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.

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.”

Temptation and True Power for Dark Days

“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Luke 4:5-8 NRSV

Immediately after his baptism Luke and Matthew give us the account of Jesus 40-day temptation by the devil. After trying and failing to tempt the famished Jesus with food Satan turns to the almost sure fire way to corrupt the best of us in the verses above—worldly power.

The devil must have known the famous line from British historian Lord Acton who said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So Satan offers Jesus absolute power/authority over “all the kingdoms of the world.” We know, and Jesus certainly, did that this offer is a boldface lie. The prince of evil is offering a deal that is too good to be true because it is, and Jesus sees right through the clever marketing scheme.

But how often do we mortals fall for snake oil salespersons or ads promising everything from sparkling white teeth to age-defying beauty and sexual prowess? This year the marketing geniuses are hard at work earlier than usual as we approach the holiest of all shopping seasons. This is true for at least two reasons I’m aware of: 1) Because Thanksgiving is as late in November as it can be there are the fewest shopping days between then and Christmas possible; therefore we don’t just have Black Friday, we have had Black November. 2) Retailers are in trouble financially and desperately need to rake in as much loot as possible during this annual spending frenzy.

If you have never spent more on an item than intended or bought something you’d weren’t even shopping for my hat is off to you. I’m embarrassed to admit that my wife and I were suckers for a time share hard sell presentation 15 years ago. We have never used said vacation spot in paradise and only rarely used any of the other perks that we paid for and continue to pay dearly for in maintenance fees.

And just recently I was flattered by an invitation to join a company as a freelance writer. The prestige of that plus a chance to earn some extra income was very tempting. But this time I was smart enough to do a quick Google search and read some very negative reviews of this company which were a good reality check. Modern technology provides us with such tools to research things and do comparison shopping, and that’s good. But all of those tools are also available to all the marketing folks, and they are far better at using those tools for their purposes than I am.

So I personally love this story about Jesus shutting Satan down with one great comeback by quoting Scripture. “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” The next time I am tempted to bow down to the idols of materialism or self-aggrandizement I hope I can remember that line.

But lets dig a bit deeper into the carrot Satan is dangling in front of Jesus. It’s the same one offered to Adam and Eve–to be like God. And from the earliest days of human kind even when it’s a lie the offer of power can turn the heads of even the strongest among us. And one of the reasons that particular temptation is so effective is that it can shape shift into hundreds of different disguises. It can turn us into workaholics; it can certainly drown us in consumer debt (as a nation or as individuals); it can override basic human decency for the unquenchable thirst for more stuff and more prestige or security. Power hunger can turn simple and just economic systems into stacked decks that result in untenable income equality. The pursuit of power can turn a basic human right like health care into a corrupt billion dollar industry.

The desire to acquire or retain power produces the kind of corruption that makes good people lose their moral and political courage to speak the truth. And the flip side, the fear of losing power is so insidious it can justify genocide or slavery even in the name of the gods of false religion. The Hebrew prophet Amos famously said it can result in selling the poor for a pair of Nikes (my paraphrase, he just said “shoes” which should probably be translated “sandals”. Fear of losing power can even justify putting children in cages! Or if we don’t justify it we can be so easily distracted by other power play drama in our own lives or in politics that we put those kids out of our awareness.

But here’s the rest of Jesus’ temptation story: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” Luke 4:13-15

Two things of note in those last 3 verses: 1). The forces of evil are never done with us. Temptation to betray our best values doesn’t ever cease. There is no war to end all wars over the power of temptation. Luke tells us the devil left Jesus “until an opportune time.” We all know Jesus would pass each and every one of those tests, unlike you and me. But my point is that we must not ever grow complacent and think we have arrived at a point where we are stronger than evil. If anyone tries to sell us that one, it’s a big, fat lie! There is no vaccination for temptation in all it’s many forms, and when we think we are immune that is when evil sees the most opportune time.

And finally notice how and why Jesus is able to walk away from temptation and carry on his one true purpose. “Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” he returned to Galilee just as he will later leave the serenity of the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9) and go down to face the most humbling and powerless humiliation awaiting him in Jerusalem. But we also know how that turned out!

The take away for is that Jesus was able to withstand evil’s best offers of comfort, fame and power because he was filled with the only power stronger than any and all temptations. That Comforter, that Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us, and it’s better than any Black Friday promise or back room political deal. It’s free for the asking, but here’s the deal — we have to be willing to admit we are powerless without the Holy Spirit.

I’m praying for that kind of humility for myself and for everyone who is tempted to drink the poison kool aid when promised absolute power if we just worship a false god.

Prayer for Eagle’s Wings

It’s me again, God. As you already know I’m feeling very, very hopeless and helpless about the state of our country and world, and that makes it very hard to be motivated to do anything. Knowing that elected officials are stuck in their partisan foxholes and not about to venture into the demilitarized zone to work in a bipartisan, collaborative manor makes it feel useless to even write to them to express concern. There’s so much to be upset and concerned about; is this empathy fatigue? Are my minor physical limitations a valid excuse for not doing anything?

Where is my niche Lord? Pre-retirement I knew who I was and what I was doing each day; but now I’m lost in the ambiguity of despair and need guidance. Shine a light or give me a sign so I can see where I’m supposed to go and do what for the kin-dom. I don’t want to surrender to old age or despair, but I’m so tired, so very tired. I’m waiting, God. You promise that if I wait for you I will not be weary; I will fly on eagle’s wings. Sounds wonderful, but how long do I have to wait? Isaiah doesn’t say how long – he just says “wait.” Does that mean napping or staying busy with distractions of the world while I wait? Does it mean having my phone with me constantly so I don’t miss your call that will tell me what I should be doing? Waiting is tough, especially when I don’t know how long the wait is. Can’t you tell me how long like when companies do when I’m on hold on the phone? Or give me a number that tells me where I am in line? Or can I leave my number so you can call me back when it’s my turn?

You can see how impatient I am. Impatient with all the things my body can no longer do. Impatient with no clarity about what “retirement” means. That word isn’t in the Bible, Lord. Does that mean there is no rest for the weary? Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” didn’t he? Or did Matthew slip that into the Gospel because he was tired and needed R & R from kin-dom work?

I’m waiting, Lord; I’m on hold. You know my strengths and weaknesses; so please let this old, weary servant know what you would have me do in this world that feels like we are going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. I’m waiting for my eagles wings!

Fiddling Through the Storm

One of my favorite musicals has always been “Fiddler on the Roof.” Its theme of love conquering oppression never seems out of date and is all too relevant today. Some of its insights are so good I am tempted to call it the Gospel according to Tevye. I was in a discussion the other day about praying for President Trump, and all of us present agreed we should and he certainly needs it. His erratic and delusional Messianic references to himself since then only confirm that conclusion.

One of the first things that came to my mind about praying for the President is a line from Fiddler where Tevye says this prayer: “God bless and keep the czar—far away from us.” On a more serious note I think one of the best parts of Fiddler is the opening where the title and its metaphor for life are explained.

“Away above my head I see the strangest sight
A fiddler on the roof who’s up there day and night
He fiddles when it rains, he fiddles when it snows
I’ve never seen him rest, yet on and on he goes

{Refrain}
What does it mean, this fiddler on the roof?
Who fiddles every night and fiddles every noon
Why should he pick so curious a place
To play his little fiddler’s tune

An unexpected breeze could blow him to the ground
Yet after every storm, I see he’s still around
Whatever each day brings, this odd outlandish man
He plays his simple tune as sweetly as he can

{Refrain}

A fiddler on the roof, a most unlikely sight
It might not mean a thing, but then again it might!”

And then Tevye says, “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!”

Our traditions of love, compassion, hospitality and justice are under attack, but they are the solid rock and anchor we can cling to in each and every storm; and if we do we will still be around after the perils of this present age are no more.

“A Fiddler on the roof, a most unusual sight…. It may not mean a thing, but then again it might.”

*music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Holy Roller Coaster Whiplash

Diana and I went with some family members recently to an amusement park-first time in years, and I had no intention of riding anything wilder than a Ferris Wheel. But you know how peer pressure is even at my advanced age. So I rode a couple of the “milder” coasters, and I use that term loosely. I opted out of things that went upside down but discovered that the old wooden coasters bang you around even more than some of the newer ones. One called the Blue Streak finished me off, and I was glad to find my head still attached to my body when it was done slamming me first one way and then the other.

That’s how I feel about consuming news in any form these days. We all know the stock market has had more dips and plunges in the last two weeks than most coasters, but trying to keep up with the shifting sands and contradictions coming from the White House has been equally disorienting.

In just two weeks we’ve had 3 mass shootings, on-again off-again Chinese tariffs, strange talk about buying Greenland and a cancelled state visit to Denmark. More EPA regulations have been shredded; background checks have been on the table again and off once more. The Emma Lazarus poem on Lady Liberty has been rewritten, as have rules now allowing the indefinite incarceration of migrant children, and the aforementioned stock market highs and lows.

With that entire dizzying blur of reality coming at me I need to pray. Yes, I know “thoughts and prayers” have become a pious platitude that sometimes excuses inaction, but like that seat belt holding me into the roller coaster I need a solid grounding in something bigger and stronger than my puny self before I can even begin to know how to put thoughts and prayers into action. So, let us pray:

O God, I feel you calling me to a higher place where things will make more sense than the crazy world I’m living in. I love that feeling of being embraced in your presence. I feel you near me in summer nights when even the crickets are chirping your glory. I sleep securely in the faith that you never rest from watching over your children. A new day dawns in all its splendor, but then we crest that first big hill and the bottom drops out. The news is about bullet proof backpacks for innocent children and others who are frightened, alone, bereft of parents and life necessities because they come from the wrong side of an imaginary line we humans have drawn to divide some of your children from others.

The roller coaster of life careens around corners where we look for active shooters, past free-falling retirement accounts, endangered species, and climate refugees. We grasp at anything to hang on to as we fly up another hill only to plunge again into the abyss of loneliness and insecurity. We dare to open our eyes long enough to catch a glimpse of sisters and brothers hungering for food and others fighting the demons of addiction. We want to reach out to them, but we’re too afraid for our own safety to let go and extend a hand.

Values like compassion and kindness that we have relied on forever seem to be no more. Everyone is too busy hanging on for dear life to pay attention to fellow passengers on the coaster. We are connected and share a common fate, and yet we feel isolated and alone, helpless and at the mercy of those who build and operate the ride. We are only passengers, out of control.

Some people seem to like the chaos, the adrenaline rush, but it is too much, too fast for me. My mind can’t make sense of the 24/7 news cycle that bombards me with yet more natural and unnatural disasters. When will it stop? I don’t know if I can take it much longer, Lord! Are you on the coaster with us? Does it look less frightening from your perspective, wherever you are?

And then this part of the ride is over. We jerk to a stop and emerge on wobbly legs back into the broken world we call home; and soon we are searching for another escape from whatever new catastrophe awaits if we dare turn on the news again.

I need a sabbatical, a place of respite from the daily drama of Breaking News. But the world is too much like the amusement park, all noise and lights. I can’t see the Milky Way because light pollution robs me of the awesomeness of the universe. Traffic noise, cell phone notifications, construction crews bulldozing yet more trees and paving over more of Mother Earth. Make it stop, Lord! I can’t hear your still small voice above the din, and I have never needed to hear it more.

Oh, let me find that inner stillness, that holiness of true communion with you that transcends my fear, that smooths out the highs and lows of life, and calms my troubled soul so I can let go of my security blankets and extend an open hand to my sisters and brothers.

I am still, and you are God; and that’s all I need to know. Amen