St. Paul’s Congregational Church

March 7, 2021 – Lent 3B

Exodus 20: 1- 17, John 2: 13 – 22


We’re today half-way through the season of Lent – a time of repentance, penitence, penance – a time of preparation, of moving toward the cross. A journey of darkness. Lent has everything to do acknowledging whatever we are guilty of, seeking forgiveness for, but why just now? Why just during Lent? The relationship between our sin, our guilt, obtaining forgiveness, and receiving God’s grace is an ongoing event, isn’t it. Maybe the only answer is to say that Easter doesn’t make sense without Good Friday. We know that Easter is likely to draw more people to worship than any other Sunday – and Good Friday is likely to draw the least. Why? Because contrary to what sells newspapers and movies, we want to hear the Good News a whole lot more than we want to hear the Bad News.

The good news is that God raised Jesus from the dead. The bad news is that Jesus had to die. We can’t have one without the other – Lent is about the bad news. We have trouble with that, don’t we – it’s much too easy to slide over the bad news and go directly to the joy of Easter morning. It’s much too easy to pick and choose those aspects of our faith that don’t make us too uncomfortable, and soften our responsibility, our accountability, to the covenant.

A Christian Century article says, “American religion is being adapted to the currents of culture. A divine being is one who is there for our own gratification, like a house pet, rather than the One who demands obedience from us, is too powerful or mysterious for us to understand, or who challenges us to a life of service.”

Tough words, aren’t they. But our call to discipleship includes the bad news as well as the good news. Our call to discipleship demands obedience, a change in our lives, a centering, a priority, a move out of our comfort zones. An ownership of our call to discipleship that encompasses the whole of our lives – not just on Sunday mornings.

Allison Buttrick was born and brought up in New Hampshire, daughter of 2 UCC pastors, finished college, and was called to spend a year in the mission field – in Chile where she worked at the Pentecostal church as an interpreter and as a youth worker. When she returned home I had the opportunity to hear her speak: she talked about being immersed in a whole new culture – one in which religion, family life, and work life are totally wrapped together: no part of daily living is separate from their faith life. And she went on to reflect on a new understanding of the commandment to love our neighbor. She said, it’s not so easy when you’re away from the familiar, when you’re in another culture, where people’s lives are so different. Allison was stretched, brought face to face with the reality of that teaching to love her neighbors during her year in Chile, and it was lifechanging.

How many of us have been stretched like that? We don’t often have an opportunity to serve as missionaries in another part of the world, but we do have opportunities right here: soup kitchens, shelters, food banks, places foreign to many of us. I think of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, any number of Justice questions: availability of medical care, of the COVID vaccine, educational opportunities and resources in poor and underserved neighborhoods, white privilege – are we really aware, are we willing to let ourselves be stretched to become aware of cultures right around us so different from what we experience every day? Are we willing to face and share in the bad news and be energized and empowered to do our part in bringing in the beloved community?

Follow me. Discipleship. Accountability. Responsibility. We say we’re ready, willing, and able – are we? Close to home – we know St. Paul’s is a small and struggling church – there’s work to be done but often too few people to share it. It’s hard to carry on the mission of the church that has been here for years - maybe we’re being called to really look at our mission today and in the future. We’re called to discipleship, all of us, but the world is different these days – are we making choices based on our comfort zones, the way we’ve always done things? How do we define our mission these days? What’s most important? The journey to the cross is full of hard news – maybe during our Lenten journey we need to face this hard news for us. We know even Jesus himself prayed on the Mount of Olives, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” But he continued, “Yet, not my will but yours be done.”

And here’s the promise: God spoke these words: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol. The 10 Commandments: there’s nothing soft or watered down about these words, is there. Clear. Concise. Unequivocal. Religious duties. Moral duties. Relationship duties. Bedrock. We want our children to learn them, memorize them – we probably did ourselves at one time or another.

You shall have no other gods before me – I wonder, have we made our religion fit our lives? Or have we made our lives fit our religion? Without realizing it, what gods have we created? Money? Power? Our own interests? Pride? Things? What is it that comes before all else? What is it that’s most important? How many compartments have we built in our lives? Where do we find the sacred?

Lent is a time for these reflections.

Then also today, we have the story of the cleansing of the Temple in the gospel of John: imagine the chaos, the noise, it must have been close to a riot. What would Jesus find if he came to our church today?

Barbara Messner has written a poem, The Cleansing: listen to and ponder these words:

If he (Jesus) came to our churches on Sunday to be awkwardly greeted as stranger would he fashion a whip for our cleansing, would we cringe from his anger as danger?

Would he drive out conservative? liberal? or upend those who balance on fences? What offence might he take, at what practice? Would he shake up our pews or our senses?

Would he tear up my poems and sermons, say, “You fiddle while so much is burning!”? Would he throw out projectors or prayer books, call for change or a zealous returning?

No, I hope he would gather us round him, knowing how we are raw and confounded, how we’re shaken and cast down by failure, how we fear that our death knell is sounded.

He will say, “Little flock, don’t be fearful, for the kingdom will keep coming nearer, and your efforts and gifts won’t be wasted: what you lose is renewed and made clearer.

For the pattern of Easter is central: out of death comes abundance of living; that’s the secret of all new creating. Nothing’s lost from our loving and giving.

See my body in people not buildings! Know I’m with you in doubts and believing! Stir up zeal for compassion and justice! Learn to listen and wait for receiving!

So my brothers and sisters, keep hoping! Seek the way and the truth, open-hearted, and be ready for future unfolding! I am in you: we cannot be parted!”

We journey through Lent to hear the bad news before we can hear, really hear the good news. Let’s share this journey through the remaining Lenten season, to become vulnerable, to walk the journey of the cross, to allow ourselves to feel the pain, not as a victim, not to get stuck in it, but to move through it on our journey of discipleship. Let’s look at our commitments, at the gods in our lives, at the possibilities of newness and growth in our lives.

We gather today at the Table, not because we must but because we may. We know that Easter follows Good Friday. We come to the joyful feast of the people of the Risen Lord. Let us be nourished here today for the journey through this season of preparation, repentance, penitence, who when we hear the Good News yet again, we can be truly filled with the joy and peace which passes all understanding. Amen.

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We are a United Church of Christ located in Nutley, New Jersey. 

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10 St. Paul's Place
Nutley, NJ 07110


(973) 667-4812 

 

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