What I Ain't
On Palm Sunday, we usually read up through the parade of Jesus into Jerusalem and stop. It's for this reason that a lot of churches have considered calling today "Passion Sunday" instead of "Palm Sunday." The problem arises when we leave here today after waving palm branches and shouting "Hosanna" and then don't return again until next Sunday to celebrate the resurrection. There's a whole lot that goes on in between the two; here at Oglethorpe, we mark that with our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. But for so many of us, whether it's a question of time or ability or priority, sometimes we are lucky to make it on Sundays; so we get to skip over the tough stuff. It's for that reason that I included the six verses in Matthew's gospel which follow the donkey parade. Jesus heads straight toward the Temple where he starts flipping over the tables and driving out the sellers and buyers. "My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!" It's a story many of us are familiar with, but it is rare that we read it in the context of worship. Maybe we're worried that someone will knock a collection plate out of the ushers' hands or spill grape juice or wine on the carpets. More than likely, though, it's simply an accident of placement. It comes between Palm Sunday and Easter in the lectionary readings; it even comes between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday.
And it doesn't really fit with our image of Jesus, the nice young man from Nazareth who was a teacher and a healer. OK; we also know that he was willing to push some boundaries, but this is the one who went quietly and humbly to the cross, right? Why would this nice Jesus show such rage? And yet, there it is...
Most of us likely have one of two reactions to this lesson: either it is an odd example of Jesus overreacting, or it is a case of justified righteous anger. In either case, we might also be drawn to a partial understanding of the text. As Jesus cleanses the Temple, he is, in a sense, saying more about what has gone wrong with the practices of Jerusalem. This is not what faith in God means! This is not what I represent! This is not why I came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey! You're getting it all wrong! And perhaps we're drawn to that understanding because it can be easier for us to say what we don't believe rather than what we do. It's easier to say what I ain't than what I am.
When I lived in Chicago, I noticed that, for Presbyterians, it seemed to be more important to identify that we are not Catholic than that we are Protestant. In a city that was 83% Catholic, that may make some sense. Not to be Catholic meant, in some ways, not to be part of the broader culture, and therefore somewhat on the margins. But at our little Southside Presbyterian Church, where the architect had been Catholic, there was no communion table; only an altar. So the pastor turned his back on the congregation when breaking the bread and pouring the cup; something that was thoroughly un-Presbyterian (and actually pretty un-Catholic after Vatican II). Not only did we seem to know more about what we weren't than what we were, but we didn't even seem to get that right!
But if we only know what we are not, then how will we know what we are?
A few weeks ago, we had a gathering of some OPC members. I asked the question, "What does the word 'Christian' mean?" As they shared their answers, many were quite frank that the word has a lot of negative connotation for them. The political and cultural baggage that has developed in our society that associates with the word "Christian" is problematic for many of us. Does that jibe with your reality? I mean, you are here, whether because you already choose that identity as Christian for yourself, or because it draws you here at some level to explore and consider, and even you may have trouble with the feelings that that word conjures up. We can spend more time talking about the negative, "I'm not that kind of Christian," than the positive: "I believe _____________________."
We are living in a bizarre moment in history where it seems every idea needs to be deconstructed, taken apart, so that it can be examined and rebuilt with its essence intact. This seems to be especially true of words like church or worship or Christianity or Presbyterianism. So many centuries or decades of cultural assumptions have built up around these concepts and realities that many of us are struggling with the meaning they hold for us. We spend so much time undefining that we might never get around to defining. So the questions linger: "What are we? What do we believe? What are you? What do you believe?"
Our first step might be to return to the Biblical text and look at it more closely for some cues we might otherwise be missing. We might notice, of course, that this event also took place on Palm Sunday. And perhaps this disturbance helps explain a bit better why the authorities would have taken a deeper interest in this Jesus of Nazareth to consider him a troublemaker. What is odd is that the Temple required the very things that Jesus was reacting to. Pilgrims traveling long distances would be bringing foreign currency, necessary to change into the local one; and once it was changed, they would need to purchase the animals (doves, etc.) for the sacrificial ritual. Perhaps his reaction had more to do with extortion, or the idea that there might be more than just Temple-related merchandising going on.
But perhaps there's more than that at work here. Jesus calls them "thieves" or "robbers." The Greek word there has a subtle sense to it of "nationalist rebels." In other words, the true purpose of the Temple is to give praise to God. But instead, they are simply tribally, nationalistically superstitious folk going through empty ritual in hopes that God would protect. And just like the first Temple, as the prophets predicted and warned against, when the people had negated the covenant and worshiped other gods and forgotten the stories of faith that had shaped them so powerfully, even if they went through the motions of faith, it was no longer love of God but superstitious belief in their God. This Temple, too, will be destroyed.
So what is it that they, or perhaps even we, might be missing?
When Jesus confronts them, he quotes this verse from Isaiah, calling the Temple a house of prayer for all nations. The verses that surround that quote bring light to this as well. There, God is deconstructing, taking apart and examining, this tribal identity of God. God is God for all. God will gather the foreigners that keep covenant here in this Temple. And just as God has brought the outcasts from among the Israelites into God's very presence, so God will gather up those outcasts who are beyond the tribe.
And in a sense, that is the absurd notion that is at work in the table around which we gather. All are welcome here, regardless of tribe. Our presence here is part of that covenant, a response to God's grace which brings us here to be fed and sends us out to feed others. I invite you to listen carefully to the prayers we say at table together; there is a pattern and an intentionality to them. We begin as community, greeting one another. And as we turn to prayer, we re-tell God's amazing story of salvation, beginning with creation and moving steadily up to the moment of that Last Supper where bread was broken and the cup was poured. The community expands around the table, not only welcoming those beyond our doors, but also welcoming the angels and the saints in glory who surround us as that great cloud of witnesses.
Even communion itself is being re-evaluated these days, subject to that same process of deconstruction and examination. It used to be that we thought you had to understand communion to receive; now, we recognize so powerfully that the whole notion of faith rests on the fact that God comes to us before we're ever aware, and so the decision is up to parents to decide when baptised children are ready to take the bread and the cup. Now, our understanding is that communion is open to those who have already been baptised, whether children or adults. After all, this is a meal of the community of faith, of the church. But even that is being questioned and discussed; were the disciples baptised before the Last Supper? Isn't the point of this table to demonstrate that welcoming love of Christ so that others may come to know what faith in God truly means? If so, who are we to put up barriers?
Once we have consumed, our prayer is to be sent out into the world to be Christ's body; broken, yet agents of healing.
Friends, our Palm Sunday parade leads us not into Jerusalem nor into the Temple, but more fully into the presence of Christ when we come to the table. May the table be a house of prayer for all of us gathered, for the saints and angels, and indeed for all nations. And may it send us out to flip over a few tables of our own.