Christ the King, Stone Ridge, NY
Br. Julian Mizelle, OHC
Lent 3B – Sunday, March 4, 2012
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Three Hidden Truths of Lent
It is a real joy for me to be with you today; to join you in worship and to share in this holy season of Lent. I know so many of you from your visits to the Monastery, from Education for Ministry, from Centering Prayer and now you have welcomed me to your pulpit—you have welcomed me like family and that is a spiritual bond that I truly treasure. And I trust you all know the bond we share goes beyond me. The entire Community of Holy Cross Monastery shares a great bond of affection with you. I bring you their greetings and blessings for the Lord’s Day.
I grew up in the evangelical south in a family of Baptist preachers. You hear a LOT of stories when you’re surrounded by preachers all of the time. I’ll never forget the Sunday morning my step-father took the pulpit gleaming with pride at the completion of the church’s new nursery. It had been a long project. From the capital campaign to the construction, and now they were finally able to better meet the needs of young families with babies. Leaning over the pulpit my step-father said “I want to talk to all of the ladies here this morning. Ladies, if you will just work with me, I promise you together we will fill this nursery.” As the words fell out of his mouth he realized what he said. Turning 13 shades of red and ready to dodge the ire of husbands he wanted to crawl under the pulpit. For years, and I mean years, he got teased about this. It was a story that never died. Long after his retirement people would ask him — “So preacher, hows that nursery coming?”
Br. Julian Mizelle, OHC - portrait by Rachel Mizelle
English is a tricky language. From nuances to shades of meaning right up to double entendre’s it is easy to mis-communicate. In college I had befriended an exchange student from Korea. He so struggled with the double meanings hidden in our language. One day he came up to me quite forlorn over insulting his host at a party the night before. You see he had learned that it was a nice thing to say to someone “you’re cool!”. So when he went up to his party host and said to her, “you know, you’re not so hot!” he was shocked to discover he had totally missed on the meaning of opposites in our language.
Lent is a season filled with the language of double meanings. Ash Wednesday tells us we are nothing but dust. Then immediately we jump into scripture readings that introduce us to an angry, vengeful-sounding and wrathful God. One that calls for blood sacrifice to avenge our wretched sins. The biblical narrative lays down a law that is summarized in the Decalogue—10 commandments that no human being can ever live fully into 365 days a year throughout the decades of a lifetime. You may not be a murderer, and maybe you’ve never stolen as much as a paper clip ever in your life, but at some point you’ve coveted your neighbors donkey, or maybe it was their Jaguar.
For years I have had the habit of reading the Bible through each year. This year it just so happens that the Book of Numbers fell into Lent. Reading Numbers during Lent is not just about slogging your way through a census. But it is interwoven with stories of broken vows, wrongs against self and wrongs against others. When Moses prays to God about what to do with these individuals God’s answer comes back saying “take them outside the camp and stone them!”. It’s tough reading.
But this is the Bible. The Bible is a book filled with conflicts, paradoxes, and even historical inaccuracies. There are no glib one-sentence answers to satisfy these dilemmas. And that is precisely the point. It is by our learning to struggle with the seeming paradoxes of scripture that we learn to grow up.
Now just imagine for a moment if I had come this morning bearing a whip of cords and came into your sanctuary throwing and thrashing about the chairs, overturning every piece of furniture, yelling like a maniac, creating total chaos. (No worries Alison, I left my whip of cords back at the Monastery.) After everyone scattered and ran for cover, no doubt someone would whip out a cell phone to call 911. This is just the scene we enter in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus was outraged and it was holy havoc. No tables were left unturned and no one was left untouched. Crashing furniture, money and coins bouncing across the floor, animals squealing and running wildly, turtledoves flapping frantically, man and beast ducking for cover. If we only read this through the eyes of our own human experience we get the message that God is angry, fierce and destructive.
Richard Rohr tells us that the Bible is an honest conversation with humanity about where power really is. All spiritual texts, including the Bible, are books whose primary focus lies outside of themselves, in the Holy Mystery. The Bible illuminates our human experience through struggling with it. It is not a substitute for human experience but an invitation into the struggle. We are actually supposed to be bothered by these texts. When God changed Jacob’s name to Israel it was because he had struggled with God. The very word “Israel” means one who struggles with God. So here is the first of 3 hidden truths I want to share with you: it is through our struggle that we come into consciousness. It is through our struggle that we wake up and grow up. It is through our struggle that we meet our real selves. We actually need the struggle.
When I hear this story of Jesus cleansing the temple I see throngs of people who have gathered for the most important religious festival of the year—Passover. They are there following their devotion. And they want to do it right. They want the right sacrifices and they want the right money to pay their temple tax. They are following the customs of their faith and the norms of their culture. They are simply doing what they have been taught to do. They are much like us traveling through this season of Lent following the rituals of Ash Wednesday, maybe giving up chocolate for 40 days, and being more penitent...seeking a greater awareness of sins. Now enters Jesus overturning the tables of our literalism, disrupting our image of who God is, using His whip of cords to cleanse our inner temple. Just when we think we understand the Christian life Jesus enters like a wild man and everything is thrown into chaos: we face a crisis in our health, someone close to us dies, we loose a job, a relationship ends, something happens and the security of normal-ness and routines abandon us.
Daniel Clendenin tells us the cleansing of the temple is a stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, self-satisfaction, and spiritual complacency are just some of the tables Jesus would overturn in his own day and in ours. We so want to have it all figured out. We desperately long to control our lives, even to the extent of controlling God in our lives. And this brings us to our second hidden truth—God is not bound by our ideas of Him. God is not bound to act, behave, or function in the way we expect. God is not bound to following our conventions. He is not even bound to acting consistently to our past experiences of Him. There comes a point in the spiritual journey when God ask us to let go and let God be God—on His terms.
We have domesticated Jesus into a meek and mild Savior. Then the day comes when God enters our lives like a sledgehammer. We’re not comfortable with an angry God. We’re not even comfortable with our own anger. That’s because we’re struggling to learn that anger is a mode of connectedness to others and at its root anger is always a vivid form of caring.
Consider Job for a moment. Job is our model for a Godly life. But in a matter of days he lost all of his possessions, he lost his livelihood, he lost his family, he lost his health, he lost his image of God. The only thing he didn’t loose were 3 friends who hung around telling him that all of these horrible looses were his own fault. But would Job have learned who God really is if he hadn’t gone through the shattering experiences that brought an end to his naive conception of who God is? Would Job have met God in the whirlwind of transformation and restoration if he hadn’t passed through his own “night of the spirit.” Job needed to learn to let God be God on his own terms. And when Job did just that he not only found God, he found himself.
This leads us to our third hidden truth—one way or another God arranges the circumstances of our lives forcing us to take a leap of faith into the unknown. One way or another we have to let go of everything we know, of everything we expect, of everything we have figured out and let God be God.
When theologians consider todays Gospel reading they get weighed down arguing over where it fits chronologically into the gospel narrative. For me, that totally misses the point. Something fundamentally changed when Jesus cleansed the temple. He was shocking His followers awake and into the consciousness that how we know God would change from this point forward. The trappings of our piety only take us so far. To really know God we would need to turn within and find Him on the altar of our hearts. “The kingdom of God is within you” is the breakthrough epiphany that Jesus was acting out. A “temple not made with hands” is what He was pointing His followers to. And if the kingdom of God is within us that means we find the kingdom of God in the other: in the divorcee, in the widow, in the homeless, in the hungry, in the downtrodden, in the jobless, in the sick, in the prisoner. It means we find the kingdom of God outside the walls of sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, and yes even outside the walls of capitalism.
These are just some of the tables that I want to see overturned this Lenten season. But in all honesty it would be wrong of me to use this text as a whip of cords against my favorite injustices. Because this text is deeper than that. This is a text which calls you to take up your own whip of cords to overturn the tables of injustice in your own life. The text pushes you to imagine a Jesus entering your own sanctuary, overturning your own cherished rationalizations and driving you out in the name of God. This is a text that ask you to find God within—within the temple not made with hands. This is a text that calls you into the chaos, into new alignment, into a place of queasiness, into the unknown, into your own leap of faith where everything will change.
This is a text that calls us into our Lenten journey, into resurrection and into new life.