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,

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