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.

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Children of our Time

Known as “Spy Wednesday” in some traditions, the Wednesday of Holy Week is observed in a variety of ways. Holy Wednesday, for instance, is the traditional night for Tenebrae, an ancient monastic tradition of meditating on Christ’s Passion in darkness. It also happens to be the culmination of a slightly less ancient tradition known as “Lent Madness.”

Lent Madness is the brainchild of an Episcopal priest who noticed that the Christian season of penitence and renewal usually coincides with the NCAA Basketball Tournament (known colloquially as “March Madness”). Seeing an opportunity to educate people about the Christian faith, this creative cleric applied March Madness’ tournament bracket to the lives of the saints. The idea behind Lent Madness is pretty straightforward: 32 saints go head to head in a single elimination tournament bracket in which people vote for their favorite saint. The tournament continues (through the “Saintly Sixteen,” “Elate Eight,” and “Faithful Four”) until two remain to compete for the “Golden Halo.” It’s good fun, and is a wonderful way to learn about the lives of the saints: those who lived their lives knowing that they had been transformed by the grace of God.

imgresThis year’s matchup for the Golden Halo is a clash of the titans: Julian of Norwich vs. Dietrich Boenhoffer. Julian was a 14th century Christian mystic. Though she lived at a time when women were barred from positions of authority in the Church, she was regarded as a spiritual leader in her community. In spite of the fact that she lived in a tumultuous and uncertain time, her theological vision was characterized by a profound and abiding sense of God’s faithfulness and providence. This is encapsulated beautifully by what is perhaps her most famous statement: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

imgresDietrich Boenhoffer lived in a similarly tumultuous time. A founding member of the Confessing Church in Germany, Boenhoffer was a theologian, pastor, and dissident who, unlike many other clergy in the 1930s, actively resisted the Nazi regime. He was executed by the Nazis in 1945. Boenhoffer implicitly understood that the Christian life is fraught with peril and sometimes brings us face to face with the evil powers of this world:

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security… Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God.


Though it was an accident of voting, the fact that these two saints are competing for the Golden Halo is almost providentially appropriate for our world today. Every day, we hear of violence throughout the world: from Brussels to Anakara to Yemen to Istanbul to Baghdad. Every day, we hear of people risking their lives to seek refuge from terrorism, only to be turned away because of fear and prejudice. Every day, we hear political rhetoric that is an affront to human decency. The fabric of our humanity seems to be fraying.

In the midst of this tumult, the clarion voices of Dietrich Boenhoffer and Julian of Norwich call out in the words of the psalmist: “Put your trust in God.” During Holy Week, we remember that God experienced the absolute depths of human frailty and sin, that God witnessed us renounce our very humanity. At the same time, we also affirm that God redeemed even our inhumanity. The cross reveals a fundamental truth that animated the lives of both Dietrich Boenhoffer and Julian of Norwich: even when everything appears to have fallen apart, everything still belongs to God.

I won’t be voting for the Golden Halo this year. I can’t choose between two people who speak so prophetically to the Church and the world today. I will, however, give Julian the last word, and invite you to remember it as you meditate on the mystery of Christ’s Passion: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Reimagining our Roles

Sermon on Mark 10:2-16 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Fifty five years ago this week, one of the great careers in major league baseball came to a memorable and poetic conclusion. On a damp and chilly day in Boston, the Red Sox were playing their final home game of the season. There would no October baseball in Boston that year; the Red Sox were the worst they had been in 27 seasons. Nevertheless, the Fenway crowd was electric as Boston’s 42 year old left fielder came to the plate in the eighth inning. In his long career with the Red Sox, Ted Williams had been one of the most enigmatic players in all of baseball. He was unquestionably a transcendent talent: he still holds the record for highest single season batting average. Yet, there was always a simmering resentment among the Fenway faithful when it came to their impressive left fielder. Williams never led his perennially frustrated team to a World Series victory. He was injury prone and plagued by a host of personal and family issues. He craved solitude and, as a result, expressed no interest in cultivating a relationship with press or the fans. But perhaps most galling to fans and baseball purists was his failure to honor the timeless baseball convention of tipping one’s cap to acknowledge the accolades of the crowd.

But none of that seemed to matter on that autumn day in 1960. When Ted emerged from the on deck circle for his final plate appearance at Fenway, the crowd stood and applauded in unison. This was not the primal, indistinct roar of a typical stadium crowd; it was, in the words of John Updike, a “somber and considered tumult.” Indeed, the ovation seemed to represent an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the past, a collective desire to create a redemptive moment. On the third pitch of the at bat, Teddy Ballgame swung mightily and crushed the baseball into the Red Sox bullpen. ted-williamsx-largeThough it was his last major league home run, Williams rounded the bases as he always did: hurriedly, head down, like a commuter dashing through a sudden downpour. And in spite of the cheering crowd, the pleas of his teammates, and the even entreaties of the other team, Ted steadfastly refused to tip his cap. Many sportswriters complained that this was emblematic of the legend’s arrogance and contempt for the fans. Updike put it more poetically:“Gods do not answer letters.” But I wonder if Williams’ refusal to end his career by tipping his cap stemmed from a fundamental conviction that his relationship with Boston could not be changed in a single cathartic moment, that his purpose was not to play a mere role in the great narrative of baseball, that no matter how we may want our stories to play out, the people at the heart of them are more important.

In the passage we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus is once again squaring off against the Pharisees. And once again, the subject of their dispute is the nature of God’s Law. As always, the Pharisees approach Jesus with a fairly straightforward question designed to test his familiarity with the Law in order to examine his claims of rabbinical authority. So, when Jesus responds by asking, “What did Moses command you?” the Pharisees must think they’ve finally won: “Some rabbi he is!” they might have thought. “He doesn’t even know the rule about divorce!” You can almost hear their smugness as they refer their opponent to Deuteronomy 24: “Well Jesus…Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her; surely everyone knows that.” But Jesus, who is playing a very different game than the Pharisees, accuses them of being hard-hearted, an epithet that recalls Pharaoh’s steadfast refusal to let God’s people go in the story of the Exodus. In other words, Jesus challenges the Pharisees to think beyond what they believe the Law says and consider instead the ways it affects God’s people.

If we look at the portion of Deuteronomy the Pharisees refer to, it’s pretty clear that they are missing the point. The passage describes a hypothetical situation in which a man divorces his wife by writing her a certificate of divorce, putting it in her hand, and sending her out of his house. It goes on to explain that if she marries another and loses that husband through death or divorce, her first husband “is not permitted to take her again to be his wife…for that would be abhorrent to the Lord.” While this language doesn’t exactly empower women, its purpose is not to explain how a man goes about divorcing his wife. Rather, it articulates that a woman is not subject to the arbitrary whims of her first husband, that she cannot be treated as a commodity, that she has intrinsic value. The religious authorities, however, were reading this text not as an affirmation of human dignity, but as a prescription: “how to divorce your wife in three easy steps.” The Pharisees believed that if their wives did not fit neatly into their life plan for whatever reason, they could be removed from the equation with no more than a the stroke of a pen. They were so concerned with maintaining absolute control that they were willing to disregard the humanity of their wives. Jesus responds to the Pharisees in a surprising way. He doesn’t suggest that his opponents misunderstood the Law; he doesn’t even offer his own unique interpretation of the Law. imgresInstead, Jesus takes us back to the Garden of Eden, back before there was a Law, back to the moment when humanity came into being. He does this to remind his audience that we are all created by God. With this reminder, Jesus affirms that no one is disposable, that everyone has value, that no one’s purpose in this life is merely to play a role in someone else’s story. Jesus, in other words, frames the issue of divorce not in terms of whether it’s allowed or not, but rather in terms of how it affects the people involved.

It’s important for us to recognize that Jesus is not simply replacing one rule with another. By framing divorce within the context of creation, Jesus invites us to think about the issue, as he invites us to think about everything, in terms of what God has done and is doing rather than how we behave. At the same time, we can say with confidence that God is not in favor of divorce, not because it violates some abstract rule, but because of what it does to God’s people. Those of you who have experienced divorce know how painful it is, how dehumanizing it can feel, how it can eat you alive. But even in the midst of that pain, we are called to remember that we are created by God. Even as we bear witness to the migrant crisis in Europe, we are called to remember that those escaping from conflict are not statistics, they are people created by God. Even as we express our grief and outrage over the massacre in Oregon, we are called to remember the God-given humanity of everyone involved: the victims, the survivors, even the shooter. So often the sheer magnitude of the issues facing our broken world leads us to forget about the people at the heart of those stories of anguish and hope. Jesus calls us to remember their humanity, to remember that each and every one of them, and each and every one of us, was created and is beloved by God.

Broken

Today is the feast day of Saint Mark the Evangelist.  Though it is frequently put in the same category as Luke and Matthew (the first three gospels are known as the “synoptic gospels” because they can be “seen together”), readers will notice that there is something a little strange and enormously compelling about the gospel according to Mark.  This strangeness is clearly evident in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, which is part of the gospel lesson appointed for the day:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  (Mark 1:9-12)

ssc-battesimoMost of us are much more familiar with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ encounter with John, which is characterized by an almost byzantine politesse.  Jesus arrives on the banks of the Jordan, asking to be baptized.  John obsequiously responds, “No no, I couldn’t possibly!  You should be baptizing me!”  Jesus tells John that it must happen this way to fulfill all righteousness, so John relents.  As Jesus comes up out of the water, the clouds part and the skies open in a beatific vision as the Holy Spirit descends and a heavenly voice proclaims to the onlookers, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The account we get in Mark’s gospel, on the other hand, is gritty, impolite, in-your-face, and downright violent.  There is none of the courtly posturing that we get in Matthew; Jesus simply shows up and gets baptized.  As far as we’re aware, there’s not even any communication between John and Jesus.  As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are not opened, but violently torn apart; creation is invaded by the presence of God.  The Holy Spirit descends, not to provide a pretty picture that includes every person of the Trinity, but to drive Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  The most striking and unsettling aspect of this account is its violence.  In Mark’s gospel, God’s presence is made known in an almost destructive way.

Over the past week or so, many of us have been reeling from the devastation wrought by the bombings in Boston, the explosion in West, and the earthquake in China.  It’s been one of those weeks where many of us have wondered what could possibly come next.  And yet, even in the midst of this destruction and devastation, we have seen moments of compassion, heroism, and grace.  We have witnessed strangers comforting each other on the streets, first responders risking their lives to rescue those in danger, and people opening their homes and businesses to those without a place to lay their heads.  It is in images like these that we have borne witness to the presence of God even in the violence of the past week.  It is in images like these that we have had an opportunity to discern the Holy Spirit moving through a broken and desperate world.

broken-bread1As Christians, this should not surprise us.  Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we break the bread that we believe has become the body of Christ.  In those broken fragments of bread, we discern the presence of Holy Spirit, the promise that God loves this world even in its brokenness.  Perhaps this is why the gospel of Mark is so compelling.  Mark does not paint a rosy picture; he does not sugarcoat the world Jesus Christ came to save.  Instead, he points our world with all its brokenness, violence, and degradation, and promises that even this world with all its faults is loved by God.