Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Lent – March 8, 2015
Creator God be with us, Jesus hold our lives in loving kindness, Holy Spirit speak wisdom deep within our souls. Amen.
You are walking down Main Street, minding your own business. As you pass by a church you hear this awful commotion—things crashing about inside and someone shouting at the top of their lungs. Your curiosity has gotten the best of you and you stop dead in your tracks to better assess the situation. Then you see a half dozen hymnals flying out the front door and headed right in your direction. You duck just in the knick of time.
“What’s going on in there?” you call to no one in particular. No sooner do you get the words out when a large pile of vestments, hangings, and candles are launched out a window. But wait—there’s more. An entire church pew sails down the front steps followed by the pulpit—splintering into pieces. There must be a raving lunatic in there.
You dart a bunch of collection plates—coins and bills and checks flying into the air and scattering all over the lawn. “Has anyone called the police?” you ask. “Should I dial 911?” Before you can open your cell phone, what looks like a group of well-fed clergy are hurled out the front door by the seat of their pants, landing hard on the steps and looking very undignified in this awkward position. A few ushers follow right after huffing and puffing.
“What in the world is going on in there?” you shout. “You’re not going to believe this. Jesus is in there cleaning house! Burst in this morning during the service. And, man, he is mad as hell!”
Well, that’s a contemporary rendering of what happened in the Temple in first Century Jerusalem on an otherwise routine day. There are very few passages that appear in all four Gospels so when they do, it says something about how important they must be. The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple does appear in all four Gospels but there one important difference. In the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – the story comes during Passover and at the end of Jesus’ ministry. In John’s Gospel, the story comes at the beginning of his ministry. We know that Matthew, Mark and Luke were more historically accurate and that John tends to use stories about Jesus as metaphors and symbols.
This event probably happened during the Passover and was the last straw for the religious authorities and another reason that they decided Jesus had to be killed because he was now threatening the very fabric of the religious institution. John puts it at the beginning of his Gospel because the Cleansing of the Temple, for John, is a metaphor for the ministry of Jesus in its totality. John’s understanding is that Jesus came to challenge our institutional views of God and to bring both passion and purity back into worship.
What was going on that day in Jerusalem? Once a year, every Jewish male had to go to the temple and pay a tax. Like with the IRS, there was no escaping it. And the tax had to be paid with a special coin. So you would exchange your money for this temple coin and there were money-changers positioned there for that purpose.
Ah, but these guys were charging an exorbitant price for this exchange 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, many who were middle class or poor.
On top of that, 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.
There was also a feud between the Sanhedrin, the council of seventy-one Jewish sages who constituted the supreme court and legislative body, and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas. 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. People are everywhere. They have come to worship and offer sacrifice, to pray and to pay their dues to the temple. But these thugs have set up shop directly in front of their access and it’s nearly impossible for anyone to pass. So amidst the smells of dirty pens and agitated animals and within earshot of clinking coins, Jesus arrives at Passover to re-connect with his heritage. His decision to trash the place was not without reflection. He took time to make a whip out of a rope, then waving and swinging it at the merchants and hurling their tables over.
He was madder than hell and he was not going to take it any longer. He drove out the sheep, he drove out the cattle, he scattered the money all over the floor, he threw out the dove sellers. No one was spared.
What is this all about? My take on this episode in the life of Jesus has two prongs. First, it is an act of disruption: not interrupting the events of that day in the Temple but an act of disruption that cut to the core of the historic Jewish faith and all it stood for. This is a moment of crisis: not for the animal sellers and the money changers.
It was a moment of crisis for the people of God and for their systems and institutions. Here we see evidence of God’s wisdom that may look foolish to the world. Jesus is confronting the people of God with a deeply unnerving truth. Jesus was saying that the old way of doing religion was no longer appropriate. Things had to change. They needed to do church differently.
Theologian Marcus Borg, who died just recently, sees Jesus challenging the whole system that created a world with sharp social boundaries between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. “In the message and activity of Jesus,” says Borg, “we see an alternative social vision: a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion.” Jesus stood in the long line of the Hebrew prophets, calling for his religious institutions to forsake exclusive purity and embrace instead compassion and love for the marginalized.
At our Ministry Council, Staff & Vestry retreat in February, we listened to a video cast of the Reverend Bill Tully, retired rector of St. Bart’s in Manhattan, the church that was the model for our doing church differently. He challenges churches to do an “audit of attitudes.” Looking passed the front door of our churches, would Jesus find mean-spirited, self-righteous leaders indifferent to people’s hunger for hearing the Good News of God’s unconditional, extravagant love, who provide no real food for the congregation’s journey, no effort to make worship excellent and uplifting, and to preach with intelligence, passion and compassion?
Would Jesus find that church life is built around regulations and rules rather than hospitality and radical welcome? Would he hear a clear message that certain people are not good enough to belong? Would he find stumbling blocks for the seeker or the doubter to be engaged? A fear of judgment and mistreatment?
Cleaning house, cleansing the polluted system—that’s what Jesus was doing in the temple that day in Jerusalem, albeit with a little more force and hostility. And remember, too, that the civil and religious systems of his day were much the same. What about an audit of attitudes of our social and political systems? Just days before the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, the Department of Justice’s report revealed a range of abuses committed against African American residents by the city of Ferguson’s police force. Where might we expect Jesus to show up with that makeshift whip and overturn the sordid tables of some of our institutions?
The final prong and last word: Anger. We may be surprised, even shocked that Jesus, that God in Christ displayed such anger, especially since many of us may have grown up with the message that we should bury that emotion. Jesus shows us that anger that is denied and suppressed is not healthy. It can eat away at our self-esteem, lead to depression, stress our relationships, and create unhealthy conflict in families and in church. When our anger provides us with the energy to stand up for justice and what is worthy and true, it is holy.
I’m not advocating that we go around thrashing a whip but maybe, just maybe we will need to overturn a few tables as we pursue justice and mercy, protect the rights of the vulnerable, challenge the politics of greed, and stand up for our dignity as beloved children of God, ushering in the kind of world God truly wants for us.