Friday, March 30, 2018

A Meal for the Living

A Meal for the Living
1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Throughout the season of Lent at Community UCC we have challenged ourselves to consider seriously that Jesus was truly human. I call it a challenge because the church today is swimming in hymns and prayers and anthems to the divine Jesus, who died to earn forgiveness for our sins, and satisfy a deeply offended and dangerous God. 

There is no specific requirement to accept that God demanded Jesus be tortured and executed to appease the anger of God at humanity’s sinfulness. There is no gospel passage that says it can only be seen this way. I also do not think we need to believe only the divinity of God could accept such suffering. Plenty of ordinary people suffer. 

Throughout history, and even in the world today, people who are full of compassion and love for the world, are at odds with the structures of organizations and the governments of the world. We have noted that even the Dalai Lama, the most widely recognized holy man of our own day, lives in exile from his native Tibet. He is a refugee from the occupying government of China. All of us who play by the rules of compassion and love in action are subject to being misunderstood, mistrusted, and liable to held in violation of some law designed to protect the status quo. 

Jesus, as the human representative of God’s love in action, then is an example of living in two worlds at one time. Jesus lived in the occupied land of Israel in his day, and the Kingdom of God. He fit the stereotype of a political radical, that threatened the precarious balance of power that ruled Jerusalem. All organizations have a structured violent response to stereotypical threats. 

Any time you or I choose not to conform to the values of the ruling authority in any state or nation, we are subject to being regarded as dangerous. Throughout the history of the western world, which is the history I know best, whenever the religious community has a vested interest in the dominant political authority, there is sure to be violence that determines who is in, and who is out. The closer the relationship between religion and political power, the more intense and overt is the violence. 

It is hard to live as a peace-maker in a world dominated by the military industrial complex. The ‘powers that be’ are suspicious of those who are continually speaking up for the poor and the needy. Those who would try to protect any of those who are different; in language, dress, race, creed, sexual orientation, or speak up for equality, are often suspected of fitting the stereotype of a radical. Once labeled, it is hard to prove your innocence. Just like the God of love was labelled as too pure for sinful humans, and required a “perfect sacrifice,” labels obscure the truth. 

We gather tonight and recall the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. It is the eve of the Jewish Passover, when the Jews recall how God released them from their lives as slaves to Pharaoh, and created the awareness of their identity as a people of God. They had a religious awakening in an oppressive political climate. But we know well how the oppressed absorb the lessons taught by the oppressors. Nothing is so easy to imitate as self-promotion protected by ruthless aggression. 

I invite you to consider tonight that Jesus was not dying once and for all to forgive our private little sins before a ruthless and violent God. Jesus, the anointed of God, demonstrates that God knows that when we are asked to live in righteous defense of peace and justice; those who love power on earth will over react. God knows that the cost of defending the poor and the weak will draw the ire of the ‘establishment’ in any age and any culture.  

Jesus then calls us to the table, to share in God’s blessing. Bread and wine steel our conviction to live with peaceful determination in the face of violence. Jesus walks with every soul who has ever suffered unjustly, faced corrupt and violent oppression, and promises the victory of resurrection. 

It is true, we face institutional violence, because the world is addicted to violence. Organizational structures believe in violence, because it works for their short term goals. Like a CEO and Board of Directors fixated on the next quarters profits, they cannot trust in the values of the long-haul, let alone eternity. 

The events in Jerusalem then, are not an aberration in political systems, a system manipulated in order to support a divine plan for human salvation. Instead, these are human systems, manipulated by the powerful, just as they always do, to protect the status quo. Jesus then, demonstrates how God goes with every person falsely accused, every person humiliated in the name of preserving the human institution that feels threatened. 

But you and I know. We know the rest of the story. Jesus was captured by the Temple guards under the cover of night. Jesus was transferred to the control of the occupying Roman authority, who routinely used violence to quell insurrection. And the God of forever, responded - by demonstrating the resurrection. 

In the Eastern or Orthodox Christian communities, resurrection is celebrated for its communal values. It is not only that Jesus was raised, but the resurrected Jesus then defeated the gatekeeper of Hades, the place of death, and shared the resurrection with all of the righteous of God. The gates of Hades swung open for all those who love God and God’s righteousness. And we know this through our beloved Jesus, who shows us that God is love, and not an ego-maniac tyrant, easily offended, and blood thirsty.   

So we gather tonight, and celebrate communion. We are in communion with each other, honoring and strengthening all of the good that I do, and you do, and we do together. We celebrate this open table, a place of welcome - where strangers are invited to partake, and so be strengthened for the challenges of a violent world. Participation in this sacrament, is not reserved for the members, not reserved for those who have been saved, it is not even reserved for those who know they have been forgiven.  

In this same passage from John’s gospel, in verses 27 to 30, Jesus explains he will be betrayed by one of his own. In the commotion of the defensive reaction of the disciples, Jesus tells Judas to do what he has to do. And there, in that decisive moment, before he goes out of the door, Jesus gives communion to this child of God that he loves, even as the betrayal is taking place. 

Come to the table and know for sure, God as expressed in Jesus the Christ, loves you so much that no sin can keep you away from God’s love. Don’t you see, God IS LOVE. Not even Judas, in the moment of betrayal is outside of this inclusive love. Nothing will ever stop God from loving you. Nothing will ever stop God from loving you. Nothing will ever stop God from loving you. 

This is a meal for the living. We eat in order to gain strength of body, mind and spirit. We eat because there is work to do for the church, which is the body of Christ alive today. We gather our strength because the world still prefers the status quo to justice, and that status quo is defended with violence, like it was, and is now, and only love can change it.  

Just as Jesus served communion to his disciples, we serve each other. It has nothing to do with whether or not we deserve it. It is not about what you have done, or even what you will do; it is who you are, a beloved child of God. Amen. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Blessed Is the One Who Comes in the Name of the Lord

Blessed Is the One Who Comes In the Name of the Lord 
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Mark 11:1-11

Today we have an embarrassment of riches. The resources of the church are overflowing, and it will be hard to limit ourselves enough to be able to make any sense of this day at all. 
This is Palm Sunday. In the early years of my life in the Catholic Church there were great liturgical traditions that were linked to this day in the church year. There were festive processionals. There was glorious music, especially in the pre-Vatican 2 Latin liturgies, reserved just for this day. It required the choirs to rehearse a lot, to handle all of the special music for Palm Sunday and the rest of Holy Week. And then, Easter had to be bigger still. 
In recent years, many protestant congregations have mixed Palm Sunday with the Good Friday texts, calling it Palm/Passion Sunday, because so few in the congregations are able or willing to participate in Holy Week observances. When I was an installed pastor I would alternate, one year Palm Sunday, one year Passion Sunday. 
The issue is this. Within the church year, Sunday is always a celebration of Easter. If you give up chocolate for Lent, technically, you can eat chocolate on Sunday, because Sunday is not part of Lent. You know there are forty days of Lent, but if you count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, it is more than 40, that is because Sunday does not count as Lent. It is true, but I digress. Palm Sunday is a challenge because of how it exposes the fickle sentiments of human in crowds acting in public life. On Palm Sunday the people are singing the praises “Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord”, by Friday morning the same crowds are screaming “Crucify Him!” Public acclaim is fickle, and endorses the most shallow of our vanities. There is likely no worse way to evaluate performance and value than by public acclaim or Nielsen ratings.  
Today, we add to the treasure of worship resources, by celebrating the Confirmation of four of the church youths into full membership. They have spent a lot of time and energy preparing for the opportunity to confirm the promises made for them at their baptism, and claim the faith as their own. The Palm Sunday date adds a certain sense of gravitas to the celebration. We welcome them into the church, and welcome them into a sober awareness of the challenges that they are accepting by choosing to be members of the church, and servants of the living God.  
So I will speak directly to those who are about to claim this faith tradition as their own, and those of you who wrestle with your own faith in an ongoing way - might listen in. 
I pray that God will give you the wisdom to sort out what honors the God of Creation, from what simply flatters the people of the church, even if it is your own church. They are only rarely the same. A church that wants to be honored usually does not know God very well. 
I hope that you will come to appreciate that your understanding of a good and generous God, will continue to put you in awkward situations with some people you like. Some people believe God is mean and vengeful, and cannot or will not understand how you can possibly see God differently than they do. 
I hope we have prepared you to stick up for the poor, and the different, who are scapegoated so that the community can avoid responsibility for systemic failures, and avoid the messiness of respecting others who are different from themselves. It happens a lot you know. We worry about unruly African-Americans and immigrants, even as white men with bombs and rapid-fire rifles commit mass murders. 
I pray that you will continue to bless those who are differently abled, and have any sort of disadvantage. It is the God we know, who enables us to be a friend to many whom your neighbors cannot bear to even look at. 
In all of this, I hope that you have found a variety of ways to pray. I hope you have discovered that life is hard, and unfair, and most importantly, God “gets it.” God goes with you into the most difficult situations of your life. You are never alone. You are never alone. 
I pray that you have found that the resources of the historic church are more than museum pieces, but are actual tools that will help you to craft a life that makes the world better, because God cares, and works through you. 
I pray that you know - when your heart is breaking, God suffers with you. And the best news of all, God is willing and able to restore you and make your heart bigger and stronger and able to love again. 
This church you join is a fellowship of souls who know God best, through the life, teachings and active presence of Jesus of Nazareth. That Jesus, you got to love that Jesus. Without Jesus, I know I would never have gotten past all the talk about angry gods. Without Jesus I would never have been able to say I loved God, because otherwise God seems too remote and too scary. 
So we confirm you today, and hope that through lessons, and the conversations with mentors, you get it. We love God and take that seriously. As you love God, you will mentor others, maybe even in a church far away from here. That church might not look like this. It might not worship the same way, but if you find the presence of the good and caring God there, then it can be a place for you. 
So the God we know and love, is the creative spirit that brought all of creation to life, and wondrously, made each of us spectacularly unique. We are gifted to be in relationship with this God. A relationship that permits us to alternately love God, and call God hateful names from the depths of the private hells that our lives will cause us to pass through. God never turns God’s eyes away from the troubles we see. 
The ancient psalmist, a Jewish mystic and poet, wrote: 
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, "His steadfast love endures forever."
Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.   

This God we love is maddeningly beyond our understanding. God resists our efforts to be reduced to what we can control, or even predict. What saves us, is that through Jesus we believe that God cares, God knows, and God remains faithful. Let all of us say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” “His steadfast love endures forever.” Amen. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

There Is No Resurrection, If There Is No Death

There Is No Resurrection, If there Is No Death
Psalm 51:1-12, John 12:20-33

Psalm 51 is as traditional to the Lenten season as it comes. This psalm is a direct reference to the prophet Nathan meeting with King David, in the aftermath of his sinful episode with Bathsheba, where David did a darn good job of breaking all 10 commandments in a single Chapter of the Bible. 

Confronted with his own sinfulness, David had the good sense to repent, acknowledge his guilt, and pledge to do something different, better. This defines the traditional Lenten Season. 

You know, the hard part of true repentance, is trusting that we are capable of making a change. We all know how hard it is to change our diet. We know how hard it is to commit to a new routine; physical exercise is a great example. We might be able to hang on for a few days, maybe even a couple of weeks, but before long we ache for the “good old days” when we were not so driven. The couch looks so good. 

No small part about making a change, is being able to trust that we can really do it. While we are aware of our own failures in the past, we are even more skeptical of others who announce that they have had a change of heart. Our typical response might be, “We’ll see,” spoken with a raised eyebrow. It conjures up the old saw about a leopard changing it spots, if you are old enough to remember that. 

In the story of David and Bathsheba, David’s infidelity to his close associate Uriah the Hittite, and the violation of Uriah’s wife, lead to murder in the rush to hide his sin. Infidelity is in fact a disease that creates failing health in ever expanding waves, as a stone disturbs still waters. Not only did David sin, but caused devoted followers to violate their own consciences by being obedient to David’s immoral demands. When we fail to honor the faithful relationships in our life, we create an increasing distance between our lives and actions, and the presence of our good and generous God. 

In John’s gospel, the plot that leads to the torture and execution of Jesus, is moving rapidly. The resurrection of Lazarus on the far side of the Mount of Olives has inspired the crowds, and resulted in the decision to arrest and kill both Jesus and Lazarus.  

These “Greeks” who ask to see Jesus in today’s passage, represent the first gentiles to respond to the ministry of Jesus and seek him out. It is worth noting that they sought out the disciples that were among the first called by Jesus with the invitation “Come and See.” In the preceding part of this Chapter, John recounts the triumphant entrance on Palm Sunday where the Pharisees conclude in dismay, “the whole world is going after him.” Right on cue, some Greeks come looking for Jesus.  

Here Jesus confounds even his close associates by telling them they do not understand what is coming next. Jesus tells them that the violent powers of the world are about to call for Jesus’ life, and, only those whose lives reflect the servanthood of Jesus will experience the reward Jesus will receive. 

Radical change does not happen unless something old dies. You cannot embrace a new way of living, as long as your preference for the old way still lives in your heart. That is what makes institutional change so difficult. 

The CEO may announce a new vision. The Vice Presidents, swear allegiance to the new marching orders. But until the first line supervisors require the rank and file to behave differently, it is just a dog and pony show. Until the people on the frontline actually do something new, everyday, it is just talk. 

Jesus understands that this is a hard reality. Jesus understands, that unless you and I decide that we can live like Jesus lived, and are willing to face the assembled powers and the selfish concerns of the flesh and blood world, the love of God will not break the human cycle of violence. The world will not and cannot change, until we are willing to give up our old comfort zone, playing nice in the face of injustice, and be willing to make the sacrifice as needed.  

This is a time of change in this congregation. A year ago you made a commitment to a new way of life. I know that you were collectively surprised at the price you paid in folks leaving. The commitment was made, you are an ONA church, Open and Affirming of people who do not fit into the stereotype “either/or” categories. An ONA church will be very inviting to many UCC pastors who serve conservative congregations. It is likely that many candidates who will contact the Search Committee will be excited by the prospect of a progressive congregation. Their expectation may cause you to be a little uneasy. You will need to claim your identity and embrace it. The dream that one day this will all be over and all of our old friends will come back, that dream will die. 

Culturally we do not appreciate death. We prefer not to talk about it. Death always seems like a painful and final separation, taking someone we love away. We always associate death with loss in our culture. But in this mortal life we need to have death. If there were not an end in sight, we could put off all change indefinitely, as in - put it off forever. But we do not have forever in this world to do what God has gifted us to do. 

In the love of Christ, we find that death reveals the truth about God’s love; God’s love does not end. So the Kingdom of God is not waiting for our particular life to come to completion. Instead, the voice of God is ready to affirm your value, as you bring the Kingdom to life in the part of the world that you touch. 

Next week we will get to Palm Sunday, but the Confirmation will take place that day and claim center stage. It is fitting that the congregation acknowledge and welcome these enthusiastic young members into the church. The Palm Sunday date adds a certain sense of gravitas to the celebration. We welcome them into the church, and welcome them into a sober awareness of the challenges that they are accepting by choosing to be members of the church, and servants of the living God.  

On Maundy Thursday we will bring this unique Lenten Preaching cycle to a close. This season of a human Jesus facing human sized oppression and the response of religious and political leaders to his ministry, will close with us gathered around the communion table. We will find an entirely different appreciation for the love of a good and faithful God, and we will see that the servants of God are not measured by their success in winning the hearts of the general population. We find the presence of God’s love at the table, in preparation for our testing, where we will glorify God’s name, and take comfort in God’s presence.   

David recognized the significance of his sin, and repented. Within the episode, David found his morals collapse like a house of cards, as one sin cascaded to another and another. The lack of faithfulness to his closest defenders, proves that love of neighbor is necessary to validate love of God. 

Jesus was condemned because he brought new life. It is not the resurrection of Lazarus that is so terrifying to the established order, but that this sign gives the ministry of Jesus a powerful affirmation. To do the miraculous “proves” that he is from God, and a threat to the order of the Temple. 

The powers that be, react to protect their authority against this prophet. Like David before them, the Temple leaders, perched on the very same Temple Mount, fall into temptation. They flex their personal authority and fail to seek the presence of God. And the moral order of the Temple starts to become undone. The size of the stones with which the Temple is constructed with only delays the inevitable. Once the commitment is made to abandon our faithful lives for sex, power, and money, the collapse is inevitable - unless the prophet can persuade us to true repentance.  

And so we pause and consider all of the ways we seek our own glory, and fail to seek the presence of God. We think back to Ash Wednesday, when the youthful David avoided taking the insults of the giant Goliath personally, and stepped out in courage to defend the glory of God. Jesus, in that same model, proclaims faithfulness to God is everything. And as Jesus was lifted up: on the cross; from the tomb; and in the Ascension; he draws each of us to be faithful, even through the inevitable deaths we endure in this life. And reveals that for those who love God and neighbor, love is eternal, Amen. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

You Are Blessed Because God So Loves the World

You Are Blessed Because God So Loves the World
Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

We are several weeks into Lent now, a season where we are intentionally twisting the tradition a little bit. While we believe that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, in our traditional worship practices, we assign to Jesus the mind of God, living and acting with godlike knowledge and focus. Several of you have told me it feels awkward to let Jesus be human, and react to the situations of the gospel stories with human understanding.  

So I want to be clear, this is an exercise that is intended to encourage us as representatives of the Christ in our time and place. It is up to us to see the challenges in our life as challenges to the faith we have in the God of love. We are empowering the spiritual soul within us, to react to our own life and times, with the grace we have seen in Jesus. 

The human systems that confronted Jesus, are replicated by the human systems in our time. It is so easy to read the Bible stories as fairy tales, where the immortal Jesus slays dragons and evil unicorns. But Jesus of Nazareth lived in the real world, populated with real people, involved in human systems and communities with distinctions of class, race, power, and money, just like we do. When we let Jesus be human, we also allow the situations he lived in, become human sized too. It is then that Jesus becomes a model for love in action, and not just an action figure engaged in comic book fantasies. 

There is a battle in most religious bodies, that struggles with the imperfections of the world, and the perfection of eternity. As humans we love to simplify our equations, usually reducing difficult issues into an either/or; is it good or is it evil? While there are plenty of scriptures to provide us with guidance, there are still folks who consider themselves holy, and who believe that God is pure and hates the messiness of this mortal life, especially the messiness of others. 

In direct confrontation to this artificial argument comes in the famous John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The blessing in this passage is that we cannot in good faith, align ourselves with those who want all of their focus on eternal life. God so loves THIS world, that his love in action demonstrates life lived well. 

This famous passage is lifted out of the long discussion in John’s gospel between Jesus and Nicodemus. From the description provided of Nicodemus, we believe he was a part of the Sanhedrin, the Board of Directors for the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin included mostly Sadducees, but also some noted Pharisees.  

The Sadducees were the conservative party, associated with wealthy in the community, and well connected politically to the Temple and to the arrangement between the Romans and the Herodians. The Pharisees, were more idealistic Jews, and distinctively believed in an after life, and the urgent necessity of following the rules. The Sadducees did not believe in life after death - and that made them “sad you see,” which is how I remember which is which. 

Nicodemus only appears in John’s gospel. Where the gospel of Mark defines Jesus as a ‘man of action,’ in John’s gospel, Jesus teaches in long and poetic conversations and sermons. Nicodemus the Pharisee, is presented as inclined towards Jesus, and his message that ties this world to the next through compassionate faith in action. 

In the letter to the Ephesians, which may or may not be an original work of the apostle Paul, claims that we were dead because of our sins, captured in the human cycle of violence and power. The temptations of this flesh and blood world, had overwhelmed our senses and silenced the voice of God within us. It is through the work of God’s grace, made known to us in Jesus Christ, we are able to live and rise above the limited perspective of this world.  

We have talked repeatedly this season about listening for the voice of God. We know that our culturally trained ears can mislead us, trying to interpret what we hear into the artificial categories and organization of the world. We are such good imitators, that our standard practice of protest is to react against power, in a process that mimics the power we protest against. This is how the cycle of violence gets perpetuated. 

In Jesus the Christ, we see life as usual - interrupted. Jesus does not fight fire with fire. Jesus does not dream of armies and direct conflict. This is not an easy transition for us, it is a little outside of the range of our experience. We know the words about non-violent protests. We have read about Mahatma Gandhi, demonstrating against the violent oppressive colonial occupation of India by the British. 

We know how Gandhi’s non-violent protest model was promoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., even if it was hard for the wider community to fully embrace. The call to non-violence necessarily includes teaching about the true meaning of strength and power. We are so programmed to imitate each other, it is difficult to even consider strength as a different response than fighting fire with fire.

The celebration of God with us is focused on a God who knows how hard it is for humans to seek values that are other than the typical motivation of the world. God so loved the world that through Jesus Christ we are offered a model of living to a different standard. 

Still, for centuries we have tried to domesticate and normalize the life and teaching of Jesus. Even the verses of John 3:16 are reduced to an infant formula, it is enough to believe IN Jesus, not have the faith of Jesus in the God of creation, and to live LIKE Jesus. We try to make it easy for ourselves, and make belief the test of faith.  

Jesus asked us to follow him. Nowhere does it say Jesus asked us to worship him. This very passage in closing his conversation at verse 21 resolves with the words, “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” 

True faith is love in action. During the high seasons of the church year, we get a sampling of the strongest passages of the gospel of John, since the church does not give John his own year in the Revised Common Lectionary. While this year is the year of Mark, who displays Jesus as ‘the man of action.’ Today the passage from John - that so often gets cut off to say believing in Jesus is enough, is exposed. This passage does not  summarize the gospel, a better summary when we say “Love God and Neighbor.” If you believe in Jesus, then you will follow him and do what he does. 

Nicodemus is like many of your friends. He is a good man who loves what is good and what makes the world around him better. The good news about Jesus the Christ intrigues him, and Jesus makes him welcome. Jesus does not put pressure on him, but invites him to consider an option to the rigid form of religion the Pharisees created in the effort to be faithful. Jesus avoids the common error of insulting the good, because it is not perfect. 

This conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus -seen as a single piece - is a model of invitation to a life marked by doing what is right and true. It is not a test, but an invitation. Here Jesus is inviting a man, who already is faithful to God, and already concerned for what is faithful, to experience the freedom of God’s good love. 

When we do church right, not only do people feel the welcome of God’s love, but they are inspired to touch the world with that love. Not only do we encourage each other with the goodness of Jesus, but we are compelled to share that good news. Not only do we do good things for each other, but we do good things in the light of the community, so that the community might clearly see that the truth of God is in those deeds. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Destroy This Temple

 Destroy This Temple 
Psalm 19, John 2:13-22 

The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple of the money lenders is used in the gospel of John very differently than it appears in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. In the gospel of John, the story appears early in Jesus’ ministry, during his first trip to Jerusalem. It is because John’s gospel features three trips to Jerusalem that we believe that Jesus’ public ministry ran three years. 

In the synoptic gospels, those that follow the basic outline provided by Mark with only one trip to Jerusalem, this story appears during Holy Week. The event forms sort of a “last straw” that causes the authorities to move forward with their plan to deal with Jesus. 

In the gospel of John, this stands as a bold confrontational statement between the ministry of Jesus, and the religious establishment. Protesting in the Temple is a sign of deep disrespect, and it was the kind of protest that would have consequences from the powerful. The authorities interpret the protest from their own perspective, uninterested in the message intended, which is the way protests are interpreted from a position of privilege. In the gospel of John this event might be seen as a measure of young Jesus’ political naivety, where in the other gospels it appears more calculating. 

The Temple in Jerusalem sat on the Temple Mount on the east edge of the Old City of Jerusalem, with a commanding view of the Kidron Valley below. It was the prototype of a fortress, with only one way to access it, from the west, so it was easy to defend from attack. 

As a religious shrine, the Temple stood as a symbol of how the people of King David and Solomon regarded a relationship with God as a primary focus of the people they represented. On Sunday, January 28, we looked at pictures; first of a scale model of the Old City from 66CE before the Romans leveled the Temple; and the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine that occupies the space since 1020CE. 

When prominent real estate is devoted to religious purposes, you immediately recognize that a significant amount of political power and symbolism are involved in maintaining the structure. This is a place to start in determining what are the local community values and a part of its history. 

The First Temple was built by Solomon, the son of King David, around 1000 BCE. The Old Testament raves about the beauty of the furnishings and the extravagant use of precious materials. The Temple Mount also provided space for the Palace of the King, a formal court for matters of the state, in addition to facilities for the priests to process live animals for sacrifice. A good Jewish priest also needed to be a sophisticated butcher. 

Solomon’s Temple was looted and flattened when the Babylonians defeated the forces of Israel around 650BCE, and took many captive to serve as slaves for several generations. The Second Temple was rebuilt, as a rallying centerpiece of civic pride, when the families of the captives returned several generations later. It was the work of poor people, working under duress. It lacked the shine, sparkle and stature associated with the original. 

King Herod the Great was clearly an egomaniac. He built palaces for himself, financed with the share of the taxes he collected for the occupying Roman government. He diffused the anger of the population by incrementally rebuilding the Temple on a grander scale, a project continued by his son, Herod-the-Not-So-Great. 

In the time of Jesus, every time you mention the Temple you are bringing up the entire political issue of the day. Herod and Sons are in cahoots with the Romans, and the Temple priests are beholden to the entire structure. Within the balance of power, the priests’ sought to keep the peace, and alert the authorities to troublemakers. There was a wide range of emotional responses to the situation within the various segments of the population, from quiet acceptance to violent rejection of the arrangement. 

In this Lenten season, we are trying to remind ourselves that Jesus was a real human being, and lives as a human with human emotions and circumstances. At the same time, we remind ourselves that we also have a spiritual nature. The human Jesus ways always in shark infested political waters.  When he exercised religious authority, the realm of the priests - but operated without their sanction or control, he marked himself as a rival and a threat to the delicate balance of powers.  

The human Jesus understood the political structure and that he represented a threat to the powers that be. You and I read the gospel stories, and see Jesus as a philosopher and healer. The authorities in Jerusalem saw a rural zealot, who proclaimed a God that related to the people outside of the carefully constructed three tiered scale. The human Jesus has no power to control the events, but has the potential to undermine the priests, and possibly the entire stack of blocks will tumble down. 

We think of one and two year olds, playing with blocks. They first learn the joy of knocking them over. Then they learn to put 2 or 3 up, and knock them over. Then, they may learn to enjoy putting more elaborate structures together. 

The gospel of Mark was written right around the time, 70CE, where the crucifixion of Jesus was now 40 years past and the Romans, tired of revolts, crushed the Temple and either expelled or killed all of the Jewish priests. Judaism would never be the same. Priests and animal sacrifices ended forever as the Temple stones were disassembled. Jerusalem, in Mark’s day, was a very dangerous place. 

The gospels of Matthew, Luke and John were clearly written after the events of 70CE and we see evidence of the political unease of their own times, in how they remember the events of Jesus public ministry and death. 

The gospel of John, the last of our four gospels to be written, structures his words in ways that understand that it is political when we say that God abhors the religious leaders abusing their authority to turn a profit, or benefit the system of profiteering. When our religious beliefs guide and structure our actions in the world, there are always political implications. We have the same choice as the original inhabitants of Jerusalem; from quiet acceptance to active resistance to the arrangement. 

Like Jesus, when we act as agents for the defense of the poor, and care for the aging and infirm, we are seen as opponents of the balance of power. The system of profits and political power are accustomed to using the legal structure to oppose truth and justice, whether in the hands of political foes, or in the hands of idealists. 

The ceremonial site of the heroic acts of the crucifixion and resurrection, embodied in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem, was closed to the public this week for several days. The three Christian groups who share the administration of the shrine acted together in reaction to harsh and far-reaching taxation and zoning regulations enacted against Christian owned properties in Israel. 

The diplomacy and compromise associated with mutual respect and negotiation fail when those with power act preemptively. The Holy Land was, and remains, embroiled in conflicts where laws are enacted by those in power, in direct avoidance of the challenge of relationship. 

This is a traditional use of power over others, to enact rules that protect the advantageous position of the powerful. Then one can claim it an impersonal decision to require simple adherence to the law. This happens in matters of states, and cities, school boards and yes, even in churches, where the authority of Boards and committees overlap.   

In a very real sense Jesus demonstrates for us that when there is a conflict between God’s love of justice, and the balance of power in the flesh and blood world, the result is human violence; unless compassion and relationship intervene. We are not doing something wrong when we are confronted by the ones who manipulate the political and legal system. To imitate Jesus is not to confront violence with violence, but neither do we turn our heads and walk away.  

Jesus provides us with evidence that when we answer to the priorities of heaven, God understands and walks with us. When the ‘powers that be’ retaliate against lovers of peace in an unbalanced wave of violence, Jesus demonstrates how God understands and walks with us. 

You and I, we live in two worlds. In our flesh and blood existence, we have the temptations to seek out a life of ease. We often look down on others who might expose our hypocrisy when we claim the integrity of our system, and bristle when out shortcomings are named. The powerful often  demand complete allegiance as a test of faithfulness. 

We live spiritual lives, tuned in to the God that Jesus loved and preached about. Jesus committed his mortal life to promoting an understanding of God as being more devoted to relationship and reconciliation than God is devoted to rules and purity. This is the point of departure between the God of violence, so often portrayed by the religious - who want to exercise personal authority in the name of God, and the self-sacrificing Jesus of Nazareth. 

Jesus warns the powers that be, you can tear down this Temple, but the glory of God is undeterred. That is the truth this morning. The God of the Jews is not dead and gone, though their symbolic Temple has been displaced by a religious symbol from another culture and another generation. God lives, and continues to speak words of relationship and reconciliation to those who might turn to God in humility and prayer, Amen.