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]

No comments: