Sermon for Lent 3, Sunday, March 8 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ex 20:1-17; Ps 19; 1 Cor 1:18-25; Jn 2:13-22
This, in John’s gospel, is how Jesus erupts into the public eye—not a teacher or miracle worker, as in the other gospels, but as a man with a homemade whip of knotted cords. It’s an extraordinarily dramatic scene—painters love it, it’s been painted countless times over the centuries, with Jesus usually robed in red for greater effect. This scene does occur in the other Gospels—it’s one of the few universally agreed-upon events, although only John mentions the whip—but Mark, Matthew and Luke all place it near the end, make it the final provocation which turns the authorities against Jesus. In John, it is his first public act. It is almost a mission statement—and not a particularly comfortable one, a much more difficult one to deal with than, say, healing a demoniac, or teaching with an air of special authority.
And it is all the more shocking because, from a certain perspective, the Temple system—the tables which exchanged blasphemous Roman coins for coins without images, the vendors who provided sacrificial animals at a more or less reasonable price—was really not such a very bad one. There were surely many more obvious examples of exploitation available. It filled many social and emotional needs. It contributed to the stability of the society. It created an acceptable compromise, a way of continuing to practice one’s own religion in an occupied territory. It gave people means for dealing with their fears, their anxieties, their desires, within a structure of rules and approved procedures. It even made special accommodations for those who were less well-off—the doves were there specifically as an acceptable sacrificial animal which could be purchased at a lower price, if you couldn’t afford a large meat animal like a cow. In Luke’s gospel, in fact, we see Jesus’s own family participating in this system in just such a way, when they offer doves as a sacrifice acknowledging the birth of their son.
And it is all this which Jesus disrupts, attacks, scatters, turns upside down. For that is precisely the greatest offense, that it is a reasonable accomodation. It is a system which takes the inbreaking God whose name cannot be spoken, who calls his people into the wilderness of freedom, into a God of goods and services, commerce and exchange. It turns the God of the prophets, the God who demands justice above all things, into a God who gives us security bought by regulated sacrifice, who approves of skillful compromises with the occupying army, a God whose aim is to abate our anxieties and calm our difficult longings, to help us get along with the world as it is.
And if that sounds a bit like how the church often functions today, that is no coincidence at all.
It is so hard for us not to fall back into an image of a transactional God, a God who gives good things to us in exchange for what we give or do or say; a reasonable God, who wants us to be at peace just as we are, who will give us that quiet mind in exchange for some kind of spiritual or material payment. A God with whom we can bargain for safety. But safety and reasonable exchange have never been what the gospel is about.
What does Jesus put in place of this, then? What does he set as the alternative to all of it, this sophisticated and reasonable and mostly quite successful system? A body. A weak human body. His own body, which, as the narrative insistently reminds us, will in not too much more time be a broken body, a body tortured and killed and discarded by power. A body we know in the sharing of bread that is broken. A body which is every body, any body, any human body exposed to violence or abuse or hunger or cold, to fear and disquiet, to the longing for something better.
This is the foolishness of God, the foolishness of the cross, which exposes all of our wisdom as empty. The foolishness of saying that one bleeding body, one vulnerable person, is more important than the Temple itself, is the centre around which reality turns. This is the foolishness which tears away accomodation, stability, reason and compromise, and demands the vision of a wholly different life.
We are all broken, of course we are. Those of us who are not broken by oppression and violence are damaged by our participation in the systems of suffering. We are broken by our dreams and our desires, and their collision with the hard edges of the world. We are each one of us a suffering body, subject to sickness and grief and loss, getting through the days as we can, lying awake in the night afraid of things we can’t even name. None of us are safe. But all too often, we come to church to pretend that we are safe, when others are not. And all too often the people we see in churches are those of us who can, at least sometimes, successfully disguise our brokenness, those of us who have the resources to appear to be good. As if this makes God more pleased with us, as if this were a temple of the God of commerce and exchange, a God who could be cajoled with prayer and liturgy and good behaviour, a God who values stability and predictability and compromise.
But we are here to meet the God of the broken, glorified, risen body. The God before whom all pretense and accommodation falls down. The God whose being is the one complete unconditional gift, the gift which cannot be earned or purchased or bargained for with our anxious little goodness, but only accepted as the source of all that we are, the source who, as our psalm today tell us, charges reality with beauty and sweetness like dripping honey, the underlying love which flashes out like shining from shook foil.
What would it take, to make us a church which puts the crucified body at the centre? A church in which all the broken—the excluded and the lost and the struggling and the defeated—are here and loved and home. A church in which we come as vulnerable bodies to join with each other in the body of Christ, and from this learn the strength and the longing and, yes, the anger that will send us out into the world in the name of that body, to create real change. I believe, and I do truly believe, that this parish is trying to do exactly that, is trying to escape from our ideas of God as a commercial agent whom we can control, or worship as that act by which we assuage our pain and learn to get along with how things are, is trying to break open that space which appears when the tables are turned over and the shackled animals are released, that open space where the vulnerable body stands. We struggle and often fail; we are petty and silly and confused and weak. And every moment of openness brings risk, the knowledge that defenceless space will be entered and exploited sometimes, that the greed and violence of the world do not stop on the doorstep. And yet we keep on, and it is a remarkable thing to continue to try to do.
Offered the astonishing gift of God’s whole being, we often try instead to bargain for little controllable pieces of it. But moment by moment, as individuals and as a community, we can allow ourselves to be broken open, to be made participants in God’s desire for creation. It may be as simple and gentle as offering bread and time and attention to each other, and to those whom society has discarded. It may be as basic and impossible as falling to our knees in awe and adoration, not counting the cost or what we get out of it. But, at least for some of us some of the time, it may also require turning over some tables—the counting tables of a government which is targetting the most vulnerable among us, of policies which drive poverty and inequality and violence, which are devastating our planet and endangering our future; the counting tables of a church, sometimes, which seeks its own comfort and safety, and does not want to risk too much.
But in that risk is our true life. For the body which stands at the centre is not only the body broken, but the body risen, the body in which all our individual bodies are embraced, and welcomed into the redemption of all things. We take in our hands the body which is bread, which is the sweetness of honey, we take in our selves the life of God, and we go forward into the world in that knowledge, to be, as we are and as we can, the representatives of love.