Monday, March 8, 2021

Context Matters: Sermon by Heather Thum-Gerber (MDiv)

March is Women's History Month and the library is celebrating it by sharing the sermon of one of our women Seminarians: Heather Thum-Gerber preaching at South Frankfort Presbyterian Church on March 7, 2021, the Third Sunday in Lent. Even today there are many churches that will not allow a woman to preach in church. We thank God for Heather and we are grateful to all those who came before. We celebrate all women who are called and gifted to preach.

Context Matters 

Sermon on Jesus Cleansing the Temple, Gospel of John 2: 13 - 22 By Heather Thum-Gerber, MDiv 2022

I don’t know how many of you are into memes but they are rampant on the internet.  A meme is an image with wording added that is almost always taken out of context.  Memes are often designed to make a quick point that our short attention spanned brains absolutely love.  There is one meme that seems to rise in popularity following the preaching of this particular passage from John. 

The meme features a picture of Jesus poised with a whip in hand and the words added “If someone asked, ‘What would Jesus do?’  Remind them that turning over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibility.”  The meme isn’t entirely wrong, but the lacking context, which is a natural pitfall of memes, deprives those who see it just how powerful this moment is in the text.  
Can you imagine the scene given to us in the gospel of John? It’s a holy time, the Passover festival is upon the Jewish people and the joy of celebrating the past acts of God’s faithfulness is buzzing in the air.  Sheep are bleating, doves are cooing, and the noise of pilgrims streaming into Jerusalem is deafening.   Jesus is among those travelers with his mind toward the sacred--his mind is on the holiness of his Father’s house and the coming glorious worship.  Yet, as he steps into the temple he is suddenly hit with a sinking feeling like a rock plummeting into the pit of his stomach.  So much of what he sees before him is just wrong.  He can’t help but say, “No!” and respond accordingly.  It is in this moment that we encounter Jesus the prophet.  

The term prophet is commonly understood as someone who tells the future, which is true, but it is only part of the prophetic role.  Prophets give insights to the future, but Biblical prophets also address the realities before them as messengers of divine truths.    

There is a long history of prophets in the Old Testament.  They spoke sharp truths that cut hard, but words weren’t their only form of communication.  Often they behaved in eccentric ways that symbolized the points they were trying to convey.  Jeremiah notably hid a loin cloth in rocks and dirt until it was ruined to bring a message to God’s people.  Hosea named his three children words that meant, “God Scatters”, “Not Loved”, and “Not my People” signifying God’s frustration with Israel. Finally, Ezekiel laid on his left side for 399 days and then switched to the right for 40 days representing the siege of Jerusalem.  These behaviors without context seem bizarre, but they are part of the work of prophets to convey messages both in word and deed.  The message is that God isn’t always pleased with what the people are doing and change is coming.   That is what we are finding in the story of Jesus cleansing the temple- the prophetic role of Christ.  
For Jesus, the divine message was all about deliverance.  Coming to the temple during Passover was to celebrate the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt where the Isrealites experienced structural forms of oppression as slaves.  Yet, as Jesus walked in the door he found a new form of oppression in the corrupted temple culture.  The house of God had become a place of opportunistic merchants.  It became a place that wasn’t celebrating the deliverancing acts of God, but a place in need of redemption.  Jesus overthrowing the tables and proclaiming the coming destruction of the temple was an intervention much in the same vein as the prophets of the Old Testament.  An intervention that foretold the deliverance of God’s people through his death and resurrection as well as the physical display that the order of things was being overturned.   
Too often this story of Jesus is taken as a prophetic cry to point at what is wrong in others.  A cry that leads to a justified feeling of picking up the metaphorical whip and chasing others for their transgressions.  As uncomfortable as it is, the need for change is within the temple--it’s within the religious structures, it's within the Church.  It is taking stock of how we as the church or as individuals have missed the mark and need an honest assessment.     
As Presbyterians we have a rich tradition and heritage that offers us historical snapshots of times when the church has pointed inwardly to spot places where Jesus is ready to drive out what is wrong.  The church confessions are part of our denominational standards that bear witness to God’s movement through the ages.  It isn’t often that many of us pull the Book of Confessions off the shelf for a quick read, but if you do, you will find moments where alongside affirmations of the faith, what God rejects is also present.  
The Theological Declaration of Barmen was written in 1934 as the Nazis party in Germany was intervening in affairs of the Church.  Under the pressure many churches caved to the demands of the German authority.  Under German law, churches were told to excommunicate anyone from their congregation that had Jewish heritage.  In response, a group of faith leaders came together to create their statement, which is one of our confessions, that affirms Jesus Christ's assurance of forgiveness, the supremacy of scripture, and  the church’s commission to the world.  Simultaneously the statement boldly rejected false doctrines.  Casting out teachings and practices that do not follow God.  The statement strived to drive out the corruption that had been seeping into the Church.    
A second time in history a confession was penned when the Church came to terms with its need for deliverance.  South Africa had been struggling with racial disparity since 1948 when segregation though apartheid first became law.  The national social order of structural racism integrated into all facets of life including the life of the Church.  It was in 1986 when the Belhar Confession was formed out of the crucible of challenging deeply rooted racism.  The confession confirms the triune God, unity and reconciliation, and God’s liberative work; yet simultaneously declares and rejects any doctrine that sinfully separates people, misuses the gospel to oppress, or legitimates any form of injustice.  
The church in various times and places, as well as today, has encounters with Jesus the prophet.  The One who’s spirit moves to remind us of what needs to be overthrown and driven out so that we can all experience saving grace.
As we continue our journey through Lent, perhaps it is time to consider where in our lives Jesus is waiting to walk in and drive out what is holding us back from the fullness of who we are created to be.  What in our lives do we need God’s intervention to be released from?  Those places where we are in need of transformation.  Looking within ourselves requires vulnerability and an openness to be challenged.  Yet it is the work that brings God’s deliverance and grace.  Just as Jesus cleanses the temple to drive out what is life-limiting, so too does Jesus drive out what is life-limiting within us.
So next time when you are asked the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Remind people that turning over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibility.  But don’t stop there.  Tell them it is the prophetic work of God to drive out what is corrupt, divisive, and life limiting.  And that it has to happen for newness, transformation, and saving grace to take over. We give thanks to God for that.  Amen.