Sunday, March 3, 2024

Third Sunday in Lent

“Flipping Tables”
– Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Exodus 20:1-17, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (John 2:13-22, NRSVUE

When he was in college, my friend Brian scored a summer internship with a minor league baseball team. Since Brian is at least as big of a baseball fan as I am, it was pretty much a dream come true — or so he thought, anyway.

He arrived at the stadium for his first day of work along with all of the other interns and, at the very beginning of their orientation, they had to listen to a speech from the franchise’s President. It was probably intended to be a pep talk but, at the end of it, Brian wasn’t feeling particularly… peppy.

The eager interns listened intently from their seats along the first base side in the bright morning sun, as groundskeepers mowed the resplendently green grass; the scene was absolutely idyllic inside this catherdral of America’s Pastime. The boss climbed atop the dugout and, after greeting his new employees with the customary pleasantries, got right down to business.

“Regardless of what you might think, in spite of what may have brought you here, this isn’t about baseball,” is how he opted to lead off. The interns looked rather bewildered because this seemed like an odd thing for the leader of a baseball team to say to a group of people sitting in a baseball stadium.

Now that he had their attention, he elaborated on his prior statement: “When you get right down to it, our job here is pretty simple,” he said, “It’s to put as many rear-ends in these seats as possible.” Now, when Brian told me this story he used a slightly more colorful word than “rear-ends” but, since we’re in church and not in a ballpark, I chose to exercise some editorial discretion; I hope you don’t mind.

When the speech was over, Brian was absolutely crestfallen. He had sought this job because of his love for baseball. But what he learned that day, much to his disappointment, was that the powers-that-be were playing a different game.

At some level, though, the boss was right. Sure, what he said that day may have been unnecessarily crass and a bit too direct, but he also spoke some semblance of the truth. The simple fact of the matter is that, without “rear-ends” in those seats, the team would have ceased to exist. What the boss ignored, however, was the other side of that equation, the very reason those “rear-ends” were in those seats in the first place — namely, a love for baseball; and so what he said just felt wrong. I mean, lets face it: When the tail wags the dog, when the cart pulls the horse, when the man bites the dog, things just seem out-of-whack.

I can’t help but wonder whether the source of much of Brian’s frustration with the boss’s words that day came not from his declaration of the importance of dollars and cents, but rather from the priority he placed on making money over absolutely everything else. I mean, he could have said that they needed to put “rear-ends” in the seats so they could afford to field a team with the best possible players, or so they could afford to give their fans a great and memorable day at the ballpark; that would have made more sense. In the boss’s mind, however, money wasn’t the means to some other end, it was the end in and of itself; and that’s why what he said was so… icky.

And this kind of seems to be the source of the drama in today’s reading from John’s Gospel too — the reason behind all the yelling and the flipping over of tables, the inspiration for angry Jesus wielding a whip and letting those people in the Temple really have it.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, this episode takes place near the end of Jesus’s ministry; in John’s Gospel, however, it happens at the beginning. Simple logic would tell you that either the former or the latter — or both the former and the latter — had to be wrong about when in Jesus’s life this event occured.

Now, it’s not too often that all four Gospel writers agree on anything, so the discrepancy on the order of events here isn’t very suprising (and back then writers didn’t place a priority on laying out events in a linear fashion like we tend to do today). But the fact that all four of them incude this story indicates that there’s a better than average chance it actually happened at some point. But why does John situate it differently than all the others do?

Well, one of the essential premises of John’s Gospel is that Jesus himself is the new temple, so it makes sense that John would use this story to make that point both early and dramatically. When Jesus gets into an argument with the Jews (by which John means not all of the Jews but, rather, the Temple authorities) about how their practices are detroying his Father’s house, Jesus says to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” — a clear allusion to his impending Resurrection.

And if there were any ambiguity regarding what Jesus meant, John seeks to clear it up by telling us that “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Okay. But one important implication of Jesus coming here to be the “new” temple is that there’s something wrong with the “old” temple, and this is where things start to get complicated.

This passage from John is another one that’s been misread and used throughout  the centuries as justification for all sorts of bad behavior — in this case, antisemitism. Sadly, this is the case with other parts of John’s Gospel as well. It’s really easy to read this and interpret John’s reference to the “Jews” who stood in oposition to Jesus as a disparagement of all the Jews and of Judiasm itself, but that’s not the point of any of this. As I noted earlier, Jesus’s beef is with the Jewish leaders in that place and time who have enabled the institution of the Temple to get completely out of hand due to their own self-interest.

Sure, Jesus takes his frustration out on the sellers of animals and money changers here, but his quarrel isn’t predominantly with them. In the Temple system as it existed then, they actually provided some essential functions — enabling pilgrims to buy the unblemished animals they needed to sacrifice (the fact that God had previously made God’s feelings known about such sacrifices being another issue altogether), and to exchange their native currencies for the one they needed to pay the tax in order to gain entry to the Temple.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the powers-that-be have turned the Temple into a money-making venture for their own enrichment. Sure, they needed funds to run the Temple (somebody had to clean up after all those pilgrims and their sacrificial animals, and point people where they needed to go, and make sure all those burnt offerings didn’t cause a five-alarm fire); but for the authorities to levy a tax (much of which was going into their own pockets) — and to profiteer off the exchange of currency necessary to pay that tax (like one of those places at the airport that charges an exorbitant fee to convert your Dollars into Euros becuase you forgot to go the bank before you went to Italy on vacation) was, for Jesus, an abomination.

And the reason for this is pretty simple: The Temple had ceased to be about God (you know, the whole reason for its existence in the first place) and had become something far different. People had set their minds on human things and not divine things (as it turns out, people have always been pretty good at doing that, and God has never been too happy about it either).

The wealth that the Temple system created was no longer a means to a more righteous end (that being the worship of God); it had become the end in and of itself. In the end, the whole Temple system and the actual Temple itself were destroyed, and they were in ruins long before John ever put pen to paper. And so part of John’s aim here is to point fingers as to why that happened.

But what does all of this mean for the church today? I mean, we find ourselves in a different situation than Jesus did. In the Gospels, Jesus is starting a grass roots movement based in the seemingly simple of idea of loving God and neighbor. At that point, Jesus wasn’t founding a church — an institution; people like Peter and Paul would end up doing that. And they do that because, like it or not, movements benefit from institutions that carry their work and principles into the future; without institutions, movements tend to end up existing at the margins and eventually fizzling-out.

But the relationship between movements and institutions has always been tenous and frought with peril (today’s story from John reminds us of this timeless truth), because people are involved and people’s motivations for doing things can be, well, kind of complicated — especially when they get together in groups. And don’t think for a minute that Jesus didn’t understand and appreciate what his later disciples were in for as the church took root and grew; after all, he is the one who told them they needed to be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”

Paul Tillich, one of the twentieth century’s greatest theologians, supposedly  once said that “all institutions, including the church, are demonic,” which seems a little harsh. And Reinhold Niebuhr, another theoligical heavyweight (who also happened to be a pastor in one of the churches that became the UCC), once posited that institutions, when faced with their own demise, will quickly betray the principles that define them in order to survive; I don’t know about that, but the temptation to do so clearly exists.

It should be pretty obvious by now that the church ain’t exactly what it used to be. We’re not the dominant force in American society that we were just a few decades ago, money is increasingly tight, there’s less people in the pews these days, and many of the things our church did in the recent past don’t necessarily distinguish us the way they used to (a rising tide raises all boats but now we find ourselves navigating a croweded sea amongst a whole bunch of other boats). There’s increasing pressure upon us to put “rear ends” in these seats in order to ensure our survival. So, what are we going to do?

Before we answer that question, though, there’s a more essential one to consider, which is this:

Are we remaning true to the beliefs and principles that brought us together here in the first place? Because without those beliefs and principles what are we surviving for?