23rd Mar, 2003

The Third Sunday In Lent

Preached by the Rev. Mark D. Stuart

I remember the first time I saw that wall…huge blocks of stone, each weighing tons. Dutifully wearing a borrowed yarmulke I reverently approached the sacred area. As I ran my hands over the rough hewn surface my eyes caught the countless scraps of rolled paper wedged into every crevice… the prayers of the faithful brought to this most holy site of Judaism. Only part of the retaining wall of the great Temple in Jerusalem is all that remains and yet one can still imagine the impressive grandeur of that edifice, the focus of Jewish worship and pilgrimage, especially at the principal feast of Passover…

One Passover-tide a young man made his way through the jostling din of the crowd, past the huge retaining wall you can still see today, across the vast staircase leading up to the Temple precincts. It was probably then a lot like what the present day pilgrim encounters in the old city of Jerusalem to this day… bazaars like hives of activity full of money changers to rug merchants to falafel stands to shopkeepers hocking bottled holy water. But in ancient times that time of year was probably more like St. Peter’s Square in Rome on Easter Day and the Beverly Center on Christmas Eve all rolled into one.

Maybe the young man reflected on the last time he had been there… at this time… so long ago; in fact, he was just a boy of twelve. He was so moved by the whole experience that he didn’t want to leave and when his parents made their way back home to Nazareth figuring he was in the company of relatives only to find he was absent; they were beside themselves. Hurrying back to Jerusalem they sought him high and low until finally they found him… right here at the great Temple conversing with the teachers. His mother scolded him as any mother would, “Son, why did you treat us so?” But he only had one answer, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?”

Now he was back, some 20 years distant from that occasion. “Zeal for your house will consume me,” the psalmist wrote in the 69th Psalm… maybe those words came to his mind, too, along with those memories of his childhood. Perhaps also he reflected on the words of the prophet Isaiah, the ones that got him into so much trouble lately when he returned to his hometown and read them in the synagogue, proclaiming that they had now been fulfilled: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” Those were the words he could speak with as much zeal as he had for his Father’s house.

Those 40 days in the wilderness followed by his baptism by John had quickened him for the hard task ahead… Now as he came to the end of the great staircase that brought him to the vast Temple precincts, the din of the frantic crowd was anything but worshipful in preparing to approach the “Holy of Holies.” No doubt he wanted to just take his prayer shawl and wrap in around his face and ears to block out the distractions. He could disregard the voices of the poor and ordinary folk being cheated by greedy money changers and merchants ripping them off. But his commitment to God… his zeal, could not allow him to ignore what was happening around him.

Did Jesus lose his temper because cheating was being done on holy ground? Or did Jesus lose his temper because the poor were being exploited in the name of religion? In his day, as in most cultures up until relatively modern times with the birth of the American nation, there was no concept of separation of religion and the state. Righteous indignation is a tricky thing and although we can rant and rave at the television when the news comes on and a particular political villain is broadcast, the most effect it may have is upsetting one’s partner or spouse if they don’t happen to agree; or scaring the cats or children, who tactfully exit the room for a more peaceful environment.

While some of us are aware on one level at least that our faith has an ethical dimension, many people prefer their clergy and lay leaders to “stick to religion.” When the Presiding Bishop, or the House of Bishops, or the diocesan Bishop or the parish clergy tackle current issues, grumbling can occasionally be heard, “They don’t represent me. Leave politics to the politicians.” The one time in the Gospels we witness Jesus truly losing his temper is the occasion we hear from our lesson today… to him there was no separation of Church and State… taking advantage of people in need was as dreadful if it occurred in the street or in the Temple. In the famous film of the life of Thomas A. Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who would end up being slain by the King, Thomas says that his task is to fight for the Kingdom of God, which needs defending like any human kingdom, and that he dies for the honor of God. He loves the honor of God, he says…

Where power and greed overtake the basic dignity of human life through the idolatry of the State, whether it be Empire or Republic, Baghdad or Washington, wherever it makes claims that conflict with the honor of God, God calls up the spirit of Jesus to cleanse the Temple. What Jesus did in the Temple of Jerusalem is not a prooftext against a parish rummage sale. Such harmless bargaining has nothing to do with what the Gospel lesson is all about. What it is more about is imagining what a great day it would be when our schools and social services get all the funding they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomb!

Many lovers of our crucified and risen Lord have heavy hearts this week with the outbreak of the war against Iraq. President Bush argued in his Monday address that the war would promote “liberty and peace.” A classified State Dept. report says that it will increase Mideast anti-Americanism. All of this is being done in the name of patriotism. But in the words of Benjamin Franklin, one of the few Founding Fathers who neither owned slaves nor condoned slavery, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Instead of feeling comforted by America’s military posturing, many of us feel neither safe nor free.

The financial costs of the government’s actions are staggering: The 1991 Gulf War cost $61 billion and this new war will likely cost upwards of $100 billion (that just buys the military campaign, not the peacekeeping and rebuilding.) Meanwhile we are embroiled in a series of wars at home which threaten to make America a shell of itself. Take the war on education… In January the Senate passed a spending bill that cut $29 million from after-school programs, $13 million from programs for abused children, and $61 million from child care programs. To put this in context, a single Tomahawk cruise missile costs $1.4 million and in the first assault on Baghdad this week over 300 were launched against that city! Yet recently the Oakland, CA school district sent 1,000 teachers notices of possible lay-offs, San Francisco another 800. Similar drastic cut-backs threaten Southland school districts. But it’s not just California… Portland, OR had to shorten its school year by 5 weeks because of a budget shortfall. The state of Oklahoma cut education funds by over $100 million last year, leading to thousands of staff lay-offs. In Baltimore there is lead in the school’s drinking water and so few substitutes that when a teacher gets sick, students are split between other classes

Where is a society’s sense of humanitarianism when instruments of destruction are more important than children, or seniors on fixed incomes, or victims of domestic violence, or people dying of AIDS?! I am not anti-military, per se, having served for two years as a military chaplain to the First Infantry Division of the US Army, headquartered at Ft. Riley, Kansas… the men and women of our armed forces are much in my prayers…I am, however, opposed to militarism.

I dream of an America where peace is not just rhetorical Orwellian doublespeak.

I dream of an America where we bail out the schools before the airlines.

I dream of technology that increases our freedom rather than curtailing our liberties.

Separation of Church and State may be a good idea, but separating faith from our daily lives and concerns is not (that is what St. Paul struggles with in our lesson from Romans).

One Sunday a parish priest celebrated Mass as usual, but when he finished the Eucharistic Prayer he turned to the congregation to proclaim: “Behold the Lamb of God” and then holding the chalice filled with the consecrated wine, slowly poured the Precious Blood onto the floor. The congregation was aghast and rose up to attack him for his sacrilege. But he confronted them: “Why are you so horrified when I just spilled Christ’s Blood, but you are so nonchalant in accepting the blood spilled daily in your streets and on the battlefields of war?! Christ’s Precious Blood is being spilled all around you, yet you are not offended and you say nothing!”

Jesus not only promises to continually cleanse the Temple and the Church, the community of believers, He also promises judgment and destruction:

Destruction of old falsehoods.

Destruction of pride, and greed, and self-centeredness that turns our hearts from those being hurt all around us.

Destruction of a mentality in which a parish has to finance God’s work through bake sales and war is paid for by taxes cut from the working poor who cannot even afford basic healthcare.

And Jesus emphatically promises a new glorious Temple, a place of prayer for all people, the Temple of His Body, cleansed, renewed, and resurrected. He doesn’t differentiate between his own resurrection and the renewal of all mankind, you and me… the Temple worthy of God’s dwelling there.

I take comfort from the spectacle of Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers, because I know that this same strength, courage, and righteousness upholds us every day of our lives. May we be emboldened by the image of the gentle carpenter from Nazareth who had seen enough and made a whip of cords to attack injustice and oppression. Jesus directs His profound message and challenge to us 2,000 years later, for us to be grasped by deep acceptance of personal responsibility as members of the living Temple of God, to be consumed by zeal for God’s dwelling and committed to ushering in the reign of the Kingdom of Peace


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