Sacred Priorities

By Rev. Scott Summerville
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The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” John 2:13-16

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Friday evening Mary Ellen and I went to Brooklyn to the wake of a member of the Bay Ridge church where we served for many years. At the wake we encountered people we have not seen in years. We saw some children we baptized twenty-five years ago, all grown up and out of college. We met a young woman who used to be a playmate of our son when they were in grade school. She now has two children of her own. A couple came up to me and said: “You married us twenty-four years ago!” They are still together, and they seem very happy to be together, so I guess I did a good job of marrying them, even though I have no recollection of the event.

I have mentioned to you before that Bay Ridge United Methodist Church was torn down last year. For more than a century it had been one of the most beautiful churches in the city. But it would have required millions of dollars to repair its stonework, so the congregation made the decision to tear it down and redevelop the property and build a new church.

The church member who died this week had been a trustee of the church for many years; he was a handy guy with tools, and he had worked on the church property for many years. For more than fifty years he lived only a block from the church. His wife said to us, “My buddy is gone, and where my church was there is a vacant lot; it seems so much has been taken away.” The funeral was held yesterday in one of the other churches in the neighborhood, but of course that was not the same as having the funeral service in the church where he and his family worshiped and served and formed deep friendships over many years.

With funds from the sale of part of the property the Bay Ridge congregation will build a new energy efficient church and parsonage on the remaining property. It will be heated with geothermal technology. It will have solar energy generation, with the capacity to sell excess energy to Con Ed. Two years from now they will have a new church with multi-use space for worship, for education and fellowship, and for community service.

Human beings grow up so fast, they change so fast, they move away from home, and in time they all die. Buildings can give us a feeling of permanence. We are fragile and mortal; part of the comfort of a sanctuary is that it feels more permanent than we are. But buildings of course are not permanent either.

The tearing down of that church was a creative and faithful act on the part of that congregation. It was also a courageous decision, because that beautiful building was also a reassuring sign for the neighborhood. It was a sign of permanence and stability for the people of the community. The community thought of that building as its church. You can imagine the kind of anger from the community that was directed at the church. The pastor and the churches leaders and eventually the entire congregation was vilified in the local press. But after facing all that opposition the church prevailed, and the deed was done. Friday was the first time I ventured back to see the empty space.

When you mess with sacred places and sacred spaces you will stir up the deepest of feelings.

When Jesus messed with the temple in Jerusalem, he touched off a storm, and he sealed his own fate. In the gospel lesson today Jesus ventured into the most sacred space in Judaism. He entered the Temple in Jerusalem. It is difficult to reconstruct exactly what his purpose was that day, but what is clear is that he caused a great commotion, in fact whatever he did in the temple that day was probably directly related to the decision to have him executed.

Each of the four Gospels tells the story in a slightly different fashion. According to the Gospel of John the commotion in the temple occurred at the beginning of Jesus ministry. According the other Gospels the incident occurred at the end of his ministry, which seems more likely historically, but no one can say for sure.

John’s Gospel tells it this way:

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

What was Jesus trying to accomplish that day?

One interpretation is that Jesus was taking the radical step of challenging the whole structure of Temple Judaism. That is, according to this interpretation, Jesus was attacking the whole system of priesthood and sacrifice and temple ceremony that was at the heart of official Jewish society and religion at that time.

If you can’t have animals for sacrifice in the Temple, if you can’t buy and sell those animals, and if foreign pilgrims cannot exchange their money for local coin to purchase them; then the whole system breaks down.

If that were to happen, then the Temple, that monumental and majestic Temple, would no longer serve a function, and the economic structure of Jerusalem society and particularly the interest of the religious and social elites would be devastated.

Another interpretation is that Jesus was not a radical out to challenge Jewish Temple observance and all that went with it, rather he was a reformer who wanted the temple to serve its proper function. In support of this interpretation it is pointed out that in all of the accounts of Jesus creating a ruckus in the Temple, there is a focus on money changers and those who sold birds.

Birds would have been sold to the poor. They were the sacrifice of choice for those who could afford no other creature to sacrifice. If there were abuses in the changing of money, if the money changers and bird sellers were squeezing their customers, if they were adjusting the exchange rates in their favor – bumping up the price a little here, a little there – it would be the poor who would suffer the most. And we must remember that the vast majority of the people were poor.

I am reminded of a story told to me by someone who grew up in a very poor country that was beset with corruption at every level. He described a person who was desperately sick who had traveled for days to reach a medical clinic. At the clinic door they were met by a man who controlled access to the clinic. When the sick man asked to be admitted to the clinic, the man at clinic door said to him, “It is quite hot today; I’m feeling quite thirsty, quite thirsty indeed.” The poor man understood what this meant. It meant that he would have to go into the town to purchase a large bottle of Coca-Cola – a trivial thing to you or to me – but to the poor man it meant spending a week’s wages to bribe his way into the clinic after spending many times that amount just to reach the clinic door.

So, one theory is that Jesus was fundamentally concerned with the abuses of the temple system and the impact that those injustices that on the poor who were coming to fulfill their ritual obligations as Jews.
Was Jesus a radical out to challenge the very foundations of Jewish society and power, or was he a reformer who wanted the Temple to be what the Lord declared it to be to the prophet Isaiah, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.”

It is impossible to say for sure – I certainly cannot claim to know exactly what Jesus meant to meant to signify when he drove the money changers and the animals out of the Temple. Whatever he meant to signify, he succeeded in threatening those who were in power.

By the time our Gospels came to be written, a half-century or so after Jesus’ ministry, the issue no longer mattered, because the Temple no longer existed. When our Gospels were written, the Temple had already been destroyed – leveled to the ground – by the Army of Rome in the year 70, in the terrible and bloody destruction of the city of Jerusalem.

Churches today are wrestling with what it means to be a community of faith centered in invisible things – centered in the love and mercy and justice of God – centered and compassion and forgiveness – while at the same time we find ourselves in large and expensive buildings, coping with challenging financial and economic realities.

How can a church be faithful to the Gospel, so that if Jesus walks in the door, he will say, “Peace be upon you,” instead of, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations;’ but you have made it a house of trade” ?

Starting next week the stewardship team will be telling us about the plans that have been made for raising the funds needed to support the ministries of this congregation. As the members of the stewardship team speak to us, they will surely feel this challenge: how do we challenge and inspire our congregation in its stewardship without conveying the message that we can measure our Christian commitment in dollars or that we can measure the faithfulness of our congregation by how well we are doing financially?

This is not easy. On behalf of the whole congregation I want to say that we are grateful for those of you who are willing to wrestle with this difficult issue, especially in times of economic crisis when some people may find talking about money to be very uncomfortable thing to do in the church.

Our Community Outreach Team is engaged in research in our community, primarily in central Yonkers, learning about extent of poverty and hunger in our community and trying to bring our congregation into a more direct role of service to the poor. The offerings today, both the food collection boxes and our financial contributions to the ecumenical food pantry, are a part of this effort. It may be difficult for us to interpret what Jesus was doing when he chased the money changers out of the temple, but it is real clear where Jesus stood in relation to poverty and the needs of the poor. That was at the center of his ministry. It is a crucial challenge to middle-class congregations to figure out how to be faithful Jesus in a world of inequality and massive poverty.

The early Methodist didn’t have fancy buildings and didn’t attach importance to fancy buildings. They attach great importance to the life-changing love of God at work in individual lives and in society. The Christian movement began without buildings. Our trustees are working our behalf to utilize the gift of this sanctuary and the rest of the church physical structure in a way that fulfills the spirit of the Gospel and the spirit of our Methodist tradition. The trustees are working on behalf of the congregation to see that this physical place we occupy is as a place of healing and hope. We worship in this sanctuary one day each week; seven days a week this church is a place of refuge and healing for hundreds of people wrestling with addiction.

Our trustees work along with the board of our nursery school so that this church can be a safe place of learning and nurture for the children and adults of our congregation, and for the nearly two hundred children who come here nursery school during the week.

The trustees and the nursery school board and other leaders of the church are managing the visible things, so that the invisible things can happen here.

It is very challenging work, and we are grateful for these leaders and their commitment.

The other day I was at my desk doing some Bible study in preparation for preaching today. At one point I stepped away from my desk, and when I returned I noticed that the Bible was lying on top of one of the church financial reports – the balance sheet. So there was the Bible in front of me and sticking out from above it were these columns of numbers. Most of you know that I am like a Japanese tourist with a camera – I need images!- so of course I took the photograph my Bible with the Asbury United Methodist Church balance sheet sticking out above it.

The photograph invites the question:
Is the balance sheet above the Bible or is the Bible on top of the balance sheet?

That’s the challenge.

We don’t live in ancient Israel. We don’t live in Galilee or Jerusalem of the first century. We live here and now, with all the challenges and problems and crises of our time. We have to work out our relationship with God as people of our own time; we can’t ignore balance sheets and leaking roofs.

If we put the balance sheet above the Bible, then we are just an institution like any other that is primarily concerned with self-preservation.

But if we put the Bible on top of the balance sheet, then whenever we look at the balance sheet we will also be looking at the Word of God, and we always be challenged to examine our priorities and to ask: are we serving God? Are we embodying the healing and forgiving love of Christ? Are we putting service to people about self-preservation? Are we serving the poor?

It is not comfortable always to be faced with these questions, but they are the questions the Gospel is asking us in all we do.

Grace and peace to you.

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