a sermon on absurdity

The holy gospel according to John 2:13-22

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It has been 68 weeks since Donald Trump was elected president of this country.  I don’t normally keep a tally of the weeks, though, in this case, I’m tempted to keep a countdown until the end.  But, I know it has been 68 weeks because a woman named Amy Siskind, an activist and campaigner for Hillary Clinton, keeps a running list each week of the taken for granted norms that have changed, sometimes drastically and sometimes subtly under the Trump administration.  She got this idea, she says, because all her reading about authoritarianism suggested that sometimes what really happens under an authoritarian regime is that things change either so quickly that no one notices, or so subtly, that even if they are shocking at first, everything begins to feel normal.  She fears, that without reminding ourselves that things aren’t normal, we will start to believe they are. We will start to think that we can’t change anything.

My grandma used to tell me a similar and rather gross parable about boiling a frog.  If you want to boil a frog and you have a pot of boiling water on the stove, the frog will immediately jump out and hop away.  But, if you start out with cold water, and just slowly turn up the temperature, the frog won’t notice, and will stick around until that pot is boiling away.  Like with everything, when things change slowly around us, or we just get used to the way we see the world, we forget that actually, things aren’t normal.

What does all of this have to do with our texts for this week?  Well, here we are, right in the middle of Lent, and, for many of us, what we hear each Sunday, what we read in scripture, well, it isn’t all that surprising anymore.  Maybe it even feels kind of rote- like, we’ve heard these stories before, they aren’t really all that radical or new. Maybe Jesus sounds kind of tame, or we learned how to recite the ten commandments in confirmation, so what’s the point of reading them anymore?   

As a preacher in this place, I sometimes feel like I don’t really have anything radical to say anymore.  I look out at all of you, and in these months that I have been here, I have seen and heard you talk about some pretty radical work you are doing in the world to make it more just, more holy, more filled with God’s spirit.  When I tell you that God cares about justice, and about the oppressed and marginalized, I imagine that a lot of you are nodding along, thinking, obviously preacher. What else do you have to say? In other congregations, things like saying God is on the side of the oppressed and marginalized can feel pretty scary for a preacher, but here, it’s part of your congregational life.  It’s certainly not radical news.

But, just like Amy Siskand, I wonder if some of us have been in the church for so long, or have been doing justice work for so long, or have read these stories for so long, that they’ve all lost it’s shock value.  We aren’t coming to this place never having heard Jesus’ voice. And so then, rather than seeming completely absurd, it all makes sense. Yes, obviously, you know, God became human and lived among us, and took on a human body, and then suffered, was hung on a cross and died.  Yes, that doesn’t sounds totally WEIRD AT ALL.

So let’s just stop.  Let’s shake off everything we know, all the ways that the words of God have been normalized in our lives, and let’s listen.  Because our theme for Lent is absurdity, and, my friends, if we can look at this with new eyes and hear it with new ears, I promise you, all of this sounds completely absurd.  And it is the absurdity of the message that can both wake us up, and send us out.

Paul writes to the church in Corinth pointing out this very truth.  The message of the cross is absurdity to those who are perishing. You see, because for those who are perishing, all of us, we say that somehow, Christ, this one who was raised on a cross and died, this Christ worthy of our belief.  This Christ is our very window into God’s way of being in the world. This Christ, even when everything looks lost, even when this Christ ACTUALLY DIED, here, in that, is not some sort of foolish hope, but eternal hope. Hope that points us toward the eternal.  When all seems lost, hope lives on.

And this Christ, Jesus Christ, in John’s gospel for this day is speaking the kind of absurdity that, on this side of the story doesn’t sound all that surprising.  Because we know about the three days- we know that in all of these gospels, Jesus dies and is raised again. But, in John’s gospel we begin by seeing Jesus in the temple.  We’re only two chapters in, which makes this an oddly placed story in John’s gospel. In every other gospel account this temple cleansing happens right at the end, as one of the last thing Jesus does before the authorities get so fed up with him they start plotting a way to get rid of him.  Here in John’s gospel we aren’t even close to the end, in fact, we are pretty much right in the beginning. This is one of the first public acts Jesus engages in, so we have to wonder, what is going on in this story?
According to John, we see Jesus in the temple not too long after the first sign that he is not just any regular person.  Invited to a wedding at Cana, Jesus shows up, and suddenly water becomes the best, the sweetest, the most amazing of wines.  This is the first of the signs in John’s gospel that this one, this Son of God, is going to be entirely different than what we planned for.  Jesus is going to show us a God who surprises us, who challenges us, who breaks apart what we thought we knew and offers us a new way of encountering God in the world.

The temple in this passage is a place of worship that is of infinite value to the Jewish people.  At the time that Jesus entered into Jerusalem the temple had been under construction for decades, still unfinished.  It is the place where you would go to worship God, because it is the place where the presence of God lives. People make pilgrimages to it, you have to be pure to enter into it, it being, after all, God’s house.  But the temple was also a complicated place. Priests inherited their status in the temple by being born of a priestly family, or being appointed by Roman rulers. Money made in the market in the temple court benefited Rome.  And, at the same time, these markets were there to benefit the common people. Sacrifices were required in the temple, but they couldn’t just be any old thing, they needed to be unblemished special animals- cows, or sheep or doves, and they were there as a convenience for those traveling.  You could sell your cow at home, travel to Jerusalem, and buy a cow when you got there. This seems to me like good sense. The moneychangers were there to change the imperial coins, stamped with the face of the emperor and calling the emperor God for coins that could be used to buy a sacrifice.  They are taking impure money and exchanging it for what is pure.

In other gospels, Jesus seems much angrier- calling out the moneychangers for over charging and robbing the people who have made their way to the temple.  In other accounts, Jesus is throwing around tables and calling the temple a den of robbers, but here, there is no sense that what is happening in this market is anything out of the ordinary. Here, Jesus is simply calling this place what it is, a marketplace.  What’s wrong with that?

Some scholars suggest that what John is pointing to here is not a Jesus who is reinforcing our anti-consumerism leanings, but rather, a Jesus who is attempting, again, to show us that where we expect God to be, where everyone expected God to be, can keep us from seeing where God is, in a human body.  As absurd as it sounds, no longer will the temple be the only place you can find God, because Jesus is the very living presence of God out in the world. The God we have been waiting for will not be kept in a stone room, surrounded by a market to offer sacrifice, God is standing outside those doors, among the people, claiming all people as God’s own. Nothing will get in the way of that any longer- you can’t buy access, money will not bring you closer to God’s presence, God is as close as God can be, in the very living breathing life of Jesus Christ.

And maybe that doesn’t sound absurd to you.  Maybe it isn’t all that surprising that we can’t hold God in any building, or any space, or wherever we try to fit God to be.  But there is something even wilder in this passage, because if God is in a body, if God takes on a human body, then, suddenly, bodies, like yours and mine, are holy.  Yep, your body, despite how often we feel ashamed of our bodies, or want to beat them into a new shape, or want to believe that they ought to be hidden because they don’t feel perfect in all their lumpy, bumpiness, these bodies, are the kind of places where we find God.  As absurd as it seems, not only does God take on human flesh and live among us, not only do we see and hear these stories of God in a body, but our bodies can tell us things about God. Our bodies are where we feel love, and grace, our bodies are where we feel when the world around us is wrong, our bodies are where we experience life and eventually death, our bodies help us to communicate the love of God with the world, and are one site where God’s love is communicated to us.  I have a friend who quite often says, “I love all of this,” and the absurd truth is, God does, too. God’s love for us is revealed in our bodies.

It’s absurd.  Really. That God came to live among us, that God took on a real body, that Jesus hung on a cross, and that somehow, all of that tells us about how to live, and how to love and how to be in relationship with each other.  And maybe, you, like me, need this season of Lent to remember that all of this, it is foolishness. It is absurd when we say it out loud. But, it is foolishness that points us to hope. It is foolishness that will save us.  May you hear this absurd truth for the everlasting promise that it is- Jesus Christ, in a body, lived among us, died among us and rose again, that nothing, not death, not shame, not guilt, not pain, not suffering, nothing can separate us from the love of our God.  Amen, and thanks be to God.

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