Prophets Are Always Most Popular When They’re Dead

The following sermon text is from a sermon I preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on March 7, 2021 on the Gospel passage in John 2:13-22.

Prophets are always at their most popular when they are dead. Their challenging messages that disrupt the status quo have a way of softening in their absence as the original audience for the prophet’s message fades away.

We could describe Martin Luther King Jr. as a prophet  who quoted scripture throughout his struggle in the American Civil Rights movement, advocating in part for voting rights, fair wages, just laws, and equality for all.

Ironically, politicians who have voted against what King stood for annually offer him social media tributes without fail on MLK Jr. Day. One former member of Congress with strong ties to white supremacy even had the gall to share one of the more inspirational King quotes that conveniently avoided any discussion of racial justice.

The Washington Post quoted King’s daughter Bernice on a recent MLK Jr. Day, “There will be an overflow of King quotes today… We can’t, with truth and consciousness, quote my father, while dehumanizing each other & sanctioning hate.”

We may also remember that Pope Francis spoke to Congress in 2015 and honored King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Abraham Lincoln as  “four representatives of the American people,” using their dreams of justice, equal rights, liberty and peace to make America a better place.

Yet, during their lifetimes, Merton and Day were often criticized, ostracized, silenced, and slandered for calling into question the buildup of nuclear weapons during the cold war. Merton and Day exchanged letters over their frustrations as exiles among the mainstream of Catholicism that approved of war.

Merton wrote to Day with his customary sarcasm,

“My peace writings have reached an abrupt halt. Told not to do any more on that subject. Dangerous, subversive, perilous, offensive to pious ears, and confusing to good Catholics who are all at peace in the nice idea that we ought to wipe Russia off the face of the earth. Why get people all stirred up?”

The Hidden Ground of Love, Page: 74

Merton later griped in his journal about not being able to write about nuclear war:

“I am still not permitted to say what Pope John said… [The] Reason: “That is not the job of a monk, it is for the Bishops.” [But] Certainly it has a basis in monastic tradition. [Quote] “The job of the monk is to weep, not to teach.” But with our cheese business and all the other “weeping” functions we have undertaken, it seems strange that a monk should be forbidden to stand up for the truth, particularly when the truth (in this case) is disastrously neglected.

Intimate Merton, Page: 215

It’s easy to honor a prophet when you’re not the immediate target of the prophet’s message.

At the time of Jesus he noted that his people wept at the tombs of the prophets whom their ancestors had killed. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn what happened to John the Baptist and Jesus when they took up the prophetic mantles of the likes of Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

Our challenge today is to encounter the message of the prophets and to do our best to imagine ourselves in the same shoes as the prophet’s audience. We need to see how these messages, cutting through the pretenses in their original audience, can convict us as well. It’s not an easy or desirable position to be in!

If we can place ourselves alongside the original audience of the prophets, we may find that the prophets have messages for us about how to draw near to God and how to treat our neighbors with love, kindness and justice.

Today’s Gospel reading clearly presents Jesus as a prophet within the Jewish tradition. In order to better understand today’s reading, let’s begin with a brief look at what a prophet was and how a prophet functioned.

A prophet in the Judeo/Christian sense may be described as a person who conveys a message from God. Abraham J. Heschel writes about the canonical Hebrew prophets like this, “A prophet is… endowed with a mission, with the power of a word not his own that accounts for his greatness—but also with temperament, concern, character, and individuality… The word of God reverberated in the voice of a man.”

We should not view prophets as men and women who merely reveal the future. Prophets reveal God’s perspective. Some call prophets ambassadors for God, and so their revelation may be a message about what is coming in the future, but even that message about the future tends to be more wrapped up in God’s assessment of the present moment.

Jesus frequently imitated the prophetic ministry of Isaiah, Elisha, and Jeremiah with his miracles, messages, and actions. For his original audience that was steeped in these stories and traditions, the prophetic role of Jesus was beyond dispute. Taking a whip into the temple like he did in today’s story is exactly the kind of action we would expect from a prophet.

Jesus’ words in John and the other Gospels were drawn directly from the prophet Jeremiah, even as he hinted at the destruction of the temple:

We read in Jeremiah 7:11-14 NRSV

11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord. 12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel…  I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh. ”

In other words, a foreign invader will destroy the Jerusalem temple in the southern kingdom of Judah just like what happened to the holy place of Shiloh in the northern kingdom of Israel.

Much like the prophets before him, the words of Jesus are a little easier for us to read today since we aren’t the primary targets of his message. And since we lack any kind of modern equivalent for the Jewish temple, we’ll have to work especially hard to grasp the significance of what Jesus did and what he said.

Setting the Scene for the Cleansing of the Temple

The temple was the religious focal point for the Jewish people. At least three times each year, the Jewish people traveled en masse to the temple for major feasts and holy days. The Passover was among the most important, and we should imagine Jewish pilgrims arriving from not only throughout Palestine but from around the world. There are travelers of Jewish descent and also Greeks who have adopted the Jewish religion as the two cultures interacted together.

There is hardly a united front of Jewish leaders at this time. There are factions and divisions along religious and political lines at the very least. Caiaphas the high priest and the religious leaders in the Sanhedrin have arguments and feuds, and among them is the location where sacrificial animals for the temple and money changers for the temple tax will be located. Historically, these merchants and money changers were located outside the temple grounds in the nearby Kidron Valley, but allegedly, a Jewish Midrash reports that a feud among Caiaphas and other religious leaders in 30 AD resulted in select merchants and money changers receiving a prime position within the temple.

We may imagine that this was likely not popular with the Jews of Greek descent who now had to pray while mingling with nearby animals and merchants. In addition, the entire atmosphere of the temple would have been altered significantly. Perhaps the typical pilgrim was annoyed but also resigned to accept whatever the most powerful religious leaders demanded.

We shouldn’t be surprised to know that Jesus soon earned himself a number of powerful enemies when he drove out the animals and money changers. He likely expressed the opinions of many Greek Jews and of many pilgrims who were likely shocked by this change at the temple grounds.

Nevertheless, Jesus still appeared to be attacking the most important religious institution of his people. First, he attacked the money changers and drove the animals out of the temple who made its functions run smoothly. Even if they had to relocate, there was surely a disruption to the day’s religious practices.

Second, Jesus predicted that the temple would be destroyed. We simply don’t have a comparable institution to the temple that embodied religious and national identity like the Jewish temple. To predict its destruction, even in a prophetic tradition, touched a nerve among the Jewish people. In fact, the paranoia of the Romans coming to destroy the temple was a part of what drove the conspiracy to kill Jesus.

What Does This Prophetic Act Mean for Us Today?

We could spend a lot of time asking what this passage means for us today and focusing on what Jesus may drive out of our own churches and sanctuaries. Are we abusing or misusing our sacred spaces? Are we too focused on our own self-preservation and not on the ministry of prayer and worship?

That isn’t a wrong line of application here, but it’s certainly the low hanging fruit. This is the easy application that frankly doesn’t ask too much of us. Perhaps we’ll uncover some issues that we need to address, but there’s something deeper and far more challenging in this story that we can experience and apply if we’re willing to follow Jesus into the fog of his mystical ministry.

At the climax of this story, Jesus made a shocking, confounding, and ultimately tragic statement about destroying the temple and then “raising it up” in three days. He used a verb, raising up, that applies to both construction and resurrection. John directs our understanding of this statement, saying it refers to Jesus’ death and Resurrection. While commentators have speculated about the many different meanings and possibilities here, I think we can find a lot to ponder if we take John at his word.

What if Jesus wasn’t just challenging the corruption of the temple? What if he was challenging the very centrality of the temple for his people?

His authority to cleanse the temple comes from his place as the new meeting ground between God and humanity. He will unite God with humanity through his death and Resurrection, and that connection to the Father made him the definitive voice on worshipping God.

Now, it’s not a shock to think that Jesus was more or less reimagining the role of the temple around his own body and the significance of the Resurrection. Consider in John 4 that Jesus explicitly predicts the replacement of the temple as the center of worship.

In John 4 Jesus spoke to the woman at the well.

21 “Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 

If we take the whole of John’s Gospel about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the significance of Jesus himself becoming a new “temple” or center of worship after his resurrection, then this passage challenges us to go beyond the simple interpretation that only looks at our own buildings and traditions for a point of application.

This is a passage that draws us into the mystical ministry of Jesus where we are united with Jesus through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Yes, we benefit from having a sacred space for worship together, but Jesus doesn’t want us to get lost in the details of where we worship. Our sacred space for worship is within our own bodies since God is present with us. The Spirit is resting within each of us, and so the dwelling of God is with humanity.

Worship is now in Spirit and in Truth, not within stones and wood. Jesus prophetically told his listeners that the temple is irrelevant in comparison to the new Resurrection life he will bring to the world. When the Holy Spirit of God comes, the pilgrimage is now complete. God has made the pilgrimage to each of us, and so the “where” of worship is no longer a central issue.

We could spend our time fighting over the details of sacred space, and we may need to make changes in order to ensure our sacred spaces are houses of prayer that allow people to focus on God the Father. Yet, we’ll miss the bigger part of Jesus’ mission if we only look at buildings.

We need to look into the fog of his shocking message. We need to step into the void where our knowledge and concrete experiences fail us.

And perhaps entering into this mystery will help us ask new questions about what prevents us from praying, what interferes with our awareness of the Holy Spirit? What fills our minds or undermines our ability to be present for a God who is dwelling within us even right now?

Do we need to drive something out of our lives? Do we need to flip some things over? Do we need to let the hard message of Jesus today shock us into a new awareness of God among us?

I won’t say that our sacred spaces aren’t important. Yet, for the audience of Jesus, their resistance to his message was rooted in part in their attachment to the familiar stones and sacrifices they had used for years. They couldn’t enter into the mystical unknown of a God who didn’t actually require temples or sacrifices or temple taxes. When offered freedom to worship God in whatever space they came from, far too many of them retreated to the system that, although corrupt and broken in many ways, felt familiar and safe.

Jesus is offering an invitation to join him in the mystical fog, to trust that the Holy Spirit has been given to all who trust him, believe in him, and follow him. That Spirit is present for you as you pray, as you worship, and as you study. We surely see many benefits from gathering together to pray in sacred spaces together, but we’ll miss out on the great liberation and freedom of Jesus if we reject his prophetic invitation to follow the wild winds of his indwelling Spirit into the places of worship that are as close to us as they are unfamiliar.

Amen.

I Resisted Winter and Missed the Renewal of Spring

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The kale we planted in the garden last spring grew into thick stalks all summer and kept our table supplied with greens. By fall the kale stalks were curling and falling all over themselves. Their leaves, which had been full, crisp, and green throughout summer started wilting, turned shades of brown and yellow, and finally succumbed to the constant attacks of tiny pests. By the time the cold winds of November swept the final leaves off the trees, our kale plants were little more than battered stalks with tiny bits of green poking out here and there. Yes, they were just barely alive, but they were far from healthy.

I don’t know why I waited so long to pull out the old kale. Maybe I was hoping that it would survive the winter and sprout new life in the Spring. I left it hanging limp and lifeless all winter. By the time the snow melted, the kale had all but rotted away.

As soon as the weather grew warm, I finally gave in and yanked the old kale stalks out of the garden. I poured new compost into the beds and raked it smooth. A few weeks later I scattered a new crop of kale and lettuce seeds into the orderly garden beds.

The new kale is going to take some time before it’s ready to eat, but I couldn’t hold onto last year’s planting. It had to go in order to make room for what’s next.

How long have I tried clinging to last year’s planting and held up the new things that must take their place?

I have been longing for the new thing, but have continued to cling to what is old.

I have become withered and overgrown, bitter and stagnant, but then I wonder why the new life hasn’t taken root and grown yet.

This week I had a chance to finally pull some old roots up as I make space for a new venture. The “Revert to Author” notice arrived for my first book that I wrote about theology. At the time I was one of many writers trying to sort out Christian theology and whether my faith could survive without the promise of certainty. Some are still wrestling with that question, some have moved on with their faith, and some needed to leave their faith behind. I have moved on with my faith, realizing that I didn’t need an airtight theology in order to have a relationship with a God whose top concern is love.

As I set aside my identity as a writer about theology and culture, I felt both a relief and a fear of what’s next. The fear of “what’s next” is why we often cling to what’s old and dying. We can’t imagine that something better is possible.

I made the mistake of thinking: Better to stick with the broken thing we understand than the new blessing we can’t fathom.

The same day that I signed my agreement to revert the rights of my theology book back to myself, I also continued to work on plans to launch a new website: www.thecontemplativewriter.com. This is a project that has been in the works for a long time, but I just didn’t see how to move forward with it. I kept plodding along with what I knew about theology, uncertain about what would grow if I pulled everything up and started all over.

I finally started planting new things a few years ago when I took a break from blogging about theology and then released Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together. Since then, each step toward prayer and writing, or writing about prayer, has been affirming and life-giving.

It was a long winter, but I now see that I needed the winter. I needed a winter to kill what was no longer productive or life-giving. I needed winter to force me to uproot the past and to make room for what’s next.

Shifting to writing about prayer feels like the beginning of Spring. There is new life to this direction, and I’m finally realizing how I’ve held myself back by failing to uproot what I planted last season.

How many of us go into winter kicking and screaming, lamenting the loss of summer’s warmth and the brilliant colors of the fall because we lack hope for the future?

Perhaps fighting winter is a good sign at times. Perhaps we rightly see the good that we’ve had. I’m grateful for all that I’ve accomplished and learned from that last season. In fact, the things I’m planting today are benefitting from what I planted before.

For this new season, I need to keep writing on this website with longer form posts about prayer, writing, and Christianity, but I’m also making a new space for brief, daily posts about contemplative prayer. The site officially launches April 2nd and begins with regular daily posts (not Sundays) on Monday, April 4th.

My new site, The Contemplative Writer, will offer daily posts that provide guidance for daily prayer, Christian spiritual practices, and sources for meditation and contemplation. You can sign up to receive posts via email, the weekly email with highlights and a custom Examen, or follow through the RSS feed. In the coming month I hope to add more spiritual direction topics and a podcast version of the newsletter.

This website is what I’ve needed in my own life. It’s my hope that my own imperfect journey toward prayer and the wisdom of others will prove beneficial for you as well.

Visit The Contemplative Writer today.

 

I Was Saved But I Lost My Soul

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Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mark 8:36 (NIV)

I’ve always thought of this passage as Jesus speaking of what saves our souls in the next world. In other words, become my disciple by converting, and you will save your soul with eternal life.

Having taken a trip down “Romans Road” and praying the Sinner’s Prayer, I thought I had my soul covered. Perhaps not.

I’m not going to say that “eternal security” is the wrong way to read this passage, but I think I’ve been missing the fuller meaning of Jesus’ teaching. There are depths here that I have yet to explore.

The contrast in this conversation is between a disciple and someone who gains the whole world instead. One has chosen to follow Jesus with the promise of a cross to bear and the safety of his/her soul, while the other gains notoriety, respect, and comfort while losing his/her soul.

My soul isn’t just the part of me that goes to heaven when I die. It’s also a place where I commune with God today. Those who follow Jesus keep in touch, so to speak, with their souls, while those who gain the whole world will lose touch with their souls.

Think of John Wesley’s question: “How is it with your soul?”

Those who have learned to abide in Jesus can answer that question.

Those who do not may well respond with a list of their accomplishments.

Although I have very much considered myself a follow of Jesus for most of my life, I have lost touch with my soul over the years. I’ve pursued financial stability, a career that makes sense based on my talents, and some measure of popularity and acclaim as a writer. Each time I’ve let go of a particular desire or goal, I’ve found that a barrier has been removed between myself and God.

I’ve freed myself to find God a little bit more each time as I’ve let go of my false self and my misplaced priorities.

Jesus is speaking in extremes when he mentions gaining the whole world vs. saving your soul. This isn’t an all or nothing proposition.

I have given up my soul in pursuit of a tiny little piece of the world, nothing close to “gaining the whole world.”

It doesn’t matter if I can point to someone who has sacrificed more of herself or gained more of the world. We can lose ourselves and our connections with God over the smallest distractions and shifts in direction.

I have no interest in saying who is in and who is out when it comes to saving souls for the next life. Jesus warned us specifically against playing the role of judge in such matters. I do know, however, that I have considered my soul safe and sound when, in actuality, I had no clue where it was or how to find it.

My soul had no anchor in the presence of God. I was blown about by my anxieties, the wisdom of others, and my shifting, endless, fruitless goals.

My primary job is to seek the presence of God, making my soul a place for the Spirit of God to rest. Anything else that follows isn’t for me to determine.

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the spiritual life as a matter of abiding, becoming like a vine that connects to a branch. When I lost my soul to the pursuit of my own desires, I had cut myself off from the branch, hoping to be spiritually fruitful without the “work” of simply abiding.

It’s so hard to fathom how abiding is both work and not work. The work of abiding is the stillness, the surrender, and the desperation that comes from opening ourselves up to God and trusting God to provide everything that follows.

The work of abiding opens our lives up to God so that God can point at our souls and say, “There you are. See how you are loved and how my peace rests on you? Here is who you really have been all of this time and how I will always see you.”

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer
and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

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Rohr for Writers: Writers Are Driven from Within

Rohr forWriters

“The good news of incarnational religion, a Spirit-based mortality, is that you are not motivated by outside reward or punishment but actually by looking out from inside the Mystery yourself. So carrots are neither needed nor helpful. ‘It is God, who for his own loving purpose, puts both the will and the action into you’ (Philippians 2:13). It is not our rule-following behavior but our actual identity that needs to be radically changed… You do things because they are true, not because you have to or you are afraid of punishment.”
– Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pp. 85-86

It’s common for writers to talk about “finding” something to write about or “looking” for writing topics. We get the sense at times that we are chasing ideas that are hiding somewhere, and at times we can begin to despair that we’ll ever track them down.

Just as Richard Rohr suggests that our spirituality should originate within ourselves as we rest in God’s indwelling Spirit, I believe that writing can spring up in a similar way. As we ground ourselves in the present love of Christ and tune into what he’s saying to us, we’ll find wisdom and direction for our lives and even for our writing.

This changes us from religious people who strive and think our way to God and turns us into spiritual people who rest in God and allow God to guide us. You could say we’re cutting to the chase here, and that really is the beauty of the Gospel message after all. What we strive to accomplish on our own has already been done in us. We just need to receive it and live in it.

However, if anything takes work in the spiritual life, it’s clearing out space in our schedules and in our minds for this spiritual reality to take hold. The indwelling Spirit is all over the New Testament scriptures, and yet, how often have I tried to move forward with God’s work in my own strength and wisdom?

Perhaps you’re weary, uninspired, or just plain fearful about the direction of your life or your writing work in particular.

The Good News for you is that God is already in this with you. The Spirit is present. Your work is to rest in the Spirit of God, to trust that the words of Christ are true for YOU. There aren’t any footnotes in the words of Jesus with special clauses that rule you out.

If you can find peace in the presence of the Spirit here and now, you’ll be able to write from a healthier place of security and direction. You’ll know that first and foremost, God is in and with you, and you’ll find greater creative freedom to explore the directions that God places on your heart.

Criticism won’t sting in the same way if you’re writing out of God’s leading. Approval won’t carry the same weight. Anxiety and fear will gradually lose their power.

You’ll have freedom to seek the truth, and when you find it, you’ll have the freedom and peace you need to write about it. And when you are finished writing, you will have the comfort of knowing that writing is only a small part of the awesome mystery of God dwelling among us.

Read more about prayer and writing in my book:

Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together