On overturning the temple (John 2:13-22)

by susan on January 23, 2018

We continue to move through the Narrative Lectionary & right now we are in the gospel of John. Here are some words for the journey that were shared this Sunday. The text is John 2:13-22.

What would you do if you encountered an 8-foot bride on a busy street corner?

If you are like many Bostonians, you’d stop & see what this painted lady is all about. You might even slip a coin or crisp dollar bill into her collection in hopes of receiving a flower. In hopes of making a connection.

This is how Amanda Palmer started her career & it was there in the streets, body painted white & standing on a milk crate that she discovered both the longing for & the power of human connection.

As she delicately handed her new friend a flower, she would look deeply into their eyes & in silence they would share a brief, but intense moment of connection. She recalls numerous occasions of prolonged eye contact.

Her eyes would say: Thank you. I see you.
Their eyes would say back: Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.

All this on a street corner.

The lessons she learned as a street artist bride informed her career as the founder & lead singer of her punk rock band, the Dresden Dolls.

Meaningful & authentic connection with her fan base was at the center of her art, which made it impossible for her to fit neatly into a consumer-driven music industry. While for a short time she signed with a label, it didn’t last.

One of the last straws came when one of the label higher-ups called her to discuss a recent video she’d made for a song. He let her know the video was great, but that, well … some of the shots of her were not very flattering. He wondered if she’d consider editing out the shots that made her look fat.

Not only did she refuse to make the edits, she shared the unedited video with her fans (along with the details of her conversation with the label higher-up) & something crazy happened.

People began posting their own belly photos along with their own words directed at the label.

Words like:

Love thy belly!
Belly pride!
This is what a belly looks like!

A movement had begun & one fan even gave it a name: the ReBellyon.1

A system designed to make consumers out of people was no place for an artist whose mission is to create real & lasting connections.

I can’t help but wonder if the event we call the cleansing of the temple was in part, God’s rebellion against the way we twist even our faith into a consumer-driven activity.

Unlike in the other gospels, the temple episode according to John happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It happens right after he turned water into wine at a wedding. It’s not so much the beginning of the end for Jesus like it is in the other gospels. It’s the beginning. It’s the thing on which everything else builds.

We call it the “cleansing” of the temple, but cleansing may not really be the right word. It’s not like Jesus went around with a rag & mop, tidying up the place so it would look nicer for those in attendance. He was not cleaning it up – he was overturning everything.

It might be helpful for us to imagine the scene happening at one of our playoff parties today:

Everything is set. Guests have already begun arriving from different parts of town. Excitement is in the air. The big game is about to begin!

Then, a particular guest arrives accompanied by a few friends. A few seconds later, he makes his way to the food table & instead of indulging in your delicious food, he flips the table over, sending all your thoughtfully prepared food to the floor. Next, he heads for the TV & with all eyes on it, he topples it to the ground. Everyone is in shock. He turns to you & says with authority: ”This whole place is disgusting! It’s corrupt from top to bottom! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

Jesus’ actions in the temple would have been at least that shocking. He enters a place that was at the center of cultural, political & religious life & made a mess of everything.

This is no tidying up; Jesus is turning the temple upside down.

There are many speculations about what exactly caused Jesus to go ballistic in the temple that day. Certainly, he was angered at seeing this sacred space turned into a marketplace. Honestly, though, as a practicing Jew, should he not have been accustomed to this scene? Money changers & sacrifice salesman were always there doing their thing – this was nothing new.

Something else seems to be happening & I wonder if it had as much to do with what was going on inside Jesus as what was going on inside the temple.

He may have seen it all before,
but now he is seeing things differently.

I remember one of the days I started seeing things differently. I had just returned to Atlanta from a weekend of service with the youth group I was leading at the time. We had been doing a variety of service projects in a neglected neighborhood & we came back in town just after the Sunday worship service had begun, so we slipped quietly into the sanctuary & sat on the back pew.

Instead of in my usual spot on the platform,
I was seeing things from a different point of view.

And this is what I saw:
Ministers in black robes elevated on a stage.
A congregation of scattered people all facing forward.
An audience watching a performance.

I saw disconnect…and it disturbed me & it was one in a collection of moments that stirred me down the path of starting something new.

In John, the temple overturning signals the start of something new –
The temple would no longer be the center – the real action would happen
beyond the temple doors, beyond the select men who managed the temple &
outside of the system they had been maintaining for years.

The main event would happen in the world –
where deep connection is possible at every turn.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest who tells about her exit from pastoral ministry, only to find God more alive to her in the outside world than she ever thought possible. She writes,

“Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish – separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” (An Altar in the World, p. 15).

It’s no wonder the religious authorities did not get what Jesus was doing or saying. The temple was the center of their lives. They could not imagine another way. How could they possibly understand the new temple being Jesus’ own body, his own life? An embodied faith was too revolutionary for these brick & mortar gatekeepers to grasp.

And if our faith is not leading us to make connections, if it is not sending us out into the world to live the main event, then we too are missing the point.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with a friend and was telling him about The Well. At the time, we had several people who were actively involved in recovery programs. They would openly share stories about their progress in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or SA (Sexaholics Anonymous) …. during our Sunday gatherings. When I told my friend this, he looked at me like I had lost my mind. “You mean people talk about their problems with alcohol in church?! I see those as totally separate things”, he said.

In the temple that day, Jesus overturned a system that was doing more separating than connecting. From here on out, we will see Jesus more often than not outside of the temple – in the world – making connections –
touching broken bodies,
sharing in deep & meaningful conversation,
sitting beside those who had no place in the temple.

And through those connections, healing would happen, barriers would be broken down & new life would be found.

What about us?
Have we made the connection?
Have we discovered that faith is less about drawing lines & more about connecting dots?

Faith is not a category & following Jesus was never meant to be a religious activity.

Faith is about daring to see God in everything:
from the sun rises we witness
to the work that we do
to the conversations we have in AA or at school or online
to the connections we make in & out of this community.

Altars are everywhere – even on busy street corners where a painted woman waits to share a flower with us.

from The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer, Grand Central Publishing, 2014.

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