Saturday, March 18, 2006

Dishonoring God

If preaching is about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, then today's Gospel lesson should have afflicted us all in some way this morning.

All the Gospels mention Jesus' routing of the moneychangers and animal dealers, but place this incident at different points in his ministry. John places the story toward the beginning of his gospel rather than near the end; but in any case, he identifies Jesus as visiting the Temple before the Passover. This would have meant that Jerusalem was besieged by pilgrims; the Temple compound, busy any time of year, would have been filled with noisy, confused, awestruck visitors, as well as the army of Temple hangers-on set up to handle them and keep the mechanism of the institution running smoothly.

Because the coins of the day were stamped with the image of the Roman emperor, they were considered blasphemous, and unsuitable for an offering in the Temple. But -- no worries -- for a fee, official moneychangers were happy to exchange the coin of the Empire for other, inoffensive coinage suitable for a Temple gift. And if you didn't bring animals with you for Temple sacrifices -- again, for a fee (one resource I found noted that livestock prices inside the Temple grounds were inflated 15 times the going rate) merchants would sell you whatever sacrificial animal you could afford. Annas the High Priest, his sons and son-in-law, made something like $170 million a year, in today's money, running the Temple business.

This was what Jesus walked into as he entered into the Temple grounds -- the din of buyers and sellers and animals. Business as usual.

And it's what infuriated him -- infuriated him to the point of causing a very (in our perception) un-Jesusian public disturbance. Imagine Jesus overturning the tables, and showers of coins falling to the floor; imagine him, homemade whip in hand, going after the livestock sellers as their living wares bleated and flapped and bellowed in panic.

Jesus was driven to direct, physical confrontation in his passion to defend God's honor. And God was being dishonored -- and, in our own faith communities, continues to be dishonored -- in a number of ways.

Injustice done in God's name dishonors God. The Temple mechants practiced extortion; they exploited the poor -- people who felt compelled, according to the Law, to make certain sacrifices and gifts to the Temple, this ultimate dwelling place of God in their tradition. Before we shake our heads at the Temple racket of Jesus' time, we might want to think of all the ways that institutional Christianity has done evil in God's name over the past 2,000 years; all the ways in which it has hurt people -- in various times and places killed people -- ascribed to God its own bigotries and avarice and ignorance, and held up itself and its own institutional self-preservation, and not God, as that which is worthy of the faithful's ultimate concern.

Turning God into a device dishonors God. This is the mindset that a pastor friend of mine calls "gumball theology," where for some people religion is all about inserting a requisite number of good works or ritual actions into the cosmic gumball machine and -- botta-boom -- waiting for the gumball of grace or goodies to come tumbling down from the heavens as a reward.

Resenting the claim of God on one's life dishonors God. I wonder how many worshippers in the Temple, on the day that Jesus confronted the buyers and sellers there, were there not because they wanted to be but because they felt they had to be -- who chafed under the religious obligation that had compelled them to spend time and money coming to this place. One of my friends recently told me about a church council meeting where members of his parish groused about weekly Eucharist "because it makes the service too long." What do attitudes like this say about people's underlying love and reverence for God, and their motivation for coming to worship?

Finally -- and the points above all ultimately speak to this as well -- God is dishonored when God is not the focus of our common life in our faith communities. An absurdly obvious truth -- but is it? When our worship becomes entertainment -- and this isn't a shot across the bow in the "worship wars," because for some of us Gregorian chant or Bach cantatas, and the choreography of ritual, can degenerate into entertainment even as uptempo contemporary music and worship can become entertainment -- God has lost God's place as our ultimate concern. When a church's focus becomes so distracted by concerns about its physical/infrastructural/financial upkeep, or about attracting new members, or anything else that is not God -- then that thing becomes that church's de facto god. And when we come to worship unwilling to give ourselves over to space in our hearts and minds reserved for God -- what does that say about our god, our ultimate concern?

God does not, in the end, want our busy-ness; or our success in promoting Religion, Incorporated; or our crumbs of time, money or attention grudgingly thrown God's way. What God wants God, in Christ, has shown a willingness to do absolutely anything and everything to have us as God's own. Do we worship, individually and in community, in ways that truly honor God's love and commitment to us? Do we truly, in the words of the liturgy, lift up our hearts to the Lord? If we did worship in this way, what would our worship look and sound and feel like?

"The Moneychangers," Iaian McKillop, Glouchester Cathredral Posted by Picasa


Rachel's Big Dunk said...


This is an amazing post. I love reading your comments on the lectionary. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Was this preached as a sermon?

If so... where is the Gospel?


LutheranChik said...

Sam: No, it wasn't a sermon. (I'm assuming you're a Lutheran and following our Law/Gospel guideline, no?) I left the second part of the text alone for purposes of this post, because I wanted to make the points that I did. Because my experience has been that we are so uncomfortable with the image of Jesus getting truly angry, to the point of physical confrontation, with the religious powers and principalities here that we tend to either spiritualize the text or try to "historicize" it, to box it into the past instead of seeing its echo in our own lives and our own time.

If you were preaching it, where would you find a Gospel message in it?

For me that's in the second part of the text, where Jesus alludes to the fact that in his upcoming sacrifice of self God is creating a "new thing," a new and direct way of envisioning and relating to God, where the endless cycles of sacrifices, as well as the abuses of the priestly system Jesus is reacting to, are rendered obsolete.

One criticism of contemporary Lutheran sermons that I tend to agree with is that, again referencing the Law/Gospel dynamic, is that in our rush to get to the Gospel, we don't adequately address the Law. (IMHO this phenomenon is also reflected in our increasing unwillingness to address the gravity of our own sin in the corporate confession.)

klondike said...


A comment on your comment: during today's sermon on the Decalogue, after working through a few of the ways various contemporary people see the Law, my pastor mentioned that for the wilderness people, wondering whether slavery wouldn't have been the better part, the Law would have been the stamp of belovedness, an "I've got you in my arms" made manifest. This strikes me as a view perfectly suitable for Lutherans (defend against the Law to tyrants [coughlabama]; uphold the Law for the weak in faith [most of us, when you get right down to it]).

I still sort of miss the Confession from my childhood: "Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto thee that we are by nature sinful and unclean. . . . wherefore we flee for refuge to thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring thy grace for the sake of thy dear son, Jesus Christ, our Lord." Great verbs, anyway.

Kathryn said...

Excellent...I suspect that if you'd been preaching here, the woman who objected to my words would have had much the same trouble with yours. But it's comforting to hear another finding much the same interpretation in the text..suggests I really wasn't just "going off on one"!

Mata H said...

Well, great observations, but I might take issue with part of it -- your objection to people who attend worship because they feel obligated as opposed to feeling inspired to be there. I do not think there are any 'shoulds' about what brings us to worship. When I was a kid I went to RCC masses because I should. It was entirely from a sense of obligation. I really didn't want to be there. But while I was busy feeling obligated and bored, God was doing His work with me. Messages "soaked through" my sense of obligation. So I couldn't say that worshipping from a sense of duty dishonors God.

LutheranChik said...

MH: I think I may have been somewhat inartful (not unusual) in my verbiage...what I had in mind was the point past what you're describing. Because I think we've all had, and have, experiences where we're in church, or following our personal devotions, as a matter of obligation rather than feeling. (And in fact I was just reading, in Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, that worship when we don't feel like it is an acknowledgement that "it's not all about us.") What I had in mind is a sense of chronic resentment/hostility that goes way beyond this. I'm thinking of Luther's reminiscences about his days in the monastery, and how he got to a point where he truly hated God for, in his perception, burdening him with expectations that he couldn't meet. That's one way into that kind of hateful resentment; then there's the "You're taking away all my autonomy and fun" way.

But I take your point. To tell you the truth, talking about obligation, I kind of slapped that post out because -- well, because LC always does her Sunday Gospel post. And I'd place that under the "good obligation" category, because it's a good discipline to have...but sometimes I just riff things off the top of my head.

Joan Chittister talks about how taking counsel from others is a part of the disciplined Christian life -- just a reality check that keeps us from becoming too enamored of our own perceptions.;-)

Thanks for the comments, everyone. It keeps me on my toes.

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Several comments: I agree with Mata regarding the WHY of why we are there might not be all that important. I attent about 98% of the time, mostly I want to be there, but when I have a bad-attitude Sunday and attend anyway, I usually have an ah-ha moment, something feeds me more than usual. Maybe that is a Sunday to be fed, not to worship.

I had health problems 15 years ago that caused me to question, and so I was in a dead space spiritually, no praying, etc. But I attended church because I thought that if I didn't, I would be a bad example to my children, ie bailing out when the going got tough. This time taught me, in retrospect, that God, the HS, was still "in my heart" even when I wasn't looking for God. So the promise of my baptism was TRUE!

Our pastor's sermon regarding this scripture talked about the fact that the people were, in effect, charged admittance to worship, but that though Christ, we now can come directly to God. When Christ died, the Temple curtain was torn in two, both a physical and a symbolic act to show our access to God. That is the Gospel in this lesson.

Aside: Someone recently told me of attending a session/service/speach/(propaganda session???) of a famous Texas preacher of a very large church. You can guess who. This person had to buy tickets over the internet to attend! Granted there are expenses involved in traveling to another city and renting a convention center, but....hey, how about a collection plate?