When the world turns upside down, it’s surprising what things you will cling to. It may well not be the things you’d expect – the things that have monetary value. It seems that every time people are driven out of their homes by natural disaster, what they grab to save are things that mark what is close to their heart – a picture album, a china cup that was Grandma’s, the family Bible.
I think of being part of a work crew in Pascagoula MS after Hurricane Katrina. We worked on a house owned by a sweet older lady, Miss Virginia. When the hurricane hit, she was in mourning because her beloved husband of fifty years had recently passed after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. That death had been preceded only a few years before by the death of Miss Virginia’s mother, whom she had nursed for almost a decade. In the aftermath of the hurricane, Miss Virginia was understandably depressed, living in a claustrophobic FEMA trailer in her front yard, all alone on a street where everyone else had left town. She had nowhere to go. As the team was clearing out her home – it was to all purposes an interior demolition, since the storm surge had brought a seven-foot wall of water through the one-story bungalow – they noticed something in the back yard. A bit of colored plastic, nothing much. One of the men bent over to pick it up – it was Miss Virginia’s husband’s driver’s license. The man went over and knocked on flimsy door of the trailer of this dear woman who made the workers a pot of coffee every morning and gave her the discolored, storm soaked memento. Miss Virginia burst into tears, hugged the fellow and said, “All of our pictures were lost in the storm. This is the only picture I have of my husband. Thank you so much.”
In the aftermath of the storm, her world turned upside down, the thing that was most precious to Miss Virginia was a marker of her most important relationship. The things of the world – her lost jewelry, the bank books, antique furniture – were worthless in comparison to what mattered most – the memory of a precious relationship, a blessed relationship. To her insurance adjuster, the recovery of that driver’s license didn’t fit in to the equation of what Miss Virginia had lost – what she had found that was so precious to her was not something that could be quantified in the ways of the world. What she had found was, in the words of St Paul in today’s reading from first Corinthians, foolishness.
But God’s foolishness, the foolishness of the heart, is wiser than the so-called wisdom of the world, so we often miss the true value of it, just as on the face of it, a Messiah who dies on the cross doesn’t seem like a success for the good guys.
This past week has been a difficult one at my seminary. Because of the awful economy which has meant great losses in our endowment fund, the Dean announced a restructuring plan that meant that several people would lose their jobs. Others would be taking early retirement. Suffice to say there was great sadness and some anger at this change from the world as we knew it to a harsher, more difficult reality. The grief was to a large extent for relationships that would be broken, or at least changed, as these people left us. We were left to cling to memories of one of them advising a student going through a personal crisis, another of them fixing a problem with a computer, yet another doing the sort of behind the scenes work that made the seminary such a smoothly running place. With the world turned upside down, the memories of the relationships were the only comfort, the most important things to cling to.
This sort of event is no news to many of us here in St Gabriel’s. Some of us have lost our jobs, or have seen our small businesses struggle with lack of customers. For others of us, our retirements are in jeopardy, and we are wondering how the bills will get paid.
It is a world turned upside down, and it is disconcerting, to say the least.
In hard times like these, we do figure out what is truly important.
Think about our Gospel passage today. Jesus goes into the Temple. He sees the money-changers exchanging the Roman coins for ritually acceptable tender. He sees the sheep-sellers, the pigeon merchants, offering animals for sacrifice. He is so infuriated by the commerce going on in the Temple, in a house of prayer, that he weaves together a makeshift whip and drives the merchants out, yelling at them, saying that they had desecrated the Temple – his Father’s house - by their actions. He turns the table upside down.
Now if you’re a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, you know that much of the work and worship of the Temple is predicated on sacrifice and on monetary offerings. The Book of Leviticus has vast lists of what kind of animal you sacrifice in response to a particular malady or sin. There were prescriptions for guilt offerings, for sin offerings, for peace offerings, and in most cases, the priests got a part of those sacrificial offerings for their own meals after the sacrifice was made. So imagine this Galilean shows up and drives away the people who provide the animals and the appropriate coins for the tithes. You are going to be deprived of the ability to do the work that is outlined in Torah, in Leviticus, the work of making sacrifices that relieve people of the burden of their sins. You are also going to be deprived of your livelihood.
Suffice to say, you’re going to be angry at this Galilean. So you ask him “What gives you the right to do this thing? What gives you the right to turn these tables upside down, to upset our system and our ways of worship?” And the response is so strange, so incomprehensible, that it makes your head reel: “Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.”
What? Three days? The Temple is enormous. It took over forty years to build. Three days? That’s absurd. But Jesus is speaking of another temple, the temple of his own body, which will be destroyed and yet be resurrected at Easter. And at that time, the disciples will remember that Jesus said this.
Jesus was speaking at a time when there were a number of reform movements or sects within the Jewish religion; ultimately the Pharisees, who were just such a reform movement and who got such bad press in the gospels, became the predominant voice in how the faith of Israel would be lived. It is safe to assume that Jesus was not the only one who spoke against conducting commerce within the Temple, but he was certainly the only one who said he was the son of God. It would have gotten the attention of the religious leaders who had a vested interest in keeping things exactly as they were. The disaster to come – the increased oppression of the Jewish people and their unsuccessful revolt against Rome – was not yet visible to those religious leaders. To them, maintaining the status quo was important. Jesus, knowing what was to come for them and for himself, spoke out against the accepted way of doing things, the way that was of the world. He turned the tables upside down, said things that didn’t fit in with the world as the people around him knew it.
And in the aftermath of that world turned upside down, what was preserved by Jesus’ death and glorified by his resurrection was indeed a relationship – our relationship with God, through the risen Christ. Like the driver’s license recovered in that back yard covered with the detritus of the storm, our relationship with God was recovered on a hill outside of Jerusalem.
The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple is a foreshadowing of the turning upside down of the world that is coming during Holy Week, completed on Easter morning. Jesus is giving us a preview of what is to come, in his angry actions in that Temple courtyard. As we see the storm clouds gathering in the distance and hear the weather report that a hurricane is coming, we may not understand the larger picture of what is to come. But we start to understand that we may need to figure out what is really important, what relationships endure through the storm, and what God will do to preserve them.