Zoe

I first want to say thank you for this opportunity to preach today.  And I also want to say thank you to the clergy and other people at Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd for the last three winters in which my wife, Sue and I, have been worshiping with you.  We are both retired Lutheran Pastors, but we have chosen this congregation as our church home in the winter months when we are here and regularly follow your ministry online when we are in northern Minnesota.  Thank you. 

          It has been about three years since our beloved Golden Retriever, MacKenzie died from cancer.  She was about eleven years old and was loved by all.  She had this wonderful disposition and would run up to greet anyone and then by sitting next to them would lean into them, looking to be petted.  It was in January, three years ago, and we were all packed up and ready to head south to Lake Wales from our northern Minnesota home.  But MacKenzie had been ill since Thanksgiving and after an ultrasound on that cold January morning our vet advised us that it was the most loving thing to do to put her to sleep.  And so we did and that year we spent our winter here without a MacKenzie.

And then there was Zoe, a spirited Golden Retriever that we purchased from a breeder in Atlanta.  Zoe is one and a half years old now and she is beautiful.  When she runs her light brown and blond hair wafts in the wind and she is full of life.  She fully lives up to her name “Zoe” which in Greek means – “life”.  “Zoe’” means life.  She is full of life.  Exuberant life.  And if you aren’t careful she will knock you down when running up to you.  She has been through 30 hours of obedience training plus hours of working with her at home and when we are working on her commands she is fully engaged and amazing.  She has her Canine Good Citizen Certificate.  But she is energetic and lively and has knocked over buckets of water, turned over end tables and even taken me a down to the ground a couple of times.  But that is Zoe. That is life which sometimes comes to us through disruption.

The word “life“ – “zoe” occurs 32 times in the gospel of John.  More than twice the number of times in the other three gospels combined.  Zoe is an important word in John’s gospel. According to today’s gospel reading from John, Jesus was a disruptive force that day in the temple, turning over tables and chasing out the animals for sacrifice as well as the money changers. This was a powerful sign of Jesus’ disrupting the way things were.  This event also occurs in the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  But there it is at the end of Jesus ministry. It’s a crisis scene, a confrontation that gave the authorities the evidence they needed.  According to them, Jesus of Nazareth was a troublemaker. Jesus’ outburst in the temple was one of the last straws that led to his arrest, trial and crucifixion.

          But in John’s gospel, the story comes not at the end, but very near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  What’s going on here?  Did Jesus wreak havoc in the Temple more than once?  Was it a habit with him? “Watch out!  Here comes that fellow from Nazareth again.  Grab the cash box!”  ……. I think it’s more likely that all four Gospel writers knew the same story, but John saw in it particular meaning.  This wasn’t only a political catalyst leading to Jesus’ arrest.  For John, Jesus’ actions in the temple pointed to the heart of who Jesus was and what he had come to do.  It had to come at the beginning, not at the end.   

          According to our gospel reading, the Jewish people were coming to the Temple for Passover.  This was a once a year celebration and people came from miles away to observe this festival which commemorated the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt.  Observance of the festival required bringing a sacrificial offering to the Temple.  These offerings could be a sheep or a goat or a dove, depending on your financial well-being.  Because the people came from far and wide, they could not always bring their animal sacrifices with them so they had to buy them once they got to Jerusalem.  According to the gospel lesson there were cattle, sheep and doves available for purchase in the Temple.  But the only money you could use for purchase of these sacrificial offerings was shekels and not Roman coins, the common currency.  So money changers had to be there at the temple to exchange the people’s Roman coinage.  Those who sold the animals for sacrifice and those who exchanged the money were merely providing a much-needed service for the worshipers who had traveled great distance for the Passover celebration.  At least that is how it seemed. 

          But something more ludicrous was going on here, and Jesus’ display of anger makes it clear that things were going to change in a big way.  They were going to change so much that when asked to give a sign of his authority to come busting into the Temple this way he said, “destroy this temple and in three days it will be lifted up.”  Well, the chief priests and the scribes naturally thought that he was referring to the temple building, 46 years in the making, but John tells us that Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body.  The changes that were going to take place would require his own destruction and re-building, his own death and resurrection.  And with Jesus’ death and resurrection the whole institution of sacrifice and transactions and payments would come to an end.  The temple had become a barrier to the people’s relationship with God.  “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” Jesus says.  Rather than a complicated system of having the right animals for sacrifice and proper coinage to buy the animals, God was interested in relationships and compassion.  And Jesus was attempting to redirect and reform the institution that claimed to speak for God.  But more than that.  He was going to become the final and complete sacrifice for the sins of the world.  “After Jesus was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered this event and they believed”, John tells us.

          I think that Jesus was angry that day because the religious leaders had made the Temple into an institution where you pay your dues and then get good news.  The sacrificial system had become an exchange of money, and not a change of heart.  The people came seeking a renewing of their relationship with God and with each other and they were duped into thinking that their payment of dues would make that happen.  They had forgotten Psalm 51 in their songbook, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart.”  Jesus came to break their hearts and then give them new hearts.  And so he rejected the corrupt Temple sacrificial system.  He came to deliver the people from fear and bondage. And this would require his own compassionate love for all people in his suffering and death on the cross.

          Jesus came to replace it all with himself.  He says it clearly several times throughout John’s Gospel.  I am the bread of life.  I am the light of the world.  I am the good shepherd, the true vine, the door.  I am the way, the truth and the life.  I am the resurrection.  I am.

           So what does this mean for the organized church? The institutional church is a necessity.  For instance, we could not be in official theological dialog with Christians of other denominations throughout the world without the institution of the church. Congregations could not have trained and certified pastors and deacons without the organized church.  This congregation would not have a partnership with a mission church in Honduras without the assistance of the organization of the church.  

          Yet, the church is flawed.  It sometimes doesn’t work very well.  People get hurt and the message of Christ is lost.  The organization we call the church can become something that God doesn’t intend them to be. The church is always in need of being reformed into the body of Christ.  To make the changes necessary in that institution Jesus points to himself and says “this temple will be destroyed and in three days I will raise it up.” He was talking about himself.  Through his death and resurrection, the institution would be changed. 

          The same is true today.  Through his death and resurrection the church is constantly being made new.   As we observe this season of Lent and the journey to Easter, we seek to re-orient our lives around the death and life of Christ. As we seek to deepen our relationship with him we will find that our love for others grows and that transforms us into the church that God would have us be. But transformation is hard work.  Change is hard.

          Episcopal Church of the Good shepherd is in the middle of a transition of pastoral leadership and that is hard work.  I know this personally because as a Lutheran Pastor I have served three congregations that were between pastors and in interim.  People ask me how long it takes to get a new pastor.  It may be different in the Episcopal process than the Lutheran one, but my answer would be the same, “it will take as long as it will take.”  I am not being coy when I say this.  It takes time to make these important changes.  And in the church we are looking for the right connection between pastor and people.  It is not just replacing a rector, but it is discovering how you will be a good fit with each other and how that relationship will enhance your ministry. So I say trust the process and honor the time that is being spent in your search.   

          One thing that happens in this search is that a congregation relearns the relationship it has with the church beyond the congregation.  Your contacts and conversations with your Episcopal diocese will become more frequent and serious as you seek new leadership.  There are steps that you must take to receive the names and profiles of candidates.  You discover in this process that this congregation is connected with other congregations since pastors usually have been serving another church before coming here.  As you receive a new Rector another church loses theirs.  This whole process can be unsettling and you will need to trust God to lead you.  Your search committee and vestry will need your prayers to guide them to “the person of God’s choosing” as we have been praying each Sunday.

          But this process, as serious as it is, will also include “new zest and joy in serving God.” As we also pray.  There will be surprises and new discoveries, like retired Lutheran pastors showing up in your pulpit.

          The process of calling a new Rector will renew your parish and each of you personally.  This is possible because Jesus Christ has walked into the temple/the church and with the message of his own death and resurrection makes all things new.  Especially in unsettling times in our lives Jesus is pointing to himself as he did that day in the temple.  He gives himself to us to that we can give ourselves to others.  He is with us to give life.

          Zoe MacKenzie, a six year old at Grace Lutheran Church, in Ely, MN, where I served as an Interim Pastor from 2009-2010, was in the Sacristy one Christmas Eve just before worship was to begin.  The Sacristan and I were setting up for Holy Communion.  We asked Zoe if she would help us by taking the Ciborium or bread box out and place it on the table near the altar.  Zoe took the bread box and Amy and I gathered some other items to place on the credence table near the Altar.  When I came out from the Sacristy I looked on the table, but did not see the bread.  I looked on the Altar – no bread.  Seeing Zoe who was by now at the back of the Nave I asked, “Zoe, where did you put the bread?”  And Zoe pointed to the Nativity scene that had been assembled on the steps of the chancel.  There, nestled in the manger was the Eucharistic bread.

That was a sign like the signs in John’s gospel.  Amazing in a number of ways.  The bread we receive in the Eucharist is the bread of heaven, the body of Christ, whose divine being became human flesh, and was born in a manger.  Zoe appropriately placed the bread of life in the manger.  And this was also marvelous on another level because the name of this young girl was “Zoe”, which as we know is the Greek word meaning “life”. Jesus is the bread of life.  Zoe had placed the bread of life in the manger. Which was the place that you would expect to find Jesus.

          Like those in the gospel lesson we too come to Jesus asking “what sign can you show us?” As with them the sign he gives us today is his Temple – that is his own body, his own blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  That is the sign that we cling to now, this Holy Communion, which is enough to chase out all that separates us from God, and creates new hearts, a new church, ready to receive a new rector, fully and completely alive for Jesus Christ and transformed for his mission in the world.  Amen.