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Don’t Miss the Real Things Right in Front of Us: The Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

God of the covenant,
give us zeal to discern the foolishness
and the wisdom of this present age,
so that we may proclaim Christ crucified;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

A few random stories, but not so random as not to share a theme:

Firstly, I don’t know if anyone was out late last night at a rock concert — and maybe this is the wrong crowd, or maybe you don’t want to answer — but a phenomenon that has been growing in recent years is that it’s become increasingly difficult to see the performer on the stage because your view is inevitably blocked by several cell phones. People, either in front of you, or directly in front of the band on stage, iPhones raised high, either video, or photos. To post these memories on social media (i.e. to show off), or simply to ensure that there’s a record that can be kept forever. The irony being that people seem to prefer their memories on a tiny screen, rather than actually put that screen down and actually take in the experience.

A story from my life: I’m from that generation that knows life both before and after the internet. Thinking back to my undergrad degree at the University of Waterloo, the first year or two’s course selections were made on a big piece of paper. We picked the courses we wanted, and then threw in some extra ones, in case our favourites were full, or their times conflicted with each other. But partway through my degree, the university introduced its online registration system. That first year of the system I picked my courses, went to class, and everything seemed to be going well. And then just before final exams I realized that, due to a computer glitch, I was only officially registered in half of my classes. According to me, my classmates, and my professors, I was part of those courses (because I’d done all the work). But according to the university administration’s monolithic computer system, I wasn’t. (Thankfully, with some forms filled out, signed, and delivered by hand, I was able to get myself recognized by the university’s system.)

To move to the church context, I recall a bishop expressing to me their disappointment. That in the midst of closing several small churches throughout their diocese, not one congregation, no longer able to afford their aging, too-big buildings, not one of them considered even as an interim measure, continuing to meet together as a Christian community. Whether in a house, or a rented hall, or wherever else, where they could still gather, pray, learn, and serve the wider community. No, instead, no one seemed able to conceive of living out their Christian faith without a meeting space in the ‘traditional sense.’

These three stories: the cell phones taking over concerts; impersonal, bug-ridden computer systems deciding who the real students are; and struggling congregations with an overly-narrow definition of what it means to live as ‘church,’ these three examples attest to how it is very, very human to lose sight of the real, the essential. To value a pale imitation more than the real thing (like all those cell phone photos or videos). To be forgotten by impersonal, flawed bureaucratic or technological systems, like the university’s online registration website. Or to confuse physical structures with worship itself. Physical structures do have an important purpose, but they are meant to serve the community, and its evolving needs.

A favourite movie of mine, Canadian David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, has a powerful line that encapsulates this predicament. In a culture that worships celebrity, technology, and the media, “television is reality, and reality is less than television.” Another Canadian, the philosopher Charles Taylor points to a similar problem: “Ours is a civilization concerned to relieve suffering and enhance human well-being, on a universal scale unprecedented in history, and which at the same time threatens to imprison us in forms that can turn alien and dehumanizing.”

John is really clear at the beginning of the gospel story we have today that this incident in the Temple takes place “when the Passover of the Jews was near.” Passover being a holiday associated with their ancestors’ release from the dehumanizing imprisonment of slavery in Egypt. After such an experience they might ask the question: where was, and is, God?

Was God in the pillar of fire and cloud that travelled with them in their wanderings?
Was God on a certain mountain, giving the Law to the Hebrews?
Was God in the Tent of Meeting that housed the Ark of the Covenant, resting with the people when they camped?
Much later, long after settling in the Promised Land, was God in the Temple?

Or, was God with the people all along, calling them, journeying with them, staying with them, comforting, and challenging them? Was God specially present in those movements (internal or external) that made people more fully free? And that acknowledgement of God’s special presence in cloud and flame, on the mountain, in the Ark, and in the Temple: do they serve as reminders of God’s Presence all around, calling people to freedom? And if so, does our limiting of God’s presence to those ‘special places’ run the risk of us missing God’s Presence all around?

This I think, is where Jesus was coming from. There might be an aspect of the Temple system being involved in unfair financial practices. There might be a critique here of the religious system of the day, probably reflecting a distancing between John’s church and mainstream Judaism. Most scholars tend to fall into either category: the critique of a) the financial, or b) the religious system. But underneath those theories is what Charles Taylor said: that even systems designed to relieve suffering and enhance our wellbeing can “threaten to imprison us in forms that can turn alien and dehumanizing.”

The Jesus we meet here is the Word made flesh; God pitching a tent among God’s people (which, I guess, takes us back to the exodus story and the wandering in the desert). But we’re not talking about pillars of fire, or cloud overshadowing mountains, but a flesh and blood person. Someone who cares enough for wedding guests that he makes wine, on the spot. And who cries with his friends Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus dies. This episode of symbolic demonstration in the Temple serves to shake up the status quo, or, the system, as to remind the people observing the Passover that freedom really was theirs, if they wanted it.

And Jesus, in speaking of the raising of the Temple of his body, reminds us that freedom, true freedom, isn’t freedom from each other. Freedom from a system doesn’t mean that uninhibited individualism is a better alternative. Jesus, in speaking of his body, doesn’t just refer to his body that would be crucified and risen; but also his body, the Church, the Body of Christ. Where, in Communion and in our whole life together, we can offer each other actual support and relationship that goes beyond that of a transactional system. And where, in following the promises of our baptism to respect and serve others, we can reach out to those around us and form real relationships, real connections; recognizing the sacredness of every moment, and that each decision we make and interaction we have is an opportunity to live out the Gospel.

Jesus, in symbolically tearing down the Temple, connects with the prophetic tradition. Where, in the Book of Zechariah we read: On [the Day of the Lord] the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking-pot shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter