Changing the rules

Third Sunday in Lent

In the name of God: the true author of all creation.  Amen.

I am just beginning to learn the possibilities that exist within the emerging field of A.I. – Artificial Intelligence.  But it seems to be cropping up everywhere.  A few months ago, when our nephew was visiting, Michael and I were shocked to learn that in one of his classes, an assignment was to complete a research paper written entirely by A.I.  Even as I sat working on this sermon, my recently updated version of Microsoft Word was trying to predict what I was about to say to make my typing go faster.  It was sometimes correct, but very often not.

While the writer in me struggles to imagine the emergence of A.I. as any kind of legitimate tool for writing, one area that I’m endlessly fascinated by is the field is A.I.-generated images.  I’m sure every visual artist thinks about it the same way I do about writing – but as someone not at all skilled in visual arts, it can be interesting to have my computer create images from words.  I have not gotten very good at it.  I haven’t mastered the art of figuring out the right prompts for the desired outcome.  But I’m often in awe of the A.I.-generated images that I see posted around the internet.

A few weeks ago, there was one floating around directly related to this biblical story that we read today – the story of Jesus flipping over the tables in the temple.  Whoever created the image, though, must have not been much better at authoring the prompt words than I would have been.  The image showed an upside down Jesus, literally doing a flip over a table.

And this, my friends, is why biblical literalism should be looked at with a very cautious eye.  Whose literal understanding does it use?  The image of Jesus wasn’t wrong.  Jesus was “flipping over the tables”.  But it didn’t line up with the way the church has typically told that story.  I mean, I suppose it’s possible that Jesus begins his ministry by doing a gymnastics routine in the Temple.  But it doesn’t really line up with how we typically understand his ministry.

There is, however, a degree to which the image does do some good teaching.  Much as I think it’s a fair warning about the potential dangers of a fundamentalist approach to Christian theology, I think Jesus was reacting to the same sort of thing in his own time.

With a group of mostly clergy around the diocese I’ve been working through a plan for reading the entire Bible over the course of a year.  This particular plan attempts to go as chronologically as possible, so it isn’t always just a straight cover-to-cover read.

We’re on day 63 now.  And, I have to say, there have already been times when it’s been something of a slog.  There’s repetition and contradiction throughout the Bible at various times, but in these early books of the Hebrew Scriptures, there seems to be a lot more than you find elsewhere.  Historians believe they were written down by different schools of thought, so when the canon of scripture began to come together, a lot of times the different accounts just got blended together into one.

But reading through the laws about ancient Hebrew sacrifices for various things and occasions was interesting (at first anyway).  It revealed for me a lot of little things that I didn’t know – which, I guess, is the point of engaging in this kind of exercise, after all.

And the laws are complex.  There are specific rules about what kind of sacrifice should be given for each thing, and what the priests were to do with it, and what alternates could be offered if the person couldn’t afford the required sacrifice…  It was a lot.

Part of what I hear in this episode of Jesus “flipping over the tables” is an assurance that while the old ways of their ancestry might adhere to the letter of the law, what he was planning to initiate was a new way of being faithful to God.  A way that would focus more on the spirit of the law.  God had outlined some rough parameters for how to be in good relationship with God and with the rest of creation.  That’s part of what we read each week in Lent when we pray through the Ten Commandments.  But the law isn’t the point.  The relationships are the point.

A common, anti-Jewish reading of this story is that Jesus is angrily rejecting Judaism and its people and their rituals.  That they are somehow inherently bad and that Jesus was wiping it out to make way for a better, Christian way.

But that’s not really fair.  Jesus, himself, was Jewish.  His whole approach to understanding and experiencing faith had grown out of that tradition.  Instead, I think it was meant more as a way of calling the people of God back to their real purpose.  Not the transactions, but the relationships that the transactions represented and were designed to support.

As time goes on, it can be easy for all of us to go through the motions of a particular thing.  We can get lost in the day-to-day execution and forget about the bigger point.  And it can happen anywhere.  It certainly happens in faith, but it can happen in our jobs, or with our families or friends.  How many times have I been reading, only to discover after a bit that while I’ve read every word, I haven’t retained anything – because my mind had been wandering.

So, this story of Jesus “flipping over the tables in the Temple” is really a story of Christ calling us back to our center.  Calling us back to the point.  And really, that’s a big part of what Lent is for us in our lives of faith.  It’s a disruption.  A disordering, even.  And the point of it is not to distract us from our faith, but to remind us of what’s most important about our faith.  The point is to reconnect us with our faith – hopefully with renewed vigor and new insights.

It's only through radically reorienting ourselves back to God, that we can hope to get a foretaste of the Resurrection.  It’s only by changing our perspectives that we can hope to embrace the wonder of Easter when it comes.

Easter changed all the rules.  That doesn’t mean the rules were inherently bad.  That doesn’t mean that those who found comfort in them were automatically wrong.  It just means that there’s a new way of doing things.  A new way of seeing the world.  A new way and reason for appreciating God’s gifts.

So, in these weeks we prepare.  We make way.  We shift ourselves, so we can see what new wonders God is dawning in the new day.  We keep watch.  We keep watch with Christ.  Amen.