A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018
Third Sunday in Lent/B • March 4, 2018
Exodus 17:1-17 • John 3:14-21
Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached
“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” Do you know what Passover is? It’s the moment when you clean the house thoroughly, you buy foods that have been especially blessed, you make a big dinner and invite people over to share it and you go through the family story. “Why is this night different from all other nights?,” the youngest child asks, and the answer is the story of how God saved your family from slavery in Egypt, fulfilled the covenant with Abraham and made a new covenant. And you eat and talk and tell the story and somehow you feel God not as a principle but as a presence.
Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for Passover. You came here this morning. Some came through the big doors at the back, some into Palmer Hall and up the stairway. It was quiet and no one got in your way. But imagine if our church was surrounded by a mall, by stores and kiosks with a food court and crowds shopping. The temple wasn’t simply a place of worship, it was a center for markets. Part of the reason for the markets was that you had to change your money. Jewish law forbade giving anything that had an image on it and Roman coins all had the emperor stamped on them; they couldn’t be used. So you had to change your money, like a tourist getting off the airplane in a foreign country. Long ago, people had figured out that the animals and grain required for offerings were hard to bring from home; it was easier to buy them there, so there are people selling doves and calves and lambs. The whole thing sounds like a big state fair, so I’m sure of one thing that isn’t actually mentioned: someone was selling fried dough.
The temple depended on the income from all these sellers and buyers; it had an interest in the marketplace. Churches are the same way: we are linked to our economy. Years ago when I lived in a tourist town, my kids would complain about the tourists; we called them fudgies because, in northern Michigan, the big tourist thing is fudge and visitors notoriously get it on their fingers and smear it on other things. One day one of the kids was wishing the fudgies would go away and never come back. So I said, look, the fudgies come here and spend money in the stores people in the church own, then those people give some of that money to the church, and the church gives some of that money to me, and I use that money to pay your allowance. There was a thoughtful silence and then a small comment: “Well, I wish they would go away and just leave their money.”
Jesus comes to the temple with all its fudgies and the religious bureaucrats and buyers and sellers and what he sees is this: the place that was meant to be the location where people felt the presence of God had become just another marketplace. All that marketplace, all those tables, all that buying and selling was in the way, it was preventing people from finding God. So he does what makes sense: like God releasing the flood to cleanse the earth, he makes a whip and starts overturning the tables. He drives out some sellers; he interrupts some buyers. He overturns tables, he pours out coins, which, while the story doesn’t tell us, I’m sure someone was eagerly picking up. He seems to be breaking the rules. He is obeying the greatest rule of all: putting God first.
What are the rules? If you think about it, from our earliest days, someone teaches us the rules. Don’t hit your brother; don’t hit girls. Come home when the street lights come on. Forks go on the left, knives and spoons go on the right; make your bed before you go to school. Clean up after yourself. I don’t remember learning those rules but I knew them before I knew anything. They are how our family got along. Later, I learned other rules: pick up your socks, put the toilet seat down, the answer to do these pants make me look fat is always no. Those make marriage life easier. Then there are rules no one tells us but we somehow learn. Looking around, I see that you are all in your assigned seats. No one said: Joan., you sit here, Eva, you are on this side, but Sunday after Sunday there you are in the same place. Every community has rules, some written, some invisible, some obvious.
So it makes sense that when God went to make a community, one of the first jobs is to write the rules. Two weeks ago, we heard how God made a covenant with all creation, never again to flood it and start over. Last week, we heard God make a covenant with the family of Abraham and Sarah, to give them a future, to permanently watch over their descendants.
Now it’s centuries later. That family has had its ups and downs. Some time ago they went to Egypt and were enslaved. God stirred them up and saved them out of slavery, and set them on a journey into the wilderness. Now they are camped together at the base of a mountain, waiting to hear what comes next. While they wait, Moses goes up the mountain to talk to God and God tells Moses the rules of community life.
You know these, I’m sure. The first few are about putting God at the center of life: no other Gods, no images of God to limit our understanding of God. Keep a sabbath: remember God every week. The rest of the rules have to do with living with other people. Take care of your parents; they’re part of the family. Don’t murder anyone, don’t violate covenants, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff.
It’s easy to float on the surface of these rules but if we peer into them there is something amazing at work here. Just as God made a permanent place with the rainbow covenant, just as God made a permanent people with the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, with this covenant, God is creating s community. this is how it’s possible for us to live together. In each covenant, God’s work as creator is evident.
The Rainbow Covenant is how God re-created the world. The Abraham covenant is how God created a connection to our history. This covenant, these commandments, are explicitly linked to God’s creative presence. Why keep Sabbath? Because that’s what God did.”For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.” When we keep Sabbath, we are living as the image of God, just as God meant from the beginning. When Jesus breaks the rules, when Jesus scatters the markets, he’s calling people back to the covenant connection the rules were supposed to make.
These covenants we’ve been hearing about, taken together, are a path and the path leads to the presence of God. It doesn’t stop with Noah, it doesn’t stop with Abraham, it doesn’t stop with Moses, it continues on and on.
Now I want to invite you to a covenant. Hundreds of years ago, our fathers and mothers in the faith looked up from church life that had become so cluttered by politics and ritual that God could hardly be seen. Like Jesus clearing the temple, they embraced a new and clearer vision. For them, churches were established by the government. They imagined a church as a group of believers, bound together in a covenant, just as God created a community through covenant. That’s what Congregationalism meant, it’s still what it means: the vision that we can covenant together to form a church, a congregation, free of any other authority. No bishop, no government, no denominational executive has any authority in a Congregational Church. We are free to come to God directly.
This church has a covenant and its members jointly share its responsibilities and joys. I know that many here have been coming to church and sharing together and all are welcome. But today I want to ask you to consider becoming a covenant member of the church, to take the step of saying, “Yes, I will be responsible for sharing the covenant of this congregation.”
This past week I attended an interfaith prayer breakfast. Afterward, we were invited to a reception at the Governor’s Mansion and Governor Cuomo spoke to all of us. There in that house where so many powerful people have lived, this powerful man spoke about his weakness. The governor of New York asked us, as clergy, as leaders in congregations, to speak up for the rules of the community, the vision of a community that cares for all. He said what we all know: that faith in our political leaders is at an all-time low. And he said that more than ever, the community needed us, all of us, who speak for the conscience of the community.
When we covenant together, we speak that conscience. When we covenant together, we walk the path of the covenant, the rainbow path. That path leads to one place, to the place where our lives are the image of God. “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” the psalmist says. Our covenant is a way of singing with them. Shouldn’t our voice join that chorus? Shouldn’t our lives sing that song? Shouldn’t our conscience, shared in covenant, speak the hope of God’s presence, speak the reality of God’s grace, until the whole world sings together?