The Third Sunday in Lent – March 11, 2012
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
Last week, my wife and I took our eighteen month old grandson to the planetarium at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. My grandson loves stars and the moon and points them out to me every evening when we’re together. He has the spirit of Psalm 19 – wonder and amazement at the beauty and regularity of the universe – and I hope he always keeps it.
Today’s readings can be framed in light of the Psalmist’s vision – “the heavens are telling the glory of God….Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.” The Psalmist reflects Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s comment that “radical amazement” is at the heart of religious experience. Perhaps, our consumerism, violence, and cultural polarization is due in part to ecstasy deprivation – an inability tosee the world through the eyes of a child, discovering a universe in a grain of sand and experiencing each moment as unique and adventurous. Perhaps, even our visions of God are too banal and uninteresting and we need, as process theologian Patricia Farmer, author of the Metaphor Maker counsels, to “embrace a beautiful God.”
Psalm 19 is sermon unto itself. It begins with the beauty of cosmic revelation – deep down, we are star stuff, and Psalmist is aware of it. The divine vibration radiates through all things and can be seen by the naked eye, though the Hubble telescope, an electron microscope, and the daydreams of a sauntering theologian. We live, the Psalmist believes, in a value-laden universe. God is everywhere, announcing God’s presence and bestowing inspiration upon all who stop long enough to open their eyes. The values of the universe are inspirational but they are also ethical and spiritual. The wisdom of macrocosm isevident in the macrocosm – the wonders of the universe are reflected in “the law of God [which] is perfect, reviving the soul…enlightening the eye…rejoicing the heart.” God’s law is not onerous, but the dynamic movement of growth in our lives – it is sweeter thanhoney. But, in its light and sweetness, it reminds us of those places where we are indifferent, insentient, and
Psalm 19 ends with the great words, repeated often prior to the sermon, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.” Contrary to Karl Barth, there are points of contact everywhere – the world abounds in what the Celts call “thin places” – and we can draw near to God, experiencing the wonder, beauty, and value of life by the quality of our words and spiritual orientation. Ontology, the nature of being, inspires axiology, the quest for value and alignment with the aim of the universe.
Seen in this light, Exodus passage description of the Ten Commandments is, to follow Tillich, an example of “theonomy” (alignment with God’s vision) rather than “autonomy” (self rule) or “heteronomy” (rule from the outside). The Commandments begin with grace – the recitation of what God has done for us. God’s prevenient grace sets forth the moral order of the universe andhuman society. Alignment with that grace brings joy; falling away from the movements of grace leads to moral andcultural chaos. While we rightly challenge passages that describe God’s punishment to the fourth generation(Exodus 20:5-6), we can see the long-term impact of economic injustice, unrestrained profit seeking, environmental abuse, slavery, inequalities in education, opportunity, and health care. Sadly, ourcurrent economic situation has stimulated socially-acceptable – or political-acceptable – positions that will only expand the gap between poor and rich and disenfranchise people based on income, race, education, and accessibility to health services. Exodus sees our relationship with God and our neighbor as intricately entangled– we love our God by loving our neighbor, and honest and forthright social and interpersonal relationships reflect and enhance our intimacy with God’s ways.
The words of I Corinthians speak of the foolishness of the cross and the divine use of power. A “wise” God and “pragmatic”religion exalt divine power. God is sovereign, all-powerful, and victorious in every situation. All things reflect divine choice or permission. From this perspective, God’s power is unilateral and regal: we bow our knees in fear, knowing any creaturelyinitiative can lead to punishment. There is no cross in God’s experience; but an all-powerful sovereign God’s followers except often erect crosses for infidels, unbelievers, agnostics, or political opponents, assuming that they are God’s righteous ambassadors.
The foolishness of the cross, also described in Philippians 2:5-11, is reflected in a God whose power is always relational and never unilateral or destructive. God rules by love and God’s power is, above all, a loving power, seeking to heal each person and this good earth. Every knee bows out of gratitude at God’s surprising, unmerited, and universal grace, that rescues and inspires sinner and righteous alike.
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple – we might call it “occupying the temple” – is spiritual theatre. In turning over the tables, Jesus is calling his religious tradition to be both “religious andspiritual,” that is, to become liberated from consumerism, power, polarization, and class to embrace the spiritual needs of an oppressed and hopeless people. While God loves humus, thefloors of the temple are not intended to be dung-covered. Sheep and goats are part of God’s glorious handiwork, but their place is in verdant pastures, not temple floors. We need to look at our faith and practice and discern those places where we have co-opted by consumerism, self-indulgence, materialism, and power plays. The beautyof the universe and the wonder of our bodies call us to amazement and gratitude, but also to confession and repentance.
Today’s scriptures invite us to integrate a sense of beauty and emotions of gratitude with personal, congregational, and social self examination. Do our practices reflect and contribute positively to the beauty of the universe and the ability of small children to join innocence with maturity in growing to be persons of appreciation,faithfulness, integrity, and beauty? Ifnot, we need to embrace the wonder of Psalm 19 and soak our hearts and minds in the presence of a beautiful God.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of 22 books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process:
Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.