Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 John 2:13-22
We pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rockand our sustainer. Amen.
God has made foolish the wisdom of this world….for Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified……..
Ours is a topsy turvey faith – that which appears wise to the much of humanity is dubious in our eyes and that which seems foolish, weak, servant-like is what we proclaim. Yet it is easy to slip back into the wisdom of the world, isn’t it? To revere those who have power, to be persuaded into unholy practices, to convince ourselves that we have no need to look beyond ourselves and our needs. Today we examine our temple and if we have tables that we too need overturned.
I want to begin today with some words from Tom Gordon – the first two verses from a poem called ‘A divine clean out’.
The notice says its cleaning week – we need some volunteers
to give the church a good spring clean, the biggest on in years.
Before you rush to volunteer and contribute your part
perhaps you might like to give thought to this, and answer from your heart.
I wonder how we’d take it if our Lord offered his time
and rolled his sleeves up, did his bit, more human than divine,
to help us with the cleaning of our own most holy place?
And would he find it tidy, or an absolute disgrace?
Gordon precedes this poem with a story of a small village – one church that had a faithful gathering each Sunday but was not of any real import to most of the villagers. Then one evening the farmer’s barn at one end of the village caught fire – and there was all sorts of mayhem and chaos – and it was a cold cold night – and the logical place to go was the church – well away from the fire, a few toilets and a kitchen and some heat – although it took a while to get that going. So everyone piled in, including a good number that hadn’t been in the church for a very long time – they put some pews together so the children could sleep and spread the velvet communion table cover over them, piled pew cushions on the floor for extra seating, poured a million cups of tea, spilt some of them, and generally settled down to wait out the fire. And eventually in the wee small hours they went home. When the parishioners came in next day it was a mess. And there were grumblings, cups broken, tea spilt, furniture all over the place – could have put everything back before they left muttered one who thought it was a disgrace. And when it was all back in its right place – they were more than happy. But did they notice that the following Sunday the congregation has expanded somewhat – by several folk who, apart from that night, hadn’t been in the church for a very long time!
So the question that Tom Gordon puts before us is whether we are doing things or being a people that might invite some cleaning out if Jesus was to join us today? His poem goes on:
Oh, he wouldn’t find us selling things, like pigeons, and the rest.
…But he might find us peddling ill-will and discontent,
and selling truths so different from the truth he really meant?
Oh, he wouldn’t find us running our own money-changing booth.
..But he might find us selling short his openness and grace;
a love that’s unconditional that offers all a place.
I can think of any number of times when I have sold God’s grace short – or found a truth that suits rather than the truth which is painful. When I have withheld unconditional love and cherry picked at the tasks Jesus lays before me. We can all put our hand up at having tables that Jesus might want to overturn, I am sure.
I know, for instance, that I like a degree of order and things in their place especially in this place of worship - heaven forbid that the communion table should be out of alignment with the chair and the cross and the window. Uneasy when the font is tucked away, I love the sense of everything in its place, the colour of the pulpit font changing at the right time.
I might have been one of those sighing and being a bit miffed that the evacuees had left the place in a mess. That protocols and courtesy and good order snuck precedence over the joy of unexpected unconditional welcome and hospitality.
It gave me pause for thought – if my need for timeliness, say, or order, or formality becomes a barrier for what we can call those ‘Jesus moments of unexpected encounter,’ if I fail to see the God moments because I am too busy being annoyed by something that is simply different to my way, then I have a personal challenge, a personal table to overturn and that is to loosen up a bit– and to know that God is working in every situation and that welcome and relationship is built in many ways, not just mine. So there are times for all of us when we all need to, metaphorically at least, loosen up, relax into someone else’s way and realise that the grace of God is especially present in such times.
The Corinthians had their own tables for overturning – pitfalls that they were falling into. The Greeks believed in the persuasive power of great oratory and, while there were those who employed solid rhetoric and good argument, there were others who put on an absolute performance, who exercised powerful manipulation in their speaking to their own end. And they judged the fact that Paul didn’t necessarily show that same level of skill in performance oratory – it made him and his message less in their eyes. Pauls makes the point to them that this is not how God works in the world, that it is not his performance skill that impresses on the hearts of his listeners but the truth that come from his mouth through the words of scripture, the proclaiming of a crucified and risen Christ who holds us in the enduring love of God. Clever rhetoric muddied the waters at the very least.
And, as for the Jews, the signs were just all wrong – they expected strength, a full on challenge by a new power and authority to what was an oppressive worldly power against them. They didn’t recognise the Messiah in this sad mess of a person nailed to a cross. The signs weren’t right, not what they expected. And Paul explains the Christ he knows is one who completely shatters our human expectations and brings hope and truth to us in powerlessness and weakness, something the chosen people found hard to understand or accept.
Paul names the community in which Jesus message is birthed as one which is made up not of the people who have got it all together, who value powerful oratory and wisdom and status, but rather the weak and the foolish, the poor and the shunned and the stumbling. I am afraid that all too often we as the church have presented a face of righteous piety – and the behaviour in our temple has been downright arrogant and exclusive at times.
We are not an organisation, nor a club, a business on the (or decline) – we are a community of redeemed people who see the power of God at work in powerlessness and the gift of faith given to the least able – the tables we need overturned, the cleanout we invite when we ask Christ in to our lives are more to do with laying aside our own efforts and handing the control over to what God in Christ can do in us, through us and for us as the crucified one. Be prepared for upheaval in our thinking and change in our carefully orchestrated lives when the Christ of the cross comes to visit.
Tom Gordon’s final verse:
Be careful when your invite calls for willing volunteers,
for Christ might slip in too and find what’s lain well hid for years,
and clear the very temple that you thought was just sublime
for with the human Christ you may get cleansing that’s divine.