Reflections from the Woodshed

The Old Testament lesson assigned for this day the third Sunday of Lent, which I did not read, is the list of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20:1-10. This text is familiar to you, I am sure. It is a list of dos and don'ts: Do Have no other God's. Do Honor your father and mother. Don't steal. Don't lie or kill. Now, I don't know about you, but when I hear a list of commandments, I immediately feel guilty. Simultaneously as the list of the commandments is being read, I am making a list of all the times I have violated the commandments.

The list of the Ten Commandments is, of course, the ultimate list of do's and don'ts. Hearing it is enough to send me into a real guilt funk; but when, in the middle of the list, I hear God say: I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments, then my guilt turns to fear and I wonder which side of God am I on? I know I love God, but I also know I have not kept the commandments. Will God punish my children and my children's children for my sins?

I entitled this sermon "Reflections from the Woodshed" because the woodshed is where the Ten Commandments send me, at least metaphorically. Because the woodshed is the proverbial place of discipline--where your grandfather supposedly took your father to teach him a thing or two--maybe even give him a lickin' as they used to say. The woodshed is the place where you have a chance to think about your sin and guilt, and there is nothing like your father standing there with a disappointed and angry look on his face to focus your mind. So thoughts from the woodshed are thoughts about sin and guilt and punishment-and an angry God.

One question that is always good to ask oneself in the woodshed is, "Why am I here?" These days I feel as if the whole nation is in the woodshed, for this economic crisis we find ourselves in feels like a swift spank on our collective backside; and so now duly chastised we are finally beginning to ask ourselves, "How did we get here?"

First and foremost, this crisis has brought us to a renewed realization that it is definitely we who are in the woodshed, that we are all in this together. We have come to realize that the judgment of a loan officer to relax the rules and give a mortgage to someone who really can't afford it doesn't just affect the bank giving the loan and the person taking out the loan, but if repeated enough times, it begins to affect all of us. We have come to know that when Wall Street bankers are allowed to stretch the rules and to "leverage their earnings" while regulators look the other way, it doesn't just affect the Wall Street types. It affects all of us. Foreclosures, bankruptcies, factory closings, unemployment are all stinging reminders that our way of life was unsustainable and that we needed a good comeuppance. We don't even need to wait for the third and the fourth generation for the visitation of our iniquities. They are bearing down on us like a freight train.

President Obama gave a fairly clear-eyed view in his inauguration speech of why we find ourselves collectively in the woodshed when he declared, "The economy is badly weakened as a consequence of the greed and irresponsibility of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices." This collective failure to make hard choices has been going on, not just for the last eight years, but for the last two decades. We don't want to make hard choices; we want it all. What is it that the Michael Douglas character named Gordon Gecko declared in the movie "Wall Street" that was so popular in the 90's, "Greed is good?" Yeah--well we see how far that has gotten us.

Sitting here in the woodshed waiting for the rest of the punishment to be visited on us--or I know there is more to come--I wonder what did I do to bring about this situation. How did I buy into this culture of anything goes? How did I begin to believe that "greed is good?" And as I sit here contemplating the mess we are in, I am brought to the foot of the Cross on Good Friday, and I find myself remembering the words of that famous Good Friday hymn "Ah Holy Jesus," the second verse: Who was the guilty, who brought this upon thee, Alas my treason, Jesus hath undone thee, Twas I Lord Jesus, Twas I it was denied thee, I crucified Thee.

Who was the guilty? In the woodshed you don't get to point fingers even when we sit in there together. It would be so easy to do this in this dire situation we're in, saying it was those crooked mortgage brokers, pushing loans on helpless home owners. Or we could say it was those lousy regulators, sleeping on the job while those Wall Street crooks got away with the loot. Or we could say it was those greedy homeowners, believing they could get something for nothing. And in the end the answer to "Who was the guilty?" is again we are the guilty, we bought into the culture of anything goes, both literally and figuratively.

We are not used to facing our guilt. In the culture that refuses to make hard choices, the last thing anyone wants to take is responsibility. We want it all--except responsibility. Guilt is way out of fashion. Guilt is a useless emotion, a waste of energy. When the goal is how can I get more and more for me and mine, guilt gets in the way of progress.

In the woodshed I have had time to remember a saying of my dear mother. My mother used to say, "Guilt is a good motivator." Now, I spent many years of therapy trying to come to terms with that statement; and now, sitting in the woodshed, I wonder if those years of therapy were somewhat wasted. Perhaps mother has a very profound insight into what it takes to get along. For to have guilt is to care about how your actions affect others. To have guilt is to have a moral compass to guide your actions. To have guilt is to have empathy for your fellow human being--to feel with them as you interact with them. Guilt is a good motivator. It helps us do the right thing. Having guilt is to remember that our sins can make others angry, even God.

In the era of anything goes, we did our best to forget that God can get angry. We did our best to look away when God's face became the least bit clouded and preached with all our might that God is love. Well God is love and loves us enough to get angry with us when we are bent toward self destruction. God is love and loves us enough to say that we will end up bankrupt if we co-opt everything for our own consumption, if every system is designed to enrich us. We will end up devastated if our world is built on having more and more--consuming more and more--using more and more. God does not even have to punish us. The natural consequences of unsustainable greed will do the punishing, and those consequences are being visited upon us and will be visited upon the third and fourth generation: poverty, homelessness, unemployment, restricted lending practices, deficits in the trillions, the destruction of our environment and war.

We are not used to an angry God; but sitting in the woodshed, we are forced to face God's anger squarely. We do not like to think about an angry God, so when we hear in our Gospel lesson for today that Jesus got angry enough to push some people around we don't know quite what to think.

What fueled Jesus anger as he burst into the temple upsetting the piles of money sitting on the moneychangers table--what made Jesus just hopping mad--was that we have the audacity to co-opt for our own gain the very means God had provided for our atonement. You see, in Jesus' day you atoned for your sin, you were made right with God by sacrificing an animal at the altar of the temple in the presence of a priest. To sacrifice an animal at the altar was the most holy and intimate act a person could do in relation to God. And we turned this holy and precious act into an opportunity to make a fast buck. And I say we because we continue to do this to this day. The real temple was not where we came to make things right with God; the real temple was where the money was exchanged, for we do not worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We worship the almighty dollar and the power it can bring.

Jesus had to tear down this temple. Jesus had to upset this system that put the forgiveness of sins at the service of making money. Jesus said, "Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days." Now John clues us into the temple that Jesus would rebuild but cleverly leaves to our imagination the temple he is destroying. The temple Jesus would rebuild in three days is the temple of his body. The temple he was destroying? Was it the temple of stones or the temple of greed? Was it the temple that served God or the temple that demanded that everything serve our self-interest? Was it the temple that was the footstool of God--the center of the universe or the temple that put making money at the center of the universe? Was it the temple in which every knee bowed to the Almighty or the temple that made even God's gift of the forgiveness of sins bow down in service to the almighty dollar?

Jesus came to not just destroy the temples we build to serve ourselves but to raise up a new temple for us, a temple in which we can truly be reconciled to God. Every temple made with human hands, every system we attempt to construct, will end up only serving ourselves. In Jesus, God offers us a temple where we can receive the forgiveness of sin without cost, where we can be reconciled to God without trying to make a buck, where we can worship the one true God and be free from our bondage to greed and self-service. In our baptism, we enter this temple, becoming one with the body of Christ, living in the temple of God's love and forgiveness forever.

In the woodshed some things have become clear. God is a jealous God, jealous for our own good. God wants us to serve God alone, not serve ourselves. God wants us to worship God alone, not worship the almighty dollar. God wants us to dwell in the temple of his love and forgiveness, not to be banished to the woodshed. Jesus invites us out of the woodshed, out of our abode of sin and guilt, to abide with him in the temple of his body which he offers for us on the cross, a body to which we are joined in our baptism, a body in which we, by the grace of God, will dwell forever. AMEN.

Now may the peace of God that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.