Sermon delivered by Heather Entrekin, pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, K.S., on Mar. 15 2009.
John 2: 13-22
You don’t often see Jesus throwing furniture, tipping over tables. The Prince of Peace is usually calmer than that, more patient and gentle. Something very important and serious must be going on.
The Gospel of John does not give us many clues. When the other gospels (Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48) tell the story, Jesus has an extra line. He calls the temple a den of robbers.
But John’s lack of details may be helpful in opening the story for a larger understanding. Dove sellers and money changers have little meaning for us but through them Jesus is getting at something prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah have been addressing for ages – injustice and arrogance and oppression that were true then and are true now. The prophets got pretty steamed when they saw corrupt elite ones of the religious establishment dishonoring God in the name of God.
We are not talking about cake auctions, rummage sales or Girl Scout cookies here. We are talking about a deep, institutional brokenness. Jesus has no patience for those who take advantage of the poor for their own benefit and strut around the sanctuary looking pious and holy. Religious people who are living as if they do not know the greatest commandment – to love God with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength and their neighbor as themselves. We are talking about empty ritual instead of true devotion, giving up chocolate for Lent and thinking you’ve satisfied God instead of offering a true sacrifice – breaking chains of injustice, forgiving debts, feeding the hungry, caring for your own family.
How easily the temple, the church, a person can be pulled away from our center, be pushed or pulled by the terrors or the temptations of the world. It happened then. It happens now.
This is deep and serious human brokenness. Jesus confronts powers and authorities over injustice 37 times in the gospels. And this particular story, in the temple, ought to make a preacher and a congregation uneasy because he is not turning over tables of some distant official or nation, he is right here at home, getting kind of personal.
No matter where the brokenness lies – church, world, human heart – it is all connected.
I was reminded of how personal brokenness can be last week when someone shared a harsh difficulty, disappointment with a family member. How many such stories members of our church have shared over the years, stories that we would prefer others not know, that bring us shame or pain or guilt or anger. There are so many ways to be broken. There are so many ways to live outside of the will and the purpose of God.
When Jesus sees it in the temple, he confronts it dramatically. There are many other occasions when Jesus faces the pain and disappointment of human life and heals, teaches, helps with a gentle word or touch. But one thing is the same. Jesus faces the brokenness.
Henri Nouwen, in his Life of the Beloved, says this is the first thing – do not avoid or deny the brokenness. Actually, he uses the word, “befriend.”
This is not our first impulse when something hurts, is it? To face it squarely and befriend it. Who wants or welcomes suffering? We’d prefer a big pill to make it go away, especially the pain of a broken heart. But you cannot escape the brokenness of life. The leaders and prophets of Israel, who were clearly chosen and blessed, all lived very broken lives. As did Henri Nouwen. It is one thing to talk about how God’s good and beautiful blessings lead us to life in God. But it is very hard to say that suffering takes us there. But suffering takes us there.
Nouwen knew about this first hand. He struggled with deep, severe depression. He wrote letters (now in book form) to a good friend, a journalist, successful by most measures, who struggled with discontent with his job, not enough money, general confusion about the direction of his life. On top of that, he was in despair over a divorce. Nouwen happened to be in New York City where he lived and dropped in on his friend but he had no words to help. He couldn’t say life would get better or things weren’t as bad as they seemed or he knew how he felt. All of it would have been useless. All he could do was stay with him and somehow encourage him not to run away from his pain and to trust that he could stand it and even grow strong through it.
The Gospel of John puts the story up front, unlike the other gospels that put the story at the end. Coming first, it establishes Jesus as a prophet, who, for the rest of his life, will be a teller of truth, like Isaiah and Jeremiah who confronted the brokenness of the world and calling it to turn toward healing, peace, justice – God.
First, face the brokenness because only then can you put it under the blessing, in Nouwen’s words. That means to let the brokenness become a source of God’s blessing. Easier said than done of course, always.
Twelve-step programs for addicts do this. All addictions, to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, sports, work, make us slaves to a master that is not God. But when twelve-steppers openly confess their dependencies and trust that God can truly set them free, God truly sets them free. The source of suffering becomes the source of hope (Life of the Beloved, 80).
In God’s hands, brokenness becomes blessing. Here’s a recent one for me. Early in my ministry at Prairie, I experienced a serious depression, the first time in my life. With help of a good therapist, I eventually got through it. It was only when I admitted how broken I was that healing could begin. And then, blessing. I shared some of the story later in a sermon and found that others then were free to share their stories with me.
Then, just last month, I told the story at a clergy colloquium. We don’t usually confess these things to our colleagues but after I did, something remarkable happened in our meetings. Everyone began to share with more honesty and compassion and vulnerability. A blessing of brokenness.
Befriending brokenness and putting it under the blessing of God do not necessarily take away the pain, but it lets the light in. Through the grace of God, human suffering becomes not an obstacle to the joy and peace we long for, but the means to it.
Leonard Bernstein wrote a musical in memory of John F. Kennedy called Mass. Near the end of the work the priest, richly dressed in liturgical vestments is lifted up by his people. He’s held high above the adoring crowd carrying in his hands a glass chalice. Suddenly, the human pyramid collapses and the priest falls down, vestments are ripped off and the glass chalice falls to the ground and shatters. As he walks slowly through the debris of his former glory – barefoot, wearing only blue jeans and a T shirt, children’s voices sing “Laude, laude, laude” – “Praise, praise, praise.” And suddenly the priest notices the broken chalice. He looks at it for a long time and then says, “I never realized that broken glass could shine so brightly.”