The cleansing of the temple is a story, depending on your personality and theology, that is thrilling, disturbing, or confusing – or all of the above! It is an image of Jesus which does not fit with meek or mild or even overtly healing. This is full bodied, conviction driven, turning the world upside down behaviour. If we don’t feel stirred up in some way we haven’t heard it! (RCL John 2:13-22)
So what to make of it all? Well firstly we hear the story this week in the context of the Ten Commandments and the season of Lent. There is a real sense that the religious of Jesus’ day, and ours too, were being judged and found severely wanting in the light of the ten commandments and the spirit of the law. Quite literally religious business as usual is found to be failing. Now many of us could quite happily imagine Jesus storming through the building on Capitol Hill, or the House of Commons, or the public gallery in Canberra and overturning the tables and throwing the money lenders and others out of business. Some of us might also visualise Jesus storming Rome or Canterbury or some filthy rich TV evangelists’ home with an 8 car garage and wielding the whip. And I think we should always be open to hearing the judgement of Jesus and his way of life over and against our political and religious institutions. Including of course, uncomfortably, the group that we belong to.
For if God does indeed love creation. And if God does indeed have a preference for the poor – for the widow and the orphan and the alien or refugee – then we need to visualise that if physical earthly Jesus turned up today there would be some serious over turning of the tables in political circles, in religious places, and in our kitchens and lounge rooms. No wonder Jesus was a serious irritation to the religious authorities and hearing the story at Lent in the build up to the Passion we can understand why Jesus was arrested and tried by the religious system and executed by the political system. He was a threat to both the religious and political systems of his day.
But I think more is happening although that would have been enough. I think the passion of Jesus is also wanting to shock us, invite us into a deeper truer more sacred way of life. Into a life and relationship beyond religious practice – even beyond “good enough” religion. After all the money lenders etc were operating an arguably legitimate business. I believe that we are being asked to go beyond business as usual.
I say this as a career religious person – that is, one whose personal faith has become my professional faith (that is priest and writer). I profess with my lips and have made a profession of believing, teaching and working. Now making a career of one’s personal faith, of one’s personal passion, is both a privilege and a terribly costly thing to do. Wonderful because I get to wrestle with Scripture and practical Christian ethics and talk with yourselves about really important things as my work. It is a huge privilege. But of course it is also a potentially damaging thing to do to turn one’s inward life of prayer and reflection and questioning and questing into a public discourse available to be debated and dismissed. I often feel very naked and vulnerable. The other danger is – for all of us but particularly those of us very busy with the work of being church – that the holy work of being the church can becomes business as usual. Completely understandable from a human perspective but potentially dangerous from a spiritual perspective. Doing the business of church can keep us distracted from the soul vocation of being in communion with the divine and with other seekers. Now there can be a balance of course but it is tricky.
One of the ways to hold that tension I believe is to obey the commandment to keep the Sabbath which almost none of us do anymore. “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work ... for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”
Keeping the Sabbath is probably much more radical in our time than in any time before. We so value busyness – work for money and all it can purchase, work for charity, keeping our large homes beautiful and tasteful, keeping fit, keeping up to date with current affairs, keeping up with family and friends by every social medium we can learn to master, and on and on – including the busyness of being church. We need, although do not like, Jesus to come into our lives and overturn a few tables. Even though it is terribly confusing when we are legitimately doing the work of life and church. We can do it voluntarily by spiritual discipline – such as keeping Sabbath - or sometimes life will do it through illness or holiday or relocating you to a new town or new stage of life. Better maybe to do it voluntarily!
As Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favourite authors, puts it: ”At least one day in every seven, pull off the road and park the car in the garage. Close the door to the toolshed and turn off the computer. Stay home not because you are sick but because you are well. Talk someone you love into being well with you. Take a nap, a walk, an hour for lunch. Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce – that even if you spent one whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight – and when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so, remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment. Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working. The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth. It is hard to understand why so many people put “Thou shalt not do any work” in a different category from “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” especially since those teachings are all on the same list. The ancient wisdom of the Sabbath commandment – and of the Christian gospel as well – is that there is no saying yes to God without saying no to God’s rivals. No, I will not earn my way today. No, I will not make anyone else work either. No, I will not worry about my life, what I will eat or what I will drink, or about my body what I will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? And there was evening and there was morning, the seventh day.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “A Geography of Faith: An Altar in the World”, Harper One, New York, 2009, page 139)
What do we need to say “no” to in order to say a more whole hearted yes to God? And if the answer is not already clear then try a day without phone, email, snail mail, or any kind of working. Try a day of resting, sitting so quietly that you can hear the movement of what might be the spirit or the breath of God. Allow ancient memories of forgotten moments and people to emerge and be honoured with tears, or smiles and commend them to God. Listen out for what Sunday School songs might emerge or any other soundtrack that is in your heart. What line from a psalm suggests itself? Don’t wait until you are sick and tired before you spend time doing nothing in particular with God. Make a Sabbath date with God and keep it. And then when you are called upon to take action it shall more likely be the right action because it will come from your communion with God.
Come Lord Jesus Christ, come be our companion in stillness and action.