March 8, 2015: Terribly Wrong at the Temple

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Third Sunday in Lent

In spite of strong attendance and robust revenues something is seriously wrong at the Temple. It’s Pentecost – family reunion feast, when Jews from all over pour in – sort of like Christmas or Easter for us. Hotel rooms get booked a year ahead. Now no rooms – no dinner reservations. Commerce even booms in the Temple narthex: buying sacrificial animals; exchanging local coins for Temple-approved ones to pay off pledges. That’s the system. Jesus bursts in – bypassing priests, vestry wardens, and Temple treasurer. He immediately overturns tables, frees animals, tips over the ATMs – nothing meek and mild here. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Something is terribly wrong with the Temple and Jesus aims to change that.

Early on I learned the church is Jesus’ Father’s house. There are house rules: Always dress up for God. Look reverent – meaning somewhere between serious and grim. No running or laughing. Think only holy thoughts. God is stern and unpredictable. I had no other God images. Jesus comes to implant a different image of God that day. Not all still have gotten the memo.

After the first Passover God makes a covenant with his freshly freed from Egypt chosen, offering them mercy, graciousness, faithfulness, forgiveness, and everlasting love. In return they promise God obedience, and God will make them a light to the nations. They have rules to keep. Rules are essential. We learned that from mama and daddy. Break them and get punished. God seems to be that way. In the ancient world sacrificial systems arose to appease the gods. Mess up and expect punishment unless you make an offering. That’s your only power and possibility.

So if bad things happen, God must be ticked off. Keep the rituals, show remorse, make offerings and sacrifices to get back into God’s good stead. This was common knowledge in the ancient world, and Judaism is still evolving. Problem was they’d fail to bring their hearts, lives or behaviors to offer to God as well. God has never been real impressed with outward displays. So the covenant relationship degenerates into a system of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

Now, we know nothing’s really free. Life works quid pro quo. “Do me a favor. I’ll do you one.” That’s how God works, too – right? Grace may be a nice ideal, but really, God loves us if we’re good. When one side seems to have all the power, like God, our natural reaction is to fear, hide, or do something to get God on our side. Sacrifice, confession, giving money, joining a church – what must we do to earn God’s approval? At the Temple and altar where God resides – at feasts, making sacrifice, on Sundays you reconnect to God. Some of that primitive thinking probably still lurks within us.

Jesus overturns tables that day, and starts unraveling the system. You want a sign: “Destroy the Temple. In three days I will raise it up.” That grand Temple, still under construction, is gone by the time this Gospel is written. His followers later realize Jesus means his own body, destroyed by God’s professional friends. God is no longer confined to bricks and mortar. God meets us in a risen Lord on the prowl. So power shifts. If you think you’re obligated to a God who’ll get you – get over it. You’re not – unless you think he’ll get you with love. On a cross we experience God’s power to love and forgive through suffering and death. God is vulnerable. No deals or exchanges. No ledgers kept. God loves us forever – has all along. And control, well, decide how you’ll live knowing God loves you and nothing will change that. Is that power or weakness – foolishness or wisdom, as Paul posits, that God is hopelessly and irrevocably in love with all of us, regardless? The original covenant is simply updated. Jesus embodies the intent of the Temple – to bring us into union with God’s love. If we come to worship and leave in any other state, we’ve failed God.

Frederick Buechner says: “There is no better proof for God’s existence than how year after year, he survives the way his professional friends treat him.”[1] If you grew up in a church or religious system that gave you more fear of God than love for God, beware of some of God’s professional friends. God’s true friends point to Jesus who leads us to the father he understands, knows and experiences so we can experience, know and trust God’s love and grace is for you and everyone. And as Paul says to the Corinthians when we get it, we can’t help but offer ourselves to God, as living sacrifices. That’s worship.

Fifty years ago this weekend a march for freedom began in Selma, Alabama. Some weeks prior a living sacrifice had been made. A black Baptist deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, a voting rights advocate – was killed by a state trooper as he protects his mother from being clubbed. Peaceful marchers on March 7 were met and beaten by police – bloody Sunday. A white Unitarian minister was clubbed to death two days after the march on his way to a meeting with Dr. King. A white Unitarian woman was shot to death after the last of the three marches from Selma. Several months later an Episcopal seminary student, Jonathan Daniels, staying there to help people register to vote, dies from a shotgun blast intended for a black teenage girl. Each August 14 the Episcopal Church officially remembers his sacrifice. Following Jesus outside the safe walls of churches – to deny ourselves to love and serve all God’s people – well, things like this will happen. God calls us to do more than remember. We continue to work for God’s vision – to eradicate and end injustice, offer opportunity for all. We do follow Jesus, right?

How do you respond to God’s unfailing love? Does it bother you – bore you – move you? Still trying to earn it? Are you catching fire with God’s love? There’s a world of difference in striving to earn God’s love, and living worthy of such love.

[1] W. Hulitt Gloer, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Westminster John Knox: Louisville, London, 2008), 95.


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