"Cleaning House: Part III on Steps on the Journey"

Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

Rev. Dr. William L. Hathaway

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Alison and I have begun the lengthy process of down-sizing. After 19 years in one house, kids years out of the home and plans for a move, it is time to sort and get rid of things. We estimate that we need to shed about 1/3 of our furniture, 2/3 of our beloved books and a pile of “stuff.” The work has begun. Fortunately, we’ve heard about a theological school in Ethiopia that is looking for gently used English language theological texts. Now, the rest of it! It is one thing to get rid of all the extra stuff that we have accumulated but something else to shed things that have sentimental or monetary value. And, what does one do with the things given by parents or grandparents but not used at all? Our two boys aren’t interested and they protest when we drop off stuff, even if it is their own items from childhood. It turns out that the daughter-in-laws and sister-in-law want some of the furniture and we are hoping that other items will find a good home by way of a yard sale. But, high school yearbooks, old photo albums and that collection of crosses from around the world – what does one do with them? What do we do with Alison’s collection of pez dispensers and the boxes in the attic filled with McDonald toys? What about that china from Aunt June (that came from Grandma) and the silver from Alison’s parents? The thirty year olds aren’t interested and we rarely use it? Yikes! Stuff!

Then there is all the emotional baggage. What about that store room of hopes and expectations? Where does lost love go? What about your residual anger or regret? And pure thanks and gratitude that gush out in ways that others may feel awkward to take in -- what do we do with it all?

Today is about cleaning house. The gospel lesson is the forceful story of Jesus turning over tables and chasing the money changers out of the temple. He was angry and assertive. The temple crowd had lost perspective and turned that holy site into a circus of shameful exercises under the guise of faith. So Jesus made a huge scene by driving the money changers out of the temple. I am not so sure about John’s use of the story as the backdrop to a lesson about death and resurrection so I’ll stay with the basic facts of the event. We tell the story to this day to encourage each other to clean house and make room for what is actually important.What of your own doing gets in your way? Sometimes we talk about outside forces that push and pull us in directions we don’t want to go. We name evil and destructive powers in our prayers. But, today is not so much about “them” as it is about “us.” The money changers and temple administrators were insiders, not outsiders. They weren’t bad people and temple sacrifice was essential to the Jewish faith at that time. The problem was that something intended for good got out of hand and became harmful to the very good it intended to serve.

Good things can get out of perspective. For example, we want to provide for our children and then we can spoil them. We want our kids to be well rounded and have opportunities and then we over-program and run them ragged. We want them to excel but, for many, the pressure is too much and it is hard just to be a kid. Clearly we want to protect our children but hovering, over-protection has a way of stunting development. When it comes to parenting, what is good can so easily get out of hand. There is no magical formula but the questions of perspective are crucial.

A cousin of mine grew up in a very difficult household – multiple marriages by way of alcoholism. It was not a happy childhood. As a parent he wanted it better for his two so he declared that they would be happy. No sadness allowed. It was tough for his kids. Now, his goal of happiness was admirable but it got it a bit out of whack.

Jesus cleaned house. Some things need to be turned over. As you might expect, this story of assertive action has been used to support all kinds of grand cleanings. Whether the American Revolution, the French one, the Russian Revolution, South American revolutionaries, American civil rights activists or church folks who rallied to bring down the system of Apartheid in South Africa, countless activists have found support in this story of Jesus’ activism. Jesus provided more than thoughts and prayers; he put his body on the line. Thoughts and prayers are good but Jesus expects more; we are to follow with bold action. And we are called to clean house …. in church and in society. Such acts of civil disobedience have a special place within the story of faith.

At this week’s Bible study, I invited the crew to name times when something good has been twisted and ended up causing harm. Here is part of the list:

  • Opioids. They are wonderful to control pain and, now, they are a curse of addiction.
  • Social media. We have great forms of instant communication. Yet, for many, time behind the screen has resulted in lonely, isolated lives, with a decrease of intimacy.
  • The Bible. It is our book and, unfortunately, embarrassingly, it can be used as a weapon.
  • Rugged Individualism. Our virtue of the strong, self starting individual gives rise to great inventions and achievement and also results in some of the most lonely and egocentric persons on the planet.

When things intended for good are twisted we suffer dearly and the way out can be so hard.

All of these big issues are important, but, now, I invite you to consider what house cleaning is needed in your own home. What gets in the way of you being the person God has called you to be? What things, intended for good, have been warped into something not helpful at all? What tables need to be turned over?

Strength and a stiff upper lip are fine gifts. Taking on responsibility and accepting ones lot in life can be fine attributes – until taken too far. A woman in her late 50’s tells of growing up in a traditional immigrant family. She was expected to graduate from high school then get married and have babies. That is what the family did. But, she decided to turn over the tables and go to college. It’s taken 30 years for her parents to come to terms with it. Love of family and respect for family traditions are good things …… but there are times when the tables need to be turned over.

The love of family, love of church and love of nation are all good things. Yet, when family, church or nation are beyond criticism, a good is twisted to something destructive. Fifty years ago this week, Walter Cronkite, long a supporter of American Presidents, in general, and the war in Viet Nam, in particular, reported on the nightly news that the war was not winnable. It was a modest statement, in today’s terms, but stunning at the time. Cronkite dared to confront the national line that progress was being made and victory was in sight. He turned over the tables and, many view his step as a turning point in American attitudes.

Lots of tables were turned over in my life in the 70’s compliments of college and seminary. I entered Princeton Seminary in 1974 with the first wave of women. There had been a few women in earlier years but our class had grown to 5 or 6% of the first year students. The Women’s Center had been created just a few years earlier. More than just language (“she” as well as “he” when speaking of the people of God and of God) but I was in the midst of a whole new orientation to life. My temple of thought and perspective got turned over.

Then I learned that a close friend, Scott, a Viet Nam war veteran, was also gay. That turned over a lot of tables for me.

What happens when “auto-pilot” no longer works? The temple worship had slid into a system of token sacrifices and a hierarchy that kept the poor poor and the privileged in power. Temple staff worked with money handlers and money handlers worked with the empire and all stayed more or less the same. Then there was Jesus. He strolled into the temple and turned over the tables.

What tables in your life need to be turned over? What needs to be scattered and re-arranged in order to be honest and faithful? The Spirit of God is at the door ready for some good spring cleaning. Will you open the door?