Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 11, 2012:

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
The commandment of the LORD gives light to the eyes. (Ps. 19:8)
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

This week's Gospel lesson has the familiar story of Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the temple. For some of us, this picture of Jesus still shocks; if we're used to thinking of Jesus as the turn-the-other-cheek pacifist, the actions in this Gospel seem out of place. Those of us who like the radical elements of Jesus may find ourselves cheering. Many of us who are involved in the Church in its present institutional incarnation may find ourselves squirming uncomfortably.

What is it about the moneychangers and merchants that so upsets Jesus? Some scholars speculate that Jesus sees the temple practices of his day as being particularly harsh towards the poor. Some scholars say that Jesus doesn't like the mixing of the spiritual (the temple itself) and the secular (represented by money). If you read the Gospel to its end, you might say Jesus engages in this act of destruction so that he can say mystical things about tearing down the temple and building it up.

In our current age, we might take a few minutes to wonder why it is that once a religion becomes institutionalized, so much of its activities revolve around making money (as opposed to making good Christians, for example). I see many similarities between the temple of Jesus' day and the Catholic church of Martin Luther's (and frankly, both of those have stark similarities to our own church, both the church with a small c, and the larger Church, with a capital C). These institutions are not inherently evil; on the contrary, these institutions provide much comfort and do much good in the world. Yet through the ages, Jesus calls on us to do more and to be wary of entrenched institutions.

I’ve been a member of more than one church council, I've been amazed at how much of our council business focuses on issues of building maintenance. Even as a child, I noticed the contradiction between the Gospel I heard preached from the pulpit (sell all your worldly goods, give your money to the poor, don't store up your treasures on earth) and the trimmings and trappings of the sanctuary; I had more than one heated conversation on the way back from church about why the church has these assets, like gold offering plates and candlesticks, which might be better sold and converted into cash to give to the poor.

And yet, I'm always keenly aware of how much good the institutional church can do. During my college years, when I was home for summer break, I became convinced that I should switch my church membership to one of those inner-city DC churches that works more directly with the poor. I even talked to the minister of Luther Place about making the switch. He asked me about my current membership, and I told him I went to St. Mark's, convinced that he would share my sneering opinion of a comfortable, suburban church. He told me I should stay right where I was, and I'll never forget his reason. He told me that his church couldn't do what they do without the huge amounts of cash that St. Mark’s sent his way. I went away chastened—but I’ve always been grateful to that pastor for telling me a truth I didn’t know before and wouldn’t likely have discovered on my own.

As we listen to this Gospel, we might ask ourselves what Jesus wants from us. Are we to sell our buildings, our properties, to divest in order that we might have more money to give to charity? We'd transform ourselves back to the first century church--small bands of people who met in living rooms and shared meals together (not a metaphorical Eucharistic meal, but a real one, with a whole loaf of bread and bottle of wine and other foods). Some groups of Christians are experimenting with this calling--many of them see themselves as the Emergent Church, and their movement may indeed be the next reformation. Soon on my reading list is Diana Butler Bass’ latest book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening; will she be talking about church buildings or the institution or any group of people who calls themselves a church?

Does this Gospel tell us to get rid of our stewardship drives and our constant calls for money? Does it tell us that we shouldn't buy or sell things on church property? What does this mean? No more rummage sales, as previous generations would have us believe? No support of our local Scout groups, our local schools?

Christ calls us to consciousness. Being part of a religion that has become a societal institution has inherent danger: temple tax, indulgences, stewardship campaigns--these are tools that religion has used to hurt people, and in worse case scenarios to exclude the poor and extort money from everyone else (money used not to help advance the cause of the Kingdom, but to support a lifestyle of a privileged few). Christ calls us again and again to consider whom we serve. Is money a tool or is it our master? Are we storing up treasures for ourselves on earth or in heaven? These are questions not just for the institutional church, but also important ones for us to consider as individuals.

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