March 8, 2020
Lent Two “Risking Righteous Anger”
Mark 11: 15-19; John 2: 13-22
Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
Last Sunday we gathered around the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, in which Jesus rides into the city on a lowly donkey stirring the crowds into a frenzied chorus of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” We noted how risky it was for both Jesus and the crowds to engage in what was essentially an act of public defiance of Roman Imperial rule. We asked ourselves what we might be willing to risk for the sake of following Jesus path of peace and justice in our day and age.
After the service, one person shared with me how the story of Jesus and the crowd reminded her of something a friend had once told her about their son. When travelling to the states one time, the son had been stopped and interrogated by the border police. It turns out the activity on his Facebook page and his involvement in various protest marches had come to the attention of the authorities and he had been flagged as a potentially dangerous person.
It reminded me of a well-known quote about those of us who profess to be followers of Jesus which asks the question: If you were put on trial in a court of law for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Thankfully, the son was not convicted of anything that day or stopped from entering the country, but the way he lived his life, did give rise to suspicion.
Today we gather around the story commonly known as the cleansing of the Temple. The image of Jesus, whip in hand, driving the money changers out of the temple is unsettling for those of us who think of Jesus as a wise, caring and compassionate presence. In fact, last week when we were singing about Jesus raging in the streets, one person mentioned to me how odd it was to think about Jesus in this way. We don’t often see stained glass windows dedicated to Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple in our churches. Our lack of familiarity with this image can make it hard for us to understand what this story is really all about. To gain a better understanding, we really have to look at the historical context in which the story was written.
The temple complex in Jerusalem, which was still under construction at the time of Jesus, covered an enormous stretch of land, the equivalent of 12 soccer fields put end to end. Amy Jill Levine in the book that many of us are reading this Lent, describes it as a tourist attraction for both Jews and Gentiles from far and wide. In addition to what we would consider the sanctuary part of our church, places where only the priests could go and places where sacrifices were made, it was also the site of the national bank and a marketplace. The market, specifically was there for pilgrims to purchase animals to sacrifice as part of their religious duties.
Popular interpretations of this story put forth that Jesus’ anger was provoked that day in the temple either by the general practice of animal sacrifice or by the overpricing of the animals being sold. But most scholars agree that being a faithful and practicing Jew himself, Jesus would not have been against the sacrificing of animals or against the Temple itself and there is no evidence to suggest that people were being gouged by the vendors. The money changers, who are also often considered the brunt of Jesus’ anger, would have been a necessary part of the running of the Temple given that people had to change their foreign currency for the local, Temple currency somewhere so it’s unlikely his grievance was with them directly.
So if it wasn’t the Temple itself or the religious practices of the Temple Jesus was mad about that day, what was he so mad about?
Earlier this week I was driving home from Lynn Valley when suddenly I was stuck going nowhere fast. I turned on my radio and discovered that students from Cap College were blocking the intersection of Keith Road and Mountain Highway. I was headed directly into the blockade. If I had just arrived in town from another planet and was trying to figure out why this group of people were standing in the middle of the road shouting, I might think they were protesting the driving of cars or roads in general but because we’ve become accustomed to these events in the last month, I knew the students had nothing against me personally or against our system of transportation in general, I knew they were shutting down the road to symbolically protest the government and stand in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
In the same way, when Jesus overturns the tables in the Temple and drives out the money changers, he too is engaging in a symbolic action. He is not personally mad at the people around him, namely the money changers and the vendors. He is exhibiting righteous anger with systemic injustice and some say, also with religious irreverence. He is “shutting down the temple” in the same way the students “shut down the road” in order to protest both the government and the corruption of religious life.
The temple in ancient Israel was both the House of God and the institutional seat of submission to Rome. When King Herod rebuilt the platform of what’s known as the courtyard of the Gentiles, he put a large golden eagle high on the gates of the Temple to symbolize for the people Rome and it’s supreme divinity. It would be like us flying a big flag with a picture of Justin Trudeau on it out the front of our church.
Furthermore, some of the high priests of the temple, specifically Caiaphas were known to be in close collaboration with Rome in oppressing the people and condoning violence. Which doesn’t mean that Jesus was against the office of the high priest, but rather that he was against the corruption of some who held that office. Think Jesus protesting the cover up of decades of abuse by the church. He wouldn’t be protesting the church itself. He would be protesting the abuse and the cover up.
In the gospel of Mark’s telling of this story, in which Jesus says you have turned my Father’s house into a den of robbers, Jesus isn’t suggesting that the moneylenders have become cheaters and liars, he is suggesting that the temple had become a hideaway, a safe haven for people who value regular attendance at worship over equitable distribution of land and resources. In other words, the Temple, in the words of Pierre Berton, had become a place for people who wanted to sit in their comfortable pews on Sunday and go on living the rest of their lives sinning without impunity from Monday to Saturday or at least doing nothing in regards to the injustices in our land.
In not so many words, one of the things Jesus is saying in this morning’s reading I have come to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. And in John’s telling of the story, we get Jesus most serious indictment, in which he basically says, if God’s temple is used as a place where worship is substituted for justice, if God’s house is ruled by the values of a secular society where power is maintained and controlled by a few to the detriment of the many, then God will destroy God’s temple until such time (3 days to be precise) God’s temple will rise up again.
It’s this version of the story that begs the question from us this morning, if we no longer had a Sunday morning worshiping community in this place, if the church ceased to exist in this community, would the essence of what is at the heart of this community be gone also?
It’s worth noting that at the time when John’s gospel is thought to have been written, some 70 years after Jesus’ death, the temple in Jerusalem had actually been destroyed. What John is communicating to his readers is that our life of faith is about more than the places we gather in to practice it. What he’s trying to say is that as surely as the temple that was the body of Jesus rose up again on the third day, we too are meant to be temples for God’s presence rising up again and again, risking righteous anger in the name of justice, love and compassion again and again and again in our day and age.
In many ways, what Jesus does in the Temple the day he turns over the tables is the same thing he was doing in the streets of Jerusalem when he rode in on a donkey. He’s holding up a mirror and this time he’s doing it for all who professes to love God but fail to love the world God loves, failing to make the world a place where inequity is intolerant and justice is found. He’s inviting us to enter his story by looking for the places we are and aren’t living the way God has called, equipped and enabled us to live.
This week as I was reflecting on the scripture passages related to the cleansing of the temple, I couldn’t help but think of the times people have suggested to me that we too have turned God’s House of prayer into a marketplace by allowing “money changers into the temple.” We call our marketplace the Thrift Shop. When I first arrived at Mount Seymour over 15 years ago now, we didn’t have the dedicated selling space we have now and so on Thursday afternoons when the shop was open people would price clothing here in the sanctuary. It wasn’t unusual to come in and find the communion table covered in lingerie and the baptismal font festooned with hangers full of clothing.
You may have noticed that on Sunday mornings there isn’t a line up waiting to get into the church. Not even on Christmas eve, have we ever had to turn people away because there were too many people in the sanctuary. But on Thursdays people regularly line up outside the building waiting to get in and now on Saturdays as well. We regularly have to limit the number of people who enter the Thrift Shop because we are at capacity. A couple years ago, the annual income of the Thrift Shop surpassed congregational givings and if we were to do a head to head count measuring new volunteers in the Thrift Shop against new worshipers on Sunday, I’m pretty sure the Thrift Shop would win the competition.
That might cause us to think that if Jesus were to walk through our doors, especially on a Thursday or a Saturday, he might throw over a few of our tables declaring that we had turned his Father’s house into a marketplace. But I can’t help but wonder if the very opposite would be true. Don’t you think that Jesus would be more upset if the only thing we ever did in this building was gather to worship on Sunday mornings? Aren’t the most faithful houses of prayer the ones that teach us to perceive and know God’s presence in our lives and then send us out to look for God in other places? Aren’t they the places we go not just to confess our individual sins but to become impassioned and enabled to seek justice in the world around us? And when the world around us shows up in right in our building the form of customers and volunteers who may never darken the doors on a Sunday morning, and we welcome them and care for them in their times of need, and used the money we’ve earned from selling affordable goods to people who might not otherwise be able to afford them to shelter the homeless and feed the hungry, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? Wouldn’t Jesus be more upset if we weren’t doing any of these things?
If Jesus concern is that we are living our lives of faith in such a way that there is enough evidence to convict us in a court of law for being followers of his way, I submit that Mount Seymour United Church and it’s Thrift Shop be considered guilty as charged.
The temple of Christ’s body will only be destroyed if we stop being the temple in the world around us. Even if our building should crumble and fall, the essence of who we are as people of faith will carry on as long as we continue to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.