A Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Steven L. Thomason
St. Paul’s Episcopal
Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas
March 11, 2012.
St. Paul’s Episcopal
March 11, 2012.
The Scripture Texts for the Third Sunday after the Lent, Year B, are:
John 2:13-22 [The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.]
On the last day of December a couple of years ago, Diana Butler Bass received a New Year’s greeting from a friend who wished her the gift of “discontent” and enclosed this prayer:
O God, make me discontented with things the way they are in the world and in my own life. Make me notice the stains when people get spilled on. Make me care about the slum child downtown, the misfit at work, the people crammed into the mental hospital, the men, women and youth behind bars. Jar my complacence, expose my excuses, get me involved in the life of my city and world. Give me integrity once more, O God, as we seek to be changed and transformed, with a new understanding and awareness of our common humanity.
I suppose not many among us would consider “discontent” a gift, but it is just such an impulse that lifts the corner of complacence and invites us to consider the possibility of “other.” It is the fuel for innovation; it is the fulcrum for change in its various forms; and it is, I would contend, a necessary component in the admixture of faith. It seems to me that Lent is an ideal time to consider the invitation into the unsettled gift of discontent. It begs the question, do things have to be the way they are?
Which is what, I think, Jesus must have thought when he entered the Temple courtyard during the Passover Festival. Something about the status quo upset him, and in the winter of his discontent, he took action.
So just what was Jesus so unhappy about? Sadly, the Church, for much of its history, has taught that Jesus’ action was a repudiation of the temple practice of animal sacrifice altogether. Most scholars now agree that there is no evidence for such a conclusion, that it has anti-semitic overtones, and that Jesus was never interested in wanton disregard of the Law and its tradition. He was a faithful Jew who practiced the religion earnestly, even while being guided by its overarching directives to love God and love neighbor which informed every detail of how he lived life under the Law.
There is considerable evidence, however, that the temple economy had itself become gluttonous and usurious, taking advantage of the poor who were just trying to eke out an existence amid imperial oppression, while adhering to the religious requirement of devoting themselves to God within the context of the temple economy.
The moneychangers were there to aid pilgrims in converting their imperial money into the temple currency with which they could pay for an animal to be prayerfully offered in sacrifice as part of the worship festival. The animal was handed over to the priests in the temple who would go about a centuries old practice of ritually sacrificing the animal, dressing it and cooking it.
The meat was then returned to the family making the sacrifice, with a portion donated to the priest and his family, and together with sacrifices of grain and other food items, the holy meal was celebrated by the family acknowledging God’s generous blessings in their lives. It was a part of the orderly conduct of a society whose religious practices were central to their identity.
But when Jesus enters the temple square something sets him off. Some suggest that the moneychangers and their animals had migrated from their designated places in the outer courtyards into the holy space of the inner temple court. And, moreover, it is likely they were charging inflated prices for the animals and pocketing the difference. A religion’s well-intentioned venue of assistance for pilgrims gone awry, and at the expense of those just trying to be faithful.
It stirs Jesus to action. He turns their tables over, spilling their coffers on the ground, and quickly fashions a whip to shoo the animals out. You can just imagine the scene as the moneychangers scurry to collect their change and gather up their animals amid the chaos of a crowded square, which would have had thousands of people there for the festival.
But there is nothing that would lead us to conclude that Jesus’ actions that day did little more than irk those in power and create a temporary disturbance to their operation… Except--except that it must have turned a few heads, and some perhaps followed him, and believed in what he was saying and doing, and found the courage to act in their own right. We who sit here today bear witness to their legacy of faithful action, stirred by the passions of discontent with the world as they found it, while also finding joy and hope that a loving God was engaged in ushering in a new world order, and had invited them to work in it.
And in the wake of the temple’s destruction a few decades later, they remembered what Jesus said, and managed to find meaningful expression in this body being the temple wherein God chooses to reside.
Now I should state here than when taken to extreme, discontent can sour, turning restlessness to rage, with destructive consequences both for the one discontented, and often for others who bear the brunt of such venomous invective. Or if discontent is not guided by a prevailing sense of compassion and a deep desire to work for change, then a cynicism resigned to inaction may set in. I don’t think that is what we are talking about, either when Jesus takes on the temple leaders, or in the invitation for us to consider discontent a gift in its own right.
I’ve been reading Diana Butler Bass’s latest book, Christianity After Religion, in which she writes:
“Religious discontent is indistinguishable from the history of spiritual renewal and awakening. Religion is often characterized as contentment, the idea that faith and faithfulness offer peace, security, and certainty. In this mode…the church [is depicted]as an escape from the cares and stresses of the world…[But] in the prophetic mode, faith discomforts the members of a community, opens their eyes and hearts to the shortcomings of their own lives and injustice in the world, and presses for human society to more fully embody God’s dream of healing and love for all peoples.”
Bass contends that in this new millennium, we are in the midst of a spiritual awakening, a period of discontent with the status quo in religion that is on the seismic magnitude of the Protestant Reformation and other major shifts in our history. She suggests that the Church, as we know it, is coming to an end, and what is arising in its place is a less religious but more spiritual enterprise, by which I think she means an institution that is less concerned about preserving its institutional power and prestige, and more concerned about its prophetic voice in a broken, hurting world. And to do that, we must be engaged in the deep inner work of spiritual awakening, as individuals and as a community.
I think many of us choose to be here at St. Paul’s because it is a place where we are striving, together and individually, to be faithful to such a prophetic vision, whereby we refuse to become too settled in our seats of comfort as long as we see injustices prevailing in our time.
To be sure, we are pastorally-inclined, both within our community and for those outside of it. A healthy community strikes the balance between its pastoral and prophetic identities. Remember, Jesus retires from the temple courtyard and then shares a holy meal with his friends who needed it. It is what we do here at this table as well--we are nourished, we support one another, then we go about the life together, caring for one another.
We, too, are concerned for the well-being of each other—but not just ourselves, but for the world as well.
Some may say, now is not the time…to take on this or that injustice. I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written to well-meaning white pastors in Alabama who were pleading with him to wait in his cause of civil rights. I think we’d still be waiting for the “right” time had not his and others’ prophetic voices of discontent been heard…
Some may say that we have a wanton disregard for scripture or for our tradition when we stand with those who are oppressed, rather than condemning them as outsiders. I am reminded of the biblical tradition of prophets like Joel and Micah and Amos, and Jesus, whose prophetic voices called for “justice to roll down like a river,” and for us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God,” and above all else: love God and your neighbor.
To be prophetic is to live with the tension of discontent with the world as it is, and make no mistake, now is the time, this is the place for action.
It is not the work of the priest alone. You—you— are called to find your prophetic voice—but in doing so, know that it is a returning to that which is wonderfully orthodox, a faithful turning into a hopeful, new awakening, oriented to connectedness, equality, and spiritual wholeness. It is an invitation to be fully human, made in the image of a loving God, who has invited us into the creative potential of a new way grounded in a radical love for others, here and now.
For this community, as we earnestly live into a new spiritual awakening....
For your prophetic voices, expressed in a broken hurting world...
For your courage to act, in God's name...
--may God’s holy name be praised.
 Butler Bass, Diana. Christianity After Religion, New York: HarperCollins, 2012, p. 83ff.
 This encounter with the moneychangers is recorded in all four gospels, a fact that scholars generally agree enhances its historical placement in the record of Jesus’ life. But its place in the gospels varies: here in John’s gospel it occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while in the other three gospels, it occurs near the end of his life. Here, Jesus makes the connection with the temple of his body; elsewhere he does not. But in all of them Jesus is portrayed clearly as discontented with something he saw, and among the throngs of people who were present for Passover, he acted.
 The animals were set apart for this sacred purpose, not as some antiquated practice of animal cruelty cloaked in religious fervor seeking to assuage an angry God, but as a way that people could eat fresh meat safely and in the context of their religious tradition which demanded that all aspects of life be lived in reference to God. Would that we slaughtered our food as humanely and gratefully in our own time!
 There was no evidence that Jesus used the whip on the people, by the way, as is sometimes claimed by preachers, although the writer of John’s gospel uses an odd sentence construction to keep us guessing: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.”
 Op. cit., Bass, p. 88.