It’s The Annual Meeting: What Could Go Wrong?

It’s The Annual Meeting: What Could Go Wrong?
Rev. Christa Fuller Burns

Faith Presbyterian Church
John 2:13-25 – 21 January 2018

In the paper this week there was an article entitled “It’s the Vikings and the Eagles – What could go wrong?” The article pointed out that no team has won more games in the Super Bowl era without winning the championship than the Vikings. The next team with the most wins without winning the prize is the Eagles. Something always goes wrong, it seems, for these two teams.

The story about the money changers being expelled from the temple appears in all four Gospels, which makes it one of those rare examples of continuity in the Bible. However, John places his version of the story at the very beginning of his Gospel in contrast to the other three Gospel versions in which it appears towards the end of the story. Indeed, the story as it appears elsewhere, is the catalyst for Jesus’ arrest and execution. Jesus’ action in the temple was the last straw, so to speak.

Why, then, does John put the story where he does? According to Barbara Lundblad, the incident in the temple points to “the heart of who Jesus was and what he had come to do. It had to come at the beginning and not at the end.” (Far More than Bingo – Day 1). In addition, in John’s version, Jesus has just changed water into wine. People know. The Disciples know. His time is up.

If the episode in the temple is emblematic of who Jesus really is, then what exactly does it tell us about Jesus?

First of all, it needs to be pointed out that this story was intended for Jews. Jesus was a Jew and his followers were all Jews. As such, Jesus’ action is seen in the context of a Jew who loved the temple, which was more than a big sanctuary in a big city. The temple was the center of all of life for Jews in Jesus’ day. It also should be pointed out that, while Jesus’ action infuriated and threatened some, it also compelled many Jews to believe in him.

Why did Jesus do what he did? People who came to the temple came to offer a sacrifice which they could apparently buy in the court of the Gentiles which was surrounded by the sacred temple area. In order to make this purchase, pilgrims needed to exchange Roman money which bore the image of the emperor and was blasphemous for Jews. In other words, the money changers were perfectly legal. They were good people who were doing believers a favor by providing their services. The money changers were necessary to the temple’s day to day operations. None the less, Jesus marches into the midst of the moneychangers and forecloses on their operation. He tells them to clear out.

Perhaps what Jesus did in the temple was not much different than what many of us did yesterday when we showed up downtown to demonstrate against what we see happening in our country. The speeches started at 11. They were still going on at 1 so a group of us just started marching. Soon others joined in. There were no disturbances. There was no disobedience unless you count walking out on yet another speaker.

If that is the case and Jesus was methodically demonstrating in the temple, was he angry or violent? It is my guess that the most frequent depiction of this story is of a furious Jesus violently driving the moneylenders out of the temple. However, nowhere in the text we read this morning does it mention Jesus’ mood or his temper. It simply says he made a whip out of cords and uses that to expel the moneylenders. It is possible Jesus simply wanted to make a point in a calculated way. No one was hurt. No property was destroyed. People just doing their jobs in a practice that has become accepted as the way it has always been done are the subject of Jesus’ protest. Why? What was going on in the temple that Jesus’ found so offensive?

Today we hold our Annual Meeting. It is a very Presbyterian thing to do, this annual meeting. We will present the budget believing in our obligation to make everything that has to do with money transparent. And we will vote on a proposal to change the pastor’s terms of call. All very Presbyterian. When I first came to Faith, there was a member who challenged the budget and the annual meeting could get a little testy. However, these days, the annual meeting is more an occasion to celebrate the generous financial support of our members and to describe what our giving allows us to do.

I’ve just come back from Cuba where pastors from the states met with pastors from Cuba. One of my colleagues from Baltimore told me about her first annual meetings in her new church. The way she made it sound, the meetings were knock down drag out brawls.

That made me remember the first congregational meeting I attended. We lived in Southern California and attended a rather large, affluent Presbyterian church in Los Angeles. My family became good friends with the pastor and his family. It was the 60’s. I was in junior high school. My father was Mr. Church. He believed in the church, served as an elder, Sunday school superintendent, you name it. My father made us wait for what seemed like hours before heading to Howard Johnsons for lunch because he talked to every last person in church. My dad was Mr. Church.

The meeting in question took place when the church was having a problem. The pastor and his wife were in the process of adopting a child and someone sent a letter to the congregation alleging that the child was black. My father was so outraged at this that, in one particular phone call from a church member, I heard him swear. I never, ever  heard my father swear! The closest my father ever came to swearing was to exclaim “Jiminy Cricket”!

The congregational meeting was to elect new officers.  Because of “the problem”, the meeting was being moderated by another pastor. I sat up in the balcony. When the slate of new elders was read, my father’s name was among them. Suddenly, there was a huge commotion. People objected to my father’s name being on the ballot.  He had not been a member long enough, they said. Everyone knew this wasn’t the real reason. My father had defended the pastor against vile and racist accusations. You know, I don’t remember how that election turned out. I just remember how dark it seemed sitting up there in the balcony.

Looking back on that experience, I suppose you could say, like the moneychangers, the people in that church were good people who thought they were upholding Christian tradition and values. However, I wish Jesus had shown up that day…with his whip!

Anyone who has been to Cuba will echo that favorite Cuban saying, “It is complicated”. Everything in Cuba is complicated. It is complicated to find food, especially after the hurricane, and when you can find it, it is expensive. It is complicated to do your job. Most of the pastors serve more than one church. Most do not have transportation. Getting from place to place is complicated. I took gifts of coffee to pastors in a country that grows coffee because coffee is not always readily available and it is expensive. It is complicated. It is complicated to communicate in Cuba. It used to be no one had a phone, not to mention a laptop. That is changing but it is still difficult for us to call or email and it is not easy for the Cuban pastors to stay in touch with each other. They tell us that they yearn for those times when they can share their difficult lives in person. Money in Cuba is complicated – there is the money that tourists can use and there is the money that only citizens use. It’s complicated. Everyone is concerned about what will happen when Raul Castro steps down, supposedly in April, if he, in fact, does step down because they fear the one who replaces him will be worse. One pastor told me that the reason he is so worried about a change in government is that the Cuban people are not active citizens. Many people are simply not informed or involved in their communities. I pointed out to them that the same could be said of us.

One evening, I was talking to my colleague, Jesus. Jesus serves two churches and moderates the session of one of our partner churches. I told him about the conference Audrey and I attended at the seminary in Matanzas. I explained how disturbed I was that at a conference about feminist theology, Fidel Castro was figured prominently. A man who has imprisoned those who disagree with him and who has not exactly been the model of liberation theology was celebrated.

Ah, Jesus, said, you have to understand that the Presbyterian Church is today governed by people who owe their ability to function to the Castro regime and they are unable to see their church differently. They are good people who think they are being faithful but they are unable to see doing church differently. But we need, Jesus said, a different church – a church that is not so devoted to a rigid way of doing things, a church that is more responsive to the needs of its community. Do you know, he said, that every church in Cuba has a feeding program for the elderly and a laundry program? And do you know why, he said? It is because years ago Castro “asked” churches to provide these services because the government either couldn’t or did not want to. I seem to remember a similar request being made in our country – will the churches provide a safety net for the vulnerable in our society so the government does not have to? Jesus argues that these programs are good but they are not necessarily what the community most needs. A different church with a different way of working will have to wait until a new leadership is in place, a leadership that doesn’t owe its authority to Castro.

Perhaps we could say that, in Jesus’ mind, the powers that be in the temple, like the powers that be in the Cuban church are too rigid in their view of who and what is the church. According to Jesus, some of the best Christians in Cuba are not in the church. In fact, they may not even know they are Christians. Sounds like a job for Jesus and his whips.

The thing about the moneychangers is that they served as symbols of a system that defined who was in and who was out, who was pure and who wasn’t in a way that excluded people rather than included them. There were rigid boundaries between righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, pure and impure. In this sense, Jesus’ demonstration in the temple that day served to disrupt a system that had turned exclusion into an acceptable norm. When Jesus ran the moneychangers out of the temple that day, he expelled those who prevented the poor and the different from access to God.

This reality is an essential truth about who Jesus is according to John. That is why the temple purge happens at the beginning of John’s story. It tells us that Jesus is about disrupting all those things that serve to separate us from the love of God.

It is not surprising then that the Jewish leaders want to know who gave Jesus that authority to do what he did.  Jesus responds, you destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up. How? How can you do that Jesus – it took forty six years to build this temple. Jesus wasn’t talking about the church building, according to John. He was talking about his body and what was going to happen to him.

This morning we will celebrate our church building which is older than the temple was in Jesus’ time. We will see figures for how much it takes to maintain our church building, albeit less money due to the faithful volunteer crew that does a lot of the maintenance themselves. When we look at the budget, let’s ask ourselves: Is it about the building which took 46 years to build? Is it about the moneylenders who are keeping tradition in place, who are resisting taking down the barriers that make it hard or impossible for people to come to Jesus? Do we have to always do it this way?

Or is it about Jesus’ body, the one that was raised from the dead? Is about welcoming everyone to the love of Christ?

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