Spring Cleaning the Temple

One of the most dramatic stories in the Holy Week narrative is what we know as Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Matthew’s Gospel describes it like this: “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:12-13)

I had forgotten until I looked it up that John’s Gospel puts this incident, not during Jesus’ last week on earth, but right at the beginning of his Gospel in John 2:14-16. In either place it is the most dramatic challenge Jesus makes to the religious authority and practice of his day. He often rhetorically calls into question the “old” ways of doing things in radical ways, but here he goes a little Rambo and drives the money changers physically out of the temple.

As one of my seminary professors cautioned me long ago we should not take this story as typical of Jesus’ behavior. In fact it is so powerful because it stands in stark contrast to almost all of what we know about Jesus’ personality and character. He teaches loving enemies and turning our cheeks, going the extra mile, and laying down one’s life for a friend. But here he’s had enough and takes bold action that certainly won him no friends among the temple authorities. But Jesus is more concerned with doing what’s right that winning popularity contests, and immediately after the above description Matthew tells us in the very next verse that Jesus reverts right back to his usual compassionate self: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.”

But what struck me most in looking at this story today was a slight difference in the translation of one phrase. I grew up mostly hearing stories from the Synoptic Gospels where the phrase “Den of thieves” is used to describe the money changer temple. But John uses a different term. In John Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

I love exploring the Scriptures because every time I do it I can be surprised by hearing something I’ve missed before or maybe just wasn’t ready for. But my Ah Hah moment today was how this story speaks to the pandemic crisis we’re in. We’ve all been struggling at one level or another with balancing our concerns for health and survival of this plague with the economic impact it is having on the marketplace. Some are feeling that pain much more than others, and my heart breaks for them. But I suspect even as he comforts the unemployed and those who have lost their livelihood, Jesus is really angry at those who have price-gauged and tried to profit off of the suffering of others.

I applaud the companies that have donated essential goods and services to defeat this invisible enemy, but woe to any who have done insider trading or hoarded supplies. Woe to any who have put economic decisions or political priorities ahead of life-saving, sacrificial decisions that will flatten the curve and save thousands of lives. Woe to those who refuse to stay at home and practice physical distancing to engage in their own unnecessary activities. Woe to churches that have continued to gather in large groups against all advice from medical experts.

The Easter message is that we will get through this plague, but the Jesus I know says we will get through it sooner and more of us will survive if we drive the money-changers out who worship the idol of the marketplace more than the God of love and compassion.

Pastoral Prayer, March 22, 2020

We lift up all who are ill in body, mind or spirit here in our country and around the world.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for all who are experiencing food or economic insecurity.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We lift up health care workers and caregivers who are risking their own well-being to care for others.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for all government, church, and public health officials at every level that you will guide them in making wise and difficult decisions.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We ask that you hold teachers and parents and children and the elderly, any who are most vulnerable, in your loving arms.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We lift up the homeless and those working to house and feed them, the grocery store employees, the truck drivers, farmers and everyone in the food chain we all depend on.

Lord, hear our prayer.

And we lift up others now that we have not specifically named who are in need of your love.

Lord, hear our prayer.

O merciful creator God, who can take a formless void of darkness and speak light into existence, we give you thanks for light that enables us to see – to see hope and faith where others see only fear and despair. As people who follow Jesus Christ we live and worship not as cockeyed optimists who live in denial, but as those who dedicate our lives to be reflectors of the Light of the World into the darkest corners of our common lives. And we are going through one of the dark, dark seasons, O God.

We are like astronauts on the back side of the moon, isolated and out of communication with each other. But like those space pioneers we also know that there will be a morning after the darkness. Give us eyes of faith, Lord, to see the flower in the bulb as crocus are croaking and daffodils are poking their heads up out of the cold earth. Give us eyes to see the promise of spring even on chilly March days.

We need spiritual cataract surgery, O great physician. Peel the clouds of doubt from our eyes and install new lenses that see all the beauty and glory of creation. Remove the fear from our eyes so we can see as never before how much we need each other. Give us new lenses of creativity inspired by the necessity of this crisis, new lenses of compassion and gratitude, and new lenses of courage for the living of these days.

Through eyes of faith, O God of history, give us new appreciation for parents and grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Forgive us when we forget that we are not the first generation to suffer and sacrifice for the greater good of your creation. When we look in the mirror help us see beyond our own image, beyond our own needs and fears. Shine your light so we can see the big picture. Shine the light so we can see your Holy Spirit carrying us now as you stood with Daniel in the lion’s den, with little David facing Goliath, with Ruth as she cared for Naomi, and with Mary and Martha as they mourned for Lazarus.

You are the light in the darkness, O God, who gives us faith to carry on. We praise you that even this crisis can be a lens that focuses our vision on our common purpose. Be the light again that led the Hebrews by night through the wilderness, the light that struck Saul blind on the road to Damascus so he could finally see your purpose and salvation for his life. Like Saul we have sometimes been blind to your presence, but in this moment we see clearly because we know you hold the future. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Light of the World. Amen

Northwest UMC, On-line worship, March 22, 2020

Waiting and Renewing

Back in the 1980’s when I was going through one of several mid-life crises I found great stress relief in running. My routine often included running 3 or 4 miles a day, and I participated in road races several times a year. In those days 5 mile races were the most common, and I had run several of those in or just under an 8 minute per mile pace. That was usually around the 50th percentile for my age group, and I was pleased with that given my below average height. Guys with long legs took many fewer steps per mile than I did, at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But I remember very well the first 5K race I ran. It was a small, local race in my neighborhood; so I knew the race course well. It was “only” 3.1 miles after all, and with fewer participants I for some reason figured I could do better than my middle of the pack finishes in longer races. So I took off with the faster runners at a much faster pace than usual. The good new—I ran the first mile in 6 minutes, 30 seconds, the fastest mile I had ever run in my life. The bad news—I had burned up way too much energy and had to walk part of the next mile which was, of course, up hill. It was a classic tortoise and hare situation.

In the end my average time per mile for that 5K was about the same 8 minute pace I always ran. So what’s that ancient history got to do with anything? Well, this pandemic is not a sprint. We’re in this for the long haul like it or not. And that reality is setting in as it did for me when I realized I had shot my wad in the first mile of that 5K. We need to pace ourselves and practice good self-care during this enforced sabbatical from our normal lives.

For too many of us “normal” life is a rat race, and while this new reality is awkward and weird it can provide an opportunity to hit the pause button and reflect on other aspects of life that we too often run past or away from. It’s not easy, and I’m having a hard time not feeling trapped by this situation. We’re over a week into this marathon and the reality that we’ve got many miles to go is hitting some of us like marathon runners hitting “the wall.”

Isaiah 40 says, “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength.” But it doesn’t say how long we have to wait. Most of us are busy active people. Even my retired friends all comment about how busy they are and don’t know how they had time to work. We stay busy having lunch with friends, running errands, going to doctor appointments, socializing and enjoying recreational or volunteer activities. All of that has come to screeching halt, and we’re finding doing nothing is exhausting.

So we are learning how to wait, and it’s a choice how we wait. Are we just waiting for this pandemic to be over or are we waiting in a way that renews our strength? For me it’s all too easy to get frustrated with this waiting game. I’m in that older generation. I know I don’t have that many “good” years left in my life and I feel cheated that I’m being robbed of things I want to do. March Madness and the Masters golf tournament are my favorite time of the year. Gone. Lent and Easter as I’ve always known them, Caput! Trips we want to take, on hold. Spending time with my grandkids, Nada!

So what to do with those frustrations? I had a long talk with God this morning and got some of them off my chest. Don’t be afraid to let God have it when you get to the end of your rope. Much better than taking it out on your spouse or kids. God can handle it and understands. After all our Bible has an entire book devoted to complaints about terrible circumstances. It’s called “Lamentations.”

It’s ok to complain, but don’t stay there. Then we move on to figure out how to wait creatively. It’s true that necessity is the mother of invention. We’re learning how to live in a different reality in so many ways. We’re staying connected on line and practicing physical distancing. Teachers and parents are re-inventing how to do education. Churches are figuring out ways to be the church in new and marvelous ways.

We need time to rest and pace ourselves for the long haul, but waiting does not mean hibernating till this blows over. We are called as people of faith to keep caring for the most vulnerable among us; to stay in contact with those who are most isolated and with each other for moral support. Waiting means time to reflect on what we’ve lost in this situation, but also to be grateful for what we’ve gained and what we’re learning.

The “normal” rat race we were living a month ago wasn’t all perfect. What a tragedy it would be if we when this is all over we just go back to living the way we were. Take time to observe what’s better about our new normal. Journal and make notes about how you want to be on the other side of COVID-19. I know that’s not easy when you’re just trying to figure out how to survive this crisis. But remember, we have more time now – time we would have spent commuting to work, time we would have spent this weekend watching hours and hours of basketball and watching our brackets get busted.

How will you use this gift of waiting time? Use it wisely to take care of yourself physically, mentally and spiritually, and remember “those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength.” With God’s help we will get through this and come out better and stronger. Amen

Numbers

Numbers – corona virus up, stock market way down, my weight up and even my clocks confused about what time it is. The only good number is on the thermometer, and I’ll certainly take that; but I need more to shore up the shaky foundations of my faith.
And so I turn to Psalm 46 where there are no numbers because faith cannot be measured or quantified. God’s power and presence is eternal and infinite. We can’t see it or prove it. The source of our being is above and beyond any human metrics. We just have to take a leap of faith and trust, not because of things we can count or measure – but in spite of them.

“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Sabbatical

I just finished “Sabbath as Resistance,” an excellent book by Walter Brueggemann. It was written a few years ago but is as timely as today’s headlines in our consumer driven, workaholic world. Brueggemann closes the book with reflections on Psalm 73, and I want to quote what he has to say about verse 23 of that Psalm: “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.”

Brueggemann’s commentary on that verse goes like this: “This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. ‘No-Sabbath’ existence imagines getting through on our own, surrounded by commodities to accumulate and before which to bow down. But a commodity cannot hold one’s hand. Only late does the psalmist come to know otherwise. Only late may we come to know, but likely not without Sabbath rest, rooted in God’s own restfulness and extended to our neighbors who also must rest. We, with our hurts, fears and exhaustion, are left restless until then.” (Emphasis added)

Hurt, fearful and exhausted – describes me to a tee as the bitter conflicts over church and national politics have me so tied up in knots I feel like a pressure cooker about to blow a gasket. Yes, I badly need a sabbatical. Not because I don’t care about the fate of the world, but because I care too much. Therefore at the suggestion of my dear wife who has to live with my depression and anger I am hereby vowing to do the following for at least a week and perhaps longer. This may be my jump starting Lent 17 days early–because when we find ourselves in the wilderness can’t always be neatly scheduled on the calendar.
For the next 7 days:

1) I will not begin my day by reading or listening to the morning news. (Doing so has been my morning ritual for all of my adult life. My dad was a newspaper man. I delivered a morning newspaper as a kid. Newspapers have been a part of my life forever; so this will not be easy.)

2) Instead I will begin my day with spiritual and physical exercise of some kind, after my first cup of coffee of course.

3) I will temporarily snooze my most ardent Facebook friends on either side of the great American political divide, refrain from posting or writing any political words, memes or blogs; and stop listening to political news and talk radio in my car.

I thank you in advance for your prayers as I begin this sabbatical. Pray that I can let go of trying to control my life so God can, and feel free to help hold me accountable in any way you like—even if I act like I don’t want you to.

In the name of the one who always has me by the hand, even when I squirm and try to pull away like an indignant two-year-old, Amen.

God’s Quid pro Quo: Isaiah 58:1-12

“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Sounds like a political promise to a nation with crumbling infrastructure doesn’t it? Well, it’s really addressed to a nation with a crumbling moral infrastructure, but either scenario is relevant to the U.S. 2500 years after those words were written by the prophet known as Third Isaiah (Chapters 55-66 of the biblical book of Isaiah).

I went there because Isaiah 58:1-12 is one this week’s lectionary texts that many churches use for preaching and themes for worship. I’m not preaching this Sunday, but was wondering what I might say from the pulpit on this week of political history. I did preach the Sunday Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, the Sunday after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace in 1974, after the Challenger explosion, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Other than proving how old I am, those kinds of moments in time illustrate the opportunities for reflection when we stand at the intersection of human history and biblical.

As I write these words the acquittal of President Trump has not been officially confirmed, but if I were a betting man I’d feel safe wagering that it will come to pass before this Sabbath. So what else does this text from Isaiah have to say to us? Chapter 58 lets us know immediately that this is no warm and fuzzy passage. Verse 1 says, “Shout out, and do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” Isaiah then proceeds to scold his people for false worship and self-righteousness: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” (Vss. 3-4)

Fast forwarding to today Isaiah would say something like this to us: “Claiming to be a ‘Christian Nation’ or putting ‘under God’ in your pledge doesn’t make you my people. If your faith is in huge defense budgets while you provide lousy health care, unequal education and inadequate food for the poor, you are no more than a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. If you deny your sins of racism and betray your constitutional duties to protect your own personal power and influence, your acts of worship and your prayers mean nothing to God. Put your money and your actions where your lofty values of liberty and justice for all should lead you. Your faith without works is as dead as the authors of your Constitution and the martyrs for true faith.”

Yes, I took some prophetic license and mixed in some Corinthians and James there, but they seem to fit Isaiah’s theme as Chapter 58 continues. You may be wondering if you’re still with me how Isaiah gets through these words of judgement to the verse I began with which is verse 12 of chapter 58, “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in”?

Glad you asked. The answer is in the middle verses of this text (vss. 6-11) which are a heavenly quid pro quo:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

(Editorial aside: If you do this, then…)

The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

If you’re thinking “that sounds like Jesus,” you’d be right. Jesus modeled his ministry and life on the Hebrew prophets because he knew they spoke the truth about the inseparable intersection between faith and justice. Read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4 where he quotes directly from Isaiah,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That same Holy Spirit anoints us all for days such as these to be “repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.”

Grounded Guerrillas of Grace

“To wed guerrilla with grace suggests that the truer cause is God’s kingdom. Since the ‘principalities and powers’ are never completely ‘out there,’ but also stomp and rumble around ‘within,’ a significant piece of the life to be reclaimed or liberated is the prayer himself or herself. In an unavoidable way the struggle begins—and begins again and again and again—with choosing sides. Choose one side and you’re a conformist; choose another and you’re a guerrilla!”
You may be surprised to know that those words were not written about the current struggle for the soul of our nation, and yet they seem as fresh as new mown hay on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday 2020. I had not read those words for over 30 years, and reconnecting with them recently is like embracing an old friend. They are from a book of prayers entitled “Guerrillas of Grace” by Rev. Ted Loder and were published in 1981. A friend blessed me with a new copy of the book this week and as soon as I opened it I knew it was a gift from God.

My soul is weary with despair over worldly and personal concerns to the point that I am questioning the foundations of my faith again. I’ve been down that road before, and Loder’s “old” book reminded me again that while much has changed in the last 40 years, the struggle with evil in its multitude of forms is still the same as it was for Amos, Jesus, Paul, Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Dr. King. As it was in the first century Roman Empire these words from Ephesians 6 still ring true in the 21st century” “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the world rulers of this present darkness…”

Even before I began rereading Loder’s book I was reminded of a song that inspired my meek guerrillaness back in the decade that Loder was compiling these prayers. I remember preaching a sermon in those days on the David and Goliath story, one that I have been drawn too as one who has always been of very small stature. I’ve since distanced myself from it because of its reliance on violence to resolve conflict, but all that aside the song it led me too was one that says:

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march
Into hell for a heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lay peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To fight the unbeatable foe
To reach the unreachable star.” (“The Impossible Dream,” by Joe Darion and Mitchell Leigh)

I have certainly not lived up to that impossible dream, and I understand that none of us will ever fully conquer the principalities and powers of evil without or within ourselves in this life. That’s why we will always need guerrillas of grace to journey with us and share the power that strengthens hearts and minds arms that are too weary of the world’s woes with prayer that is in Loder’s words attentive, open, imaginative/playful, intentional, personal and corporate.

As one who lives with ambivalence as a staple of my existence I am challenged by Loder’s statement that “Ambivalence generates resistance. It is hard to get carried away when we’re hanging on tightly to the familiar.” I am also an impatient prayer. I want results yesterday if not sooner, and Loder cautions that being a guerrilla of grace “may mean being carried away as a stoker on a slow freighter.” One of my chores as an adolescent was putting coal in the stoker that fed our home’s furnace. (Yes, I am That Old!) It was a daily thankless and never-ending chore, putting coal in and taking the “clinkers” of unburned waste out of the furnace; but if I failed to do it our whole family would have been cold, pipes would freeze and life would have been dire.

I’m rambling, but I do rejoice that Loder has re-stoked my spiritual furnace with just the introduction to his book. I look forward to getting reacquainted with the prayers that follow; and I want to close by sharing the first prayer in the book, entitled “Ground Me in Your Grace.”

“Eternal One,
Silence, from whom my words come;
Questioner, from whom my questions arise;
Lover, from whom all my loves are hints;
Disturber, in whom alone I find my rest;
Mystery, in whose depths I find healing and myself;
Enfold me now in your presence;
Restore to me your peace;
Renew me through your power;
And ground me in your grace.”