Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Silence Between the Wings of the Cherubim

“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.”   — John 2

The people of Minnesota have given us some great things. Scotch tape was invented there,
lutefisk (if you don't know what that is, you can check it out on your Google machine here ), Garrison Keillor, and the Mall of America.  I once had a conference in Minneapolis and we got some free time and went to the Mall of America.  We went there three days in a row and walked, and walked, and walked.  At the end of our last day, I looked at the map of the mall and realized that in three days, we had only covered one tiny portion.  If you haven't seen it, you can't imagine how big it is.  258 Statues of Liberty could lie inside the Mall.  If Mount Rushmore was divided into individual monuments, a president could reside in each of the Mall’s four courts. Annually, it is estimated the Mall of America generates two billion dollars for Minnesota’s economy.  Yeah. it's big.

In Jesus' time, the Temple in Jerusalem was one of the greatest malls of its day.  What began as a temple of worship — a place of prayer — had become something quite different.  It had become a shopping mall, bank, government building, and revolutionary symbol all wrapped into one.  And all of these were in the outer courtyard of the temple.  

What is it that caused Jesus to become so angry? It can only be one thing: injustice.  Have you ever bought popcorn at the movies?  Have you ever filled your tank at a gas station right off the freeway?  You know because of their location they're going to charge you more.  The merchants in the temple had that all figured out, and they were the only game in town.  The sacrificial system in the temple had evolved, over the centuries, into an efficient machine for fleecing rich and poor alike.  
 If you went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, your goal was to sacrifice an animal, according to the Law of Moses. You could bring your own sacrificial animal, of course, but if you came from far away, it was easier to purchase a beast locally, at a steep markup.  The law said you had to present a perfect animal, without mark or blemish. Unless you purchased a pre-approved animal within the temple precincts, you had to bring your offering before an inspector, who would tell you whether or not it met the grade. And guess what? The inspectors were in cahoots with the animal-sellers, who knew how to grease their palms with silver. Rarely did they grant approval for a sacrificial animal brought in from the outside.

There was something else. If you had journeyed from one of the lands of the Jewish diaspora —
Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, even distant Rome — the coins jingling in your purse would have been imperial coins, engraved with the Emperor's likeness. Such graven images violated the Second Commandment, and so were forbidden within the temple precincts. In order to buy yourself a sacrificial animal, you had to first exchange your Roman money for image-free Judean coins. The money changers, who had a monopoly, charged exorbitant commissions, but the poor pilgrims had no recourse. They got them coming and going, those temple merchants.

You can see why when Jesus walked into that chaos of the free market, he didn't see a house of prayer. he saw a den of thieves.  It was not enough that Rome was oppressing Israel. The leaders of Israel were oppressing their own people.

For the longest time I read this passage as Jesus losing his temper and flying into a rage. But there is a detail in verse 15 that suggests this was a more deliberate action that Jesus took time to prepare for.  "Making a whip of cords" would take some time and gathering of materials, wouldn't it?  If Jesus had merely lost his temper, he would have grabbed the nearest blunt object and started flailing away.  But this detail suggests that there was a time lapse between noticing the money changing going on and reacting to it.  His followers and the people of Jerusalem were all watching him. And he was going to teach a lesson.

And do you notice, that not a word was said, nor a hand raised against him, as He poured out the
changers’ money, overthrew their tables, and drove out the livestock.  His Presence awed his opponents, and the people who had been ripped off all their lives were on his side.  The only challenge his opponents could come up was to ask him for a sign. A symbol of authority that gave him the right to do all this. And Jesus replied, "Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up."

Let’s just pause for a wonderful quote by Garrett Keizer: "I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn’t knock over tables."  Don't you love that? [Garret Keizer in The Enigma of Anger (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004)]

Then came the calm aftermath spoken of in the Gospel of Matthew 21 — Jesus began to teach every day in the temple and it says there were "children who were crying in the temple, "Hosanna to the son of David!" And since the temple officials couldn't win the argument, they decided to become indignant about the kids, and in Matthew 21:16 said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?"  And a very calm Jesus replies, "Yes. Did you never read, 'Out of the mouth of babes and nursing babies you have perfected praise?'"  Oh, don't you know that ticked them off!

Former Presiding Bishop John E. Hines said it's so well: “They did not crucify Jesus for saying ‘Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow.’ They crucified him for saying, ‘Consider the thieves of the temple, and how they steal.’”

Do you think what happened to the Jewish Temple could ever happen to us?  How would we know if we've stopped being the Church and become a mall?  I've sometimes heard people say, "The Church needs to be run more like a business."  It isn't that we can’t take some lessons from business, but when we make business our model I think we're in trouble.  When we judge our success as a church the same way Apple does, we've got a problem.  John's first readers would have known that the temple was already a smoking crater by the time they read his gospel, since it was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.  Jesus' words and actions were thus not only prophetic, but a stark reminder that any institution that claims to be of God is doomed to failure if it refuses to pay attention to God's own core purpose and values.  Jesus' action in the Temple this morning challenges us to look at Trinity to determine whether we're being faithful to his call, or whether like the Temple in Jerusalem, we’re due for some table flipping. some spring cleaning. For example:

·      Do we measure the church's success like a business? Are we so focused on our attendance figures, buildings, budget, programs, that we fail to question whether we're doing what Jesus wants?
·      Do we talk in our meetings more about property and budgets or about people and what we are doing and can do for people within our walls and outside our walls?
·      Do we avoid the risk of being prophetic and challenging people with the Gospel of the Kingdom, and instead play it safe and not talk about controversial subjects? About justice for the poor and a living wage and fairness for workers; equality in our nation for women, people of color, immigrants, gays and lesbians; and safety for all our children from pollution, global warming, and gun violence?
·      Have we started to look to human beings to take care of all of our problems and make this church what we want it to be. Instead of we ourselves truly becoming disciples of the Christ the way Jesus intended to change the world, do we sit back and look to the Vestry. or the priests. or our new rector to solve everything?

We don't need to be able to answer each one of those questions, but I think we do need to keep asking them.  As long as we keep our eyes focused on the one who said, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations." and keep asking those questions, I think we're on the right track.

The noise in the outer courtyard must have been deafening: Moneychangers and merchants haggling, sheep baa'aing, cattle mooing, doves cooing, people talking, laughing, getting upset with each other.  Jesus stopped all that in today's Gospel, and what was left was a silence so profound that the people there could hear the voices of the children crying in the temple, "Hosanna to the son of David!"

In the very deepest room of the temple. The Holy of Holies. was the Ark of the Covenant.  The High Priest only went in there once a year.  Arching over the mercy seat were two cherubim, their golden wings reaching toward each other at the top. But the mercy seat itself was empty. Yet it was that space that was considered the very presence of the Almighty.  Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury talks about this emptiness: "The cherubim did not reside on the mercy seat. God's presence was nowhere portrayed within this "Holy of Holies" — or anywhere else within the temple. All that greeted the high priest was a blank slab of open space, a void, "the great speaking absence between the images".

Lent is a time of stripping away of all the noise — letting go of things that are holding us back from life, real life.  Before we can be ready for the joy of Easter, we take this time to examine ourselves, to examine our church, and to seek the silence between the wings of the cherubim.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

I Am Not Crazy!

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.”   — Mark 1:21-28

I am not crazy… and I have papers to prove it.  One of the things you may not know about becoming an Episcopal priest is the Church requires you to take a full battery of psychological tests before you're allowed to even begin the process.  Yes, call us old-fashioned, but we try not to ordain crazy priests.  It costs you five hundred dollars, and you have to pay it yourself.  So, ten years ago, before I began my process, I sat down for a half day of written exams in a psychologist's office.  After you answer sheets and sheets of questions on two different instruments, you go away and the psychologist analyzes it and then meets with you.  Just a little hint about being interviewed by a psychologist who's trying to determine whether you're crazy or not: That's probably not the best time for humor.  She went through my test, and said things like, "You have a good self-concept. You score highly in compassion and empathy for others."  But then she said, "There is some slight indication of defensiveness." And I couldn't help myself and replied, "What do you mean I'm defensive?"  I thought it was pretty funny.  The psychologist said nothing.  She just stared at me for a long moment, sighed, and then looked down and made a note in my file.  For those of you who are wondering, I passed my psychological with flying colors.  As I said before, I am not crazy… of course, that was ten years ago.

In Jesus' day, calling someone "crazy" or saying they had a "demon" was shorthand for anything that couldn't be explained.  Everything from epilepsy to mental illness to measles was explained by saying someone had a "demon".  (Hmm… speaking of measles. Sidebar here: Get your kids vaccinated. I think it comes under "Love your neighbor as yourself."  OK, back to the sermon.) 

At one point, people even accused Jesus of having a demon. In other words, "He's crazy!"  In our modern day, I think there are people who would describe Jesus as being crazy.  Those who think everyone should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps think Jesus is pretty crazy for caring for the poor and the discouraged.  Those who think they are somehow superior or God's favorite because they are rich — who make the mistake of thinking they hit a home run, but actually they were just born on third base — think Jesus is crazy for talking about how hard it is for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven.  Those who think it's all about them think Jesus is crazy when he called us to have compassion for others.

But, Jesus wasn't crazy. He was authentic.  The people in that synagogue knew what the scribes had written. To them, no one was as important, as authoritative a prophet, as Moses.  Maybe, hearing the young man from Nazareth on this day, they were remembering the words of Moses concerning true prophets we read in Deuteronomy this morning: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people: you shall heed such a prophet.”  The people were used to preachers who simply talked on and on about Moses and what different rabbis had said, about what Moses said: “Moses said to tithe. To explain in more detail, Rabbi Akiva said one must tithe only his major crops; but Rabbi Hillel said one must include even the spices of the garden”— that’s how some of their preaching likely went.

So, what would the differences in the teachings sound like?  Was it just, "Moses said..." vs. "But I say to you..." as he did in the Beatitudes, or was it something more... something about how Jesus spoke and carried himself?  I like to think it was something more. Jesus not only taught differently, he lived in such an authentic life walking with God that he could speak on it authoritatively. And it astonished people!  Isn’t it sad that often when we see and hear truth, transparency, integrity — we are astonished?

And he was so authentic, he didn't want his miracles to be the focal point so he tried to get people to keep them secret.  Jesus asked his followers not to speak about his miracles — he did not want his miracles to attract people to him. He wanted the Word of God to be the central Good News he was proclaiming.

And in today’s Gospel, we see him healing a man by casting out a demon.  And Jesus knew a lot about casting out demons, because he had wrestled with his own.  Earlier in Mark 1 we read the temptation stories of Jesus in the desert right after his baptism, and everything there points to the image, as Henry Nouen described him, of a “wounded healer.”  Jesus, the wounded healer, knew the kind of demons and weaknesses and brokenness that people wrestle with every day. because he had done battle with them himself.

Today, we still have to wrestle with all sorts of demons. Those things inside us that make us feel crazy: addiction, loneliness, fear.  I like to refer to mine as the Greek Chorus.  If you don't know about them, they were really big in Greek plays, especially the tragedies.  The chorus consisted of between twelve and fifty players, who variously danced, sang or spoke their lines in unison and sometimes wore masks, as our fears often do.  In many of these plays, the chorus expressed to the audience what the main characters couldn’t say, such as their hidden fears or secrets.  I guess it was a kind of early form of rap music.  The chorus entered from the two ramps known as paradoi on either side of the orchestra. Once there, they sang the choral dialogue.  Cheerful things, like in the play Antigone: “Oh, you unlucky daughter of an unlucky father,” or in the tragedy Oedipus: "Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last."

So, have you heard from the members of your Greek chorus lately? Sure you have.  Every time you put yourself down. Every time you say to yourself cruel things you would never say to anyone else like, "You're a loser!" "What's wrong with you?!" "You're so stupid!" "You're always going to mess it up!"  — That's your Greek chorus chiming in.  I try to handle my Greek Chorus with a sense of humor.  After my chorus comes in rapping, "You're going to fail miserably." I always thank them. rather formally.  "Ladies and Gentleman of the chorus. I thank you. Off you go now, back into the wings."

Naming the demons means knowing the demons. The Gospels imply that anyone who exorcises cannot be a stranger to demons. To have faced our demons is never to forget their power to hurt… and never to forget the power to heal that lies in touching broken heartedness.  Jesus hears, below the demon noises, an anguished cry for deliverance. And we can tune our hearts to hear that same cry in others.  John Watson once said, "Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."  People you know may appear to have it all together. to be successful and happy and loved. But make no mistake. everyone's fighting a battle.  Everyone gets entertained by their own Greek Chorus.

Henri J. M. Nouwen once wrote, 
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, "Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody." ... [My dark side says,] I am no good... I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved." Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

You are the beloved.  Believing that… allowing Jesus to help us make peace with our inner Greek Chorus. We in turn can become wounded healers for others. 

Perhaps, what you need most is the touch of the wounded healer on your heart.  Or maybe this morning you already are one of those wounded healers bringing healing and love and comfort to others, but you don't even realize it.  Paulo Coelho, bestselling author of the parable The Alchemist, tells this story: 
Many years ago, there lived a man who was capable of loving and forgiving everyone he came across. Because of this, God sent an angel to talk to him. “God asked me to come and visit you and tell you that he wishes to reward you for your goodness,” said the angel. “You may have any gift you wish for. Would you like the gift of healing?” “Certainly not,” said the man. “I would prefer God to choose those who should be healed.” “And what about leading sinners back to the path of Truth?” “That’s a job for angels like you.  I don’t want to be venerated by anyone or to serve as a permanent example.” “Look, I can’t go back to Heaven without having given you a miracle. If you don’t choose, I’ll have to choose one for you,” the angel explained. The man thought for a moment and then said: “All right, I would like good to be done through me, but without anyone noticing, not even me, in case I should commit the sin of vanity.” So the angel arranged for the man’s shadow to have the power of healing, but only when the sun was shining on the man’s face. In this way, wherever he went, the sick were healed, the earth grew fertile again, and sad people rediscovered happiness. The man traveled the Earth for many years, oblivious of the miracles he was working because when he was facing the sun, his shadow was always behind him. In this way, he was able to live and die unaware of his own holiness.

By facing the sun. by wrestling with our own inner critical voice. by believing that we are indeed beloved of God. by the healing of the wounded healer, Jesus.  We can turn and heal others... don't underestimate the power of love or your own importance in spreading Jesus' love to others.  You may never know all the good you do, but have no doubt, you have a unique and critical role to play in the healing of this broken world.  And you are the only one who can do it.