Sunday, February 16, 2014

Do you want to be made well?

This sermon was preached at Presbury United Methodist Church as part of our exploration of the Gospel of John using the Narrative Lectionary.

Scripture: John 5:1-18
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.

But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

Sermon: “Do you want to be made well?”
Let us pray:
Patient Teacher, Holy Healer, we come to you this morning seeking wholeness.
May the words of scripture as interpreted through the words of my mouth,
and the meditations of all our hearts point us down the path of wellness! Amen.

Jesus' ministry on earth is a healing ministry. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are filled with story after story of people lining up to be healed by Jesus. There is a scene in Jesus Christ Superstar that shows us how overwhelming the need was for those seeking healing. You can see in the picture of the scene how it is as though Jesus will be swallowed up in a sea of needy people. The Gospel of John does not describe people coming after Jesus in such physical desperation, but healing is still a central part of Jesus' ministry in John's Gospel. Healing points ultimately to God's power, and can be a sign by which people begin to believe in the Good News Jesus brings.

But what strikes me in this story is not so much the extravagance of the healing itself. The majority of the story focuses not on the healing itself but on the response of religious authorities who want to punish Jesus for breaking rules about the Sabbath. But none of this is what haunts me in this story. What haunts me is Jesus' question, “Do you want to be made well?

Seems a bit of a rhetorical question, doesn't it? Of course, we want to be made well. No one likes laying in bed coughing up a lung for days, or that feeling of when you forgot to buy the tissues with lotion and now the skin on your nose is raw so just the thought of blowing your nose makes you tear up in pain, or how much it stinks not to be able to eat real food for days after you've had an upset stomach. Now those are all examples of passing illness, and we know there are many of us whose “not-wellness” has nothing to do with a virus or allergies. The man who Jesus approaches has been ill for thirty-eight years, the Gospel writer tells us. We're not sure what kind of illness he has, but we know that he cannot walk on his own, and we know that he sits by the pool of Bethesda hoping that the water will change him.

We don't know too much about the pool of Bethesda other than archeologists uncovered a poor on the north side of the temple in Jerusalem that follows its description. But water, as common and as necessary as it is for human life, holds a mystical element to it in most cultures. As Christians, our baptismal ritual shows us this, how we see God's salvific presence at work in a dabble of water. According to our scripture, people come to the pool in hopes that being immersed in the water will change them, heal them maybe. So perhaps, when Jesus asks the one man the question, “Do you want to be made well?” the man could respond, “If that were not so, why would I be here?”

But that isn't how the man responds. He is kind of defensive, actually, explaining to Jesus that yes, he wants to be made well, but how can he be made well if no one will help him? People won't help him, and thwart his attempts to help himself. He says to Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Do you want to be made well? Jesus asks.
Yes, but... we respond.

Perhaps it is a bit unfair of me to read the man's response as a bit defensive. He, after all, does not know who Jesus is, so why would he just respond, “Yes, please”? But even when we do know who Jesus is, I think we respond defensively to this question--- which reveals the way we call on God's help at the same time we refuse to trust God's presence. Yes, we do want healing, God, but we can't be bothered to take all that medicine, or make an appointment with the doctor, and you know God how much we hate talking to that psychologist! Yes, we do want healing, God, but it takes too much effort to eat right and exercise, too much effort to set aside time every day for prayer and bible study. Yes, we do want healing, God, but we can't bear to imagine our lives without that person, no matter how toxic they are. Yes, we do want healing, God, but we can't get to church and feel weird about calling someone over to pray with us.

We know there is something wrong with us. We can sense something is not right, whether it be a physical concern or whether is is something deeper. But often we want God to work on our terms. We want God to wave a magic wand and heal us without requiring any life changes on our part. We won't accept answers of healing if they don't look exactly like we want them to look and occur exactly when we want it to happen. We become impediments to our own selves as we seek to be made well.

But the thing about God is that, even when we put ourselves in the way, God can still answer prayer. So Jesus just says to the man, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” And so the man does. We have no narrative description of his joy and perhaps shock at his encounter with Jesus. We don't know what those who have known him for thirty-eight years have to say. All we know is that he stands up, rolls up his mat, and carries it with him to find home.

We do not know, either, if this man puts himself in the way of his continued healing. But we do know that there are others who try to keep him from being made well. Rather than celebrating his healing, religious authorities stop the man and chastise him for carrying his mat. And the man, as he did with Jesus, responds defensively while pointing out that he has undergone this miraculous healing. The authorities do not grab the bait. They are only concerned with making sure everyone follows their own little rules. So they demand to know who, without acknowledging him as a healer, said to the man to “take up his mat and walk.”

Much in the tradition of the religious authorities in Jesus' day, the church can be keeping us from being made well. There are others too--- commercials telling us that even if we feel well we aren't skinny enough and we don't have the right gadgets, for instance. But I was thinking recently about the ways that the church is so concerned with rules and propriety that we don't celebrate wellness.

In seminary, I was in a class with a vibrant, powerful woman who pastored nearby in New Jersey, and one day she shared with us a story about her first marriage. Her husband had become violently abusive, and finally she decided that she did want to be made well and she acted on it. She left her husband, took her kids, but was still stuck living in the same community. It was her church that came to her trying to get her to reconcile with her husband. When she refused, the pastors kicked her out of the church--- until they realized she had been the one tithing to the church and then they tried to invite her back!

I have always been deeply shamed by that story, by the church standing in the way of a woman's healing, the church punishing her for seeking to be made well. This is what the religious authorities did to the man Jesus healed. They belittled him, scared him, so that, though he didn't know who Jesus was at first, later when Jesus came to him, his response was not to get to know Jesus, the Light of the World, but to get his name so he could report back to the authorities.

The man was in the Temple, praying, giving thanks, but now there was a shadow over him. A sorrow, a fear maybe, that these religious authorities placed over him. So when Jesus found him praying, Jesus also found yet something else in the way of this man's full healing. Jesus told him not to sin any longer, hinting at the fullness of life that God's salvation could bring. But the man did not respond. When Jesus left him, the man went and told the authorities Jesus' name.

Do you want to be made well?” This question is not as simple as it appears. Even our own selves and even those people in our lives who we would think would most want to see us well and whole and happy, like our own church, can be a stumbling block to the complete healing Christ offers each and every one of us. But this does not have to be the end of the story. Today we have the opportunity to open ourselves up, to come together in prayer, and to respond fully and joyfully to this question Jesus asks us. Yes. Yes! Yes, we want to be made well.

A Service of Healing with Anointing:
As the man waiting by the pool in Bethesda, we too wait for healing, healing of physical pain and ailments as well as healing of deep grief and emotional pain. Confession is not a prerequisite to healing, as we can see over and over again in stories about Jesus healing people. But, as we learned in the story of this man by the pool in Bethesda, we see how often we let others and even ourselves get in the way of Jesus' healing presence. So today we pray to keep ourselves open and willing to be made well.

O God, Our Great Physician, Healer of every affliction, we know that too often in our pursuit of healing we reject you. We choose to listen to the voices that tell us we aren't good enough or that we are breaking rules that are more important than we are. We speak words of destruction rather than healing to our neighbors. We refuse to put our trust in your presence. Forgive us. Free us to be made well by you.

God doesn't need our hearts to be right to heal us. God offers us grace upon grace, over and over again, always offering to make us well, no matter what.

In Christ's name we are forgiven! Glory to God! Amen!

PASSING OF THE PEACE: Part of confession is reconciliation. That is why we pass the peace before communion, and why we should pass the peace this morning as well. Let us share signs of Christ's peace with one another!

OFFERING: As we have been blessed by Christ's offer of healing, let us bless others with our gifts, tithes, and offerings.

O God, the giver and health of salvation, we give thanks to you for the gift of oil. As your holy apostles anointed many who were sick and healed them, so pour out your Holy Spirit on us and on this gift, that those who in faith and repentance receive this anointing may be made well, may be made whole; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


1From Healing Service 1 in The United Methodist Book of Worship.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Another World Is Possible

This sermon was preached at Presbury United Methodist Church as part of our exploration of the Gospel of John using the Narrative Lectionary.

Scripture: John 4:4-42
Jesus had to go through Samaria. He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.
The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”

Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”

The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”

You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus answered. “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”

Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”

The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”

Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.

In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”

Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”

The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”

Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. Many more believed because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.”

Sermon: Another World Is Possible
Let us pray:
Patient Teacher who enters into the midst of our emptiness to quench our thirst,
may you enter into these words I speak and into the reflections of all of us here today, that we might better understand your truth that is living water. Amen.

Another World Is Possible. A new world, a renewed world, a world where we worship in spirit and truth, made whole by new relationships with God--- all this is possible.1 That's what is spelled out for us in the story we read last week about Nicodemus and then again today in the story about this Samaritan woman.

Let me remind you what happened last week, because these two stories are meant to be read together. Nicodemus is a well-respected Pharisee, a pillar of the community in Jerusalem. He came to Jesus at midnight, perhaps in hopes that no one would see him speaking to Jesus, who is, after all, a poor peasant rabble-rouser. But perhaps the writer of the Gospel of John is merely trying to illustrate for us that Nicodemus, for all his learning, is shrouded in a kind of darkness. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of rebirth, offering him grace to start his life over, illuminated in the light of the God who so loved the world, but Nicodemus' response is just to scratch his head. He asks, rather incredulously, twice, “How is this possible?” His understanding of the world and God is so fixed that even though he senses something is wrong so deeply that he seeks out Jesus, he cannot understand that Jesus is offering a whole new world.

Now, Minister Jackie did remind us that there is grace still available for Nicodemus in the end. But hold off on that a second. Because before the darkness of not-knowing is dispelled in the light of grace, Jesus speaks to another who does accept Jesus' offer of a new world. The Samaritan woman.

We have moved from the center of everything, Jerusalem, speaking with a well-respected man, to find ourselves on the dusty margins, speaking to a woman who isn't even Jewish! Yet it is with her that Jesus' identity is fully revealed. It is with her that we find world-changing grace.

Jews and Samaritans were once one people (to put it super simplistically) who under occupation began to distance themselves. They argued about the proper place to worship God and which books of the Bible were authoritative. It may seem silly to us, but look at how much Protestants and Catholics have fought over the centuries. So Jews and Samaritans constructed these elaborate rules of how they could and could not interact, to avoid as much contact as possible.

Jesus, as he tends to do, ignores those rules. His proclamation of a new world is only possible when rules are broken. He sends his disciples ahead of him because he is tired, and sits himself down by a well. In the brightness of the noonday sun--- perhaps again a literary metaphor on how a conversation with Jesus shed light and life into the heart of this woman--- a Samaritan woman comes to the well, carrying her heavy jar to draw water.

Surely she sees him there, but she would never initiate conversation, not with a man, and certainly not with a Jew. Jesus demands a drink of water, and perhaps it is his abruptness that prompts her to respond not with a drink but with a reminder of the rules of engagement. She is a Samaritan woman and he is a Jewish man. The two don't associate with one another.

Yet, as this Samaritan woman informs Jesus that he has broken the rules, in correcting him so boldly, she is the one breaking the rules! She is bold like the noonday sun, Jesus sees this, and so he begins to teach. Of course, when Jesus begins to teach in the Gospel of John, it is usually pretty confusing. With Nicodemus, he spoke of being born a second time, giving Nicodemus the ridiculous mental image of a full-grown man crawling back into his mother's womb. This time, Jesus' response is just as cryptic, basically saying that even though he just asked her for water, since she was the one with the water jug and all, really she should be asking him for water. Living water.

This conversation is not off to a good start. Yet the ambiguity in Jesus' words, as frustrating as it can be initially, is an invitation. Jesus, in case you haven't noticed, does not give straight answers very often. Definitive answers tend to end conversation. But Jesus asks questions, tells stories--- he draws people in. Yet, as with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman does not understand what Jesus is saying. She answers him as though he is still talking about the drinking water splashing quietly beneath them.

She speaks frankly to this Jewish stranger. She points out that he doesn't have a bucket, so how can he get water? And she references their common heritage in Jacob, a sly jab to make sure he's not feeling more important than she because he is Jewish and not a Samaritan.

Unlike with Nicodemus, Jesus responds to her misunderstanding with an explanation.2 Nicodemus didn't want to understand. But the woman at the well, she is intriguing, she is bold. And perhaps Jesus realizes that this new world is easier to grasp for the people on the margins, people who don't have as much to lose as Nicodemus does. So Jesus explains that he is not talking about the water in the well, but something more, something that will forever sate her--- and our--- thirst.

She still doesn't understand, but just staying and talking to Jesus has taken down her defenses. Jesus must realize this, so he says something strange: “Go get your husband.” What? No, Jesus is not implying that maybe her husband would understand better. Instead, he is revealing to her, in her words, that he is a prophet. He knows that she has had five husbands and is living with a man who is not her husband. It is not important to us as the reader to know why the woman has had so many husbands. Jesus isn't revealing this to judge her. What is important is that Jesus knows who she is and what has happened to her. She is amazed. Knowing he is a prophet, she does something amazing: she engages him in a theological conversation. This woman is the first character in the Gospel of John to engage Jesus in serious, theological conversation.3

She does so by returning to that Jewish-Samaritan history. She wants to know where the right place to worship is. She expects an either/or answer, but Jesus tells her that it doesn't matter where we worship, but how. We must worship in spirit and in truth. Our exclusive hold on truth don't matter. What matters is having a worshipful relationship with God.

And then there's that bit about how the time for a more whole relationship with God is coming at the same time it is already here. This is the promise of another world being possible, in fact already in existence. And here we see that the woman at the well has the same sense that Nicodemus had that something is wrong in the world. She speaks of knowing that the Messiah will come, believing in that hope, needing that hope. And she believes that the Messiah will teach them how to live into this new world.

And he does. This whole story is about being open to receiving God's truth. This grace is how Jesus teaches us to embrace the other world. Yet rarely do we respond to Jesus the way that the Samaritan woman at the well did. We are too often more like Nicodemus, knowing that something is wrong in the world, something is missing in our lives; yet we cling to our misunderstandings and shut out the light of Christ. We have too much to lose if we accept a world of total worship, a world where we place ourselves in God's hands and look upon one another as brothers and sisters rather than enemies or competitors. We don't engage Jesus, we don't try to stay in the conversation.

Or we are like the disciples. When they appear in the story, they are more worried about why the heck Jesus would be talking to a strange Samaritan woman, and then later more worried about eating some food, then they are about actually listening to Jesus. Are we too often more worried about rules and propriety and what people are saying about us then we are about actually listening to Jesus?

This is not to say that everything would be easier for us if we could just be more like this woman at the well. Jesus reveals to her his divinity. “I am,” he says, echoing God's self-naming from within the burning bush. And the woman leaves behind her water jar, having discovered instead living water that will not run dry, to spread the good news of this Messiah. However, the Gospel of John does not have her using the terms grace or spirit or truth; her testimony instead relies on Jesus knowing everything she has ever done. She even questions in her evangelism, “Could this man be the Christ, the Messiah?” Gospel of John scholar Gail R. O'Day writes, “Her affirmation is somewhat tentative, but it is nevertheless expectant and hope-filled. She is not sure if Jesus fits the categories she has for 'Messiah,' but she is filled with enough sense of hope and promise at what she has heard from him that she wants to share her experience.” And people can see the hope inside her pushing out that wrongness she had felt without Jesus. And so they too go in search of a relationship with him.

This text, these two stories of the unnamed woman at the well and of respectable Nicodemus, leave us with a challenge. How are you meeting Christ in your lives now? Do you let your confusion overtake the possibility of another world? Or will you welcome Christ's promises with a thirst for spirit and truth even if that means you lose prestige and control?

Grace is available to us all, over and over again in our lives. Even Nicodemus, who was so cloaked in darkness at the beginning of the Gospel, is the one who anoints the body of Christ after his death with myrrh and aloe. But my prayer is that we follow in the footsteps of the woman at the well instead, that we recognize the grace before us, even when we don't fully understand it. And that when we recognize that grace we reach out far and wide to our neighbors to show one another that another world is indeed possible.

1Gail R. O'Day, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2002), 52.
2See Deborah J. Kapp, Pastoral Perspective on John 4:5-42, Third Sunday in Lent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 94.
3Gail R. O'Day, “John,” Women's Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition with Apocrypha, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Fit Dwelling Place for God

This sermon was preached at Presbury United Methodist Church as part of our exploration of the Gospel of John using the Narrative Lectionary. It was preached the Sunday after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

 Scripture: John 2:13-25 (Open English Bible)
Then, as the Judeans' Passover was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple he found people who were selling cattle, sheep, and pigeons, and the money-changers at their tables. So he made a whip of cords, and drove them all out of the Temple, and the sheep and cattle as well; he scattered the money of all the money-changers, and overturned their tables, and said to the pigeon dealers: “Take these things away. Do not turn my Father's house into a market house.” His followers remembered that it is written, “Passion for your house will consume me.”

Then the Judeans asked Jesus: “What sign are you going to show us, that you should act in this way?”

Destroy this temple,” was his answer, “and I will raise it in three days.”

This Temple,” the Judeans replied, “has been forty-six years in building, and are you going to raise it in three days?” But Jesus was speaking of his body as a temple. Afterward, when he had risen from the dead, his followers remembered that he had said this, and they trusted the writing, and the words which he had spoken.

While he was in Jerusalem, during the Passover festival, many came to trust in him, when they saw the signs he was giving. But Jesus did not put himself in their power because he knew what was in their hearts. He did not need any information about the people because he could read what was in humans.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, in today's story you don't seem so patient.
We are confused--- why are you angry---
the people were only doing what God told them to do. Unless.
Unless this is another time and place
where you are trying to show us how we got the message wrong.
Speak to us anew, Lord. May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of our hearts sort this out so we may all better know you. Amen.

This Jesus we read about today is not the one we like to think about. He is not meek and mild, not patient and kind, but he is angry and aggressive. Not what we like in the Divine. But the Gospel of John places this picture of Jesus as the beginning of his public ministry, rather than as the climax leading to his arrest as the other three Gospels do. In this, the fourth gospel. John the Baptist has testified to Jesus' specialness, we glimpsed it for ourselves when he turned water into wine, but the wider public has not yet met him, at least until he goes to the Temple and makes some noise. What an introduction! Everyone must have thought Jesus was crazy! And, let's face it, they wouldn't be entirely wrong.

The scripture tells us at first that Jesus is upset because people have made a place of worship into a money-making entity. Being so far removed from the culture at the time, we can nod righteously and agree with the evils of making houses of worship into shopping malls. But really, rituals of sacrifice required people to be in or at least very close to the temple with pigeons and sheep to offer for sacrifice. It would be like is Jesus came in and kicked our offering plates out of our hands--- tithing is biblical! Of course, as happened to churches too, it often is not about the practice, but the spirituality behind the practice. In Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of scripture, called The Message, he paraphrases “money-changers” as loan sharks, indicating the ways in which business can become exploitative of people, even when that business takes place in what is supposed to be a holy space.

But as noisy as the turning over the tables is in this passage, the Gospel of John does not center on that act itself. The passage in the Gospel of John is not about turning over tables, not about the right way to sacrifice or the right way to deal with money in church. Rather it is about figuring out where God really dwells.

After Jesus drives out the money-changers and pigeons and cattle, he is confronted by some of the leaders in the Judean community, and they asked him, “What sign are you going to show us, that you should act in this way?” They wanted to know what authority he had, what power was behind his actions.

'Destroy this temple,' was his answer, 'and I will raise it in three days.'” Then the narrator explains the Temple Jesus is talking about is his own body. This passage is the key to the whole scripture--- but it is also an example of the writer of the Fourth Gospel being all mysterious and confusing! Even though we have a so-called explanation, we are still scratching our heads at this response--- especially wondering what such a comment has to do with ending corruption in the Temple and turning over tables and just generally causing a commotion. But for me, Jesus' comment is his way of expanding the holy space of the Temple to our own bodies.

Now, I'm sure you all are thinking that I am worse than the Gospel writer because me talking about “expanding holy space” probably doesn't make much sense. So let me break it down. When Jesus says that his body, not some building, is the Temple he is saying that he “is God’s dwelling place on earth. [Which means that since a]fter the resurrection, we are the body of Christ[,]...we are God’s dwelling place as well.”1 That is the expansion of holy space.

Jesus turned over the tables of the money-changers and kicked out all of the animals to get our attention, to help us see how we don't understand what the purpose of a Temple is at all. In referring to his own body as a Temple, Jesus was reminding Judeans of early Jewish teachings of a God who wandered in the desert with and among the people, not a God who was locked into a building and pleased by the budding exploitative economy worship of his own self produced. Jesus was reminding the community that worship is not something you can check off a checklist after you run to the Temple and make a sacrifice. It's not something that you can check off your checklist after you come to church or Sunday or listen to the Christian radio station for a bit. It is something we are to live each and every moment because God dwells, God lives within us.

God living within us is not a comforting idea the majority of the time. While in some ways it is a beautiful idea because it means that the pain and the confusion we feel is not our burden to bear alone, in other ways it makes us feel as uncomfortable as Jesus does with his homemade whip and his angry eyes. Because if God lives within us, there are serious consequences for how we treat ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities. God's presence with us holds us to certain standards.

Last week the country remembered Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who overturned some tables in our own country by pointing out to us how wrong we were to say our nation was built on principles of equality when so many people suffered under racist laws. But Dr. King's legacy is more than just one of making some noise and changing some laws. Dr. King worked to show people that God lives with us, dwells among us. He worked to reorient us to seeing God not just inside a building, or up in the sky, but here on earth, right beside us.

In a time where segregation and racism was the norm, he did not allow such sins to blind him, so he saw God dwelling not just with the people who looked like him and agreed with him, but with everyone. He called out his white brothers and sisters, and did not hesitate to correct them, but his dream was never that people of color could live equal but segregated lives. He wanted to live side-by-side. Similarly, he crossed barriers of class and education to see the presence of God. He had a doctorate, and his father was also a pastor, so he grew up with some privileges in that way. Yet the people alongside whom he fought were often sanitation workers and domestic workers. He constantly spoke, especially in later years not only about the tragedy of racism in this country, but that of poverty as well.

And, though we celebrate Dr. King's legacy of nonviolence, we forget how he spoke against the war in Vietnam toward the end of his life. His concern was for the soldiers and the atrocities they were often forced to commit, and his concern was for the Vietnamese people and their own right to freedom.

In a way, understanding the Word the Holy Spirit had given to Dr. King, becoming a prophetic voice for God's kingdom, letting the presence of God within him shine through only became possible when Dr. King saw God's presence in others, particularly in people even more marginalized and oppressed than he was himself. But such a realization opened him to their fear and pain, which brings me to another way that Dr. King tried to live into those standards for being Temples of God. I read a fascinating blog post about Dr. King's real legacy, what he actually did to make a difference. The writer Hamden Rice claims that Dr. King's real legacy was not in marches or speeches, but in organizing people to face their fear.

Though racism still is pervasive and violent in this country, in Dr. King's day it was worse. Black men in the South lived in fear of lynching, terrorists beat children like Emmett Till beyond recognition, police officers set dogs on children, churches were bombed. Rice writes that Dr. King and other civil rights leaders taught people to do whatever it was that made them most afraid--- sitting at “whites only” lunch counters, registering to vote, suing the school board, things that back then would get people killed. These leaders taught them that if they all did it together, they would be okay. So people began to resist this culture of fear, and they went to jail and got beat up and were even killed. Hamden Rice writes, “Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened? These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail. That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song.”2

I think this organizing to teach people how to face their fears was in fact organizing people to see God among them, God within them. Once you see yourself and others as Temples of God, you have a power that transcends fear. You have the power to transform yourself, your family, your community, your world, even, for good. That is the message that Jesus was trying to convey in his first public appearance, strange as it was. He was teaching us how amazing it is to have God dwelling alongside and within us.

Dr. King overturned tables, organized marches and sit-ins and preached and wrote. He called for a renewal of spirituality, a recognition that the gospel has political and social implications in the way Jesus called for a renewal of spirituality when he proclaimed that the Temple should be a place of worship, not a marketplace. Yet, Dr. King was calling for even more powerful, deep changes in the same way Jesus was. Jesus wasn't just trying to get us to change our ritual practices, and Dr. King wasn't just trying to get us to change laws. Both wanted us to be able to look into ourselves and into the eyes of our neighbors and see God there. For when we do that, we have formidable, world-changing power indeed.

So there's Jesus, flipping over tables and proclaiming himself to be God's Temple, and then there's Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., organizing and casting out fear, and then there's us. How do we live our lives in recognition of the truth that we are all Temples where God dwells?

I challenge you this morning to join in the spirit of Jesus and Dr. King not just to make some noise and turn over some tables, but to act like God lives with us. Pray for discernment of where God is calling you to make a difference. Reach out in love to your brothers and sisters even in small ways to help them see the presence of God all around them. And, if you feel a little crazy sometimes, just remember that though Jesus must have seemed crazy with his whip, and those first people must have felt crazy desegregating “whites only” lunch counters, through their actions a message of love took hold and began to transform the world bit by bit into a fit dwelling place for God. 
1Emphasis, mine. This is from the RevGalPals blog which was incredibly helpful to me in shaping this sermon: Julia Seymour, (lutheranjulia), “Narrative Lectionary: Clean Up Your Act Edition,” January 13, 2013, RevGalPals,
2Here is the power explanation in Hamden Rice's own words:
They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down. Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we'll be okay.

They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn't that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.

And you know what? The worst of the worst, wasn't that bad.

Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?

These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail.

That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song.
From Hamden Rice, “Many of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did,” 29 August 2011, Daily Kos,