Sunday, March 28, 2021

Hero's Welcome

March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Mark 11:1-11[1]

You want a hero? Well, I’ve got one for you. How about a Messiah? How about the return of King David? Let’s have a big parade! We’ll show those Romans that they can’t shove us around anymore!

Why is he riding a colt? I don’t know. Maybe he couldn’t find a horse. Anyway, join the cheer: Hosanna! Save us now! “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”[2]

Shush? Why shush? Oh, the soldiers; I see them. Right, we’d better look busy.

The crowd, gathered for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is quoting Psalm 118, which happens to be the Old Testament chapter most quoted in the New Testament. It appears here, when the people shout Hosanna! “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”[3] We know this one, right? We hear it all the time in our communion liturgy. But this verse is not the most quoted verse of Psalm 118. The verse of Psalm 118 that gets quoted the most in the New Testament comes from earlier in the Psalm. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”[4] The New Testament writers mention that passage, or refer to Jesus as rejected, eleven times. I wonder if the crowd didn’t make the connection because they didn’t want to make the connection.

The people who cheer on Jesus as he enters Jerusalem picture him as the kind of hero they want him to be. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” The people want a conquering hero. “With the Lord on my side I do not fear”[5] is another verse from the same Psalm. At this stirring moment, the crowd is caught up in the excitement of new possibilities. Reality, and rejection, will set in soon. But for now, this could be IT. This could be the moment when things finally start going our way.

In our day, celebrities are often confused with heroes. We’re all drawn to celebrity, and it’s easy to get caught up in the pomp and circumstance of a parade. Look, there he is! Hey! Did you see that? He saw me. Jesus waved at ME! It’s a little silly, and I’m sure that the soldiers looking on thought this little demonstration was foolish. It’s just another prophet riding on a donkey, after all. He’s no threat to the empire. Only a fool would worry about this guy. Jesus may have been a celebrity, but more, so much more is happening here.

The way we often define a hero is the one who faces danger or overcomes adversity through feats of ingenuity, courage, or strength. The classic hero is a warrior who lives and dies in the pursuit of honor. The hero fights the dragon to save the village, or rescues the captive from the villain. In this sense, Jesus should have entered Jerusalem on a horse, ridden straight to the Governor’s palace, defeated the soldiers, and driven the Romans away from the city. That is not the hero story of Jesus, however.

A hero might be thought of as one who buys the groceries for their elderly neighbor. While that might be a wonderful thing, and might even save that person from starving, that’s altruism, not heroism. Jesus may have fed the five-thousand with loaves and fishes, and taught us to give food to the hungry, but Jesus was doing a lot more than teaching us how to be nice.

Another version of the hero comes from Joseph Campbell, defined in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”[6] This concept of a hero suggests an archetype of the “hero’s journey” common in mythology and stories across all cultures. This version fits more closely with the journey of Jesus from the cross through the grave to resurrection, but it doesn’t mesh with the rest of what we know of Jesus.

Is the Jesus story a celebrity sighting, the tale of a knight in shining armor, the heart-warming anecdote of a kind person, or a fantastic journey? It doesn’t fit any of those boxes. Jesus might be a hero, but that is not the whole story. Jesus came to break the power of sin and death, to transform human hearts and human societies, and that just won’t fit in the boxes we make.

Jesus enters Jerusalem, and the crowd greets him with a hero’s welcome. Things quickly start to change. The next day Jesus will return to the temple, this time in a rage as he’ll turn over the tables of the moneychangers. He will spend the rest of the week stirring up trouble and making the authorities angry, all the while keeping the crowd “spellbound by his teaching.”[7] At one point Jesus will poke fun at the scribes as the crowds “listen to him with delight.”[8]

It is great entertainment to watch people do dangerous things, and brazenly taunt the powerful. But when the entertainer crosses the line, and the authorities take measures to remove him from the stage, we quickly distance ourselves. It’s all fun and games until someone gets arrested. At the end, even those closest to Jesus will fear to be associated with him. In Gethsemane, after the betrayal by Judas, “All of them deserted him and fled.”[9] Even Peter, bold enough to follow at a distance, would deny him three times before Friday morning.

At the festival, the crowd finally turns on him. Encouraged by the chief priests, they ask for the release of Barabbas, a rebel who took part in a recent insurrection. This is the kind of hero they’re looking for – a warrior, one who is not afraid to take up arms against the Romans. The prophet, yeah, he was entertaining, but he’ll never change anything. And he messed up people’s property over at the temple. Sure, crucify him!

But remember the Psalm. Jesus himself quoted it just a couple of days ago. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”[10] It is in fact the rejection and all that follows, not the “hero’s welcome,” that will shake the world to its foundations and make Jesus the Cornerstone for a whole new reality.

You need a hero? I’ll do you one better. Here is the Son of God, about to be betrayed, abandoned, abused, and executed, riding into the city of his doom aware of what he will face. The crowds are restless. It looks like the evil side will win. I’m on the edge of my seat.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Mark 11:10.

[3] Psalm 118: 26.

[4] Psalm 118:22.

[5] Psalm 118:6.

[6] Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton University Press, 1949, 1968), 30.

[7] Mark 11:18.

[8] Mark 12:37.

[9] Mark 14:50.

[10] Mark 12:10.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Law of Love Written on Our Hearts

March 21, 2021 
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33[1]

Peace to this house.

I saw a bumper sticker once that read: “When Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies,’ I’m pretty sure he meant ‘Don’t kill them.’”

You’re familiar, I’m sure with the greatest commandment. Jesus was asked by a lawyer:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ”’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[2]

Jesus didn’t make this up, though he makes it clear for us.  This command to love your neighbor can be found in the Torah, the books of the law.  In Leviticus we read: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”[3]  Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish leader from the first century BCE, summed up Jewish law like this: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”[4]

The Prophet Jeremiah told of a new covenant that God would make with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The law of God, the law of love, was to be put within them, written on their hearts. As their spiritual descendants, we too have the law of God written on our hearts. The Lord is our God; we are God’s people. Our iniquity and sins are forgiven. Our commandment is to live in community with others guided by love.

Okay, that’s easy enough.  My neighbors are fellow Israelites, right?  I can love them; they’re just like me!  As long as I can hate my enemies, I’m fine.  That’s in the scriptures too, isn’t it?  In Psalm 139 it says: “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”[5] Okay, hold on there. Let’s think about that.

Jesus doesn’t leave it there.  Loving your neighbor as yourself is not enough.  Jesus gives an even greater challenge: “Love your enemies.”[6]  This too comes from the Torah: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”[7]  Luke records the familiar parable of the “Good Samaritan,” in which Jesus tells us that the enemies of the Israelites, the aliens that resided with them – the Samaritans – are precisely the ones that should count as neighbors.

Whoa!  Love my neighbor and my enemy?  That’s a lot to ask.  I mean, really, my enemies?  Those guys are out to get me!  I suppose if we were stuck in an elevator, I could tolerate them, but love them?  That’s fine for Jesus, he’s like, God, or the Son of God, or something.  He can do anything.  I’m just an average person.

Well, who was Jesus?  We believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or God in a body. John refers to him as the Son of Man. Jesus was also a human being like the rest of us.  He lived, breathed, ate, slept, had friends, laughed, cried, sang, prayed, and learned the scriptures.  Only a few people knew about him before he was baptized and began to preach and teach.  In a way, he was a typical person with an above average understanding of God.  He understood, in a way that most of us struggle with, how much God loves us, and what that means.  And he tried to show us that we too are children of God, with the law of God’s love written on our hearts.

Now, as we near the end, with the palms of Jerusalem waving in the air and the shadow of Golgotha on the horizon, Jesus begins to talk about the kind of death he was to die.  “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”[8]  The crucifixion, the violent murder of the child of God, the embodiment of the law of love, would bring judgement against this world.  That which would be driven out, the ruler of this world, is the power of domination, violence, and death.

One way of understanding what happened in the death of Jesus is to see the phrase “this world” not as synonymous with the earth as created by God, but rather as the System that seeks to control human life and hold us captive to the ways of death.  This world, this System rules using domination, violence, and death to destroy the children of God who should be ruled by love.  It is this System which is exposed by the cross for what it is, a System opposed to the ways of God.[9]

We are all caught up in the System.  We might see it in consumerism, an economy that depends upon the continual making, selling, buying, using, and disposing of things to mark the value of life.  My value in the System depends on how much work I contribute and how much product I consume.  In this sense, a human life can be reduced to hours of labor and net worth.

We are also caught up in domination, where the value of a person is determined by where they fall in the hierarchy of winner and losers, insiders and outsiders.  Our place in society is locked in by categories of race, sex, age, nationality, and affluence.  We are each placed in a box, and the boxes are stacked in order of value.  God help you if you don’t fit neatly into your box, or try to move to a different one.

The most pernicious trap in this System is violence.  Our society seems to believe that the way to deal with threats is to violently eliminate them.  Those who threaten what we believe to be the “natural order of things” must be seen as enemies to be dehumanized and destroyed.  There can be no compromise, no negotiating with the other side.  Stand your ground or those others will get you.  We’ve watched violence be used in protest and against protesters.  And we’ve seen violence against Asian-Americans increase as they are blamed for the coronavirus.

The System of violence, domination, consumerism, and other ways of diminishing the humanity of others, is the System which crucified Jesus.  On his journey through Galilee and Judea, and most especially through Jerusalem toward the cross, Jesus refused to comply with the demands of the System.  Jesus resisted the devaluing of people, offering healing and hope to all who asked it of him.  Jesus broke the rules that separated people, welcoming women and men, rich and poor, lepers and tax collectors to join him.  Jesus rejected the violence of the Romans, responding to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”[10]

Jesus on the cross exposes this world, this System, for what it is: not divine but evil, opposed to God, leading not to life, but to death.  The execution of love, peace, and faith exposes the ruler of this world and drives out the System of death.  Once we have seen the System for what it is, we can be free from captivity, free to live as whole, valued children of God, able to live in peace with one another.

This is “the kind of death he was to die,”[11] death within the System in order to break the System and set us all free from its dominion.  We are free to be valued simply as children of God, and not for our productivity.  We are free to love and be loved just as we are, not based on which category we’re enclosed in.  We are free to be at peace with one another, and not seek to destroy the other.  We are free to live with the law of love written on our hearts, to resist the System that destroys life.  As Christ is raised up, we are drawn to eternal life, and the honor of God.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Matthew 22:36-39.

[3] Leviticus 19:18.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

[5] Psalm 139:21-22.

[6] Matthew 5:44.

[7] Leviticus 19:34.

[8] John 12:31.

[9] This interpretation of kosmos, “the world,” as “the System” is used by Charles L. Campbell in his “Homiletical Perspective on John 12:20-33” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 141 ff.

[10] John 18:36, italics mine.

[11] John 12:33.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Cleansing the Temple

March 7, 2021 
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

John 2:13-22[1]

This passage from John is known as “The Cleansing of the Temple.” You might also call it, “Jesus Loses His Temper.” Like many of the things Jesus did, it was shocking, scandalous even. Rocking the boat, upsetting the status-quo, can get you into trouble quick, and I’m sure this outburst was used as an excuse to have him arrested. And like many of the things Jesus did, he was teaching through action. There is some background that we may not know which would have been understood by those present at the time.

The Passover was near, the annual celebration of the exodus from Egypt. Faithful Jews would come to the temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, and pray for deliverance. This sacred space was considered the dwelling place of God on earth. At the time Jesus came through, it was a magnificent sight. A restoration and expansion project had been underway for many years, started by Herod the Great in 20 BCE. There were walled courtyards, many gates with special significance, and separate areas for priests, ritually pure men, women, and even Gentiles.

The Court of the Gentiles was where the market-like activity took place. It would have been bustling with cattle, sheep, doves, people shouting, and coins clanging. The temple tax had to be paid in temple coinage, hence the need for money-changers to make the exchange. Sacrificial animals had to be without blemish – a challenge for those travelling any distance – so animals were available for purchase. These were all understood as necessary for the functioning of the temple. One might ask, however, if it was necessary for the market to be within the temple walls, in the one area in which Gentiles were allowed to enter and pray.

Jesus had been here before, and with the wisdom of years and an eye for injustice, he saw a sacred space being profaned by commerce. We may see it too, in subtle ways, when the mission of our churches slowly gives way to the functions and bureaucracy of a business. The focus shifts, unintentionally, from making disciples and nurturing ministry to filling the pews and meeting the goals of the capital campaign. Soon the building is full of cattle, sheep, and accountants!

Jesus loses his temper, makes a whip out of cords, and creates holy havoc. You can imagine the scene, tables turned over, coins scattered every which way, animals squealing, and people yelling. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” he shouted.

As the dust settled, they may have remembered being warned that something like this would happen. The prophet Malachi had said “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”[2] They knew that someday the Lord would show up in the temple, they just didn’t expect it to be Jesus. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” they asked. How do we know you have the authority to stop us?

They thought they were doing the right thing, after all. They had been doing things this way for years. They never intended to go against God. Sure, the exchange rate might have favored them some, but everyone has to make a living, right? What did they do wrong? In his response, Jesus confuses and points in a new direction, to a new authority: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Destroy the temple? Destroy this huge complex that has stood for over 500 years, and has been under repairs for 46 years? And you will raise it up in three days? Ludicrous. They misunderstand him, of course. He’s not talking about the temple building, as John explains, but the temple of himself. In this moment, as Jesus causes a ruckus, the dwelling place of God on earth is the body of Jesus. The Lord has come to the temple, in the flesh, and this is the sign that they are given. They don’t understand it. Even the disciples fail to grasp the meaning of his words until after the resurrection. God is not confined to the Holy of Holies, and the temple economy of sacrifices is coming to an end.

There is more depth to this moment, seen only in light of the larger story being told. The temple will be destroyed. The journey of Jesus leads to the cross, and on it the temple of his body will be destroyed. They will think they have won, but that is not the end of the story. In three days, the temple will be raised up, Jesus will be raised from the dead, and God’s Holy Spirit will dwell in the hearts of believers.

How are things going in your temple? Is there peace or turmoil in your mind? Is there a part of you that has become a marketplace rather than a sacred space? Perhaps we have been going along, doing things the same way for years. We’ve become used to things so much that they don’t serve their intended purpose any more. Perhaps a cleansing is in order, or at least a clearing of the cobwebs.

As we move week by week through this season of Lent, we are reminded that the cross is on the horizon. We also know the larger story being told, that Christ is raised from the dead, and in Christ we too are reborn. God’s Holy Spirit dwells in us, a new temple, and the time is now here to worship God in spirit and truth.

How shall we worship God: with sacrifices, or sacred rituals? What if we worship instead with our lives? Our bodies, and the bodies of everyone we know, are sacred spaces, temples where God’s Holy Spirit resides. We serve God by serving one another. We worship God by caring for ourselves and our neighbors. We celebrate the resurrection by the renewal of our lives as we follow the resurrected one.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Malachi 3:1.