The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
“Oh Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.”
Back in the earlier 90’s, that time when you will remember when it seems our Congress was hopelessly and perpetually grid locked in bickering and partisan politics, as no other time in recent memory. During that time I was visiting with a sweet little elderly lady in Pennsylvania. She said to me, “I watch them on television, and those Congressmen seem to me like a bunch of boys in the street. They got the ball and the bat, but they won’t play ball. They just argue. They argue about the rules,” she said. “Whose fault, whose ball, whose bat.” And then she drew herself up and said, “Grandmother that I am, I would like to take them by the collar and just shake them and just say, ‘Play ball!’ ” I can see by the smiles on your faces you’ve had similar feelings yourself.
Well, so did Jesus. We may find difficult this passionate, aggressive side of Jesus, but he made his point. Jesus’ cleaning the Temple, or more accurately the cleaning of the Temple courtyard, was a bold demonstration of political protest and an act of utter frustration with the politics of established religion. The religion he loved. The religion which nourished him.
The life of Judaism, especially during the Roman occupation, had become a complicated system of religious codes and practices. To be certain, they were originally intended to ensure that there would be clear boundaries defining what is pure and what is impure, what is holy and what is unholy. The intentions were good, but as systems, it became cumbersome, complicated and sensitive to corruption.
The role of religion is to awaken us spiritually. Having awakened us spiritually, religion then is to serve the spiritual needs to the end that we then have a true and faithful relationship with God, and that we are also in a responsible relationship with our sisters and our brothers. Without spiritual sensitivity, without the awareness that we are not just physical, but that we are also spiritual beings, without this sensitivity, without the discipline of prayer and worship, without challenge to the moral status quo of our lives, without our having examination and change in our lives continually, we become easily materially obsessed, self-focused, and vulnerable to attitudes and behaviors which are counter to God’s will.
And that is a general definition of ‘evil.’ That which works counter to the will of God, the will of God for love and for justice.
So when we think about injustice in our world, when we think about abuse, when we think about oppression, when we consider our toleration of poverty, our toleration of violence, our toleration of prejudice and hate, we can trace it directly back to insensitive spiritual lives. Lives that are either dead to God—we refer to that as ‘secularity’—; or lives that are obsessed religiously with preserving the politics of religion. So, therefore, there is both a tending to the spiritual life, and tending to the needs of the world, which is the role of religion. It is the way that religion plays ball.
But religion can also become a system obsessed with defining roles and preserving guilt, advancing political ideologies, and acquiring material and economic power. In Jesus’ day the stringent rules were intended to guide people. There were rules about what they should eat, with whom they could eat, with whom they might associate. There were religious rules about how one would cleanse oneself from any intention or any accidental defilement, such as associating with or being with a leper, touching a dead person, being around a woman who was menstruating, being near or around persons who were socially unacceptable, such as tax collectors and non-observant Jews and Gentiles. And then this included rituals of washing and acts of penitence and acts of sacrifice.
We know that Jesus was in constant conflict with certain of the leaders of his religion. Some of the Pharisees, some of the Temple rulers, because of their commitment to strictly enforced purity laws. It was not his difference with every Pharisee, with every priest or Saducee. We know that Joseph of Aramathia, and Nichodemus were Pharisees. We know that Zechariah, that wonderful priest of the Temple who was the father of John the Baptist. But Jesus struggled with many who were obsessed with the maintenance of rules and codes and regulations and the preservation of systems.
Therefore, many statements that he made, and much of his behavior was a confrontation, a challenge to the status quo of religion. He said once, “it is not what we eat, but it is what is in our heart that defiles us.”
He saw religion as that which could, and often did, create class systems, that which was a burden to the poor who could not always afford the sacrifices, whose life-style in need to work often conflicted with their ability to keep certain days and certain rites. It had a tendency to favor the rich, and it excluded the lepers and those who were lame and those who were poor. It bothered Jesus. It troubled him deeply.
And as it is today, the stringency of rules of perfection have a way of causing people to ignore religion completely and leave others seeing only religious bureaucracy and not a community of faith.
In Jesus’ day the Temple was at the heart of this kind of reality. The Temple was most beloved and the central symbol of Jewish religious faith, of hope and national identity. The priests of the Temple were the most influential, not only in religious life, but were often a part of the economic and political elite. The great feasts were celebrated there. The sacrifices of penance and of thanksgiving were offered there. And it was the most glorious physical symbol of Jewish heritage and national life.
Jesus grew up in small communities. He spent his three years of ministry primarily in small country villages and country communities. He saw the economic struggle and the spiritual frustration of the poor. He saw how difficult it was for them to keep the system of purity, the sincerity of their faith and their simple hunger to be pure, to please God. And that is why Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in heart,” as contrast with those who are ritually and religiously pure.
But Jesus shared a love for the Temple as well. Perhaps he remembered the stories his parents told him of how when he was first born, he was brought to the Temple. And as he was offered there came a wonderful priest named Simeon who sang and rejoiced; the wonderful temple prophetess named Anna. I’m sure he heard those stories of the Temple often. And I’m sure he remembered how as a child of twelve he traveled with his family and relatives on his way to Jerusalem to go to the Temple. And there with the Elders he sat and they gave him so much time, listening and talking and amazed with this wonderful, bright child. There was no question that Jesus loved the Temple.
But as he approached the Temple in this season of Passover, much as we would think of Christmas and Easter, what he saw troubled him. For where the people would see the pinnacle of hope and meaning, there was something obscuring the power of the symbol of the Temple.
To get a modest picture of what it must have been like, imagine approaching this Cathedral this morning, and on the grounds which would have been at least twice the size of the grounds of this Cathedral. Imagine it was cluttered with booths and stands, the selling of prayer books, the selling of crosses, the selling of incense, the selling of hymnals and psalms, maybe even a picture of me, I don’t know. But all kinds of things being sold. And things that made it essential for you to worship. And imagine, because many of you come from other states and perhaps even other countries, that there were moneychangers, because you could only use the money approved by the Church—Church money. And for a fee, we would kindly exchange your currency for Church currency. This is what Jesus saw.
And the Jesus that had traveled through the villages and the countryside, who saw the people who were the “salt of the earth.” And he came with hope and with excitement, and before he could see the Temple, he encountered the Courtyard. This was not a scene of hope. Not a scene of faith. It was a scene of greed to Jesus, a scene of exploitation, of religious confusion which was obscuring the vision of God’s glory, the Temple.
Let’s think about ourselves—because we are no different than the people seeking faith in God in Jesus’ day. One of the most prominent images of Christianity today is that too often we are seen as a dying institution that spends most of its time with political bickering, with control, with blaming about rules. Are we seen as unconcerned about the poor, the lonely and the oppressed? About the unborn and the addicted? About those that are spiritually empty? Are we seen as caring about that at all? We are not seen as healers. We are not seen as reconcilers. I rejoice on the journey of the Pope, his spirit of humility and faith, seeking to add to the healing, to the reconciliation of old, but tragic wounds.
Think with me about our own denominations. Or more so, think about your congregation at home. Whatever your denomination or tradition might be, think about it. For all the good you know about it, and for all the reasons you may love it, what is its most visible public image? Does it represent in your community a house of prayer for all people? Is it a place of hope and inspiration? Is your church an open door that symbolizes hope for your community? Or is the only sign of public visibility the Annual Bizarre? Do you sense your congregation as having somehow a feeling that the church belongs to us, that it is here for us and for our children and our members only? Or do we somehow feel a burden that the church must belong to others? Even others we do not know? These are the things that obscure the house of God as a God of house of prayer for all people.
Lent is a time when we examine our own lives. What about our personal lives? Well Jesus said that our bodies were the true temple of God. By its implication, we must examine our own lives. What about the courtyards of our lives? I just came back from my Lenten spiritual retreat, and I looked in my front yard and I saw some pink flamingos and some green lawn chairs that have got to go. What about your life? Are the courtyards of our lives cluttered and frenzied with materialism, with social obligation, with professional ambitions and obsessions? Are the values that guide our lives and shape our daily relationships and our choices primarily marketplace values? Or are they human values? Are our lives so cluttered that others around us cannot see God?
What about your checkbook and your calendar? What does your checkbook, what does your calendar (or, what does mine) say about what is most important? Does it show a life that is only about us, ourselves? Or does it show love for God, and love for our neighbor? I realize my checkbook and my calendar don’t lie to me. And if we feel that this is an unfair question, then maybe, just maybe we are more invested as Christians in the business of the courtyard than the faith of the Church. And maybe Jesus wants to clean out the courtyards of our lives, wants to disturb the neatness and get our attention, for the world, my brothers and sisters, needs the Church. It needs the hope that Jesus Christ offers to a world that needs healing and reconciliation, that needs love and understanding, that needs the strength to stand and be fully human as God has called us.
And the world needs people of faith. People that believe that God can empower us to be what God calls and asks that we be, to love God with all our heart, our mind and our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
I ask you, as we think about who we are and whose we are, and how we might live in the world, I invite you to take your Prayerbook with me now, and turn with me to page 833 of your Prayerbook. And let us continue our Lenten pilgrimage by praying together to be instruments of God’s peace.
Let us pray together, page 833. “Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us so love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is discord, union. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is disappear, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is dying that we born to eternal life. Amen.”