Third Sunday in Lent
March 4, 2018

Third Sunday in Lent

Passage: Exodus 20:1-17

I’ve been fascinated these past couple weeks, along with the whole country, watching the students in Parkland, Florida protesting the availability of assault rifles in our country. What’s been so captivating has been their indignant zeal that they should be able to go to school without fear of being shot. They’ve got this elemental, “Duh! Do something” mentality.

And their reaction feels very similar to Jesus’ reaction when he shows up at the temple. He sees all the buying and the selling and the money changers, and he flips out! And he does something! He makes himself a whip and starts cracking it around. He overturns the tables. And like the students, his basic point is that people ought to be able to come and worship God in the temple without this assault of commercial activity getting in their way.

Just imagine what it was like for those would-be worshipers coming to the temple: Not only did they have to fight their way through a maze of vendors; not only did this commercial activity disrupt any spiritual preparation they should be focused on; at its heart, these vendors and money changers were misleading the people, making them believe that all that mattered to God was this economic, transactional kind of relationship. What does it mean to worship? Well, you buy a pigeon; you take it to a priest; he cuts it up and spills its blood and hey! you’re good to go.

What has this got to do with religion?

Well, quite frankly, for most of history this is exactly how people have treated religion – be it in Judaism, Christianity, or any number of traditions. We might not all use animal sacrifice, but the posture is the same: God is basically angry and wants appeasement, so you make some kind sacrifice. Now, that might be a literal blood sacrifice in the Jewish temple; it might be the paying of an indulgence to the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages; or it might mean giving up chocolate for Lent or paying your pledge in the offering plate. God’s got a price and you need to pay it in one form or another. And Jesus comes along and takes out a whip and cries, Enough! You are missing the point entirely! Faith is not a commercial transaction. Faith is a way of being, a way of living, that finds it source when it is tapped into union with God.

Richard Rohr, writing to our generation in the church, makes a similar point:

Christianity is a lifestyle, a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. [But we’ve] made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. [Throughout most of Christian history] one could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain … and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior.”

And Rohr goes on to conclude, The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.”[1]

But you know what? No matter how modern we become, no matter how much our sensibilities may be offended by the Old Testament sacrificial system (all that blood!), we actually keep reverting to that same mindset – that primitive mentality that we’ve got to pay God off. How often have you been in some kind of jam and made a foxhole prayer, “Oh, God, just take care of this situation (whatever it is), and I promise I’ll go to church every Sunday”? Well that’s just a payment: God, give me what I want and I’ll give you what I think you want. Or how often have you said something to the effect, “I don’t know what I did to deserve this kind of suffering”? Well that’s a payment mentality, too. But in this case God’s the one paying you back for some transgression you made. The spirit’s the same, though. This whole religion thing is just an ongoing, back-and-forth transaction with a grumpy God.

So with this mindset, what do we do? We make rules. Lots of rules. We reduce the whole spiritual mystery into a series of dos and don’ts, with payments of various sorts. And you know, I actually get it, because at some level that kind of religion is manageable. It’s way easier just to do something concrete than it is to know God or to have your character changed into christlikeness. We can’t really control those kind of things (or so we think). But we can follow a rule: Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. (Or at least I’ll intend to do it.)

That’s the kind of religion we prefer. It makes sense to us. If left to devise a religion from scratch, that’s probably the kind of religion most of us would make.

And here’s the theory I’m working with at this point: When God initiated the Mosaic Covenant (that is, the complex set of rules that Moses and the Israelites agreed to live by that is summarized by the Ten Commandments we heard earlier), God was meeting us humans on our turf. God was saying, I know what you’re like. I know you like rules. I know you want a basic system of dos and don’ts, so I’m gonna give it to you. Do this and you will live. And the Israelites are all happy. Great! they say. That’s just what we’ll do. And I believe they meant it, just like we do when – at some moment of great conviction – we make a commitment to be a some kind of good Christian.

And to God’s credit, the Old Testament law was extraordinary. Sure, there were lots of things in it that don’t make sense to us in our culture, things that make us go, What!? when we read it, but it made sense to them. And it was good. The whole law was set out to create an ideal culture, unlike anything that existed in its day. God was at its center, and justice was meant to permeate society. And, admittedly, there was a massive system of blood sacrifice involved. But again – that made sense to them. And I suspect it’s a sign that God was willing to meet us within the religious sensibility and confines of our day and age.

But beyond just accommodating their cultural limitations, I think the Mosaic Covenant was a message for all generations, including ours, that says, I know your human proclivity for a rule-based religious system, so I’ll give it to you. I’ll let you try it out for a while and see how it goes.

It’s like us as parents when we choose to let our kids do some bone-headed thing because it’s the only way they’ll learn, like the grandfather who realized that his granddaughter was attracted to the glamor of smoking. So he went out and bought a pack of cigarettes and took her out on the back porch, lit one and handed it to her. Go ahead, honey, take a puff. She takes a tentative little puff. Nah, not like that. A big one! Nice and deep, breath it all the way into your lungs. Well, you know how that turned out.

And that’s how I think the Law worked. The Israelites wanted rules, so God gave them a whole stack of ‘em: Here’s what it’s going to take to live like the people of God. But once the Israelites tried to keep the rules – tried to maintain worship and justice – well, they started hacking and coughing and totally failed, just like we regularly fail to live up to our own good intentions.

And so, if God is going to solve the problem of human sin – the problem of all the fractures that run rampant amongst us – it’s going to take something better, something more powerful, than a long list of rules. And that will be the New Covenant we explore on the fifth Sunday of Lent.

But today, as we enter our third week of Lent, it is sufficient to say that we as the church are following a Jesus who does not tolerate rules for rules sake. Left unto themselves, these rules will quickly become corrupt and – in the process – corrupt us, luring us into some kind of false belief that all God requires of us is to maintain and uphold the institution of the church. The institution is fine, but only so long as it exists to foster in us an ongoing union with God, and an ongoing union with one another.

The institution provides the building that provides the pew that you sit in to worship. But the divine spark ignites when you behold the person beside you on that pew and perceive in them the glory of the Image of God, your sister, your brother, in a common journey of faith.

The institution provides the internet service that provides the weekly email from the church office. But the divine spark is when someone reads the email and sees that someone in the hospital needs visiting and actually gets in the car and goes there. I heard from Claudia Breland recently. She spent most of the week in the hospital – and someone did hear the summons and did visit. It was someone, in fact, who hardly knew her. And the time they spent together, just getting to know each other, was an extraordinary moment of life and hope in her recovery. It didn’t require a trained person from the pastoral care team. It didn’t require a priest. It required kindness, for someone new to say, “You’re worth knowing.” And that is what she received.

This institution of St. John’s is the framework that has the potential to draw us together truly to become and behave as the people of God – discovering God’s love, sharing God’s love and becoming God’s love in a fearful and fractured world.

There will times when we fail, and that is always a grievous thing, because someone gets hurt. Someone is left believing by their legitimate experience that we aren’t what we claim or aspire to be. And when that happens, I pray for mercy on all sides. I pray for repentance and reconciliation. And I pray that we would learn and grow and reform, to be community where the rules are merely the apparatus that draw us towards compassion, humility and deep kindness.

Then may it be said of us, “Go to St. John’s. That is where you will find the love of God.”


[1]  Richard Rohr, Meditation 37, Feb. 3, 2013