March 4, 2018
Third Sunday in Lent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
One of the blessings of being a pastor is witnessing to the promises that young couples make at their wedding. I get to be right there, watching them look into each other’s eyes, helping them to remember the words, then signing the marriage license. One of the challenges of being a pastor is going to the wedding reception. By that time, the couple that you’ve come to know over the period of preparation is busy. The family that may be from the church is managing the rest of the family. And these days, most of the wedding party and friends of the couple have no experience of church or have any idea what to say to the “religious professional.” If there’s a buffet, it gets really awkward. There’s nothing like setting out with a plate full of food, to a room of empty tables. There I sit, as friendly as possible, working hard to look accessible and maybe even a little hip, which is difficult in a black suit with a clerical collar, while just about everyone walks quickly past. I mean, really, who wants to sit at the pastor’s table? When the room is just about full, someone has to choose the same table. Or they pull a chair away from my table to pull up to another table.
You can imagine my relief when the seats are assigned. I know I have a place, and I don’t have to watch everyone walk awkwardly past. I’m a creature of comfort, and I like to know where I fit, and I like to know who I’m with. If you happen to be sitting in the same pew that you always sit in, you may share my desire to be comfortable and to know your place.
All of us who like to be comfortable may be in trouble this morning because the Jesus of John’s gospel is not happy with how things are working. He’s mad, and he enters ministry ready to overturn our assumptions about how it all works. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this story of Jesus anger, overturning the tables in the temple, occurs during his last week. It’s the last straw that breaks the Romans back, and they decide to get rid of him. Within a few days, he’s executed by the state with the blessing of the religious establishment.
John tells the story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This is his first public act. Likely, John wants us to think of this story as symbolic of what Jesus is all about. Jesus enters the public sphere and upsets the finely tuned systems.
[I want to offer a caution in how we approach this text. It has been used to say that Christianity has superseded Judaism. Jesus is destroying the temple because he is now the temple. After his resurrection the church is clearly the better expression of spirituality than the Jewish temple system. That interpretation should be overthrown because it has led to, at its least, a dismissive attitude toward the faith of the Jewish community, and, at its worst, the extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust.]
Truth be told, if we think that Jesus arrives on the scene to turn over someone else’s table, look out, he’s likely headed in our direction. The first thing the message of Jesus does is make us uncomfortable. All the things that we use to structure our religious life, our social life, our cultural life have no meaning if they are not able to hold life that liberates, that heals, that saves the outcast and the sinner. We lose before we gain.
John often says that Jesus comes to give eternal life. The Greek word that leads us to translate the term “eternal life” actually means far more than a life after death. Eternal life is the life that transcends all things; the life that has profound depth; the life that carries love and meaning and justice; the life that Jesus knew already deep in his body. John usually says that Jesus abides in God’s love. That’s eternal life: abiding in God’s love.
Jesus comes so that all creation can know that love–perhaps fully on our death day–but truly and authentically right now. John even saw that love in the cross. There is no greater love than for one to lay down their life for their friends. Jesus begins his ministry by standing against anything that gets in the way of that love. He’s angry about those things that get in the way.
There were about a dozen of us who attended a conference this weekend about undoing racism. Every single one of us talked about how hard it is to work this issue. It makes us uncomfortable because we have to examine our motivations, some of them hidden until teased out by a challenger. It makes us uncomfortable because we realize just how much white supremacy organizes the world around us. Most of us from Gloria Dei had to confess that we don’t really have to think about it until someone steps into our life and upsets our calm. We realized how uncomfortable we are when people of color are angry. We take it personally. We even act all fragile when we’re uncomfortable, hoping that our despair will make someone say something nice to us.
The anger of Jesus is important. Without it, we have a rather thin view of how God approaches the oppression of the least, or anything that demeans, belittles, so sets some askide. This is, of course, what’s going on in the temple structure. People are getting rich. People are using language of God (theology) to set a place for themselves at the expense of others. People are attaching their religious institution to a social world that assigns certain people to certain tables.
Discomfort is actually part of healing. Jesus’ anger doesn’t destroy. It saves. It’s in our discomfort, or when we’ve been separated from our carefully constructed worlds, when we are dis-located, that a door gets cracked open for something new.
If you’ve ever been to counseling, you know how awkward it is to discover that the problems that you’ve always blamed on other people are often a construction of your own challenges. There’s always that moment when you have to see yourself in a new way. “Fierce honesty that makes you an actor in your own life,” a friend of mine describes it.
It’s no accident that the first step in recovery is to admit that you’re powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable.
God uses our discomfort to do a new thing.
Jesus doesn’t enter into our temple court with a desire to overturn our carefully set tables, with the name cards all assigned as to who sits where, because we’re supposed to feel shame or because that’s just what God is like, all judge-y and everything, Jesus enters our temples because he brings new life. He bears in his being the light of the world.
It’s ironic that our desire to be comforted can only come by experiencing discomfort. It’s a mystery that death leads to resurrection. It’s our great hope that in having our tables overturned, we discover our true place at a new table, a table set for all, a table with a place, as our first communion books say, “just for you.”
But be careful, you never know who Jesus will sit you next to. Could be awkward; and that start of a whole new life.