Singing Lent: “Love Lifted Me!”

I didn’t realize until just recently that I am missing something that many people seem to have… at least, the people I’ve been around my whole life, church folks. It’s strange, actually, that I didn’t notice it sooner; I’ve always been aware that most people didn’t move around as much as my family always did growing up… I knew that I’d attended more schools and had more street addresses than most people. But it didn’t occur to me that there was another important thing that’s very different when you’ve moved as much as I have–so far, 19 places in my 44 years of life. I realized just a couple of months ago that I don’t have a “home church.” And what’s funnier is that I didn’t really notice until recently that other people DO have one!

I have a hunch that for most of you, just hearing the words “your home church” immediately conjures  up an image or a memory. My parents had one–their families grew up together in the same church in Independence, Missouri. It’s the church we went back to even when I was a young child, when we went to Kansas City to visit relatives at the holidays. Family weddings were held there. My dad’s aunt worked in the church library, and the education director was the closest thing my parents knew to a “woman in ministry”–she remained unmarried and served with her whole life in Christian education, and my mom and dad still remember her as a model of ministry. My parents haven’t lived in Kansas City in about 40 years, but I think in some ways that church will always be their “home.”

Your “home church” isn’t always necessarily the one you used to attend. Maybe the church you attend today is your “home church.” Your history is there, or your family is there, or you’ve made a specific choice to be invested there, body and spirit. But maybe you do still think of your “home church” as the one that raised you up, the one where you are rooted, even if you only rarely get back there. Maybe your “home church” doesn’t even exist anymore–perhaps the doors have closed and the building has been sold, or maybe the leadership changed and took the church in a direction you simply couldn’t go.

It occurred to me that Jesus had, in effect, gone back to his “home church” in John 2:13-25, for the festival of the Passover. It’s not that Jerusalem was exactly his home town, but the Temple was the place he and his family always went back to for the most important holy days of the year and the important events of their lives. If you’ve been back to your own home church maybe you’ve had the experience of memories flooding back… stepping inside the sanctuary, you see images of your baptism, or your child’s wedding, or a loved one’s memorial service. Maybe you still hear echoes of the voice of the pastor whose sermons you listened to every Sunday, or the old hymns bursting out of the organ’s pipes. I imagine every time he stepped into the Temple courts, into his “home church,” Jesus remembered all the celebrations he’d marked in that most holy place. Maybe he still heard echoes of the blessing that Simeon pronounced over him when Jesus was just an infant, “My eyes have seen your salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles….” Perhaps he saw himself again as that 12-year-old boy, busily teaching the rabbis and forgetting to follow his parents home.

The Gospels tell us that this event took place as the Passover was coming near. Jesus would have traveled to Jerusalem in the company of perhaps a hundred thousand other pilgrims, all doing their best to follow God’s commandment to observe the festival. It would hardly be practical or possible to take your own animals for the necessary sacrifices–just imagine trying to travel, the chaos and the mess of the number of birds and livestock that would be enough for a hundred thousand people! And the currency you’d have used on the journey would need to be exchanged, in order to be able to purchase the animals you’d need. So were the moneychangers and dove-sellers providing much-needed services to the hordes of pilgrims? Or were they in it for their own purposes, padding their pocketbooks by the realities of supply and demand, the exorbitant fees they could charge the pilgrims, who had only that one place to do their necessary shopping?

Even today, there’s a fine line, isn’t there, between selling a product and extortion? In and outside of the house of God, it’s a slippery ethical slope. It’s certainly a topic that is very much in the forefront of our minds these days, and many commentary writers see this text as a starting point for sermons on social and economic justice, and for the careful separation of religious practice from economic gain. I remember growing up in churches where we couldn’t bring Girl Scout cookie sales forms to ask our church friends if they’d like a box of Thin Mints, all because Jesus “cleansed the temple.” And maybe that’s going a bit overboard, but maybe our need to stand up against institutional theft is part of the story. Or maybe we need to be challenged about turning the spiritual life into yet another typical storefront, where for only $19.95 you too can be the proud owner of a John 3:16 travel mug or t-shirt.

What really strikes me, though, is that Jesus’s anger was both very specific and very personal. He wasn’t angry at the pilgrims, or at the temple, or the priests, or at the Jews in general. He was furious at those who’d turned the holy site into a marketplace, and he was enraged at the financial predators who manipulated the obedience of the pilgrims who’d come to follow God’s ordinances. But Jesus wasn’t just angry on God’s behalf, as if he were the resident caretaker or a security guard, or even as if he was visiting his “home church” and was upset to see changes he didn’t like. Jesus seemed to take the whole thing personally. When the disciples saw Jesus’ rage, they remembered words from Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus’ zeal was personal because he knew something the pilgrims, the priests, and especially the stallholders didn’t.

When the sellers in the temple court confronted him about his behavior, and demanded to know by what authority he’d acted, he ignored the question, and instead gave them a challenge: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They took him literally, probably looking at each other and rolling their eyes behind his back, and they said, essentially, “You’re crazy.” But the fact was, they didn’t know what he was talking about; even his own disciples were slow on the uptake. John 2:21-23 says:

But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, the disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Jesus understood what no one else did: that he, himself, was the new temple. God’s living, breathing “home church.” No longer was the Temple the one and only abode of God on earth, the center of the religious universe. At Jesus’ birth, God’s own self was delivered into the world, crying and laughing and walking around among us. God’s hand reached out and touched blind eyes, broken legs. God’s voice taught on the mountainsides, called fishermen from their boats, said “Don’t be afraid” in the storms, summoned dead bodies back from the tomb. God could no longer be confined to the Holy of Holies, the most sacred, untouchable place in the holy city and in the holy Temple, because God was busy at work, bringing the sacred dwelling-place—the very person of Christ—out to the world, to wrap its arms around the most fallen, the most untouchable people he could meet. Tax collector. Sinner. Leper. You and me.

I can’t help but think that maybe Jesus’ “zeal” for God’s house was deeply personal to him because he wondered: “If they treat the temple this way, how much worse will they treat me?” Perhaps the misuse of the Temple seemed to him a metaphor, or a foretelling–for the way he himself would be misused, the way he would be abused, the way his love for people and his desire to connect them to the Father would be mocked in his own day…. and made into a sales pitch in ours.

That little snippet of a Psalm that the disciples recalled in that moment, that bit of Psalm 96 that says “Zeal for your house will consume me”… that’s one line from a long psalm, an agonized prayer about being despised, being scorned and shamed by enemies and kindred alike; and it’s also a prayer of praise in the midst of distress, magnifying God’s love in the face of every attack. “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me,” the psalmist prayed, and continued: “the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” The insult to the temple fell upon Jesus, and ignited his fury, and set the stage for his ministry… and for his crucifixion… and for that sunrise, three days later, when Love itself would be lifted up.

In the words of the psalmist, we pray:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.
God of love, lift us up, as you always do,
from the flood of sin, of sorrow,
of shame that drowns us again and again.
In the face of distress, in the shadow of the cross,
we praise you as the psalmist did:

I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
My prayer is to you, O Lord.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love,
answer me.
According to your abundant mercy, turn to me.

God, You are Master of the Seas, You are our Eternal Home,
You came to abide with us in the living Temple,
the person of Jesus Christ,
and You brought us together and shaped us to be his body.
Lead us out by his example,
taking you out into a world that is so much in need,
not of another marketing pitch,
but of your saving love.
Then bring us back again, lifting your name in praise,
and always singing your wondrous story. Amen.


HEAR THE SONG

One of my professors pointed out how odd it is that a song about sinking in sin should be so… peppy! There ARE some more reflective versions out there, but here are a few that will make you smile–hopefully because of the lifting part, not the sinking part. 🙂 Inspired by the deep waters of Psalm 96:

The Swan Silvertones. Awesome.

I can’t vouch for the movie (though I’m going to try to find it soon!) but this is a fabulous version by Jack Black from the film “Bernie.”

And it’s not quite the classic, but I could listen to Kenny and Dolly all day long. Especially in 1976–just so cool.

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