Parishioners have gotten to know my dog, Hunter, since we’ve been doing our worship services online. He typically likes to add his voice to my sermon each week. He is a beloved part of our household and we are protective of him as he ages. He gets up slowly because his back legs are feeble but he still protects us. He no longer hears the doorbell when it rings. He doesn’t see well but is still able to catch food mid-air much of the time. He devours the treats we slip his way, belying his priorities.
When Hunter is given a savory bone from our dinner table, he wanders our estate, looking for a suitable hiding place. We know when he’s in this state of worship because he whines. He walks around our house with the bone in his mouth, looking tormented as he struggles to find the most secure nook. Garrett’s side of the closet is a favorite spot. But he’s also taken it outside, even burying it in the snow. I’m amazed at how he can sniff out a bone in the snow on a bitter cold day. He trots in victoriously like a King preparing to count his money. We joked that he’s a little bit like Peter at the time of the transfiguration. Perhaps you remember that Peter was so stunned by the glory on the mountain top that he wants to build a booth or pitch a tent. He wants to encamp for days to hold onto that sacred experience. We build a booth when we take seventy pictures of a breathtaking mountain only to discover that none of them measure up to the lived reality. In fact, we may have diminished our experience by trying to capture it through a lens rather than just living it. Hunter wants to build a booth to house his bone. He hangs onto the precious moment of unimaginable blessing in case we never toss him a bone again! He finds a protected place and relaxes–but only for awhile! He checks his bank balance by digging it up the next day then wanders the earth looking for another safety deposit box. You can never be too careful!
In John’s Gospel the order to the events in Jesus’ life is different from that of the other Gospel writers. In John 2 we read the prophetic story of Jesus chasing the moneychangers off the temple grounds. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this disruptive event happens in the last week of Jesus’ life. In John’s Gospel this bold act shows up as Jesus is kicking off his ministry. We have to wonder why John would place that defiant moment at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Any Jew approaching the Jerusalem Temple would do so with awe. They would have a keen sense of belonging in this place that hosted the deepest spiritual moments of their ancestors. It was always a privilege to be in this sanctuary yet Jesus disrupted the scene by throwing a fit. The temple was an amazing structure. Herod the Great had tried to curry favor with the Jews by starting a renovation of the temple in 20 BC. 47 years later, Jesus showed up and spoke of tearing down the structure. The Jews within earshot of this preposterous claim were incredulous: “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?“ I can hear their snide laughter.
The Jews were expected to sacrifice from their personal lives to keep the temple in good condition. They gave money to support the priests whose lives were dedicated to the spiritual well-being of their people. Money was allotted to help widows and orphans, a charitable outreach unequalled by other religions. When Jews entered the temple grounds, they found themselves in the Court of the Gentiles. Temple insiders authorized these non-Jews to be present in a sort of religious flea market. They sold animals to the pilgrims which served as their offering. There was a secondary need for having these merchant services on the temple grounds. Each individual paid a temple tax. Roman coins were not accepted in the Temple because they bore the image of rulers not unlike dear Abe on every one of our pennies. Those faces were understood to be graven images, thus violating the second commandment. The Roman coins had to be exchanged for Jewish currency. Banking and trading was not intrinsically evil but it had gotten out of hand. The money changers charged unfair rates of exchange. The price for animals was high, taking advantage of weary pilgrims who needed to make a suitable offering. The principle of supply and demand was brazenly on display in the Court of the Gentiles. Jesus saw that it was a racket and threw a righteous fit!
Most images of Jesus portrayed in artwork display serenity. I’ve heard some people say that He is depicted as a “wimp.” If that’s the image you have in your mind, this story will confront you. As early as twelve years of age, Jesus claimed the temple as His Father’s house. This was heretical language. Knowing God with such intimacy, Jesus was incensed when people used the sanctuary for their own gain. It’s the classic tale of the teenager throwing a big party in her parents’ lovely home when they leave for the weekend. It’s all fun until the guests abuse the house because they don’t care about it. The girl has to oust her guests and repair the damage before the parents return. Jesus defended God’s honor by protecting the temple as a worship space. But the Jews turned it into Mall of America, attempting to buy their salvation for a fee. Jesus turned that bad theology on its head!
The story asks a question: What is Church? John features this story early in Jesus’ ministry to call out idolatry of place. He decries the inverted values by which we worship gods of our own making. We want to preserve precious moments as treasure. We refuse to relinquish them so they interfere with God‘s will for our lives. Like the Apostle Peter–and my dog Hunter–we want to build a booth, assemble a Shutterfly book, and buy a souvenir to mark an event. Time and again we discover that nothing equals the experience itself. Often we miss the beauty of the moment in our fervent effort at containing it.
A Mainline church in New York City owned a high-rise building across the street from their sanctuary. A developer asked to buy their unused space. A total of 60 stories, they sold twenty stories to the developer for five million dollars. This seemed like a win-win proposal but actually created great consternation. The congregation was not unified when deciding how to spend this unexpected windfall. Comprised of Wall Street executives and educated city folks, some of the membership wisely suggested they invest it! Great idea! Other people said that it goes against the nature of Christ’s Church to sit on piles of money. Their suggestion was to use it to support a homeless shelter. A compromise was reached: they split the income in half. Two and one half million dollars was invested and two and one half million dollars was spent to create shelter for some of the homeless population in that city. It really was an argument about idolatry. Do we deify our facility, putting the beautification of a facility above the calling to love the least of these? At what point is it irresponsible to give money to missions if our building is falling into disrepair? There has to be a balance, doesn’t there?
I wonder if Jesus is cleansing the Church in this time of COVID? Is He perhaps asking us to examine our priorities and be ready to change? Hulett Gloer writes, “The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, never intentionally, always in service of the church and its missions. Soon the church is full of cattle and sheep and turtledoves and money changers.” Is Jesus at work as we isolate at home?
My last morning in Jerusalem was spent in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This grand structure is built over the site of Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified. It is a massive compound that houses some 25 different sanctuaries. Each one is operated by a different Christian denomination. Each jealously guards their own space. Each cleric tries to out-bellow the other in worship. Before I left on my trip, a friend recommended that I soak in the cacophony of worship noises on my visit. I wandered from one unique sanctuary into another. Crusader crosses mark the basement walls from one thousand years ago. Sadly, this sacred space has become a breeding ground for territorial Christians who guard their own sacred turf like my dog protects his bone.
I have no doubt that Christ is worshiped in that holy space but there is a selfishness that cannot be ignored. Each night the door to this holy complex is locked. Guess who holds the key? For generations the same Muslim family has been entrusted with it because the Christians can’t trust each other. Every night a member of that Muslim family locks the door and re-opens it in the morning. Christians have built a spectacular sort of booth over a holy site, wanting to contain it. Christians from all over the world worship in that space. But I wonder what Jesus might do if He entered through those doors today?
We’ve had to explore what it means to be a church without a building this year. It has been disorienting. Not only have we lost our space but we can’t even gather together safely. After a year of transformed worship, we are anxious to get back in the building. We are ready to serve as a shelter for homeless families. Our youth director worked alongside our high school students to transform the youth room into a space that is both safe and comfortable for meetings. I can’t wait for them to gather and grow their faith in that appealing room. We are tailoring our sanctuary to suit the needs of a streaming audience. We have discovered that the Internet does not readily cooperate in a building that was constructed in the 1870s! It takes money to get good cell coverage. It takes money to have good lighting for a streaming product. It takes a good camera and a skilled person behind the camera. Part of our church budget is needed to make the technological improvements so that our sanctuary allows folks to join our worship from their homes. We anticipate that expanded congregation even when we can safely gather again. Do we idolize our building and insist it remain the same as it was a generation ago? Or do we adapt so that the Spirit of the living God can continue to be experienced by a broader congregation?
When Jesus made a scene in the temple courts, he was angry at those who took advantage of the faithful for their own gain. Jesus grieved that His people had lost sight of true worship. I hear Him crying out, “You’re missing the point! Forget the success plan you’ve carefully tailored to earn your way into heaven! Get on your face and rest in God‘s presence. Be in awe of God‘s power. Bask in the reality that God notices you! Don’t obsess over shiny stars by your name on the attendance ledger.”
Friends, with the renewed promise of resurrection, lay down your burdens in this long siege called COVID. Let go of your sadness, anger, and frustration. Don’t’ feel like you have to bury God’s love. No one can steal it from you. Don’t hoard it, like it’s a limited commodity. Don’t try to out-preach another believer. God needs all of our voices. God has enough love for you and me and them, all of them, whoever they are! So lay it down in Jesus’ name, all of it! Amen!