Religious Energy

Sermon on John 12:20-33 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

A few years ago, I went to Boston’s Museum of Science on a Friday evening to view an exhibit about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I assumed that I and my party would be among the few people there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the Dead Sea Scrolls aren’t fascinating; it’s just that I would suspect that most people have better things to do with their Friday nights than examine ancient religious manuscripts. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered a long, snaking line to enter the exhibit hall. Hundreds of people had come to the museum to learn about a two thousand year old ascetic religious community and view its sacred texts. While there were plenty of people who taking respectful stock of the Bronze Age knick knacks the museum had acquired to supplement the show, the vast majority of the museumgoers were in the room that contained the scroll fragments. There was a palpable energy that has stayed with me ever since. It was striking that on a Friday night in one of the most secular cities in the country, people were squinting to decipher the name of God on these ancient religious texts.

Paradoxically, the secularization of our culture has done little to dampen religious fervor. In fact, the more secular our culture has become, the more it has become clear that human beings seem to have an innate religious energy, a need to be wholly devoted to something. As faith has become less prominent in people’s lives, they have found other outlets for their religious energy. What once would have been mere interests or even passions have taken on an altogether different quality. Consider the zeal with which we pursue our fitness goals these days. No longer are we content to hit the gym every so often: now we have to keep track of every workout and try to achieve personal bests everytime we lace up our sneakers. Fitness programs like Crossfit have been jestingly compared to cults. marathon-car1Next time you’re driving around, count how many “26.2” stickers you see: I’d wager it’s more than the number of bumper stickers advertising a faith community. This ardor is not limited to our physical health: it extends to our professional accomplishments, political preferences, and a whole host of other matters. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with caring about our health, our careers, or the state of our country. The problem arises when we wholly devote ourselves to these things that are, by their nature, passing away. Our bodies will eventually break down. No matter how indispensable we are at work, we will be replaced someday. And there is no government in the history of human civilization that has not ultimately collapsed. Many of us are locating our religious energy in that which is ephemeral, rather than that which is eternal.

This morning’s gospel reading is one of the stranger passages from John’s gospel, which is saying something. The most jarring aspect of this passage is the apparent incongruity between what is asked of Jesus and how he responds. John tells us that some Greeks approach the disciples and tell them that they wish to see Jesus. This request is pretty much out of the blue. We have no idea who these Greeks are. If we think about John’s intended readers, however, the situation becomes a little clearer. One of John’s primary tasks was to make the story of Jesus, a relatively uneducated rabbi from the frontier of the Roman Empire, compelling and intelligible to a sophisticated audience. In the first century, there was nothing classier or more sophisticated than Greek philosophy. These Greeks who wish to see Jesus, in other words, are stand ins for John’s audience. Moreover, it seems that their purpose is to evaluate Jesus, to get a sense of his philosophy and see how it compares with the other ones. Is he more of a Neoplatonist? A Stoic? A Cynic? Something else entirely? We can safely assume that these Greeks were looking for something that would help them make sense of the world.

If this is the case, then they were almost certainly disappointed. The juxtaposition between the Greeks’ request and Jesus’ response is almost comic. The disciples approach Jesus and say, “Hey, there are some Greeks who want to see you.” Jesus replies by saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” But arguably it is only through the starkness of the comparison that we begin to see what Jesus is trying to say. As he haltingly wrestles with the reality of his imminent death, Jesus finds deep comfort and confidence in the integrity and faithfulness of God. Because God is God, there is no need to fear. When God’s name is glorified, the fruit is eternal life. Jesus, in other words, does not offer a worldview; he offers a perspective informed by eternity, a sense that there is something about us that will endure. All of the philosophies the Greeks would have had in mind were ephemeral: limited in their scope and unable to shift our perspective on the world. Jesus offers something fundamentally different: not a way to make sense of the world, but a way of looking at the world differently.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a parishioner who hadn’t been at church in a little while. He described weekend trips, family responsibilities, and the challenge of getting children out the door on a Sunday morning; things that often stand in the way of church attendance. But throughout the conversation, he kept saying, “I’m just so glad I came today.” The very same day, I had a conversation with another parishioner who pulled me aside and said, “Where is everybody?” I started to explain that some people were still recovering from the Nor’easter, that some people had the flu, didn’t have power, when she interrupted me: “No. Where is everybody? Everybody needs to hear the message the Church is proclaiming.”

Whether they knew it or not, both of these parishioners understood how important it is to locate our religious energy in that which is eternal. We no longer have the authority to compel or coerce church attendance. This is probably a good thing, but it also means that other activities and responsibilities often take precedence. Gradually, we begin to devote ourselves entirely to ephemeral concerns, and we think of the eternal only on occasion, if at all. I hope I don’t sound like a scold, because that’s not my intention. I suppose the question I would like you to ask yourself is this: where are you locating your religious energy? What if we thought of Church not as another obligation, not as another place where we can try to make sense of the world, but as a place where we go, week by week, to hold eternity in mind? I suspect we would be glad we came. More importantly, I suspect we would look at the world differently.

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Disruption

Sermon on John 2:13-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

The incident we heard about in this morning’s gospel is one of the rare events attested by every gospel writer. All four evangelists make at least some reference to Jesus’ temple tantrum. While the incident is clearly important for all four evangelists; for John, it sets the tone for Jesus’ mission. This is at least partially illustrated by the differences in the way the event is recorded. The accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are brief and straightforward: each dispassionately describes the event and then offers a brief Scriptural warrant for Jesus’ actions. John, on the other hand, goes into painstaking detail, telling us that Jesus made a whip of cords, drove the sheep and cattle from the temple, poured out the coins and overturned the tables of the money changers, and told those selling livestock, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The effect of this lengthy description is to invite us to imagine the reactions of those witnessing Jesus’ actions. John doesn’t tell us that anyone attempted to prevent Jesus from making a mess of the Temple grounds, even though he apparently went on for a while. It’s worth exploring the reason nobody tried to stop him.

smirnov-alexander_cleansing-of-the-temple-001We often mischaracterize this event in the life of Jesus. In the first place, we often erroneously call it “the cleansing of the Temple.” The implication of this description is that Jesus is bringing a reforming impulse to the very heart of the Temple system. We assume that Jesus is violating something sacred and causing deep offense to the religious authorities and all who were attached to the Jewish tradition. Years ago, one clergyperson told me that this event was the equivalent of someone marching into a church and turning over the Communion table. This, however, doesn’t make any logical sense. The work of the animal vendors and the money changers wasn’t considered sacred; it was simply a necessary component of the Temple system. Instead of dragging a lamb across the wilderness or trying to keep two turtle doves alive on an extended road trip, pilgrims to Jerusalem would simply buy an animal to sacrifice when they arrived at the Temple. Since most money featured graven images of the emperor and thus violated the Second Commandment, pilgrims had to purchase coins that could be used in the Temple before they made their purchases. In other words, the money changers and animal vendors were there to make the worship of God convenient and practical; they were part of the routine. Jesus’ demonstration was a little like someone walking into the grocery store and knocking over the displays of oranges: surprising, but not particularly offensive. The fact that John doesn’t comment on anyone’s reaction to the Temple incident reveals that no one really understood what Jesus was doing. Why would he expend so much energy to disrupt such an innocuous routine?

The reason is that the routine in itself was corrupt. The fact that everyone had become accustomed to the way that the Temple system functioned reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of what it meant to be in relationship with God. Jesus’ demonstration was intended to expose the hypocrisy at the very heart of the religious establishment. The religious establishment assumed that the power of God could be circumscribed by human authority and that our relationship with God was somehow transactional. To be clear, Jesus is not just challenging the Jewish tradition; he is calling members of every religious tradition to account for the ways that we allow preserving the status quo to get in the way of true transformation.

This demonstration in the Temple prefigured a much more dramatic and unsettling demonstration three years later, when the Romans crucified Jesus at the urging of the religious authorities. I think we forget how routine crucifixion was in the Roman Empire. In the wake of insurrections or civil unrest, contemporary historians tell us that the imperial authorities would line the roadways with crucified criminals as a vivid warning to any would be rabble rousers. The anguished cries of the condemned could be heard for miles. At the same time, Rome’s chattering classes understood that this was a convenient and practical way to maintain control in a vast and often unruly empire. It might be unfortunate, but keeping that Pax Romana going required a little unspeakable violence from time to time. In other words, crucifixion was the cost of doing business. Even the Jewish religious authorities understood this. John tells us that Caiaphas the high priest once remarked that it was better for one man to die for the people. Better to weed out the troublemakers in order to maintain the status quo.download Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates the deep hypocrisy of this perspective. Indeed, Jesus’ Passion exposes the violence at the very heart of human society. The events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ reveal that the entire status quo was built on the perverse assumption that some lives, some human beings created in the image and likeness of God, are expendable.

There is only one appropriate response to this revelation, and that is repentance. Now, you’ve heard me say before that repentance is not simply about being sorry for our sins. It’s not about cataloguing all our misdeeds and doing our best to avoid them in the future. Repentance is much broader and more demanding. Literally, the Greek word means “to change one’s mind,” to change the way one thinks about the world. More specifically, repentance is about acknowledging that our way of looking at the world is flawed and needs to be transformed. It is about refusing to accept status quo that fails to honor the image of God in those around us. It is about allowing our routine to be disrupted.

A week or so ago, I heard a high school student remark that she is part of the “mass shooting generation.” There is something profoundly sad and distressingly apt about this designation. No one currently in high school was born when two students massacred their classmates at Columbine High School in 1999. The students currently in school know nothing of a world without active shooter drills and lockdown procedures. It’s not just kids who are old enough to understand who are affected. I remember how painful it was when I realized why my three-year-old’s preschool requested that, in addition to a change of clothes to keep in her cubby, we also send something that would keep her quiet. As we’ve all noticed, mass shooting in general and school shootings in particular have become painfully routine. Mass shootings have become so common that the only thing we feel like we can do is wait for the next one to occur.

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photo by Joel Auerbach

This is a routine that must be disrupted. The only way to disrupt it, the only appropriate response to this feeling of despair is the same repentance that Jesus invites from the cross. In the face of overwhelming tragedy, we are called to transform our flawed perspective on the world. We are called to reexamine the assumptions and principles we hold most dear, whether about guns or personal freedom, and ask ourselves if it is truly worth holding onto them. As important as changes to our gun laws or mental health policies may be, however, they will not address the deep spiritual crisis that lurks behind every one of these mass shootings. Repentance also requires us to acknowledge the violence that seems to exist at the very heart of our society, to ask ourselves what it is that leads someone to assume that the people around him are expendable.

I wish I had more practical good news in this sermon. I wish that I could say with supreme confidence, “If we pull together and collaborate, drawing on the best suggestions from across the ideological spectrum, we will be able to make meaningful headway in addressing the scourge of gun violence.” That may be true, and I am hopeful that we can sustain a conversation and find common ground in our approach to this issue. At the same time, no amount of well-meaning and collaborative policy making will be able to address the fact that violence lurks behind so much of our common life. In fact, once we have acknowledged the problem, the only hope of addressing it is also our ultimate hope: that the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, that the God who made foolish the wisdom of the world, can and will redeem even us.