I have to tell you, when I was at the Church of the Advent in Hatboro I always used to indulge in a little chuckle when this gospel reading for the third Sunday of Lent fell on the same Sunday as the Episcopal Churchwomen’s semiannual bake sale for the support of a Native American child. I admit it was a pretty cheap chuckle rooted in the simple fact that money changed hands in the Parish Hall as we snapped up the goodies there, all the while feeling virtuous because we knew our money would be put to good use. The problem with my snide snickering was that this kind of buying and selling is not what the gospel this morning is about.
What Jesus is objecting to in the gospel was the fact that worshipers at the temple in Jerusalem had no choice but to deal with the vendors within the temple precincts. They had to deal with authorized distributors to get the animals and birds that would acceptable at the temple altar. These creatures supposedly met the rigorous demands of the law with regard to sacrificial animals, standards like lambs or goats needing to be first-born males without spot or blemish. And I think we can pretty much assume they were more expensive than animals bought from other places or brought from home would be.
We also know from other places in the gospels that the people not only had to purchase their sacrificial animals on site at the temple, they also had to exchange the Roman money they used outside the temple for coins that were acceptable for temple trade. Roman coins were considered unclean because they usually bore the image of the emperor which made them idolatrous. This exchange of money involved a fee not unlike the one you or I pay when we exchange American currency for that of a foreign country we might be visiting. Since certain kinds of sacrifice were mandated in the law, a visit to the temple could put a heavy strain on the resources of the average Jew, not to mention what it might cost someone who was poor. In fact, it sometimes rendered temple worship obligations impossible for the desperately poor.
There’s nothing like that operative in the church these days, at least not around here. There’s no binding obligation to buy something, or bring stuff for the soldiers or for the Lord’s Pantry or put a dollar in the coffee hour basket or anything else that might be asked of us on a given Sunday. The chance to gather as a community and worship God together in prayer and song requires no entrance fee or cover charge. Anyone can walk through the doors of this place and most churches I know of and worship freely
So how does this story we hear today relate to us? What bearing does it have on how we go about being the body of Christ in twenty-first century America? I have a feeling that what’s at stake for you and me in all this has to do with integrity of a sort that doesn’t necessarily involve money. Week after week we confess our love for God and our desire to be the kind of people God created us to be. We espouse values like compassion and generosity, like truthfulness and justice and peace, among others. And then we walk out the door and get on with our lives. I think perhaps Jesus’ challenge in the gospel this morning might be best understood by you and me as a demand that we look at how we live our lives, not only with those who claim to believe what we believe and value what we value. Jesus cares how you and I present ourselves to the world and the people outside these walls.
A couple of years ago I had to be at Church House, our diocesan headquarters down in the city. As I was getting ready to leave that place, a colleague whose husband had been recovering from a grave neurological event for over two years called me to come over and say hello to him. She did this because I’d been asking after him and he’d just come in to meet her for lunch. As we talked and I asked how he was doing, he said, “Well, I can finally drive again…and I’ll call to warn you when I’m on the road!” Then he said, in his still labored speech “I also have to watch where I put my tongue.” I laughed and said, “So do I.” He laughed too, but you know what? It wasn’t really funny. I seriously need to watch where I put my tongue because way too often I say things that I shouldn’t say…not only because they are unkind or insensitive or untrue, but because they belie what I stand here in this pulpit and proclaim week after week after week.
Jesus was angry with his contemporaries because they had turned his Father’s house into a marketplace…or as earlier translations have rendered it, a den of thieves. I believe Jesus cares passionately how you and I act and speak in this place, but he cares just as much how we act and speak out there in the “marketplace” of life. Every time what we hear and say on Sunday is not reflected in what we say and do on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and Saturday, every time what we profess with our lips is not mirrored in our living, we profane this time of prayer and praise and worship. We sacrifice our integrity to the demands or maybe even just the whims of the moment. God wants and needs us to be people of faithful integrity so that others who may have fallen away and become indifferent or who have never really understood what this God thing is all about to begin with, may be drawn into healing and empowering relationship with their Creator and Redeemer. God cares how you and I are in the world and what we say and do because it matters.
It really matters.