Monday, March 5, 2018

Setting Up Tables

The Temple in Jerusalem is the hub of Jewish life in Jesus’ day.  For most people who come to it for one of the three yearly pilgrimage festivals, the Temple is the most impressive structure they will ever see.  Its sheer size is beyond anything else they have experienced.  Its appointments are lavish and impressive beyond imagining.

It is the place where God resides.  We come to our church and encounter God here in a special way, but we do not think of this space as being the one and only place where God is.  The people of Jesus’ day believe God lives in the heart of the Temple complex, in a space known as the Holy of Holies.  It is a place so sacred only one priest once a year can enter it to offer a sacrifice on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.

Beyond its spiritual function, the Temple is also central to the governance of Israel.  It functions as a capital building and has its own security force to ensure compliance with it rules and regulations.  While we live in a country where church and state exist as separate entities, the Temple is a complete fusion of the two.

As such, it is a huge operation whose economic impact makes it the Wall Street of its day.  It derives its wealth from required offerings as well as taxation.  And a lot of people make a livelihood by working in and around the Temple.  Lawyers, scribes, priests, military personnel, and marketers are everywhere.  The marketers convert goods and foreign money into a currency suitable for the tax and offerings.  And because it is more convenient to purchase some things in Jerusalem than to drag them with you on a pilgrimage journey of days or even weeks, they also sell the various birds, animals, and grains required for sacrifices. 

Jesus’ reaction upon entering the Temple is recorded in all four gospels.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke have this taking place on his third and final Passover in Jerusalem.  It happens two days after his triumphant entry on Palm Sunday and his actions push the authorities to arrest, try, and execute him by the end of the week.  John, whose gospel is much more interested in what things mean than when the actually happen, places this story at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry during his first Passover in Jerusalem.  It takes place shortly after the wedding in Cana where – in a more private setting – Jesus amazes his new followers by turning water into wine.  His action in the Temple is a prophetic act, announcing to all he is a force with which to be reckoned.

John’s version of the story differs from the other three in one more way.  The others record Jesus as saying, “This is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”  He indicts the marketers for their immoral business practices.  But in John, Jesus says, “Take these things out of here.  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”  Here Jesus is not accusing anyone of cheating or fraud, but rather points out the entire system is broken.    

The Temple exhibits what happens with many human structures and institutions as they grow in size and power.  It has become unwieldy to manage and detached from its purpose and those it is meant to serve.  Jesus is concerned those who seek God can find God.  But when he goes to the Temple at Passover what he finds is not God, but something akin to Black Friday at the Williamsburg Outlet Mall.  It is chaotic, overwhelming, anything but conducive to prayer, and Jesus wants nothing to do with it.

The authorities challenge him to demonstrate what gives him the right to shake up the status quo.  Biblical scholars tell us John’s entire gospel is laid out in response to this question.  Everything Jesus does – from feeding 5,000 people with only a few loaves and fish to raising Lazarus from the dead – demonstrates who he is and on what authority he acts.

Later in the gospel, in a conversation with a Samaritan woman as the two sit at noonday beside a well, Jesus articulates his vision.  Their conversation goes back and forth, touching on many issues and concerns.  At one point she brings up a question which Jews and Samaritans debate: where is the correct place to worship… on a mountain in Samaria or at the Temple in Jerusalem?  Jesus responds, “The hour is coming, and now is here, when people will not worship on the mountain or in the Temple, but will worship God in spirit and truth.” 

Jesus teaches our experience with institutional religion is to nurture and nourish us by connecting us with the Living God and by being better connected with our neighbors.  What he encounters is the Temple, which places heavy demands on people while offering little of God in return.  As he said of the Sabbath, so too he holds of the Temple:  people are not made so we can have a Temple, the Temple is made to be beneficial for people in their relationship with God and one another.  He is on a mission to make this happen.

Last Wednesday was a wonderful day at St. Paul’s.  So many of you came together to prepare and host a community lunch following the Lenten noonday service here.  I have never in my life seen so many crockpots of delicious looking soups.  It took a lot of people to set up, serve, and contribute and each and every person here acted as if they had no other place they would rather be and no more important thing to do than offer gracious hospitality.  Joy filled the Parish Hall and everyone who came here to worship picked up on it.  Joy permeated the service, even though I chose two hymns to sing nobody seemed to know.  Oh, and never mind our volunteers planed on seating and feeding 100 people and 156 showed up.  Our volunteers accepted the challenge with grace and good cheer.  While Jesus was good at turning over tables, we couldn’t set up ours fast enough!  I am pleased to report most of the churches who host these services have the same spirit as they serve and perhaps I am bias, but I think God’s love shines just a little brighter through us.

I think we lived into Jesus’ vision of what institutional religion is to look like.  As we reached out to God and we reached out giving and receiving from one another.  One group offered food, labor, and gracious hospitality while another responded with gratitude and thankfulness.  I believe deep in my heart Suffolk is a better place because of what happened here last Wednesday. 

And I believe Jesus expresses righteous indignation centuries ago because no one walked away from their time at the Temple better than when they came.  Yes, everyone had done their duty, but no… nothing and no one changed. 

What we do in and through this place – everything from cleaning up the yard to teaching in the Sunday School to serving a meal – is supposed to be nourishing and nurturing.  There are times what we do is life changing.  Over time, our goal is to be life shaping, doing those things that mold us into Jesus’ vision for God’s people.  We are not, and never will be, a place where faith and religious practice is an obligation, offering opportunities to check off a religious duty box telling us we have done what is required of us.  We are a place to worship God in spirit and in truth, through what we say and what we sing and what we do.