Re-Turning to Purpose: We Shall Not Murder

March 8, 2015

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

The 3rd Sunday in Lent
Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

When we hear this story about Jesus turning over the tables and driving the livestock out of the temple grounds, we often use this as an example of Jesus’ HUMAN nature, as opposed to his DIVINE nature. There’s something comforting when we see this other side of Jesus; a Jesus who gets mad and starts throwing things. THIS is a Jesus we can relate to!

But I contend something very different is happening in today’s story.

First off, today’s reading comes from John’s gospel, which handles this event differently than the other gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the cleansing of the temple, as it is often called, happens near the end of Jesus’ ministry. He’s entered Jerusalem for the Passover and goes to the temple. But, in these gospels, the charge that accompanies the table-flipping is that the temple has become a den of thieves. And, it is this act in the temple that becomes the catalyst for his arrest and execution.

But that isn’t how John tells it.

jesusmoneychangers1

In John’s gospel, the table-turning is at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has just left Cana and the infamous wedding where water has been changed into wine.  Like the other gospels, he’s in Jerusalem for the Passover, but his actions in the temple grounds came not with an accusation of robbery, but instead carry an indictment that the Temple’s purpose has been usurped. They have turned a house of prayer into a marketplace. The temple had become a place of other things, and has lost its primary purpose – a place to meet God; to be connected with God.

So at the very outset of his ministry, Jesus is shaking things up! He calls for a return to the original purpose, to be in relationship with God – but it is no longer just for the chosen few, but through Jesus, includes ALL people. The physical temple that had walls that kept some out, has now been destroyed, and the new temple is Jesus, who welcomes all people in! The temple as a place of God isn’t replaced; it is transformed!

Similarly, Jesus doesn’t replace the Law of the Prophets, but enhances and elevates them to a new level. The act of Jesus changing water into wine is one that takes the water of purification found through the laws of Moses, and elevates it into the wine of the Eucharist – the promise of a new covenant with God.

Jesus doesn’t negate the Ten Commandments, but synthesizes them into just two: Love God, Love Others – all others!

During Lent we talk about the cost of discipleship. Last week Jesus challenged his listeners, and us, to take up our cross. Now, this week, John’s gospel shows us that through the act of turning over the tables, Jesus demonstrates what discipleship looks like. It’s about seeing things that are against God’s purpose for us in the world and shining a light on it…

So, as Christians in modern times, what does that look like? What things have been put in place in our institutions that are against the Christian principles; against God’s teaching and Jesus’ teachings? What livestock do we need to drive out in order to bring us closer to that call to Love God and Love Others?

Well, let’s start with the basics – the source of these two great commandments from Jesus, as we see in the Old Testament lesson; we find the Ten Commandments.

As I thought about these this week, I couldn’t help but wonder how Moses felt as he read them to the people of Israel. We all fall short, and Moses, in particular had fallen short earlier in his life.

You remember don’t you? Moses was born at a time when the Egyptian king, for fear of the vast number of Israelites, commanded all midwives to kill any male child born of a Hebrew woman. But, as an infant, Moses was saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter who found him in a basket by the river bank. She hired a Hebrew woman – Moses mother, as it were – to nurse the child, and he was raised in an Egyptian household. Then we are told:

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Ex 2:11-12)

When he realized that others knew what he had done, Moses fled Egypt, fearing that the Pharaoh would kill him. We are told that he settled in Midian, and was sitting by a well. He saw the seven daughters of a priest come to water their father’s flock but some shepherds drove them away. “Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock.” When the father heard about this, he invited Moses into their home and later gave Moses one of his daughters in marriage, and Moses’ life returned to some semblance of normalcy. (Ex 2:15b-23)

It’s easy to forget this part of the story. We’re more familiar with what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story” – the burning bush, and God calling Moses to do some pretty righteous work – the work of leading those stubborn Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, through the desert for 40 years, and finally leading them to the promised land!

As part of this, he delivered the Ten Commandments to the people. In light of his past, I can’t help but wonder if Moses didn’t hesitate just a little when he got to the one that says “You shall not murder.” Do you think he read that one real fast so no one would notice? Perhaps muffled it with a cough? Or, did it get stuck in his throat a bit?

moses2

But, maybe not – by this time, we see by his actions that Moses was a reformed man, and God entrusted him with holy work. A clear example of what repentance and redemption looks like. Moses was REPENTANT – he murdered a man, but turned from that behavior, and turned back to God. God gave REDEMPTION – seeing a change in Moses’ heart, God continued to love and value him, and even called him to serve God’s purpose.

At the risk of creating some unrest this morning, turning-over some tables, if you will – when I consider the story of Moses, I can’t help but think of Kelly Gissendaner. She is the woman who was scheduled to be executed here in Georgia this past Monday.

  GISSENDANER_3_277528_281448
She has been on death row for 17 years for her involvement in the plot to murder her husband. She and her boyfriend conspired to kill him, and while it was the boyfriend that did the act, she was certainly involved, and was sentenced to death by execution. For some, the story stops there. For some, that is all that matters.

As people of God, as followers of Jesus Christ, I don’t believe the story stops there. Looking at Moses as an example, I don’t believe that’s all that matters.

I’ll admit, I didn’t know anything about Kelly Gissendaner two weeks ago, but that changed on Wednesday, February 25th. That was the day everything was cancelled because of the threat of snow and ice in the afternoon. As it turns out, that was also the day Kelly was initially scheduled for execution, but this, too, was cancelled.

Before a final decision of delay was announced, I began seeing Facebook posts by colleagues and friends and realized that many of them had a personal connection with Kelly through the ministries at Arendale Prison. Their posts expressed frustration and anger over the injustice of putting Kelly to death in the first place, and the added injustice of postponing the execution due to weather! The idea that Kelly was an actual person who had to grapple with the emotions of her impending death was clearly not a consideration.

In the days that followed I learned more about Kelly’s story. I learned that at the time of the murder, Kelly was self-absorbed and showed no remorse. The decision between life in prison versus execution was based on who flipped on the other one first. But in the years since her incarceration Kelly has changed her life immeasurably.

kelly-720x380While in prison, she began grappling with what she had done – she enrolled in a theological studies program for prisoners, earning a theology certificate; she even established a pen-pal relationship with a renowned German theologian; and while these are impressive, even more importantly, Kelly graduation 11026040_10152631932106128_4322751182254639718_nKelly has acknowledged that her actions were wrong. She has acknowledged that her two children, now grown, have suffered greatly due to the loss of their father. And Kelly has transformed her life from one centered on herself, to a life that serves others in the prison – fellow inmates, prison guards, and even chaplains.

Through this journey, she has become a model of what is possible, yet so unlikely and unexpected in our prison system today – a place that is said to be for reformation, but seems only a place of incarceration – feeding them, clothing them, and dehumanizing them – for the length of their sentence.

Vigil for Kelly

Vigil for Kelly #kellyonmymind

I think for me, the hardest thing about last Monday, the rescheduled day of execution, was that while I held onto hope that Kelly’s sentence would be commuted to life in prison, I wasn’t optimistic. It became a “Good Friday” day for me as I realized all too clearly that redemption is not something we humans do well. And, unfortunately, it’s not something our correctional system does at all; this case reveals that all too clearly.

As Christians and as people of God, we are to strive to live a godly life. You shall not murder is part of that. This means that our laws should not allow for the killing of others.

The Jews in Jesus time knew this. They had no law to put a man to death, so they went to the Romans and had them do the dirty work. A man, Jesus, wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, wrongly executed, but ultimately for the right purpose – Salvation for all. Even for Kelly; even for us.

Kelly is guilty, yes, but like Moses, Kelly is repentant and has been redeemed by God! We have all fallen short in one way or another, and we are all called to repent and turn back toward God. Through it we can experience the redemptive grace of God!

As Christians we are called to see what is untenable, and if necessary, turn over a few tables – to shed light on the injustices we see. That is a cross we are called to bear. That is the call of discipleship that Jesus puts forth. That is how we return to the true purpose of doing God’s work in the world.

When we see tables getting turned over, like those temple-goers two thousand years ago, we may be the ones who cheered Jesus on; or we may be the ones who were furious and wanted to crucify Jesus; or we may have just been dazed and confused. All are real emotions, and understandable places to be.

In this time of Lent we are invited to explore ourselves more fully and wrestle with these feelings, inviting God to be with us in the wrestling. I know that to be true because I’ve been wrestling with this quite a bit, and have been thankful for God’s presence with me in the struggle.

I don’t know what’s next for Kelly. If you hadn’t heard, she didn’t die on Monday. At 11:05 Monday night, after another long day of waiting, the execution was postponed due to cloudy drugs. So for now, there is a moratorium on all future executions until they can sort out the issue. For that I am thankful.

Unfortunately, the moratorium is most likely not forever. For that I say, Lord, have mercy.

 

This video was produced and circulated before Monday’s scheduled execution:

 

3 Responses to “Re-Turning to Purpose: We Shall Not Murder”

  1. Jim Greenwood said

    A beautiful, thoughtful, courageous sermon. What sort of feedback has your congregation (and rector or bishop) given? Do you contemplate any additional action regarding Kelly Gissendaner’s execution? Have you thought about visiting her? I have done a number of prison ministry visits, but don’t believe I have ever ventured onto death row. Has the Diocese of Atlanta taken a position on death penalty. A tough issue. Too many questions for a Monday morning. Bless you for all you do and all you are. You are a blessing.

    Love,

    Dad

    >

    • The bishop issued an open letter to Gov. Deal in December appealing to him as a Christian to put an end to all executions. He was at the Capitol on Monday delivering 50,000 signed petitions calling for clemency for Kelly, and he was there with me and about thirty or more fellow clergy at the vigil Monday night.
      I love you, too. Thanks for all you have taught and instilled in me.jody

  2. Barbara Wessel said

    I can speak as an elderly member of Jody’s congregation that the sermon was even more powerful in person. Jody is a blessing to us all.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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