Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sermon, Lent 3B, John 2:13-22

"The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins . . . were restored to the fellowship of the Church . . . I invite you, therefore . . . to make a right beginning . . ." (BCP 264 - 265)

In this invitation to a holy Lent, which is read at the Ash Wednesday service, we are reminded that Lent provided a time for new converts to prepare for Holy Baptism and when those who had been separated from the body were restored to fellowship. During this time, people made a special effort to cleanse and purify themselves before being baptized or readmitted into the family of the faithful. We are reminded of these things because they are part of our collective past, they are part of our Christian roots, and they are part of our tradition.

We, too, are asked into a time of self-examination, prayer, fasting and repentance, and to make a right beginning. This is what the season of Lent is about. Lent isn't about being miserable or foregoing certain aspects of our life to make a point. Lent is about making a right beginning and preparing ourselves for the joy of Easter Day.

How are we doing? Are we following through on our Lenten disciplines? Are we using this season to prepare ourselves for the joy of Easter Day? Are we cleansing ourselves so that we might live into the fifth point of our Mission Statement and rejoice in a new life found in Christ? Or do we see this as simply another season in the Church year? Do we see this as just another way of doing business as usual?

This is what is going on in today's gospel passage from John. The temple, as it had been designed, was there to facilitate the people's worship of God. The temple was there to aid, focus, and support the people in their worship. But what happened?

What happened is that over time the people moved away from seeing the temple as a worship aid and spiritual support to seeing the temple as being supported by the people. To paraphrase Jesus: the temple was made for man; man wasn't made for the temple.

What happened is that strict systems of worship developed and it became more about adhering to the system than it was about worship. During the occupation of Israel by Rome (and probably at other times as well), Jews wouldn't accept foreign currency for temple-related items because it would defile the temple. So a system of money changers developed to change Roman currency, and other forms as well, into temple currency. If temple money is only used in the temple, how do you know what the exchange rate is? How do you know if you aren't being cheated?

Add to this the vendors who sold temple-approved birds, sheep, goats and cows for sacrifices. It was like shopping at the company store -- the prices were fixed and you were stuck with it. Then throw in the probable souvenir vendors who were there selling refrigerator magnets, spoons, bells, t-shirts and hats to all of the out-of-town pilgrims who might only get to the temple once in their life. All of this resulted in a wild marketplace designed to perpetuate the business of the temple. Worship had devolved into a business practice, a transaction, a simple exchange of money.

This is what is wrong with the system that Jesus stepped into. This is also what was wrong with the system of selling indulgences that eventually led to the Reformation. And this is what is wrong with any system that sees religion and worship as a transactional duty; it loses its mystery, it loses is spirituality, it loses its meaning, it loses us and it loses God.

What was the temple built for? What is our church, or any church, built for? They were built for worship. They were built to be places where we are drawn that much closer to the presence of God. Turning these buildings into marketplaces where one fulfills a transactional duty is to violate the meaning of the building.

These places -- the temple, this building, ourselves -- these places are to be houses of prayer, dedication and worship; they are not, and should not be allowed to become, places of business. This is what got Jesus so riled up. What had been created to support the people in their practice and worship of being with God had turned into a simple financial system designed to support the temple.

Jesus saw what was happening and decided he needed to do something about it. He made a whip, drove out the animals and vendors and upended the tables of the money changers. He cleansed the temple of those things which made it not a house of prayer and worship, but a house of worldly transactions. He purified it of those things which distract us from honest worship. He prepared it for his resurrection.

This is why this lesson is read on the third Sunday in Lent, because halfway through our Lenten journey we should take stock of where we are. Are we observing Lent as a liturgical transaction designed to get us through to Easter? Or are we observing Lent as a cleansing and purifying of ourselves in preparation for the celebratory joy of new life at the Easter Vigil?

How do we see our worship? Do we see it as a transactional duty where we trade our attendance for heavenly brownie points? Do we see it as a financial transaction where our offering mitigates our call to serve?

Or do we see worship as a place of joy, a place where we can be totally present with God? Do we see worship as a place where we are engaged with, and aware of, the mystery that is the presence of God?

As we make our way through Lent towards Easter, this is a good time to reflect on what yet needs to be cleansed and purified within ourselves so that we may fully participate in the life of the risen Christ on Easter Day.


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