From Pastor Kenny's Desk
March 4, 2018
“Since it was almost the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep and pigeons, while moneychangers sat at their counters. Making a whip out of cords, Jesus drove them all out of the Temple–even the cattle and the sheep–and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, scattering their coins. Then he faced the pigeon sellers: ‘Take all this out of here! Stop turning God’s house into a market!’ The disciples remembered the words of scripture: ‘Zeal for your house consumes me.’
The Temple authorities intervened and said, ‘What sign can you show us to justify what you’ve done?’ Jesus answered, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ They retorted, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and you’re going to raise it up in three days?’ But the temple he was speaking of was his body. It was only after Jesus had been raised from the dead that the disciples remembered this statement and believed the scripture–and the words that Jesus had spoken.
While Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, many people believed in him, for they could see the signs he was performing. But Jesus knew all people, and didn’t entrust himself to them. Jesus never needed evidence about people’s motives; he was well aware of what was in everyone’s heart.” John 2:13-25
Where is God? Where do you expect to meet God, to experience God, to participate with God in God's ongoing work in yourself, your community and the world? Really. I'm honestly curious about how you would answer these questions. If you are willing, send me an email or note with your thoughts.
Pastors … and church professionals in general … are likely to talk about God at work in the world and the invitation each of us have to participate in that work. This often comes from a theology of vocation … the belief that all people of faith are called and encouraged to participate in God's work to care for ALL people and our world. It has always been my goal to do my best to teach, preach and practice a vibrant theology of vocation … a vocation for all people of faith. That's the good news.
The bad news is sometimes people who are not clergy or church professionals can have a hard time imagining that what they spend most of their time doing counts as a call. That is, the belief that most of their lives … at home, school, work, volunteering, community responsibilities, etc. … aren't particularly worthy of God's attention or the church's.
This is simply not true. So here are a couple more questions: Where are you called to participate with God in serving and sharing your gifts? How do you connect your faith and your daily life? Are the everyday ordinary things you do as important to God as the things you do in church? Where do you see God in your life?
Over the years I’ve had many of these conversations and have found several things pretty consistently:
-Many believe they are leading their Christian life most fully and visibly when they are at church or doing church-related things. The next place is when they are helping people, whether through their work, volunteering, or more informally. But most of the regular work they do doesn't seem particularly connected to their faith.
-People typically understand living your faith in daily life to mean witnessing or sharing your faith and almost immediately after naming it this way feel guilty they don't do this as much as they think they should. Another common way of understanding living your faith is in terms of character and ethics … doing a good job, being an honest person, having integrity, etc. Very few people can imagine that they are living their faith in the regular and ordinary activities of work, school, family life, etc.
-The clearest mark of being a Christian person of faith is going to church. Basically, Sunday is the highpoint of the Christian life. Again, volunteering and helping others comes in second. Most of the rest of our lives … including how we spend our money and time … doesn't seem to connect clearly to our faith in any meaningful way.
While none of these things are true, as a pastor, these kinds of conversations motivate me deeply because there's a huge opportunity here. While MCC Richmond is a growing and thriving congregation, in general, we wonder why fewer and fewer people are coming to church or seeking to find a church. I think these conversations indicate that it's probably because their faith impacts most of their lives so superficially, it's hard to justify giving a couple hours of time during the most unscheduled part of the week to something that hardly impacts the other hours of the week. That might have been okay … at least in terms of church attendance when most people did a lot of things just because they knew they should or because their parents did them, but those days are over.
Which is why this is such a huge opportunity. It's not like our lives are easier than they were for our parents or those who raised us. We still struggle with decisions about careers; we still work hard to balance our multiple roles as professionals, partners, parents, children, friends, employees, and the rest; we still agonize over how to make the most of our time and money; we still search for meaning, identity, and a sense of purpose. None of this has changed. And guess what: the Christian faith has a lot of helpful, important, and relevant things to say about all of this.
It makes sense that we tend to think about God and God's work in relation to church; that is, in relation to our church buildings and our Sunday activities in those buildings. That's understandable … church is the place where we come together to hear about and to grow in our understanding of and relationship with God. And in honoring Sunday worship we are keeping the commandment to honor the Sabbath. As a faith community at MCC Richmond we know and are learning more and more how important it is to gather for worship, fellowship and be encouraged and encourage others in our faith.
But I think the unintended consequence of this emphasis on Sunday worship and church in general is we've unintentionally given the impression that church is this great big God-Box where people should come to experience God. Think about it: it can be easy to focus our evangelism and outreach efforts toward getting people to come to church. I suspect many people tend to think of church as a destination. It’s a place you go to receive spiritual things. However, taking a clue for John’s story, I wonder if we’ve got things a little backwards. Let me be absolutely clear, I believe Sunday worship is important but rather than imagine it’s a place we go to for an experience with and of God, I wonder if we shouldn’t imagine it as a place we’re sent from in order to meet and partner with God in everyday life.
Somehow, we've lost the sense and confidence that God is always out ahead of us, at work to bless, heal, and love this world and that God invites us to join God in this venture. Church … from this point of view … is the training ground for our life in the world. Church is the way station to find rest and nourishment before going back to the main mission. Church is the vocational counseling center that helps us discern just where, to what and whom God is calling us.
All of which brings me to the sacred text from John’s story … finally, I know! … which is all about where God is. While this story of Jesus in the Temple is in all four gospels John does something remarkably different with it than his synoptic siblings. Rather than place it at the end of Jesus' ministry where it serves as a catalyst to the arrest, conviction, and crucifixion of Jesus, John places it right up front. John starts here because he wants to make one very clear and very important point: once Jesus is on the scene, there is no more need of sacrifice.
In John's hands this is Jesus' first venture into the public. And what a venture it is, as he overturns tables and drives out moneychangers with strong words and cords. This story … particularly through Matthew, Mark, and Luke … it's easy to miss another twist in John's version: Jesus, according to John, doesn't decry the Temple as a "den of robbers" … likely accusing the moneychangers of defrauding the poor … rather, he says the Temple has become "a market place."
But that's what it had to be! They needed certain animals to obey the laws of sacrifice, and because average worshippers didn't carry around pigeons or sheep, they bought them at the Temple. People also needed to be able to change money because they could not buy these animals with the Roman coin … complete with an engraving of Caesar proclaiming him “son of god” … that they would use for all their other transactions.
So what Jesus is asking for is practically impossible. So why does he do it? Because the Temple … from John’s, Jesus' point of view … is obsolete now that he (Jesus) has come and everything changed. Among the first of these changes is there is no longer a need to sacrifice, as God will interact with God’s people in a whole new way. This is why the cleansing of the Temple comes up front in John's story. Because the Word that was with God and is God and now has become flesh, the Son that is close to Abba God's bosom and makes the invisible God known, has come onto the scene precisely to reveal God. As Jesus will say to the Samaritan woman, "the hour is coming when you will worship Abba God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem". Why, because God is present in Jesus and, after Jesus' resurrection and ascension, God is present everywhere to ALL people through the Holy Spirit.
Which means … you guessed it … that we don't have to come to church to experience God. In fact, our churches can't contain God any more than the Temple could. Why, then, come to church? Because at worship in church we can hear God's Word proclaimed in a way that helps us see and experience God in all of life. The point is to learn to see God everywhere, not to come because church is the one place where God is. Which means that the "gravitation pull" of our congregational life should ultimately be outward … from church to the world … rather than the other way around, and that outreach is more about sending people out from the church to see, identify, and partner with God in the world rather than trying to get them to come where we are.
So how do we help one another see and believe that God is a part of every aspects of our lives?
During our fellowship times or in other conversations we ask one another where we see God and whether we assume … consciously or unconsciously … that God is pretty much to be found at church. Talk about this passage and our understanding of vocation. Share what it would be like to move beyond the God-Box version of church to look for and discover all the other places God is, and ask what it would take to support each other in doing this.
Share about one another’s "vocational arenas" … that is, the places where you live the majority of your lives! Ask what God might be up to and how God is using your individual gifts to at this place to help care for and sustain God's beloved world.
Reflect on how and where you experience God and ask others their experiences. Take note of these answer and allow yourself to be amazed by your ability to broaden your awareness of God’s presence in your life and the lives of others. With this awareness give thanks for your ability to identify the presence and activity of the God who cannot be contained in the Temple of Jesus' day or in our church at MCC Richmond!