Sunday, January 16, 2022

Phil Kniss: Selling faith

The conflict begins: Cleansing the temple
The Word became flesh and lived among us
John 2:13-25; Isaiah 56:6-8

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Last Sunday my job was to try to make sense (or not)
out of Jesus first miracle,
where he used water to make 180 gallons of fine wine,
at a wedding party where they already drank enough
to be under the influence.
If you missed my attempt, go to our website and watch the video.
Spoiler alert: I did not make any sense out of it.
I made some meaning, hopefully, but not sense.

Today’s story is even more attention-getting than water into wine.
Same chapter, different location.
Not in a remote village this time,
but at the center of religious and political power,
the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus—peace-loving, gentle, turn-the-other-cheek Jesus—
walks into the temple not to worship,
but to engage in a dramatic one-person protest
involving a hastily-made whip,
turning over tables,
and chasing out the sacrificial lambs and oxen,
and offending pretty much everyone in sight.
The primary targets of his protest,
and the ones most deeply offended,
were the religious leaders of that temple.
But there were others left in his wake.
The sellers of the animals and doves,
the money-changers facilitating the sales,
the worshipers who just bought a lamb to sacrifice,
only to have it scurry away free.

John doesn’t say how Jesus’ disciples reacted in the moment.
He only writes about what they remembered, later,
in some post-resurrection analysis.

I rather imagine the disciples
were trying to make themselves invisible,
maybe slinking into a corner,
wondering what they had gotten themselves into,
following someone as unpredictable as Jesus.

If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you know this story well.
It’s in all of them.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke put it late in Jesus’ ministry,
in the week before his crucifixion.
John puts it almost at the beginning of his story.
If you’re bothered by that . . . don’t be!
John’s intent is not to lay out a precise timeline.
It’s to tell a story in a way that leads people
to encounter Jesus as God in the flesh,
and commit themselves to believing and following.

For John, it’s important to show, early on, how Jesus’ mission
fundamentally challenged the authorities,
especially the religious elite
who were invested in the way things were.

It’s only happenstance that this story shows us in the lectionary
on the weekend of Martin Luther King Day.
So let’s talk about nonviolence vs. violence with regard to this story.
This story is often brought up as evidence that
Jesus would approve of violence in some circumstances.

Many classical artists have painted Jesus
actively flicking the whip in the direction of people,
terrorizing them, knocking them to the ground.
It’s interesting that John is the only Gospel
to even include a whip in the story.
But what does John actually say about it?
There’s no mention of any act of violence
directed toward human . . . or animal.
It doesn’t say he struck any living creature.
Jesus’ goal was to empty the temple
of the desecrating livestock market.
A whip is how you get livestock to move somewhere.
It wouldn’t work against caged doves, of course,
so Jesus simply told those sellers to remove them.
Was Jesus disruptive? Absolutely!
Confrontational? Of course!
Did anyone get hurt?
No biblical evidence of that . . . at all.
The whip did have the effect of letting some animals
live to see another day.

So using this Gospel story as an argument
that Jesus used violence to bring about change,
is a flimsy argument, at best.
It simply doesn’t stand up under scrutiny.

At the same time,
anyone who thinks Christians should always be
quiet and non-confrontational in the face of evil
or injustice or religious hypocrisy,
needs to reckon with the Jesus of John 2—
or for that matter,
the non-violent and confrontational Jesus
of many other Gospel stories.

Now, bottom line, what was so upsetting to Jesus here?
Was it the fact that money was being exchanged in a holy place?
If so, is Jesus also unhappy when our youth group
sells brownies in the foyer?
Some people actually have qualms about that,
based on this story.
To repeat what I said earlier.
If you’re bothered by that . . . don’t be!

I don’t think there is any connection between
mission-oriented fund-raising,
and the crass commercialization of worship
that had infected the temple,
and had actually become economically oppressive.

What was happening inside the Temple—
this growth of an “animal sacrifice industry”—
was deeply offensive to,
and actively undermining the purposes of God.

What do I mean?
The first Passover, when the Israelites escaped Egypt,
showed the spirit of sacrifice God had in mind.
Families were told to choose their own best lamb for the sacrifice,
and to share it,
in case one lamb was more than they needed,
and they had neighbors whose families were too small or too poor,
to have a whole lamb to themselves.
Animal sacrifice, even when practiced individually,
was a ritual that discerned, respected, and cared for the community.
But as worship transitioned from a portable tabernacle,
to an elaborate and costly Temple,
so did the worship industry.

And this industry helped establish and maintain
a religious and social hierarchy.
Favor with God was, essentially, for sale.

So, it seems likely that
at least two offensive things were going on in the Temple,
that made Jesus’ anger bubble up.

First, the poor were being economically exploited
by the merchants and money-changers.
Those without means to provide their own unblemished animal
had to buy them on the spot, probably at elevated prices,
instead of having the community share with each other.

Secondly, this court where the livestock market was set up—
the Court of the Gentiles—
was specifically designed to provide a space
for anyone at all to worship God freely—
no matter your race, gender, or bloodline.
You didn’t have to be a ritually clean, circumcised Jewish male,
to worship in this space.
This is what the prophet meant in the Isaiah text we read today,
that “my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.”
All nations!

So this livestock market was taking over the very space
designed to welcome all nations to worship.
It was crowding out the Gentiles.

This was more than Jesus could take.
So . . . carefully, deliberately, and with forethought, I believe,
he walked into that desecrated space,
and acted on behalf of the God who was offended by it.

John sees this as another window into understanding Jesus,
as someone who acts on behalf of God, in God’s place,
as God in the flesh.

So, let’s bring this story home.
How does it connect with our story, our lives?
It’s so easy to hear John 2 condemn things that already offend us:
TV evangelists begging for money
to support a gilded lifestyle.
Megachurches marketing themselves like a big box store
to bring in more religious consumers.
Or whatever it may be that offends our sensibilities about church.

Surely, we are not the money-changers, are we?
We are not the ones running the temple and taking a cut . . . are we?

As I sat with that question for a while this week,
I started to feel more and more uncomfortable.
I suspect we all would have a little . . . pause,
if we owned up to the various ways our own worship
can start to look like a transaction—
a quid pro quo so to speak.
Maybe, more than we care to admit,
our worship is for sale.
Maybe, at least some of the time, if not most of the time,
we bring ourselves to worship with an expectation
we will be rewarded.

We invest an hour of our time once a week,
we help out when we’re asked,
participate in the service, drop money in the plate,
sing along with the hymns,
and then expect a certain return on investment.

We expect to hear words of encouragement and comfort,
reassurance that God looks on us with favor,
prayers that resonate with us,
readings that reinforce our beliefs,
songs we like, in the style we like,
sermons that only mildly challenge us, but mostly inspire.

No, we may not have a corrupted temple system,
and there are no livestock blocking the way to our sanctuary.
But let’s not assume our worship is morally superior
to the first-century Jews
who prompted Jesus’ angry protest.
I imagine Jesus is pained whenever people show up
at a house of prayer for all nations,
and end up not making room for the nations,
or reinforcing a social hierarchy.

We are invited to come to worship with a posture
of radical openness to God,
and radical openness to our neighbor,
ready for whatever will happen when the Spirit of God shows up.
When we come to worship with any . . . other . . . agenda,
we share something in common with
the money-changers and animal merchants.

The same can be said of faith itself.
Faith is openness and yieldedness to God.
Faith is not a bargain with God.
It’s not a sales transaction.
It’s openness.
We come, open to an uncertain future.
Open to mystery and unsettled questions.
Open to having our world view challenged.
Open to being transformed.
Open to disappointment.
Open to trying and failing.
Open to being forgiven.
Open to loving and being loved by God.

Let us offer a prayer of confession
to the God who invites us to worship.

one God of love and justice,
you desire honest worship with pure motives.
We confess that what we often bring
is worship with conditions attached.
all Forgive us, God. Take us as we are.
one God, too often we expect something in return for what we bring.
We offer you our worship, for a price—
In exchange for your blessing and approval,
In exchange for our comfort in worship,
In exchange for keeping our lives from being too disturbed.
all Forgive us, God. Take us as we are.
one The God of love and justice
gladly receives our confession, clears the slate,
welcomes us just as we are,
and invites us to be transformed into something more.
all Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, January 16, 2022

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