Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | March 7, 2021
John 2: 13-22
In Scotland, the Church of Scotland says, “You may not serve alcohol in the church.”
If there was ever a wedding reception or funeral lunch, it had to be dry. Which meant most such events were held elsewhere. Usually for reason. There was a saying in my parish that you knew the wedding reception was a success when the bride’s dress got torn in the brawl.
One time I went to the annual meeting of the women’s guild, or The Guild as they called it. There was a light lunch being served. And then, one of the women came to where I was sitting and asked, “Minister, would you care for a glass of sherry?”
I thought, “Well that’s nice, they’re starting to loosen up a bit about the rules.” And I said, “Sure, I’ll have a glass of sherry.”
So they served me a glass of sherry and after I had taken a drink, everyone else was served. I asked, “What gives?”
One of the women said, “We reckoned if the minister thought it was okay to have a drink, then the rest of us could too.”
One of the churches in Clarion, Iowa held its annual “Rummage Sale” in a rented hall because “the Bible says you can’t sell stuff in church!” So, they sold their stuff outside of the church and that somehow made it okay, for them.
After all, Jesus went into the Temple and threw the money changers out. He kicked over their tables and made a whip out of some rope and drove out the sellers of cattle, sheep and doves. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” he yelled.
We say, “You tell em’ Jesus!”
In the story of Jesus as told by John, this episode comes toward the beginning of his work. It helps to set the stage for what follows. In the other versions of his story, it comes at the end. But it also helps to set the stage for what follows. In each version of his story, these things were part of what nailed him to the cross – his riling up the people who ran the system of business, government and religion.
His “Father’s House” has always been in the business of buying and selling in one form or another. And it’s unlikely that he cleared out the whole commercial enterprise. It was too big and too entrenched. Within twenty minutes of his tirade it was likely back to business as usual.
Where would Jesus begin clearing the Temple if he were to visit our religion today? Churches I’ve served over the years have employed all manner of fund-raising events.
The Fish Fry
The Pancake Supper
The Wild Game Feed
The Hunter’s Turkey Supper
The rummage sale
Besides raising money these activities gave people something to do together. We call it “Fellowship” and it’s meant to be a good thing. Like church fundraising events everywhere, people complained that “It’s always the same people doing the work.” You could step in there fifty years later and hear different people making that same complaint.
A colleague of mine down the road came out of seminary about the same time as me and he decided that part of his job was to convince people that he knew more about the bible than they did. So, when Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” he took that to mean the Annual Church Bazaar at First Presbyterian Church of Small Town Minnesota.
He might have imagined himself in the guise of Jesus with a whip in his hand while the money changers cowered before him. The difference between he and Jesus is that Jesus never had to go up against the Priscilla Circle of the Women’s Guild. My colleague quickly learned that the local interpretation of Scripture took precedence over his own view. The Church Bazaar went on and he soon went on to a different church.
Would Jesus really be bothered about our rummage sales? How do these types of church fundraising activities compare to what Jesus was up against in the Temple in Jerusalem?
I don’t think it bothered Jesus that people were trying to make a few shekels. I don’t think it bothered Jesus that people were selling stuff in a sacred space. If that’s all it was, he might have said it’s not ideal, but people have to make a living.
The problem wasn’t that people were buying and selling stuff in the Temple. The real problem that upset Jesus was that the common folk were being taken advantage of. They were being held financially hostage to a corrupt system.
The authorities at the Temple said that the one true way to worship God was to follow their rules and make the correct sacrifices. In order to do that, people had to purchase their doves, or whatever they used, from the Temple approved vendors at an inflated price.
Folks were not allowed to bring their own sacrifices. And in order to purchase the approved sacrifice, at the set price, the proper currency had to be used. The money changers were there to make sure folks had the right currency. The exchange rate was a gouge. And of course, at every point of this buying and selling process, the authorities who ran the Temple got a cut of the action.
Following Jesus has no price tag attached to it. The price he put on it was, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” That has no fixed monetary value.
But running a religious institution costs money. Therein lays the struggle – the difference between the free spirit of faith and the monetary cost of religion. Jesus never made it easy. He held up a coin and pointed to the difference between God and Caesar. He said you can’t serve two masters. We are always having to figure out where our loyalties lie.
Many years ago, the Christian Church, as it was in those days, came up with the ideal fundraiser. It was called the “Indulgence.” An indulgence was a simple way of getting forgiveness for your sins. Sin has always been a big issue for Christians. For centuries people relied on the Church to grant them forgiveness.
If the Church said, “You are forgiven,” then you could rest easy. If the Church said, “You’re going to hell,” then you had that to look forward to.
An indulgence was something you could buy that guaranteed the forgiveness of your sins. With most things that are for sale, the indulgence came with a price. If you had enough money, you could not only have your past sins forgiven, but also ones that you had not yet committed. The indulgence became a “Get Out of Hell Free” card.
If you could not afford it – then too bad for you.
We might say those days are history now. But still today people are asking, “How can we market the Church?” We use the language of commerce – How do we get people to “buy into” our message? How do we “promote” our message?
The risk is that whenever the church becomes part of the culture of commerce then people become numbers and numbers become more important than people. And when that’s the case people start asking questions such as, “Minister, what are you going to do about it?!”
But whenever the church strives to reflect the realm of God that Jesus brought into view, the question is always, “Who are we going to be about it?” We could buy an ad during the Super Bowl, but nothing tells the truth more than the spirit of our common life together.
The reason Jesus got into trouble is he ignored the social convention that said a carpenter’s son of questionable parentage who fancied himself a wise man had no business telling the learned and the landed how to run things. It was not his place. He was part of the rabble who was just supposed to go along and pay up and keep their mouth shut about it.
Jesus challenged them in their seat of power and authority: The Temple. He went right in and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this emperor has no clothes. This is a disgrace.” His entire ministry was about challenging and reinterpreting authority and living. What happened to him was the usual kind of violence done to one of those who dared to criticize.
So, it is not the bingo halls and rummage sales that are the issue. What is at issue are the barriers and blockades to God’s grace. The religious systems that make it hard for people to understand that God loves them and is for them and with them. These are the systems with which Jesus would be in conflict. And where you or I go along with these systems, buy into them so to speak, he would likely be in conflict with us.
One question to ponder is what Jesus would say if he came to church today. Would there be anything that would provoke him like the money changers at the Temple? If he found offense, likely it would be if there were any way in which people were being shut-out, abused or made to feel unworthy of what God has to offer; I think those are the places where Jesus might start tipping over some tables. Amen.