Lent 3, Year B, RCL
4 March 2018
About a week or so ago, I happened to look at my phone and saw a little baseball icon in the notifications ribbon. When I tapped it, I discovered that the Royals had won a Spring Training game against the LA Dodgers in Surprise, Arizona. I said, “It can’t be Spring Training already! It’s February!”
Well, it may have been February, but Spring Training has definitely arrived. Along with other signs of the change in season: a ponderous lift of the temperature, an appearance of the sun like a magnificent athlete yawning his way luxuriously out into the open morning…and, of course, for us in the church — Lent.
Every year when Lent arrives it catches me with an oh-wait-I-wasn’t-ready sort of feeling. Picking reading material, planning special disciplines — when it comes to the point I often have to hurry to get my Lenten game on, even if I’d given it some thought. And because there are infinite ways to approach the specific disciplines of Lent, it’s easy to get bewildered and lose sight of why we undertake prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for forty days before Easter. So, let’s talk about those three disciplines in the context of today’s readings.
Peter Chrysologus, a bishop in the early church, says in a sermon on these disciplines that “fasting is the soul of prayer, and mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.”
There is a truth reflected in the link between these disciplines, and that is that nothing we do for God happens in a space sealed to itself like bubble wrap; it all happens in the context of God’s living reality. And our duty as human beings is to make that reality brighter, for ourselves and for all around us, to the best of our ability. We are called to be holy.
This is why, in the psalm for today, we can see a hymn to God’s law set right next to a celebration of the sky and the earth and all creation. God created everything that is, and everything that is, is keyed to the logic of God’s holy intentions. And so when we look at the Ten Commandments, we see no discussion of specific temple rules or disciplines or sacrifices: what we see is an attempt to describe God’s reality when it is working properly. We see people honoring their own bodies by giving them rest at regular intervals, and honoring other people’s bodies too, by not foisting off our work onto them while we rest, or insulting them, or stealing from them, or lying to get them into trouble, or dwelling on what they have that we don’t.
Obviously, these commandments still have something to say to us because of course, we all still live in a world where people have bodies, and live close enough to others to have quarrels with them. These scriptures can pop us out of the bubble wrap of compartmentalization that we in our modern age get so easily closed into.
We share a tendency with the Greeks of Jesus’ time to think of our bodies as…well, a problem. At best, they hold us back. At worst, they are a prison we need to escape from in order to be more “spiritual.” This idea was so pervasive that even St. Paul found himself beating his head on his desk while writing to the Romans: “I want to do what is right, but instead I can’t stop doing what I hate. Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And really, if you’ve ever found yourself in yet another doctor’s office for chronic pain, or showed up for yet another therapy appointment for what feels like a continually unfolding train wreck, you know it’s hard not to think of our bodies as the source of sin and mortal error.
So, on the one hand, you have a Greek desire for wisdom — that is, a desire to learn how to transcend the petty, dirty sordidness of our mortal lives. And on the other hand, you have the Hebrew principle of honoring creation, including our own created selves, as part of God’s reality. And both of those come into conflict with the person of Jesus, as our gospel for today shows.
John puts the story of the Cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of his gospel, unlike the other evangelists who put it at the beginning of the week of his Passion. He does it to make the same point in a different way: he wants to set this basic conflict front and center, as a key to his diagram of God’s saving grace of the cross. To set the stage: Jesus goes into the temple, into the outer court which is the only place that Gentiles are allowed to be, and sees the stalls where people are selling sacrificial animals and changing money from Gentile currency to currency approved by the Temple. In other words, he sees that all of the distasteful aspects of temple business in the modern Roman era are being pushed off onto the Gentiles. Jesus’ people have narrowed their idea of God’s holy reality to only their people and their inner sanctum.
There’s some excuse for them, really. If you know the story of Hanukkah, you know that the Jews spent a lot of blood and money to get their Temple back and rebuild it, and even generations later, they’re still in a defensive crouch. So you can see why it’s doubly and even triply offensive that Jesus takes a whip and wreaks havoc in the business section of the temple, so that it’s impossible to do any business at all, Jews or Gentiles alike. People’s holy obligations have just been emphatically put on hold.
So they demand of Jesus: “What sign –” what authoritative source — “can you show for doing this?”
Jesus says: “Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.”
Now, it’s only after the resurrection that his disciples put it all together and go, “Ohhh! He was talking about his body!” But even at the time it’s pretty clear that when asked for authority Jesus’ answer is: “Me. This –” pointing at his body — “is the holiest thing here.” This is the only sacrifice you need.
As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians: “The Jews demand signs and the Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The crucifixion, for John, is the same thing as the glorification of the Son of God, which means that Christ’s earthly body — and by extension, our body — is an integral and inseparable part of God’s logic of holiness. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…so that we might have the power of becoming the children of God. The resurrection and the life Jesus offers doesn’t start some time later after we die. It starts right here, right now.
So when we talk about Lenten disciplines, we can’t really be talking about being arbitrarily mean to our mortal selves. No, we’re after something much more ambitious than that.
We fast in order to disabuse ourselves of the idea that we can be holy without actually doing anything. In our bubble we’re tempted to think, “Well, yes, I contribute daily to pollution and domination and inequality and consumption, but I really do love God and other people…you know, in a spiritual way.”
We fast in order to dispel the illusion that our bodies contribute nothing to what we think of as our holiness. In the deep middle of a fast, I have found myself growing irritable and exhausted and distractible, feeling not at all holy or spiritual, and I’ve caught myself thinking, “I’m terrible at fasting. I’m really…just not cut out for this.”
But — that’s not really true. That’s actually a successful fast. If fasting makes it really, really hard for you to maintain your attention toward God and other people; if fasting makes you ask hard questions of yourself in quiet moments; if fasting makes holiness feel like it’s out of reach , that is a successful experiment. That is clear, usable, actionable data. Fasting is designed to show us just how much of our power to be holy depends on our being safe and comfortable and cared for. We notice just how much a share of the work our bodies are doing.
But of course, fasting is also a luxury. We get to decide what we will deprive ourselves of. We decide when it will start. We decide when to stop. Some people don’t get to decide any of those things. They don’t need to gather data about how hard it is to be holy when they can’t stop worrying about that overdraft charge for the electric bill; when every time they step out of their door they meet a thousand small insults because of the color of their skin; when they can hardly think for the pain, let alone be patient with their family. They don’t need the data. They’re swimming in it. What for some of us is fasting, for other people is…Tuesday.
That’s where almsgiving comes in. Just as we are not doing Lent to be arbitrarily mean to ourselves, we are not doing it to be ineffectually nice to others. We give alms to make it actually, noticeably easier for people to be holy. Yes — I know you and I and everyone here knows at least one person who, despite discomforts or insults or misfortunes, is grateful and cheerful and giving toward others. Those folks are true heroes of faith. But why should we require other people to be heroes when we don’t require it of ourselves? Why should we make allowances for ourselves when we have a bad hair day, or a bad hair life, and judge others harshly for not rising above their difficulties to be happy and holy?
We preach Christ crucified: Christ the only sacrifice we need. The cross frees us, and obliges us, to make holiness easier for others — if we are able, and if they want us to. So if I have extra funds, maybe I contribute to a program that helps people with their bills. If I have some time, maybe I spend it working on a volunteer project that gets people housing or literacy or economic equality. Or, if I have a friend with a chronic illness, maybe I ask them if there’s something I can do, that they want me to do, that would make life easier for them. We give other people a hand free so they can take care of the business of their lives — and the business of their souls. We owe other people that much.
And so we’re not here to do some discipline for a little while and then forget about it till next year. No, man, this is Surprise, Arizona. Welcome to Spring Training! None of the games in Spring Training count toward the pennant race, but you’d hate to do the real season without it. We are gearing up for the feast of the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We are focusing our attention, measuring ourselves to see where we need to stretch, practicing teamwork, honing our game. We’re getting out of our bubble and into the batting cage. And we are doing these things for the love of the one who redeemed our selves and our whole creation, God’s whole reality, whose very weakness is stronger than our strongest strength.
Let’s hear today’s collect again.
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.