Plymouth United Church of Christ

Right click to download to your computer.

Sermon, Year B, Lent 3, March 11, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: John 2:13-22

How do we go about being the church? What do we do as a church that is genuinely churchy, in accordance with God’s will, and what that we do in the church is maybe of our own invention that we’ve had so long we don’t even realize any more that it was part of our invention, or that we never even thought about it? How do we go about being the embodied people of God in this grand and amazing institution that is The Church. And how do we go about being especially this specific manifestation of the Church that we call “Plymouth?” We who are gathered here.

How do we go about being the church? Being the embodied people of God?

John’s Gospel lesson that we read today directs us to that question. In fact, the whole beginning of John’s Gospel, the whole opening first four chapters is really addressing this question: How ought we to be the church? And really the entirety of John’s Gospel is asking and trying to answer that question. But especially in these beginning four chapters, this question is a big question. At the time this Gospel was written, we’re well after Jesus’ time, probably the second generation of the church maybe 50 or so years after Jesus’ resurrection, the first Easter Day. So Christians are all over hte place now and beginning to break away from Jewish worship, from the synagogues, and they’re asking that question, “How do we do this? How are we to be the community centered around Jesus Christ?”

So the Jesus in John’s Gospel spends a lot of time talking about community. What it means to live together. The church community, but also how the world should live together. He talks about the importance of community, the importance of holy community, and the importance of being a community that is faithful to God and to Jesus Christ. A big part of that is because we cannot be Christian without being in a community. This is not a personal individualistic faith, it’s a communal faith. It’s a faith we do in community. Although as Americans we may often fall to the temptation of wanting it to be a personal and individualist thing. And in our tradition, without any doctrine or dogma, it is personal: it is our own faith journey, but we always do that together. Always as part of a community. It is a faith that demands community. And thus a faith that demands that it be a healthy, functional, loving, holy, compassionate, and faithful community. Jesus, in the opening chapters of John, is checking out the community that the religious leaders have made over the last couple hundred years before Jesus shows up. And he finds much of it lacking because it has lost its sense of bodily incarnation. It’s sense of human need and respect and earthy immediacy. In favor of a lot of rules and regulations; things that had to be done at certain times and in certain ways. Sacrifices that had to be made, money that had to be spent. And had become a financial burden for a lot of people. It had become a faith that in many ways, that if you were poor, you couldn’t afford to do a lot of the “right” things. If you were poor, it was almost impossible to be a faithful Jew according to what had been built up around Judaism.

Jesus starts busting it up, turning the tables on these traditions that were not helpful and that were not what God wanted.

His first public act in the Gospel of John was the miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Which is not in and of itself a particularly subversive thing. But the way he did it was he used the purification jars. he took the water that was in the purification jars, these jars that were very important to the religious tradition of purifying oneself, but that’s all they were to be used for. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but it did take them out of service of doing earthy immediate things like giving a drink to people who were thirsty. You were not to drink from the jars of purification. So Jesus appropriates their use. He turns them into party jugs of wine in his first miracle to meet the needs not of the religious institution, but to meet the needs of the people. The community that was gathered in that place and that time. He turns the institutional needs over in favor of the needs of the community. Then after that miracle, Jesus comes to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover (the story we read today). He turns over the money changers’ tables. A literal turning the tables of religious tradition and religious thought. Then after this story, Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus in the secrecy of nighttime, and Jesus tells him he must be born from above to be faithful and to be right with God.

Then after that, is Jesus’ trip to Samaria where he meets the woman at the well in that story of grace and mercy. And unlike the Jews who keep asking Jesus for a sign – “Give us the sign so that we may believe” – the Samaritan woman and other Samaritans of that area believe in Jesus not because of what he has done but because of what he has said. They believe Jesus’ words. He also tells them that worship is not restricted to a specific place, but that we are to worship in spirit and truth.

It’s interesting that he says that to Samaritans because they were a Jewish break-off sect that left Judaism a few hundred years before and had set up their own temple and their own places of worship. That really annoyed the other Jewish people because there was only to be the one temple in Jerusalem that was to be the only bona fide or official orthodox place of worship, and the Samaritans had their own temples in a number of places. And so here’s Jesus, in Samaria having an encounter with the woman at the well and the other people, and here’s Jesus, a good Jewish boy, telling the Samaritans ina sense, “You have it correct. You don’t have to worship in a specific place. Worship in spirit and truth.”

Jesus had also, after whipping the money changers, said, “Tear down this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” The temple really is Jesus’ body. And then now, we the gathered community are Christ’s body, and so we are the temple. It’s not about a specific place any more.

After his time in Samaria, he comes back and meets a royal official, who would be a Gentile part of the power structure. This royal official begs Jesus to heal his son and he believes Jesus’ words, and his son is healed. It’s all the beginning stories of John is this overturning of the religious tradition and religious thought. Then later on when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment – we read the Ten Commandments today – Jesus says that all of the commandments, all of the law, all of the prophets, can be summed up as “Love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

So John gives us a Jesus who begins his ministry by overturning the religious institution every chance he has, whatever isn’t serving the people well, and he takes the faith to anyone outside the community who is willing to listen and willing to believe. He changes the jars that were supposed to be used only for a religious ritual. The money changers and animal sellers taking advantage of pilgrims, turning the faith into a set of rules to follow as though the world and its needs didn’t matter. And offering through it all this vision of a moral community of faith. A community built around love and service to one another based on compassion, care, meeting people’s real needs in the very real here and now, as a response to God’s overwhelming love for us.

So these money changers that are there to change coins annoy Jesus. The Jewish people were scattered all over in a bunch of different countries, but the temple in Jerusalem was the one place that they could do their sacrifices and do their proper worship. So they would make pilgrimages to the Temple, maybe once in a lifetime or perhaps several times. And they would bring the coins of whatever country they came from, which would have stamped on them the images of their emperor or king or whatever the officials are came from. Jewish law forbade the use of icons or images, so those coins could not be used to pay the temple tax or buy an animal for sacrifice, so they had to come in and exchange their money into the proper temple money. Usually, of course, at a pretty nifty markup that would cost a little bit extra. Then they would also have to buy the animals for the sacrifice. They could have brought their own, but if you’re coming from Greece you’re probably not going to carry a lamb with you the whole way. So there was some convenience in having the animals there, but also with another hefty markup because it’s a monopoly. You had to follow their rules of exchanging money and using that money to buy the animals, so I’m sure they paid well beyond market price. And all under the supportive eyes of the temple priests who probably also charged rent to the money changers and the animal sellers, probably making some money off this themselves. They were taking advantage of the people they were supposed to be serving. These pilgrims coming in from far away. Like I said before, If you were poor it was almost impossible to be faithful because it just cost too much money according to the rules.

And the space that the money changers were in was a space called the Gentile Court. The Temple was a large building, and as you went through the gate the first space is the Gentile court. It was a space that Gentiles were allowed into. Non-Jewish people could use that space. Anything inside the Temple, you had to be Jewish to go in. So this was supposed to be a space set aside for Gentiles who maybe wanted a place to pray or meditate. There were some what they called the God-fearing Gentiles who were sort of believers as the Jewish people were but didn’t convert to Judaism or weren’t quite ready for that. It was supposed to be their space, and I wonder if some of Jesus’ outrage was also because here is the one space that the Gentiles were allowed to come and pray and have some meditation and commune with God to have some religious experience, and now the religious leaders have filled that space with the cacophony of animals and money changers who were probably calling out and it was busy and noisy and not a meditative kind of space.

And so Jesus was upset that not only are the religious leaders taking financial advantage of the pilgrims’ religious sensibilities, but also disregarding the needs of non-Jewish people who maybe wanted to have some kind of encounter with the Divine.

How are we being the church?

Jesus is prophet, friend, and priest. He does walk with us, supports us, lifts us up, loves us, forgives us unconditionally always with us and part of our lives and wanting the best for us. He’s a friend, but Jesus is the kind of friend who doesn’t let us deceive ourselves. Not going to let us get away with being something other than what we should be. Jesus speaks to us and for us, but sometimes he also speaks against us. To challenge us. To let us know when we’re not going the right direction.

So how do we be the church?

Are there places where we unhelpful? Places where we are more concerned with maintaining the institution than doing what the institution is supposed to be doing of serving our neighbors and loving, and sharing the Gospel? Where are we accepting being comfortable instead of taking risks of faith that make us uncomfortable, but which are, even in the discomfort, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer more in accordance with God’s will?

That’s a great question for Lent, and a good question for Plymouth this year: How are we being the church? I’ve talked about it this year in sermons and newsletters. It’s what the group that George, Kay, Darrick, and I are asking too in our Faithful Congregation workshops learning about the five signs of fruitful congregations: radical hospitality, passionate worship, risk-taking mission and service, extravagant generosity, and intentional faith development. How do we go about being the church? We go about it by being those five things, and getting rid of whatever doesn’t fit in that.

And so, I leave you with a thought. More than a thought. We had our last meeting Friday night, and I thank the three of them and hope you will take a moment to thank them. We had some scheduling issues and the only time available was to come in for three hours on a Friday night, so thank you for your faithfulness and being willing to do that. We were talking about passionate worship Friday night, and learning that not only is worship this hour here, but part of our worship is done during the week in personal devotions, scripture reading, prayer. There should be more than just this hour a week that we do worship. There is much worship you can do at home and other places to keep the spiritual thing going. And the question came up, “How do we get people to do that?” And Darrick had a great answer: “You’re the pastor. Issue a mandate.” A mandate? That’s a word I never heard in the UCC. But I like it! So I am going to issue a mandate, a challenge as it were, something that you can all do. Certainly scripture reading, prayer, any of that you can do. But I am going to offer you something specific. Pray for an answer to this question: “How do we go about being the church?” Pray for an answer to that. Pray for this congregation. Pray for wisdom and insight to cast out and overturn whatever isn’t good here, in your personal lives, and pray to bring on or take on whatever we ought to be doing, and to do better the many, many things we already do well. And there is a lot that we do well here. The person who has been guiding us through this process has been impressed that we do a lot of things really well here. So pray for your church. Pray for an answer to that question: How do we go about being the church? Pray for the people in this congregation. I have included in your bulletins a prayer that Darrick wrote that was in the bulletin a few weeks ago. You should have a slip of paper in there with a prayer that can help you out. Find a time every day, and either say the prayer that is in there or come up with your own. Use that as a guide if you need it, but I challenge you by the end of the week maybe to be praying your own prayer. Pray for this church. And pray for our ministry.

Let us take a moment to pray now:
Spirit of Life, true and only head of our church, we pray to ask that you speak to us. Speak you tender words of love and grace, but speak also, please, the words against us that we need to hear to make us more the church that you want us to be and more the disciples that you call us to be. Overturn the tables in our lives and the tables in our fellowship that keep us from fulfilling your will of love for you and love for our neighbors. Amen.

Share |

Rev. David Huber's Facebook profile

Return to previous page.

Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

Webpastor: Pastor David