Wow, this is great material for sermons! Jesus’ anger, the Decalogue, the wonderful lines from Psalm 19, and Paul writing about preaching and how it is the only tool he and his cohorts had to bring others to Christ.
The Reverend Patricia Wilson-Kastner wrote a book about liturgy called “Sacred Drama--A Spirituality of Christian Liturgy”, and she stated that preaching is incarnational prayer--that the sermon acts as a hinge in our church service. We have the Service of the Word, and the sermon helps us to make the transition to the Eucharist. The sermon points us down a path that helps us to take these historical documents and apply them to our lives. Similar to what our president said yesterday, “First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done; the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.”
A good sermon commemorating good words spoken in the past, gives us purpose in our everyday lives. Yes, the sermon is a hinge in the service, helping us to open a door into communion and then to the rest of our week. And what happened in Selma 50 years ago was a hinge, a moment in time that awakened people to the idea that ordinary folks could change our country and the way we treated our citizens.
This is why none of us who preaches here takes the task lightly. We search our own failings and triumphs in spiritual matters and in the way we treat others and try to apply the readings to them. How does this particular story, letter or list of rules help me to live life fuller, kinder, with more patience, and in better harmony with my fellow human beings? We also look at the matters that the rest of the congregation and/or the world is struggling with and consider how the Gospel applies to them.
Liturgical preaching should strengthen us in our desire to know and to give to others the love of God. Preaching should lead us from our selfish desires (like praying for a parking space) into a Christian practice of life together in community on earth, where we share resources. The goal of preaching is Christian transformation of life.
By coming to participate in worship, we proclaim our radical intention to offer our whole lives and our world to God--that we might receive God’s transforming grace. We hear scripture, we pray prayers used throughout the ages. We express our struggles to connect ourselves to God’s life. In offering the prayers of the people we connect our daily life with the universal scope of the liturgy--of God’s presence. It is our purpose to show God’s redemptive work in the world--that it is ongoing and never ending.
Scripture and tradition are both time-bound and also relevant to present-day. This is what Jesus spoke about and Paul followed after him. Jesus was focused on the kingdom of God and how people could transform their lives to be a part of it--to enter it and live within it. Jesus wanted ordinary people to understand they could be part of a continuing community of God’s people, called to be faithful to God’s will for humanity.
Jesus seemed always to be pointing out who was being excluded and how they could be brought into God’s community. Not that those who were excluded didn’t know God, not that the excluded weren’t loved by God, but that those who were allowing or driving their exclusion would wake up to this and bring them in without reservation. The excluders were tasked to make sure the barriers were removed so those brought in were able to stay.
As our president said about the march across the bridge in Selma, “What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained, not because their victory was complete, but because they proved that nonviolent change was possible--that love and hope can conquer hate.” That is the kind of change Jesus wanted the Jews of his age to make--the kind that was inclusive, that allowed all people access to the living God and God’s plan for humanity.
In today’s Gospel we find Jesus standing in the temple courtyard ready to exert his authority as a preacher. This courtyard was designed to provide access. It was for women and Gentiles who could gather to hear people teaching and preaching in the Men’s court. They could observe the sacrifices and the Jewish men could pass through to the Men’s court.
Jesus finds the courtyard polluted with noise and animals and loan sharks. This court of access was full of people conducting business that blocked access. A foreigner entering this court would think poorly of the Jewish religion. Loan sharks sat at tables with their strongboxes and guards. Roman coinage with its image of Caesar couldn’t enter the Men’s court so they had to be exchanged for Temple coins--every piece of money you carried. Once you left the Temple, you would exchange the money again so you could buy things outside the Temple. At each transaction, the exchange rate was to the advantage of the loan sharks and they made money on each end of the deal. The Temple priests often shared in this profit.
Then there were the sacrificial animals. If you brought your own animal, it would be examined to see if it was a perfect specimen. If it was not, do you leave the temple (exchanging your money again) to buy another or buy one in the courtyard as a replacement? And, the one you left as imperfect might be sold to someone later as “good to go”.
With all the noise from all the people and animals, I don’t know how anyone from the women’s court could hear anything being said in the Men’s court. If a woman brought a sacrifice, it would be hard for her to hear or see when the sacrifice was made.
Jesus was all about access. He was preaching that we could all enter into God’s kingdom then--and here and now--yet, at the temple there was very limited access to even hear and see what was going on. The temple building was designed for access--even those in the outer courts were able to see and hear what was happening in the inner courts, if it weren’t for the loan sharks and merchants transacting business in the Women’s court.
Jesus was angry and he drove the loan sharks and animal merchants out of the courtyard. He told the people who questioned him that his authority came from the fact that he could rebuild a destroyed temple in three days. And, this was the resurrection--Jesus’ validation came from God when he was raised from the dead.
Jesus was saying what the people who marched to Selma and crossed the bridge were saying. As our president said yesterday, “It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.” That’s what Jesus was doing in the Temple, in the streets of Jerusalem and in the Galilean Lake Country.
My hope is that we here in this church can say that our president’s description of America is also a description of how we apply the Gospel to our lives. “We are storytellers, writers, poets, and artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told. … That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes; we are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe age of 25 could lead a mighty march. … You are America--unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be.”
This is why I do the work I do in the world with the marginalized: people sexually abused and assaulted, people with no homes, people without work or hope, people in jail and people who are drug addicts. God loves all of them and many of them love God but they are people who are excluded. I have never been able to tolerate the exclusion of individuals from the group. I always like to see people receive an equal chance to pursue happiness and to be loved.
Don’t exclude and don’t white wash what you see in the world. Notice the people who live at the margins and remove the barriers that exclude them. Even better, take a chance and have a conversation with a person at the margins--spend most of your time listening and see where Jesus takes you. There may be a bridge to cross, a hope to spark, or an injustice to set right.