3rd in Lent
March 4 2018
Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22
Rev Loren McGrail, United Church of Christ / National YWCA of Palestine
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. (John 2.19-21)
“Enough is enough,” the Palestinian Christian leaders said this week when they closed Holy Sepulcher for three days for violations against the historic status quo that excludes churches from paying taxes and safeguards their properties from confiscation.
I listened to the Jerusalem Patriarch read their statement that they had enough of the state’s systematic discrimination and oppression. I watched the Muslim keeper of the key crawl up and lock that big door under that ladder which stays as a reminder that nothing changes because of the status quo.
A few days later I waited in that same courtyard to welcome the Palestinian Christians and Muslims march back to the church demanding justice and asking for all to pray together each in their own tradition – head to the ground or on bended knees. They carried one young man on their shoulders carrying a simple wooden cross. It was and wasn’t the Via Dolorosa re-enacted because the suffering was both a reminder of his and now ours. The cross was carried to the closed door and lifted high.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus comes to Jerusalem for Passover at the beginning of his ministry to show his disciples who he is. He shouts, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” He pours out the coins of the moneychangers and overturns their tables. He makes a whip of cords and drives them out of the temple like cattle and sheep.
Jesus interrupted worship for the sake of justice. Like Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea before him, he could not stand for the violation of the sanctuary, God’s house of prayer. He was consumed with zeal, reminding those who have memory of Psalm 69.9.
He was enraged by how this time of Passover, of remembering liberation, was being used to exploit and exclude the poor who would find it difficult to pay the half-shekel tax and thus be excluded from worship. No commandments were broken by these temple practices, but in this very place set aside for divine encounter, the spirit of the law, the love of neighbor, was being denied.
Bill Wylie Kellerman, theologian and activist, reminds us that the temple had special permission from Rome to collect its own tax. He writes, “This half-shekel tax may have a modern equivalent in the tax emption of the Churches, by which their silence and complicity with the State is effectively purchased. Pilate was able to dip into that half shekel treasury on occasion without objection from the temple bigwigs. He built his aqueduct in part with such funds.”
This historic reality throws the current controversy over back taxes into a new light, does it not? Are the Churches of Jerusalem representing the Palestinian Christians or their own privileged position of power?
Back to our text.
Is Jesus a temple reformer or destroyer? Is he performing a public exorcism when he turns over the tables and drives out the moneychangers? Each gospel writer describes this event with an emphasis on cleansing the temple.
But in the John’s telling, written after the destruction of the temple, cleansing has been changed to ‘destroy’ or ‘dismantle.’ Jesus has come to pull down the pillars of its very existence and replace it with himself.
It is for this reason many people find John’s Gospel anti-Semitic, with its emphasis on Jesus replacing the temple or Judaism. This is certainly a valid way to read this version of the story. The critique is important especially here in Jerusalem, where the three monotheistic religions live with each other in close proximity and where threats of rebuilding the third temple already have blueprints showing the destruction of Al Aqsa.
In spite of this warning of replacement theology, I think there is something important for us to consider about the value of turning over tables and driving out the moneychangers, about how our houses of prayer have become enslaved to the marketplace or become places of exclusion instead of inclusion.
For example, my ordination as a minister of the church is not recognized by the historic churches of Jerusalem. Why? Because I am a woman. This is gender exclusion.
None of these same churches supports the Palestinian Christian call for boycotts, divestment, or sanctions. Which marketplace do they belong to, one wonders? Which Jesus are they following? Do any of us really want to follow a Jesus with a whip in his hand chasing out moneychangers like beasts?
Let’s be honest. Jesus does not ask us to understand him but to follow him.
Easier said than done.
Last week in the United States there was yet another shootout in yet another high school; this time in Parkland, Florida. A student with an assault rifle killed seventeen of his classmates. Thoughts and prayers went out to all who had suffered from around the world. But what makes this shootout different from the rest is the tearful and eloquent rage of the students from Parkland who decided to demand gun control from their elders, their lawmakers. Their lives, which were turned over, are demanding a rethinking of America’s commitment to the right to bear arms. They have inspired students from across the country to walk out of their classrooms to protest the National Rifle Association (NRA) and America’s idolatrous relationship with the Second Amendment before God’s commandment not to kill.
Some of the pillars of this temple are crumbling. Sporting goods stores across the country have made promises to stop selling guns to minors. The CEO of Delta Airlines said it would stop giving discounts to NRA members. Then when threatened by Georgia lawmakers, this same CEO said, “Our core values are not for sale.” Is this not a shakeup of the marketplace? Is this not a following of both the commandments and the one with the whip in his hand?
But then there was a report of the World Peace Unification Sanctuary in New Foundland, Pennsylvania that held a service where worshippers came clutching their AR-15 rifles wearing crowns made of bullets. They believe that the book of Revelation calls them to arm themselves with these “rods of iron” for the big battle to come. It appears that these church members clad in white, with their rifles strapped to their bodies, need to return to commandment number two, “Thou shall have no other gods but me.”
What would Jesus do in such a place where his crown of thorns has been replaced by a crown of bullets? What should we do?
Not as drastic or dramatic: What does our church need to let go of or dismantle for it to remain or become a living sanctuary for God’s presence?
Back to the text.
The home of God is not in a courtyard, at the altar, or even at the communion table. The house of God is embodied: “The Word became flesh.” Jesus takes over the temple’s function as a place of mediation between God and human beings. He says, “I am this,” this place where you come to sacrifice and celebrate, where you come to be in community. I am this. Follow me.
Jan L Richardson, one of my favorite artist/poets, says, “Jesus carries the temple in his bones. Within the space of his own body that will die, that will rise, that he will offer to us, a living liturgy unfolding.”
He offers his body as a way to evoke and provoke us to abide in him. Jesus is God incarnate in the flesh, which makes our bodies also temples for God’s presence, a holy place where heaven and earth meet. We become Christ’s body when we welcome and mediate his presence; when we honor, respect, and cherish other bodies as holy places, as homes for God.
If we are to become living sanctuaries worthy of the indwelling of God’s Spirit, to become the body of Christ, we must work as Jesus did to cleanse or dismantle the structures of oppression and exclusion that threaten our houses of prayer. We must embrace the Jesus with the whip as well as the babe in the crib or the one that hangs limp on the cross. For the temple may be destroyed but he will rise after death.
We must preserve and protect every body from irreverence or desecration. We must say that all holy sites – churches, mosques, and synagogues – are houses of prayer and their people should be respected and protected. We must own our anger or rage and stand with our children and say the right to bear arms is not more sacred than the right to life.
Go forth today, then, knowing you have been called to cleanse and dismantle all that stands in the way of God’s consuming love. Become zealots of love, God’s living sanctuary. Amen.