John 2:13-22 3.4.18
Baltimore was in the spotlight this week at the NEXT church national gathering downtown. Musicians, preachers, and testimony-givers highlighted new ways of “doing and being church” that are happening right here in charm city. Rev. Barchi led us in a responsive cadence at various points in her sermon on Tuesday night. “The church is dying!” She repeated again and again. “Thanks be to God!” She invited us to respond each time. At first it was hard for me to say. Thanks be to God, the church is dying? I grew up in the church, met my husband in the church, and have served the church professionally for almost 31 years! Thanks be to God, the church is dying?
I knew what she was saying. I agreed with what she was saying. The church as we have known it, the one expecting pews and classrooms to be filled with families who just show up out of a sense of duty, the one with flush bank accounts held tightly for a rainy day, the one housed in grand old buildings powerfully pointing to the sky. Truly, that church is already dead. Rev. Barchi was calling us to see that out of that old model of church is rising a new church, a new way of living as Christ’s followers that requires creativity, inclusiveness, risk and a commitment to justice. That I agree with. It just took awhile for me to join those around me in the refrain: “Thanks be to God!” when she called out “The church is dying!”
But you see, that is the gospel message completely. The gospel is all about resurrection, about new life coming out of death. Jesus comes to replace the old way of being faithful, the old way of relating to God, the old idea that the only place to meet God is in the temple. He IS the new temple. The good news is that his very self is the place we meet God.
It is fascinating to me that John gives us this temple incident (that is what it must be called, for you know that someone had to write up an incident report after this destructive behavior) at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as opposed to the synoptic gospel writers, Mark, Matthew and Luke, who place it as basically the last straw before Jesus is arrested and given the death penalty. The temple is, after all, the sacred place where God dwells, God’s house on earth, and its location in Jerusalem places that city as the center of the Jewish faith. But like most human activities, over time the temple itself had become an institution, requiring an organizational structure, a reliable source of funding, and staff. Not so different from the church today. It would have been no surprise to find money changers and animal sellers at the temple. They had become a part of the establishment, necessary appendages for the regular functioning of the temple, kind of like the monument business that sets up shop right outside the cemetery gates. The temple tax had to be paid in special temple currency, like the tokens you might use to cash in for prizes as Chuck E. Cheese. So you needed a place to trade your cash for tokens. The animals for sacrifice had to be unblemished, so it only made sense for them to be available for sale right there so that worshippers did not have to risk injury to an animal en-route to Jerusalem. John says nothing about cheating or unfair sales practices here, just tells us that Jesus has a new message. No longer is this place going to be an emporium, a marketplace. The institution as you know it is going to be destroyed, literally turned over like tables. That is the surprise, for the temple incident is the signaling of the end of an old way of relating to God. The surprise is the anger in his voice, the power of his whip, the overturning of tables. Jesus means business. And his business is to change the way people relate to God.
The emporium was set up in the outer courts of the temple, where the Gentiles were permitted to come and pray. Jesus found no praying space at all. Attention to the institution had taken precedence over attention to the original purpose for the temple as a place for faithful Jews and even outsider Gentiles to meet God. “You destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” As happens repeatedly in John, Jesus speaks in metaphor and people try to take him literally. He is not talking about the building they are standing in, not the building that Herod had been renovating for decades to try to keep the Jews happy. He is talking about his body, about himself as the new place to meet God. He knows they will attempt to destroy him, that they will put him to death and think they have won. The gospel writer is dropping hints for us, foreshadowing the coming death and resurrection of Jesus which we remember every time we gather around this communion table.
We like to point fingers at others, assuming Jesus’ anger is focused on the bad guys, on those misguided, greedy people who are just in it for their own gain. But we can not ignore that we too have created a religious establishment and we are part of it, we are an institution with a building, a budget, and plenty of bills. We are part of a shrinking, predominantly elderly denomination which closes church after church across the country. What does the table turning Savior have to say to the church today? To Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church? Which tables does he turn right here? We pride ourselves on sticking to a lean budget, on sharing our building with others, on finding ways to be the church in the community. All of that is worth recognizing, certainly. But are we more focused on keeping our institution alive or touching lives of those who are outside these walls? Surely we need to find ways to be creative in ministry, to look for ways we can touch the lives of individuals and families with Christ’s message of love.
Here is an example. For many years this church functioned with a board of deacons, and the pattern was to create groups of 15 or more church member families to be shepherded by a deacon who would keep an eye out for them, serve as their point of contact in times of concern or trouble, and even call them to check in. It was an effective congregational care model. That model was instituted in a time-period when there were enough people in this congregation who could afford to give that kind of time to be a deacon and lead a deacon group. I am going to say it: that time is over. Dead.
We are in a new time, requiring new and creative ways of caring for one another. At the end of 2016, we, as a church, decided to experiment with a new way of caring for one another. Last year we tried to create some task forces which did not really come to fruition. This year your leadership is offering a creative new way of being church together: connect groups. The groups are randomly assigned, very small, with only about 3 households who regularly participate in the life of our church in each group. The idea is that each one of us can be responsible to stay connected to a very small number of people. As a part of a connect group, I know each one in the group is looking out for the others. If I have not seen Dorothy for awhile (maybe because I have been away or she has been away), I will get in touch with her and check in, letting her know I miss her, finding out if she is ok or not. I can be intentional about encouraging Lucienne to come to the next special event at church, offering to sit with her and her family. In each group will be some folks that you don’t regularly see, and your group can determine how you might connect with them on an occasional basis—perhaps sending a card or an email.
You could mourn the loss of a deacon board. Oh, the church is dying, you could say. Where are all the stay at home moms with plenty of time to bake cookies for visitors or take meals to that member who had surgery? Who will step up to fill the void? Or instead you could celebrate the possibilities for new life and the creative opportunities to build relationships across this sanctuary with people you might now only know by name or face. Thanks be to God! Next Sunday, plan to stay after worship for a little more of a snack and fellowship time. We will meet our connect group members here in the sanctuary and then move together downstairs for fellowship and conversation with your connect group. My prayer is that this will be a way for your own faith to be strengthened as you care for one another. You just might find you are meeting God in new places, in the midst of conversations, in receiving a card with an encouraging message, or in your own prayer life as you lift up the concerns of another church member.
The church building is not the only place to meet God, we know that. Yet we still are a people who create habits and traditions which sometimes need to be turned over like the tables so we can see new growth, new hope, new life. The church of Jesus Christ is alive and well. It continues to be the carrier of his message of grace and love in many shapes and forms. I am grateful to be a part of it with each of you. Thanks be to God!