A Foolish Hope – March 4, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday in Lent
March 4, 2018

Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25John 2:13-22Psalm 19

Let us pray.
The dearest idol I have known,

whate’er that idol be,
help me to tear it from Thy throne
and worship only Thee.

The National Cathedral in Washington is, in some ways, a Jerusalem temple for modern-day America. A large and majestic edifice that towers over a powerful capital city, it evokes a sense of awe and wonder that few can rival. As you enter its giant, intricately carved doors, bask in the stunning light that reflects through its stained glass windows, hear the grand swell of its massive Great Organ, and approach the imposing statue of Christ that stares you down from above the High Altar, you begin to think, “maybe God does live here.”

For ten years, I had the privilege of growing up in and around the Cathedral environs. I spent day and night singing in the choir, helping set up for services, and leading elaborate processions, eventually becoming part of a core group of Cathedral insiders who thought the Cathedral revolved around them. Tourists might flock to the Cathedral each morning, we thought, distinguished guest preachers might fly in from Timbuktu, but we never left; we were the ones this was really all about. So you can imagine our surprise when, in my senior year of high school, the Cathedral held a centennial gala and none of us received engraved invitations. Indeed, despite the fact that the gala would be take place in the Cathedral itself, few of us could even afford a ticket; the rumored ticket price was in the five figures. Naturally, our reaction was indignation. How could the Cathedral ignore the little people who made things happen and instead pull out the red carpet for a random collection of celebrities, politicians, and rich people who would never dare to show their face on a Sunday morning? It didn’t seem fair. One person even added this question: “Didn’t Jesus throw the money-changers out of the temple?”

Now, standing on this side of the pulpit, I see things a little bit differently. It is easy to complain about church admissions prices, incessant giving pleas, and elite events for high-rolling donors, but it is far harder to balance a Church budget and pay the bills. Of course the Cathedral put on a show for people willing to pay five figures for a dinner. Maintaining a gigantic Gothic building isn’t cheap, and the revenue produced by charging five figures a head could have made a big difference. To acknowledge that the Church costs money to run is not to profane the holy truths of God; it is simply to engage in smart management of what God has entrusted to us.

Jesus orders the merchants and the moneychangers to stop making his Father’s house a marketplace, but the merchants and the moneychangers he addresses hardly seem worthy of special condemnation. In Jesus’ day, the merchants provided the cattle, sheep, and doves that worshippers needed in order to complete the animal sacrifices that were essential parts of the Passover ritual, while the moneychangers converted secular money into Jewish currency so that the mandatory temple tax, which helped maintain the temple building and sustain its operations, could be paid. We should not lay full blame on the merchants and the moneychangers for offering services demanded by worshippers and relied upon by the temple itself.

The merchants and the moneychangers bear the brunt of Jesus’ anger, yet Jesus’ anger is fundamentally directed not at individual sinners but at a system that is sinful as a whole. The merchants and moneychangers did not make Jesus’ father’s house a marketplace; the system itself created conditions from which a marketplace would inevitably spring forth. The burden of responsibility lies chiefly with the system rather than with the merchants and moneychangers who are caught up in making the system work.

When we think about our sins, if we think about them at all, we tend to think about our individual sins—the deceitful tricks, the mean words, the rash outbursts. But sin can also occur at the level of a system: a culture that glorifies guns, an institution that covers up for abusers, an economy that leaves the poor behind. Sometimes, these systemic sins can be traced back to a handful of culpable individuals, but often they cannot be; the guilt is shared by a collection of actors, none of whom are completely, or even mostly, responsible on their own. In a recent podcast episode about problems within the criminal justice system, the reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty pointed out that a system might still be wrong even when every person within a system tries their best to do the right thing. The detectives might search exhaustively for all the relevant evidence they can find, the prosecutors might build a convincing case based only on what the evidence suggests, the jury might carefully reach a considered verdict after thoughtfully digesting the arguments they hear, and yet, after all that, an innocent man might still go to jail.

In toppling the tables of the moneychangers and emptying out their coins, and in driving out the cattle and sheep and shouting at the merchants of the doves, Jesus is not trying to reform the unusual behavior of a few isolated swindlers; Jesus is seeking to overturn an entire system—an entrenched establishment that makes the exchange of money an essential prerequisite to the worship of God. In doing so, Jesus acknowledges the reality that systems might occasionally need to be overturned—to be completely reordered and rethought—in order for truth and right to prevail, and he encourages us to think about the systems that need to be overturned in our time and place.

The problem with revolutions, though, is that they are rarely painless. In fact, the stench of death saturates the story John tells about Jesus’ act of defiance in the temple. Ultimately, of course, Jesus himself will die because of the challenge he poses to the religious and political authorities, and Jesus foreshadows his death in the second part of the Gospel reading we heard this morning. What is equally striking, however, is that an invading army destroys the temple only a few decades after Jesus causes havoc within it. Jesus’ disruption in the temple not only upsets commerce in the short-term; it also sets in motion his own untimely death and the eventual collapse of the system he took pains to critique.

For Jesus, the possibility of destruction does not appear to be alarming. If anything, Jesus hastens destruction along, dismantling the logistical infrastructure of the temple and daring the authorities to think about putting him to death. We may see his behavior as reckless, unreasonable, even odious, but Jesus has an immense confidence in the promise of new life—that, after he dies, in three days he will rise again, gleaming and more glorious than before; that, after the temple is destroyed, the people will worship God with as much enthusiasm and integrity as ever. Sometimes death needs to happen in order for resurrection to occur.

It’s hard to be a Christian in 2018, to believe in Jesus’ promise of resurrection. This may be less clear at St. Paul’s than it is at other places, but churches everywhere are struggling. Attendance is down, giving is stagnant, and big Gothic buildings are crumbling. I sit on a committee in the wider Episcopal Church in Connecticut that, over just the past year and half, has contemplated the possibility of four different parishes being closed. In the end, many faithful people are forced to succumb to the judgments of the moneychangers. But maybe death is what we need in order to wake up; maybe Jesus is cleansing this temple; maybe Jesus is transforming this structure we call the Church; maybe in the midst of all of the death we are experiencing Jesus is raising up something new, something good, something beautiful. It’s a foolish hope, I know, but God has always been foolish.

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