March 11, 2012

John 2:13-22

Today’s Gospel story is usually referred to as “the cleansing of the temple.” It’s the dramatic story, repeated in all four of the Gospels, in which Jesus enters the great temple in Jerusalem and makes a scene. He finds people in the temple selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. He makes a whip of cords and drives all of them out. He pours out the coins and topples the tables. He yells, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

You’ve probably heard the story before once or twice. Maybe you’ve thought about how strange it is to imagine Jesus getting angry, and been reminded perhaps that even God gets angry when bad things are happening.

Perhaps you’ve read a bit about what these practices were all about. You’ve noticed that the story takes place at Passover, one of the great pilgrimage festivals. Jewish people would have travelled from all over Judah and Israel and sometimes even further to worship at the temple and celebrate God’s great love and protection of God’s people at the Passover.

When the pilgrims arrived at the temple they would want to make sacrifices of thanksgiving to God. Since they were travelling from afar, they wouldn’t be able to bring animals along with them. They needed cattle, sheep, and doves for these offerings, so they would purchase them on their way in to the temple. And since they needed to make a financial offering too, the money changers provided a needed service. They took the pilgrims’ foreign currency and exchanged it for temple currency.

But Jesus gets quite obviously angry, and he drives them all out. He yells at them and tells them that their practices are turning God’s house into a marketplace. Some of the other versions of the story in the other Gospels suggest that the temple is being changed from a house of prayer to a den of thieves, suggesting that there might be some cheating going on at these booths as well.

But even without the suggestion of cheating, the holy place just isn’t being set aside for prayer and worship and devotion. It’s becoming like every other place, like the streets, like the market… filled with the hustle and bustle of people buying things and money changing hands.

Yesterday I heard someone suggest, in a reflection on this text, that Jesus was de-cluttering the temple. You can imagine him, can’t you?… lunging into the bustling crowd with his whip of cords… shouting out above the din of many voices in conversation… the crowd parting like Moses parting the red sea… and then everyone – people, animals, birds, tables – scattering and dispersing.

I wonder how long the quiet might have lasted. Long enough for Jesus to say something to the crowd and be heard? Perhaps. Long enough for anyone to have a quiet moment of prayer to God? Probably not. Long enough for a serious reconsideration of the temple practice at Passover? Very unlikely. But it was long enough for people to take notice of what Jesus had done, and to tell the story of it, and to pass it along to us for our reflection.

I would say that I am a fairly organized person. I keep a detailed schedule and can usually be counted on to follow it. I try stay on top of the various responsibilities that I have. And if someone needs a copy of the minutes from some committee, or if they’ve lost an email that they received, I can usually find it for them.

But one thing that I do have trouble with is clutter. My basement  is cluttered. My kitchen is cluttered. My office is cluttered. I keep accumulating more things (with a lot of it being paper) and I don’t often find the time to sort it, to dispense with what I don’t need, and to remove the clutter.

Some of you probably can’t relate to this problem. You live in neat, tidy homes. You have a great filing system in your office. And you make a point of spring cleaning every year to get rid of the things you no longer need. (Sometimes you even bring these things here to the church, thinking perhaps that they’ll be useful here. And sometimes they are. And sometimes they simply add to the clutter in my office!)

If you’ve been at St. Andrew’s for more than 6 years, you’ll remember the Rev. Annabelle Wallace. Annabelle was a superhero when it came to de-cluttering! Her filing system was amazing. She kept the church school supplies in perfectly colour-coded order. She ruthlessly made use of the garbage bin. And she liked to keep things clean as well.

A couple of years ago, Annabelle dropped by the church to see me when she was visiting Saskatoon. Unfortunately, I was out of town and I missed her visit. But Karen told me that she took a few minutes to look around the church and see how things had changed. The message she left for me was “I saw… but I didn’t conquer!” In other words, she resisted the temptation to clear out the clutter.

The thing is, I do know how to de-clutter my office. I do know how to sort out my files and clear off my desk. I do know how to go through my emails to archive the old ones, and to sort the current ones into presbytery, and committee work, and camp-related, and personal. And when I take the time to do it… even if it’s just one room, or one area of my life, there is an amazing feeling of accomplishment, of possibility, or renewed energy for work and ministry. Now that my desk is cleared off, I can get to work on this one exciting project! Now that the dishes are all washed and neatly put away, we have space to make a wonderful supper!

I don’t know if Jesus was thinking about de-cluttering when he sent the tables flying and coins rolling that day in the temple. But the hustle and bustle of the marketplace had found its way into the place of worship, and he was convinced that it was supposed to be a place for prayer. How could anyone concentrate to talk to God, let alone to actually hear God’s voice, with all of that marketing going on around them?

If Spring is a good time for de-cluttering our homes and our offices, then it seems to me that Lent should be a good time for de-cluttering our churches and our lives of faith. The word “Lent” just comes from the same root as the word “lengthen” for the lengthening days that we experience at this time of year. But as a season in the church year, it is a time of turning and returning to God. It’s a time of re-committing ourselves to God in prayer, and worship, and other spiritual practices. It’s a time of preparing ourselves for the great sorrow of Good Friday and the great joy of Easter.

I wonder how many of us are experiencing this season of Lent as a time of prayer, reflection, and drawing close to God. My guess is that it’s not many of us… because, for one thing, we’re all too busy! We’ve got work, and family responsibilities. We have committee work to do for the church, and volunteer stuff for the kids’ school, plus the community Board we sit on, not to mention the upcoming tasks of doing our taxes and starting on the spring cleaning. We are making it to church, at least some of the time… But sometimes church just feels like a whole bunch more words, another big list of things we should be doing… Sometimes the hustle and bustle of all the church activities doesn’t feel much different from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the week.

I believe very strongly that God wants us to be active in our faith. It’s not just a set of beliefs that we hold, but it’s a way of life that we embrace, a way that changes us, that directs us, and equips us and calls us to meaningful work and service in the church and in the community. But I don’t think God needs us to be “busy” all the time. In fact, if we are busy all the time, we might actually miss out on what God may be telling us, how God may be directing us.

In this season of Lent, of which there are another four weeks with each day getting longer and longer… I want to invite us to find ways to de-clutter our lives of faith so that we can have the time, the space, and the quiet to focus on what really matters.

Maybe it’s time for you to spend some time diving deep into God’s Word in the scriptures. Set aside some time each day (maybe in the morning or just before you go to bed) and read the Bible. There are many different tools for deciding what to read, devotional booklets, reading guides, or just open up your Bible to a book that you’ve never explored before.

And then just have some quiet time with God. Think about what you’ve read. How does it apply to your particular life? What might God be saying to you today, at this point in your life? Talk to God about what you’re thinking and feeling. And then stop talking so that you can listen as well.

There are a lot of quiet days here at the church… when there aren’t any groups meeting… when this room, in particular, is a place of quiet contemplation. So drop by if you want to… on your lunch hour or on your way to somewhere else. Come and sit and let God help you to de-clutter your mind, and your heart so that God can begin to use you once again to do God’s amazing work.

Let’s start right now by sharing some silence together, in the presence of our loving God.