Our relationship with God and God’s world is not about performing certain actions (even the truly noble ones), or certain rituals, or even expensive sacrifices. It’s not about how beautiful the building is, or where in the service the sermon comes, or what songs we sing, or how we organize our institution…. The point of it all is about truly caring about the things God cares about. Things like love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and most especially, caring about how we treat one another as we seek to live in community.
Message by Rev Jenny Carter
March 4, 2018
(Based on John 2:13-22)
My grandma was a good cook. Going to her house for dinner was always a treat and a bit of an adventure. There was good conversation, lots of laughs, and we kids were always made to feel welcome because she would let us drink out of the “good glasses.” There would be piles of food, all painstakingly made, with attention to everybody’s favourite.
Yet there was always a bit of drama at grandma’s dinners. You see, she never sat down while the rest of us were eating. She would hover around the table, taking note of what and how much people took – and if you didn’t take a bit of one thing, she would lament that you must not like her cooking. If you finished your potatoes ahead of whatever else was on your plate, a scoop of potatoes would come sailing down from somewhere on high – since grandma, armed with her serving spoon – was always quick to respond to an empty space on your plate. That’s probably why, to this very day, when I eat a meal, I time it to make sure everything is finished at the same time.
I don’t know why she was like that. As a kid you don’t think much about the “why” of the behaviour of grown-ups. As a kid you just know that the dinner would have been a whole lot more fun if grandma had simply sat down with the rest of us. To not eat while the family is eating, is kind of missing the point of a family meal. You see, a family meal is not about the food on the plate, a family meal is about having a shared experience that helps families reconnect and deepen their relationships.
Our story from the gospel of John presents us with something kind of similar. In this story we have a lively scene of animals and moneychangers and tables being tossed. Very dramatic. But what the author of John wants us to notice is that the whole scene had become something of an exercise in missing the point. The people were going through all the right motions, but their actions had become disconnected from the very presence of God they were designed to invoke. Jesus tossed the tables, not necessarily because he had an issue with the livestock and the money changers who enabled people to pay the Temple tax – he tossed tables because they encouraged people to simply go through the motions of faithful observance, and no longer encouraged the people to deepen their relationship with God, and with one another.
Much like family meals at grandma’s house (where the outward appearances of family dinner were there – but it wasn’t helping us connect as a family) the practices in the Temple were not helping people connect to God and faith. In fact, since they were mostly just going through the motions of faithful observance they had turned their whole faith, their religion, and their very relationship with God, into a commodity. Something that one could buy – and once the purchase was made, then no further change, or growth or even action was required of them as people.
That’s what angered Jesus. That’s why he pitched a fit and tossed the tables. Our relationship with God and God’s world is not about performing certain actions (even the truly noble ones), or certain rituals, or even expensive sacrifices. It’s not about how beautiful the building is, or where in the service the sermon comes, or what songs we sing, or how we organize our institution in terms of governance and policy and structures – it’s not about who gets to do what when and for whom.
The point of it all is about truly caring about the things God cares about. Things like love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and most especially, caring about how we treat one another as we seek to live in community. These are the things that matter.
The theme for Lent has been about turnings. The turnings of our lives as individuals, and the turning of our lives as a community. Today’s gospel story is directed to us as a community. While we may identify with Jesus’ righteous anger – and have found ourselves to be righteously angry at how we, or others, have been treated unjustly – and anger is the right response in those times – this story is not about our anger. It is about Jesus’ anger. We aren’t standing with Jesus as he tosses the tables in this story. No. We are the ones who are having their tables tossed.
The people in Jesus’ story, the moneychangers, the livestock tenders, the pilgrims and worshippers were not bad people. They were not evil. They were just people doing their best to do the right thing. And they thought they were doing the right thing – they had met all the requirements that their faith had made of them. Yet in all of their right doings, they had forgotten about what their “doing” was supposed to accomplish. They had confused the outward appearance of a “thing” with the “thing” itself. They had confused the glorious building that was their Temple – confused the prayer, and worship services, and other rituals – all things that instilled a sense of pride and gravitas and awe – with their relationship with God and with one another in community.
It’s easy to confuse the outward appearance of a thing, with the thing itself. So today, our gospel reading is inviting us to look at our own communal lives – our lives as a gathered community, and see for ourselves where we may have confused the purpose of our faith, with the practice of it.
There are many ways we practice our faith. We gather for communal worship – so that we (hopefully) grow in understanding of the gospel, or good news of God in our lives and world. We Christians gather in community, because God through Christ is revealed in community. Christ is revealed as we seek to support one another, encourage one another, and love one another – not just the people we have a lot in common with – but those who we have absolutely nothing in common with as well except our connection to this community and to Christ. We sing songs that help us to celebrate God’s presence in our lives. We practice our faith when we work for justice for the marginalized and the oppressed. We practice our faith when we welcome a stranger into our midst and offer them what it is they need for the day. We practice our faith when we raise money so that we might follow our ministry in, and with, the world. We practise our faith when we share with others the things that we have – like our time, our building, and our sense of the gospel.
Yet from time to time, it is a good thing to take a look around our community of faith and see if we might be in danger of missing the point of it all. Our communal life feels right – just like it felt right to the people in the Temple that day so long ago. But is it? One of the things about the way our ancestors worshipped in the Temple – was that there was a thriving Temple economy. They had streamlined the business of worship so all needs were met. You could come in and change your Roman coins into Jewish ones, thereby becoming able to pay your Temple tax. You could come in and buy an animal for the sacrifice that you were going to make – and could be guaranteed it would be perfect. You could come in from your long, and faith demanded pilgrimage and find everything you needed for your time of worship.
You could, unless you were poor. The very system that was designed to help people worship, to help people develop their faith, had grown barriers over the years. These “barriers” were the tables that Jesus tossed that day.
What are the “tables” that we have in this community of faith that serve as barriers? Our first instinct is to say we don’t have any – we are good and welcoming people. And it’s true, we are good and welcoming people, and what we do and how we do it, works for us. But what if we looked around and tried to see who isn’t here. Who are we missing? What people, what groups of people, are not here? Who in this community do we feel estranged from? And then if we are very brave, we follow up with a wondering of why that might be.
The answer we find becomes a “table” a barrier – and it needs tossing. This is the turning we are called to as a community during lent.
If you want to know what a community of faith without barriers looks like – then you need look no further than the art installation up front here. I love it! When I look at it this is what I see: the colour is white – the colour of Christ. So I see Christ when I look at it. It is made up of over 10,000 pieces of paper. Each piece a person, a prayer, an intention, and a practice. Each one of us is a piece of the whole – and an important piece. While we have our own ways of believing and living out our faith, it adds to the texture of this community – and it takes all of us in order for the vision and mission of Christ to be realized. One small act might not change a thing, but 10,000 small acts surely might!
Yet we are not 10,000 people – we are a couple of hundred at best – so why are all of the other pieces up there? This is the part that excites me the most – these are all of the other people, the people who are not here, but who share a lot with us. They value the same things we value, they work at the same things we want to work on. Yet for some reason we don’t see them and we don’t know them. It reminds me that perhaps I don’t know them because I have placed barriers, or my own precious “table” in the way, and if I want to work with them, then I need to toss the table. It also reminds me that Christ, God and Spirit are not only at work in the church, but at work beyond our walls as well. And this is a good thing to be reminded of.