by Ellen Sims
text: John 2:13-22
I wonder why they don’t shout out,
And call the cops on him who flouts
Decorum with his whipping ways!
Can you imagine him today,
Without a permit for such raucous acts
Which peaceful moderation lacks?
Perhaps it’s theater, you think;
Would Jesus really raise such stink?
How ’bout the students who deplore
The politicians who now whore
Their way to office with no spine,
And claim some right, almost divine,
To have an automatic gun,
Belong to each and everyone?
I cheer their anger born of grief
To finally bring us all relief.
This Jesus was no Caspar Milquetoast
And hated Temple profits foremost,
And students activated now
Will whip machines of death, somehow.
Remember when Roy Moore campaigned at a Baptist church in Theodore and Jimmy Kimmel sent comedian Jake Byrd down here pretending to be a Moore supporter? Remember how the pastor of that church stepped to the pulpit to intervene for Moore, recently accused of molesting teen-age girls, when an audience member challenged the candidate for the U.S. Senate? Byrd’s phony adulation of Roy Moore paired with the authentic enthusiasm of actual supporters made for hilarious late-night television and exposed Alabamians’ taste for our local specialty: the Southern fried religion-and-politics combination platter. When Byrd entered Theodore’s equivalent of the Jerusalem Temple, he seemed oddly Jesus-y by whipping up some satire and overturning the tables of those using the House of God to pay obeisance to the Powers that Be.
Alabama’s near-election of Roy Moore is one reason our current national political climate is described by some as the Alabamifiction of America.
You’re welcome, America. (Sigh)
A popular American brand of Christianity supports politics that runs on greed and is immune to shame. This U.S. Christianity says: Just elect a rich businessman, and you can trust that the economy will improve, at least for very rich. Just eulogize Billy Graham, and folks will believe you’re on speaking terms with God. Just ask God to bless your guns, and you can sleep at night believing that your children are safer if more people have more access to more powerful weapons. Just scare an uninformed electorate with the specter of sinful transgender people in the military, and your leaders can distract them from the threat of nuclear war while taunting North Korea. Just make as much profit as possible and don’t worry if the venture is unsustainable or unhealthy to the people and the planet. Just promise to make “Make American Great Again,” and those who think religion is a series of slogans will help make America “God.”
How often humanity has been tempted to make God in our own image. We want our God to value wealth as we do. We want our God to be strong and powerful and punishing. We are refashioning now not only our nation, but our God, who favors the privileged and rich, the white and the straight, the masculine and the militant.
UCC theologian and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann critiques today’s Christianity this way: “The crisis of the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”
Brueggemann is saying that the American values we lift up and confuse with Christianity are patriotism, consumerism, violence, and affluence. But Jesus was not confused about who God was and where God was leading him. In today’s reading from John, we see God leading Jesus to the Temple to upset the religious practices that had nothing to do with genuine encounters with the divine. Sadly, parts of the Temple religion of the first century had, like much of American Christianity today, become a commercial enterprise.
It may have started innocently enough. Since the empire’s coins were not accepted in the Temple, money changers set up their tables on the Temple grounds and, for a little profit and for the convenience of the Temple goers, exchanged tainted money for temple-approved money. As if politics and religion had not already made an unholy alliance, animals were also sold to the faithful who lived so far from Jerusalem that it wasn’t practical to bring a live lamb or dove to sacrifice. But a little profit is never enough. And soon poor but pious Jews were being squeezed by the vise of religious and economic demands.
That’s why Jesus is angry. And maybe he was not merely mildly indignant. As he plaited those cords of rope into a whip, I think he had time to assess the situation. Apparently, things were as bad as he’d heard. And as he tightened the cording and tested its strength, he had time to count to well beyond ten. He had time to look directly at the moneychangers sitting behind the columns of coins imprinted with Caesar’s image. He may have snapped the whip in the air, testing its heft and length. And finally he expressed his anger, though without doing bodily injury to anyone. He drove the moneychangers out, yelling, “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace.” It was a stunning performance of piety. It was a prophet’s protest against profit in God’s house, a rabbi using street theater to condemn his religion’s collusion with power.
Let us be reminded again today that God is not for sale. That America is not for sale. That people are not for sale. The Church should not ape the marketplace or popular culture. Opulence and slickness are not signs of God.
I remember once when my childhood church held a revival and in order to “pack the pews” the next night, the children were told they’d receive a bag of treats if they brought friends with them to the revival. My mother told me we could bring my friends with us the next night, but I could not accept the bag of candy as a reward. She didn’t want us being bribed by the church. God didn’t pay us in M&M’s. Worship was its own reward.
What we, Open Table, experience together on Sundays is not a product we buy, nor are we the producers of a product that earns us money or points from God. There’s no capitalism in God’s economy of grace.
Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem and disrupted it.
Jesus went to the table of the money changers and overturned it.
Jesus shifted the focus of religion from the temple in Jerusalem to the temple of his body. Keep in mind that by the time John’s Gospel was written, the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed for over a generation. At that same time the Jews who were followers of Jesus were becoming more distinct from other Jews and had therefore been edged out of the synagogues. John’s readers were wondering: in the absence of the temple, in the lack of access to the synagogues, and in the absence of JESUS — where’s the locus of our religion?
It’s in Jesus.
But his body had disappeared, too. So eventually the people themselves become the body of Christ Jesus.
Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem and disrupted it, a foreshadowing of the demise of his body, God’s new Temple.
Jesus went to the table of the moneychangers and overturned it, turning the rigid table of measurements and a means of exchange between buyers and sellers into an exchange between a Gracious God and a people receiving the unearned gift of grace.
And at that New Table, the Lord’s Table, the followers of the Lord Jesus consumed his body and became his body, thus becoming new temples of God. The followers of Jesus did not become buyers and sellers of God’s favors. They did not situate their religious life in one particular building or location. In fact, the new temple of Christ’s body was not a static or literal edifice, and the new table of Christ’s body was a moveable table that would accommodate an infinite number of guests.
Yes, the New Temple and the New Table were able to adapt and expand like my grandmother’s dining room table that could accommodate another guest and another guest by adding another leaf and another. The New Temple situated in Christ’s love and the New Table that offers Christ’s grace can evolve, will continue to evolve. What Jesus embodied was a spirituality of loving and doing rather than of believing. Beloving rather than believing. The religion of Jesus — and perhaps the deeper versions of other religions — are capable of growing and evolving.
This past week on the podcast “On Being,” Buddhist author and teacher Stephen Batchelor spoke of Buddhism in ways that reminded me of progressive Christianity. Both are religions that can be practiced less as a set of fixed beliefs and more as how you live; less about having the right answers and more about living the questions, to use the title of the DVD series we have been following in our 9:30 class. Stephen Batchelor wrote in his book The Faith to Doubt:
“The way of the Buddha is a living response to a living question. Yet whenever it has become institutionalized, its vital response has become a well-formulated answer. The seemingly important task of preserving a particular set of answers often causes the very questions which gave rise to the answers to be forgotten. Then the lucid answers Buddhism provides are cut off from the stammering voice that asks the questions.”
Batchelor grabbed my attention with these words especially: “The rootedness in tradition is central to me; [but] I see Buddhist tradition — I suspect like other traditions, also — as not something which is static and fixed and somehow preserved in formaldehyde, but it is something that is alive.”
Today’s Gospel story is rooted in 2,000 years of tradition but remains lively and elastic and expansive. Its symbols reveal that Jesus himself was thinking creatively, rethinking the Temple not as a building but a body. And if he didn’t re-image the moneychangers’ table as the eventual Lord’s Table, he or his interpreters used rich metaphors to suggest that a place of economic transaction could be converted to a symbol of gracious self-giving.
A challenge for the church of today and the future is to remain rooted in our ancient Christian tradition, reflective upon our current political/social/economic situations, while living into future ways of being Jesus followers in a world that will always need compassionate people working for justice.
The Church of Jesus is a movement, ever reforming, always evolving. That’s why we can never exhaust the church’s depth and mystery and beauty and challenge. Thanks be to God.