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Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book . Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:
A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
St. Mary of the Harbor Episcopal Church
March 15, 2009: Lent 3 B
John 2: 13-22
Stained glass windows are found in a lot of houses of worship. More than simply a decorative architectural element, they most often depict some important biblical lesson. Even so, I have yet to find a stained glass window in a church anywhere depicting today’s gospel reading. No colored glass encased in lead portraying Jesus wreaking holy havoc in the temple and turning things upside down. Maybe that’s because we prefer the portrayal of a meek and mild Savior. After all, that image of Jesus is far less threatening to church folks than the one who dares to speak out and disrupt business as usual.
Last Sunday we heard Jesus telling people to take up their cross if they wanted to be his disciples. Today we are presented with another hard reality of discipleship: what it means to be the church. While it is unlikely that we will ever see Jesus involved in a confrontation at the local thrift shop or church fair, today’s gospel challenges the church’s complicity of silence in light of the misuse of God’s house.
Mark’s story about Jesus turning the tables on people reminds me of a fellow in Louisiana who walked into the local Christian book store one day to purchase a Bible. He then proceeded to chastise the store owner for making a profit from selling the word of God. No matter how you look at it, the shopkeeper’s only defense was nolo contendere (no contest).
Now there was certainly a lot of selling going on in the temple courts. As retailers might say, it was the busy season. Passover was near and Jews throughout the land set their sights on Jerusalem. Joining the faithful on their pilgrimage, Jesus made his way to the temple to worship. By all accounts the place was grand in scale and a glorious site to behold. Rebuilt by Herod the Great, it was as much a testament to his enormous ego as it was a political ploy to win the favor of his disgruntled subjects. Even so, the temple remained the most sacred place on earth for Jews.
Jesus though found little in the way of sacredness upon entering the temple precincts. The outer court of the temple where sacrificial animals were bought and sold looked more like the New York Stock Exchange than a place where people could find God. This misuse of consecrated space angered Jesus, just as it had angered the prophets who had criticized the religious leaders of their day.
Now the problem wasn’t simply a matter of disrespecting sacred ground. There is no doubt in my mind that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day considered the temple to be a holy place. They worked under very difficult circumstances while under Roman rule to keep the peace, the doors open, and the temple operating. However, in the name of maintaining a revered institution, the temple’s leaders turned a blind eye to what was happening within its corridors and also within themselves.
Even with the best of intentions, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that God’s house belongs to us and not the other way around. Whenever the institutional church becomes more important than its mission, churches devolve into little more than temples to the human ego. That is also when its leaders are tempted to turn a blind eye injustice.
The House of Bishops is meeting in North Carolina this weekend. No doubt they have a lot to deal with but I am hoping that they will either with a collective voice or as individual bishops condemn what is happening in Nigeria. Even though homosexuality is already illegal in that country, the Anglican Archbishop there and several of his fellow bishops are actively working for the passage of new and excessively punitive laws aimed at gay and lesbian people and even those who might support them. To date, with the exception of a very few brave voices, there has been a shameful silence among Christians, not the least of whom are bishops of the church.
Growing up in Mississippi during American apartheid, I can attest to how social conditioning and peer pressure silences otherwise good people into thinking that it’s more important to keep the peace than to take a public stand against hatred. This in no way discounts the conversations and behind the scenes work that is going on within the Anglican Communion to find ways we can we live together in spite of our social, political and theological differences. We must always pray and actively support Ambassadors of Christ everywhere. But we must also speak out with unwavering clarity against violence, spiritual or otherwise that is directed toward God’s children. It is never, never permissible to use scripture to justify hatred or the church as an instrument of persecution.
When he was challenged, Jesus responded to his adversaries by saying that God’s temple could not be destroyed. And do you know why? It’s because you cannot destroy love. Institutions rise and fall all the time, but God’s love does not perish.
As Jesus’ disciples, all of us, even other Christians with whom we disagree have been incorporated into the Body of Christ through baptism. That means that all of us are called to be disciples of love through whom God’s presence is made known to the world. If Paul was correct that our bodies are temples, then in Christ we are God’s little temples in this world. We exist to glorify God by embodying the same love that God has shown to us in Jesus Christ. We can sacrifice time, talent, and treasure all day long in the courts of the Lord, but unless we love we are guilty of misusing consecrated space. Lord, have mercy upon us.
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