The Third Sunday in Lent (Lent 3B): March 8, 2015
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
What a wealth of riches we have in today’s lessons! When I first looked at the readings for today, I was sure that I wanted to talk about the passage from Exodus—about the ten commandments, and the ways that we have tried to make them into something they are not, to suit our own purposes. I had a dandy sermon that explored how their structure reflected others forms of law at the time, and how it speaks mostly to how those first followers understood the nature of God. And that they were never meant to be placed on courthouse lawns as models of justice. But once again a spotlight was shown on the foolishness of preaching. I realized that, interesting as it may be, this was not what I needed to hear (and preach) today. Instead, the other passages assigned for the day raised their voices, calling to me for the reflection and wrestling that is the process of preparing a sermon.
The call for another focus came in the form of Friday’s Men of St. Mike’s monthly Spiritual Wake-up. We had a thought-provoking conversation about the self. We talked about how we define our own self, and about how we are called by Christ to transcend the self. We also talked about the ways that ego plays into the get-ahead-at-all-costs culture that pervades life in New York City, about conflicts that are rooted in ego, and about the deep well of insecurity underlying the egotism of Wall Street.
And I realized that it was in the face of such conflicts of ego that Paul speaks to us in today’s reading from the Letter to the Corinthians, and that these words—and this subject—demand my attention. So Friday morning I scrapped the Ten Commandments, and began to explore the words of Paul.
According to one commentator, the Corinthian Church was “struggling because of divisions within itself, destructive sexual behavior, arrogance about possession of spiritual gifts, and confusion about leadership in the community.”[i] Another commentator tells us that Corinth was, “a city with a long reputation for quick money and fast living…. Corinth’s class of noveau riche was burgeoning and pocketing the profits.” That really hits close to home, doesn’t it?
In the face of such a society, the early Christians to whom Paul writes reacted just as we do. They tried to seize power from each other; they lashed out at authority; they marginalized those who were weak; they acted out their own pains in inappropriate ways. They, like us, were broken and confused.
And their actions were ones of self-preservation. That “me-first” stance is largely what the world teaches us, isn’t it? We learn that we must take care of number one from our earliest days of competition in sports and academics as well as in the desire to get into the best schools, the unending struggle to climb the corporate ladder, the quest to gather the best cars, the best vacation homes, the best experiences, the perfect family, the youngest face, and on, and on, and on.
This striving for more, for better, for first place is what I think Paul refers to as the wisdom of the world—it seems, at least on the surface, to make so much sense: “If I don’t look out for myself, who will?” we tell ourselves. No matter what we have been taught in Sunday School, or Boy Scouts, or by Mr. Rogers about community and service to others, we are certain that, in fact, we are on our own—that it is our job to elbow our way to the front of the line, because there may not be enough.
Note that, over and over again, Paul refers to wisdom—in fact wisdom and the wise are referred to nine times in these eight verses. But Paul makes clear that our quest for wisdom is folly. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” he says. Paul calls us to cling not to the path that the world puts before us, a path that on its surface seems the only way to go, but instead to embrace the foolishness of the cross.
Well, that is strong stuff, isn’t it? Paul reminds us that, at least on its surface, the way of the cross is utter folly. Theologian Richard Carlson notes that the proclamation of Christ crucified, “is not a message geared to win friends or influence people. The cross was a lousy marketing tool in the first century world (as it most likely remains in the twenty-first century),” he says. “As a public spectacle, crucifixion was an act geared to shame its victims through degradation, humiliation, and torture before, during, and even after death ensued. At the same time, it was a political statement that declared that all who threatened the imperial social order would find themselves co-crucified with the current victim…. Given this reality, it would be sheer idiocy (not just mere foolishness) to speculate how the cross might be a means of divine revelation. Paul, however, …openly, boldly, and regularly proclaims the cross as the intentional and exclusive means God has chosen to encounter humanity and initiate our salvation. The cross is the divine activity that both embarrasses and embraces humanity in an inclusive way.[ii]
So Paul points the followers in Corinth away from their own struggles for power and self-worth and toward the cross—toward this surprising, upside-down way that God has brought salvation and wholeness to our lives. He acknowledges that this idea is countercultural, that it makes no sense by the ways of the world. But Paul knows from his own experience that pursuit of the self does not lead to happiness. He has learned rather that the way that Christ offers—a self-emptying focus on others, even to the point of sacrifice—is what leads to wholeness.
Jesus also points away from the world, and toward the cross in today’s gospel. Jesus drives the merchants and lenders out of the temple, in what feels like a rather uncharacteristic show of anger and brute force. And those he confronts with whips and acts of table-turning were put in place by the temple authorities themselves. The coin of the realm, bearing the image of Caesar, was not acceptable to pay the temple tax; the money-changers made it possible to pay with temple coins. And sacrificial animals had to be those without blemish. If they were purchased at the temple, one could be certain they were of the right type, and that the route they traversed from purchase to sacrifice left little room for the animals to become contaminated in any way.
The wisdom of the world made it clear that these merchants’ presence at the temple made sense. What surprise, then, there must have been among those in attendance at the temple, that this brash teacher and his ragtag followers would dare to come in and upset this right and proper routine!
And when asked to explain himself, Jesus speaks in coded language: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In case we don’t get what he really means, John makes it clear: Jesus refers to his own approaching death, and that the temple that is Christ will be resurrected in three days. God is replacing the old covenant practices of temple worship with the new covenant in Jesus Christ. God makes a new promise to the chosen people.
With this act of upsetting the tables in the temple, Jesus is trying to wake up those who are coming before God. He is trying to remind them—and us—that all is not always the way that we, in our humanness, think it is. Those ways of the world that we hold as normal and right to build up ourselves may, in fact, be destructive. Try as we might, we often choose the path that leads to death instead of life.
Both Jesus and Paul challenge the status quo. They show us that the wisdom of the world leads us to self-centeredness and self-preservation; that thinking that we ourselves know best and that looking after only our own interests gets us nowhere, while the way of the cross leads to a focus outside of the self and an embrace of death not as the enemy, but as part of the mystery of God’s salvation.
So what are we do with the paradoxes? How do we embrace the foolishness of the cross over the wisdom of the world? How can we be countercultural? Well, looking for the answers to those questions is the life of the Christian. Again and again we are called to go against the grain. We are called to seek the things of God, rather than the things of the world. We are called to see others, and not just ourselves.
The message I hear from today’s readings is a call to value the journey more than the destination; to value human interaction over stuff; to value the unexpected over the beaten path; to value the cross more than the world.
And that’s the message we embrace every time we come to this table. God gave his only son over to death on a cross to conquer the world once and for all. This ultimate countercultural act took away the power of death, showing us that reaching outside of ourselves and truly seeing the other is the key not only to a fulfilling life here on earth, but also the way to eternal life.
When we eat the bread and drink the wine that are made for us Christ’s body and blood, we take a stand for God’s way, the way of the cross. We are called to remember that this is not just a quaint antiseptic ritual; this is a countercultural act! We are called to stand with Christ and for Christ in our day-to-day lives, to stand against the wisdom of the world when we know that it will lead us astray. When we come forward to take communion, we are not only embracing Christ’s death as the way to life, but becoming a partner in his journey to the cross and resurrection.
Theologian Jeff Paschal sums it all up quite well. “For Christians, the cross declares that we embrace truth when lies seem easier, gentleness when force is attractive, justice for the oppressed when maintaining the status quo would be simpler, generosity when hoarding would be more comfortable, forgiveness when a hateful grudge would taste so good…. Our community of faith is formed around what seems to be utter foolishness—an instrument of torture and death used for the salvation of the universe. Despite our theological differences, we all affirm with Paul that ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’”[iii]
May our continued Lenten journey make us all better witnesses to the foolishness—and the glory—of the cross of Christ. Amen.
[i] Paschal, Jeff. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 87.
[ii] Carlson, Richard. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=259, accessed 3/6/2105.
[iii] Paschal, Feasting on the Word, p. 91.