Rev. Danielle K Bartz November 6, 2022
John 2:14-22 “From Money-Changers Tables to Christ’s Table”
For those who spend any amount of time online know the algorithms that have been developed to place a well-targeted ad on your screen are often eerily accurate. And, for me anyway, they sometimes actually work. I was once searching for a present for my cousin in the realm of what I can only describe as ‘sophisticated dinosaur themed’ and after getting frustrated, I opened my Facebook page and there was an ad for a remarkably beautiful dinosaur necklace that was just what I was searching for.
But, of course, often times the algorithms do get it wrong. Lately I have been getting inundated with ads trying to sell me kitschy religion themed gifts. Everything from coffee mugs with completely out of context scripture verses on them, to journals to help someone pray ‘better’ (whatever that means), to jewelry to make sure everyone I encounter knows I am a good Christian, to magazines that are filled with hollow spiritual stories and activities – meant to give more fulfillment to my spiritual life.
I understand why I get these ads – I am a minister and my internet history is filled with religious things. And I also understand why there is a market for such things – the ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic is growing. And that demographic often focuses on a sense of individualistic spirituality – a spirituality focused on self-fulfillment and not community belief, worship, and fellowship. These items attempt to create an identity for people who, for whatever reason, shy away from finding a communal identity in religious communities like this one.
I have no problem with these items, and I can understand why they are popular, even if to me they seem shallow. What I do have a problem with is the commercialization of faith; of exploiting a person’s spiritual hunger to make a profit. In many ways, the companies that are trying to sell spiritual fulfillment to make a profit are the 21st century version of the money-changers tables. The very tables Jesus sought to over-turn.
This story, of Jesus entering the Temple in Jerusalem and driving out the animals that were sold for sacrifice and over-turning the tables of the money-changers, is one of just a few that appear in all four canonical Gospels. Theologians and Biblical historians will tell you that if a story appears in all four Gospels, then the probability that it actually happened is quite high. So, it is very safe to assume that at some point in Jesus’ ministry, before his arrest and trial, he entered the Jerusalem Temple and caused chaotic disruption to the commerce that was happening there in the name of God. The Gospel of John tells the story a bit differently, like John does for nearly all of Jesus’ ministry. He places it as one of the first public acts of Jesus, and adds a bit of creative flair by depicting Jesus as using a whip to drive the animals out. But, placing those differences aside, we must contend with this event, the motivation that led Jesus to do this despite the very real and realized risks of arrest, and what it means for Christians today.
The faithful people of Jesus’ time, just as the faithful people of many worshipping communities today, were told that they were obligated to perform certain tasks in order to win God’s favor. One of them was offering animal sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. In order to perform this task, they had to purchase the animal for sacrifice from the various dealers in and around the Temple. In order to purchase the animals, they often were required to exchange their currency for the currency of the animal sellers, so they would go to the money-changers tables to do just that. The money-changers, just as today, took a small administrative fee for the exchange. Profit was made by the animal sellers and the money-changers in order for the people to fulfill a religious obligation.
Jesus, without fail during his ministry, taught that one cannot buy God’s favor. That God’s favor was not for sale, that God’s favor was a promise fulfilled in our very creation. In fact, Jesus said, God favored the poor – those who could not purchase an animal to sacrifice at the Temple. They were not removed from God’s love despite their poverty, they were blessed as Jesus famously taught in the Beatitudes. So, when Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem, he moved from teaching to doing – and publicly disrupted the commercialization of faith that was happening in a place of worship.
But that is not the end of the story. Because the money-changers table was not the last table we encounter in the Gospel. Because very soon after this dramatic event in the Temple, Jesus sits at a table with his friends, shares a meal with them, blesses them, and offers the gift of himself to them and to us. The table of the last supper, the table of Christ you will find in every church today, is the table that matters the most.
When I am imagining this story today, and I want to be clear, this is just my imagination so it is not found anywhere in the Bible, I like to imagine Jesus instructing his disciples to carry away the money-changers table and place it in the upper room where he hosted the Passover meal the night before he was arrested. I like to imagine that he took the place where God’s love was for sale and it made it a place where God’s love was freely given. And even if that didn’t physically happen, Jesus did move from one table to the next, but at his table nothing was for sale, most especially God’s love. Profit was not made and instead abundant love was offered freely and gladly. In this church, we carry on that tradition by welcoming anyone and everyone into this community and most especially to this table. For, as I remind you every time we share in the sacrament of Holy Communion, this is Christ’s table, not ours, and at Christ’s table no one is turned away or asked for anything in return for the grace freely given.
The Holy Spirit was certainly at work when this Gospel story, our Stewardship Sunday with the theme of table fellowship, and our regular Communion service all converged. The Holy Spirit, that living reminder of Christ’s presence in our lives today, can be – like Jesus – quite disruptive, but she can also be the source of remarkable gifts if we are willing to accept them.
On stewardship Sunday we must acknowledge that people financially give to the church for a variety of reasons. And I am not naïve enough to think that, for some people anyway, a sense of obligation isn’t one of those reasons. And I will always tell you that the love and favor of God requires nothing but your willingness to accept it, and that the love and welcome of this congregation is not given based on your giving amount. And this church does need your financial gifts in order to sustain itself. But the gifts you give do a lot more than that. The gifts you give help us to make sure all our neighbors and our strangers know that this table, Christ’s table, is freely opened to them. The gifts you give ensure that we are able to continue to be a place where everyone, and most especially those who have been rejected by this cold and cynical world, find welcome and solace. The gifts you give do not line the pockets of the money-changers seeking to profit from your spiritual hunger. The gifts you give help to set the table of welcome and to heap it high with the blessings of community, fellowship, faith, joy, and belonging.
In a lot of ways what we offer here is the opposite of what those online ads are trying to sell. We don’t offer shallow spirituality meant to fill up space but never actually satisfying that deep hunger. We don’t sell knick-knacks here. Instead we offer a place at a table where everyone is welcome to come in all their messy humanness, to be filled up with reminders of God’s love and grace through community, worship, learning, ritual, and sanctuary. I honestly cannot think of a better way to fulfill the lesson Jesus was teaching in the overturning of the money-changers tables than to use our gifts to build the feast offered on Christ’s table. Amen.
Generous God, you give your love, your grace, your presence, and your strength expecting nothing in return. You reach out when we pull away, you hold fast when we are scared, and you walk alongside when we strive to do your work. For all of these tremendous gifts we give you our thanks, and it is in this thanksgiving that we offer you our prayers.
As we prepare to gather at the table Christ has set for us, we remember all those in this world who continue to wonder if they are truly welcome. Help us to always add another chair to the table of your Church, knowing that there is room enough for everyone. And for all those who are still not sure, we ask you to be with them in ways we cannot, offering them your comfort and your acceptance.
Even as we pray for others, we offer prayers for ourselves and this worshipping community. We know that you are here with us and for us, and so we turn over to you the prayers we carry with us, knowing that you hear and respond…
God of all good gifts, you gave to us the greatest gift we could ever ask for – the ministry and teachings of Jesus Christ – alive and moving through us today in the Holy Spirit. And so we pray all of this and so much more in his name and in the way he taught by raising our voices together…Our Father…