John 2:13-22 – Slow Church

As a pastor there are certain questions that I’m accustomed to hearing every Sunday.  Questions like, “Can you unlock this room for me?” or “What color should the paraments be?” or even “Are you sure you’re OK?” are commonplace on Sunday mornings.  That last one usually comes as I’m wandering the halls with my children’s jackets in my hands, probably looking like I’m not sure if I just found two jackets or lost two kids.

By far the most common question I hear comes after worship, and is always asked in the same way: “Daddy, can we go to McDonald’s for lunch?” Now it’s really easy to always just say ‘yes’ to that question, and a lot of times I do.  However, there are plenty of other times that I’d like to think my better parenting instincts take over and I respond with something like, “No, we have food at home,” or “No, you can’t just eat chicken nuggets your whole life,” or “No, it’s just not healthy”.  That’s my responsibility as a parent to set limits.  We all try to teach our children that the most convenient thing is not always the best thing.

Yet, even as we are teaching the values of patience over expediency and process over results and relationship over efficiency, we are increasingly surrounded by a culture that values things like expediency, and results, and efficiency.  We are living in the midst of what one sociologist has termed “The McDonaldization” of America, in which the principles of fast food restaurants are gradually dominating more and more aspects of our society.[1]  It’s pretty interesting that the majority of advertisements we see on a daily basis emphasize not the quality of the product, but its convenience, or efficiency, or ease of use.  You’ve heard them all, right?  It’s so easy even a caveman could do it!  It’s freaky fast delivery.  Or “I can go straight from the rental counter to my car, and I don’t have to talk to any humans unless I want to… and I don’t.”  We have become so overly efficient and transactional with almost everything we do!  We are pledging allegiance to the cult of speed and convenience.

Of course, speed and convenience aren’t necessarily bad things.  Efficiency is great, but if we are striving for efficiency at the cost of quality, then we end up damaging ourselves.  Fast food is fine every once in a while, but if we consistently choose fast food over healthy food, then we won’t last very long.  Convenience is great too, but if we are opting for convenience over relationship, then we end up isolating ourselves.  I remember a few years ago Alex, who was 3 at the time, held up a banana and said, “Daddy, can you take the wrapper off of my banana?”  At first I looked at him and thought, “That’s adorable!” but then began to wonder… Does my child think all food comes in a wrapper?  In the fast-paced business of a clergy family, is he getting opportunities to cultivate a relationship with the living, growing, sustaining world in which a farmer plants a seed, and over time the seed grows into a plant, and the plant grows fruit, and my goodness… what a miraculous, God-given gift that is!  Am I teaching my child that there’s something other than food that comes in a wrapper, that there’s something other than convenience, that fast isn’t always best?  What a blessing it would be for our children to meet the farmer, and plant the seed, and see it grow, and appreciate the long, arduous work of the harvest.  It’s not very quick or convenient, but oh, what a blessing that would be!

In recent years a number of “slow” movements have begun to emphasize this very thing.  There’s a slow food movement that emphasizes local farmers and home-grown ingredients.  There’s a slow gardening movement, and a slow parenting movement, and a slow reading movement.  All of these movements emphasize taking time,  and cultivating community, and understanding, and relationship.  It sounds a bit churchy, doesn’t it?  Maybe one of our tasks as Christians is to be a witness to the surrounding culture and practice community, and understanding, and relationship instead of reducing everything to convenience and speed.  The problem is that we don’t always do that, and in fact sometime we do just the opposite.  Many churches, particularly those focused only on numerical growth, come dangerously close to reducing Christianity to a commodity that can be packaged, marketed, and sold.  Instead of cultivating community and lifelong discipleship, we’ve reduced the gospel to something that’s individual, and convenient, and predictable.[2]  Too many churches unfortunately are asking questions about the church that make it sound too much like fast food.  Can we make church more efficient?  Can we make it more exciting or uplifting?  Can we make it less time-consuming?  Can we just reduce it to a stylishly packaged commodity?  Isn’t our dream to see “billions served” out on the church marquee?

If you’ve read the four gospels, it’s pretty clear that Jesus expects something different from us than convenience and fast church.  This is the Jesus that spent forty days in the wilderness, and taught in parables, and spent countless hours with people who were sick, and despised, and outcast.  This is the Jesus who lived his whole life in the shadow of the cross, the Jesus who was more concerned with God’s timing than his own, the Jesus who time and time again refused to take the quick and easy path in order to glorify God through painstaking compassion and selfless love.

And yes, this is the Jesus who went into the temple one day and got more than just a little upset at what he saw there.  There were priests and temple leaders inside the temple of course, but in the outer courtyard where the regular people were allowed to gather he saw temple officials changing money, and animal sellers selling sacrifices, and priests inspecting every transaction, and every exchange, to make sure that everything was done according to the law.  None of that was out of the ordinary for that time period, of course.  If you and I had shown up there on that day, we wouldn’t have been allowed into the temple proper, but we would have had a designated place to exchange our money for the temple currency, and use that currency to buy an animal to be sacrificed, and give the sacrifice to the priest so that he can take it to the altar and then  earn God’s favor.  It was so easy even a caveman could do it!  It was freaky fast religion.  You could go straight from the moneychanger to the temple priest, and you didn’t even have to talk to any humans.  It’s so quick, and efficient, and transactional.  Are you starting to see what made Jesus so angry?

It wasn’t that the merchants and moneychangers in the temple were bad and greedy people.  To the contrary, they were conducting business as usual.  The thing that set Jesus off wasn’t that they were there – in fact, they were right where they were supposed to be.  Maybe Jesus was upset because they had set up shop in the courtyard outside, which was the one place that ordinary people like you and me were allowed to go to worship.  Maybe he was upset that the merchants and moneychangers were doing business in the only place where all the common folk could come and worship.  That’s somewhat plausible.  I could see Jesus getting upset about that.

But you know, I’m convinced that the problem that Jesus had with the temple that day had more to do with who wasn’t there.  You had the priests inside where nobody else could go.  You had the merchants and moneychangers outside the doors, doing necessary business.  You had your average, everyday worshiper outside the temple with their sacrifice and their temple money so that they could worship God properly.  When Jesus went to the temple, he saw everybody doing what they always did, just as they had for years.  What he didn’t see was understanding, and community, and relationship.  What he didn’t see were the people who needed to experience God’s presence the most.  In Matthew and Luke’s gospels, immediately after Jesus cleanses the temple, all kinds of people start coming into it.  We read that the blind, the lame, the children…  are suddenly all welcomed by Jesus in the temple.  And it didn’t matter if they had any money, or if they brought a sacrifice, or if they were doing things the right way according to the law.  In the eyes of Jesus these are the very people whom the temple should care for the most!  The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.  And the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’.  That’s what worshiping God should be like, isn’t it?

The late Reverend Fred Craddock had this to say about it:

“You know why I think [Jesus cleansed the temple]?…Let me tell you. I think what happened to the temple is the same thing that happens to all good, fine, well-meaning institutions… They can get fixed and hardened in place and lose their original purpose.  It can happen to a temple.  It can happen to a church.  It can happen to a school.  It can happen to a government.  [It] starts out serving the needs of people, meeting the needs of people, and something happens in the course of time and now the people are serving [it]. And you never remember what day it was that it happened.  It just drifted into it and somebody has to come along and say, ‘Now what’s the point again?’[3]

The point, according to Jesus, according to Holy Scripture, isn’t convenience.  It isn’t efficiency or expedience.  It isn’t the bottom line on the budget.  It isn’t the number of people who attended worship.  It isn’t how excited we are, or how good we feel, or even what we “get out” of worship.  The point, says Jesus, is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  The point is to seek and save the lost.  The point is to follow Jesus to the cross, and that’s not the easiest or most convenient thing to do.  That’s not a very good advertising slogan.  It takes time, and it takes community, and understanding, and relationship.  At times it takes learning how to be a slow church.

One of the best things we can do during this season of Lent is to pray, and I would encourage you today not to pray to be more efficient or more appealing, but for Jesus to come in and rearrange our furniture so that we might have more room for people who are outcast, people who are forgotten, people who are broken and in need of healing.  If that happens, it’s probably not going to be very comfortable.  There’s something a bit unsettling that the same Jesus who would turn our morning into dancing and wipe away our tears also would barge into our lives and turn everything upside down, and rearrange our furniture according to his plan and not ours.  That’s not very convenient, of course.

But oh, what a blessing that would be.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Carl Honore, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (2004), pp. 14-15.

[2] C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (2014), p. 14.

[3] “We Are God’s Temple,” A Fred Craddock Collection (Bell Tower Productions, 2001).

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: