March 8, 2015, Lent 3 – Beyond Bingo
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A church that we attended a long time ago once found itself in a dilemma. We had a wonderful young woman working with our youth group. And this young woman’s mother, who wasn’t even a member of the church, gave a gift to the church, a beautiful dried-flower arrangement, to be raffled off as a fundraiser for the youth group. And in this church at this particular time, it threw us into a major tizzy. Raffles, it was understood, were like bingo – things that Roman Catholics did, not authentic Bible-believing Evangelical Christians like us. In the end, it was deemed more “biblical” to refuse the gift of this kind woman than to lower ourselves to the level of Roman Catholics and the like. And the rationale behind the decision was exactly the passage that we just read, where Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” and made a whip out of cords and drove the sheep and the cows out of the outer court of the Temple like a cowboy, and dumped out the coins being collected to make correct change for the offerings, and told the pigeon-sellers to get those birds out of there.
It is one of the most dramatic scenes in the gospels, and one of the most shocking, because we expect Jesus to always be so serene and gentle and to never lose his cool – in fact, sometimes I think people confuse Jesus of Nazareth with a kind of Zen master rather than a down-to-earth Jewish peasant, which is what he actually chose to be. Clearly, it was important for the leaders of our church back then to pay attention to what Jesus did and said on the day he so unexpectedly disrupted business-as-usual in the Temple. The problem is that we were not being truly faithful in our reading of Scripture by making the story of the Cleansing of the Temple be all about things like raffles and bingo. At worst we were failing to love and respect our brothers and sisters in Christ. We were disregarding the generosity of Tracy’s mother and making her gift into something impure and troublesome instead of being thankful and gracious. And we were being judgmental of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters by seeing ourselves as somehow better than them because we kept ourselves pure. And those were serious failings.
But even at best, even insofar as we were genuinely seeking God’s will about those things, we were doing a very shallow reading of the story, barely dipping our toes into the truth of what Jesus was doing, when the way we need to read the Scriptures is to really dive into it, to read with all our mind as well as all our hearts.
“My Father’s house,” Jesus told the money-changers, “is not a marketplace.” The Temple was built to be the place of God’s presence in the midst of his people; it was meant to be a holy place. But then he said something more that the Temple officials didn’t understand at all. “You want to know what authority I have for doing all these things? I’ll tell you – Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it up again in three days.”
That made no sense to them – not at the time. But his disciples understood later; when Jesus spoke of destroying the Temple he wasn’t talking about the building at all. He was talking about the Temple of his own body. He was saying that the presence of God was no longer going to be found in a building of stones and precious metals – that Temple was going to be reduced to rubble within a few years. But now God dwelt among his people in the flesh – in the physical body of Jesus from Nazareth. And when his body was destroyed by men, he did rebuild it, because he took his life up again on the third day, just as he had told them.
And all that is of the utmost importance to us, because now we, his church, are the Body of Christ, not just in name, not just symbolically, but in truth, and that means that we are now the dwelling place of God. And not we as in this very beautiful building, or we as in the organization of the Episcopal Church, or even we as the incorporated entity of St. Philip’s Church in Norwood. We as human beings, as a community of human beings, our lives and our hearts, our bodies and minds, we are the new Temple, we are the dwelling place of God, along with all those in every time and place that belong to him. Jesus is present in this world in us. It is almost too big a thing to say, but it is true.
There is a very good quote by Wordsworth, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” That is such a perfect description of the world, which is definitely a marketplace, a place of never-ending getting and spending and being spent. But God dwells with his people in a holy place. Jesus was outraged to come into the Temple and find the holiness of his Father’s house disturbed by the noise and worldliness of moneychangers and livestock-sellers. And it is easy to think that he was angry because they were doing something morally wrong, because we tend to think that holiness means purity and following the rules and doing good deeds, but what holy actually means is simply being set apart for a special purpose. The Temple had been set apart for the presence of God; it could not also be a place of commerce.
Holiness is simplicity itself: we have one commandment, one law, and that is to love. Love God, and love your neighbor. Only that one thing. And so, the simplicity of holiness demands that we ourselves do what Jesus did in the Temple that day: we declutter. We drive out those things that distract us. We dump out those things that entice us. We overturn the tables of those habits and and appetites that keep us busy with trivial and useless things instead of the one thing we are called to do, which is to abide in his love, because in Christ we are holy, set apart for the presence of God.
When we moved to the North Country almost thirty years ago, we really had no idea where we were going or how we would get here or how we would live when we did get here. All we knew was that God was leading us. So we simplified. We decluttered. We got rid of everything in our big old house that we didn’t absolutely need, and we packed our six children and our giant dog into an old school bus with a few mattresses and Emily’s dollhouse and about a thousand books – because we aren’t exactly perfect at decluttering – and we headed north. And even though it wasn’t an easy time, it was such a good and holy time, because truly, all we were sure of from day to day was that we were in God’s loving hands. And the truth is it’s all any of us ever really need to know, but our lives get cluttered up, again and again, with stuff we want, and with busyness, and with sadness and pleasures and responsibilities and worries and just so much stuff, that we need to be reminded of that simple and holy truth every day.
Jesus cried out, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The dwelling place of God is not a place of business; we no longer belong to this world of buying and selling, of doing deals and storing up comfortable profit margins. We who are the new Temple in Christ live in the world, but we are no longer of it. We are a place set apart, a holy place in the world of loving and holy communion with the Father, a place of abiding in him. Because the dwelling place of God is not a building any more: it’s you; it’s me; it’s us.
Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come and make our home with him.” And that takes us so much deeper than quibbles about raffles and bingo. Because what it means to be the Church is this: that just as Jesus came to make the love of the Father real to us in the Temple of his human body, so we, in all our humanness, are called to make the love of Jesus real to the world around us. And we can only do that if we stay holy, set apart for God, set apart from the clamor and ambition and striving and condemnation of the world around us. Because the world doesn’t need another political party; the world needs the church to be a place apart, where they can find and be found by the God who loves them.