Lent 3, B
Today, we give thanks for microphones, and the technology that makes them work. (note: preacher that day had laryngitis) So much technology today. The internet is the most extraordinary invention. You can find anything, everything and nothing all with the same search. It makes no promise of truth, but promises hundreds of answers. If you don’t like one answer, then with the click of a button you scroll down to find one more to your liking. If you find yourself less than satisfied with the sermon on any given Sunday (I know that is hard to believe, but bear with me)… If you find yourself less than satisfied with the sermon on any given Sunday, a visit to Google will provide you a vast array of alternative sermons, based on the lectionary for the week. If, however, you go in search of an alternative sermon this week, 8 sermons out of 10 will be based on the Exodus reading; one will be based on the Epistle, and a lonely single offering will be based on the Gospel lesson.
“I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God…” This is one declaration every person ordained to holy orders makes. It is part of the ordination to the diaconate and to the priesthood, and it is not phrased in a yes/no sort of format. You cannot mumble your way through it. The sort of lesson we heard today (along with a hefty proportion of the Old Testament) is the sort of scripture that gives one pause before making this bold declaration; well, gave me pause. Today’s gospel is the sort of scripture that inspires people to preach about the 10 commandments instead. Because, on the face of it, this is just not the way we want to think of Jesus. This is not Jesus meek and mild. This is not Jesus champion of justice and befriender of the down-trodden. This is Jesus the supremely cranky and irrationally violent. Not our favorite Godly image…
Oddly, it has become on of my favorite sorts of lessons – the sort that you need to essentially have a conversation with the text in order to understand where the Good News lies.
In this case, note that this event is described in all 4 Gospel accounts, but the Gospel of John describes it differently than any of the others. Understand that all of the Gospels are written as confessions of faith, not as historical recordings. Far from exposing faults, discrepancies between them serve to communicate a different message.
In the synoptic Gospels, the cleansing of the temple leads to Jesus’s trial and execution. It is the last straw for the authorities. In John, Jesus is just getting started when he takes out after the money changes with his whip. This happens right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, immediately after the wedding at Cana. This is Jesus’s impassioned declaration of who He is, what He is about.
In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus accuses the merchants of malfeasance, dishonest – you “den of robbers”. That is a cause we can pick up on, back His unbridled rage at defrauding the vulnerable among them. In John, however, He makes no such accusation. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
In today’s church, we would certainly be horrified to find people in the lobby, effectively selling admission tickets. While we might not start knotting whips, we would certainly be, in true Episcopal fashion, a bit perturbed. But Jesus was not an Episcopalian. Jesus was a devout Jew – a Jew in the temple – a temple based on a sacrificial system instituted long before the temple itself. To gain access to the temple, the dwelling place of God, required certain well delineated sacrifices, generally of the unblemished variety. One simply could not travel across rough country maintaining an unblemished flock. In order to offer an unblemished sacrifice, you must sell your livestock and buy new, unblemished animals on site. There is a catch. You sell your goods for Roman coin, but you cannot buy new animals with Roman coin. Roman coin has a face on it – the face of the Emperor – making it unacceptable for payment for a sacrifice to Yahweh. You have to exchange your Roman coin for temple coin, with which the new animals are purchased. Moneychangers, dove sellers, animal merchants – they were doing the jobs they needed to do to keep the system working. Jesus’s actions do not right a moral wrong, they announce a new way to relate to God entirely, a way independent of the temple and its convoluted, sacrificial system. Jesus passionately, vehemently, even violently proclaims to all who are present, and all to follow, that God is not to be placed in a box; a box you access when your i’s are dotted and your t’s are crossed and the time is right.
People today could learn much the same lesson. We come to our box, our temple, to access God, to talk to God, to worship God, when the time is right, if it is convenient. Worship, community of faith, the nourishment of sacrament is a good and joyful and sometimes a truly necessary thing. But what if we thoughtfully shift (as scholar David Lose suggests) from considering church “a place we go to for some experience of God, …(to imagining church as) a place we’re sent from in order to meet, and partner with, God in everyday life.”
Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way “People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay. Whoever wrote this stuff believed that people could learn as much about the ways of God from paying attention to the world as they could from paying attention to scripture…. People can learn as much about the ways of God from business deals gone bad or sparrows falling to the ground as they can from reciting the books of the Bible in order. They can learn as much from a love affair or a wildflower as they can from knowing the Ten Commandments by heart.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar on the World)
“Whoever you are, you are human. Wherever you are, you live in the world, which is just waiting for you to notice the holiness in it.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)
When we let ourselves find God outside the box; when we open our eyes to the holiness in all God’s creation; when we recognize that all the earth is sacred ground; when we understand that ALL God’s people are blessed; we change the way we think; we change the way we see; we change the way we live. Thanks be to God! Amen.