Monday, March 5, 2018

Third Sunday in Lent Year B: March 4, 2018

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Third Sunday in Lent- Sunday, March 4, 2018

To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.
Br. Robert Sevensky  
Today's Gospel passage, often referred to as the Cleansing of the Temple, might well begin with a warning:  “Spoiler Alert.”
The event appears in all four gospel narratives. But in the Synoptic Gospels, it comes just before Jesus is arrested.  Indeed, for these gospel writers, it is this disruptive action by Jesus in the Temple precincts which is the proximate cause of his arrest and ultimately his crucifixion. 

Many scholars and preachers see it as primarily a political event, or at least a prophetic action caught up in a tense and volatile political/religious setting, with disastrous results.

Not so with John's Gospel.  Rather, the event occurs very near the beginning of Jesus' ministry, just after he has performed his first sign by changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.  It follows on the heels of a slightly testy exchange between Jesus and his mother, and I have sometimes wondered if Jesus was just having a bad hair day or was going through a particularly difficult period of transition and growth. Whatever the actual timing, the writer of our Gospel uses the event to let us in on the secret: that Jesus will die and be raised from the dead.  There's the climax of the story, right there at the outset.  I suppose, though, that this was implicit from the very start when John opens his Gospel by telling us:  “In the beginning was the Word...and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The rest is, in a sense, commentary.

In considering this event, I am put in mind of two other stories of Jesus and the Temple, not from John's Gospel, but from Luke's “Infancy Narratives”, those wonderful, fanciful stories of the young Jesus found in the first two chapters of Luke.  Taken together, these three Temple stories tell us something important both about our own faith lives and about Jesus.

The first story, from Luke, is that of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple when he is 40 days old.  In fulfillment of the Jewish ritual Law, Jesus is brought to Jerusalem by his parents and “ransomed”.  It is a tale of surprising prophecies and expectations and warnings given by an old man and an even older woman, and it is all very numinous.  And throughout it, the infant Jesus remains mute.  He does not speak, indeed he cannot. He comes to the Temple vulnerable and dependent and passive, carried, as one hymn has it, upon the throne of his mother's gentle breast, as were we all. He is but an infant. Yet he is the focus of the action and the attention and the hope.

The second Temple story, also from Luke, is that of finding the child Jesus in the Temple. Now at age 12, so still technically a child but on the cusp of manhood, the boy slips away from his family while on a journey home from Jerusalem. After three days of frantic searching, his parents find him seated in the Temple with the religious teachers: “listening to them and asking them questions.”  The Evangelist adds: “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”  In response to his mother's complaint, “Son why have you dealt with us this way?” Jesus says, rather naively it seems to me:  “Did you not know I must be in my Father's house?”  They—his parents—do not understand.  But then who does?

And of course there is today's passage from John who presents us with an adult Jesus entering the Temple and, in anger or sadness or disgust, driving out at least some of those who, for quite understandable religious or cultic reasons, bartered in the goods and services necessary for Temple worship.  It's easy to overemphasize the extent of Jesus' disruption of the Temple system. The temple precincts were huge and a single man, Jesus, could perhaps overturn a few tables at most.  Imagine Yankee Stadium or Grand Central.  Jesus's actions might then be the equivalent of turning over one or two concession stands on the concourse level. Not a total disruption by any means, but enough to make a point and to be noticed and reported to the authorities. Just as it would be today. It was also the opportunity for Jesus to intimate that the future belongs to God and not to the money changers, as the disciples would later remember.

Three Temple stories, two of them somewhat fanciful, one of uncertain timeliness. What do they teach us?

I would suggest that just as Jesus came to the Temple, to his Father's house, in these three ways, so Jesus still today comes to us, who are (as St. Paul teaches us) his Temple, both corporately (together) and individually, in the very same ways.

Jesus still comes to us, God's Temple people, as did the baby at the Purification: helpless and vulnerable.  Jesus comes to us and our world in the person of the voiceless ones, who like him have no way to gain our attention or to make their desperate needs known except through a cry.  He comes in those who are marginalized, disenfranchised, oppressed, unheard, indeed unseen.  He comes in the person of the stranger, the  oddball, the misfit.  He comes, as Mother Teresa says, “in the distressing disguise of the poor.”--in the refugee, the immigrant, the Other, however we define the other, as well as in the familiar but unlovely and unloved.   Jesus is still coming to his Temple in this way.  And we who claim to dwell in the Temple, who are that Temple, are asked to open wide the gates of our hearts and our substance and our privilege.  He still comes.

Jesus comes to our Temple/world with the challenging questions and the listening ears of the young, those on the cusp of adulthood who perceive, perhaps as we cannot, the ever-widening gap between our rhetoric and our realities, both within the church and without.  I think of those students from Parkland and from around our country who are rising up to become the ears and the eyes and the voices of conscience to our nation and who cry: “Enough already!”

And yes, Jesus still comes to us, to our Temple/world, with a whip of cords, overturning familiar patterns of behavior and relationships, driving out distortions from within our systems and our hearts, and the tyranny of commodification, yet never destroying the good structures of creation.  Rather, through his own life-giving death, he renews and transforms them.  His dying, this final act of human hate and ignorance, marks the beginning of the end of the forces of destruction everywhere...or so we pray.

None of these second comings is easy.  I am reminded that on the feast of the Presentation, when we remember the bringing of the baby Jesus into the Temple, we read from the book of the prophet Malachi:

“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. … But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

It is seldom easy.  We are tempted to faint back or withdraw.  We aren't quite sure we want this Jesus to come, thank you very much.  Perhaps our Lenten prayer now is to ask for the grace to want what God wants, to desire what God wills. To ask for the  grace to welcome this Jesus when he comes to us, his Temple people, in innocence and vulnerability and need; and with his questions and his listening heart; and yes, even with his whip of cords.  And who knows, perhaps in a thousand other ways as well, each bespoke and tailor made for you and for me.  Maybe our Lenten prayer is none other than our Advent Prayer:  Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!  

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