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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Third Sunday of Lent – March 15, 2009

May the fire of the Spirit rise among us, the love of Christ be spread in all the earth, and God the Creator give us a new imagination for change. Amen.

I have a magnet on my refrigerator that depicts a man in a business suit on the telephone, pen in hand ready to take down the message. The caption reads, “Jesus called. He wants his religion back.”  That seems to sum up well the incident in the temple described in today’s Gospel.

Let’s first take a look at what was going on that day. It was Passover and every Jewish male had to go to the temple and pay a tax. And the tax had to be paid with a special coin because Roman coins with pagan images were unacceptable. They had to be exchanged for Palestinian shekels in order for people to pay the tax. The money-changers performed a necessary service and were positioned there for that purpose, but these characters were charging an exorbitant price for this service and both the bankers and the temple were making enormous revenues at the expense of the public – often as many as three million people. The system was rife with fraud. (Now does this scenario sound at all familiar?)

Additionally, one was required to offer a sacrifice with an animal that was without blemish. Every animal had to be examined by the priests who would almost always find something wrong with it and reject it. So the people were forced to buy an animal from the temple herd at a hugely inflated price. This was outright extortion and often targeted the poorest of the poor. (Sounding even more familiar?)

If all these shenanigans were not Byzantine enough, there was an ongoing feud between the Sanhedrin, the council of seventy-one Jewish sages—the supreme court and legislative body of Ancient Israel—and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas. Apparently, Caiaphas was annoyed at the Sanhedrin and threw them out of their office space in the temple area. As payback, the Sanhedrin invited merchants to sell animals near them outside the temple area. Not to be out done, Caiaphas allowed merchants to sell their animals and exchange money right inside the temple precinct.

When we enter the Gospel story it is Passover. People are everywhere. They have come to worship and offer sacrifice, to pray and to pay their dues to the temple. But these swindlers have set up shop directly in front of their access to the temple and it’s nearly impossible for anyone to pass. A group of powerful, greedy, self-righteous men had taken control of the religion of the Hebrew people. They blocked the entrance to this house of prayer with their booths and tables denying access to the many people who had traveled a great distance to pray there. They were making a mockery of the worshipful atmosphere of the temple. This was religion at its worst and Jesus had seen quite enough. He wanted his religion back.

The centerpiece of the story is how the system abused its members because of the control its leaders had over them and how badly they exercised their authority, especially when it came to money matters. Their was a sense of entitlement on the part of the temple hierarchy that led them to grow their personal coffers at the expense of ordinary, working folk.  

This week we heard about a huge hullabaloo involving the Judiciary Committee of the State of Connecticut and the Roman Catholic Church, the essence of which was a proposed bill that would require the church to put safeguards in place with respect to church finances, giving more oversight to lay members of congregations. Church officials were outraged and called this proposal unconstitutional and a violation of the separation of church and state.

A well-meaning person wrote a letter to the editor of the Hour expressing his deep concern that members of other denominations would be next, naming the Episcopal Church, among others. His suggestion provides me with this educational opportunity to raise our awareness about finances in the Episcopal Church and here in this parish. We would not be affected by the proposed bill even if it became law because we are already in compliance with its requirements. Our clergy do not have sole or principal control over money matters. That is the responsibility of the vestry, elected lay persons who with the rector share this sacred trust.

I am a strong supporter of the separation of church and state so I am not advocating for government interference in church affairs but I think that we as a church—any church, any denomination—need to be ready and willing to put in place the safeguards necessary to prevent the sad circumstances that have developed in parishes because abuses have and still do occur in the financial arena. And, this is true now more than ever. We hear the stories of those who trusted the disgraced “investor” Bernard Madoff and lost all savings—another reminder that it’s trust, not the economy that is in a “downturn.”

A General Social Survey reports that people are losing their faith in everything.  Only 20% of people have trust in organized religion – down 10% from 30% in 2000—just a little more trust than in banks. That’s not very reassuring for those of us in organized religion business.  After all, trust is how we are still called to live.  The Christian faith, like the basic faith of all life, assumes a fundamental trust. When the church—any church—acts it impacts people’s perspective of faith and religion. If we are going to use the name “Christian” as our identifier, we need to be aware of how we are perceived by the skeptic, the seeker, the lapsed member, the wounded and those who have been damaged by religion.

A wide-ranging study on American religious life found that the percentage of Christians in the nation has declined and more people say they have no religion at all. Fifteen percent of respondents said they had no religion, an increase from 14.2 percent in 2001 and 8.2 percent in 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. The study found that the numbers of Americans with no religion rose in every state.  “No other religious bloc has kept such a pace in every state,” the study’s authors said.

In his book, Re-imagining Christianity, Allen Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, writes: “The Church organizationally has often preferred to control rather than attract, dominate rather than invite, compel rather than win over.” That sounds a lot like what was going on in the Temple that day when Jesus flew off the handle and lashed out against the money-changers and others who were defiling it by their behavior. There are a lot of people who just have no time for religion and it’s the kind of stuff that was going on in the temple when Jesus showed up and the kind of stuff that goes on in churches today that has turned them cold.

The big question for the church—any church—is this: Are we ready for Jesus to show up on a Sunday morning and see what we are doing?  Is the church more concerned with perpetuating an institution and maintaining buildings than fulfilling the mission to which God has called it: to invite everyone one to be a part of it no matter who they are or what their faith credentials look like?  

Is the church out of touch with the needs of ordinary people? Indifferent to or unwilling to address the hunger people have   for the Good News of God’s unconditional, extravagant love? Has the principal focus become asking for money – while providing no real food for the congregation’s journey, no effort to make worship excellent, to preach with passion and intelligence? Is church life built around rigid rules rather than hospitality and radical welcome?  Is access to God’s love blocked by church leaders who put obstacles in the way of the seeker, the doubter, the curious, the unbeliever, and those whose economic situation makes it difficult to feel welcome and valued?  These are tough questions but they are the questions we need to ask because scripture stands over us and call us to account of what we have been given. Self-examination is a crucial practice of our Christianity at our best and most honest.

There are a lot of people who need the church, especially right now—who need the kind of religion that Jesus offers and the expression of it that has been cultivated at St. Paul’s. Jesus needs to be as present in his teaching today as he was in the temple two thousand years ago. Throughout the gospel he shows us that he has given new shape and meaning to the worship life of the people of God.  We are the stewards of this legacy and are not only empowered to spread the good news about it but also bound to maintain a sacred trust with God and with one another by the way we live out our Christianity and by the way we do church. To ask less of one another is to risk getting the news that Jesus wants his religion back.

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