"What Sign Can You Show Us?"

by Sheila C. Gustafson

First Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico

March 2, 1997

John 2:13-22

Not for the first time, I have discovered the genuine hazards of announcing sermon texts and titles ahead of time, and of making a commitment to deal with the scriptures, as they come in the lectionary, as faithfully as I can. After last Sunday, I really wanted to preach on something like "God is Love" this week. But two things make such a luxury a cop out -- one is that I had already said I would preach on this tempestuous text from the Gospel of John; and the other is that the Session of this church asked for a meeting -- and they had already looked in the Book of Order and knew that if two elders asked the moderator to call a meeting, the moderator was compelled to call a meeting. The result of that Session meeting, held on Wednesday evening, is the statement which is printed in the blue section of your bulletin this morning.

What last week was my personal witness to my understanding of the implications of the love of Jesus Christ in a difficult and contentious question -- namely the full acceptance of gay and lesbian persons into the membership and leadership of the church -- has become something else. Although there is nothing in the language of the Session's statement which puts it at odds with even the supporters of the notorious Amendment B, the statement, with its references to the sermon, indicates that what last week was only my personal position has become the Session's position and they have announced their intention to move in the direction, through the proper processes, of making it First Presbyterian Church's position. They have also stated their pastoral concern for members who find themselves in disagreement and their intention to provide avenues for feedback and dialogue.

If you were not here last week, or were not among the persons who came by the church to pick up the nearly two hundred copies of the sermon that have already gone out of the office, my apologies. There are more copies available in the literature racks today, but that won't help you to understand the context in which today's sermon is preached. Neither is it possible to reproduce the feeling level of those services or the responses of people to one another and to me that will stand as a high point of my ministry for me as long as I live.

For those of you who have problems with that particular issue, there are thousands of scriptural texts in the Bible about which we would have no disagreement -- and you would have thought that at least one of them could have been the scripture lesson for the third Sunday of Lent.

However, we have the Fourth Evangelist's version of Jesus' act of prophetic symbolism in the Temple at Jerusalem which, no matter what efforts are made to tone it down, is a disturbing story. Someone has observed that the church has attempted over the years to lessen its impact by calling it "the cleansing of the temple" as "though Jesus' purpose was property maintenance. ( A confirmation class student once put the story into her own words by having Jesus wash down the walls of the temple!)" *

Washing was not what Jesus was about. Instead, he whipped up the animals in the temple precincts, overturned the tables of the money changers and yelled at the dove sellers, "Get them out of here!"+

Last week at the meeting of the Presbytery, one of the minister members took offense at what a speaker was saying. He jumped to his feet, shook his finger and, in a loud voice shaking with anger, stated his objection, and then stamped out of the church sanctuary in which the meeting was held. The tension left in that room at his departure was palpable. A display of intense feeling, especially anger, makes people very uncomfortable. The minister later apologized and the meeting went on but, remembering that moment, I can imagine how people present in the Temple the morning that Jesus "let loose" must have felt. The fact that it was a place of worship made the physical disruption even more shocking. What in the world could Jesus have been thinking about?

My father used to explain to me when I was a child that Jesus experienced "righteous indignation" but not anger, and there was a difference. I couldn't always discern that difference when my father was experiencing righteous indignation but, nevertheless, that explanation sufficed for many years. I have since learned that, while not a bad explanation, the truth -- at least for the writer of the Fourth gospel-- is somewhat more complex.

There are significant differences in the way the story is told between John and the other three gospels, the most obvious of which is that the incident in the temple comes at the beginning of Jesus' ministry in John, and not until just before Jesus' passion in the synoptic gospels. Along with the story of the wedding at Cana, this temple story sets out, at the very beginning of John's gospel the meaning of Jesus' life and ministry. Together these stories signal that this gospel is about the fullness of life to be experienced in Jesus Christ (the Messianic abundance of wine at Cana), and the replacement of the temple-based religion of "purity", with the person-based religion of "compassion" in Jesus.

It is important to say, especially on this weekend of Christian-Jewish dialogue, that Jesus' action was not anti-Jewish. His act of prophetic symbolism followed firmly in the tradition of the Jewish prophets Amos and Jeremiah. Religions have a way of becoming so embedded in their systems of rules and practices that they are no longer open to fresh revelation from God. That was true of Old Testament Judaism and it is true of present day Christianity. Whenever it is obvious that the status quo of religious practices have been absolutized, it is time for the prophet's voice to ring out and ask if there is still not "more light and truth to come forth from God's word."

Writing for the New Interpreter's Bible, Gail O'Day writes of this passage from John, "The great danger is that the contemporary church, like the leaders of the religious establishment in John, will fall into the trap of equating the authority of its own institutions with the presence of God. All religious institutional embeddedness -- whether in the form of temple worship, unjust social systems, or repressive religious practices -- is challenged in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus."

The system that was embedded in the Temple at Jerusalem in Jesus' day was the system which enabled the taint of sin to be erased through the offering of appropriate sacrifice. One sinned by allowing one's self to become "unholy" which meant, primarily, "unclean." One atoned by offering a sacrifice -- and there were prescribed sacrifices for particular states of uncleanness. Jewish pilgrims traveled great distances to the Temple to go through purification rites and thus the need for available animals and coins of particular kinds handy to the Temple. The system had spawned a deeply entrenched series of satellite businesses around the central activity of purification.

I am indebted to Marcus Borg for the helpful insight that it is in the conflict "between holiness and compassion as qualities of God to be embodied in community that we see the central conflict in [Jesus' time] between two different social visions. The dominant social vision [in Israel] was centered in holiness; the alternative social vision of Jesus was centered in compassion ... For Jesus, compassion was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue; it was a social paradigm, the core value for life in community... This conflict and this social vision continue to have striking implications for the life of the church today."#

Holiness or "purity" systems are found in many cultures. A purity system is a social or religious system organized around the contrasts or polarities of pure and impure, clean and unclean. Things that are all right in one place are "unclean" in another. Purity status in Israel during the time of Jesus depended to some extent on birth. Priests and Levites, both hereditary classes, were at the highest -- level then Israelites in general, then converts. At the bottom of the list of purity were illegitimate children and men whose sex organs were in some way damaged or deformed. Purity status also depended on behavior: the observant were pure, the non-observant were outcasts. Occupation groups were considered impure--tax collectors, for example, and shepherds. Physical wholeness was associated with purity--so also was gender. The physical processes of childbirth and menstruation made women generally less pure than men.

Jesus challenged the purity system in many of his teachings and activities. Instead, he insisted on lifting up the value of compassion. In his healings he risked ritual impurity time and again by touching people who were ill, bleeding and leprous; he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, he told stories in which unclean Samaritans were the compassionate heroes; he welcomed women into his circle of friends. In these meals of Jesus which were so inclusive of persons, the roots of the Eucharist are to be found. Boundaries are broken down, and all are invited to find their life in the person of Jesus Christ who becomes the place of meeting for human beings with their compassionate God.

In this context, his seemingly out of character outburst in the Temple makes sense. This prophetic act of "cleansing the temple" is to disrupt and reject the purity system with its mechanisms of sacrifice and to put his own life with its central value of compassion in its place. Thus the cryptic response to the request of the Pharisees, "What sign can you show us?" -- of your authority to do such outrageous things, they meant. And Jesus said, "Destroy this temple (meaning the temple of his body) and in three days I will raise it up." Of course, his meaning was not understood -- they thought he was talking about the building.

The same struggle between purity and compassion takes place in the church today. To a large degree, that was what last week's sermon was about. The clearest biblical prohibition against homosexuality is found in the purity code in Leviticus -- along with prohibitions against boiling a kid in its mother's milk or wearing clothing made of two kinds of cloth. The church, following Jesus' example of substituting compassion for the structure of boundaries between "clean and unclean," has been able to move beyond many of the most esoteric of these purity requirements from the Levitical code. The church no longer would officially tolerate dealing with race, disability, poverty, or femaleness as evidence of being "unclean" (I say "officially" because persons who fit any of those categories can testify that they sometimes feel that they are being treated as "unclean" when it comes to full participation in the church). But this one issue -- the issue of homosexuality -- is still perhaps subconsciously, perceived as an issue of purity by many in the church. I cannot account any other way for the fact that people who have objective information which strongly indicates that sexual orientation is not a choice but a fact of birth--just as race, gender and, in many cases, disability are facts of birth -- still find a whole category of people unacceptable as religious leaders. If the issue is an issue of purity, then the story of Jesus' act of prophetic symbolism in the Temple is instructive for us.

Last week, I talked about a personal call I felt to be faithful in a particular way. The action of the Session this week has changed the ground of the discussion. They have stated that, as your elected leaders, they feel called to be faithful in that same way and to move the church in that direction; they seek to engage you in the discussion. We have moved from a personal decision to an institutional one -- and that calls for a different process all together. That process, which will involve all of you who wish to be involved, will soon be worked out and announced. However, part of the process must be to give every one of you time to think, in light of what has transpired among us. I hope that you will take time to do that. Last week's sermon is available as a resource -- so will this week's sermon be. Please let me know, or let a member of the Session know, what additional resources you need to assist you in your personal process.

And, I suggest that we pray. Every weekday morning from now until Good Friday the Chapel will be open from 8:00 to 8:30 a.m. for personal prayer. I will be there as many of those mornings as I possibly can; I hope Session members will join me when they are able-- and that members of the congregation will do the same. These will not be times for talking -- that will happen elsewhere -- just times for praying and for communing with our God. Let us begin that process now, by praying together the Prayers of the People ......


* Lectionary Homiletics, March, 1994

+ Translated by Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol 1. Anchor Bible.

A Quote of John Robinson to the Pilgrims at Plymouth.

Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Harper: San Francisco, 1994, p. 49


March 2, 1997

Sovereign God, we celebrate your vast creation even as we enjoy the small part we can see and comprehend. You are so much more than our limited certainties, so far beyond our widest affirmations. Your steadfast love transcends our firmest loyalties and stretches our deepest commitments.

The scriptures which tell of your Son Jesus Christ continue to astound us. We thought we had him tamed, domesticated, carefully packaged so that we could stay comfortable in understanding his behavior and his teaching. But, even these centuries later, his boldness breaks out of the text, his commitment staggers us, and his actions force us to think in new ways about old assumptions. He sees through our careful religious transactions. He overturns the tables of thoughtless traffickers in religion. We ask his guidance to see the strength in your chosen foolishness-- your willingness to gather in all people -- old distinctions overcome by compassion -- old exclusions overcome by a love so great it was willing to endure even death on a cross -- and rise above it.

We would turn away, O God, from all that hurts and destroys, from actions that treat people as things, from shallow commitments that break faith with others who are counting on us. O God, equip us to love ourselves that we may truly value all people -- rejoicing at their successes, celebrating their victories, and identifying with them in their need. Link us to one another with the love you intend as the way of life for all your human family.

We pray this morning for those members of our family who are in need of your healing: for Mary Hite and Annette Hocker who have been recently hospitalized. For Luke Keil recovering both from surgery and from a fall. For Bea Doliber recovering her strength after a difficult spell of illness. We pray also for those who are struggling with the distress of confusion, depression, or chronic pain that the light of hope and clarity may shine upon them. In the silence we lift the names of those on our minds and hearts this morning.

All these things we pray in the name of the One who taught us when we pray to say: Our Father...

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