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May 12th 2019
United Church of Jaffrey
From first light, Sunday is a day of ritual for me.
Cary stirs with my alarm, but quickly settles back into sleep. I dress quietly so as not to disturb my slumbering family, but by the time I get to the bottom of the stairs, the dog is up, yawning and doing half-hearted yoga poses. She is ready to accompany me in my first errand of the day.
Every Sunday it’s the same with the dog.
Before anything else, I head out to free the chickens from their night in the coop. As soon as they hear the back door open, they grow impatient, punctuating the stillness with their fretful clucking. I fill the feeder with grain and the drinker with water and then let them out. I cannot get the door fully open before they come barreling down the gangplank.
Every Sunday it’s the same with the chickens.
After all this, it’s time to shower. This is only partially about getting clean. It is also, of course, to fully commit to being awake. Most importantly though, the shower is a time to re-assess my sermon. I have been living with the ideas that orbit around that sermon for the last week, and actively writing for the last 24 hours. Usually, the writing is done by this point, and I am just going over it in my mind, wondering if there is any part of it that I may feel misgivings about.
After I dress, and give my shoes a quick polish, I am likely to make some changes on my sermon.
Each Sunday it’s the same with the sermon.
I suppose someone else might find all this routine a little boring, but I don’t.
I enjoy my quiet mornings.
I take a certain pleasure in these rituals of preparation.
There is something to it.
In this morning’s scripture lesson reading from the gospel of John, we find Jesus in a very specific setting.
When the events of this story occur, the gospel tells us, Jesus is walking, quote, “in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.”
That is a very specific location.
We are able to zoom in to the few feet where Jesus is walking – not just in the temple of Jerusalem, but in a specific portico – or porch of the temple that is named after King Solomon.
But the text is not only specific where he is – it also spells out when he is there. We are told that he has come to celebrate the “festival of dedication.”
The word for dedication in Hebrew is Hanuk. So this festival of dedication” is Hanukah – the Jewish festival of lights that continues to be celebrated to this day.
Thje story of Hanukkah itself has its basis in historical fact. There was a period – about 150 years before Christ – when the Israel was ruled by the Seleucids — tyrants that took over after the death of Alexander the Great. During this time, the Jerusalem temple was taken over and dedicated to the worship of Greek god’s. The story is quite complicated, but the quick version is that there was a revolt, and in the wake of this, the temple was re-dedicated to the worship of God.
Hanukkah celebrates this re-dedication.
So this is when Jesus walked in the Portico of Solomon – on a day that celebrates a renewal of Jewish identity.
After I am dressed and have put the final bits of polish on my shoes and on my sermon, I head out.
This is when I encounter my first moral dilemma of the day.
I like to stop at the Cumberland Farms for a cup of coffee, and… the great guilty pleasure of my week: an apple fritter.
I tell myself all kinds of lies – that I haven’t had a sweet like that all week, or that this will be my only sweet of the day…
I close my eyes and buy my coffee and apple fritter.
Each Sunday it’s the same with the apple fritter.
I suppose someone else might find all this routine a little boring, but I don’t.
I take a certain pleasure in these rituals of movement.
I like driving in the early morning – especially on Sundays when no one else is around. I like having the world to myself, cruising up through the countryside, enjoying the way the season – whatever season it might be – playfully reveals itself in the limbs of the trees, or in the brief moments when the vista opens out, and I get glimpses of the far distance.
But my pleasure has within it something else too.
My drive is not only a ritual of movement – it also has a kind of anticipation in it.
When Jesus is walking in Solomon’s Portico, he is accosted by a group of people. Listen to how the text tells it:
“So the Jews gathered around him, and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus is in the Jerusalem temple in the middle of a huge religious festival that celebrates Jewish identity.
Of course he’s going to be surrounded by Jews.
It’s a bit like saying, “So the water gathered around the fish.”
I remember my New Testament professor at Yale mentioning this. John’s gospel often refers to “Jews” in places where the other gospels would not bother to make that distinction.
Scholars identify this oddity as a clue that John’s gospel was the last of the gospels to be written.
It shows that by the time John was written, there were enough people who believed in Jesus, that it had become important for him to distinguish between them and Jews.
And consider for a moment, the question that the Jews ask –
“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
These people are not happy with Jesus.
They have come to the temple at the center of their faith, to celebrate a festival that asserts the centrality of their God, and their identity as Jewish people…
And in the midst of this there appears Jesus – a man who people have been calling the messiah.
The fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.
This could either be a cause of great joy, or of utter outrage.
We are accustomed to Jesus bringing joy…
But in this story, he seems to bring outrage.
In the community described in this story, Jesus is a disruptive force.
I Hear You
When my drive is over, and I arrive at church, the part of my ritual that I share with you begins.
Depending on when I get here, I may be alone in the church for a few minutes, or Carol may be here already, putting up the hymn numbers.
I print out the readings and my sermon and put them in their places, and if I have something to run through with the choir, we do that.
Before the service starts, I spend some time talking with folks in the pews.
It feels good.
This is what I have been looking forward to.
A sweet hour together, with a beloved group of friends, gathered together in a ritual act of community.
Here Jesus meets us.
We hear him.
And we listen carefully.
But it’s a little odd, this morning.
It’s a little disorienting to think of Jesus as a disruptive force.
If we listen to Jesus when he speaks of love, and justice…
Can we also hear him when he speaks with a disruptive voice?
Can we hear him when he challenges the rituals that we love?
When he challenges the festivals that form our identity?
Perhaps it is just when we are most comfortable in our rituals, that we need to be aware of the possibility that, after all, things change.
That was the situation for the Jews in today’s story. They knew what it meant to be Jewish – they had a temple to prop up their ways of worship, and into the center of this, comes one who threatens to change everything.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with our community of faith…
Nor do I suggest, this morning, that there is anything wrong about the way Jews worship God.
But if we insist that God is still speaking, then today’s story introduces the idea that God’s voice may disrupt.
If our rituals become too comforting we may lose sight of God’s call to act for justice.
Today it is the church, not the synagogue, that can, too easily become the bastion of complacency.
We may need to be shaken up a bit!
Church cannot be entirely about habits of comfort – because that, certainly, was not Christ’s experience.
Remember him alone in the garden, or in the throes of desperate agony of the cross.
He taught us to love, but he also called us to sacrifice.
If Christ disrupts us… will we hear him?
What does he say to us today?
What does he say to us about the climate crisis? About mass shootings? About a government that makes a policy of separating children from their parents?
Jesus would not shrug his shoulders about such things. Nowhere in the bible does it say “Jesus shrugged.”
When he challenges us,
Will we be able to turn to him and say
I hear you?