Tidying up

Sermon for Lent 3, 2015 at St James, Colwall

So what’s the approach to tidying up in your house? Is it:

  1. there’s no need to tidy up, I always keep it immaculate
  2. when it gets a bit unkempt I have a bit of a blitz so it’s OK for another week or two
  3. I just move the piles from place to place and walk round them.

We all have different tolerances of untidiness and different approaches to dealing with it. But sometimes it gets away from us and a more radical approach is needed - more storage, less stuff, new house, whatever - something’s got to be done.

I wonder how many of us have read the House of Bishop’s Pastoral Letter on the 2015 general election? They seem to think something’s got to be done to tidy up our country and its politics, so I thought I’d have a peep while preparing for this morning - after all, how long can it take to read a letter? Well, I was slightly dismayed to find that there are 52 pages of it - a bit longer than my average letter, I have to tell you. So I suppose it’s understandable if most of us rely on media summaries to tell us what it’s all about, if we pay any attention at all.

But I did read it and have to say it’s pretty even handed stuff on the whole, hardly meriting the pasting it got from some politicians and some newspapers, but that’s politics for you - try to engage and you’ll soon find yourself clobbered from somewhere, if not everywhere - I guess they knew what was coming.

As I say, it struck me as pretty mild and balanced criticism, certainly in comparison with Jesus’ performance as just described in our gospel reading. It’s hard to overestimate the intent behind this so-called cleansing of the temple and once we realise that, it’s really quite easy to see that this will have been the event that set the authorities implacably against Jesus and his message.

Let’s put a bit of flesh on that and think what was likely to be happening. For a variety of reasons the Jews of the day were obliged to bring animals to the temple on important occasions to have them ritually sacrificed. It doesn’t really matter why, they just did. But they couldn’t bring just any scraggy old goat from their flock; regulations said it had to be whole and unblemished, worthy to be offered to God. So there’d be guys at the gate selling supposedly grade A sheep and doves at inflated prices. But then inside the gates the newly earnt, about to be burnt creature would be inspected again and some previously unnoticed fault might be spotted, requiring the purchase of a replacement, temple-approved animal at even greater cost. You can see a little scope for profit making.

A further snag was that you couldn’t pay with everyday commercial Roman style currency because it had graven images on. You had to have the proper local currency and as you probably didn’t have it, you needed to go to a money changer. Who may or may not have given you a good deal.

That may not all be quite spot on, but I think it gives the picture. Cue Jesus and his whip and table turning. What was the intent behind all this? It really couldn’t be clearer that he was saying it was wrong - wrong, wrong, wrong!

But how wrong? You’ve got a system here, supposedly designed to support people in their religious and civic commitments. So you could critique in essentially one of three ways:

  1. It’s an OK system which is being abused and exploited but could be fixed with a bit of effort.
  2. It’s not an OK system but a better one could be constructed to achieve the desired ends.
  3. There shouldn’t be any such system - it’s the whole temple and sacrifice idea that is causing the trouble.

Put like that, and reflecting that Jesus was almost certainly indicating that he took view c, we have a strange and fascinating event here - an intriguing mix of storm in a tea cup on the one hand and greatly significant on the other.

Storm in a tea cup? Yes, in the short term I imagine this all blew over pretty quickly. A few days on and no doubt things were as they always were in the temple. There’s no suggestion that the money lenders et al suddenly said ooh yes, he’s got a point, let’s put ourselves out of business. Nothing would have changed.

But significant because Jesus’ followers reflected on this day and interpreted it as a complete rejection of the temple system as they worked out the new religion. So that some way down the road, Paul wrote to the Corinthians - you are God’s temple. The idea developed that God’s home on earth is in his people. And that’s an idea which has resonance with us today in the dear old Church of England. While in centuries past various churches might have missed the point on this a bit, we cannot fail to recognise that we’re not very wealthy and we’re not very numerous and we’re not particularly influential. The church, God’s temple, is us.

So we have to think what it means to be God’s home on earth, because that status as the temple of God, which points to the inestimable value of each of us and everyone we meet. It starts here, with us, not with the the building but with us, and the way we engage with the world.

It’s almost amusing to think of that temple, which angered Jesus so much, that he took his whip to it - with all its vibrancy and commerce and busy-ness; and to contrast it with the temple that is his people here in Colwall. Would he see us as an improvement? Of course he would. I bet we’re tidier, for a start.

Ah but tidiness isn’t the point is it? Jesus wasn’t suggesting a bit of tidying in the temple, his view was more that the whole system was bust. And by God’s grace, that message has somehow gotten to be heard down the centuries. But how to interpret it and apply it to our very different world is another matter. The Bishops with their rather less dramatic intervention have had a go; it’s easy to download their effort and see what they said, if you have internet access. They said a lot of course, but what they are most concerned about may be summed up as a culture of cynicism, apathy and blame. They’re saying don’t give up, don’t assume nothing can be done, and to emphasize this they top and tail the letter with a verse from Philippians:

whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

So if we find ourselves disposed to cynicism, apathy or blame it might be time to tidy up our own inner temple.