If you listen to the program “Marketplace” on KUOW, you will perhaps recognize their constant reminder that the stock market is not the economy. So while the stock market can be zooming up and investors are raking in the money, the economy itself can be in the tank. That has been the situation this year: stock market has been great, and meanwhile millions of people have been tossed out of their jobs.
Similarly, the church or the temple is not the building but rather the people who gather to worship God. So the temple can be one way, and God’s people can be some other way entirely. In Jesus’ day, the temple was raking in tax income and doing well financially, but at the expense of the people. I’ll clarify this further as we go.
Throughout the Bible we see people trying to figure out what it means to be the people of God. How are we in relationship with God? What does it look like to serve God? What are God’s expectations of us? What do we do to make amends when we don’t live up to those expectations? These are profound, ontological questions about who we are, how we are, why we are, and what we are supposed to do.
In Exodus, the Israelites are asking these questions. They have escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt and are trying to figure out how to be God’s people in community on their own. During these in-between years in the desert, when they’re no longer in Egypt but they’re not yet in the Promised Land, Moses goes up Mt. Sinai and has a tete-a-tete with God. Moses comes back down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, which we read today. Four of those commandments are about how we are in relationship with God: Don’t worship other gods, don’t make or worship idols, don’t take God’s name in vain, and keep the sabbath. These are about honoring your creator. Then there’s one commandment about honoring your other creators, meaning the parents who gave you life. The last five commandments, the “thou shalt nots,” are about how we honor each other—how we live in community. Thou shalt not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, covet.
The Ten Commandments are an early example of how God’s people understand how to be God’s people: how to love God and each other. And if you read through the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—there are hundreds of rules about how to be in relationship with God and with each other.
We’re still trying to figure this out today. We’re still making rules.
All this time in Exodus, there is no temple. There is a tent for God, and the Ark of the Covenant is located in this tent. Some generations later, in Jerusalem, King David says he’s going to build a house for God, meaning a temple. God says, “Have I ever asked for a house? No. Instead, I’m going to build a house for you.” By which God means the house or family line of David. Jesus comes from the House of David—the house built not in wood or stone but in people. We try to build a house to contain God. This strikes me as a particularly human endeavor: trying to cut God down and box God into a building that is separate from the rest of life. But of course, God will not be boxed in. God, who created the universe and all of us in it; God, who dwells in each person’s heart, in every slice of bread, in every cup of juice, in every bird singing outside our window—God cannot be put in a box.
David’s son, King Solomon, does build a temple for God. From the description, it is the most lavish thing ever created up to that time: cedar trees imported from Lebanon, the finest gold everywhere. Solomon broke the bank on this temple and so wore out the people in its construction that they split into north and south, Israel and Judea, and never came back together. Sure, we want to look our best for God, to give God the very finest house. But is this lavish temple what God was asking for, especially at the cost of God’s people being able to live together?
Some of those many Old Testament rules about how to be with God say that you have to sacrifice animals on the altar in order to seek God’s forgiveness for whatever you may have done wrong. For this sin, a sheep. For that sin, a goat. And if you’re really poor, a few doves. These rules were written in an era when the people were more likely to be shepherds caring for livestock. They did penance with what they had in their hands. And the whole point of doing this penance was to be in right relationship with God.
Then there’s that commandment about idols and worshiping other gods. One way this was interpreted had to do with images. If a coin had a face on it, you couldn’t use it to pay your temple tax, because that face was an image. And of course the image in Jesus’ day would be of Caesar, who was called Son of God. The temple had expenses, of course, and needed to collect tithes from the people. It was also working with the Roman occupiers and collecting taxes. This income was making the chief priests and scribes a good living, but taking care of the poor had become less of a focus. So in the Gospel of Mark we get the story of the widow putting her last two coins in the temple treasury to pay her tax. Jesus notes that she has given more than all the others because she gave everything she had to live on. And we think that is very noble of her. But Jesus’ point is more that this is backward: the temple is supposed to aid widows and orphans, not demand their last two cents to support its wealthy priests and fine building. The system is broken. It has forgotten its mission of loving God and each other.
In today’s passage from John, Jesus throws this tantrum in the courtyard of the temple, decrying the corruption. The courtyard has become a market, a center of business. The God business. People are no longer shepherds, so they have to buy sheep, cattle, and doves in order to make their sacrificial offerings. And because the coin of the realm has Caesar’s image on it, they have to go to the moneychangers to get coins that have no other “god” on them.
The temple has really gotten away from the original point of these rules. This is no longer about being in relationship with God using what you have in your hands. It has become rigid, impersonal, and monetized. Now it’s big business. The stock market goes up, while the people become poorer. The rich people in the dominant caste get richer, and everyone else is getting taxed right off their land, paying their last two cents to support a corrupt system. And this is all centered in the very temple that is supposed to be God’s house.
This is why Jesus is throwing this tantrum. The understanding of how to be in relationship with God and with each other has been lost. Things are being done in God’s name that are antithetical to what God is all about. Talk about taking God’s name in vain—this is a prime example.
Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). And the text notes that he’s talking about the temple of his own body. We understand this to be a reference to his resurrection.
But what if it’s really about God being in all of us, not in the buildings, not in the corrupt systems? God is in the people—all the people—not in the fancy building, not in the treasury box, not in all the gold finery and carvings. God is in the widow and the orphan.
Throughout Christian history, what it means to be Church has been an ongoing wrestling. Wherever the Church has had power and money, its leaders have been tempted, like all humans, by corruption. There were times when the Church sold indulgences, which were like tickets to heaven for rich sinners. Sure, just pay this much into the church treasury and we’ll ask God to look the other way as you continue to commit all sorts of heinous acts against your neighbor. Not exactly what it means to follow the Ten Commandments, to love God and your neighbor.
In the 1500s, Martin Luther nailed his 99 theses to the church door. This was his version of overturning the moneychangers’ tables. He named corruption and called on the Catholic Church to reform, to get back to essentials. Instead, he ended up splitting off from Catholicism and creating the Protestants, the ones who protest. And there have been many splits since then to create the many flavors of Protestant we have today.
In recent years the Catholic Church in particular has wrestled with accusations of pedophilia. Bishops sometimes knew that certain priests were engaging in this behavior and just transferred them to different parishes rather than confront the problem. Countless lives were destroyed in the process. Young people who trusted their priests were abused. People left the church in disgust.
Various arms of the Church have come out against homosexuality and have basically told LGBTQ people that they are excluded, are going to hell, whatever. As if God put those church people in charge of handing out judgment. What a hell on earth all the way around. Many LGBTQ people have been traumatized and have left the church as a result. Some denominations are at risk of splitting in two over this very question.
But people are still seeking that relationship with God. These days, many people say they are spiritual but not religious. They have the spiritual yearning for connection with the holiness all around and within them, but they no longer trust the institution of the Church. It’s the same story of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple. The institution becomes corrupt.
When John Dorhauer became the general minister and president of the UCC a few years back, he acknowledged that the Church overall is shrinking. Not just the UCC but Church in general. People are walking away from the institution just as Jesus walked away from the temple—because it has strayed from its essential mission of helping people create and grow a healthy relationship with God. But John Dorhauer said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that as long as people yearn for that divine connection, there is a place for authentic, welcoming church, and there is work for us to do.
Over fifty years ago, Church in the form of its people—primarily its Black people—showed us what love of God and neighbor could do, using what it had in its hands, in the form of the Civil Rights Movement. That movement was centered in the Church. It spoke prophetically to our government, to our white churches, to every one of us, about what love and justice could and should look like in this society. Today we mark the 56th anniversary of the Selma march, in which many people were brutally beaten by police. We lament the ongoing deaths of Black people at the hands of police because we have not as a society dealt with our systemic racism. And we recognize that there is plenty of work for us, the Church, to do to live into our love of God and love of all our neighbors.
Many people these days find it awkward to talk about their faith journey and their church among their non-church friends and family. The words “church” and “Christian” carry a lot of baggage. So many years of moneychangers, misinterpretations, judgment, and corruption. We have to spend ten minutes just defining what we mean by “Christian.” Not this, not that, but this. And yet, having these conversations can be life-and-death important. Our society needs the voice of the Church at its love-and-justice best.
One year ago, on Sunday, March 8, we moved our worship service onto Zoom. We reinvented how to do church, how to be church, because we had no choice. It’s not the same as meeting in person. Some things are better, some are worse. It is what it is. But what is clear is that the church is not the building. We have not held worship services in the church for one year. But we, the church, have carried on. The church is us, gathered together, whether that’s in one building or over Zoom or wherever. The church is us, human, flawed, failing, asking forgiveness, trying again. The church is us, listening for God, helping each other, loving God and neighbors as best we know how. If we understand that, we can build God’s house in three days. We can build God’s house in three minutes. Because God is in us and all around us, always.
Let me be clear: I’m not advocating getting rid of our building. But the building needs to serve the congregation, not the other way around. It needs to be part of our ministry.
We build God’s house with what we have in our hands. We bring our whole selves, flaws and failings, gifts and gratitudes. And if it’s feeding our spirits, and if we find others who are seeking that spirit connection, we build God’s house by inviting them to come, too.
One of these months we will be given the all-clear to worship in person. We will reinvent church again in order to include those who are geographically distant and a vital part of our church. We have been meeting in small groups on Zoom to figure out the path forward. If you have not already participated, please find a way to do so. It is that important. Let us be about building God’s house. Amen.