Third Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2015
When I was in my 20s, I remember a day I spent taking care of three little girls who belonged to a friend of mine. The two youngest were about 4 and 6 years of age. I took them to lunch at Pizza Hut. They happened to be having a little promotional deal there. You could buy a mini-basketball for $2.99. When the two youngest saw the little basketballs, they both wanted one.
After we’d eaten and I’d paid for the pizza, I only had enough money left for one mini-basketball. So, thinking it would be a special treat for them, I bought one with the thought that they could share it. I naively believed that one little ball would be better than no ball at all. I thought that it would sprinkle their lives with an extra bit of happiness that day.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Before they were out the Pizza Hut door, they were quarrelling over it. It was ridiculous. Before I started the car, I had to lay out for them how they would take turns holding the ball while I drove home; but whenever one had it, she would immediately find ways to drive the other mad with jealousy.
Finally, I had them take turns holding the ball, while the oldest girl counted to three, and then they’d have to give it to the other girl. “1, 2, 3; now it’s Amy’s turn, 1, 2, 3; now it’s Rhonda’s turn, and so on. This worked until we got home, and then — thankfully –they found other things to do.
What a disaster that ball was. What I had given as a gift to be shared and enjoyed by both, they immediately used against each other with cruel intent. In the end, I was very sorry I had given them the ball.
That’s a pretty good example of a deep human weakness we have. It seems to be our nature to take a gift… a blessing… a good thing we have in our lives… and neglect it or abuse it until it is no longer a blessing, but a curse.
We get a pretty vivid example of this from our Gospel reading today. The story told here is often referred to as Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple.” For some people, this picture of Jesus is an uncomfortable one. To see him so angry, so violent, doesn’t sit right. We like to imagine him loving and gentle, calm and compassionate.
Yet here Jesus comes into the temple, and in anger, he constructs a whip and wields it to drive people away from their places of business. He overturns tables and pours out money. He angrily shouts at those who were conducting business in the temple, to get out and stop desecrating the temple.
It is an unsettling story; but there is something very important here. And it has to do with how we use God’s gifts.
The temple, like this church, was to be a place where God’s people came to be fed by the word and grace of their creator, a place to grow in faith and wisdom, a place to learn about God and the life God calls us to.
But that gift had been misused. The temple had become a place for people to pursue their own personal gain and profit… and take advantage of others. People took what God had given to benefit and strengthen all people… the whole community of life that God has created… and they used it in very selfish ways… to very selfish ends.
The people had lost the larger picture that the temple was a part of. God meets his people in the temple to teach, strengthen and heal them. And when they lost that larger picture… they abused the gift and turned it into a curse.
Today’s Old Testament lesson gives another example of this. It recalls the event of God’s giving the commandments and the law to the people of Israel. The law was an expression of God’s love and will for his people. It too was a part of a larger picture. “I, Yahweh, will be your God… and, being my people, you will live this way… because living this way will bring life and joy. Through this gift, you will be bound to one another in mercy and justice and you will be bound to me in trust and faithfulness.”
By Jesus’ time, the fate of that gift (the 10 commandments and the law) had become much like that of the mini basketball I had given to those two little girls. What was supposed to be a blessing, had become a curse… a wedge… a weapon… that the people used against each other for personal gain. And Jesus, time and time again, lashed out at the religious leaders for what they had done to the law, turning a gift lovingly given into a punishing yoke that divided and oppressed people.
A critical part of the art of living well is being able to see the gifts in our lives… to appreciate them… to take care of them… to use them in a proper way. And just as important is the ability to see the larger picture those gifts are a part of.
I’m an elementary school teacher. Sometimes, I find myself complaining about that job. The expectations are too demanding, the day is too stressful, the kids are too bad, and the pay is too low. When this attitude drives my thinking… I go absolutely nowhere… and the larger picture… my relationship to the well-being of my students is lost.
For me, it is essential that I remember what a gift it is to have work that is important and meaningful. It is critical that I remember the larger picture of my life and my calling as a child of God… to share with others the grace and love that God has given me. When I remember these things, I am strengthened to work and share God’s grace and love.
You students here also need to consider the gifts of your lives… and take a step back and see the bigger picture those gifts and you are all a part of. You belong to God… and he has called you to a life of joy and blessing. He has called you to become a part of the kingdom of life that he brings into being wherever there is open and willing hearts.
All the gifts you’ve been given — your youth, your minds, your hearts, your bodies, your talents — these things are great treasures. But their value is not for you alone. If you neglect or abuse these gifts… it’s not just you who suffers.
All of us need to remember the gifts we’ve been given… because they were meant to be put to work… to make this world a better, healthier, happier place. That is why the abuse of the temple and the abuse of the law infuriated Jesus so much. It wasn’t just about the mistaken ideas of the Pharisees or money changers or sellers. It was about all the people who were hurt because God’s gifts were abused.
It is the way of God to give us gifts, and then move us to use them, to strengthen the whole web of life. God, through husbands, strengthens wives; God, through wives, strengthens husbands; God, through parents, strengthens children; God, through friends, strengthens friends; God, through strangers strengthens strangers; God, through teachers, strengthens students; and so on.
When people fail to treasure and faithfully use God’s gifts, others near to them in the web of life who rely on them suffer.
Truth be told… that’s why some of you young people are here. Adults you relied on failed to treasure the gifts they’d been given and so these gifts did not grow in them; and so they couldn’t be the source of strength and light and hope that you needed.
But now you yourselves stand at the brink of adulthood. And blaming others serves no purpose. It’s time for you to look forward, rather than backward. Because soon others near you in the web of life will be looking to you, and you will need the gifts of God in order to be a source of strength and light and hope for them.
I hope that you can see that your time here at Y.C.C. is a also gift. It serves as an opportunity to get yourself healthy… to take a new direction, so that — when you leave here – you will be on your way to understanding your place in the bigger picture — in the web of life. That you will be able to use the gifts God has given you (and will give you) to bless and benefit yourselves and others.