Jesus Cleanses the Temple: A Contemporary Retelling

22834033495_9c77bd31f9_oMy husband, the Rev. Dr. Daniel J. Ott, just wrote this contemporary retelling of Mark 11: 15-18 for his sermon this coming Sunday.  What an important text for what is going on in our society today.  Thanks to Dan for giving me permission to share.

“Today an indigent man shocked the community when he staged a violent protest in a house of worship. Little is known about the man who may have been radicalized by participation in secret cells in a rural area. Earlier in the day, he appears to have been part of another protest that involved blocking a primary highway into the city. As bystanders looked on in horror and fear, the man disrupted commerce by terrorizing vendors and attempting to destroy currency. He was ranting about government violence against marginalized peoples and the hypocrisy of people of faith who would not stand with “the oppressed.” The man seems to have slipped away in the crowd, but religious leaders are calling for a restoration of law and order. A spokesperson said that they would definitely file charges if and when the man is caught. “This sort of lawlessness cannot be tolerated,” one witness said, “if it were up to me, these protestors would be put to death.”

[Feature Image: Sean P. Anderson]

Stuck in Sheol, the Place of the Dead

fear_of_drowning_by_starfishyy-d5cqnvkTwo Sundays ago we had fifty-five students come over to our college’s Presbyterian House for our first program of the year.  It was great.  We made ice cream sundaes, sat around in the grass, and listened to live music. After a little while, I led a brief devotion.  To match the casual tone of the evening, I wanted our devotion to be somewhat interactive and extemporaneous.  I had a scripture story in mind, but I didn’t plan out exactly what I was going to say.  It went pretty well, I noticed the students were with me, paying attention, until the end, when I just sort of lost my train of thought and rambled on for a little while…about, basically, nothing.  It wasn’t my best.  This was confirmed for me when I got home and asked my honest husband how I did.  “It was good,” he said, “but you were kind of repetitive and rambly.”  Sigh. (He might have said this more gently, but all I heard was repetitive and rambly.)

This really got me down.  I was disappointed in myself, disappointed in what I saw was a missed opportunity to speak meaningful words into the lives of so many college students.  Repetitive and rambly….great….college students love repetitive and rambly.  Way to go, Teri.  For the rest of the night on Sunday and all the next Monday, I couldn’t get rid of this feeling of disappointment.  I obsessively replayed the devotion in my head thinking of all the brilliant things I could have and should have said.  I kept wallowing in this failure to do my very best.  I got stuck in a bad place, a real funk.

I was still stuck in this bad place when I began to prepare for a sermon I was to preach on Psalm 139.  But as I began to read the psalmists words I was comforted to recognize myself; I recognized the highs and the lows of human life, the mood swings, and the dark places. The psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?” He asks because he’s been swinging to the highest of the heavens and then falling to the depths of Sheol…he’s taken flight to bright sunny places of light….and then fallen into the darkness which covers him like the night.  See?  I’m not the only crazy one.  The psalmist’s a manic depressive too!

Seriously, though, this is really us, isn’t it?  The psalmists always do a great job of shedding light on the human condition.  What really bothered me, though, was how stuck I could get in that bad, funky place (I’ll refer to it as my place of Sheol) and how hard it is for me to get out.  Sheol for the ancient Jews was the place of the dead.  It was where everyone went when they died, a good metaphor, then, for my dark mood because I don’t know life when I am in that place.

When I was a teenager my parents took my brother and me on a big family vacation to Hawaii.  It was wonderful, except for one particular trip to the beach when we decided to go boogie-boarding on some of the island’s big waves.  The waves were huge and powerful.  I had no idea how powerful, actually, until I was in the midst of them.  Then, somehow (I don’t remember how it happened) I was under them…underwater….under the waves….underneath this huge powerful force pushing me down deeper and deeper until I felt the sand at the bottom of the ocean.  I remember the sand.  I remember trying to push off the sand.  I remember trying to lift myself up off the ocean floor, trying to swim up so I could breathe, but the waves were simply too powerful. I thought I was dying.  But, eventually, the waves receded, the weight let up, and I was able to get my head up out of the water.  Oxygen filled my empty lungs.  It was like I was released, or set free.

Being crushed underneath the weight of those waves, being stuck there on the bottom of the ocean in that place of darkness, and death, the lack of oxygen, all of it was Sheol.  This is what Sheol still feels like for me. It pushes me down and keeps me down and cuts me off from life.

The good news of Psalm 139, though, is that God is everywhere, even in Sheol. We cannot flee, or fly, or wander, or cut and run.  God knows us, intuits our every move, pursues us no matter where we go. God is everywhere we are.  But we forget this.  (Or at least I do.)  I doubt it because it feels dubious.  God doesn’t always feel so close.

God didn’t feel close when I was in that dark mood last Monday…until I opened the scriptures and started contemplating what I might say in my sermon on Psalm 139.  I was drawn to verse 8, curious to learn more about Sheol.  Learning led to recognition.  Recognition led to insight.  Insight led to intention.  And I went and sat on my meditation mat to remember what it felt like to be in the presence of God.

And afterwards, I wasn’t so dark and funky.  My gosh, I thought, there were fifty-five students at the Presbyterian House that night, and I’m feeling disappointed?  We had a great time!  I met great students.  We had international students, and athletes, and musicians. Our neighbors, the AXD’s, came over and brought more tables and chairs.  We ran out of spoons and laughed about Taylor’s fear that the real ones might get thrown away. We shared with each other and opened up about the stress we were feeling here at the beginning of the year.  Yeah, I might have been a little repetitive and rambly.  But, seriously, signs of life were all around me!

So I’m not one of those Christians who believes God magically fixes stuff.  There’s too much complicated crap happening in the world today that could use a good magic fix if that was God’s modus operandi.  Instead, God, for me, is more of a liberating force, a presence that when I stop and intentionally seek God out, I am set free from a lot that is troubling me, I am made aware once again of the life and the beauty and the goodness that surrounds me, and I am awakened to my own best self.  I may at times make my bed in Sheol, but I am not stuck because God is there, too.

about the widow of Zarephath

1 Kings 17: 1-24

I am irritated with the prophet Elijah.  He assumed the widow was afraid.  Commentators assume this too.  They say Elijah needed to assure the widow that she could trust him.  I don’t read it this way.  The widow doesn’t feel afraid to me.  She feels done.  She tried to tell Elijah this.

As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” (v.12)

She’d been living on the edge of death for so long—a widow, a deadly drought, ravens circling over her son’s head.  The ravens were feeding Elijah.  What did he know of death?  He’d spent the worst days of the drought kickin’ back by the Wadi Cherith, drinking and eating to his heart’s content!  So I’m irritated with Elijah’s assumption that the widow was afraid.  How dare he name her emotional state.  As if he knows.

Do not be afraid,” he says to her, “go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” (v.13)

If the widow had not been done, I imagine she would have fought this ridiculous request—this request to make something out of nothing.  She was a fighter.  I know she was a fighter because she made it this far.  (Mothers are fighters, in case you didn’t know.)  She didn’t fight the request, though, because death was about to win and she was done.  So she goes through the motions, feigning obedience.  She takes a handful of meal, mixes it with a little oil and makes it into a cake.  She bakes it and then they eat, all of them, for many days.  And all of a sudden she wasn’t done anymore.

I wonder what that felt like?  I’ve never been as close as she was to death.  I’ve never been done.  So I can only speculate.  I imagine, though, that brushing so close to death gave her a perspective that few share.  “Now I know that you are a man of God,” she says to Elijah when it is all over. Okay, okay.  So Elijah’s done good.  Maybe he’s not so irritating.  But I’m intrigued that now she knows.  Because from her journey with death I imagine she knows more than that Elijah is a trustworthy prophet.  I think she knows that life is precious and vulnerable.  I think she knows that she is not in control.  I think she knows God as light and as darkness.  I think she knows, more than ever, that she doesn’t know, and this makes her a very wise woman, indeed.