St. John the Apostle
I speak as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God, through the mercy of God. Amen.
It started out as just a regular day. The doors opened, the members entered and began browsing the goods on display. The sales people stood by, ready to help with the financial transactions for purchase. Just business as usual. And then someone came in and started turning the tables. And the institution changed.
In Jerusalem, it was a young rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus. We hear the story this morning from the second chapter of John’s gospel.
In Edmonton, it was a young mother named Sarah. We heard the story on the news this week. Sarah was deeply disturbed by recent events in the United States, especially mass shootings involving semi-automatic weapons. She started an online petition calling on Mountain Equipment Co-op, an organization to which she belongs, to immediately stop the sale of all Vista Outdoor Brands. She had discovered that Vista is the owner of Savage Arms, one of the leading providers of semi-automatic weapons in the U.S., derives 40% of the company’s profits from the sale of weapons, and has deep financial ties to the National Rifle Association. The petition quickly gained signatures from across Canada. M.E.C. had to decide how to respond.
On one hand, an institution has a responsibility to its shareholders. Some welcomed the opportunity to take a political stance on this issue of gun control. Others were concerned that certain members, especially those who hunted or shot for sport, would react negatively and take their business elsewhere. The more astute commented that other major corporations with ties to armaments were not being targeted, and Vista Outdoors was being singled out by this move. The tendency is for an institution to try and placate all its members with small changes without having to overhaul its corporate model.
On the other hand, an institution espouses certain values. If its members, and those beyond its membership, do not see that it is in fact sticking to them, then trust decreases. Members may be less committed. Or they may leave. If there is an alternate, people might seek it out. Or they may decide they don’t need what the institution was offering at all. An ethical decision to change business practices has far-reaching consequences. It’s a risky move, and few are willing to take the chance.
When Jesus comes to the Temple in Jerusalem, he is coming face to face with the institution of the Jewish faith. What he walked into in the Temple courtyard was completely normal business practice for the time. The Torah sets out rules for all faithful Jews to come to the Temple at the time of the major festivals, like Passover, and offer up sacrifices to God as their thanksgiving. Depending on your social position, you would need to bring a dove, a lamb, a goat, or a cow, as well as grain, drink, and herbal tithes. Most people didn’t want to lug those along from their home villages, so they brought money instead to buy them in the outer courts of the Temple. There was one big problem. The coins of the realm had Caesar’s face printed on them. But graven images were forbidden in God’s house. So people had to trade their everyday money into special temple coins, and then they used these to buy their offering. That’s why there were moneychangers in the Temple. That’s why there were sheep and cattle. The Jewish institution had figured out a way to make it all work under the Roman occupation. Normal business practice.
But imagine what it must have been like to walk into that holy space! If you’ve ever been to one of the great cathedrals in Europe, you know how disconcerting it can be to try and pray while tour guides and cameras are going off all around you. There’s constant noise and movement, all these transactions going on just to support what was meant to be a house of prayer. Somehow the Temple had turned into just another marketplace, like countless others across Jerusalem. How could people find God in all this?
This is one of the few times in the gospel when Jesus gets truly angry. And he doesn’t just preach a sermon about what has gone wrong. He acts! He makes himself a whip of cords- a herdsman’s goad. Out go the sheep and the cattle, over go the tables. “Take these things out of here,” he yells. Now be careful to notice that he doesn’t actually chase out the people. It’s the animals that he evicts, not those who have come to worship. The Jewish authorities look around at all the mess he had caused and demand to know by whose say-so he is doing all this. What authority does he have to try and change the way things are done? Jesus’ response is they can destroy the temple, but that he can raise it up in three days. The religious leaders are still stuck on the physical and on the institution. “We’ve been working on this for 46 years and we still haven’t finished,” they reply. But for Jesus, the Temple isn’t just the building or even the practices that go on inside its walls. They just don’t get there is more to faith than keeping the business running. It is about God’s will being alive and operational in humanity. Its about the body of Christ.
If Jesus is to alive and operational in us, we have to be agents of real change. Both as individuals and as an organization, we need to keep adapting to our environment while staying true to Christian values. And that means having good hard look at how and why we are doing things. Every part of life comes under God’s scrutiny, not just what we bring on a Sunday morning. So how do our banking practices reflect our faith? Our purchasing power? Our environmental disciplines? Our political choices? The ways we act in the world reveal whether we are in alignment with Jesus’ mission; they are signs of God’s authority in our lives. It takes time and thoughtfulness to work through the ethics of everyday choices. But in doing so, we too have the opportunity to turn the tables on institutions that would rather stay the same than risk changing.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were understandable cynical about how long it takes change to happen. They preferred to follow the safe route of individual piety and working around the dominant systems of political and military might in the Roman empire. Jesus broke through all of that by daring to call attention to himself and to what the institution had evolved into for its own protection. His call for reform and a return to zeal for God comes to us as we struggle with the powers and principalities of our age. With God’s help, change can come, sometimes in a surprisingly short time. All it takes is a little table-tipping. Amen.