In a church I once served, there was a woman, who liked to make a quick buck, by which I mean she kept trying to get rich quickly.
She set up a meeting with me to try to sell the idea that together we could get the whole congregation involved in selling pre-paid phone cards. A few of you are young enough not to know what that is. They were very popular back when people couldn’t roam around the country talking on a cell phone a single exorbitant fee. You purchased a card- like a credit card – which had a set number of pre-paid minutes of long distance calls on it. That was easier than dropping handfuls of coins into a pay phone and the minutes were sold at a cheaper rate.
My worshipper was convinced that with only my support and every worshipper’s participation, this idea would provide the church with all the cash it would ever need. Everybody need phone cards, she reasoned, so we could get everyone involved in selling them. You see, a certain percentage of each card sold would go back to the church. She named ten percentage so that it had the sound of a biblical tithe to it. Of course, a percentage would go to her, oh, and a percentage would go to me. It would be great if I got in on the ground floor. And she knew how important mission was for this church and – incredibly – this would qualify as a ministry to the poor because we would be helping lots of poor people get really good phone rates.
I’d like to think her heart was in the right place, but mostly all I could think was what I lousy job I and my predecessors had done at teaching basic Christian stewardship. When she was done with her presentation, I told her why I wouldn’t be supporting her scheme. Besides the uncertain math, the ethical concerns and the problem the church would get into with the IRS, I said that the Christian stewardship was supposed to be an act of worship, an offering of the people and that whatever we did in terms of giving money, raising money or investing money needed to reflect the church’s central mission – worshipping God, creating relationships and to sharing the love of Jesus Christ to bring God’s kingdom to earth.
She was miffed but not deterred. When I saw her, during coffee hour, passing around glossy brochures about the venture, I was tempted to throw over the table with the cookies on it. But no one picked up on her scheme.
So maybe the other members did, in fact, understand something about Christian stewardship. Or just knew a bad financial deal when they heard it.
Just to be clear, I’m all for raising funds for ministry. The church needs the money. I’m all for bake sales, silent auctions and second-hand sales. I’ve eaten plenty of spaghetti dinners and pancake breakfasts. But when it comes to the church, raising money should be closely tied to our mission – worshipping God, following Jesus, deepening relationships, offering love and justice. Otherwise, it’s actually detracting from who we are and what we are called to do and be.
Jesus opposed anything that detracted from worship. And that’s what he saw when he arrived at the temple in Jerusalem at Passover. The temple had been under construction for 46 years and would be for another 75. The temple consisted of areas of increasing holiness. The portico also called the Court of the Gentiles was the outermost area and anyone – and everyone – could enter it. Farther in was the court of the women, then the court of the men and finally the holy of holies – entered only by the high priest on the day of atonement.
Someone has calculated that the temple was as a large as the Mall of the Americas and its East and West parking lots. I’ve flown over that temple to consumerism and know that is a large piece of property.
The temple may have been large, but Jesus thought the view of its mission was impeded. Everywhere he saw items for sale, including animals: cattle, sheep, turtledoves. Everywhere he saw people distracted by hawkers offering offerings for purchase and barterers changing money into the specific coinage required in the temple and charging a fee. What he couldn’t see what the mission of the place. All the fundraising and marketing and business had obscured its reason for existence.
We know that construction costs money. It costs a lot of money. And this system of offering unblemished animals in sacrifice was designed, in part, to pay for the cost of the building and maintain the incredible edifice. But – from Jesus’ point of view – the fundraising plan had become a distraction from the mission.
Jesus knew and understood the temple system. He was raised in the rituals of temple worship and still kept them, which is exactly why he appearing at the temple. Jesus was part of the sacrificial temple worship because he knew the Hebrew scriptures. What he didn’t want to be part of was the distraction all this money changing, money raising, program building, the busyness of the place had become.
This scene of Jesus in the temple appears in each of the gospels. Each gospel marks Jesus’ anger at what he sees taking place. It’s out of keeping with the image we like to have of Jesus as the one who walks with us and talks with us and calls the little children to him. So, it’s worth noting that something has happened here that really raises the active indignation of Jesus. Jesus, throughout his ministry, confronts the cruel behavior of individuals and the unjust behavior of culture, but it is a misuse of the place of worship that leads him to an uncharacteristic show of physical force.
That’s because nothing makes Jesus, or the prophets before him, more disappointed, disgusted and angry than when those who claim to worship God, get it wrong – especially in the place of worship. Jesus was angry when money changed from an offering into a transaction. Jesus was angry when the act of worship turned into a spectacle. Jesus was angry when the house of God turned into a place with multiple layers of limited access. Jesus was angry when worship changed from a service to God into a laborious effort to purchase perfection.
The Christian church may not have animals for sale in the parking lot or charge you a fee to turn your dollars into the correct currency, but we have participated in misidentifying the place of worship as a marketplace. We have bought into the idea that a house of worship is a place for people to go to conveniently get what they want or need. There is a pervasive marketing mentality in North American churches.
Gary Neal Hansen writes, “When we move to a new town, or when we get fed up with our old church, we go ‘church shopping.’ We want our needs met; so, we shop around to see what the different outlets have to offer. Using the phrase, we make ourselves consumers aiming to buy a bit of religion.” Then he writes, “One good step in that right direction is to leave behind our sense of what we are shopping for and direct our full attention to God’s presence as we gather every Lord’s Day.”
Sometimes we need to stop and clarify the purpose of what we are doing. Sometimes we need to refocus our attention. Sometimes the most faithful act we can engage in is to let something go.
It’s completely understandable, but often the church, in its zeal to support the church, can get so preoccupied with what we are doing and how we will fund it that we forget why we exist in the first place. We can get so distracted by so many things, that we lose track of how we are spending our time and our money. We get so caught up in the business and busyness of being the church that we forget that we are here to worship and be renewed in the service of God.
Our call is to examine every motivation when it comes to faith and creating a holy space. Are we focused fully on God and the way of the cross, or are we trying to take matters into our own hands by gussying up the gospel and spinning scripture into some commodified version of spiritual cool? The key is not to try too hard. Follow the command to love. Seek justice. Be present. And let God be the largest edifice in our sight.