March 4, 2018

3rd Sunday of Lent Year B

Before you opened your eyes this morning, as you were travelling the luminal path between your dreams and the anxiety of your actual life, there may have been a moment when you realized you were being held in a reality that surpasses your dreams and lifts the dreariness of your waking to a sublime generosity that sustains and nourishes you when you least expect or understand it. I believe that reality is the mystery we call God.

But there are other gods that come in different sizes and shapes and call to us in the shadows of our lives. Lent is a good time to consider the veracity of these other gods and the God we are called to love and serve.

We are wrong if we see our time as one with a shortage of belief. There is no shortage today. There is considerable belief, today as always, in gods that are no gods, in gods that are too small. These small gods are potent, however; they reduce the stature of whomever worships them.

The Ten Commandments, those laws God gives to Israel through Moses, constitute a series of warnings against the most popular of the small gods. For example, the Sabbath commandment warns us against the small god of Work, whose worshippers resort to frenetic activity in order to feel they have a right to exist. The commandment against murder warns us against making our enemy into a small god, for strangely enough, that is what happens when hate comes to run our life, and our opponent becomes our obsession.

The commandment against coveting warns us, on the other hand, against making our neighbor into a small god, for that is what happens when we regard our neighbor’s possession, our neighbor’s lifestyle, as somehow indispensable for our existence.

The Ten Commandments are not simply laws in the conventional sense, concerned with what is right and wrong. These commandments are about trust, our trust in the one true God, rather than in the small gods.

None of the small gods can give us life. All they do is imprison us. What the commandments warn us against–hatred and theft and falsehood and all the rest–are the traps set for us by these small gods.

It is from these traps that the one true God ventures to set us free!
The true God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt in the time of Moses.
The true God raised up Jesus from the grip of death on that first Easter morning. And this same God strives to deliver you and me from the narrow prison house, the hell on earth that happens, when we stumble into the trap of some strange god. Yes, God has come to set us free!

We see this liberation take place when Jesus provokes an uproar in the temple at Jerusalem. In he goes one day brandishing a handmade whip, and he starts making trouble! Noisy, stampeding animals; angry, shouting merchants; tables overturned and coins rolling away in every direction.

That area of the vast temple complex is usually a bustling place, but the outrageous actions of Jesus reduce it to mayhem. For weeks afterward they keep talking about it at meetings of the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce. The uproar Jesus causes that day does not make him popular with the powers that be. It may even help to get him killed.

What do you think it is that prompts him? It’s not that he opposes trade in the temple. These dealers perform a necessary service. They provide worshippers arriving from far away with appropriate sacrificial animals and the right kinds of coins to use for donations. They help the temple to function smoothly as a center for sacrifice and a house of prayer.

What Jesus rejects is the excessive profit these dealers make, and the way their trade obscures the temple’s purpose as a place where people of every sort can offer worship. Once the means to a legitimate end, this trade has become its own justification, so that profit has strangled devotion. The temple of the God of Israel, the Liberator of his people from Egypt, has become a place to serve the small gods of greed and arrogance, gods who reduce the stature of whomever worships them. No wonder the anger of Jesus causes him to tear the place apart!

God knows that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”
God knows we cannot keep from falling short of the love that sustains us.
Yet God is ready to liberate our hearts and lives of gods that are too small.

The process is not an easy one. Moments come when we are reduced to chaos and confusion, when animals stampede and merchants shout, when tables are overturned and what seems valuable ends up lost.

Yet God turns our hearts into a true temple. We are delivered from the tyranny of small gods so that we may serve the true God. Through the God revealed in Scripture, through the Eucharistic feast, through our gathering together as the Body of Christ, God’s Spirit is among us, eager to re-consecrate the temples of our hearts so that we may live lives of true devotion to the only true God.

And so, the work of Lent is to recognize these false gods that attempt to rob us of the freedom we have been given through the commandments of God and through Jesus life, death and resurrection. But that freedom comes to us as we trust in the one true God and follow in the way of God’s son, empowered by God’s Spirit to put into practice the life we are called to follow. To actually do something and continue to do it until that practice becomes a part of our lives as much as breathing or sleeping so that as we awake from our slumber we recognize and share the sublime generosity of the God who is love.