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Let's Clear the Air



“Let’s Clear the Air”

September 11, 2022, Cobleskill United Methodist Church - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 and John 2:13-25

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost


Jeremiah 4:11-12 (NIV)

11 At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, “A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people, but not to winnow or cleanse; 12 a wind too strong for that comes from me. Now I pronounce my judgments against them.”

“My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.”

23 I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone. 24 I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills were swaying. 25 I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away. 26 I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

27 This is what the Lord says:

“The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely. 28 Therefore the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark, because I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back.”


John 2:13-25 (NRSV)

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18 The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ 19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20 The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.




In true 21st century fashion, I’d like to present today’s sermon in the form of a meme.

Amen.

....


I know you probably like short sermons, but that was probably too short, right?

Ok, hear me out. Today feels like a fresh start in a lot of ways. A new season, a new school year, back into the sanctuary after worshiping outside, back to church after summer activities, and back to this new chapter we’ve just began to be a more inclusive church. For me, when I start something fresh, I want to get rid of all the old clutter. Get rid of the clothes that no longer fit. Recycle the piles of last year’s school papers still sitting on the dining room table. You know? Clean the slate; clear the air. Take a deep breath, start fresh.

The same is true here at church. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we have skeletons in the closet. Yes, literally, they’re plastic and they’re part of our Halloween decorations and I recently had to reconfigure them so that they weren’t obviously stored in an upper window. This story was featured in my sermon last week. But we also have skeletons in the closet, figuratively. Unsightly “clutter” we’d rather just hide than actually see or talk about. The Church, with a capital C, the whole big organization of religious followers of Jesus Christ has been around for just about 2000 years and we’ve gotten used to a certain amount of unsightly “clutter”… shall we say, actions and behaviors that seem to deviate from the values of Jesus who started this movement.

I call this “skeletons in the closet” in jest, but what I’m actually talking about is pretty horrible stuff. Some of the world’s worst atrocities were perpetrated by people proclaiming Jesus as their Lord. Christians, they called themselves; Christian values they proclaimed to be following, and yet history, and sometimes even personal experience, has shown us again and again that Christians are capable of doing a lot of harm in the name of Jesus. To put it lightly, this “clutter” that distracts us from the true message of Jesus, which we know to be rooted in love.

And it’s not all in our history as a Church. These days it seems like the loudest and proudest voices that proclaim to be Christian are the ones who equate Christianity with nationalism and political power. Christians make headlines because of who they exclude, or how they abused vulnerable ones, or how their greed led to excesses and scandal.

At this point you may be wishing I had just stopped with the meme and sat down.

It may make us uncomfortable to talk about the ways we who have called ourselves Christians over the centuries have deviated so far from the message of Jesus. It makes us want to shove these horrible episodes of our past into a closet and pretend like they don’t exist. It makes scripture readings like the one from Jeremiah we just read seem plausible. Where God could look down at the people who professed to be faithful and see that things have gone terribly, terribly wrong.


“My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.”


The first time I read this, I thought, WHOA, those people back then must have been bad. And then I turn on the news and hear about the kinds of Christians who make the headlines these days and realize…. Oh, dang. This is still us. The truth is, we’ve gotten to a point in our 2000-year history as a Church where the label “Christian” has become a word associated primarily with power, abuse, greed, corruption, political nationalism, exclusivism, and judgment. It a lot of circles, it’s a bad word.

I cannot tell you how much I’ve wrestled with this. I want to be able to call myself a Christian, but can we not do better? Do I even want to still associate myself with the name and identity of “Christian” when the fruits of this faith have become so unrecognizable? And then I think, how can we as a local church here in Cobleskill get the fresh start we long for, preaching a message of inclusion and unconditional love when the “clutter” in our own religion is so distracting and disheartening? When the cross of Jesus is proudly carried into white-supremacy rallies and stood up as a symbol at violent political riots, is this a religion that can be redeemed?

(…)

My head says no. But my heart wants to say yes. And I fall back into Jesus. The part of me where a little piece of him lives wants to scream yes. Jesus gets it. He’s been here before.

These questions that we ask about Christianity are not so different from the questions Jesus about his own religion. He knew his Jewish faith was deep and rich and built upon strong values of equity and belonging. But he was living in an age when the loudest voices of his religion were distorting its basic values and replacing its generosity of spirit with laws and regulations that empowered some while keeping others out. Jesus’ religion had become unrecognizable to him. Rules had eclipsed love. Rules that kept people out. Rules that said who was clean and unclean. Rules that restricted access to God based on who you were and what you had done in your life. Rules that said religion needed hierarchy and power and control and money.

Sound familiar? Jesus was disgusted. He needed to clear the air. He needed a fresh start.

And so this thing happened where the Jesus we often know as peaceful and gentle and measured hit a breaking point. He was so upset that his faith had been co-opted to support the powerful as they excluded and exploited the powerless, that he hit a breaking point. And up went the tables. Coins went flying across the temple where religious leaders were extorting impoverished pilgrims who were told they needed to buy over-priced animals and sacrifice them on the altar of God in order to be truly good and loved by God. How could this be what God envisioned? Jesus stepped in and changed the narrative. It didn’t have to be this way.

This story of Jesus flipping the tables in the temple is often buried in the emotional events of Holy Week. But unlike the other Gospels, the writings of John place this story at the beginning, as the first public act of Jesus’ ministry. It’s a symbolic literary move that dares to say that before Jesus could begin preaching in a new way about the love of God, he first needed to clear the air and disrupt the systems of injustice that shackled the people. In other words, he couldn’t go forward with a new message of love, until he had stood up to the hate that was right in front of him.

The same is true for us. At this church we are longing to write a new narrative about Christianity. When stories about Christian abuse and scandal and exclusion fill the airwaves and Christian symbols on display at violent political riots make the news, we want to make headlines with a different story. God’s love is unconditional. Jesus’ ministry was not about power and dominance, but about changing hearts and finding everyone who had been excluded by the powerful and bringing them to tables that had been flipped, and eating dinner there together.

Going back to our opening image today. Jesus sets a powerful example. If we want the narrative to change, we have to be the ones to change it. If we want our religion to more closely reflect the love we know to be at its foundation, we must be willing to seek out the places of injustice and speak up for the ones who have been hurt. If we hope to put our love into action we must also be willing to stand up to hate.

It is my belief that there are basic, core ideals that Jesus Christ laid as the foundation of his movement. It is also my belief that these basic, core ideals have been largely forgotten by mainstream Christianity. Over the next few weeks, we’re going back to these basics. We’re starting a new chapter and I hope you like turning over tables.

Will you pray with me.

Jesus, cleanser of temples and souls,

at beginning of a new chapter,

look deep within our hearts and our lives,

and clear away all that holds us back.

May our minds, spirits and bodies

be a place that is open to Your presence:

and may our words and our actions

be transparent to Your love and truth.

We pray that this church community,

will be de-cluttered in its life and mission,

so that all that we do in and from here

reveals your love to others.

In a moment of silence we sit before you,

and mourn those things

that we or our religion have done that

hurt others.

Silence

Friends of Jesus, God loves us and

Longs for us to be part of a new future.

A future in which there room in our lives and our community

for unconditional, world-changing love to dwell unencumbered

by hate, greed and the lure of power.

Give us courage to step into this future.

Give us courage to turn the tables,

In your name.


Amen.


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