This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on Sunday January 19, 2014. The text for the sermon comes from John 2:13-25.
There once was a cat that would find its way into a synagogue on Saturday morning and meow loudly, distracting those in attendance from worshipping. So one Saturday morning, the eldest rabbi began to tie the cat to a tree outside before worship, so as not to distract the worshippers. Eventually this rabbi passed, and his sucessor began to tie the cat to the tree. Eventually the cat died, and so the rabbi found another cat to tie to the tree. Many generations passed, with cats being replaced as they died until eventually the tree died. The eldest rabbi planted another tree so that the cat could still be tied to the tree before worship on Saturday morning. Eventually people began to write books about the significance of tying a cat to the tree before worship.
It’s a little absurd isn’t it? This practical act, tying the cat to the tree as a way of keeping worshipers from being distracted, soon becomes a ritual in and of itself. To the point that books are written about how important this small act is for this worship community.
And yet, how frequently do our practical acts become ritualized. Brushing our teeth when we wake up and when we get ready for bed are done so that we can keep our teeth cavity free - and to make our dentists happy, but this act soon becomes part of our morning and pre-bed rituals.
Or, here at Nativity, we have Children’s word time. This started as a way to make visiting parents with small children feel welcome. They didn’t have to worry about their child making noises or distracting those around them during the sermon. And now it’s become a part of our Sunday morning ritual. And, if the preacher were to forget to invite the children to leave, it would throw off the Sunday morning groove. It doesn’t take much for a practical act to become ritualized.
So when we get to the temple in our Gospel text this morning, we need to remember that the scene we find ourselves in has it’s roots in small practical acts that have become a part of the worship experience.
The temple was divided into many parts, there was the innermost Holy of Holys where God dwelt, then outside of that was the place where the priests would stand and offer up the sacrifices of the men who presented them stood below. Beyond the men, stood the women and children, who weren’t permitted to stand with the men. And past the women and children was the outer portico, where the Gentiles were invited to come in and experience God. And it’s in this outer portico, or porch that we find Jesus in the text this morning.
Even though this outer portico was where the Gentiles were supposed to worship, it was also the only place that men, women, priests, children, and outsiders could all gather together. And so, as people began to come from further and further away, bringing with them foreign currencies and maybe not unblemished animals, it made sense to allow Gentiles to exchange denarii for shekels so people could pay the temple tax, and for locals to sell unblemished animals so that people could offer up pure and holy sacrifices. This becomes more and more common until Jesus enters and sees this absurd circus that has become commonplace.
And Jesus flips out when we sees this circus. I can imagine Jesus walking through the outer porch taking in the moneychangers exchanging coins, and the men haggeling over the price of a particular bull, and the doves cooped up in cages around this sacred space - this place that has been intended so that outsiders might be able to worship God. As Jesus passes through, his rage builds until finally he can’t take it anymore. He snaps, grabs a bunch of cords, and starts shaking things up. He kicks out all the animals and these people who are preventing the Gentiles from being able to worship.
His act tells us that these rituals are no longer practical. God doesn’t need animal sacrifices at the temple anymore because God dwells in the body of Jesus Christ. God dwells among the people, not in a heaven light years away or in a stone temple, but in flesh and blood among the living. These rituals are keeping the Gentiles out, and are no longer helping the Jews experience God wholly.
Jesus’ anger at these ritualized sacrifices isn’t exactly new. We have heard the prophets say similar things just a few months ago. Amos says, “I hate, I despise your solemn assemblies and your sacrifices.” God has already told the chosen people that what is important are our interactions with one another, not stuffy rituals to “get on God’s good side.”
So Jesus flips out, tangibly reminding those who can see him that God doesn’t care about temple taxes or animal sacrifices. God wants women and men to be invited to experience God in the flesh and blood. Not through priests, but through the Incarnated Word made flesh.
Seeing Jesus flip tables in the temple makes me wonder if he wouldn’t do the same thing if he were to come into our sanctuary. Would Jesus be angry that our understanding of worship was to come in on Sunday mornings and sing hymns from a hundred years ago and recite words to a creed that were written almost 2000 years ago? Would Jesus come in, and flip our tables, telling us that there is more to worship than just these rituals that we have been reciting for most of our lives? Would Jesus say, “Where are you worshipping in the world? Where are you worshipping at the Welcome Table? Or at ABCCM? Or at the pub? Or in the movie theater? Where is your living sacrifice? Your spiritual worship? Where are you inviting people that are different from you to experience God in their lives? In the places that God has given them to be sacred? Why aren’t you there?”
Elie Wiesel tells a story about how ritual is lost in favor of true spiritual worship.
When the great rabbi Israel Bal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” Again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Moshe-Leib of Sassov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forrest and say, “I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was.
Isn’t it enough to tell the story of God’s love and grace on the cross?
Can we hold on to our rituals as long as they help us tell the story of God’s love and grace? Of course we can. And we should. It’s why we continue to baptize, to share in Eucharist, and to share in the words that have shaped what it means to be a Christian for almost 2000 years.
But, can we let go of rituals that keep us from seeing God in the presence of those outside of our church building? That’s harder. It’s harder to see where God is present in a conversation at a pub that can never be repeated and is beautiful and spiritual because of it’s one singular moment. It’s harder to see where God is present in the ramblings of a homeless man standing on the street corner, how by offering to feed this man, we feed God. It’s harder to see where God is present in someone whose life looks so different from ours, whose faith seems so strange and foreign. But then, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be called a sacrifice would it? Amen.