Cleansing of the Temple – George Smith, March 19, 2006


Homily at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Sunday, March 19

The Third Sunday in Lent


Exodus 20:1-17

Romans 7:13-25

John 2:13-22



Something is rotten in Denmark.  It fills the lungs with a wretched stench, like the one you may have experienced recently while driving on I-290 through Hillside. Shakespeare may have captured the essence of the human condition in this one phrase uttered by the guard in Hamlet who sees the king’s ghost walk over the castle walls. Yes, something is rotten in Denmark, and at Enron, in Iraq, in our suburbs and inner-cities, in our churches, at St. Mark’s and in the Temple in which Jesus fashions a whip out of cords to drive out the cattle and sheep, the doves and the money changers.  As it is written, “He drove all of them out.”  And it is the very center of things which must be turned upside down in order to see the truth – the political truth, the economic truth, the societal truth and God’s truth.

Growing up at Christ Church in Winnetka, I looked forward to the annual rummage sale every October.  A rummage sale may sound quaint and old-fashioned, and if you’re imagining a typical church rummage sale, akin to a glorified garage sale with a few bikes, a garden hose, tables with old toys, paperback books, Christmas ornaments and a few pieces of furniture, think again.  Imagine instead a giant big-top type tent, with yellow and white strips, big enough for a small circus, for the furniture department alone.  Add a three story parish house with a Great Hall and twenty odd rooms, a turn-of-the century mansion and woman’s club across the street, a warehouse building and four more party-size tents, and you have just enough space to squeeze in thirty-five departments of used stuff – audiovisual equipment, wicker baskets, toys, shoes, books, men’s shirts, designer clothing, jewelry and bedding to name a few.  Add several thousand people over a frenzied 8 hours of selling on a crisp October day, and you begin to get in your mind’s eye a glimpse of the world’s second largest church rummage sale.  The title of largest rummage sale goes to the Presbyterians, also in Winnetka.  Given all of this trafficking in merchandise, the selling and exchange of money, I used to imagine in the middle of it all, Jesus appearing with a whip and driving out the people, overturning tables filled with goods, ranting and raging against the abomination of commerce in the Lord’s house – parish house, that is.

Is that the lesson for us in today’s Scripture…that buying and selling in the church is an abomination?  Is this what is rotten in Denmark?  If so, God has yet to condemn 80 plus years of the Christ Church rummage sale…in fact, it is quite the opposite, with God’s blessing on the annual event which generates in excess of a quarter of a million dollars for grants to dozens of charities in the Chicago area.  Then again, perhaps the point of the Gospel reading is that Jesus lashed out against the abuses of the Temple system – the outrageous mark-ups and tariffs that pilgrims to Jerusalem had to pay to the money changers.  More than two million people converged on Jerusalem at the annual Passover festival.  In order to pay the required Temple tax, people had to convert their Roman and Greek pagan coins into religiously correct, imageless currency. For the sacrifices, most people purchased unblemished animals from the Temple markets – doves, sheep and cattle, a range of animals for a range of budgets.  Most could only afford the cheapest option.  A dove that cost 15 cents on the streets of Jerusalem cost $15 in the Temple market.  These were expensive burdens for the mostly impoverished faithful, who sacrificed mightily to travel from all corners of the empire to Jerusalem.  All of this seems worthy of Jesus’ scorn and stunning response – whipping, turning and pouring.  But is this really what the cleansing of the Temple is all about?  Take a deep breath.  Something is rotten, and rotten to the core.  The source of the stench is worse and even more gut wrenching than abuse of the system.  It is the system itself.

Although all of the Gospels include the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple, it is John’s Gospel, which we heard today, that places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.   In fact, for John, Jesus strikes at the heart of the religious system by cleansing the Temple and then through his ministry of signs and actions, shows the true nature and reality of God.  What is going on in the Temple, at the very heart of the religious system of the God of Israel is rotten and both the religious leaders and their followers pulse around it in an established, protected and unreflective pattern of hierarchy, control and certainty.  The meaning of God in people’s lives had been reduced to a sacrificial bureaucracy.  God who proclaimed to the Hebrew people at Sinai that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” – God who spoke the ten words of freedom and love – a God of steadfastness, long-suffering and mercy, distorted and reduced to this – an annual transaction.  A dove, a lamb, a calf – sacrificed for what?  To honor God?  To appease God?  To limit God?  Jerusalem is a giant beehive of activity, yet at the very center, is decay and rot.  And it stinks.  Perhaps because the smell is so bad, no one can recognize the very image of God in their midst – at least not the religious authorities and those with the greatest stake in the religious system.  When Jesus talks about the Temple, they think he is talking about bricks and mortar and not his very being.  When Jesus talks with Nicodemus about being born again, this learned rabbi can only understand this in terms of physical birth.  When Jesus talks about the bread of life, people seek cakes of flower and not the Word of God.  The world is blind to substance and obsessed with the surface of things.  It is into this corruption that God sends God’s self – into the very heart of it all – the Temple in Jerusalem – to begin a process of renewal and transformation, to create, in the whipping, turning and pouring, a true bread of life and hope for a broken people and world – to expose and rid the world of that something that is rotten in Denmark.

Presented with two apples, which would you choose?  A beautiful, California grown Red Delicious concealing a mushy, brown core….or a blemished, pocked, hard scrabble Illinois Granny Smith with a crisp, tart crunch?  This is a leading question and one with an obvious answer – because although appearances are important, we really care about what’s inside.  But we are trained to think and expect that the way things look is supposed to tell us about what’s inside – and that’s why people buy the good looking fruit only to be disappointed with the first bite.  The way to really know what you’ve got is to cut it open and see what’s inside.  As it is with apples, it is with faith. Jesus has cut open the religious system, and it’s not good.  When religion is about control and narrowing God, watch out for the rot.  When appearances trump substance, watch out.  When million dollar houses sprout at every corner while more and more homeless people travel the PADS circuit, watch out.  When the Lord’s Table is restricted to those in good standing, watch out.  When a city floods and the shocking reality of its poverty and depravity is revealed, watch out.  When multi-billion dollar businesses thrive on accounting schemes and deceit, watch out.  When the most powerful country the world has ever known defines itself in terms of enemies and threats, watch out. When Scripture is extracted and orphaned on a 5,200 pound rock with the purpose of teaching ethics to those in a state court house, watch out.  Something is rotten in Denmark.   Will we let Jesus into these Temples?  Will we be willing to lose control and look through beautiful facades to see and encounter the God that has been made known to us in Jesus – the God who blesses community over accomplishments, substance over surface, risk over safety and self-giving or self-preservation?   These are the urgent questions that the Gospel presents us – to us as individuals, as the community of faith here at St. Mark’s, as a nation and as a world.  My hope is that all of us together at St. Mark’s will proclaim the good and challenging news that God isn’t black and white and cannot be boxed in or controlled by our desires for security – that God is not just love but a whip that drives out control, arrogance, limits and systems – and not just a whip but bread that nourishes humility, community and relationships.