Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Silence Between the Wings of the Cherubim

“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.”   — John 2

The people of Minnesota have given us some great things. Scotch tape was invented there,
lutefisk (if you don't know what that is, you can check it out on your Google machine here ), Garrison Keillor, and the Mall of America.  I once had a conference in Minneapolis and we got some free time and went to the Mall of America.  We went there three days in a row and walked, and walked, and walked.  At the end of our last day, I looked at the map of the mall and realized that in three days, we had only covered one tiny portion.  If you haven't seen it, you can't imagine how big it is.  258 Statues of Liberty could lie inside the Mall.  If Mount Rushmore was divided into individual monuments, a president could reside in each of the Mall’s four courts. Annually, it is estimated the Mall of America generates two billion dollars for Minnesota’s economy.  Yeah. it's big.

In Jesus' time, the Temple in Jerusalem was one of the greatest malls of its day.  What began as a temple of worship — a place of prayer — had become something quite different.  It had become a shopping mall, bank, government building, and revolutionary symbol all wrapped into one.  And all of these were in the outer courtyard of the temple.  

What is it that caused Jesus to become so angry? It can only be one thing: injustice.  Have you ever bought popcorn at the movies?  Have you ever filled your tank at a gas station right off the freeway?  You know because of their location they're going to charge you more.  The merchants in the temple had that all figured out, and they were the only game in town.  The sacrificial system in the temple had evolved, over the centuries, into an efficient machine for fleecing rich and poor alike.  
 If you went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, your goal was to sacrifice an animal, according to the Law of Moses. You could bring your own sacrificial animal, of course, but if you came from far away, it was easier to purchase a beast locally, at a steep markup.  The law said you had to present a perfect animal, without mark or blemish. Unless you purchased a pre-approved animal within the temple precincts, you had to bring your offering before an inspector, who would tell you whether or not it met the grade. And guess what? The inspectors were in cahoots with the animal-sellers, who knew how to grease their palms with silver. Rarely did they grant approval for a sacrificial animal brought in from the outside.

There was something else. If you had journeyed from one of the lands of the Jewish diaspora —
Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, even distant Rome — the coins jingling in your purse would have been imperial coins, engraved with the Emperor's likeness. Such graven images violated the Second Commandment, and so were forbidden within the temple precincts. In order to buy yourself a sacrificial animal, you had to first exchange your Roman money for image-free Judean coins. The money changers, who had a monopoly, charged exorbitant commissions, but the poor pilgrims had no recourse. They got them coming and going, those temple merchants.

You can see why when Jesus walked into that chaos of the free market, he didn't see a house of prayer. he saw a den of thieves.  It was not enough that Rome was oppressing Israel. The leaders of Israel were oppressing their own people.

For the longest time I read this passage as Jesus losing his temper and flying into a rage. But there is a detail in verse 15 that suggests this was a more deliberate action that Jesus took time to prepare for.  "Making a whip of cords" would take some time and gathering of materials, wouldn't it?  If Jesus had merely lost his temper, he would have grabbed the nearest blunt object and started flailing away.  But this detail suggests that there was a time lapse between noticing the money changing going on and reacting to it.  His followers and the people of Jerusalem were all watching him. And he was going to teach a lesson.

And do you notice, that not a word was said, nor a hand raised against him, as He poured out the
changers’ money, overthrew their tables, and drove out the livestock.  His Presence awed his opponents, and the people who had been ripped off all their lives were on his side.  The only challenge his opponents could come up was to ask him for a sign. A symbol of authority that gave him the right to do all this. And Jesus replied, "Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up."

Let’s just pause for a wonderful quote by Garrett Keizer: "I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn’t knock over tables."  Don't you love that? [Garret Keizer in The Enigma of Anger (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004)]

Then came the calm aftermath spoken of in the Gospel of Matthew 21 — Jesus began to teach every day in the temple and it says there were "children who were crying in the temple, "Hosanna to the son of David!" And since the temple officials couldn't win the argument, they decided to become indignant about the kids, and in Matthew 21:16 said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?"  And a very calm Jesus replies, "Yes. Did you never read, 'Out of the mouth of babes and nursing babies you have perfected praise?'"  Oh, don't you know that ticked them off!

Former Presiding Bishop John E. Hines said it's so well: “They did not crucify Jesus for saying ‘Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow.’ They crucified him for saying, ‘Consider the thieves of the temple, and how they steal.’”

Do you think what happened to the Jewish Temple could ever happen to us?  How would we know if we've stopped being the Church and become a mall?  I've sometimes heard people say, "The Church needs to be run more like a business."  It isn't that we can’t take some lessons from business, but when we make business our model I think we're in trouble.  When we judge our success as a church the same way Apple does, we've got a problem.  John's first readers would have known that the temple was already a smoking crater by the time they read his gospel, since it was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.  Jesus' words and actions were thus not only prophetic, but a stark reminder that any institution that claims to be of God is doomed to failure if it refuses to pay attention to God's own core purpose and values.  Jesus' action in the Temple this morning challenges us to look at Trinity to determine whether we're being faithful to his call, or whether like the Temple in Jerusalem, we’re due for some table flipping. some spring cleaning. For example:

·      Do we measure the church's success like a business? Are we so focused on our attendance figures, buildings, budget, programs, that we fail to question whether we're doing what Jesus wants?
·      Do we talk in our meetings more about property and budgets or about people and what we are doing and can do for people within our walls and outside our walls?
·      Do we avoid the risk of being prophetic and challenging people with the Gospel of the Kingdom, and instead play it safe and not talk about controversial subjects? About justice for the poor and a living wage and fairness for workers; equality in our nation for women, people of color, immigrants, gays and lesbians; and safety for all our children from pollution, global warming, and gun violence?
·      Have we started to look to human beings to take care of all of our problems and make this church what we want it to be. Instead of we ourselves truly becoming disciples of the Christ the way Jesus intended to change the world, do we sit back and look to the Vestry. or the priests. or our new rector to solve everything?

We don't need to be able to answer each one of those questions, but I think we do need to keep asking them.  As long as we keep our eyes focused on the one who said, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations." and keep asking those questions, I think we're on the right track.

The noise in the outer courtyard must have been deafening: Moneychangers and merchants haggling, sheep baa'aing, cattle mooing, doves cooing, people talking, laughing, getting upset with each other.  Jesus stopped all that in today's Gospel, and what was left was a silence so profound that the people there could hear the voices of the children crying in the temple, "Hosanna to the son of David!"

In the very deepest room of the temple. The Holy of Holies. was the Ark of the Covenant.  The High Priest only went in there once a year.  Arching over the mercy seat were two cherubim, their golden wings reaching toward each other at the top. But the mercy seat itself was empty. Yet it was that space that was considered the very presence of the Almighty.  Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury talks about this emptiness: "The cherubim did not reside on the mercy seat. God's presence was nowhere portrayed within this "Holy of Holies" — or anywhere else within the temple. All that greeted the high priest was a blank slab of open space, a void, "the great speaking absence between the images".

Lent is a time of stripping away of all the noise — letting go of things that are holding us back from life, real life.  Before we can be ready for the joy of Easter, we take this time to examine ourselves, to examine our church, and to seek the silence between the wings of the cherubim.

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