by Rev. Laura Thornton
March 7 is the anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, the day known as ‘Bloody Sunday.’ Six hundred marchers, including the late John Lewis, departed Selma, bound for the state capitol marching for African American voting rights. They did not get far, before law enforcement blocked their way and then attacked them with tear gas and clubs. ABC news showed footage of the violence and the dramatic images helped shift public opinion. Two weeks later, another march from Selma made it all the way to Montgomery, led by Dr. King. By the time they reached the capitol, there were over 25,000 people with them.
How devastating that our government is still fighting over voting rights this very week, 56 years later. And ironic, that today, in John’s gospel we have Jesus marching in against a system of corruption and abuse.
We need a little background for this. All four gospels writers include this story of Jesus cleansing the temple. Matthew, Mark and Luke have the story at the end of Jesus’ ministry- arriving in Jerusalem the week before his crucifixion. That makes sense given the growing anxiety over this character who has been traveling around preaching, healing, turning things upside down. These three gospels also focus on Jesus’ stance against the corruption going on in the temple. Selling animals, changing money, cheating people who have traveled from far away to make sacrifices and pay tithes during holy days…it has become a ‘den of robbers’. The Message translation of the Bible calls them ‘the loan sharks’.
Now, we know that animal sacrifices were made during this time. We know that families and whole villages traveled together to Jerusalem to celebrate high holy days, Passover, The Feast of Tabernacles, The Feast of Dedication. If was not always easy or practical to bring an animal with you, so of course, locals began to sell animals right there, in the courtyard of the temple. You could buy a cow, sheep, doves. You could also exchange your money, the currency of your region or of the Roman government into currency that was accepted for the temple tax.
Surely, there were vendors who had been there for decades, recognized by friends and travelers as their favorite place to buy doves, the best doves or the best exchange rate for your money. And…there were most certainly vendors who took advantage of people, loan sharks, who charged too much or cheated too often.
Jesus comes in and cleans the place out, turning over tables, pouring out money, driving out all the people who were buying and selling in the temple. Many times we hear this story as an example of Jesus’ anger towards the corruption. You have turned the house of prayer into a den of robbers. And the synoptic gospels go on to have Jesus return to the temple daily to teach. Jesus was clearing out the abuse in order to teach and preach and heal people. That in and of itself is a worthy story, an inspiration for us to create those holy spaces to pray.
There is more, though, in John’s gospel. We hear a different version of the story. First, it is found in an entirely different place, coming right here in chapter 2 this morning. John locates Jesus in Jerusalem at the beginning of his ministry. He has just been in Cana at the wedding for his first miracle. For John, it is crucial to bookend the ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem. Jesus poses a serious challenge and threat to the religious order, and the gospel of John is all about a new era that Jesus brings. In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus does not just lash out at corruption, he pushes against the larger system of religious structure in the temple. He brings the whole thing to a stand still “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
The Jewish leaders who hear him, demand a sign of his authority. Who do you think you are clearing out the marketplace? What gives you the right? And Jesus, crystal clear in hindsight, yet always confusing in the present moment, says to them, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” After watching this temple built over 46 years, the idea of it being destroyed and raised up again in 3 days was beyond comprehension. It was laughable, they must have thought Jesus was crazy.
But he is pointing to a different temple, another holy place, as if to say, we are ending this and starting anew.
John, interprets for us and let’s the reader know, ‘He’s talking about his own body as a temple, a holy place. Remember it is John’s birth narrative that simply says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. In Jesus, God’s dwelling place is with human beings, as a human being.
There are two parts of this story for us today. The first is that push against the system…Like civil rights leaders before us, how are we disrupting the status quo to make a better world? How are we challenging the systems of oppression, in our nation, in the larger world, and even those in the church? Especially those the church has been foundational in creating and upholding. Where are we being unfair? Where are we leaving people out? When do people feel excluded from the church community?
The second is this idea of God’s location. For centuries the people of God had been carrying the Ark of the Covenant around, building a tent, then a temple, then another temple to have a place worthy of God. And Jesus, in one afternoon, in one short sentence, is saying it doesn’t really matter. God is right here, in me. And I am human, just like you. We do believe that on some level. We even talk about it in church, how God is not just in the building, but in each of us, in the community. And for the last year, we have experienced that in a different way.
Sometimes we have seen the ways that old thinking pulls us towards this notion that we have to be in the church, that’s the holiest place, that’s the only place I feel God, that’s how I’ve always worshiped, so we need to get back there as soon as possible. Don’t freak out! I’m not saying we’ll never go back to church again. I’m saying this strange year has given us an opportunity to reflect and dream about how the church can be better as we move forward.
There have been times this year when we understood how true it is that God is everywhere, in everyone, holy love and grace all around us. Those are the moments when we can begin to see a new beginning. Ways we connect with each other that are unique and creative, ways to worship together that are innovative and far-reaching. One of my favorite commentaries is The Salt Project. They say “When we go to church, we don’t step into God’s presence; rather, we step into a community that, at its best, helps call our attention to the fact that God is present everywhere, that the body of Jesus and the movement of the Spirit are boundless.”
These ideas of pushing against oppression and the boundless presence of God are connected. As we work to change the systems of oppression we are doing God’s work in the world, recognizing God is present everywhere. As we shift our focus from a church building to God’s presence everywhere, we are even more inspired to work for change. We can follow the lead of Jesus as we challenge ourselves to look at structures in place around us and see them in a new light. Our comfort with how things have always been is not more important than the rights and freedoms of others. Our love of church buildings is less important than God’s love that lives in each of us. May we know the strength of God’s presence in our community and be open to new ways of radical love.