What's Tony Thinking

Disturbing Business as Usual


Here’s my sermon from yesterday, March 3, the Third Sunday in Lent. You have a choice of the You Tube video, on which the sermon probably begins in the vicinity of the 15 minute mark, or of the written version below. It was a full house at Community Church, which I suspect has more to do with the time of the year and some flocks of snow birds than with yours truly, although the congregation does seem happy to have us back for round two. And we’re happy to be here!

Disturbing Business As Usual
John 2: 13 – 22
Third Sunday of Lent, Community Church of San Miguel

Well, it’s wonderful to be back with you here in San Miguel and at Community Church. Thank you for your kind invitation. So many have you reached out with words and gestures of welcome. Thank you so much.
When we were here in 2022 it was during another season of high, holy days, Advent and Christmas. Of course, I got Covid right at the end and missed our Christmas services together. Hoping that won’t happen again!

And now we are here for the other great festival season of our faith, Lent, Holy Week and Easter with all the events, processions, traditions and rituals that are a part of this time in the Christian year. We really look forward to all that in San Miguel.

All that said — what you might call the liturgical or maybe religious richness of this time and season in our faith — our “high, holy days” — the text for our first Sunday together, for this third Sunday of Lent, is surely striking, maybe even jarring.

For it features, Jesus taking on the religious establishment at its — and his own — high, holy days. You might even say what we get here is Jesus against religion — insofar as religion is the human enterprise of trying to do the things that put us on God’s good side, and then drawing a line between those we consider the good people — the godly — and those on the wrong side, the ungodly.

As such, this story of Jesus cleansing the temple is a bracing reminder that we do not worship our traditions or rituals, nor our own achievements or distinctions, not our “Christian way of life.” None of these are a substitute for the encounter with Jesus.

I recall worship at a large Catholic parish in Washington, D.C. At the point in the service for the passing of the peace the priest said, “It would be a great shame to worship together and not know those around us.” He paused and then added, “But it would be a far greater shame to worship and not to know God.” At which point the congregation became to clap slowly, rhythmically and in unison, as if to say, “we have no intention of leaving here without meeting God.”

The story of Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” appears in all four of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But here in John, as is true so often with the Fourth Gospel, it is different. Without getting too deep into the weeds, the differences are often crucial clues to meaning.

For one thing, in Matthew, Mark and Luke the Temple incursion comes as a part of Holy Week. In all three of those Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and goes immediately to the Temple where he creates quite the scene: tables overturned, animals running loose, vendors fleeing his whip, coins dancing on stone. In the other three Gospels, the Temple cleansing comes at the end of the story. It’s the last straw, the event that precipitates Jesus’ crucifixion in a few days time.

What chapter are we in here in John? Chapter 2. We’re just at the beginning. What gives? Did John lose the thread? Get confused? Have a senior moment? No, it’s intentional. For John the Temple incursion is not so much “the last straw” as it is the opening salvo in the impending conflict. Why the change? If Jesus is fully human and fully God, as we confess, John leans more into the fully God. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

Here’s another big difference in John’s version. In all the others, as Jesus topples tables, snaps his whip and drives out the vendors, he quotes the prophet Jeremiah. “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

Invoking Jeremiah there makes the meaning clear. The business going on in the temple is corrupt. People are being bilked, conned, taken advantage of in God’s own temple. Jesus comes, then, as a prophet to cleanse a corrupt faith. Which makes it pretty easy for us to take his side, to cheer him on — go Jesus. We might even give ourselves a pat on the back because we’ve traded out the piegeons and goats for Easter lillies and flowered crosses. Besides our books are open and in accord with GAP. No one is fleecing the flock at CCSMA. . . . Of course, if you let us preachers stay longer than two months . . . who knows what might happen?

But in John, again, it’s different. No Jeremiah. No “den of robbers.” In John’s version there’s nothing to suggest that corruption, kick-backs or false shepherds are the issue. You see those who sold the animals for ritual sacrifice to atone for sin and those who provided currency exchange so that people can turn the currency of the Roman empire into coinage acceptable for use in the Temple were providing a service. It was business as usual, the business of religion.

The vendors were helping people to practice their faith — kind of like selling Advent calendars, Lenten devotional booklets, candles — or for some crystals and booklets on life-hacks for acquiring spiritual serenity. That’s what John is saying. It’s not about corruption, which is kind of the implication of the term “cleansing” of the Temple. It’s about the business and busy-ness of religion, the systems humans create to get on God’s good side.

You hear a lot of people say these days that they don’t like or don’t do “organized religion.” Maybe you heard about the sweet guy who was out knocking on doors to invite people to his church. When the person who answered the door said, “Sorry, I’m not into ‘organized religion,’” the cheerful caller said, “Oh then, you’ll like our church. We’ve been trying to get organized for twenty years and haven’t managed it yet.”

As much as the “I don’t like organized religion” cliche can become an excuse or even a bit of hypocrisy, it has a point to it. We can get all caught up on the business and busy-ness of religion. Christianity gets turned into all the stuff we should do or must do in order to get on God’s good side.

Amazing grace morphs into a list of rules. You must pray every day. Read your Bible more. Take time to be more spiritual. Serve those in need. Be on this or that committee. Oh and while you’re at, get yourself in shape because you know your body is the temple of the Lord. Forgive that person who has hurt you — again. Do more, try harder. Increase your pledge. Give more to mission!

It’s not, of course, that any of these things are wrong or bad in themselves. They may be good. Even very good. But the point is that they put the focus on us and our doing. If you do all this and do it right, well then your are among the godly, the righteous. If your life is a mess, you’ve lost your job, one of your kids is addicted, you’re out of luck

But that’s law, not gospel.

The gospel? “I did not come,” said Jesus, “for the righteous, but for sinners.” The gospel is a word of mercy for the broken, the sinful. And what did Paul say? “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly . . . God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Paul does not say, “Christ died for the godly, but for the ungodly.”

Many people think the primary message of Christianity is about how we are to behave. It is not. The primary message of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus has died for us, been raised for us and will surely come again for us. He is the power and agent of salvation.

We can get very busy and can become quite frazzled and fried — “stressed” we say — trying to get it right, trying to be perfect when we think that the primary message of relgion is about how we are to behave. What was it Anne Lamott say about “perfection?” “Perfection is the enemy of the people.” Why I read recently that even Marie Kondo, the queen of “decluttering,” has raised the white flag. You see, now she has kids, three I think. Clutter everywhere!

When Jesus turned over the tables and did the equivalent of unlocking all the cages at the zoo the issue was not — at least here in John — corruption or thieves in the temple; it’s was the ways that humans try to turn Christianity, any religion really, into a transactional relationship. If I do this, you God will do that, right? I behave in this way and not that way, then God will love me.

To all that busyness, this fevered activity, what does God say? Stop it. Stop it right this very moment. You don’t have to get on my good side. In Jesus Christ I have taken your side, and I will never leave it. Promise.

Which is why Jesus can say, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Dear friends, he is our temple. In him, in his grace, we meet and are met by the Living God. It’s not about what you and I have to do to gain God’s approval. It’s about what God has done, is doing and has promised; grace for the imperfect like us, mercy for sinners like me and you, his love for the lost and discouraged which is, often enough, where we find ourselves, isn’t it?

Some of us are old enough to remember the 60’s book, then movie, “Up the Down Staircase.” About a new teacher in a large New York public high school who kept getting confused and going up the down staircase — among other miscues. I think that happens with our faith. We try to climb up to God, to ascend to the spiritual heights. But the gospel is about the God who in Jesus Christ comes down, down to us where we are, just as we are, comes to sinners in need of grace, and who calls us down to earth.

I’ve personally spent plenty of time and energy struggling to go up the down staircase, trying to work my way up to God, to prove myself okay or worthy, of value. Don’t we all do that, at least some of that? And then beat up on ourselves when we falter or fail?

Quite a few years ago now, I went/ we went, from my first call church, which had for the most part been a very happy experience. We were well-loved, lots of good things happened, and I was feeling like a kind of rising star as churches seeking a pastor came knocking on our door, literally.

We went to that second-call, which was a church that had endured a long, long period of conflict and challenge. I mean some real tough stuff. Big time division, hurt and hardness of heart. The membership was down to a quarter of what it had once been. I — “rising star” — said, “No problem, I like a challenge. Watch me climb the ladder of success.”

What anyone watching would have seen a young man who thought he was hot stuff, wither, wear out and grind very nearly to a halt. “Depression,” we called it. You see, I had thought that if I were a perfect or near perfect pastor, if I just worked hard enough, preached great sermons, fixed the things that needed to be fixed, that church would be up and running in no time. But that’s law, not gospel. You must, you should. And it was killing me.

Baffled and bewildered I went off to a place called “The Spiritual Life Center,” for a silent retreat. Who ever heard of such a thing . . . a silent retreat? Not doing. My crowd, we were activists. But there I was. And the only thing I was to do was to take the Scripture passage assigned to me for that day and pray it. Pray it over several times, said Sr. Katherine, and see where it leads you. “And, oh,” she added, “If you fall asleep, that’s okay. You’re probably exhausted.” Was it that obvious, I thought? Apparently so.

The first passage I was given to pray was from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 43. I see that at last week’s Seekers Group was talking this week about passages of Scripture that mean a lot to people. This would certainly be one of mine. Picture a weary, discouraged, despairing pastor. One more thing, Sr. Katherine had also said, “Whenever you come to a name in the reading, why don’t you put your own name in there.” So I prayed,

“But now thus says, the Lord, he who created you, Tony; he who formed you, Anthony, do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
“I have called you by name, you are mine.
‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and at the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
“When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One . . .”

As I prayed those words, something amazing happened. My body relaxed. For the first time in a long time, I felt that I could breathe. My breathing slowed and deepened, as if God were breathing life into my dry bones. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.”

Notice: not a single word about what I must do, should do. There was no if/ then to it. The subject of the verbs wasn’t me. The subject of every verb was God, about God’s doing, which is the grammar of the gospel, not if/ then, but unconditional promise.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you”
That’s gospel.
“I have called you by name; you are mine”
That’s good news.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you . . . That’s unconditional, the promise of God.

No longer did I dwell in a temple I was trying so hard to build or maintain or prop up. Jesus is our Temple, in him we meet and are met by the Living God.

Come now the this temple, to Jesus. Come to his table. Hear his words to you, his gospel for you:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.
“I have called you by name, you are mine.
This is my body, broken for you . . .
This is my blood shed for you . . .
Take and eat, hunger no more.

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