Friday, March 16, 2012

Sermon: Third Sunday in Lent

Gracious God, we give you thanks for all the benefits you have given us in our Lord Jesus Christ, our most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother, and we pray that we may see Christ more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day. Amen. (adapted from a prayer by St. Richard of Chichester)
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.”
We don’t like to be called foolish or weak. We are strong. We are in control. We are not fools. And yet, St. Paul reminds us that we don’t always understand God’s ways, that what we do understand as strong and wise, is not always the same in God’s eyes. What is a stumbling block to some, foolishness to others, is the source of our salvation, Jesus who was crucified. I think of a story…
A couple moved to Atlanta and were looking for a new church to join. They attended a dinner for all newcomers at a church where they heard about its many ministries and programs.

“We have a beautiful sanctuary and wonderful worship.” “This church has the finest music program in the city.” “The youth program is fantastic.”

Then a young man named Marshall told his story. High on crack cocaine, he’d stumbled into the parish outreach center and begged for help. “I’ve been sober for three years now, the reason I’m joining is that God saved me in this church.”

The visitors looked at one another sheepishly: They were there for the music and parking; Marshall was there for the salvation. A few weeks later a squib in the newsletter noted that Marshall was an inmate in the county jail. One of the newcomers went to see him. Marshall told him his story:

“I was in the outreach center, counseling people like myself, off the street, telling them that they could do right. I realized I hadn’t done right myself. I had an old warrant for my arrest. It would never have caught up with me, but I turned myself in. I’ll be out by Easter. But in the meantime, I’ve got an outreach center here. I write letters for people who can’t read, and every night we have a prayer meeting.” [From a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, Washington National Cathedral, June 1, 2008.]
This Lenten journey we are on is about our connection with God’s salvation, about God in our midst who wants us to remove all that holds us back from seeing God deeply ingrained in our lives. Not just superficially, but to change our lives, to go to the depths of who we are and be upheld by our God who has been at work for a long time.
As the great Orthodox theologian and liturgist Alexander Schmemann put it in his book “Great Lent”, “The events of sacred history (Adam and Eve, Paradise and Fall, the Patriarchs Noah and the Flood, David, the Promised Land, and ultimately Christ and the early Church) are revealed as events of my life, God's acts in the past as acts aimed at me and my salvation, the tragedy of sin and betrayal as my personal tragedy. My life is shown to me as part of the great and all-embracing fight between God and the powers of darkness which rebel against Him.”
We place ourselves in the midst of those sacred stories because they are our stories of sin and redemption, of loss and hope, of death and life. As the great Blues guitarist BB King put it…
I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice as they pierced his side,…
But I've seen love conquer the great divide
They are our stories; we can put ourselves there too and what ultimately frees us, what conquers that great divide, the darkness of our lives, is the love of God, the love which has acted in history, the love we see in the life of Jesus.

Even in today’s Gospel, as Jesus drives out the merchants and their cattle, overturns the tables of the money changers, all of whom have seemingly taken over the temple. He does all this because they have distorted the meaning of the temple.

The cleansing of the temple challenges us to take a look at our own temple, the Church: to realize that Christ has called us to this temple, to be a church: to be the compassion, the healing, the justice, the peace of Christ for one another; to refocus all we do here as the means for realizing the presence of God in our midst.

But it is also for us as individual members, to remember that our own bodies are temples and they too need cleansing, the tables need turning over in our lives, those things that separate us from God and from the rest of God’s creation. Again in Schmemann’s words…
“The spiritual story of the world is also my story. They challenge me with the decisive events and acts of the past whose meaning and power, however, are eternal because every human soul-- unique and irreplaceable-- moves, as it were, through the same drama, is faced with the same ultimate choices, discovers the same ultimate reality.”
Indeed we are faced with similar choices, for our God who led the Israelites out of the house of slavery, is the same God who will help lead us out of our houses of bondage & foolishness, out of our houses of control & strength, to seek out God’s wisdom and salvation even in the darkness. We need God to help us cleans ourselves, over turn the tables in our way, and help us recover that relationship we want: to see Christ more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day…

Let me end with some final words from Schmemann:
“The Lenten season is meant to kindle a "bright sadness" within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness [and simplicity] of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection [at Easter].” Amen.

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