(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here).
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
Everybody loves God when things are going well. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not much of one. When you get the promotion, or land the perfect parking spot, or find your keys, it’s pretty easy to believe in God. Clearly God loves you and wants the best for you, and you have proof because what once was lost, now is found, and thanks be to God for that.
Of course, anybody who thinks that the faithful Christian life is a life free of all conflict and division and pain clearly has never been to a church council meeting. The theologian Leonard Sweet says that not all fairy tales start with “Once upon a time.” Some of them begin with, “When I became a Christian, all my problems were over.”
I wish that when I was working on getting somebody to come to church, to have faith, I could tell them that if they would just believe, everything will be great, their life will be perfect, they’ll pick the winning lotto numbers every time and nobody they love will ever experience pain, but that’s not how this works. In fact, let me let you in on a little secret. A life lived with God is not easier than a life lived without God. Sometimes we pretend that it is, and I certainly think that the Christian life is richer than one lived without acknowledging God’s grace, God’s love. But the Christian life is not easier than a non-Christian life. There is no connection between your financial success and your belief in God; in fact, you will remember that in last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that it is those who lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel who will be richly blessed. This is not easy stuff.
And yet, I have found it to be the case that it is much easier to believe in God when things are going well, when I feel blessed, when it seems like God is giving me what I want, what I desire, what I think I deserve. It’s only human to make that connection. I mean, when you’re a kid, and you do well in school, you get good grades. When my daughter picks up her toys, she gets a sticker. You do well at work, you get a raise. And it isn’t too far a leap to say that, well, if I am doing well, I must be doing something right, God must be blessing me. That’s a natural response.
I am sure it is what the money changes in the temple thought, at least at first. They were making money, you know, and John doesn’t say in this morning’s Gospel lesson that they were ripping people off, just that they were making money exchanging money, and they were doing it in a way that helped people who came to the temple to make ritual sacrifices, which was how people expressed devotion back then. So here you have a situation where people are offering a service that helped God’s faithful people, and if they made a little money while doing it, you know, it’s no big deal. Everybody’s got to make a living. I’m sure they thought they were doing great, that God was really happy with them, and so it must have been particularly confusing when Jesus came in and turned the whole thing upside down.
We don’t like to think of Jesus this way, you know, getting angry, and what gets me about this story is not just that he walked into the temple, saw people making money and turned their tables over, disrupting their business, but he made a whip of cords to drive them out! My wife Stacey and I were talking last night, she’s a Methodist pastor, too, and she said that if she had been thinking in time she would have made everybody in her congregation a little whip to take home with them as a reminder of the total weirdness of this story. This kind of thing doesn’t match with my understanding of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, and to be honest it feels more like Occupy Wall Street than it does the Church of Jesus Christ. I mean, can you imagine what would happen if Jesus walked in here and turned the tables over? We’d freak out. I know I would. I mean, if Jesus walked in and said everything you are doing is wrong, and I hope it isn’t but if he said it was, what would you do? You’d probably leave and never come back.
This isn’t too far-fetched, you know. The church has a strong history of looking at people who it decides don’t belong in church and saying, “there is no place here for you here,” or, more likely, “you can stay, just don’t say much and certainly don’t try to change anything.”
I’m willing to wager that we’ve all felt like this at one point or another, like we didn’t belong. And I’ll put an even finer point on it and say that we’ve probably looked to God for comfort in a situation only to feel like the tables had been turned over right on top of us. I’m not saying God causes bad things to happen. I’m just saying it’s easier to believe when things are going well.
I’ve told you this before, but the week I moved to Atlanta to start seminary, just as I was getting my apartment settled, I walked out one morning to get in my truck only to discover that I’d forgotten where I parked it, and I spent fifteen minutes combing the parking lot before I realized that it had been stolen over night. And so I called my parents to tell them, and the next day I got out of the shower to see that I had five missed calls from my family, and here I’m thinking they are checking in on me since I was stuck without a vehicle, but the news wasn’t good. Mom was in the ICU. A brain aneurysm. Hurry.
I’ll tell you, those were dark days for me, as you might expect. It’s not easy to believe in God when all you are trying to do is be faithful, to dedicate your life to following Jesus, and everything around you crumbles like clods of dirt. I’m not saying I lost faith or whatever, that I suddenly became an atheist. Obviously that didn’t happen. But you start to wonder, where is God in all of this? Where is God? I don’t want to get too somber about it, but it is the case that it’s a lot easier to praise God at a wedding than at a funeral for somebody who died of an overdose.
It’s easier to believe when there are signs and wonders, and this isn’t just something we get from experience. It’s in the Bible! This story Hannah read this morning goes on to say that many people believed in Jesus because of the signs and wonders they saw him doing. But Jesus, John writes in his Gospel, would not entrust himself to them. Jesus says to himself, these people see signs and wonders and of course they believe. But this is not enough, because hard times are going to come, and will they believe then? Put another way, everybody believes in God when things are good . . . but what happens when the savior of the world is put on a cross to be executed like a common criminal? What happens when the rent check bounces, when somebody dies, when you get laid off?
It’s a strange passage in the Bible, this idea that people believed in Jesus but that he didn’t trust them, because we hear so much about belief these days that we feel like that’s all the marbles. As long as you believe in God, everything will be ok, and sure, bad things happen, but believe, just make that decision to believe, and you’ll be all right. But what happens when Jesus doesn’t believe in us?
I want you to know, I have a love/hate relationship with this word “believe.” I grew up like many of you, in a religious tradition in which belief was the whole ball of wax. The pertinent question was: “Do you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior,” as if all you had to do was make the intellectual decision to believe, to check that box and say, “sure,” and you were done. And that’s well and good until things start to go wrong, until everything start to fall apart. I mean, does believing in Jesus mean that I’m never allowed to doubt? God, I hope not. I’m not saying you need to be ruled by doubt, twisting in the wind at every turn, but if you don’t occasionally look at the state of the world and wonder just where it is that God is in all of this, you need to pay closer attention.
But here’s the thing about belief. We think of the word “believe” as “deciding something is the case,” as in “I believe that gravity will keep me from floating away” or “I believe that two times two is four.” But the English word believe originally meant to hold something dear. To love.
In fact, the Greek word we translate as believe can also be translated as trust. And maybe I’m making too big a deal out of this—I do that sometimes—but that kind of definition changes the whole game for me. Believing in Jesus is less about deciding that Jesus is the savior and never ever questioning any of the implications of that statement, never wrestling with it. Believing in Jesus is about loving Jesus, about holding dear his promises, about trusting him. And I’m not saying it is easy, but when I’m in the foxholes and everything around me is falling apart, I may struggle with the intellectual decision, but I can still trust in God. I may question the President of the United States, after all, but I trust in the institution of government. I may question a decision the Bishop makes, but I trust in our system of church. Trust is something different altogether, and to be honest, I find it to be a deeper commitment than just deciding something is true, because even if moment to moment I may waver—I am human after all—an intellectual decision runs the risk of getting stuck in my intellect. But trust is about who I am at my core, at the fundamental level of my humanness. Who and what I trust says more about me than almost anything else, because that trust leaks out in the decisions I make, the things I say, the ways I spend my resources and my time.
This trust isn’t created overnight. In fact, it isn’t necessarily created by me at all. The way we learn to trust is by experiencing a reason to trust. When I learned about gravity in school, I learned it as a fact, but now, I trust that I’m not going to float away during this sermon because a lifetime of walking and jumping and falling has led me to trust in gravity. When I learned math, I memorized multiplication tables, but now I trust that two times two is four because I have experienced a lifetime of it still working out.
Of course, trusting in God is more complicated, because while I have obviously bought into this religion thing robe, stole, and sinker, but if you’re looking for an argument against belief, you can certainly find it. I mean, the world is full of death, and pain, and misery. It’s full of joy, too, and wholeness, and love, but to ignore the pain is to pretend it doesn’t exist, and that’s not faithful. Sure, God answers prayer, but are my prayers any better than the prayers of a child who will die of starvation? Of course not. So it is complicated to learn to trust in God, but this is exactly what we do. We learn to trust. We discover that God deserves our trust, and we learn to trust.
And, my God, I don’t know of any better way to learn to trust than to be part of a church. No, we’re not perfect, but we do try to align ourselves with the precepts of Jesus. Yes, we sometimes get cranky with one another, but we do find great meaning in our shared life together. We do try to trust, to love, to care for, to hold dear the promises of God.
In fact, in our baptismal liturgy, when the pastor asks the historic questions before baptism, the third question is this: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” It may sound like the question I was asked as a child, do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, do you check the box of belief, but it is fundamentally different, for the question we ask in our liturgy doesn’t mean you have it all figured out right now, that you’re fully formed and that you promise to never doubt. It means you love. You hold dear. You allow Jesus to turn the tables of the things that get in your way of trusting him, and you live into your calling as a child of God.
Friends, this is not just a matter between you and God. These questions aren’t just about some intellectual decision. When the church is faithful—when it shows love to new people, when it welcomes the stranger, when it feeds the hungry—other people, those who haven’t had the history in the church that some of us have had—other people see that and learn to trust. They learn that God can be trusted, that the church, even though it isn’t perfect, can be trusted.
When I’m having a bad day, or when I start to wonder if this whole church thing is worth it—and the pastor is not immune to occasional bouts of darkness—when my mind wanders to that dark place, the thing that keeps me going is remembering the people who have shown me love, who have shown me such incredible, all-encompassing love that it could not possibly have been inspired without the help of God. What keeps me going is the knowledge that for two thousand years we’ve been at this, preachers and prophets and misfits and thieves, and even in the midst of a world that seems to honor death more than life—certainly more than resurrection—even then, the church has continued to share the unconditional love of God. It’s enough to make a person trust in God even in those dark moments when believing is difficult.
You know, here at North Decatur, we don’t have it all together. When people join the church, I tell them the only promise I can make them about membership here is that if they are here long enough, at some point they’ll be disappointed in the church, disappointed in me. And yet if they leave at that point, they’ll miss the incredible gift of grace, of trust.
How strange, I suppose, that in life’s dark moments, we turn to the church of all places, that imperfect institution which scripture happens to call the Body of Christ. The very body of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.