Sunday, March 04, 2018
March 4, Lent 3: Signs of God #3; Commandments and Temple
Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22
In 1980 I began my first ministry, at the Hungarian Reformed Church in South River NJ. The ladies held an Election Day Stuffed Cabbage Supper as an annual fund-raiser. I love stuffed cabbage. So did the whole north end of town.
That first Election Day evening we stood on line to come into the hall for dinner, and there inside the door was a table where Mrs. Buga was selling chances. Gambling in church! I was horrified. She sat there with a black metal cash box, a roll of numbered tickets colored red, and a rotating steel mesh ball for shuffling the tickets. At the next consistory meeting I asked the elders and deacons to put an end to this practice, and they did so, which amazes me now because they were going against their wives. But I had a very positive ministry there for five years.
In 1986 I left that church for graduate school, but on Election Day we went back to eat stuffed cabbage and say hello. We came into the hall and there at her table sat Mrs. Buga, with her cash box and red roll of tickets and steel mesh ball. Kept safe for five years. They had just waited me out. So how long did it take for the money-changers to get back into the temple and set up shop again?
The Cleansing of the Temple happens on Palm Sunday, according to Matthew, but in John’s Gospel it’s way earlier, right after Our Lord’s first miracle of turning water into wine. In both events his actions were symbolic, they were meant as signs, but how opposite. Water and wine, and then wrath and a whip. One sign pointing to extravagant generosity and the other to extreme judgment.
Our Lord does this at Passover, the holiday when three years later he will be killed. Already he knows he’s in for it. He’s walking into a three-year Lent. He knows his words will be resisted and his actions opposed, he knows they’ll do away with him for doing what he has to do and saying what he has to say. To do the right thing, you have to sacrifice. To commit to the right thing, you have to pay for it. We know that’s true, but why does it have to be true? It stinks. And just because you know it’s right doesn’t mean you won’t feel anger for having to do it. As Jesus did.
Because sacrifice and suffering are not good things in themselves. You are not called to seek out martyrdom. You are called to a living sacrifice, not a dying one, you are called not to get up on the cross but to carry it—that is, to be realistic, to face the real and unfair cost of leading lives of ethical love. You know this from experience. If you’ve loved, you’ve suffered: whether from the death or misfortune of a loved one, or from having lost out when you did what was right. If you don’t want to sacrifice, don’t love.
Love costs even God. It’s suffering and sacrifice even for God when God commits to us. I said last week that for love’s sake God suffers us. We saw in the story of Noah and the rainbow that God points a bow and arrow back at God’s own heart, the symbol of God’s self-sacrifice. In the story of Abraham we saw God commit to a special relationship with Abraham and his offspring, which then subsequently required God to suffer the shamefully bad behavior of Abraham’s descendants. When God commits to the church, God suffers the relentless scandal of the church.
But even for God, suffering is not good in itself, and it’s in God’s interest to move the relationship along and do something about that behavior. God wants God’s partners to be ethical. So God gives to the children of Abraham the Ten Commandments. This was a new thing in the world, for gods and goddesses to have much interest in ethical behavior, whether among themselves or us. But this God is on a mission to heal the world, and to develop an ethical humanity to share in that healing, and God’s directions to shape that new humanity are the Ten Commandments.
You can think of the Ten Commandments as a sign, a great big sign, erected by God to direct our development towards that humanity that helps to save the world. Of course what the world would prefer is that God do it all himself and prove himself by means of supernatural interventions and convenient miracles and fixing things and stopping things. God does not do it that way, and maybe God is foolish not to. God’s foolishness is rather to be proven by the behavior of those who believe in God.
God commits to us, God identifies with us, and the result of God identifying with us is that God’s reputation is in our hands and our lives. We are entrusted with God’s image in the world. Our behavior is a house for God. Our thoughts and actions and our bodies are God’s temple. The Commandments are a blueprint for the temple of God that is our behavior. God offers this pattern of behavior as something so designed that our performing this pattern converts us into a people whose culture and character become a sign of God within in the world.
These Commandments can be examined one by one, like the details of a blueprint, but they are best in their unity, as an entity. I’m saying to think of them as a house, in which each commandment is a structural member holding up the whole, each commandment holds in tension and compression with the others. The house of our behavior is a house of God, and your ethical lives are a dwelling-place of God in the world, a temple.
For Christians the Ten Commandments are wisdom instead of obligation. For us, the Torah is not obligatory, as St. Paul said last week, but we are obligated to learn the wisdom of God that is carried in them. And we must be willing to pay the price that they demand of us. Like the sacrifice of your freedom of speech that comes with not bearing false witness. Like your sacrifice of sexual freedom that comes with not committing adultery. Like your sacrifice of your right to carry a gun so that you shall not kill. Like the surrender that comes with not coveting your neighbor’s brownstone, if you rent. To love your neighbor as yourself is usually a sacrifice.
And so here is a take-home: If loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you, it isn’t love yet, it’s only being nice. Nice is good, but that’s not what we mean by loving your neighbor as yourself. You will know it’s love when somehow it costs you, even if your neighbor doesn’t know it, and even if you don’t feel very loving. In fact you might feel like Jesus in the temple. Yet you continue to wish them well and serve their good as best you can. And as you pay the costs to be good to your neighbor, you explore what love is. You all need a few relationships of potential irritation for practicing this love. A good place to find such irritating neighbors is in church!
During Lent you confess that in your ethical behavior you have failed to be good representatives of God. During Lent you have be like Jesus in the temple of your own life, pouring out the coins in your heart and upsetting the tables of your own mind. Do that within yourself. That’s confession.
But here’s the deeper level of God’s commitment to you and identification with you: God will be recognized not only in your good behavior, but even in your confession of your bad behavior. God will be recognized, not only as the God who loves the good, but even more as the God who loves the weak and the fallen. In ethical terms, that is the foolishness of God.
The most important ethical behavior that you can do and by which God wants to be known is your telling the truth about yourselves. That can feel like extravagance and extremity, like Jesus in the temple, when you confess “there is no health in us, miserable offenders.” Uncomfortable words? If confession doesn’t cost you your comfort, you haven’t confessed yet.
I said that if loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you yet, it’s only being nice. It’s true for God as well. God has neighbors too, and that means you. God has to love you as God’s self. God treats you with respect, God gives you space and room to live your life as you develop it. God abides you the way you are, God abides you in your weakness and suffers you in your failures. It costs God every day to keep on loving you as God’s self. But that’s what love does, that’s what love loves to do. So I am telling you again that while this pilgrimage of Lent is partly about us, it’s mostly about your journey deep into the unfathomable, unbounded love of God.
Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.