Lent III 2021 Year B
Exodus 20:1-17 1Corinthians 1:18-25 John 2:13-22
“Church of the Good Shepherd, Murrayfield Avenue, Murrayfield. Incumbency. Church seated for 225. Patrons, The Vestry with the Bishop as adviser. Parsonage house rated at £175. Endowments producing £100 per annum. Architect – Sir Robert Lorimer. Church dedicated 1899; consecrated 1905....Members 420; communicants 306; Sunday school 36. Useage Scottish Office 1929. Lights. Vestments. Reservation, Hymnal for Scotland...Magazine local.”
So states the description of this church in the SEC Year Book (Red Book) of 1975/6, although this description does not explicitly say so, like other Episcopal churches the seats were ‘free’. You didn’t have to rent your pew in order to attend church. In other words you did not have to pay to worship.
I remember as a teenager, visiting one of the southern cathedrals, with my great aunt and uncle and being very annoyed at being expected to pay to get into pray. The turnstiles were erected in the porch and the officious stewards or sides persons growled at you if you dared to challenge the entrance fee. It was the same in the Cathedral, in which I was ordained. I often visited it during my curacy in the diocese. In order to ‘pop in’ to pray or worship you had to present yourself in ‘dog-collar’ at the back door and if approved you were let in – again it used to annoy me.
My most recent annoyance occurred in a London church where on entering to pray one was shepherded into a small side chapel, it felt as though one was directed to the broom cupboard, so that one’s praying might not upset the paying guests, I gave up trying to go to evensong there.
Thankfully and thank God, in our Cathedral or this church you do not have to pay to pray or just to get in. Yes! We might be missing a trick, in raising much needed funds but we could never be accused of keeping anyone out because they didn’t have the cash to come in. Donations, especially gift aided are always welcome but that is the gift of a generous giver and not the ‘set fee’ to cross the threshold. There is a big difference.
My grumpiness with certain English Cathedrals helps me to understand Christ’s anger at discovering his worship place full of traders making a fortune out of honest pilgrims and worshippers. It was big business in the Temple. To pray to God, or to ask for forgiveness of sins involved offering a blood sacrifice – from doves to cattle depending on the sin, and sacrifice was not free, you had to pay for it and it wasn’t cheap. You needed to have the right money or currency, hence the presence of the money changers, who would help you on that score, for a commission fee!
The Temple would have been busy and noisy with competing sellers trying to get the faithful to shop at their stall rather than that of their neighbours – worship certainly took second place. So no wonder Jesus got cross. In fact he got more than cross, he got really, really angry. Can you imagine seeing the gentle man you knew get so worked up that he whipped the traders out of the temple, warning them that lust for money would bring the whole place down. The placid man explodes and if you know someone like him you’ll know that when they blow, they really explode with anger. I wish I had had the courage to kick down those cathedral turnstiles rather than just politely challenging the ticket sellers as to why I had to pay to pray?
Righteous anger can change things as it did that day in the Temple but it lead to increasing hostility towards Jesus by those in power, who demanded to know by whose authority, Jesus, thought he was able to behave as he did. They could see profits dropping and feared that others might behave in the same way, unless they did something about it. Let the people worship for free – what a mad idea!
Today, we don’t charge you to worship – we may teach you the facts of stewardship and tithing to encourage you to share of the blessings God has given you but we won’t ever charge or bill you. Giving to the church should be something one wants and chooses to do, as a prayerful response to God’s grace poured freely upon us – not as an attempt to buy that grace. You can’t buy it anyway because God just keeps pouring it out upon us but we are given it in order that we can share it with others.
There, is however, something deeper in this tale of Christ’s anger in the Temple. There is more to it than Jesus just turfing the money changers and their cronies out of the Temple. Jesus is cleansing the Temple to make it pure and in the process he is cleansing himself as well. Cleansing himself to meet his God, his Father in his coming passion and death. This cleansing echoes the deep cleansing we can make when we confess our sins and those things that keep us from God and when we seek purification from them in the blessings that God freely gives us. Jesus cast out the evil influences in the Temple both the physical building and the temple of his own body. We too need to cleanse our temples, our bodies – those holy places sanctified by Baptism and God’s ‘charis’ (grace) - and Lent is a good time to do it.
Few people seek the sacrament of confession or better called reconciliation, than they did in the past. For Anglicans it has always been optional because of the regular use of the general confession incorporated into our acts of worship be it the Eucharist or Evensong. In confession, be it general or personal, we have an opportunity to really cleanse ourselves of the things that clutter us up and burden our hearts and souls. We do it in the knowledge that when we receive the absolution our sins are truly ‘put away’, forgiven, gone. Through absolution we are ‘resurrected’ into new life, able to have another go, to try to do better, to try not to sin again. We are cleansed by absolution because the act of confession drives out sin.
The image of Jesus driving out the bad influences in the Temple is a good icon to keep before yourself this Lent. Ponder on what he did and why he did it. Pray that you can identify those things you need to purge from your being and chuck them out, leaving more space to be filled with God’s grace. Grace that you can then share with others because once you remove blockages you can’t but overflow with it. As you give this grace away you are being truly ‘Eucharistic’ truly full of thanksgiving for all that you have and all that have to share.
Freely give as you have been freely given, you don’t need to pay for grace it comes with love and no charge.