Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
7 March 2021
In a book entitled The Sunday after Tuesday, a collection of sermons that were preached in College pulpits on the Sunday after 9/11, Michael L. Budde, professor at DePaul University, writes about the event at Washington Cathedral on the Wednesday after 9/11:
“The cardinal archbishop of Washington proclaimed God’s judgment that it is the meek, the peacemakers, and those who return good for evil who do God’s will on earth – a most inconvenient text …
No inconvenience or obstacle for those in attendance, however. No one seemed to mind that Billy Graham, bent and aged after years of counselling previous elected emperors – spoke not one word about the Gospel text of peacemaking and suffering rather than the inflicting of evil. In this game, no one thought it a glaring omission that Graham and The United Methodist minister who followed him made brief mention of ‘the nation’s’ need to repent of sin, without naming a single sin crying out for repentance or forgiveness.”1
I took this book off my shelf when I considered Paul’s words to us in 1 Corinthians:
22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
When I think about it, I can understand the skepticism of Jews and Gentiles. Jews asking for evidence, Gentiles questioning the logic of the cross.
For anyone in Jesus’ time the cross would have been a symbol of defeat, not of victory and salvation. For those of us who have been part of the church for many years, Paul’s claim may simply be accepted as fact, and yet we live in a time where the people around us would ask the same questions.
How can it be that the cross is a sign of victory and of salvation?
In a paragraph prior to the one I just shared with you, Budde remarks that “… most churches are reverting instinctively to their role as chaplain and comforter – easing the pain of the survivors and bolstering the resolve of leaders planning for war. The chaplain’s game is one in which the category of citizen trumps, swallows whole the theoretically more fundamental category of disciple.”2
In our Gospel reading we find Jesus creating chaos in the temple by overturning tables, pouring out coins, and driving out animals and people alike. The passage ends with Jesus’ prediction of his own death and resurrection.
We normally take this story (Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell it, too) to be directed against mixing worship and profit. Battles over bake sales in the narthex have likely been fought, quoting this passage, implying that making a profit is OK anywhere else, just not in the temple or the church.
But what if we saw Jesus’ actions on this day in a larger context?
We may remember the prophet Hosea through whom God speaks, “… I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6), or Psalm 51 which we prayed on Ash Wednesday, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased (v.16), or the prophet Jeremiah who says about the temple, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” (7:4)
Could it be that Jesus’ actions not only stand in continuity with the prophets who demanded justice and mercy instead of sacrifice but are also a symbol of the end of the temple, not only because it would be destroyed in the year 70 AD but also because Jesus becomes the sacrifice to end all sacrifice as Jesus becomes the victim of human power and violence.
Remember that when tempted by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus does not choose power but service (Matthew 4). And when the plot against Jesus thickens, Jesus continues on the path to Jerusalem where he will be arrested. When he is crucified he is mocked, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:42)
What I see in all of this is that Jesus’ death was no coincidence. Jesus could have chosen power but chose weakness. In Jesus God saves the world not through violence but through non-violence.
That takes us back to the words of the cardinal archbishop of Washington who in the shadow of 9/11 read from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, proclaiming that it is the meek, the peacemakers, and those who return good for evil who do God’s will on earth. And it takes us back to being disciples before we are citizens, or consumers, or anything else.
As Paul says, all this may seem counter-intuitive.
But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Paul’s words aside, we know it to be true that love is stronger than hate, that peace is godly whereas violence is demonic, that the things that are given are infinitely more precious and costly than those that are the result of a transaction. We know all these things because the experience of them restores us into God’s image, and I would venture to say that even those who don’t know Jesus are able to experience this.
I recall a council meeting in my first parish. They always started at 7 pm or 7:30 pm and would always go until some time between 10 pm and 11 pm.
I don’t remember the subject to which my co-pastor Greg was speaking. However, a member of church council responded by saying, “Pastor, over there (pointing to the sanctuary) is your domain. This (i.e. the boardroom and everything else) is ours.”
When Paul begins his letter by speaking about the cross of Christ, Paul is lifting up the cross to order our lives, to remind us that we are disciples before we are citizens or consumers, and that stumbling block and foolishness not only belong to Jesus but to all who follow him.
As Flannery O’Connor said (in allusion to John 8:32), “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”
Thanks be to God.
1 “Putting Away Childish Things, in The Sunday after Tuesday, Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN 2002, page 45