Homily: Destroy This Temple

Our Gospel today is overwhelming and frightening. In the temple Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out.

The unforgettable rage of Jesus is stunning and dramatic – his clenched fist holds high the whip of cords he has made, and he brings it down with stunning force, scattering the tables, the coins, the sheep, the cattle, the doves, frightening them all, and all the worshippers who have come from afar to enter into these holy days in their beloved Temple. Of course the priests challenge him, alarm and outrage rising at the same time.

Why on earth did he do this? A hundred reasons at least have been put forward over the centuries: price gouging, usury, scapegoating, selling on the Sabbath, the substitution of ritual sacrifices for actions born of deep compassion; we just come of these reasons. Then, too, this was the first of a succession of challenges to the whole system of authorities, from Temple to Palace to Pilate’s Court.

Left out of these considerations is Jesus’ frustration with public piety, and especially with the pious rituals of worship. He tells the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee at worship as a clear illustration of his objections.

At the Temple, the atmosphere is entirely devoted to ritual observances, and not at all to ‘rending your heart and not your garments’, not at all to profound repentance and rededication of heart and mind to God. The obligatory gifts were, for the thousands who came on these holidays, the heart and the whole of their participation, except for singing and listening and saying Amen.

High or low church, our habits tend to be ritualistic, and we solicit ceremonial money just as they did in the ancient Temple.   Yes, we receive the sacrament that comes from God at the Table, not a sacrifice of our own making. But the table also holds our offerings: money, pledges, prayer shawls, Third Grade Bibles, memorial flowers, food for pantries, Christmas gifts for the needy, so many things we believe will please God and for which we want to be given recognition.

And money does change hands in our parish halls in ways that support our ritual life: Fairs, suppers, ministry program requests, Fair Trade coffee, are hallmarks of churches everywhere.

Jesus seeks this wholeness of focus in us. To him as in Moses, the Temple of God is in the people. The people are not in God’s Temple, they are God’s temple. That is why Jesus always reminded his followers that the temple would be destroyed, and not one stone left upon another.

For most of us, though, the building holds us, and shapes our memories, doubts and hopes. And so we love it, because here we have known the presence of God.   We are not blindly fanatical people. We err on the side of blandly social faithfulness. Many days it is hard for us to be sure that there is any holiness in suffering, and the suffering of Jesus holds our loyalty but not our attention. We place our trust in the place that has welcomed us, offered us chances to feel both awe and welcome. We are glad for small things we can do to participate: fill Mite Boxes, make palm crosses, give an altar lily at Easter.   Easter becomes known to us in rituals and customs, a glory remembered in our temples, where we do not think of Jesus with a whip of cords, or, for that matter, nails in his hand. (Nancy Rockwell A Bite of the Apple)

 But, too many of our people, I suspect, tend to think of church as a destination. It’s a place you go to receive…well, spiritual things. But, taking a cue from John, I wonder if we’ve got things a little backwards. Don’t get me wrong, I think worship is important. But rather than imagine it’s a place we go to for some experience of God, I wonder if we shouldn’t imagine it as a place we’re sent from in order to meet, and partner with, God in everyday life.

We come to church because in the proclamation of the Gospel and sharing of the sacraments we perceive God’s grace most clearly. But then we are sent out to look for God and, even more, to partner with God in our various roles and venues to love and bless the people and world God loves so much.

But I’m not sure how many see church that way. Or, more accurately, I’m not sure we see our homes, places of work, school, and other parts of our lives as places where God is present, let alone at work through us for the sake of the world. And I think we, as church, may have unintentionally contributed to this confusion. Let me explain.

At the beginning of a new school year, we recognize Sunday School teachers, inviting them to stand, ‘installing’ them, and praying for them. After selection of new pastoral council members, we recognize them during worship, ‘installing’ them and praying for them.

How many times, in March or early April, have we invited all of our Certified Public Accountants to stand and pray for them, knowing that for the next several weeks they will work seventy hours or more and that their labor keeps our tax system and government functioning?

Do you see what I mean? By regularly emphasizing the roles we play at church, we unintentionally undervalue all the other roles of our lives and lift up church as the one place where we meet God and live our religious lives and in this way, I think, undermine John’s insight and confession that God is out in the world waiting for us to partner with God.

When I was in junior high school, I remember learning about the difference between centripetal and centrifugal force. Centripetal force is what pulls objects toward the middle, where as centrifugal force sends things to the outside (it’s that force that keeps you, for instance, plastered to the wall of the spinning amusement park ride so you don’t fall when it tilts one way or another).

I think our parish can tend to be dominated by centripetal force and I’d like us to work to change it to centrifugal, While we do indeed come to church to experience God, and we worry about getting more pople to com and experience it with us, that experience and the clearer picture we gain of God from it, must end up sending us back out into the world to serve God by serving our neighbors in the various vocational arenas of their life.

If even a few people leave church looking for God in their everyday lives I think it would be totally worth it, helping them be the people God has called them to be. (David Lose)

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