Construction Zone

Meditation on John 2:13–22

March 7, 2021

The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH 43812

Pastor Karen Crawford

    How are you all doing with the pandemic? I am glad to see my flock returning to worship. But I miss the smiles and hugs, the shaking of hands, and the passing of the peace. I miss our community dinners, serving and eating with our neighbors in need. And you know what else I miss? I miss volunteering at Coshocton Elementary School on Fridays, reading with the second graders.

    One time, I shared the story of Ruby Bridges and her struggles that followed a judge’s ruling in 1960, when she became one of 4 black girls permitted to attend whites-only elementary schools in the Jim Crow South.

Ruby’s parents were proud of her—that their daughter had been chosen to take part in an important event in American history. They went to church and prayed to God that they’d be strong and have courage and that they’d get through any trouble. Ruby’s mother prayed that “Ruby would be a good girl and she’d hold her head up high and be a credit to her own people and a credit to all the American people. We prayed long and we prayed hard,” she said in Robert Coles’ biography, The Story of Ruby Bridges.

    On the first day of school in 1961, a large, angry crowd gathered on the outside of Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, carrying signs and calling Ruby names as she approached the entrance, escorted by two federal marshals and holding her mother’s hand.

Ruby, a first grader, never said anything to the angry crowd. Parents took their children out of the school for many months in protest of the black child in a whites-only school. Ruby loved her teacher, Mrs. Henry, who was from Boston, and Mrs. Henry loved her.

    Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote Ruby a letter telling her that she was a “good American.” Norman Rockwell painted a picture of her called The Problem We All Live With that became famous.

     One morning, Mrs. Henry watched from her classroom window as Ruby approached the entrance to the school—but then stopped and her lips were moving. Alarmed, Mrs. Henry asked Ruby when she got to class why she was talking to the mob on her way to school. Ruby insisted she was not.

  “I was praying,” Ruby said. “I was praying for them.”

   Ruby was reunited with her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Henry, in the mid 1990s, and for a time, they did speaking engagements together.

FILE – In this Jan. 16, 1998 file photo, Barbara Henry, a former teacher at William Frantz Elementry school in New Orleans, left, and her 1960 first grade student Ruby Bridges-Hall, pose for a portrait in Boston. Ruby Bridges will be one of the presenting authors at this weekend’s New Orleans Children’s Book Festival, an event Bridges helped launch in 2010. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, file)

Ruby later wrote about her early experiences and has been a lifelong activist for racial equality. In 1999, she established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change through education.

    In 2014, a statue of Ruby was unveiled in the courtyard of William Frantz Elementary School to help tell the story of her courage to be the first child of color to attend what was a whites-only school. She tells children at the end of her book, the Scholastic Ruby Bridges Goes to School, “Now black children and white children can go to the same schools. I like to visit schools. I tell my story to children. I tell children that black people and white people can be friends. And most important, I tell children to be kind to one another.”

    Looking back at our nation’s history, from the perspective of being born in the 1960s, I can’t help but wonder why it took so long to declare segregation and discrimination of any kind unconstitutional—and why it took so long after that for the law to be enforced nationwide.

     Sometimes, institutional oppression is the hardest to change, especially when the evil has been allowed to continue unchecked for generations—and Scripture has been used to justify and support it. 

***

     We run into another institution resistant to change in Christ’s day in John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple. The Temple cult is spoiled by corruption and greed, with religious leaders getting rich off the poor. As Jesus says in Mark’s account of the same event, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers.”

   The cleansing of the Temple is the second sign of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, following his changing water into somewhere between 110 and 160 gallons of wine, symbolizing “the extravagant bounty of the messianic age” (J. Ramsey Michaels, 149). Other signs of the Messiah’s coming will be the feeding of five thousand with five loaves and two fish, with leftovers, and the 153 large fish in 21:11, which the disciples catch in their net at Christ’s command.

     It is hard for some of us to imagine our loving Savior fired up with righteous anger, making a whip of cords and driving out all the money changers and merchants, along with the sheep and cattle. But as the disciples murmur to one another, quoting Psalm 69:9, it is “zeal for God’s house” that “consumes him.” He pours out the coins of the money changers, overturns their tables, and tells those selling doves,“Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 

    You can imagine the chaos and commotion of the Holy City packed with between 300,000 and 400,000 pilgrims at this time of year. Each are required to buy animals for the priests to sacrifice. Even if they wanted to bring their own animals to sacrifice, they couldn’t. They are forced to buy from official vendors inside the Temple gates. In addition to paying for the sacrifice, they are required to pay the Temple tax, which must be paid with Hebrew shekels, not Greek or Roman coins. This comes from Exodus 30:13,“This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary … as an offering to the Lord.” Thus, the need for the presence of bankers or money changers who get rich off the fees they charge those on holy pilgrimage. Jesus says the religious leaders in Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47 “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” For this, they “receive the greater condemnation.”

   How do the religious leaders respond to Christ’s indignation over the corruption of the Temple cult and oppression of the poor? It isn’t a question of whether the practices are wrong. “What sign do you show us?” they ask, “because you are doing these things?” In other words, they question Jesus’ authority to criticize what they are doing.

    Jesus makes a puzzling statement that only makes sense to the disciples after the cross—when Christ dies for the sins of the world that rejects him. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus says, speaking of his own body.

     The Jewish leaders misunderstand this “sign” of Christ’s identity as the long awaited for Messiah for all people. Where do their minds go?

To the enormous structure that is the Second Temple, built in Herod’s reign on the site of Solomon’s Temple, destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s troops in 587 BCE. The Second Temple has been under construction for 46 years, the religious leaders say in this passage, but the final project won’t be complete until two years before the Temple is destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

     And who will pay for the First Century building project? The faithful, including the 300,000 to 400,000 pilgrims who journey to Jerusalem when the Passover is near.

    ***

    The message on this Third Sunday in our Lenten journey isn’t to judge the Temple cult of Jesus’s day, with leaders corrupted by greed, oppressing the most vulnerable of God’s people. The message isn’t to judge those who supported segregation in our nation’s history, though we must never sweep it under the rug, like it never happened.

We must continue to share the stories of those who are hurt by prejudice and racial injustice, and remember the horrors of slavery, so that history won’t repeat itself. And we must work toward reconciliation of the races.

     Today’s passage in John on the cleansing of the Temple turns our gaze to our perfect Redeemer and in His light, reveals the condition of our own hearts so that we might be cleansed of all unrighteousness. For even followers of Jesus can stumble and fall. You and me–we are a Construction Zone.

But in this New Covenant we have with God, sealed with Christ’s blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins, our bodies have become temples, tabernacles or dwelling places for the Holy Spirit.

     This is the time, in this Holy Season, as we journey to the cross of Christ, to humbly ask God to forgive us for any role we may have played through thought, word, and deed or through our silence and inaction in perpetuating systems of injustice and oppression of the most vulnerable in our society today. May the Lord heal what is broken in us and in our world. May we learn to forgive ourselves and one another and live in peace.

    May you stand up and speak up for righteous change, like our loving Savior who turned over the tables and drove out the merchants and money changers in His Father’s House.

    May you open your heart and mind to transformation by the One who has forgiven you and offers you ABUNDANT life with Him as a gracious gift. Open your heart and mind to the one whose Spirit tabernacles in you, so that YOU may live as a holy people, a royal priesthood. Embrace the self-giving message of the cross that is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God!

silhouette of cross – symbol of God love to people

   May you be like the courageous little girl, Ruby Bridges, born to a family of color in the age of Jim Crow segregation. Faced with insults and intimidation by her white neighbors, Ruby didn’t return evil for evil. Oh, no. She prayed a prayer twice a day—as she walked to and from school.

    “Please, God, try to forgive those people. Because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they’re doing. So You could forgive them, just like You did those folks a long time ago, when they said terrible things about You.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for the message of the cross, which is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved is the power of God! Thank you for forgiving us for all our sins and the gift of eternal and abundant life through faith in Jesus Christ. Thank you for your Holy Spirit that tabernacles inside of us and is transforming our hearts and minds this very minute as we pray.  Empower us to speak up like Jesus and stand against the powers of evil that oppress the vulnerable. Lead us to love like Jesus and live in peace, forgiving one another. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of The Presbyterian Church in Coshocton, Ohio since January 2019. Come and visit! God's love is here for you!

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