feelings in your heart. This is your chance to give these things over to God, and let God be angry with you, for you. Here, in the courtyard, I invite you to “overturn” the tables of the things that have set up camp in your lives and hearts.  Smash them, break them, let them go. Watch as the good intentions that have turned into bad habits & misguided actions are turned on their heads.

[1] See also: Zechariah 14:21, “and every cooking-pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”
[2] Video of the text provided by Faith and Wonder.
[3] Agony in the Garden, Heinrich Hofmann, 1890.
[4][5] [6][7]