Our Whole Lives a Liturgy
Remember those "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets? I haven't seen anyone wearing one for a long time, so perhaps they've fallen out of fashion. If you don't know what I'm talking about, it was a bracelet that had the letters WWJD on it, the idea being that the wearer would see the letters and recall the question as she moved through the day, keeping her focused on Jesus, and acting like we might expect a Jesus follower to act. My impression was that it was supposed to help people be more loving and compassionate and honest, that sort of thing--more Jesusy. I have a hard time believing that today's gospel passage was considered when the WWJD campaign was conceived.
I mean, it's nice to know that flipping tables and chasing bankers with whips is a Christian option, but it doesn't tend to be our default image for Jesus. This is certainly not Jesus, meek and mild. This is not Jesus placidly forgiving and eternally understanding that we sometimes fall short of God's glory. This is not pastel Jesus, who's more or less like us only nicer. This is not happy and handsome Jesus. This is Jesus mad! Consumed with zeal! This is Jesus covered in sweat and out of breath and--as far as the keepers of good order are concerned--completely out of line, quite possibly out of his mind. This is Jesus daring the authorities to do something about it (You want a sign? Come get one!). You can imagine the disciples wrestling him out of there, holding him back, ushering him to safety as we tend to do when Jesus gets a bit carried away. This is totally inappropriate church behaviour, Jesus.
Indeed it is. The Temple was the center of all Israel's ideals. It was God's own home, where heaven and earth met, where the people gathered to orient and reorient, commit and recommit themselves to God and God's ways. It was a physical reminder of who and whose they were, of what they were called to be: a priestly kingdom, a holy nation (Ex 19:6), a people who witnessed to who and how God is. It was a reminder that they were to be different in the world, odd in the current order of things, committed not to the way things are, but to how they will be when God's will and way is revealed on earth as in heaven.
But that doesn't seem to be what Jesus found. Jesus didn't find anything odd, or strange, or holy. He found a marketplace. He found a space that looked exactly like everything else, governed by the same motives and mindset as anywhere else in the known world--the world of Herods and Caesars, unwaveringly committed to the way things are. He found a system that abused and excluded, that divided rich from poor; that used God's name to justify a social order that blessed and benefited some, and left others on the outside looking in; a space that placated the comfortable and abandoned the desperate. And that, it seems, is a long way from "on earth as in heaven."
Let's pray: Holy God, you've called us into your oddness. Strengthen us to live it. Open our hearts to you this morning. Convict and comfort and call us again. May what is said and done here, and in our lives, be true to who you are. In Jesus' name: Amen.
I think it's a fascinating that the lectionary pair Jesus' table-flipping outburst with the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words). That's where I want to spend most of the rest of our time today. I think our Exodus passage can help see a little more clearly what's at stake, why Jesus is quite literally ready to die in order to disrupt what he found that day in Jerusalem. And more: why he's quite willing to drag us into his troublemaking. Hanging out for a while in the company of God's people, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, is a good way to reorient ourselves to the reality that Jesus has got us mixed up in.
That's where we are, just before we get the Ten Commandments. The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for a while now; they've followed Moses out of Egyptian slavery, and they've arrived at Mt. Sinai. And that's where we get a bit of a glimpse into God's plan, for what's next for this band of former slaves. God tells Moses that Israel is going to be a "priestly kingdom, a holy nation." Israel is going to be the mediator of how God is for the rest of the world. God says, "Indeed the whole world is mind, but you will be a priestly kingdom, a holy nation." God desires a people, a community that will live out God's dream for all creation, a people who will embody an alternative way of being in the world--a way of justice, love and righteousness; way that lights the way to God, that reveals who and how God is for this broken and beloved world. God is not going to wave a magic wand and fix everything; God is going to nurture a people, fully alive, a light to the nations.
That's what's being established in the Ten Words from Sinai; this is what God says is basic to the community that will live and move and have its being in God's name. It's not the end of the story, but it's essential. So, it's not at terribly big surprise that the whole thing begins with God. But it's not just any god. This is not a vague energy, or a distant demiurge. This is YHWH, the One who brought you out of slavery: the burning bush, sea splitting, pillar of fire God. This is the intimate and active God; the God who speaks and calls; the God who has chosen to get mixed up with us.
This is the saving and redeeming God. Simply by their presence, in the middle of the wilderness, Israel reveals something about this God. Israel is not chosen because they have a lot going for them. Before God acted, they were helpless and hopeless. I am the YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. God's way is the way of redemption, of freedom, of unexpected hope and possibility. And God's people will be a people free to live as nothing less than God's people, perfectly free to be in intimate relationship with the God who breaks every chain, who throws off every burden.
That's what it means to have no other gods. It means that in the final analysis, we are accountable to no one and nothing else, but the God who desires our freedom, and our neighbour's freedom--the God whose way is the antithesis of slavery of every kind; we are in cahoots with the God who is divinely hostile to the ways and means that render people less than human. Our God is divinely hostile to patterns and systems and habits that render people something other than the objects of God's grace and affection and freedom.
There are two things that we need to pay attention to, before we can move past this first word. The first thing is this: these commands are not the way that God's mercy and grace are received. It's not Do this, and then you'll be loved, then I'll set you free, then you'll get grace. Before God says any of this, God has already done for God's people, what God's people couldn't do for themselves. They are already free. Grace and redemption are already poured out. Pharaoh's army is destroyed; we are on the far side of the Red Sea.
The Commandments are not another form of slavery; they are the mark of a free people. Obedience, in this case, will be relational; living this way will be the evidence that they are no longer bound by any form of slavery, but free to be bound to the God who made heaven and earth, in a covenant of love. These commands are not the requirements for grace, they are the evidence of grace received, a gift to a people that intends to live their life according to the purposes of the saving and redeeming God (Brueggemann).
The second thing is that the "You" in this passage, is the second person singular. It's "y'all" not "all y'all," as some of my Southern friends would put it. This might catch us off guard, since we are often encouraged to remember that the yous in scripture are most often plural. But not here. Everyone gathered to this God is being addressed personally and intimately, directly. This doesn't mean that God is establishing an individualistic religion. In one sense, the "you" is clearly a unified body. Obviously these words are meant for a gathered people, and everything that comes after implies the necessity of others in the life of faith. What it does mean, what I'm hearing, is that we're not able to treat God's will and way, God's dream for us and the world, as a vague and distant ideal.
Isn't that what can happen, when we start talking about loving God, or loving our neighbors, in general? It's one thing if "we" have to love "our" neighbours; it's quite another if I have to love my neighbor, who happens to be a jerk. Or, more broadly, when we talk about our freedom to live fully for God, to do everything in word or deed in the name of Jesus, to the glory of the Father, as St. Paul puts it. It's a nice idea, and in a perfect world we'd try that--we really would--but it's not a perfect world so we're going to just have to make do. And God says, The way I'm calling you to live is not dependent upon the way the world is. God says, you: I brought you out of slavery. You are free. I'm your God, you don't have to settle for anything less. I made you, I know you, I love you. I chose you when you were unchooseable by any worldly standard. I'm calling you to work this stuff into your life, to let my grace and freedom find shape and form in your life. This is not a marketplace that measures your worth according to the stunted economic imaginations of the world. We're just going to flip that table over. You're free. God's community is dependent on each of us working out God's freedom in our lives, which is an oddly, and unflinchingly relational project.
That's the starting point. God's choice is for our freedom--our freedom to be nothing less than we are created to be: images of God in the world, bearers of God's hope and peace and joy and love for all things. We don't need to earn that; God's done it. It's a surprisingly irritating reality in the current order of things, where we've grown so used to proving our worth and discerning others' at a glance. In the current order of things, we have clear markers of value. And it's startling how quickly we give in to them, regardless of which side of the value scale we happen to land on. But, God's starting point is relentlessly our inherent worth: worthy just because God says so. That's the primary condition for living according to God's purposes.
Out of that truth and promise flows everything else. If we get that wrong, it won't be long before we're collecting other promises to give ourselves to, other ways to define and manage our lives. We'll create things to hope in for ourselves, and commit ourselves to things that don't have any better staying power than we do. We'll treat the work of our hands not as a good gift, a reflection of the One who works and creates, but an end in itself; we'll turn good things into primary things; we'll substitute gifts for the Giver. We'll allow ourselves to be co-opted into patterns and systems that require manic production, constant commitment to establishing ourselves, forgetful of the One who made us, the One who sustains all things, long before and after us.
If we forget the One who sets us free, who made us and loves us and chooses us when we are unchooseable, the One who acted when we couldn't, we'll begin to imagine that God's primary concern is blessing the way we think things ought to be, that God is an accessory to our pet projects, instead of calling us into a wild and alternative way. We'll settle for something other than life that is truly life; we'll settle life with a little god on the side. We'll find ourselves submitting, actively and passively, to ways and means that distract and dissuade us from God's freedom; that encourage selfishness rather than self-giving; that incline us to treat others as a means to our ends, as competition for a piece of a hopelessly small pie, as dispensable and disposable, as useable, decidedly less than God's reflection, God's beloved children.
It seems like that's what Jesus found in the Temple marketplace: not a place that invited peoples' whole lives to be a liturgy, a work that reflects who and how their redeeming God is. Instead, he found a space that trained and contained them in the very ways from which they'd been liberated. As the coins go flying everywhere and animals run and flap everywhichway, as the money handlers and religious professionals scamper, perhaps what we're seeing is God's jealousy for God's people. Not a jealousy born out of pettiness, but divine jealousy, born of passionate love, out of an unwavering desire to see the beloved fully alive. (I confess that I've never really liked the idea of God being jealous. But, we might pause for a second to wonder at a God who would get jealous for us. That's probably worth some reflection and prayer.)
Perhaps what we see is Jesus jealous for the peoples' imagination, for peoples' heart, for peoples' energy and strength, which have been handed over to a will and way decidedly less beautiful than God's. Perhaps what we see is Jesus jealous that we would ever choose the cramped limits of officially sanctioned possibility, over the unimaginably wide space of God's grace. By putting this scene at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, St. John is hinting at the lengths to which God, in Christ, will go to get His beloved back.
There's a remarkable moment, quite a bit later, long after the dust has settled, in St. Peter's first letter, when he writes these words to the church: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter2:9-10). In other words, Peter says, we, who were watching from a distance, have been brought into this marvellous vision that we catch a glimpse of, at the foot of Mt. Sinai. By the grace of Christ, we too have been redeemed, called out of whatever notions or patterns or habits keep us bound, freed from under whatever burdens keep us weighed down. God has done that. In the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, God has undone the limits of human possibility. We're working with a different scale now. The Christian life is learning to receive and live under these new, freedom conditions. It's learning to let Jesus flip over some things, send some others scattering, in our lives; to let Jesus bring his holy disruption to us.
It's learning what it is to be a royal priesthood: to let our whole lives be a liturgy, a work that shows who and how God is, for us and for the whole world. Jesus says that we're sufficient to do that: to let everything we do be a response to our freeing and forgiving, loving and lavish, blessing and Blessed God.
May it be so.