What’s Inside? – 8/1/21

A little while back, Kathy and I decided to take a night away.  Pax stayed with my mom, and we stayed at a hotel.  We went out to dinner and watched a movie.  And I looked forward to a very restful night of sleep.  But around 11:30, I was awakened from my slumber by a loud banging.  When I looked out the peephole of my door, I could see a group of about 10 guys standing outside the room.  They were talking, but I could not decipher what they were saying.  What I did see was that they were taking turns trying to kick down the door of the room located next to ours.

My first response was to question what was going on.  Were these just a bunch of drunk guys harassing one of their friends who refused to leave his room?  Or maybe there was something more sinister going on.  I considered going out into the hall to find out what was happening. But it was late. I didn’t want to get dressed.  I considered calling down to the front desk, but surely they knew this was happening.  How could they not hear it?  So I chose the courageous route.  I went back to bed.

Eventually the banging stopped and I returned to sleep.  But about 1 a.m. I heard another strange noise emanating from the hallway.  It sounded like someone was coming through the wall.  When I looked out the peephole this time, there was another group of men gathered outside the room next door.   But this time it seemed a little more ominous.  I saw the source of the noise which had awakened me.  They had a drill which they were using to try to access the room next to us.  And as I looked outside, one of the unruly mob looked directly into my peephole.

Now I was starting to get a little nervous.  What was in this room that they were trying so desperately to get in?  And who are these people trying to get in?  Maybe they are a group of criminals trying to kill whoever was inside.  And since they saw me through the peephole, maybe we would be next.  While I didn’t know what they were up to, I could see they were angry.  And I was dying to know what was in that room that they were so desperate to get in.

Last week we held the last of our three discussion groups during this transition time at NCC.  Next week, after all of you have submitted your surveys, I will give you some more feedback on the results.  And at our next steering committee meeting, we will be having discussion about next steps to take in response.  This will include full community meetings to make some decisions based upon the data we have collected.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the primary objective I had heard since I began as interim minister is for NCC to grow.  I have interviewed with many churches when I have been in search and call, and it may not surprise you to hear that every congregation I recall had this same objective.  Churches everywhere, particularly those who take a more liberal or progressive stance, are facing decline.  There is a common struggle to attract younger families – families who are busy throughout the week and aren’t looking for another commitment on the weekend.  This leaves churches to attempt to remain viable with a core group of those who no longer have children in the home, who feel a deep sense of commitment, to try to do the work to remain viable.

This has become even more true in the wake of the pandemic.  Becoming part of a church community takes a lot of effort, perhaps now more than ever.  We have all become accustomed to remaining at home, having a smaller circle around us.  People have gotten out of the habit of attending faith communities, and attendance has decreased across all denominations.  And to be willing to leave the house, give up time alone with your family on a Sunday, there has to be something very valuable inside, something people otherwise cannot go without.

Our text for this morning is somewhat unusual in Scripture because of the way it portrays Jesus.  We typically think of Jesus as a peaceful, calm man.  Someone who exhibited humility, who meekly taught of the kingdom of God.  But the image from our reading for this morning is different.  Jesus expresses anger, and acts in response to that anger.  So what is it that would drive him to act in a manner so different from the way he is portrayed in other accounts in the gospels?

All four of the gospels carry the story of Jesus cleansing the temple.  But unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the book of John places Jesus’ cleansing of the temple toward the beginning of his ministry.  And the reason it is placed here may be to emphasize the importance of this act.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke use this incident to help explain why the decision was made to kill Jesus.  But John is not concerned with the reasons for authorities wanting to execute him.  Here, John uses the account of Jesus cleansing the temple as an inauguration of Jesus’ ministry and as a means of describing the entire purpose of that ministry.

John places this incident as occurring at the time of the Passover, which meant there would be many pilgrims coming to Jerusalem.  All Jews who could attend the Passover in Jerusalem would make this journey.  At the time of our reading, the temple would be teeming with people who have come to make their sacrifices during this central religious festival for the Jewish people.  Any action Jesus would take would certainly draw a lot of attention.

Old Testament law required visitors to purchase their sacrifices in Jerusalem.  They could not bring the animals with them.  So merchants would come together to sell doves and other sacrificial animals on the temple grounds.  But this was not the only way that the sacrificial system became a money-making endeavor.  There were also moneychangers present at the temple.  Visitors to the temple would come with foreign currencies.  People were coming from many different areas, and even many towns in Galilee had their own currencies.  The temple tax could only be paid in the temple currency, so all of this money needed to be converted before people could participate in the sacrificial rituals of the temple.

When we hear this story, we think this is what is at the core of Jesus’ anger — that the sale of sacrificial animals and the presence of currency exchanges, the commercializing of religion, was what Jesus was speaking against.  However, commentators on this passage have said that those who sold animals in the temple actually made very little from their sales.  While the commercialization of the sacrificial system likely played a role in Jesus’ reaction, it was not this alone which led to his very visible reaction.  So what was it?

Jesus takes drastic action at what is going on at the temple.  He doesn’t just calmly explain why he doesn’t like what is going on, doesn’t take a seat on the temple steps and explain to his disciples what is on his heart.  He makes a whip of cords and he uses this to drive the sheep and cattle out of the temple.  And not only does he cause a stampede in the temple courts, he pours out the coins of the money changers.  He overturns all of the tables.  Jesus exclaims to the people, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

These statements are a very serious charge.  The trade of animals was necessary in order for the traditions of temple worship to continue.  So by demanding that it stop, Jesus seems to be undermining the Jewish faith, undermining the way people understood the manner in which the worship of God is to take place, altering the expectations for what it meant to be faithful people.  And that is what Jesus was doing.  Jesus insists on a different priority for activity in the temple.  That with the coming of his ministry, things would be changing.  That what people knew of the way they practiced their faith, the routines they had fallen into, needed to change, needed to evolve to remain meaningful and to fulfill a purpose.

The need for cleansing the temple did not end in the time of Jesus.  In light of the significant shifts we have experienced in society, churches which follow old modes of operation are slowly becoming obsolete.  Communities like ours are not sustainable without some significant work, a commitment to some real change.  Without a willingness to engage in some temple cleansing of our own.

But that kind of work is hard.  It requires a willingness to rethink how things have always been done, to change our expectations, to be willing to make some sacrifices, to give up some of our comfort.  To allow the community we have always known and loved to change.  It also requires work.  A lot of work.  Not only on the part of the minister, but on the part of the entire community.  It requires people who have not only the time, but the ability and the desire to commit to engaging in the hard work of rebuilding.  A willingness to embrace change, a willingness to move beyond just caring for its own members and instead investing its time and resources in those outside its walls.  It involves an element of risk, a willingness to put ourselves out there, to try and fail.  And it requires a willingness to let go of some things we hold dear.

This is why I am asking everyone to complete the survey which was sent out and why we have been engaging in these discussion groups.  So that we can determine if we are able to do a form of “temple cleansing” and create a space which is conducive to growth.  But it is not only about our willingness and ability, it is about our desire.  To build a community where people will be willing to take a risk to get what is inside, to put themselves out there and give up some things they value to acquire what is on the other side of the door.  This type of work is not easy, and each of us need to be taking a hard look within ourselves to determine if we are willing to do it.  If it is even what we really want.  NCC is approaching a crossroads, a time to decide whether it is really growth that is the goal or not.  Or whether holding on to what we have, recognizing our limits, and establishing a legacy more accurately represents our goals.

Feeling a little bit of rage that my anticipated night of good sleep had been interrupted twice, I asked the front desk manager the next morning if he knew a roving band of criminals was trying to get into our neighbor’s room with a drill.  And I asked for our room to be comped for the night due to all the ruckus.  It turns out that there was not a terrorist or a stash of drugs locked behind the door.  There was some sort of electrical malfunction, and the hotel was not able to get the lock to work.  The roving band of marauders was not a gang of criminals, but a family preparing for a wedding the next morning.  The room next to ours belonged to the mother of the bride, the woman who was keeping the bride’s and all of the bridesmaid’s dresses for the morning.  Those men kicking down the door knew what was that room.  It was not the disturbance of the neighbors which was on their mind.  If the wedding was to avoid being ruined, they had to get through that door.  Something highly valued was inside, and they were willing to take some risks to get it.

If we want to create that same value here, if we want others to be willing to put forth the effort to enter our door, we too will need to take some risks.  May we take this time to truly examine whether we can commit to the work that is needed for others to see what is inside.