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  • Writer's pictureSt. Luke's

Stop Making God's House a Marketplace!

The Rev. Sara Warfield

Scripture: John 2:13-22

Many of the commentaries I read this week about this gospel went to great—sometimes even weird—lengths to explain how, despite what this passage might otherwise suggest, Jesus is being nonviolent. Overturning tables and pouring out coins isn’t hurting any actual person, one said. Another pointed out that weapons weren’t allowed in the temple so, as the scriptures tell us, he had to make a whip of cords. There was nothing but hay lying about, they said, and surely a whip made out of hay isn’t going to hurt anyone. Overall, these commentaries said, Jesus was simply demonstrating how zeal for his house would consume him.

And listen, I don’t disagree with these commentaries. I think there’s a difference between harming people and damaging property. And there’s a way to wield a whip to escort people and animals out of a space without hurting them. I do believe that Jesus was not out to harm anyone in any kind of way, especially physically.

But just the abundance of nervous justification of Jesus’ action, of assurance that he did not commit an act of violence, goes to show how uncomfortable Christians are when Jesus gets angry and acts out of that anger. I imagine it also speaks to our discomfort with anger in general, but especially when it’s expressed by the Son of God.

But anger isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s not inherently helpful or harmful. Anger is simply the feeling we get when we experience injustice, real or perceived.

And from what I can see, the injustice Jesus sees in the temple is real. Here is a place where people come to pray, to worship, to experience the Holy One. Now in that time, the Jews of Jerusalem sacrificed sheep and cattle and doves as part of their worship, as Jews had for hundreds of years before. But when he walked into that place, everything about his tradition, his worship, had been commodified. It was no longer just a place of worship but a little shopping area where vendors went to make money from the people who’d come there to worship.

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus tells them.

But the thing is, the operation that sent Jesus into a fury was actually necessary to the whole temple structure. The animals sacrificed at the temple had to be unblemished, per the scriptures, so there was a special market for that. Most people who came to worship wouldn’t themselves be able to find animals that were unblemished enough to sacrifice there. But you couldn’t use money from outside the temple walls to buy these unblemished animals.The coins of the city had Caesar’s image on them, and graven images, per the scriptures, are forbidden. So there were money changers there where people could exchange the money of the world for the image-less money of the temple. And, presumably, both the animal sellers and money changers took a profit.

I imagine those vendors had the priests’ permission to be there, and perhaps even paid rent for their little shop in the temple. So the temple itself and its priests probably also benefited from the arrangement. Perhaps they used that rent money for upkeep of the temple, to make sure their priests were fed and clothed, to give to those in need. I don’t know exactly how it all worked, but what I do know is that this system of commerce was built into the fabric of the worshiping community itself.

That’s what Jesus is railing against. As we heard him say to Peter last week: “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” What about people who couldn’t afford to change their money, let alone buy unblemished animals? Could they worship there? If so, would they be treated the same as the people who provided the sacrificial animals?

This gospel isn’t talking about the injustice of the world writ large, not in today’s pericope, at least. It’s talking about the way injustice manifests in the place of worship itself, about how the injustice of the world is built into the very fabric of our faith institutions.

This is an uncomfortable place to be, especially for me: Last week, I had a hard conversation with members of a recovery group that uses our building. The Vestry had voted in January to make rents consistent for all the groups who use our space, and their rent had gone up. They weren’t sure if they’d be able to make it work. They weren’t sure if they could afford to stay in our building.

Now the Vestry had made this decision so that first, we would finally have a formal, consistent policy for renting our space, but second, so that St. Luke’s can make ends meet.

From the perspective of human things, these groups are using heat and electricity while they’re here—and we all know that these costs have skyrocketed. If those groups don’t cover those costs, then the St. Luke’s community here needs to cover them. And as you all know from our Annual Meeting, we’ve already budgeted a $25,000 deficit for this year. If we don’t get support from other parts of our community, I’ll need to ask you to pledge more, to give even more. And I know some of us don’t have a lot of wiggle room in our budgets.

But, from the perspective of divine things, these groups that use our space want to be a place where people can heal whether they have the means to support the mission of that group or not. And that supports St. Luke’s mission, too, of boldly living God’s love! Of course it does! I want that for these groups. I want anyone, regardless of their ability to contribute financially, to be able to come into our building and find healing. Find belonging. Find love.

Because we are a gospel community, beholden to Christ’s love and grace. But we are stuck in a society where we need to pay our bills in order to maintain our gospel community. How do we reconcile that?

I’m personally dependent on all of your contributions, on your pledges and gifts, on that same system to pay my rent and buy my groceries. How as a preacher of the gospel do I reconcile that?

Honestly, it all makes me feel bad for the animal sellers and money changers that Jesus harangues and drives out. I’m caught in it, too. We’re all caught in it.

And where does that leave marginalized communities, communities that have been systematically and institutionally impoverished by prejudice, stigmatization, and white supremacy?

During my ordination process, I served as an intern at St. John’s in a rough part of the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. Their parish was home to many unhoused people or people living in subsidized housing. Many of them couldn’t afford to feed themselves, but they were faithful members of that community. Even if they gave ten percent of their income, which would be unjust frankly, their ten percent would never be able to pay for a full time rector. Meanwhile, many churches in wealthier areas, in that diocese and ours and many, if not most, dioceses, have staggering pledges, staggering endowments. Some could pay a full-time priest—or two full-time priests—on the investment returns alone.

The one historically Black church in our diocese, St. Philip the Deacon, in a neighborhood that used to be, well, historically Black but has now become another unaffordable neighborhood in Portland, is struggling for its survival just as St. John’s is. Our Latino congregation in the Metro Area, Santa Cruz, left behind its building in Boring several years ago. In order to keep their community alive, they had to give up their physical space because they couldn’t afford it. They now worship just down the street from us at Trinity Lutheran who rents them worship space.

What would Jesus think of how our capital-C church is set up? Would he turn tables and wield a whip because of these vast injustices?

This is our own modern money-changer-in-the-temple system. It wasn’t new then, and it’s not new now. Which is a relief in some ways—we didn’t invent injustice—but it’s also deeply distressing. Two thousand years later, two thousand years of living with Jesus’ message, both his words and the message of his death and resurrection, and we’re still stuck in systems that keep the wealthy comfortable and the impoverished with their heads barely above water.

How do we reform such a structure? Honestly, I think it’s what we’ve been talking about the last two weeks. By acknowledging our relationship with one another, our at-one-ment. And by being willing to live God’s love by atoning, by taking up our cross.

Of all places, of all people, communities who claim to follow Jesus should be doing things differently. I think that’s what Jesus would say to us today. Live our gospel truth, not just in theory but in our actual ways of being. Lose our life for the sake of the Body of Christ, and for the sake of the gospel, to save it.

Imagine if those wealthier churches dipped deeply into their endowments to help parishes in marginalized communities—to repair their buildings, to hire a full-time rector to build up their community.

And listen, all of us at some point in our lives have been in a position of need before. We have all been marginalized and impoverished—financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually. We’ve all had to ask for help, hoping that someone would be willing to give of their abundance so that we may experience healing, belonging, and love. That’s what the people who come into our red doors are looking for. It’s what the people who come to our church building for recovery groups are looking for.

And all of us at some point in our lives have been in the position of abundance, and we could choose to share that abundance when we saw others in need—or not to.

What would happen if those of us who right now have more—a little more or a lot more—really stepped up so that those of us who are in need right now could have a place of healing, belonging, and love? What if abundance isn’t really abundance unless it is shared, unless it is sacrificed, so that we may all experience resurrection?

After all, that’s what Jesus taught us. It’s what Jesus demonstrated for us with his very being. Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Do we really believe that?

Do we really believe that if we risk destroying the temple, if we tear down the walls of the structures and systems that we think are unbreakable, that we think protect us, that Christ will rise out of that rubble, and that we, his Body, will rise with him?

Do we really believe that?

Do we really believe that if we risk sharing our abundance for the sake of the Body of Christ, for the sake of each other, that we will, all of us, experience healing, belonging, and love?

Do we really believe it?

May our very lives—our thoughts, our words, and especially our deeds—bear witness to our belief. Amen.

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