A sermon on John 2:13-22
Dr. Suess is a great teacher. My kids are 16 and 19 and we still have an entire shelf full of his books. One of my favorite books is The Sneetches. The Sneetches illustrates one of the worst traits of human nature—our desire to determine who’s in and who’s out.
Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small
you might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
Star-Belly Sneetches vs. Plain-Belly Sneetches.
The story goes on as an inventor comes to town that can put stars on bellies and remove stars from bellies. Eventually, everything is confused as Sneetches try to out-do each other:
Through the machines they raced round and about again,
changing their stars every minute or two.
They kept paying money. They kept running through
until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
whether this one was that one…
or that one was this one
or which one was what one…
or what one was who.
It was quite a muddle. Nobody knew who was in and who was out. Actually, the Johannine community could be thought of as sneetches. A major concern expressed in the Gospel of John was bringing a shattered community together. It was shattered because of two major events. The first event was the destruction of the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, the community lost its place of worship. Even though they identified as followers of Jesus, they were still Jewish and they still worshiped with their families and friends. It cannot be overstated how devastating the loss of the Temple was to the Jewish community, their families, and their friends in the year 70 CE. Burning the Temple burned down their access to the divine, to God.
Second, after this destruction, the community of Jews and Jesus-Jews struggled to find a new way of being Jewish in a world without the Temple. Although the synagogue movement started before the Temple was destroyed, this cemented the synagogue system into being. Jews were finding a new way in a new world. However, the Jesus following Jews were having more difficulties. As they struggled to find a place within the synagogue, they found that the openness they encountered prior to the destruction of the Temple was waning. As Jews searched for a new self-definition, they discovered that acceptance of followers of the Way was not who they were any more. I think it must have been wearying. Trying to create a new way of being and having this group nagging you continuously, “but what about Jesus?” The temptation to say, “enough already!” must have been keen! Eventually, the Johannine community grew tired of the cold reception and began to turn inwards to find their own way in the complicated political and religious world of their time. There was a very keen sense of who’s in and who’s out. And John and this community were clearly out.
It is difficult to live life on the outside. You wonder what it will take for acceptance. What does acceptance look like anyway? Do you even want to be accepted? Or would a new way of being be the best route altogether? And that’s if you’re on the outside! Most of us, now, are on the inside of power. We have the power. But we ask similar questions. What does acceptance of others look like? What will it take to accept people that are on the other side of an issue or ideology? Is there a new, creative third way that can be born that will include everybody? Do I really have to lay down my power and give it to the powerless?
Easy questions. Last night I was privileged to attend a Seattle School District School Board meeting. It was tough, but a group of kids were going to the School District to ask for them to create safe spaces for gender-queer youth. Gender queer youth have to wonder about acceptance and safety every day. If they go to a public space like a restaurant or a mall, they have to wonder about using the bathroom. If they go to a nurse, they have to wonder about having their biology and psychology treated. If they talk to a teacher, they have to wonder if the teacher will use the correct pronouns. We do not have to worry about pronouns. It sounds so small, but it is huge in the way of creating a safe space. And Colin, my son, and his friends testified to creating safe spaces. It was broadcast on TV. Even in advocating for himself, Colin’s was worried about the impact of being broadcast around the state of Washington and what that would do. Would people recognize him? If they did, would they just say he was a freak?
I think we all have experiences of being in and being out. Most of us spend our time on the inside, though. I’d like everybody to break into groups of 2-3 people and talk to each other about your experience of being on the outside or being on the inside. Some questions to start your conversation are: Can you remember a time when you felt excluded or on the outside? What was it like? What did you feel? What did you do? Were you able to get to the inside? What about a time you were an insider and had to make room for an outsider? Did you make room? Did you make the choice to not make room?
Today’s gospel story is very familiar to most of us. We see it in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That got me to wondering, “Why did the writer of John include it here?” What is its purpose?” “Where is it different?”
There were two immediate differences that caught my attention:
- Instead of saying, as it says in all three synoptic gospels, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers,” Jesus says “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” That is a totally unique saying to this gospel.
- Following the episode, Jesus is challenged to produce a sign. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And then the writer tells us, “but he was speaking of the temple of his body and his disciples remembered he said this and they believed. They believed.
John brilliantly ties Jesus, God, the Temple, signs, and belief together in one short story. I think the crux of the matter is the co-identification of the Temple with Jesus. Jesus was destroyed. The Temple was destroyed. But what was raised from the dead? Jesus was. Jesus is not only the Temple, but he is better because he transcends destruction. The Johannine community needs to hear these words because the Temple was destroyed, they lost their place of worship and because they have also lost their community of family and friends. It is very tempting for them to turn away from the Followers of the Way and to return to synagogue worship with their families and friends.
Further, the Jews speaking with Jesus ask him for a sign. There is no bigger sign in the Gospel of John than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These signs or miracles are the conveyance of faith to the community. New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright says “The whole point of signs is that they are moments when heaven and earth intersect with each other. (That’s what the Jews believed happened in the Temple.) The point is not that they are stories which couldn’t have happened in real life, but which point away from earth to a heavenly reality.”
I think the entire reason for the existence of this gospel is in John 20:31: “But these (signs) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” They believed. So, through this struggle of defining who they were, who is in, and who is out, the ultimate response is, they believed. And through believing, they found life.
Returning to our Sneetches who were so hung up on defining in and out, we find that in the end, it didn’t matter.
Then, when every last cent of their money was spent,
the Fix-It-Up Chappie packed up and he went.
And he laughed as he drove in his car up the beach,
“They never will learn. No. You can’t teach a Sneetch!”
But McBean was quite wrong. I’m quite happy to say
that the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,
the day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
and whether they had one, or not, upon thars.
They found full life when they stopped worrying about who was in and who was out.
So, as we go forward into the night, comfortable in our believing and our life, I challenge you with three questions:
- Who is your other? The person or thing that is out not in?
- How can you bring them in?
- Why aren’t you doing it?
Shalom and Amen.