Archive for Overturning tables in the Temple

Gazing at the Underside

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2017 by timtrue

170px-Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay

Matthew 5:1-12

1.

Have you ever gazed at an icon?

One of the panels in St. Catherine’s monastery in Egypt contains the oldest known icon of Christus Pantokrator, aka, “Christ, the Lord of Hosts.” I’ve never been there. But I’ve seen photos.

This particular icon first caught my attention because there seemed to be something wrong with Jesus’ face. It seemed somehow asymmetric, kind of like he’d suffered a minor stroke or TIA.

That was the first time I gazed at it.

Somewhat unsettled, certainly puzzled, I returned to it. The second time, yes, indeed, I saw there was something not quite right about his face—it hadn’t been my imagination. I also noticed that, in his left hand, he held a large, thick book; and was making a sign of blessing with his right.

Well, I don’t know how many more times I returned to this icon—how many total minutes I spent gazing at it—before someone spoiled it for me (as I am now, perhaps, going to spoil it for you).

This imposter (a church history teacher, actually) came with a sheet of paper and covered up the right half of Jesus’ face. “What does the exposed half look like?” he asked.

“Judgment,” I said.

He smiled then covered up the left half and asked, “Now what?”

“Wow! That’s compassion!” I replied.

And it clicked! That’s what was wrong with his face. The left half, reflecting the Torah in his left hand, displayed the judgment side of God; whereas the right half displayed mercy, seen in his sign of blessing.

Anyway, good icons are like that: one grows in one’s understanding as one gazes.

2.

Well, today I don’t so much want to gaze at icons as I want to gaze with you at the underside of tabletops.

Last week, if you recall, I framed my sermon with the image of Jesus turning over tables both literal and figurative. Why am I surprised, then, when following Jesus feels like I’m gazing at the underside of tabletops?

For instance:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he teaches us, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

And, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

And, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

And so on.

But . . . the poor in spirit? Those who mourn? The meek? These aren’t exactly the bullet points I want to put on my résumé.

Instead, these strike me as kind of upside down.

And why, again, are these people—these disciples of Jesus—called blessed? Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven? Because they will be comforted? Because they will inherit the earth?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with this. It all sounds like pie-in-the-sky talk to me!

Sure, you can tell me all you want that if I behave myself in the here-and-now then I will be rewarded in the future. But such moralizing sounds an awful lot like what my second grade teacher used to tell me. I didn’t really buy it then; and I don’t buy it now.

It’s not the future that concerns me; I want to be blessed now! And I’m pretty sure being melancholy and mopey isn’t going to get me there.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek who get their way in this present life; but the confident, the self-assured, and—dare I say?—the pushy! It’s fine and well to want a nice life in the future, or a nice afterlife; but what about the here-and-now? I want to be blessed now!

I want Jesus to say something like:

Blessed are those who make a lot of money! For they can buy a comfortable home in a low-crime neighborhood; their kids can attend the best schools; and every amenity they could ever need or want is at their fingertips.

Why doesn’t Jesus tell me this? That’s what the culture around me is telling me! Why does following Christ have to feel so upside down, like I’m staring at the underside of a tabletop?

3.

But to gaze at the underside might not be such a bad thing. Jesus seems to know this—otherwise, why would he turn so many tables over in the first place?

Maybe that’s why he calls you and me and all the saints to do so.

I mean, isn’t that really what we do when we gather week after week, when we come together and engage in corporate spiritual practices—sacred story, sacred rituals, sacred music, sacred seasons? In these upside down practices we contemplate Jesus and the tables he has overturned.

And don’t we continue our underside musings during the week with individual practices like contemplative prayer, spiritual direction, and gazing at icons?

And—you know—the longer we gaze at the underside, the more we realize that this hidden, forgotten side of the table was meant by the Table-builder to be on top all along.

That’s why the beatitudes can feel so upside down. They’re the hidden side of the table; yet the side Jesus really wants us to see!

Remember those wants I listed earlier? When I said I wished Jesus would say that those who make a lot of money are blessed because they can live in a big house and so on?

Now—please hear me—these wants and dreams are not necessarily wrong. But they’re the American dream, not Jesus’ dream.

Jesus proclaims compassion, justice, and a society free from oppression and hatred, fear and guilt.

The beatitudes show us harmonious community.

But the other side of this table—the American dream side of this table—tells us a very different message: to live well, to look good, and to stand out; to be an individual.

4.

So what can we do about it? Is gazing at the underside of tabletops a valuable use of our time? Are the beatitudes reality? Or, is Jesus presenting us with an unrealizable ideal?

Most of us are individuals, after all, who have come together because of our common understanding of Christ—Christians, yes, but nevertheless individuals.

And besides, even if we do manage to break beyond our individualistic values and begin to form a cohesive common good, we’re still just one local body of Christ—and not a very big one at that—in the morass of modern American Christian individualism.

So what can we do?

Well, gazing at the underside of these tables is a lot like gazing at an icon: the more one does so, the more one comes to understand.

Most people today, I’m afraid, look only and ever at the topside (maybe we are partly to blame: maybe we aren’t overturning enough tables); and the topside shows only the individual.

What matters on the topside is that I love Jesus. It tells me to learn and cherish all those precious scriptures about my individual relationship with Jesus, that as long as I believe in him I shall not perish but have everlasting life even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death!

Fine and well. But what the topside leaves out is all those Bible passages, many and manifold, about societal injustices, about neglecting the poor and destitute among us, about caring for widows and orphans (and we might add the homeless and mentally ill).

It tells us, instead, that the poor and destitute need to develop a better work ethic and embrace family values; that it’s not society’s fault, and so why should I be forced to pay taxes for the good of those unwilling to work for their food?

By way of contrast, the underside reveals to us (in agreement with Jesus), over time and much gazing, that social structures do in fact play a part.

I was shocked to learn in seminary, for example, that in our own “land of the free” people of color were denied mortgage loans on the basis of their skin color well into the 1980s. In fact, it is argued that in some regions of the country such discrimination continues to this day!

The people affected by this practice are true victims of a grievous social injustice!

Even more shocking to me was the sudden realization that I did not know this had been going on. Unlike so many others, I’d never had to experience this kind of systemic injustice personally. And wasn’t my ignorance, in itself, a kind of injustice?

Gazing at the underside, we begin to ask questions like this. Who are the true victims of the system? How do we care for them when we find them? How do we foster a compassionate social order for the common good?

As small a church as we are, then, we’re not too small to figure out some way of bringing the underside of the tables Jesus overturns into sharper focus, so that others can gaze with us.

Advertisements

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2017 by timtrue

Tina_turner_21021985_01_350

Matthew 22:34-46

1.

Just yesterday—or was it the day before?—Jesus turned the literal tables over in the Temple courts.

Which led to challenges from the Temple leaders about authority: Tell us, they demanded, by what and whose authority are you doing these things?

Which led to a series of parables from Jesus about what the kingdom of God is like: a vineyard planted by a landowner, he said, or a wedding banquet given by a king; tax collectors and prostitutes will enter it ahead of the religious leaders.

Which in turn led to a series of three debates: about taxes; about the resurrection; about the law of God.

Don’t make too much of politics, Jesus says; Caesar is neither Satan nor God.

God is not the God of the dead, he states; but of the living.

It’s not about the law, he declares; but love.

And, by the way, since I have your attention, why does David call his own descendant Lord?

And with this question he turns over another table—a mental table this time.

Since entering Jerusalem, Jesus has faced continuous opposition. Through it all—in his metaphors, parables, and debates—he brilliantly has overturned tables literal and figurative!

But here, with this third debate—did you catch it?—the verbal opposition comes to an abrupt halt. The last verse from today’s passage says, “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

In terms of drama, here the scene ends. In the next scene Jesus will spend some exclusive time with his disciples before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The conspiracy against him will continue to develop; but quietly now, secretly, in the shadows, in whispered arguments in dark corridors; and it will become greedy, self-serving, treacherous. Here, now, the house lights have dimmed; the stage hands are rearranging the props.

Obviously, with this abrupt halt in the Passion play, Jesus has made his point. Obviously, after Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with love, he has turned another table on his opponents, a final table, with this stuff about David and the Messiah. Obviously!

He’s brilliant. He’s dialectically and rhetorically unstoppable. And thus no one will dare to attempt to trap him verbally again!

But—wait a minute!—I don’t know about you but I’m confused.

It may have been obvious to them, in Jesus’ day; but not to me! Just what in the world was it? What table did Jesus just overturn here? What point did Jesus just make, exactly, to put such a decisive end to the debates?

He pointed out to them that the greatest commandment is love; but then he turned their attention to the Messiah being both David’s son and David’s Lord.

I get the part about David’s son: the Messiah is some kind of king. Also, I get the part about David’s Lord: the Messiah’s kingship will far surpass David’s in some spiritual way. But how is this stuff about David and the Messiah connected to love? To channel Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it?

2.

This is a riddle, for sure. Nevertheless, today’s Gospel confronts us with it. Shouldn’t we therefore try to figure it out? Here’s my take:

Jesus was demanding a change in perspective.

Now, let me explain.

The religious leaders’ established perspective was of God as supreme King.

To be sure, many scriptural metaphors liken God to a king.

As a mighty king, God delivered Moses and the people of Israel from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. God is called king throughout the psalms. King David is called a man after God’s own heart. Even Jesus sometimes uses a king in his own parables: A king decided to throw a wedding banquet; and so on.

But there are other divine metaphors throughout the scriptures too, many and manifold, which liken God to other things: a father, a mother giving birth, a lover, a friend, fire, light, wind; and the list goes on.

God is like that. God is unexplainable, like a benevolent king who puts a stop to injustice and oppression; yet also like a lover, intimate and personal.

We try to explain; but, really, how can words convey God at all?

Now, it is a wonderful thing when a benevolent king exercises justice on behalf of his people.

But, to carry out this metaphor a little farther, a king is mostly removed from his subjects:

  • He has his palace up and away from the common people
  • He is largely aloof, detached from the experiences of daily peasant life
  • He must establish and maintain order over his subjects, order that comes through rules, regulations, and taxes
  • He must make judgments when laws are not kept
  • (And, for what it’s worth, he is male)

The trouble comes when people view God through one lens at the exclusion of others.

When people view God only as supreme King, God becomes mostly removed from them, up and away in his palace in heaven, aloof, away from the day-to-day experiences of his people. God is understood to establish order over his people through rules, regulations, and taxes—aka obligatory tithes. When his people sin against him, God presides as judge over them.

And now, the original metaphor—all that stuff about benevolence; or putting an end to injustice and oppression—has been largely forgotten.

Moreover, when the people viewing God through this lens happen to be leaders, as were Jesus’ opponents, they act accordingly, appointing themselves as spiritual kings over their “subjects.”

But the kingdom of heaven, Jesus teaches, is like a wedding banquet. It’s a king who is the host, sure; but he is there in the midst of the festivities, mingling with the guests, sharing, laughing, and dining with them; even with tax collectors and prostitutes!

Jesus is confronting his opponents with their need to change perspective.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as king; but Jesus told them not to make too much of politics.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as ruling from on high, far away and largely separate from the lives of his people; but God is God of the living, Jesus said, dwelling with and among the people as they dwell with God.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as maintaining order by the rules and regulations of the Torah; but the greatest commandment is love, Jesus declared.

The Messiah, David’s Lord, will not rule and reign as David’s son—he will not rule as supreme King, far off in his high palace, removed from the daily experiences of his peasant subjects.

Rather, God is love. God is relationship. Like a friend and lover, God dwells among us and in each of us.

God is upending the hierarchical, dominating systems of the world that breed injustice, fear, and judgment—systems political, social, and religious.

It seems to me, then, that in all his confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders since entering Jerusalem a few days ago, Jesus is proclaiming a largely forgotten yet very real side of God. It’s not the side they’ve all been looking at for so many centuries; not the side from which they’ve inferred hierarchy, fear, judgment, rules, and regulations—but the other side, the overturned side, the side that reveals God as friend and lover.

Thus: Jesus was demanding a change in perspective.

But this change was so radical that it would upend his opponents’ entire system of spiritual domination and control. It was a threat to their established religion. He was a threat to them. As far as they were concerned, the debating—not to mention his life—had to come to an abrupt and decisive end.

The curtain drops; the lights dim; the scene ends.

3.

Now, I don’t know about you, but all this makes me a little uncomfortable. For, doesn’t the modern Christian church, by and large, continue to view God as king rather than as friend and lover?

To view God as king is to view him (male image) as a distant, powerful being; who spoke and thereby brought the sun, moon, stars, planets, trees, plants, animals, and us humans into existence. He continues to operate in our world, but aloof, as sovereign judge from his throne far away in heaven.

This view makes sin and guilt focal points of our faith.

Theological concepts like repentance, redemption, liberation, and salvation are all defined by sin: sin is what we repent from; it’s what we are redeemed, liberated, and saved from. Yet none of us is able to meet the requirements of God’s law; none of us measures up—yielding no small amount of guilt.

And so we who are the church end up acting like the God we image. Far too often we appoint ourselves as judges over the world around us, keeping track of broken moral laws, feeling guilty and ashamed ourselves.

That’s the message the world has heard anyway; and it’s an old, tired message.

But God is a friend; and does a real friend make rules and regulations to be obeyed or else? But God is a lover; and does an ideal lover want his beloved to feel guilty?

Think about just how radical this turning of the tables is! Jesus is telling us today that God is not all about law and record-keeping and sin and judgment. Rather, God is love.

What does this perspective do to sin?

It’s still there, sure: sin is part and parcel of the human condition. But it is no longer an all-encompassing, guilt-inducing focal point of our faith. It no longer defines and constrains concepts like repentance, redemption, liberation, and salvation.

No longer do we stand condemned, as if stuck in a jail cell awaiting a judge’s sentence. Instead, we are merely estranged from the lover who seeks to win us back, who knows us personally, and who cares for us intimately.

God is our friend and lover.

This is the message Jesus proclaimed to the world so long ago;

This is the message which confronted the religious establishment;

And this is the message we are called to proclaim today.

Riddling Jesus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2015 by timtrue

Christ_drives_the_Usurers_out_of_the_Temple

John 2:13-22

Do you enjoy riddles?

Here’s one: What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?

Anyone know the answer?

Anyone know the history, where this riddle comes from?

In Greek mythology, the Sphinx guarded the road to the pyramids and other treasures of Egypt.  It would ask this riddle to people who wanted to pass by; and if the person couldn’t answer, the Sphinx would devour the traveler.

Finally, after many travelers had come to their respective tragic ends, a man named Oedipus answered this riddle successfully; and the Sphinx met her tragic end, turning into sandstone and eventually crumbling—which is why she has no nose today.

The answer to the riddle, then: man.  In the morning of life, a man is a baby and thus crawls on all fours.  At life’s midday, a man walks upright, on two legs.  In the evening of life, when a man is old, he uses a cane and thus has three legs.

Here’s another riddle:

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt, / Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt. / It lies behind stars and under hills, / And empty holes it fills. / It comes out first and follows after, / Ends life, kills laughter.

Anyone know whence this riddle cometh?

This is one of Gollum’s, posed to Bilbo in The Hobbit.  Bilbo is lost in a cave deep within a mountain.  It’s the cave where he finds the notorious ring.  Here he encounters Gollum and strikes up a deal.  They’ll play a riddle game.  If Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave.  But if Gollum wins, Bilbo becomes his dinner.  Yikes!

Anyway, anyone know the answer to this riddle?

Dark. Dark cannot be seen, cannot be felt, and so on.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a puzzle solver.  Riddles are a kind of puzzle for me.  When someone poses a good riddle to me—a clever one with only one possible answer, like the ones just discussed—it sticks with me.  I wrestle with it.  I struggle over it.  I think about it in my sleep—or so it feels like I do.  Until, at last, I either figure out the answer or return frustrated and defeated to the person who asked it.  Can anyone relate?

Now, let’s turn to today’s Gospel reading.

Here is a well-known story.  And, it seems, no matter how many times I’ve read, thought about, and even studied it, my initial gut response is always, “Yeah!  Go, Jesus!”

Here Jesus stands armed with a whip, determined to set things right.  Jesus is my kind of hero!  Jesus is the kind of leader I want to follow!  Yes!  Go, Jesus!

But then I begin to settle down.  The adrenaline rush is over.  And I start to realize the setting: the place where this scenario is taking place; and the people whom Jesus opposes.

Jesus is in the Temple!  This is a beautiful worship space, well designed as the spiritual center of the holy city Jerusalem.  And everything taking place here isn’t necessarily wrong.

People need a place to exchange their common currency—with images of Caesar on it—for the image-less drachmae, the coins required for the Temple tax.

Likewise, spiritual pilgrims need to buy sacrificial animals, meaning animals without blemish.  It would be very difficult to carry a turtledove, for example, from a long distance away and keep it unblemished.

Arguably, then, all these tables that Jesus is now overturning are in fact necessary for the Temple to function properly.

And the people who confront Jesus—those whom Jesus apparently opposes—are the Temple leaders.

You know what this is?  This place is the cathedral of Jesus’s day!  And these leaders?  They’re the cathedral dean and his canons; they’re the rector and his associate priests.

Now my adrenaline begins pumping again and I’m thinking, “Hey, wait a minute!”

And I find myself very sympathetic when these religious leaders ask Jesus to show them his credentials.  “What sign can you show us for doing this?” they ask.  By what authority, Jesus, are you causing this scene?

And to answer them, Jesus poses a riddle.  “Destroy this temple,” he says; “and in three days I will raise it up.”

Well, we know the answer to this riddle from the words that follow.  Jesus is not speaking about the literal Temple, the physical building and grounds still being constructed after forty-six years of work.  Rather, Jesus is talking of his own physical body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, which the political and religious leaders will in fact destroy; and the temple which Jesus himself will in fact raise from the dead after three days.  We know the answer to Jesus’s riddle.

But, I wonder, after their initial response, did the leaders Jesus confronted wrestle with his riddle?  Did they ponder his riddle, puzzle over it, lose sleep over it, and perhaps even grow frustrated as they sought unsuccessfully to understand what Jesus meant?

These leaders were doing what they knew how to do.  They were taking their jobs seriously.  And they did their jobs well.  Pilgrims needed a place to exchange money; pilgrims needed to obtain unblemished animals for sacrificial purposes.  And the leaders had attended even to these very particular details.  To put it in modern terminology, they were meeting the people where they were!  The Temple leaders were making Temple worship user-friendly!

Which causes me to wonder even more. What about us?  Is Jesus telling us a riddle here to get us thinking?  Should we be puzzling over his words?

Like the Temple leaders, both as individual disciples and as a corporate church, we have a pretty good thing going, a pretty well-oiled machine running.  We might spend some time troubleshooting and brainstorming now and again, to improve our machine; but we are pretty much settled into a routine, a method—disciplines—for maintaining our spirituality.

We are settled on them: these disciplines.  We’ve had good reason to do so.  And so, after a while of practicing our routines, we’ve come to think we have it down.  At best, we say, it works for me; at worst, we think, everyone else should do it my way too.

But what if there is something about my way that needs to change?  What if I’ve become blind to something?  Who will I allow to get my attention?  And how will they get it?

Maybe it’s time for me to consider this riddle from Jesus.  Maybe it’s time—right now, in the middle of Lent—as an individual disciple of Christ, to ask questions like:

  • What is Jesus trying to tell me?
  • How can I serve Jesus better?
  • Where have I been blind to Jesus?
  • Where have my own self-serving routines eclipsed Jesus?

Or maybe it’s time to ask these questions not as individuals but as a church.  The riddles, the perplexing questions, are there—if we look for them.

A friend recently posed this one to me.

There’s this group on the internet called Mystery Worshiper.  You can look them up.  They’re kind of like Mystery Shopper.

Anonymous people worship in churches and then write up evaluations of their experiences.  One of questions by which this group evaluates a church is, “What were the first words you heard spoken in the worship service?”  The answer they favor is, “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” for this opening acclamation is vertical: God-directed.  The answer they criticize most harshly is, “Welcome to St. So-and-so’s,” for this salutation is horizontal: directed at the worshiper.  Worship should be vertical, they say; not horizontal.

Well, the astute worshiper here will note that we usually practice the latter, not the former.  But that’s not the point.  Whatever the case, whether we agree with this approach or not, it’s a good place to start; a good question—a kind of riddle—for us to consider as a church.

  • How might we be eclipsing Jesus as a corporate body?
  • Are our outreach efforts more interested in serving Jesus or ourselves?
  • Do we value things like user-friendliness too much?
  • Are we trying too hard to meet people where they are?

Following Christ is a riddle worth pondering deeply.