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Living (and Loving) in the Material World: Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 3, 2024



-- The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire


Readings:



I came of age in the 80s, and two of the biggest musical acts of that time, although completely different, were Madonna and the Police. At that stage in her career, Madonna’s music was a collection of fluffy, flirty bon bons, for the most part. And one of her hits during that time was the song “Material Girl.” In that song, she trilled out this line: “We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.” She then makes clear that she then expected her relationships to bring her pampering and lavish gifts. No self- reflection, no attempt to be anything but superficial or look out for anyone but herself. Her video, however, then mocked the lyrics, and had her rejecting all the wealthy playboys that had vied for her attention to leave the soundstage with a guy in shabby clothes and a broken-down old car.

 

Just a few years earlier, the Police had offered a different take. Their album Ghosts in the Machine, was itself based upon the work of Hungarian philosopher Arthur Koestler. The song “Spirits in the Material World” decries shortsightedness and the attempts by “so-called leaders” to blind us to the deeper meanings of life by dangling pretty baubles before us. Instead, lead singer Sting insisted, we are called to look beyond the moment to attempt to see beyond ourselves, to embrace the essential unity of our existence. “We are spirits in the material world” he repeated to a reggae beat.[1]

 

Our readings today encourage us to rethink the alleged divide between the spiritual and the material, and to realize that there is a balance, rather than a conflict, between the spiritual and the material.

 

First, we are called to consider God’s commandments, and I would like to approach this in reverse chronological order. Thousands of years after the commandments were handed down while the Israelites wandered in the desert, Jesus is asked to choose which of the ten are most important. It’s a trap, and he knows it, being asked by the representative of the Pharisees, who use religion to divide themselves from those they consider less “pure.”

 

So, when, in Matthew 22, Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, his answer unites the experience of the spirit with the embodied existence. “"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ' This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We’ve all heard this verse, probably at least dozens of times in our lives. But what we forget is the way God’s commandments to us as God’s children address both the spiritual and well as the embodied realities that together define our human, embodied existence.

 

Jesus here forcefully summarizes the Ten Commandments which we heard in our first reading. Examining those ten commands carefully, we can see that the first four commandments emphasized the love of God, whom we encounter in spirit, before Jesus’s Incarnation. The last six deal with loving our neighbors as ourselves—and as Jesus’s entire earthly ministry makes clear, that love is expressed through acts of will and compassion in our everyday lives. This love is expressed in physical actions and attitudes. Jesus himself embodied this love as he taught, healed, reconciled—as he physically embodied what a holy, God-honoring existence looked like so that we too could follow in his path.

 

In our gospel reading, we see the famous scene of Jesus’s “cleansing of the temple.” In John’s gospel, this incident occurs early in his ministry rather than at the end as in the other gospels.

 

And we often focus on this audacious act rather than pondering what it represents. First off, we get fascinated by one of the few places in scripture where Jesus appears truly angry, even violent. But although this act may be wild, it is certainly not impulsive. Jesus sees, then he deliberately makes a whip, which mean he wove it and made the braids tight before using the whip. He thought about what he was going to do, and he did it, fully cognizant of his actions.

 

Jesus protests here turning the place where Jews believe they encounter God into “a marketplace.” He is critiquing how religious practice has become embedded with commerce. He is acting on Passover to declare a new Passover—this time one in which the people are enslaved not by Egyptians, but by economic barriers that could keep the poor from being able to participate in ritual at the place where they believed the spiritual and the material met. The Temple was believed to be the place where one could encounter God. But now there are moneychangers and sellers of animals for ritual sacrifice standing between pilgrims and the sanctuary like the duty-free mazes in international airports.But I wonder if we miss the most important part of this passage. Jesus insists that the worship of God is not tied to any one place. He claims that his body is actually the meeting place between the material world and God. His earthly, fragile, mortal body—that will, out of love, end up on a cross—but will also rise again. He declares his body a sacred space— and then when we ourselves are called to be Jesus’s body in the world, we too become, in our fragile, yet holy selves, Christ’s Body in the world.

 

As the artist, poet, and theologian Jan Richardson writes,

The wonder and the mystery of this gospel lection, and of Jesus’ life, lie not only in how he gives his body as a sacred space but also in how he calls us to be his body in this world. Christ’s deep desire, so evident on that day in the temple, is that we pursue the congruence he embodied in himself: that as his body, as his living temple in the world, we take on the forms that will most clearly welcome and mediate his presence. In our bodies, in our lives, in our communities; by our hospitality, by our witness, by our life of prayer: Christ calls us to be a place of meeting between God and God’s people, a living sanctuary for the healing of the world.[2]

 

 Jesus’s claim that the true temple is actually his body means that Jesus is the focal point where God can be found on earth -- the primary point, although not the only point, for revelation, above anything made with human influence. This includes even scripture, which is often elevated to an object of worship itself and claim to be inerrant when the compilation of scripture was actually accomplished over a process of hundreds of years of human decisions, sifting, accepting, and rejecting some texts depending upon political agendas in the early centuries of the development of the Christian Church.

 

What tables might Jesus encourage us to overturn in the temple of our bodies and our lives? What might it mean if we understood that Jesus encourages us to overturn the tables of the money changers in our own hearts—the places where we criticize and evaluate everything in the church on the basis of cost and benefit, on the basis of whether an activity specifically benefits myself versus doing God’s work in the world.

 

Jesus also reminds us that it is through our bodies, made in the likeness of God, that we encounter God, by what we see, discern, experience, both in this holy space and out in the world, through the gift of holy imagination that lies at the center of all creation.

 

In Lent, we are called to consider how human and divine meet through the ministry of Jesus, the Incarnate One, to draw us into a Resurrection Life, one filled with sacrificial love, yes, but also wonder and empowerment and generosity in both body and spirit. The same wonder that Psalm 19 extols, in which we hear the heavens themselves singing praises to God, rather than merely seeing them as distant points of light so remote that they seem almost imaginary. To see worship as not just an end in itself but an empowerment of us to embody Jesus’s work in the world in the name of justice, mercy, and true peace. To follow Jesus, in body as well as spirit, to live and love in a material world.

 

 


[2] Jan Richardson, “Lent 3: The Temple in His Bones,” March 11, 2009, from The Painted Prayerbook, at https://paintedprayerbook.com/2009/03/11/lent-3-the-temple-in-his-bones/

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