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Reverend Matt Gaventa

July 16, 2017
Matthew 11:15-19

A Reading from the Gospels

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

In a summer here at UPC of stories about church, of stories about what happens when we worship together, surely this text is the most uncomfortable. We started this summer with the story of Mary and Joseph finding the teenage Jesus hanging out in the Jerusalem temple, and now he’s returned again, but this time with a vengeance. The story of Jesus over-turning the money-changing tables and driving the merchants out of the temple is striking if for no other reason than that it seems to show Jesus at his angriest, and angry Jesus doesn’t always make us feel good. Angry Jesus is the one we might like to ignore the best we can, but then this story shows up in every Gospel, every Gospel has some version of Jesus cleansing the temple, driving out the money-changers, and driving out the merchants. Every Gospel has some version of Jesus’s anger brought forth onto the people who gather in the Jerusalem temple for the worship of God. Which means that if we’re going to tell an honest story about church, then there’s no way around this one.

So what do we do with this story? The Jerusalem temple is the house of prayer for all of the Jewish people of Mark’s day. It’s not one church among many; it’s the church. Which means that it gets pilgrims from everywhere. In the version of the story we heard this morning, Mark puts the words of Isaiah on Jesus’s lips, even as he’s trashing the place, he’s quoting scripture: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations,” and indeed they come from all over Israel and from all over the eastern Mediterranean. The problem is that there are no Traveler’s Cheques in Biblical Israel. And there’s no American Express. These pilgrims bring their own currency, and whatever it is, the temple doesn’t take it. Which means that in order for these pilgrims to complete their pilgrimage and make their temple offering, they have to go to the money-changing table and trade their own currency for something a little bit more local — and then they can buy the doves that they need to meet their sacrificial requirements. Which on its face, is a perfectly hospitable form of commerce. If the whole point of your enterprise is to help the pilgrims who have traveled days and weeks to worship in this place, then having a money-changing table isn’t a problem. It’s what hospitality looks like.

The problem, as it always, is the hidden fees. It’s the transaction fees, levied specifically against these pilgrims who don’t know the landscape. If you’ve ever filled up a gas tank in a foreign country you may know this feeling, you’re paying in a foreign currency you don’t fully understand and you’re probably paying by the liter instead of by the gallon so you have no idea how much you’re buying and eventually you just fill up the tank and pay the bill and walk away and hope you have enough money left to get home. It’s a vulnerable moment, and we have every reason to believe that the money-changers in the temple were taking advantage.  One historian pieces together a story in which a contemporary Rabbi lobbies to adjust the price of the temple doves because of the extraordinary burden placed upon the poorest pilgrims, and only by his lobbying does the price drop to one-fiftieth of its original amount. So, yes, this is a story about hospitality, but only in the sense that the snack counter at the movies that charges me $10 for a small popcorn is also “story about hospitality.” Actually, this a tragedy of hospitality. This is a story about pilgrims who just want to come to church. A story about pilgrims who make the long and difficult journey to come to the house of God. It’s hard to come to church. And then the money-changers just go and make it even harder.

At this point in the sermon I have to admit an uncomfortable fact to you all, which is that up until a few years ago, I had never been to a real college football game. I mean, I know the sport pretty well, and I’ve been to a handful of NFL games, and I’ve been to a few low-stakes college games, but I’d never been to a college game that mattered, until a few years ago, after my parents moved to Waco, when my father and I decided to make our own pilgrimage to McLane stadium for Baylor vs. Oklahoma State. I freely admit that I did not care who won. I just wanted to go and see the show, and I wanted to go and see the people who go to see the show, and I wanted to go and spend time with my dad going to see the show, and so off we went into a Saturday night, my five-hour pilgrimage to Baylor nation. And I thought that because I knew how football was played that I wouldn’t have any trouble understanding the experience I was about to have. And I was wrong.

First of all, getting to McLane stadium was a nightmare. We parked on campus so that we could walk a mile to a shuttle bus so that we could walk an extra half mile to one of the outside vendors and I was quite sure that even though I was a fully-grown adult man I could not have found my way back to the car without assistance. But then we got to our seats. And then the liturgy started. The team ran out onto the field and everybody stood up though nobody told us to stand up, but I’m a professional. I know liturgy when I see it. There were chants that everybody else knew; there were songs that everybody else knew; there was choreography that everybody else knew. When Baylor got a first down, we did a dance. When Baylor scored, we sang a song. But of course I mean “we” in only the loosest possibly sense. “I” spent most of that game flailing around like a doofus. I did not know the words to those songs. I did not know the moves to those dances. Mostly I just sate there nervously darting my eyes back desperately worried that everybody was just looking at me and judging me; after all, the liturgy matters, the cheers matter, the whole point is that you’re there to help the team win and I’m not helping. And I think they’re looking at me and I think they’re blaming me and even if they’re not it’s hard to shake the feeling.

It’s hard to be a visitor. I would wager that everybody here this morning has a story like that one, a story where you’ve felt like the one person in the room who didn’t know the rules, who didn’t know the codes, who didn’t know the dance moves, or didn’t know the words. Maybe it’s the first day at a new school, maybe it’s the first day at a new job … or maybe it was the first time you came to a new church. After all, it’s hard to come to church. I mean, maybe you’ve been to worship here at UPC hundreds of times, but it’s still hard to come to church. We have people who drive a long way on Sunday morning. We have folks who get up earlier than they would like. Right now you are missing brunch, Sunday morning talk shows, and a variety of good local farmer’s markets, not to mention on so many Sundays the regular rotation of soccer games, and birthday parties, and camping trips that make up so much of family routine. Even for those of you who come to worship here all the time, it’s hard to come to church. But this morning I want us to imagine for a moment how much harder it is for visitors who don’t know all the words and don’t know all the dance moves and might not even remember where they parked their car. It’s hard to be a visitor.

It’s hard to be a pilgrim. The pilgrims who arrive at the Jerusalem temple have put their livelihoods on hold, they’ve uprooted their families, they’ve literally crossed the mountains up to the city. And yes, the Jesus that they find in this morning’s gospel comes off a little angry. But this Jesus isn’t just acting out of anger. He’s acting out of empathy. He’s acting out of the capacity to experience the temple pilgrimage from the perspective of someone who comes for the first time, someone who has crossed the desert and climbed the mountain and found their way to the house of the Lord and now has to pay fifty times the market price just because they don’t have the right coins in their pocket. And of course, I don’t know of any Presbyterian churches with literal money-changing tables sitting in the hallway. One of the reasons I am proud to call myself Presbyterian is that it has become so important to us to talk about being a welcoming church. But of course as Jesus reminds us, one can talk and talk about being a house of the Lord for all the nations and still not actually do the practical work of real hospitality, of real empathy. Because every time a church visitor can’t find their way through the website, or can’t find their way to the nursery, or can’t find their way to a bathroom, those are costs, too. Those are the hidden fees, and they add up.

Of course people will still come. After all, this is the House of the Lord, and people will still come. People have always come looking for God, looking for majesty, looking for mystery, looking for wonder and joy and grace and mercy, and God will find them here, if we don’t get in the way. God will find us here, if we don’t get in the way. God will find everyone here, in the songs that we all sing together and in the chants we all chant together and in the choreography we all dance together. God will find everyone here, in that sacred mystical wonder of the worship we offer together and in the holy sacrifice of time and service that we offer together. This is a house of prayer for all nations, and they will come from north and south and east and west and find God in this place – if they can also find parking. And the sanctuary. And a bulletin. And a friendly face. This is work we can do. It doesn’t start and end in this sermon, but this is work we can do. This is work worth doing. This is holy work, because it is the work of expressing God’s love, and God’s majesty, and God’s welcome, to the world that has come here to find it. In some ways it’s the most important work we can do.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa with a delegation from the PCUSA. One Sunday morning, we worshiped at a congregation of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in one of the townships of Cape Town. The light-skinned among us on the trip were certainly the only white folks in the room, filled every inch to capacity, and they could not have been more excited to host us — in fact they brought us to the front, so we could have the place of honor, and of course so that we could be as exposed as possible when we didn’t know the first thing about what we were doing in their worship service. The service was participatory and we didn’t know how to participate. The congregation would burst into song almost unexpectedly and we didn’t know when and we didn’t know the words; I’m such a child of the western Christianity songbook, and there wasn’t much here to acclimate me.

And then, about halfway through one particular hymn, I noticed, much to my own surprise, that somewhere deep inside its DNA, somewhere underneath however many layers of cultural translation, we were singing something I actually knew very well. Somewhere way down underneath I could hear this ancient melody come through a game of telephone and back again, somewhere underneath all of it we were singing Praise Ye The Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation… though the melody had changed drastically, and though the words were beyond my comprehension but I knew them anyway, All Ye Who Hear … Now to His Temple Draw Near… It was like deep down underneath everything I didn’t know was the thing that drawn us all there in the first place, the thing that had drawn me there in the first place, and it wasn’t just a song, it wasn’t like they were singing my song or I was singing their song, it was the melody of the Gospel which is that we were singing a song of praise on every tongue, the song of praise from every corner of the world, it’s the song that creation itself wants to sing. So we come to the temple, pilgrims from a distant land, weary from a long journey, we come for the sacred melody of this song. Praise Ye The Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation… Let’s be a church where everybody can find their way in.