Excitement

I love being excited.

It’s the best feeling. I can be reserved and keep to myself, depending on the situation, but when I get pumped about something, you probably won’t get me to calm down. Especially if someone surprises me with good news that gets me excited…I’m basically beside myself.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I auditioned on cello for the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts. It was a five-week program in the summer for rising junior and seniors, and they only took six cellists from across the state. You got to stay in a dorm at a college and spend a little over a month immersed in your discipline. One day after swim practice, probably in late January, I went out to the mailbox for a routine check.

Inside was my acceptance letter. I read it again and again in the middle of the street, in the freezing cold, with my soaking wet hair, still in my bathing suit. I screamed and jumped up and down with excitement. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was absolutely insane.

I was excited then, and totally beside myself, but think of the rush of emotion that the people in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke must have been feeling. Picture it: They had just witnessed the most surprising and beautiful thing, potentially ever, Jesus himself, risen from the dead. Seeing him in the flesh, feeling his wounds…all after they thought he was gone.

How exciting that must have been? We cannot know, and I even find it a little hard to imagine the true level of joy they were feeling. It must have been out of this world.

But Luke tells us that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…”

Now, I don’t know about you, but those are some emotions I don’t have to try as hard to imagine: Disbelief, wondering.

You see, the people in Luke’s Gospel were so lucky. They got to experience the joy of Jesus’s resurrection first hand. They got to see him, to touch him, to know. But it says, even in the midst of that unfathomable joy, they were disbelieving and still wondering.

Talk about getting the short end of the stick, right? We were born a couple of thousand years too late. For us, as modern followers of Christ, it is far more about faith.

Faith is something that has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I’ve been an Episcopalian my entire life. I started acolyting at age 6, and went on from there to be active in Sunday School, my youth group, the Episcopal Church camp in Tennessee, and various other church retreats for many, many years. I even went on to be in the Episcopal Service Corps, and now (I know this is news), I work in a church!

Some of the greatest moments in my life have come from my experiences with my faith…with Christ…with God. I am overwhelmed with joy by the power of Jesus’s story, his teachings, how he treats others…his whole life, including his death and resurrection.

But even in the midst of that overwhelming joy, I sometimes find myself in an overwhelming state of disbelief…and I am still wondering.

I ask myself all the questions I’m sure those in today’s Gospel were asking: “Are you kidding me? No way. This is crazy, right? Is this for real? Is he for real?” And maybe you ask some of your own questions, too.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. It’s just plain difficult to be a Christian. This is a safe place, so let’s not pretend.

It isn’t always easy to trust. It isn’t always easy to have faith. We do not have the luxury of getting to see Jesus’s flesh and blood. For us, it is a matter of finding meaning and truth in a story that is, well, really old and investing our beliefs and our lives in it. Even with all the joy, that’s really hard. Naturally, we have doubts about all of it. We’re human.

And then comes Jesus’s immediate response to those who were disbelieving and still wondering. He’s showed them his wounds, his flesh, and then he’s just like, “Yo, I told you guys this would happen. Can I can get some food now, please?”

Okay, I joke, but think about it.

They were all both excited and unbelievably uncertain, and Jesus’s reactions in the rest of the reading are so steady. They touched, they saw, and Jesus told them what would happen. He opened their minds and they witnessed the resurrected Christ, so the faith and the action will come. It seems so simple, laid out plainly for us in scripture.

Honestly, though, I don’t know if it was simple, or if it will ever be simple for any of us. But the really exciting thing about Jesus’s resurrection and Easter is that it means that God forever has our backs: loving us, forgiving us, and waiting to help us engage in a joyful, faithful relationship, even when we disbelieve and wonder and life is anything but simple.

In spite of all that, it’s still all too easy to forget about the excitement of Easter and resurrection once all the eggs have been turned into egg salad or left too long in the fridge. It’s easy after a while for that excitement and joy to be overshadowed by our disbelief and our wondering.

And you know what? I think we should still be wondering. Every day.

Because it is kind of unbelievable, right? Jesus’s entire story? It’s messy and it’s complicated and hard to swallow sometimes. But that doesn’t make it any less important or any less magnificent.

I hope that — even in the midst of our disbelief, our wondering, and any difficulties that life throws our way — we are always able to feel that absolute joy when it comes to our faith, the same joy we have already felt in our own meaningful experiences with God and with others, the same joy we feel at the celebration on Easter morning, and that very same joy felt by those who were able to touch and to see.

Because, in a way, we have touched and we have seen.

So, just like them, when we remember Jesus’s life: his teachings, his death, his resurrection, and what all of those mean for us as a faithful people, I hope we are always, always able to think: “How crazy. How beautiful. How…exciting.”

Amen.

– Jillian Smith

Jillian Smith, a former member of Deaconess Anne House in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, is the Director of Youth Ministry at St. Peter’s/Ladue.

“Have you anything here to eat?

WhyAreYouFrightenedWiki“Have you anything here to eat?

This is a meditation which centres on food. It owes more to Martha than to Mary, as I’m writing it in the throes of preparing lunch for friends. And these are not just any friends; the husband used to be a professional chef, and is a very good and imaginative cook indeed. I’m perfectly sure that he’ll eat whatever I set before him and be positive about it, but all the same, I want to get things right.

And this isn’t just because I want to try to impress him. I really want both of them to enjoy the meal, and to be able to sit there and eat it with them and relax while we talk over the food. Eating together is such an important thing; it draws us together and cements friendships, lays down memories of good times together and promises more good times to come. Eating with other people is powerful and significant.

The disciples must have spent so much of their lives with Jesus eating with him, feasting with him at the wedding with Cana, sharing whatever they could find while tramping along dusty roads from one town to another, gazing with astonishment at the never-ending supply of loaves and fishes by the lakeshore. This Sunday’s Gospel gives us an unexpected insight into the bonds that held them together.

There they are, not quite daring to believe that it’s their real, solid Lord, back from the dead, standing among them in the old familiar way. So Jesus does the most practical thing imaginable; he asks them for something to eat. What could be more normal and ordinary and completely human? Here he is, returned from the other side of death, eating with them as he’d done so many times before. Then they really believe at last, and he can talk to them freely.

I’d better get back to the kitchen, and get my tagine into the oven; it won’t be long before our guests arrive. Thanks be to God, who gives us food to enjoy and friends to enjoy it with – and his own Son, who died for our sake and rose again to be our friend as well as our Saviour.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

Green-Up Time

Daffodil, close up“Lo, the fair beauty of earth, from the death of the winter arising! Every good gift of the year now with its Master returns!”

– Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?)

This year, spring (the Midwestern variety, not just the precession of the equinoxes) arrived in remarkable synchronicity with Easter. The season of Easter, of course, continues for the Great 50 Days. So, if the weather smiles upon us, does spring.

Both seasons are now past their first blush. A few lonely blossoms cling to the half-leafed-out flowering crab outside my bedroom window, and the last of the narcissi have been clipped from the cutting bed out back. But even as a storm front knocks the fragile blossoms from one set of trees, the buds ready themselves to burst on another.

My father calls this “green-up time,” when leaves are new and grass re-grows, and that bright fresh green seen only in early spring is everywhere as the days lengthen recklessly on their way to summer. It’s the season for planting, whether crops, trees, or something in between in terms of permanence. So plant I did.

In fact, the only retail establishments to which I can easily walk from home are nurseries. In fact, there are four of them, three in a row just to the north of me, and one an outlier to the south. I headed out to buy pansies; their cheerful faces always brighten the pots outside my front door, to say nothing of my mood when I see them smiling back at me. On my way to Nursery #2, I noticed a sign at Nursery #1: “$99 trees.”

When this development was in its final stages of construction, someone found cheap white pines and planted them behind the houses. Unfortunately, the white pine doesn’t like our thick clay soil, and it doesn’t care for damp. Ours are planted on the low ground, and soggy roots are an issue. While one of my pines has done all right, the kindest word for the other one was “puny.” It was sick and sad, and largely bereft of needles.

I thought about it as I headed home with my plants and deposited them on my doorstep. Then I headed back to seek a tree, one that wouldn’t mind getting its feet wet.

The nursery man looked for an oak variety he thought would suit, but they were sold out, and the new ones wouldn’t be $99. Then he hit on the river birch, a native of southern Missouri, a practical tree that can deal with flooding. I bought it, and called Jim the Landscaper to take out the old and put in the new.

For a couple of weeks, the birch looked decidedly dead. Last week I saw the first signs of buds, cautious signs, not-quite-sure signs. This week, suddenly, there are thousands of tiny grass-green leaves, each expanding almost as I look.

Planting anything is an act of faith, whether it’s burying bulbs in the late-fall chill or trees by the pale light of early spring. For those of us with short life expectancies, bulbs are the safer bet. I expect to see mine come up several times.

But trees are for the long haul. It may not grow tall enough fast enough for me ever to enjoy its shade, but that’s all right; others will appreciate it in years to come. It is a connection to the future, a bond with God’s earth, and a promise for springs to come.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Doubting Thomas on Low Sunday

caravaggio-thomasThis Sunday is formally known as the Second Sunday of Easter. It’s also known as “Low Sunday,” a name enshrined even in the Churchman’s Ordo Kalendar on my wall, the handy ecclesiastical authority on saints’ days and holy days and what lessons get read when.

Some of the “Low” is about the notable contrast in ritual and liturgy between the the most important feast of the year, Easter Day, and the Sunday that follows it. Some of it concerns attendance; most Christians try to make it to church for the Feast of the Resurrection, but relatively few feel obliged to show up again so soon after it.

That is a shame, because the gospel reading for Low Sunday concerns an apostle with whom many of us can sympathize, Thomas.

The name Thomas means “twin” in Aramaic; he’s also called Didymus, the Greek equivalent. (We don’t know his given name; we also have no word on whether or not his closest relative was also a disciple.) He seems to have been a practical man, as well as a faithful follower. When Jesus announced his plans to go to Jerusalem after the raising of Lazarus from the dead, an act which certainly put him into the Temple authorities’ crosshairs, Thomas said, “Let’s go too, so that we can die with him.” You can practically hear the eyeroll.

Later, when Jesus says that he’s going to prepare a place for his followers, Thomas points out, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so just how do you expect us to find our way there?”

It’s not exactly surprising, then, that Thomas, who wasn’t there when the risen Christ appeared to the other apostles, loudly expresses his skepticism. Maybe he even got a little snarky, the way he did in Bethany after the raising of Lazarus. He wanted to be perfectly clear on this: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger there, and put my hand into the wound in his side, I’m not going to believe it.”

Jesus called him on it, appearing in the closed room where the disciples were meeting, and saying, “All right, Thomas, here you go!” Then Thomas did believe, responding “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus answered with a question and answer for the ages: “Do you believe now that you’ve seen me? Blessed are they who have not seen, and still believe.”

We were born much too late, and in much the wrong place, to have experienced Jesus up close, as his first disciples did. We have to take him on faith. We may feel Christ’s saving presence in our lives and be assured of his love for us, but short of a mystical experience along the lines of a Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila, we can’t touch the stigmata of his crucifixion.

Fortunately, it’s all right to have doubts; it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions. It’s okay to believe in the truth of Jesus’s resurrection more on one day than another. If we ask, Christ will give us the answer we need, just as he did for Thomas, and for many more who have come to question in the centuries since then.

Some of us will always be Thomases by nature; what matters is how we respond to the answers that we’re given. Any day can hold the joy of Easter when our hearts are open; Low Sunday can come more than once a year when they’re closed.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

 

 

Easter gladness, Easter joy

HappyBabybyWeirdBeardIt was one of those bright moments that sweetly sums it up, bringing our attention to what’s really important.

At the start of the 9 o’clock service on Easter Day –  after a heroic prelude, the introit responses (“The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us rejoice and be glad!”), and one of the great hymns of the Church, “Easter Hymn” (non-musicians know it as “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”), sung and played full out by the choir and congregation, brass and organ – there came an unexpected affirmation.

Just as the music began to die away, just as priests and people caught their breath and began to move on to the next (spoken) thing, a tiny girl in the back of the nave shouted out a spontaneous “Yay!” Her joy was palpable and contagious, a perfect non-liturgical reaction for someone experiencing that particular joy for the first time. The congregation laughed in appreciation. The rector said, “We’re going home now,” because, in a sense, it had all been said.

We didn’t, of course, and (without the sermon, anthem, and communion, just for starters) it hadn’t, of course. But it was a useful reminder. After all, we already know the story, how Jesus died and rose again, of his followers’ grief and elation. In that moment, she reminded us that the story is always new.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

 

 

 

 

The end of Lent

PaschaFIreRicardo77WikiIt’s almost here, the final darkness before the coming of the light, the brightness of the morning when the empty tomb was discovered. This evening, the new fire will be kindled, and bells will ring out in gladness.

That means that it’s almost two months since we decided on our Lenten disciplines, what to take on and what to give up. It’s time to consider how well I’ve done with mine.

There have been some successes in the first category. You’re reading the most public one. The Grace Prayer Network has been successfully revived, and in the originally intended form: Three former contributors besides me have returned, and a new one has been added. (If you’re interested, I invite you to contribute GPN meditations as well. Now that we’re going again, we want to continue, and having a variety of voices keeps things interesting.)

Giving up is harder for me; fighting ingrained habits takes more effort. It’s a small thing, and just one of several, but I’ve tried, for instance, to stop getting annoyed with other drivers, those who cut in front of me or poke along in the left lane. Getting angry over such small things hurts only me; let it go. That’s been a partial success, at least. Patience.

Now comes the greater challenge, keeping those small flames going and growing, and continuing all the disciplines I’ve begun. This isn’t like temporarily giving up chocolate or wine, and then plunging back into old habits (cheers!) on Easter Day. This involves a change in the way I live. It requires the discipline to continue to sit down and find thoughts and words worth sharing, even when the numberless distractions of modern life attack. It requires the calm to put aside annoyances and focus on what’s important.

Keeping the fires fed can be difficult at times, but the light and warmth will be worth it. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon notes: Why did Jesus have to die?

Alwan_CodexSERMON NOTES, GOOD FRIDAY (April 3, 2015; preached at Church of the Good Shepherd/Town and Country)

After we hear today’s gospel lesson, the long, detailed account of the trial, execution, and burial of Jesus, the fundamental question remains: Why was he put to death on a cross?

As is so often the case, there’s more than one answer. In the death of Jesus, there’s a political reason, and there’s a theological reason. I think the theology has been misinterpreted for a very long time.

Let’s take the easy one first.

That would be the political reason. The Roman Empire was not built on a foundation of international brotherhood, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and warm fuzzies. On a very fundamental level, the Roman Empire was built on terror.

When the Roman army came calling, the locals could try to fight, or they could surrender. Surrender, and they’d take only a tribute of the population as slaves; resist, and the whole population could be put to death or hauled off to be sold.

Resist, or, after the conquest was completed, revolt against Rome’s authority, and crosses would rise along the roads, sometimes hundreds of them, “Pour encourager les autres,” as Voltaire put it. The idea was to show as many passersby as possible the monstrous consequences of fighting back.

Crucifixion was ideal for the Romans’ purposes in subjugation. It was public and it was slow, sometimes involving days of excruciating torture before a body could finally be declared a corpse, left to rot for the birds of prey.

The Roman prefect Pontius Pilate had no problems with ordering crucifixions. We know from the contemporary Jewish writers Philo and Josephus that he was a cruel, capricious man, corrupt and ill-tempered. He liked to jerk around the people he ruled, putting objects they considered idolatrous in Jerusalem just to get them going. He stole money from the Temple treasury to build an aquaduct. Pilate’s ill-judged and contemptuous behavior meant that the threat of insurrection always simmered and sometimes boiled over in Palestine. For that, he once drew a rebuke from the Emperor Tiberius himself.

Philo wrote that PIlate feared that some of his subjects might go to Rome and “expose the rest of his conduct as governor by stating in full the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries, the executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty.”

After a particularly egregious massacre in Samaria, Vitellius, the Roman governor of Syria and Pilate’s superior, finally sent him back to Rome. The Romans might not have cared that much about the fates of their subjects, but they preferred to keep the peace. Pilate was the kind of ruler who made men desperate.

From reading both the gospel accounts and other histories, I think we can assume that, while Pilate might enjoy toying for a few minutes with a crackpot Messiah, he wouldn’t have cared one way or another about his fate. The gospel writers cut him a lot of slack, in an effort to assure their overlords that honestly, no, really, they didn’t blame Rome at all.

The Jewish authorities were well aware of Pilate’s proclivities, of course. Faced with a troublesome prophet, a man with crowds of followers who were starting to use the M-word – “messiah” – when they talked about him, they took care of the problem.

“It is expedient that one man should die for the people, so that we don’t all find ourselves dead,” said the high priest Caiaphas, a sensible man and experienced politician. In fairness, he and his colleagues were concerned about the suffering of the people, as well as themselves.

And so they arrested Jesus, trumped up some charges against him, and turned him over to the Romans. The rulers had the power to execute, and no compunctions about using it.

There we have the political reasons for the torture and execution of Jesus. What about the theology?

I’ve struggled for some time with the idea that God demanded such suffering in order to pay off the debt of humanity’s sinfulness. It’s a doctrine known as “penal substitutionary atonement.” We sin, God demands an enormous sacrifice, and Jesus steps up to the plate and takes one for the team.

I don’t like that. Then again, I don’t much like the story of Abraham and Isaac, when God ordered Abraham to slaughter his son, only to say, at the last possible moment, “Just kidding!” It makes God into a cosmic bully, like some of the pagan deities against whom both Judaism and Christianity rebelled.

The concept of substitutionary atonement is not central to the faith. It’s not an ancient belief. It was invented during the Reformation, and not by tolerant Via Media-type Anglicans, either. It’s from the unpleasant “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” folks, who may preach the grace of God, but who sometimes don’t seem to really endorse it.

As the Roman Catholic writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry puts it, sin is not a debt that can be repaid; sin is an insult that separates us from God.

We have insulted God with our sin, and God takes that insult seriously. God treats sin with contempt, “and a love that breaks the barrier that sin tries to put up. Where sin abounds, grace superabounds. The answer to sin is not punishment, it is grace.”

Salvation by grace is what we teach, and what most of us believe.

Okay, but we still have the question of why Jesus had to die upon a cross.

Presbyterian minister Mark Sandlin says that it was for love, and I agree with him. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus said. And that is what Jesus did.

Jesus died because he loved the world too much to stay quiet in the face of injustice. Jesus died because those in power were threatened by his actions, whether it was healing the sick on the Sabbath or preaching the coming of the Reign of God.

Jesus died because of his love for God’s people. In the face of his suffering on the cross, we see the true extent of God’s love for us.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

See the video from Church of the Good Shepherd.

The Collect for the Day

Today’s  meditation marks the welcome return of contributor Susan Leach to GPN.JesusWithBook

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly
wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to
love what you command and desire what you promise; that,
among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts
may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

– Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the Book of Common Prayer

Because I might be best described as a casual Christian, I am frequently surprised by the sheer transcendency of the readings served up each day in the Lectionary. As I began preparing to write this day’s meditation, the Collect for the day made my heart beat faster and I abandoned my plan to try to encapsulate all of the lessons. The Psalms, especially Psalm 51, and the Lessons old and new were all familiar and well-loved and I have written about them many times in years past. I don’t recall, though, ever being quite so fixated upon the Collect; so perhaps the time has come.

Calling out to God that “you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners” and asking that he “Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise” could scarcely be better-stated to restore order to our chaotic planet. The words “swift and varied changes of the world” seem rather mild until examples begin running through the mind. Trying to imagine any latest and greatest improvement being sufficient for more than a moment is futile, and so asking that “our hearts may surely be fixed where true joys are to be found” has seldom if ever been more appropriate.

If it is your custom to look up and consider the readings in preparation for Sundays that is a good thing; there is so much more to consider than you can immediately absorb. If not, listen for the wisdom in our insightful Collects and allow the words space in your thoughts. They can open the way to a better understanding of the Lessons and perhaps a better path to travel as you leave Sunday worship.

Thanks be to God.

– Susan Leach

Refreshment

LaetareJerusalemAdvent has Gaudete Sunday, marked by a rose candle amidst the traditional violet tapers in the Advent wreath. Lent has Laetare Sunday, now rarely observed in this country, but worth remembering.

During the long centuries when the rules for observing Lent were both strict and and strictly observed, Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of the season, offered Western Christians a chance to come up for air. The name comes from the incipit, or first line, of the introit for the day, “Laetare Jerusalem,” “Rejoice, Jerusalem,” from Isaiah 66:10. It’s the closest thing anyone’s going to get to an alleluia in the course of almost six weeks.

Also known as “Refreshment Sunday,” for the tonic it provided to those who were feeling weary on the road to the Paschal feast, it had serious perks. In England and Scotland, special delights called simnel cakes – very unpenitential delicacies indeed, with marzipan frosting – were allowed on Laetare Sunday, the first legal sweets anyone had enjoyed since Ash Wednesday, and the last until the Day of Resurrection. It was also the only day during Lent when a marriage could be celebrated.

The color for the day is rose, a lightening of the season’s penitential purple. Some parishes (usually wealthy enough to afford a set of vestments that are used only twice a year, often Anglo-Catholic in liturgical and theological outlook) change out the violet hangings and vestments for the day, just to underline the temporary change in tone.

In 16th century England, it was the custom to attend the “mother church,” the cathedral or principal church in a parish, on Laetare Sunday; Lent IV thus gained the additional title of “Mothering Sunday.” Servants were allowed to go home to visit their own mothers, lightening their personal sacrifice but making Lent a little more real for their employers. In recent years in Britain, Mothering Sunday has become largely conflated with the imported American holiday of Mother’s Day, to considerable confusion.

Although our view of Lent has shifted over the years from a focus on giving up to an emphasis on taking on, Refreshment Sunday is still worth observing. The world seems darker these days, with perils at hand in almost every corner of the world; as Christians, we are reminded that Christ’s greatest sufferings are still in store. Laetare gives us a chance to breathe, to relax in our observance, and to remember that the Lamb’s high feast is coming soon.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

It would be worth wearing pink on Lent IV just for the simnel cake. Here’s a recipe from the BBC.

 

 

Sermon notes: Cleansing the Temple

ChristCleansingTempleCranachSERMON NOTES, LENT 3, YEAR B (Preached at St. Luke’s/Manchester, March 8, 2015) John 2:13-22

If you have ever labored under the misconception that Jesus was just a very holy, very nice guy, then today’s gospel reading is for you.

A thorough reading of the gospels reveals to us just how multifaceted Jesus was. There is the teacher, dispensing wisdom, and making people think with his parables and sayings. There is the miracle-worker, healing the lame and making the blind see.

There is the prophet, proclaiming the good news of the Reign of God. Occasionally, we even get to see the very human Cranky Jesus cursing a fig tree, or getting snarky with a Gentile woman who wants his help.

In today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus taking on the roles of judge and enforcer, going on the warpath in the Temple, upsetting the tables of the moneychangers, to say nothing of the status quo, and scandalizing the (easily scandalized) priestly class. It’s not a side of his character that we frequently see, but it’s an important one.

A version of this episode appears in all four gospels, but with some important differences. The three Synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – all put the cleansing of the Temple into what we know as Holy Week, after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In those accounts, it’s one of the last things Jesus does as a free man. It’s also one of the immediate causes of his arrest, trial, and execution.

The gospel of John, which draws on a different early tradition, places it near the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. In fact, it comes right after the wedding at Cana, when Jesus changed water into wine, performing his initial public miracle.

Both put it right before the Passover, but at different times. John’s narrative shows Jesus’s public ministry taking place over the course of three years, with multiple trips to Jerusalem. In the Synoptics, it’s all compressed into a single year, with his time in Jerusalem coming only at the end.

The animal sellers and money changers were performing an important and officially sanctioned function. All the rules for what they’re described as doing are set forth in the book of Leviticus, the work of an early bureaucracy that was focused on centering all worship at the temple. Sacrifices were made by the priests on behalf of the people, for the forgiveness of sins, or for thanksgiving and celebration. These rules are major additions to the Ten Commandments, as we heard them read in the first lesson this morning, but it is in human – and, especially, bureaucratic – nature to expand on and further embroider existing regulations.

Since the animals were being sacrificed to God, they had to be absolutely perfect, with no blemishes. You couldn’t just bring in a dove off the streets and offer it for sacrifice, or lead in a lamb from your farm. It had to be certified and sold by an approved merchant, rather as our Cardinals team regalia has to be approved by Major League Baseball.

In the same way, the moneychangers made the use of coinage acceptable in the sacred precincts of the Temple. A Roman or other coin, bearing the image of an emperor or foreign god, was unclean for sacrificial purposes; it had to be traded in for a coin that had no pagan taint. The bankers at the Temple exchanged pure money for the impure.

Of course, everyone involved in this business did well while doing good. The Temple authorities got a cut of everything that went on there. The priests ate most of the sacrifices of grain and animal offerings. The money changers made a tidy profit, as did the animal sellers. Given human nature, it’s likely that there was some quiet price-fixing going on, and not in the consumer’s favor.

It all took place in the Temple’s outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, and it must have been a mess. There were the animal sellers, with their cattle, sheep and doves, all bellowing, baa-ing and cooing. There were the money-changers at their tables. There were even souvenirs for sale to those Jews who traveled from around the Mediterranean world in order to worship at the Temple.

We can be sure that there was plenty of huckstering going on, with all those wares and services being loudly advertised. We can be equally sure that it was not a scene to lift one’s thoughts to the beauty of holiness.

This wasn’t the first time Jesus had been to the Temple. This wasn’t the first time he’d made his way through the holy hucksters who hawked their wares. But this was the first time he reacted so passionately to what he witnessed.

Except for Mark, the Synoptics give the incident a set of fairly cursory paragraphs. Luke puts it this way: “Then he went to the Temple and began driving out the traders, with these words: ‘Scripture says, “My house shall be a house of prayer,” but you have made it a den of thieves.'”

Compare that to the level of detail we’ve just heard from John. Jesus went to the Temple, saw – and heard, and smelled – the market, and saw red. He made a whip out of cords and drove out the dealers and their herds. He overturned the moneychangers’ tables and set their stacks of coins bouncing and spinning across the pavement. He ordered the pigeon-mongers to take their cages full of birds and leave.

Jesus was like a one-man riot squad. The salesmen must have been stunned by his actions, because there’s no record that they resisted.

The Temple authorities weren’t so easily cowed. They ordered Jesus to justify himself.

He answered with a response that must have seemed absurd on its face: “Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up again.”

Literal-minded men, they assumed that he was talking about Herod’s Temple, which, as they pointed out, had been under construction for 46 years. But Jesus was talking about his own body. Jesus was talking about his own eventual death and resurrection.

So what does this mean?

First, Jesus is making a clear connection between himself and God, very early in this gospel. The message is that he himself is God’s dwelling place.

Second, as we see time after time in the gospels, Jesus was an observant Jew. He had come to the Temple in preparation for the Passover, after all. He did not, however, have a lot of patience with human regulations and additions to the law. Jesus had a common-sense gift for cutting through to the basics. That’s true whether he’s healing someone on the Sabbath, or reminding us that God’s House is there for worship, and not for the benefit of those who make their livings from it.

What does this mean for us today?

As Jesus makes clear, he was the Temple, God’s dwelling-place on Earth. After his resurrection and ascension, however, the Church became the Body of Christ. As the Temple had to be made pure and returned to its purpose, so, too must we, the people who are the Church, look carefully at ourselves.

Have we, like the Temple authorities, become too rigid and self-involved? Has the process become more important than the purpose?

Do we follow the first and great commandment, and love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and minds, or have we invented little gods of our own design that we follow in God’s place?

Do we really think about Christ’s second great commandment, and love our neighbors as ourselves? Do we think about what that means, or do we just give lip service to the Golden Rule while doing pretty much what pleases us?

Do we reach out to those in need – the hungry, the oppressed, the sick – and strive to help them? Or do we just read along on the prayers in church and figure that should cover it?

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably aware that you fall short in at least some of these basics. The fact is that we all fall short, each in our own way.

Fortunately, this is an excellent time to consider what we have done and left undone. The season of Lent gives us the opportunity, the liturgical space, to think about what God really wants from us and how to do a better job of living up to that standard.

On the second Sunday in Lent, we still have time to cleanse our hearts, to put ourselves on a better, straighter path, to make ourselves ready before the joy of resurrection and Easter Day.

Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller