Thieves and salesmen

But I found thieves and salesmen
Living in my father's house
I know how they got in here
and I know how to get them out
I’m turning this place over
From floor to balcony
and then just like these doves and sheep
Oh, you will be set free
-- Derek Webb, "Lover"

Reflecting on Matthew 21:12-17, the story of Jesus turning over tables in the Temple. The text I'm reading this morning has Jesus saying: "The Scriptures say, `My house should be called a place of worship.' But you have turned it into a place where robbers hide."

I've generally read this as a critique of practices of buying and selling in sacred space. This has been shaped in part by our Lutheran aversion to "fundraising," and by the experience that this text is usually quoted in meetings to oppose new ways of funding or providing programs.

I think Jesus here is not talking about the moneychangers and sellers per se. Yes, there is usually some dishonesty inherent in this type of system. Exchanging currencies involves a fee that can be extreme, and any time one has to buy from a "single source" -- like the official sellers of doves -- it gets expensive. But I think the "robbers" are those who set up a system where pilgrims are required to go through such hoops to get what is free -- God's love and mercy.

The meditation on rejesus.co.uk today says that a service to help foreigners had become "a business enterprise." I think that's key -- this system creates hoops for "outsiders" to help them become "insiders," and Jesus has been clear that outsiders are insiders already. It goes on to say, "This isn't the first time that holy places had lost their heart and soul, and it wouldn't be the last." As wrong as the sellers' opportunism is, the loss of heart and soul is deeper, in the system and leaders that are setting themselves up as gatekeepers to God's kingdom and being arrogant enough to believe they can sell what God has already given.

This isn't a sign of some singluar, stunning evil. I can find my thoughts straying this way as a natural by-product of being in leadership. Even as we have allowed cookie and candle sales to help fund programs, the Church finds many ways to draw dividing lines and create hoops for "outsiders" to jump through. Those hoops can be liturgies or inward focus or doctrines that seem as natural to us as the tables of caged birds and foreign exchange market seemed to the Jews entering the Temple. What are the things that turn us into robbers, charging others (and ourselves) for what has already been given free?

I need to keep working at seeing this gift, which Derek beautifully describes in the last verse of his song:

I am my beloved’s
and my beloved’s mine
So you bring all your history
I’ll bring the bread and wine
and we'll have us a party
Where all drinks are on me
Because as surely as the rising sun
Oh, you will be set free


Lutheran Zephyr said...

Years ago I heard a technology report on NPR or somewhere describing the future of computing. They reported that human-computer interfaces will no longer require typing on keyboards (a completely unnatural, learned human behavior) but will rather understand speech and require little learned or acquired behavior from humans. Humans will be able to "be themselves" and use computers in the future, without needing any odd behaviors such as typing.

My dad and step-mother, who are not churchgoers, came to our church on Sunday. I was struck by how awkward they looked, because they lacked the acquired, learned behavior of church participation. This helped me see just how much of what we do on Sunday morning at church is conditioned, learned, and acquired behavior. And it is more than just worship - there are established (but not well communicated) norms regarding the nuances of navigating the coffee and snacks, of dress code, etc..

Even in welcoming congregations, there are behaviors that mark someone as "in" or "out," as initiated or not. The key, or one of the keys, I think, is having a generous, big tent approach to Sunday morning behaviors while also being intentional about communicating and teaching any expected behaviors.

Bob said...

Good point, Chris, about conditioned behavior. That's not a bad thing; hopefully along with Sunday morning behaviors we're also conditioning people to live differently the rest of the week. I like the idea of a "generous, big tent approach." What do you think that would look like?

It seems to me that if we had enough points of engagement and presence in the non-church lives of people in the community, then if they chose to come to church they wouldn't be a "newcomer," they would have a relationship with people or the community already. In that case specific behaviors aren't a barrier, they're something we all expect to run into when we go deeper with a new friend or colleague or community.