Monday, March 16, 2009

Overturning the Tables

Sermon Scriptures: Corinthians and John


John moves the temple scene to the beginning of his Gospel because it serves a symbolic function for him. The temple cleansing in John completes the inaugural event begun with the Cana miracle. John 2:1-11 revealed the grace and glory of Jesus and the abundant new life Jesus offers. John 2:13-22 highlights the challenge and threat that new life poses to the existing order (cf. John 5:1-18).

The threat and challenge that new life poses: Use Pantokrator icon to show different eyes of Jesus: compassionate and judge.

The text we have today shows that Jesus is indeed a judge. Jesus is angry.

Christ comforts us in our weakness. Our savior not only comforts the afflicted, he afflicts the comfortable. He turns over the tables of a place of worship and instills a new hope—one harder to grasp than the blood of animal sacrifice. Jesus knows he will put an end to the age of appeasing God with a sacrifice of “things.” He ushers in an age of appeasing God only with a sacrificed heart. “Tear down this temple, and in three days I will build a new temple,” he says…and he does!

In Christ’s temple—which is our very body and life—Christ cleans and purifies as well. We ask God for the privilege and challenge of being a living sanctuary, and we do this because Christ did first. When the temple authorities ask for an explanation and Jesus refers to his forthcoming resurrection, he is prophecying about God’s Spirit becoming unleashed on the world, not bound by the brick and mortar of a physical temple. Jesus cleanses the temple of our hearts of corruption just like he drives the corrupt system out of the Temple—he replaces the corruption with Hope.

St. Augustine of Hippo said, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."

It’s not just “take my life and let it be” it is “take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee.”

Here is another lesson to be learned from this reading: the need for righteous anger in the face of injustice, extortion, and especially, the exploitation of vulnerable people.

We have to do some historical digging to see what stirred up Jesus’ wrath so much about this particular circumstance. The whole system of commerce in the Temple was well established, and indeed, quite a racket for the temple authorities. Historians tell us that once a year, Jewish males had to pay a temple tax, and that tax could be paid only in temple coin, not with Roman or Greek coins. Hence the moneychangers. But the moneychangers charged a huge fee for the exchange; often up to half the amount being changed went into their pockets, out of which the temple took its substantial cut.

Additionally any sacrifice offered at Passover had to be that of an animal without blemish. The temple authorities offered perfect animals for sale. Anyone bringing his own animal had to have it inspected by the priests. Not surprisingly, the animal was nearly always rejected, and the person had to buy another from the priests. Scholars tell us that a bird bought outside the Temple cost about 15 of our cents, but one from inside the Temple could cost many times as much.

So it was not simply the presence of the moneychangers and the animals offered for sale that so angered Jesus -- after all, they were services meant for the convenience of people who had to travel long distances to get to Jerusalem. No, it was the misuse of authority in the blatant and gross overcharging of even the poorest people that set him off.

Anger at such things is not a bad thing. It is a good, cleansing thing. Such anger is not the opposite of love. Anger at injustice is an appropriate expression of love -- it is a cry for righteousness.

Righteous anger is not a loss of control. Jesus is not out of control in this reading -- he's very clear about the targets of his wrath. Righteous anger is a taking of control, a move out of passive acceptance and toward change.

How have we turned the Sacred into a marketplace? There is a good bit of wisdom in a movie that some of you I’m sure would not find very tasteful—it’s called Dogma, and is a comedy about faith. In the movie, the church decides to exchange the crucifix image because it is too sullen and depressing. To replace the crucifix, the church unveils “The Buddy Jesus,” a cartoonish savior with a toothy grin, a wink, and a “thumbs up” gesture, saying “it’s all you, man.”

The message Kevin Smith, the filmmaker, is trying to make is that we American Christians tend to market Jesus, who is our Temple—whom we go to to encounter God. We market Jesus when we glamorize Jesus into the one who gives us a wink and a nod, giving us nothing but acceptance without placing on us any demands for repentance. This Jesus strokes our egos, gives us license to denigrate others who don’t see the world the way we do, and requires nothing from us but belief. When we sell this Jesus to the community, we mis-represent a Christ who may make life more difficult rather than easier. Lent is a time when we re-focus our lenses on the crucifix and begin to see the truth and beauty of what the world may know as foolishness.

This cross is good news because it saves us from the illusion that we should be happy go lucky in a world that is so painful and difficult for the majority of God’s creation. Buddy Jesus tells us it’s okay and we should turn a blind eye to the corrupt systems of destruction and idolatry. Perhaps we should pity those who suffer. The crucified Christ, the fool, tells us we should join the sufferers, we should enter the suffering and through it be changed, we should take up our cross and follow.

Easy answers and quick fixes are the merchant’s tables of our day, and the Jesus we encounter in this passage sends the coins flying.

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