John 2:13-22 Looking over the New Testament texts for the next couple of Sundays, I was struck by a narrative strand that resonated with me. So as we move through Easter, I'm preaching a series of sermons: Letting Go Getting Up Going In Moving On
Each of us struggles with some kind of grief, some kind of loss (whether that's the death of a loved one or of any number of other losses we face in our lives). There are things in our lives to which we cling and which hold us back. Perhaps it's more immediately something of our faith which has failed. For some reason, faith in the Market, Wall Street, and government all come to mind these days. But as we move through this series of moments with Jesus, my hope is not only that it would give us space and Spirit to heal, but that it would also tie us into that larger story of resurrection that is our central story.
Those of you who were at our Ash Wednesday service heard a variation of this story on letting go, but my example comes from The Simpsons. Homer is at work and tries to get a free Buzz Cola by sticking his hand up into the vending machine. Once he gets a hold of it, he's stuck. As a result, he fails once again as a husband, this time having promised to go with Marge to the ballet.
The police come to rescue him and bring him the bad news that they'll have to cut his arm off. "It'll grow back, right?" Homer asks. "Um, sure." Just as they're about to do that, another policeman asks, "Homer, are you still holding onto the soda?" "Your point being?" In the next scene, Homer sulks away holding his arm as the police laugh at him in the background.
There are times when we hold onto something longer than we should; there are times when we refuse to let go, and that keeps us stuck.
In the John passage, Jesus heads down to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. As he enters the Temple, he encounters people selling animals and changing money. On the surface, this is nothing more than a convenient service offered by these merchants. People have traveled far to be in Jerusalem for the festival, and they want to offer an animal sacrifice at the Temple. On the one hand, this saves the pilgrims the difficulty of having to bring their animal with them. Maybe we can think of them as ancient ticket scalpers.
And therein lies the problem: the practice has become abusive, particularly of the poor. Price gouging practices are par for the course. Perhaps the better parallel is not with the ticket scalpers outside but with the concession stands inside.
For Jesus, this is simply too much, and we see one of his brief flashes of righteous anger; not only shouting at merchants and turning over tables, but making a whip of cords to drive them out of the Temple. There is a glimpse here for each of us who has felt that righteous anger at an abuse of power that we are touching the divine at such moments. But I'm not sure the best question is what tables do we want to overturn, but what tables of ours does Jesus want to remove? Are there tables we have set up, idols to different kinds of injustice? Do we practice subtle or even overt exclusion in our lives? Where is it that Jesus is challenging us to take a long, hard look at our own practices, as well-intentioned as they might have initially been, to be cleansed?
On top of this reading of the text, there's another I want to propose. Note to whom Jesus speaks: it is to the sellers of doves alone. Again, this may tie into his concern that the merchants are taking advantage of the poor in particular. But I can't help but connect this with another visit of Jesus to the Temple, one he was too young to remember, but I'm sure was related to him by Mary and Joseph.
He was just a few days old when his parents brought him to Jerusalem for the requisite sacrifice. We are told in Luke's gospel that they did the correct sacrifice for their income, which was quite limited: two pigeons or turtledoves. So perhaps that explains Jesus' solidarity with the poor, the fact that he comes from among them. But could it be that Jesus, alongside this moment of righteous anger at an obvious injustice, is overturning the tables of his own childhood? As we move through the next few weeks of Lent, we will come to see how Jesus himself becomes the Passover Lamb, sacrificed and broken for our sakes. So could it be that he is "undoing" the sacrifice that was done on his behalf in order to clear the way for the sacrifice that he will become?
What are our tables? Where might Jesus come in to upset those things that linger from our childhood? Perhaps it's the patterns set up for us by our family, ones we know don't work, but we don't know what else to do. Maybe it's something so precious and tender to us, that while it started out as something good, it has gotten us stuck. What is it that we need to let go of in order to die and rise again with Christ?