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Spring Cleaning

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Mar 11

The Third Sunday in Lent
Lessons: John 2:13-22

It’s a good thing its Lent because it makes me all the more attuned to temptation, and in particular to a big one that’s lurking in our text from John.  I’ve been sorely tempted this week to use this text to talk about turning some tables on modern day money-changers and Wall Street bankers.  It’s the low hanging fruit of this passage. Its right there!  It makes me want to read our former First Church Treasurer’s Brian James’ rendition of Genesis 3, the temptation story.  Brian, who works in the financial industry himself, pitches Goldman Sachs as the serpent, God as “the Regulator” and Adam and Eve as “buyers”.  Okay, God forgive me, here’s just a few lines” And They heard the sound of the Regulator walking in the market at the time of the evening breeze, and the buyer and her husband hid themselves from the presence of the Regulator with off balance sheet investments….The Regulator said, "Who told you that you had losses?  Have you bought a derivative that is a weapon of financial mass destruction that I commanded you not to buy?"  The buyer's husband said, "The buyer you told me to partner up with, she told me to buy the deal, and I bought." Then the Regulator said to the buyer, "What is this that you have done?"  The buyer said, "Goldman tricked me, and I bought the deal." The full version wlll be in the next issue of our EVENT newsletter.      

I’m also sorely tempted to tell you all about our recent Greater Boston Interfaith Organizations anti-Usury work, to tell you about what long Executive Board Room table looks like on the 35th floor of Bank of America building downtown and how that giant thing seems bolted to the floor!  We tried to turn that table in 2010 when we organized a threat of pulling 230 million dollars of state funds out of their bank if they didn’t agree to lower their egregious interest rates on credit cards.  The high ranking execs we met with, right around that very table, barely flinched when they declined to change their practices and when the Deputy Treasurer of the Commonwealth who was sitting on my left told them the state would divest the funds the very next day.  $240 million dollars and the table barely budged, let alone turned over! 

I’m also tempted to tell you about that 25 billion dollar deal the big banks and contemporary moneychangers just struck with the White House and States Attorneys Generals to offer relief for financially distressed homeowners.  The deal was originally intended to let the big banks off the hook once and for all, a complete release of liability!  But GBIO’s sister organizations in New York has worked hard with New York Attorney General Eric Schneidermann to ensure that he and everyone else knows that the 25 billion ought to be considered a mere down payment on the more like 250 billion the banks should be shelling out for buying the serpent’s deal that left millions of Americans underwater and in foreclosure.  By the way, I’m also tempted to mention these same banks that are feeling so hard pressed to sacrifice this 25 billion paid out over $156 billion in executive compensation and bonuses last year alone. Talk about anger?  Talk about wanting to crack some whips?  If you are interested in hearing more and in channeling anger about this topic or about the rising costs of healthcare in our Commonwealth, you can join hundreds of other GBIO members at Roxbury Presbyterian Church when we recognize and engage our own State Attorney General Martha Coakley.  She’s been one of a few AG’s that’s been trying hold the line and to continue to hold big banks accountable well beyond that 25 billion deal.

Ah, the temptation to talk about all these things.  You know, just because I’m a minister and all doesn’t mean that I’m any more disciplined than others when it comes to resisting temptation.  Alas, this sermon, at least from here on out, is not about reigning in our modern day merchants and moneychangers. We have our mechanisms of exercising our righteous indignation and prophetic rage!  Even still, the temptation, when reading this passage of the Cleansing of the Temple, as it is called, is to focus purely on the unexpected nature of Jesus’s whip-cracking and table over-turning anger and perhaps even to join him in it.  When we’re honest with ourselves, we may find there’s something strangely thrilling about seeing Jesus angry like this.  We think we can maybe catch him in the act here, behaving in ways unfit for one with the title “The Prince of Peace.”  And yet if we look and listen carefully, the anger in this passage has a much deeper purpose.  If you ask me, Jesus anger gives way to something far more profound – namely silence and space.  If we can read between the lines just a bit, we can hear it, perhaps most poignantly just after the table hits the ground. 

First we need to transport ourselves back to the temple floor, or at least to the outer courts of the temple, which is where Jesus would have encountered these moneychangers and people selling animals.  Did you notice I said the temple floor and not the trading room floor?  The text tells us it was Passover, which meant that Jews from all over Israel, Jesus and his followers included, were gathering at the Temple to complete their obligatory annual pilgrimage, to pay homage and to make sacrifices to the God of Israel.  Jesus would not have been the least bit surprised to see the moneychangers or merchants there.  The moneychangers were there exchanging Roman coins for Temple currency since use of the Roman coins was forbidden by Jewish law within the Temple.  And the so-called merchants? They weren’t merely pushing wares trying turn a buck.  They were selling the animals, so that all the pilgrims could have something unblemished to sacrifice– sheep, cattle and doves.  Go ahead….you try keeping your animal unblemished after such a long journey! The fact is a certain amount of religious commerce played a necessary role in helping the Jews to keep the law concerning the Temple.

However, the question on Jesus’ mind was whether or not all the clamor and commotion of this necessary commerce was crowding out the very presence of God in his own house.  You see, once through the outer courts, at the heart of the Temple, in its innermost sanctuary, was the place known as the Holy of Holies.  And, at the center of this inner sanctum was the kapporeth, or “mercy seat.” It was a slab of gold that rested on top of the Ark of the Covenant.  The ancient Jews believed that this golden slab, this mercy seat, was nothing less than the throne of God, the very dwelling place of the God of Israel.  There were no statues in this place, no images or idols used as placeholders, just still and empty space – a divine and holy void shrouded in sheer mystery.  The space was entrusted to the sole care of the High Priest and even he could only enter the space once a year.  Nonetheless, this was or this should have been the prize in the mind’s eyes of all the Passover pilgrims. They might not get it to see the very space for themselves, but . . . to be so close to that divine dwelling place, to breath in the air of it, to absorb its holy aura, that was the worth the trip.

In stark contrast to these private and innermost parts of the Temple, the scene in the outer courts, with all the people and animals, undoubtedly began to look more like a busy open-air market than a temple.  We can imagine it to be just such a noisy, even chaotic environment.  Walking through the Temple gates, entering into the very dwelling place of his father, his keen mind must have begun to feel the intrusion of all the unholy noise.  He must have begun to comprehend the kind of spiritual pollution that was pervading the atmosphere of his father’s house.  Maybe it was the feeling we get when we go to the Grand Canyon, say, and people and kids, hopefully not your own, want to spend more time in the gift shop than basking in the glory and majesty of those mile deep red-hued walls.  It’s enough to make you angry, right?

An image of that last overturned table hitting the ground has been going through my mind in slow motion for the better part of this past week.  That, and the sound of the thud it must have made when it landed.  In a moment of rage, Jesus, with the unparalleled authority of God on his side, hooked his hands under those tables, lifted their weight and rolled them over on their side, sending coins and books flying.  It would be similar to me getting angry enough and finding the strength to turn our brochure tables, and book tables and maybe even this communion table and to turn it over on its side. Can you imagine the hush, the stillness, the shock and the holy fear that such an action would create?  These were bold, bold moves he was making, and yet to what end was Jesus taking such risks, risks that would ultimately get him killed? 

Martin Smith puts it well in this past Friday’s daily Lenten devotional that some of us are reading together this season. Smith says that Jesus shows us “that aggression can provide the energy for us to assert the primacy of love, to cut away all that is not love, to differentiate the important from the trivial, to provide the strength to separate the authentic from the false and pretentious.”  Anger and aggression, when properly used can do this, can it not? 

Perhaps Jesus knew all along that all his anger and rage was for the purpose of creating some peace and quiet in the Temple, of re-sanctifying it and of clearing the air to cultivate a proper attitude for entering into a relationship with God.  He was cleansing the Temple of all the noise and pollution and distraction that would cloud one’s ability to commune with God.  Even after the tables were turned, we can imagine Jesus, standing there, waiting patiently for his actions to take their intended effect. Can’t you see him saying to the crowd:  Don’t you know where you are, how close you are standing to that inner sanctum.  You are in the dwelling place of God.   This is your chance and just look at your selves running and scurrying about.  Truth be told, you don’t need money or even animals, you don’t even need the temple.  If I have to I’ll tear the whole thing down and will build you another one in a few days.  Better still, let my body be the temple, and let it rise up after three days!  You don’t need walls! What you need are peace and stillness, in your surroundings and in your soul!

Max Picard captures it well when he writes:  “Silence stands outside the world of profit and utility.  It cannot be exploited for profit; you cannot get anything out of it.  It is unproductive, and therefore it is regarded as useless. Yet there is more help and healing in silence than in all useful things.”

I wish I could tell you why this passage and this quote ring so true to me this week – I can’t.  I just know that in the times in my life when I have been most in need of help and healing, a little stillness seems always to the do the trick. Whether by some act of aggression, or illness, or by internal strength or in moments of prayers or worship that say “enough” commotion, enough commerce, there are times when I’m called to my senses, called to stop and enter into something like that inner sanctum, when I come close to that mercy seat of God’s mystery and love.  It’s often when I give up my striving and when I turn over the raw, unrefined and un-languaged pangs and yearnings in my soul to God.  Usually all I need is a chair, a mercy seat of my own. Silence in conversation with silence, and yet somehow I feel that my soul is touched, and that the temple of my body and soul is cleansed by the process.  Like a sponge, an uncluttered moment shared with God can absorb, can cleanse and can sanctify my every thought and emotion. It happens too in the inner sanctums of conversations with others about the most of intimate of subjects, to just sit with one another and feel comfortable with a spell of silence.  I hope and trust we all know these inner sanctums in our lives, that we all know the way to that mercy seat, the way to God’s house.  I hope and trust that this temple can be such a place for all of us and yet God knows we have own our spring cleaning to do, that we too need regularly to discern what activities are merely part of our necessary institutional commerce and what allows to assert the primacy of love and to separate the important from the trivial.

 If you’ve got too much noise in your life and in your heads, and especially in those innermost sanctuaries, I encourage you do a little extra spring cleaning of your own this Lent, to turn over a few tables if you have, to move around some of that Ikea bought furniture in your mind, make some space for stillness with yourself and with God and be not afraid.  I’ve asked Terry to leave us some extra quiet during the prayers today.  Let whatever aggression may be building within you turn a table or two and then in the silence that follows let yourself enter into the temple of God’s presence, having cut out the clutter of those outer courts, let yourself be near to God’s mercy seat, let your heart know the primacy of God’s love, grace and peace. Amen.

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