John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Exodus 20:1-17 (Lent 3B)
There is a joke that occasionally passes through pastors’ circles now and again with a bit of light-hearted commentary on the passion (or lack thereof) of worship in a particular pastor’s church. Says one pastor: “My congregation is so dead in worship that if someone were to have a heart attack, when the EMTs arrived they’d wonder to whom they should attend.” Those of us who worship regularly in congregations that bear any resemblance to that description chuckle uneasily at this joke. Yet truth be told, it hits a little too close to home. What has happened to our practice of worship that it has become yet another instance of a religious institution “going through the motions” rather than true, life-shaping (rather than sleep inducing) encounter with the living God? I don’t know about you, but a few cattle and sheep in the narthex of my church might be just the ticket to breaking our somnolence and accommodation to the “way things are” in congregational worship.
It seems to me that what is at stake in this gospel lesson of Jesus storming the temple is that the worshipping body, and more importantly the religious authorities, have simply fallen asleep at the wheel and accepted all of these marketplace practices (and the implications thereof) without much thought or question. Why not sell animals in the courtyard? It will make worship easy and accessible to all. Why not place some money-changers inside the gates? It will make it possible for all to give their temple offerings in the proper currency thus keeping the people right with God. Can’t we leverage these harmless activities for the sake of proper worship of God? And so, what began as sensible ideas suddenly was exposed by Jesus as idolatry and accommodation. The temple was a market place; the political powers were satisfied. Somewhere along the way the efficiency and survival of the institution supplanted the sanctity of worship in that place.
It is easy to read this story and distance ourselves from its lesson. There are no cows or exchange officers in my church…we must be doing OK. (Yet, woe to the mega church with the in-house coffee shop and bookstore!) Or, we create elaborate policies and procedures to shield ourselves from possible association with these temple practices. (For example, my congregation has a policy about money changing in the narthex—no bake sales for mission in the sightline of the chancel! (The adjacent hallway, on the other hand, is fair game.)) While policies such as this have their proper place, both of these excuses miss the point of the story. The nuance, too, is one to which we pastors and laity tempted towards quick criticism and judgment do well to attend.
Jesus’ critique of the temple practices challenge us all to question what “activities” of our congregational life together we have made into idols, assured that they are “necessary” for the functioning of our life together yet which fail to lead us to true worship of the Triune God. What busyness of church life do we foster such that worshippers (better yet the God whom we worship) find little in the way of sacred space in our churches? Though these many activities: meals, committee meetings, children’s programs, projects, task forces, studies, book groups, and support groups each appear to fulfill a necessary function, have they led us to forget our purpose?
I am reminded by W. Hulitt Gloer in his commentary on this passage that “the trappings [of the temple] were still in place but the place had no heart for its raison d’etre. It has been taken over by buyers and sellers, consumers and marketers who knew how to fill pews and meet campaign goals. The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, never intentionally, always in the service of the church and its mission” (Feasting on the Word, Lent 3B, p. 97). It is a wake up call to me as a “religious authority” of my own time and place when I read the account of those temple authorities who question Jesus’ authority to disrupt “the way things are.” Gloer again reminds me, “After all, they were doing the things the way they were doing them because they believed they were doing them right. They had no intention of violating God’s purposes, and they would never knowingly oppose God” (97). What better time than Lent for us to examine our congregational lives together and ask where we have settled into comfortable behaviors that allow us to plug along, asleep at the wheel, blind to the manure piling up in the narthex? Would that we would align ourselves with the God that we meet in our other two lessons for the day: the God calling to his people from Sinai, “I want my people back” (Exodus 20: 2-4); the God who reigns from the weakness and foolishness of the cross and exposes all of the world’s foolishness and the failings of human strength (1 Cor 1: 18-25).