Out the Church
by the Reverend Caroline M. Stacey
sermon preached March 15, 2009 at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in
New York City. Lent 3, Year B
(Readings: RCL: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22)
I expect that many of you read the New York Times. If you do, you will have read the heartrending series of stories recently about how the recession is affecting families who were once comfortably middle class; not affluent, but able to afford a modest home, make a car payment, and still have enough money to go on a modest vacation every year. At least, to pile in the car and drive to visit relatives. These stories are deeply troubling and painful to read; the same families with two children now living in one motel room; a boy coming back from school to this motel room asking his father: “Dad, are we homeless”? (NY Times 3/11/09). Children being taunted by their classmates because they are living in a motel. Teenagers missing their pets – having to give them away because the motel does not take pets. Families living paycheck to paycheck and not able to save enough for a security deposit on an apartment of their own. Families getting deeper into debt with no-one in the family currently employed. This is indeed the Great Recession.
Spirituality, thrift, and simplicity are in. Conspicuous consumption is out. People are talking about a lasting change in values, even if the economy turns around – as though this recession has pushed the reset button on the American psyche and is maybe even redefining the American dream. Will the lessons we are learning stick? Will we remember, if and when the economy turns around, that in the end greed is not good for anyone? Will we remember that even the “winners” can lose; a nation, an entire global economy, can implode in the face of its inflated desires? Will these learnings stick? I hope so. This recession could be the re-making of this country. And didn’t we all know deep down that spending our precious, short lives in pursuit of the next “lifestyle aspiration” is demeaning to the human spirit, too small a dream for the miraculous capacity of a human being?
Let us turn to today’s gospel. What is Jesus reacting to in the Temple? Each gospel tells the story slightly differently. Mark’s gospel has an additional statement by Jesus: This is meant to be a house of prayer for all the nations. (Mk.11:17) Is Jesus angry that the outer courts – the court where the Gentiles are invited to worship – are full up instead with money-changers and the noise and smell of birds and animals? John’s gospel is the least Hebraic – written from a Greek tradition, primarily for Greeks. And John’s gospel is also the last to be committed to writing; few scholars would put it before 90AD - and most later. So, our account today is the furthest from the cultural and religious source of Temple life. John’s account implies what becomes the traditional interpretation of the cleansing of the Temple: Jesus sees the Temple becoming a den of profiteering and extortion. So that devout people see no contradiction between exchanging currency or retail transactions and the worship of God in the most sacred space in the Hebrew world.
But there is actually no direct statement in any of the gospels that any profiteering is going on – that is Christian eisegesis or reading-in. In fact, in the Jewish context, what is going on is absolutely necessary to carrying out the laws regarding Temple sacrifice. Although scholarly research has not answered all questions about what went on in the Jerusalem Temple before its destruction in AD70, some things we do know. Every male Jew had to pay annual dues to the Temple. Coins that had images of other “lords” engraved on them, such as the heads of emperors, were banned as idolatrous. So you had to change your Roman coins for Temple currency in order to pay the Temple dues. Bird and animal sacrifices were required by the Law, and had to be purchased for this purpose. So there are the necessary money-changers and the requisite bird-sellers.
Jesus is seized by a deep and passionate certainty that sacrificing other creatures is not the way to God. He sees that it demeans God’s love for God’s people, and the people’s love for God. It isn’t just profanity in a holy place; it is an exploitation of the people, of their most holy, sincere desire to worship God. It is not so much that there is profiteering within the system (although there may be), it is rather that the entire system is built on false ideas about God and humanity, and the relationship between us and God. Jesus reacts violently against the idea that people need to transact their way into the presence of God and the love of God.
My belief is that Jesus knows that the religious leaders know that God is more interested in human beings loving our neighbors than sacrificing animals to earn God’s favor. This is why Jesus targets the religious leaders throughout his ministry as particularly culpable. Like the mortgage lenders and bankers who were caught up in lending practices that everyone “consented” to, Temple leaders are more responsible because of their knowledge and power and role. The chief priests know at some level that the Hebrew relationship with God has already evolved by the 1st century beyond a sacrificial system, and a ritual purity ethic; that the traditional Temple sacrifices are theologically-speaking a bit Wizard-of-Oz , but the religious leaders are part of that system, and benefit from it. They alone can reform it, but it is better for their interests to let it be. Their role places them at the top of the Temple system. The priests decide who is ritually clean and who is not, who is worthy to come into God’s presence and under what conditions, and who is not. If the sacrificial system goes, if the purity code goes, their power goes with it. The chief priests are becoming aware that Jesus is going to keep on asking questions. The cleansing of the Temple is an act that asks an enormous question about God and about holiness and about what God asks of God’s people. In Mark and Luke (Mk.11:12f.; Lk.19:45f.) this action by Jesus is the primary incident that provokes the religious leaders to seek to have Jesus silenced. Some questions are too threatening to ask out loud.
I remember many years ago, I served a parish that was blessed with great resources. In an effort to clarify its central mission amidst all of the ministry opportunities they could pursue, the Vestry decided that its main priority should be the preservation of the patrimony. In other words: to steward its endowment and property. Now, this parish did and does an incredible amount of good with its amazing resources. And I have no problem with good stewardship and growing an endowment to generate increased funding for mission – this is a very faithful endeavor. But I and many others at that time had a problem with doing this while at the same time closing a relatively inexpensive lunchtime feeding program for the hungry. One of my colleagues spoke out against this and was publicly dressed down for saying: “This is wrong”. Most of us kept our heads down and our mouths shut, at least in public. The trouble with this approach of saying nothing is that if we don’t speak up in instances like this, there may come a time when we can’t tell any more what is of God and what is off-center. When an institution is large and powerful, asking awkward questions can be threatening.
How does the church get confused about its purpose? So that it cannot even tell what is evil and what is good anymore? Or so that it rationalizes or justifies what is wrong?
Probably many faithful Jews had qualms about what was happening in the Temple precincts. We know that some religious leaders – like Nicodemus the Pharisee (Jn. 3) are already open to radical new understanding of their faith. But most of them kept their heads down and their mouths shut (at least in public). But Jesus does not. Jesus is “calling out” the Temple system, and by extension, calling out the church – or, rather, calling forth the true church.
The distortion of the gospel by the Church is very serious. One of most powerful prayers in Good Friday liturgy asks forgiveness “for those who, in the Name of Christ, have persecuted others…” (BCP 279) Using church tradition or teaching to oppress or denigrate or exclude others is to work against the Holy Spirit, against the work of God in the world. It is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And, in fact, if we think of times when the church has done that – using the Bible to justify slavery, or racism, or persecution of women who have the audacity to exercise leadership in churches, or leave abusive marriages – it is very clear to me that the efforts in some places to use Scripture to persecute divorced people, civil rights leaders, gay and lesbian persons is to participate in institutional evil within the church. These are not differences of opinion or Scriptural understanding. Rather it is a corporate sin of the church that has a long and ignoble history, running all the way from excluding Gentile Christians from full fellowship unless they were circumcised; running through the Crusades in the Name of Christ; through the upholding of slavery and racism and misogyny in the name of Christ; to today’s persecution and exile of a Davis MacIyalla by the Nigerian church in the Name of Christ.
Institutional evil like this is serious anywhere. It is especially serious in the church. Because the church is intended to be the community that sets the standard of community for the whole of humanity; the church is to be the community that embodies such hope, such generosity that it is a foretaste of the very kingdom of God.
I think that this time of recession and chaos is a moment of opportunity for the nation to come to its senses. It is also an opportunity for the church to be the church. We can help press the societal re-set button, as people ask “now what”, and as people define their new reality and values. There is a receptivity to the gospel and to the resilient compassion and genuine community that the church can offer. This is a unique time of openness to hearing: “Materialism is not the way to abundant life” - because this has become blindingly apparent. Stepping off the upwardly mobile track is sensible. It was a soul-destroying way to live in the first place: just as soul-destroying as Temple sacrifices and purity codes were. The dignity of humanity is what is at stake. It is not that we have been caught thinking too highly of ourselves, and therefore are brought to our knees – although at one level, this is exactly what has happened economically. But at a much deeper level, far too many of our fellow human beings have thought too little of their profound worth as human beings and undervalued the preciousness of their lives and days and energies. We as a nation have spent decades in a land that is waste, in a far off country. And now it is time for all of us to return home.
Be present in our midst, risen and living Christ. Be known to us in the Scriptures we hear; in our fellowship with one another; and in the breaking of the bread; that we, being fed, may bring your life and hope to others. AMEN
© 2009 Caroline M. Stacey
The Reverend Caroline Stacey is the rector of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields (Episcopal) in New York City: http://stlukeinthefields.org/web/