Tag Archives: religion

My temple and my tower

Today is the last Sunday in the six-part sermon series on the Beatitudes at St. Thomas Church.

Remember that Jesus is addressing a diverse crowd, announcing the kingdom of God, and turning conventional wisdom upside down.

Jesus says people who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are honest about their own failings (what he calls pure in heart), and who are persecuted and reviled — these people — are blessed.

They are in the kingdom of God now, they are in intimate relationship with God now. It may not sound like it, but Jesus is trying to get the crowd (and us) to hear something that has always been true.

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Today is also “Bible Sunday,” if you will, in the Episcopal Church with the lovely collect that urges us to “hear … read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, which God has “caused to be written for our learning” (BCP 236).

What the Scriptures say about salvation is that it is to be found in intimate relationship with the God who created us, not in the things we humans desire out of a false sense of need or out of envy of others.

Professor John Dally at Bexley Seabury in Chicago lays out a brilliant summary of the biblical story. He says, in part, “salvation is knowing where you fit in the story.”

The biblical story is organized into four parts: the creation of the world, the creation of Israel, the creation of the Church, and the end of the world.

The story begins in perfection, moves through imperfection, and ends in perfection.

Creation of the World

The creation of the world is characterized by intimacy, purpose, and naming.

The Lord God formed human beings and breathed life into us, invited us to name every other living creature, and walked in the garden with us at the time of the evening breeze (Gen. 3:8).

However, sin enters the story when Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We were under the illusion of need, the illusion that the garden and the intimacy and the purpose were not enough.

Humankind is “cursed” by having to leave the garden and earn the knowledge that we stole.

Creation of Israel

Following the catastrophe of the Exile into Babylon, the people of Israel looked back over their history and came to understand their origins in the Exodus from Egypt.

During the Exodus, God freed the Hebrews from slavery and made them a chosen people in special relationship with him. God gave them the Law to guide them in that relationship.

Over time, the people of Israel came to desire a kingdom and anointed first Saul, then David, then Solomon as their kings.

The Temple — built eventually by King Solomon — grew in importance as evidence of God’s presence and as the focus of religious practice.

The simple relationship of covenant with God was not enough. Israel labored under the illusion of need and created a Kingdom and a Temple.

Creation of the Church

Jesus came in opposition to both the Temple and the Kingdom, and the catastrophe of the Cross revealed the depth of their violence.

Jesus spoke of living in direct relationship with God, praying in secret (intimacy with God), and giving away the knowledge that the kingdom of God is at hand.

The Temple fails to bring knowledge of God, and its hierarchy exploits the poor. Likewise, the Kingdom of the world (in Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire) rules through military might and exploitative power.

As the Church becomes linked with the Roman Empire under Constantine, Temple and Kingdom become one. The Church continues to obscure the believer’s direct relationship with God and to exploit the poor.

End of the World

The story begins in a garden, but it ends in a city.

The Kingdom and the Temple (which were never God’s idea) are taken up into “the holy city, the new Jerusalem,” but John says that “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).

In the center of the city are the river and the tree of life, just like in the garden … only this time, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The perfect creation of the Garden is restored to perfection in the City, and humans are reconciled to God.

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Things like kings and rulers, a Temple adorned with stones, even Christendom and the towering structures of economic and political power, those will all be thrown down eventually in favor of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city.

As our final hymn says,

Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.

But until they do fall to dust, “the powers that be” – both political and religious – will not be able to comprehend the self-giving love that Jesus invites us to practice, and we who practice it will get into all kinds of trouble with Tower and Temple both when we do.

That is when the kingdom of God is near, says Jesus.

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Jesus is the lens for reading the Scriptures, suggests Fr. Richard Rohr in his books and his daily meditations.

When the Scriptures represent people acting like Jesus = people get it.
When the Scriptures show people not acting like Jesus = people don’t get it.

The Scriptures are the record of the people of God working out how God has been acting in salvation history.

When Jesus says “Let the children come to me” and the disciples do (Matt. 19) = they get it
When the poet sings of Babylon, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against a rock” (Psalm 137) = he doesn’t get it.

When the apostles set apart deacons to care for the Greek-speaking Gentile widows who are neglected (Acts 6) = they get it.
When the priests force the returning exiles from Babylon to divorce their foreign-born wives in order to be “pure” (Nehemiah 13) = they don’t get it.

When the Hebrew people live in intimacy with God who saved them from Egypt, walking in the desert for 40 years as a covenant people (Exodus) = they get it. They grumble about it a lot, but they get it.
When they are in the Land and they want a powerful king like everyone else (even though Samuel warns them he’ll be a tyrant and they’ll hate it) = they don’t get it.

When David the king wants to build God a house, a splendid Temple adorned with jewels (2 Samuel 7) = he doesn’t get it.
When David confesses his sins of committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12) = he gets it.

When the disciples who’ve been with Jesus for three years are still gawking at the tall buildings and the splendid Temple (in today’s passage from Luke) = they still don’t get it

Jesus tries to help them and the crowd see that when you are hauled before synagogues and judges because you don’t fit in their orderly, successful scheme, that’s when you get it.

That’s when you are on the right side of the story of salvation history, the story that has been unfolding all along.

In fact that’s when you’re blessed, because you’re nearer to the Kingdom of God than ever before.

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Not one of the Beatitudes suggests that political power or religious control is part of knowing God’s near. God’s always been near, but our desire for power and control and our need to prove to others that we’re right means we’ve missed him. We’ve looked right past those who are near him.

Not one of the Beatitudes suggests that words are part of knowing God’s near. Jesus says poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst, purity of heart, and persecution — these states of being — are the places where God is present.

When you are in those places yourself, when you are grieving and aching over injustice, worn down, sick at heart over your own failings, words don’t help much. Words are often part of the problem, especially when well-meaning religious people like us tell you everything is really all right.

Everything is not all right, but hear this: God is near.

Can you hear that?

Everything is not all right, but God is near.

Even Jesus — the Word of God as John calls him — even the Word of God stopped speaking in order to demonstrate God’s presence. That’s how far God will go in order to carry out his plan of salvation.

Just imagine – the Word who was with God and who spoke over creation is now a newborn baby, speechless and helpless. Just imagine – the Word who was with God and who spoke over creation is now alone, a beaten and broken man, thirsty and suffocating on the cross.

That’s how far God will go in order to carry out his plan of salvation.

We Christians who are fortunate to have plenty are called to empty ourselves, like Jesus, to stop grasping for political power and religious respect, to stop talking about how we’re persecuted or how our plan is right, and instead to follow Jesus, to demonstrate by our presence with people who actually do suffer that God is with them.

Until we go farther – until we listen to people’s needs, until we join them in their cry for justice, until we stop looking for power and respect and risk being reviled and falsely accused ourselves, we don’t get it.

Let those with ears “hear … read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures and let us join with God in God’s plan for salvation.

Then we can truly sing:

But God’s power
Hour by hour

Is my Temple and my Tower

 

 

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Temple and Empire: Sermon for 3 Advent

Christ and John the Baptist from www.richard-seaman.com

Christ and John the Baptist from http://www.richard-seaman.com

Temple and Empire

 “From the days of John the Baptist until now
the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,
and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12)

 Advent is not about waiting for Christmas; it’s about waiting for the kingdom of heaven to come. Advent is the season when we join the fight and look forward to the kingdom come.

It’s no coincidence that we read from the Book of Revelation at the Daily Office during Advent. It’s about longing for the Temple to fall and anticipating the day when the Empire will collapse.

In the biblical story the Temple, according to John Dally, professor of theology and culture at Bexley Seabury, stands for religion and purity over against the relationship that God desires with his creatures – symbolized by the Garden of Eden and by the table fellowship between Jesus and his disciples.

Empire is every impulse of violence that crushes human beings for monetary gain or personal pride. In the biblical story, the people of Israel contend against both the Babylonian and the Roman empires, and they are consistently urged to remember the poor and the needy.

Today we have made religion into a violent battle about belief, with the same rigid purity codes, exclusionary rhetoric, and shame-based culture that Jesus fought against. We keep trying to rebuild the Temple. And the constant splintering of denominations – Orthodox against Roman, Protestant against Catholic, some 24,000 Christian denominations in America today — betrays the violence at the heart of our dealings with each other.

Today we can live heedless of the suffering of billions of people around the world because we belong to the only remaining superpower – we are the only Empire left in the globalized First World. We play with electronic toys or watch flat-screen TVs or buy Christian consumer goods made overseas in sweatshop conditions, we send unmanned drones around the world to kill people (guilty, innocent, who cares?) just like in a video game, and we put children into jail on minor charges for profit.

Both Jesus and John the Baptist fought against Temple and Empire throughout their short lives. Advent is the season when we join the fight and look forward to the kingdom come.

John the Baptist

John is near the end of his life.

He has been taken by force, bound, and imprisoned in Herod’s jail. His judgment against King Herod (and more importantly, Herod’s adultery with his brother’s wife Herodias) has put him in the prison of the Roman Empire’s puppet state.

He sends a question to Jesus by his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

That’s not much help.

John has been preaching the message his father sang at his birth:

This was the oath [God] swore to our father Abraham,
to set us free from the hands of our enemies
Free to worship him without fear
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our lives

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:68-79)

Though his ministry has focused on preaching repentance and baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sins, surely in the back of John’s mind is also the promise of freedom in Zechariah’s song, that God’s people would be “free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear all the days of our life.”

From the perspective of his jail cell, as he lies there in the hands of the Empire, John must not get much comfort from Jesus’ healing ministry or his preaching against the Temple religion.

Jesus

Jesus is near the beginning of his ministry.

He answers John’s question by pointing to the breaking in of the kingdom of God:  “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus’ life and ministry are focused on subverting the Temple and its righteousness codes – depending on which Gospel you read, in fact, he has already overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (or he will before long).

Dally suggests that Jesus takes the architecture of the Temple as the map of the people he will minister to – to those excluded at every stage. In the Holy of Holies, it’s only the High Priest and only once a year; in the Court of the Priests, it’s only the Levitical priests; in the Court of the Israelites, it’s only men; in the Court of the Women, it’s everybody but Gentiles, lepers and Nazirites.

The Ethiopian eunuch from the Book of Acts, baptized by the Apostle Philip as one of the first Gentile converts to the Way, wouldn’t even have been able to get into the Court of the Gentiles – the bazaar where the souvenir shops and the moneychangers were.

The healing Jesus points to in his answer to John is possible only because he goes out of his way to associate with the blind, the lame, the deaf – and especially ritually impure women and unclean lepers, Samaritan women and the undeserving poor.

In his focus on overturning the Temple religion, Jesus has not yet begun to fulfill his mother’s song, the Magnificat we just said together:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:46-55)

 Mary’s vision has to do with the overturning of the powerful – the proud, the mighty, the rich – but it won’t be long before the religious leaders use the power of the Empire to have Jesus put to death on the cross like a common criminal.

Without Fear

Today in Herod’s jail, the criminal John the Baptist is one of those people Isaiah describes “who are of a fearful heart.”

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The prophet Isaiah reassures the people of Israel:

Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you. (Isaiah 35:4)

But Jesus doesn’t seem to be taking charge here. He doesn’t seem to be overthrowing anybody. In fact, John is still in jail and will be beheaded before much longer.

Jesus’ answer is not a direct response to the power of Empire, but it points at the hope of God’s kingdom, which is already coming into the world.

It’s not here yet – Empire and Temple still hold their power over people’s lives – but it’s coming and nothing will stop it.

How will you join the fight?

Advent is not about waiting for Christmas;
it’s about waiting for the kingdom of heaven to come. 

Advent is the season when we join the fight
and look forward to the kingdom come.

 How will you fight against Empire in this relentlessly commercial season? How will you fight against our culture, which engages in a war on the poor rather than on the businesses and policies that keep them in poverty? How will you work to keep people out of the literal prisons we build with private corporations – and with occupancy quotas that local governments have to meet?

How will you fight against the building of the Temple in this religious season? How will you fight against the judgmental attitude that sneers at “Christmas and Easter” worshippers or takes offense when someone wishes you “Happy Holidays”? How will you work to respect the dignity of every human being – Christian or not? How will you demonstrate that you are “so clothed in Christ’s spirit that you reach out your arms of love to bring everyone into his saving embrace”?

How will you practice repentance and forgiveness at holiday gatherings and with difficult family members? How will you, like John, preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to a world – and people like you and me – so desperately in need of them?

How will you practice self-giving in a season of consumer frenzy and self-centeredness? How will you, like Jesus, give your comfortable life away in order to heal people and bring them into fellowship – even if it means giving up your own power, your own privilege?

Advent is not about waiting for Christmas;
it’s about waiting for the kingdom of heaven to come.

Advent is the season when we join the fight
and look forward to the kingdom come.