Rev. Laura Everett
First Lutheran Church of Malden, Sunday March 11, 2012
“Homewrecker” John 2:13-22
“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he 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 of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.
There’s a misnamed church on Warren Street in Roxbury. Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church sits on Warren Street. But it’s not called the Warren St Church, it’s called Charles Street Church. Now, Charles Street is about 3 miles and countless income brackets away from Warren Street. The First African Methodist Episcopal Society formed on Beacon Hill in Boston in 1818, a congregation of free black residents and black domestic workers employed by the wealthy white residents of Beacon Hill. First they moved to Charles Street. Then In 1939, the church moved to Warren Street where more of their people lived in Roxbury. 200 years ago, Charles Street Church began out of necessity because the white Church’s racism blinded them to their brothers and sisters in Christ. Today, Charles Street AME is fighting the threat of foreclosure from their mortgage lender- One United Bank, a majority black owned bank, which accepted $12 million dollars in federal bail-out money. Jesus’ disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Will you pray with me?
Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together be acceptable in Your sight. You are my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
After hearing the Gospel reading from John, with all that anger, all that confusion, all that chaos, perhaps you see why we only read this passage every three years. The Revised Common Lectionary, a resource many Christian communities use so that we’re all reading the same Scripture lessons on the same Sundays, only brings up this story of Jesus in the Temple once ever three years. Which is a bit funny, given that some variation of this story occurs in all four gospels. Even stranger is that for Matthew, Mark and Luke, the story of Jesus in the temple comes near the end of Jesus’s ministry. He throws a fit in the temple, calls the place a den of thieves, angers the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman political authorities and sets up a show-down to arrest him. But with John, this story comes near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been baptized; he’s called the disciples, performed the wedding miracle at Cana and decides to head up to Jerusalem after a few days rest in Capernaum. In John’s Gospel, this story of cleansing the temple comes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry- a sort of spring cleaning before he gets deep into the work before him. But here’s the problem, Jesus is a bit of a homewrecker.This is more than just spring-cleaning, a dusting out of the cobwebs and clutter so that you can use the space again. He is upsetting the sense of where God is and how God is encountered. You can’t buy God and you can’t contain God. This story is the only time in any of the gospels that we read of Jesus using physical force, which seems like something we ought to pay attention to- if the Prince of Peace is flipping tables and making whips, we ought to take notice. The reality is that people don’t agree on what Jesus was really upset about, but it’s clear he was upset. Despite our tendency to treat Christian niceness like it’s our holiest aspiration, this text is a good reminder that anger can be a holy response to injustice. We can’t buy God and we can’t contain God. It’s easy to look disparagingly on those foolish worshippers in the temple, but Lord knows I’ve bought more prayer books and devotional reading that’s never been opened, when the one free thing I could do to sit and pray is somehow much harder. Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” We can’t buy God and we can’t contain God.
It is also our obligation to reject an anti-Semitic reading from John’s Gospel. Jesus was a Jew, immersed in the scriptures and traditions of Israel. In the temple, Jesus rejects the corruption of religious practice. The outer courtyard, a marketplace of the Temple, is full of animals and pilgrims. Jesus drives out the cattle and sheep- those were the correctly prescribed offerings. But the text also gives us clues about the class struggle around the temple worship. There weren’t just cows and sheep for sale, but doves. The doves, or a better translation- the pigeons are the cheaper offering that the poor people bought when they couldn’t afford cows and sheep. Jesus is driving out the class division in Temple worship. There is no mistaking that throughout the Gospels Jesus Christ has something to say about our relationship with money.
Jesus drives out the cattle and sheep and then He empties out the coin jars. Those jars of coins belong to the moneychangers. They were men who worked for the temple, taking two Roman denarii and exchanging it for the Jewish half-shekel that the people needed to pay the temple tax. And the money changers took a fee for their transaction, like the currency exchange in a foreign airport. But they weren’t just changing dollars to euros or sterling pounds to pesos, they were exchanging the currency of the occupying government for the Jewish money in order to pay for access to the temple. They took the money of an occupied people in exchange for access to God. They are complicit with the structures of power that keep the economic oppression in place, like mortgage-lenders taking bail-out funds while evicting people. Jesus pours out their coins. First Jesus overturns our misplaced belief that we can buy our access to God, then He upends our confidence that we can find God in one particular place like the Temple. Instead of that sacred building, he was speaking of the temple of his body.
But we want stability, we want a building where we feel that God is dependable and present, we want a home. A few years ago, I moved into an apartment in a less than great neighborhood. The first night I was there, someone tried to break in. When the landlord wouldn’t repair the locks, I repacked up my belongings, put everything in storage, lost my first, last, and security deposit and stayed for weeks on a friend’s couch. It was embarrassing and expensive. And I was ungrounded. Sure, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, and the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” but I had to get to work in the morning and couldn’t remember if the box with my winter coat was in storage. Though I had just met her, in an enormous act of Christian charity and hospitality, Pastor Angela offered me a room at the parsonage here. I lived here with you in Malden at a time when I was without a steady place to live. I am deeply grateful. I craved the security of a home. My church has lived this instability too- we’ve worshiped in Roslindale at a school, Jamaica Plain at a church, Roslindale at a different church, and back to Jamaica Plain at that same church. We were nomads, and let me tell you it stunk. Packing up our hymnals and chalice. Putting away the chairs. We want the dependable economy of a church where we walk in the door at 9:45 and God shows up at 9:46. Like a cosmic vending machine, we want the dependable economy of putting in our time and getting spiritual renewal. For one hour. On Sunday. But despite all that very real desire for stability, desire for God to be dependable, predictable and present in one place, it’s a false promise. Church buildings are not God. Church buildings are not the presence of God. They are important. There are real concerns about mortgages and boilers and wheelchair accessible ramps, gardens and altars and parking lots. But let us not mistake the structure for the truth. Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Does it not feel to you like we are in the destruction? In a time of great change and chaos in our world and in our Churches? Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Our denominations, our ecumenical bodies, our churches, our neighborhoods, in a time of great change. Raise your hand, how many of you were formed by a religious community other than this church? Even each of our churches is no longer all Lutheran, all Methodist, all Roman Catholic. This is part of the reason why the Massachusetts Council of Churches exists, to help us heal those divisions across tradition is real in our families and in our churches. But all this flux between denomination is hard and complex. It can feel like our temples are being destroyed. The church historian Phyllis Tickle is working with the idea of the Great Emergence– that about every 500 years, the Western Church has something akin to a giant yard sale where we take out all our junk from the basement and archives from the attic and put it on the front lawn. It’s a time to rediscover what we forgot we had and get rid of what no longer serves us. If that’s the time we are in, that is the sense of the destruction of the House- a tearing up, chaotic and confusing, unclear what we are going to keep and what will be destroyed. What we are learning from Jesus in the temple is this: we cannot treat our relationship with God like a spiritual vending machine where we put in an hour and get out assurance. God wants more for us, a love that starts on but transcends Sunday, a hope that pervades our whole lives. God is not just to be found in the temple, but in the body of Christ, beyond our local church and our control.
(I took the very wise Rev. Kate Haynes Murphy’s advice- which came via a Saturday afternoon Facebook exchange- don’t write the conclusion, preach resurrection. So I’m not entirely sure what all I said, but I know I preached that we too are Christ’s body. To be resurrected and changed.) AMEN.
( Rev. Kate Haynes Murphy’s excellent Christian Century blog post asking “Is youth ministry killing the Church?” is available here.)