Overturned Tables

Most churches, no matter what the denomination, possess, I would guess, in some closet, or stored under the parish hall stage, or stacked against a wall, a folding table of a certain age, the legs of which have become loose: the screws that hold their brackets to the plywood having pulled away, one by one, with years of steady use. Or it may be that the locking mechanism of the legs has slipped, and never quite catches right. Whatever the cause, it is my contention that almost every church will own, someplace, a table, the legs of which are steady and stable enough to support its own weight but which is certain to collapse when it is laden with one too many casseroles, or a too-heavy stack of Vestry minutes.

These tables are a menace! I have personally carried one such a table out of the parish house and heaved it into the dumpster out back. But I know that the persistent prevalence of such tables is bigger than me, and somewhere nearby the screws or locking mechanism of the legs of the replacement table for the one I threw away are quietly and secretly un-doing themselves so that some day when we least expect it the table will go crashing to the floor.

Is it possible that such tables carry with them the memory of the tables that once stood in the courtyard of the great Temple, where the money-changers sat, making a tidy profit as they converted currencies from various parts of the Roman empire into the only coin whose use was permitted for the payment of the temple tax: a coin from Tyre that was valued at a half a shekel. The tax was required of every Jewish male over the age of twenty, imposed by Moses in the Book of Exodus, it was used to cover the costs of operating the Temple. Elsewhere in the New Testament testimony is supplied that Jesus paid the Temple tax. His outburst of anger (which is reported in all four of the gospels) does not appear to be a protest against this tax.

There are, of course, also the dealers of sheep and cattle and doves (which were needed for the sacrificial offerings) that Jesus drove out of the Temple precincts. But nothing gets our attention these days like money, and it’s the spirit of those overturned tables of the money-changers that I think still haunts the tables of our churches today.

Of course it feels as though money-changing tables are being upset around us at an alarming rate as we watch the economy contort and the banks writhe. The numbers we wish would go up keep going down; the numbers we want to see drop are on a steady rise. And tables that once had good-sized piles of money on them – like retirement accounts, investment portfolios, and like this parish’s endowment – seem to be collapsing and crashing to the floor. To be sure there is still money to be gathered up and stacked back into neat piles, but the system has been upset. Every church I know that depends on money-changers (that is, on investments, as we do) has been impacted, or is bracing for the impact of these tables that have been knocked over, right out from under us.

And I suppose, if I am going to suspect these tables of harboring the memory of those ancient tables in the Temple courtyard, the question is, does Jesus have something to do with upsetting them? Is Jesus in any way involved with the anxious worry that has been brought upon us by these overturned tables?

Well, I don’t believe that Jesus is responsible for the global economic downturn. And I don’t believe that Jesus, reigning as he does at the right hand of God, spends his time worrying about the fluctuations of the stock markets, per se. But I do believe that Jesus incites occasions of upset when the smug complacency of our lives draws our attention away from the things that matter. And I do believe that these occasions often feel very much as though the tables around us go smashing to the floor.

If you follow Jesus (through John’s Gospel) past the chaos he has just caused, out of the Temple gates, into the streets of Jerusalem, you will come upon him next in conversation with a man named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, John tells us, who surely had heard about the scene Jesus caused with the money-changers. But Jesus and Nicodemus are not talking now about that now, or about the sheep or the cattle or the doves; now they are talking about the kingdom of God: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Having caused a commotion that certainly draws attention to him, Jesus is ready to re-direct the conversation. And it is not about the economy of this world that he wants to talk, it is about God’s kingdom – about the economy of heaven, about new birth, new hope, new life in God, when our old lives have become defined by the forces of things like death and taxes.

So, back to our own tables. Our endowments in this parish – upon which we relay for about half of our operating expenses – have been seriously knocked about. This is not to say that there aren’t still some piles of money around, but those piles are significantly smaller than they used to be, the table having been pretty seriously upset.

And, of course, there are the personal realities of each of us who rely on the tables of our jobs, or our 401-ks, or the value of our homes, all of which have been sitting on tables that also seem to have those annoyingly loose legs.

Could it be that Jesus has something to do with all this? Is he involved in any way with the anxious worry that’s been brought upon us by these overturned tables?

It’s possible, I believe, that Jesus has grown impatient with our fixation on money. And perhaps Jesus is using this disruption to change the subject – to dislodge our preoccupation with money and turn our attention more fully to a discussion of the kingdom of God. Because, while there is no question that money (and more of it) can and will be useful in the building up of God’s kingdom, it is not the crucial ingredient. But many churches operate more or less on the principle that our ability to build up the kingdom is directly proportionate to the balance of our bank accounts; that is, directly related to the money that sits on our figurative tables.

And when these tables – perhaps still haunted by the memory of those money-changers’ tables – fall to the floor, upsetting our dependence on them, then we are forced to consider not just what we are going to do about the money, but what we are going to do about God’s kingdom.

And the truth of the matter is that God’s kingdom requires no venture capital; the kingdom is not waiting for more money before it can be built up; and Jesus is not looking for investors. Jesus is calling disciples who are willing to take up the ministry of being sent into the world to change lives: this is the mission of his Gospel. And this mission of transformation is not the work of the clergy, or of monks, or of religious fanatics, it is the work of every Christian who can hear the call of Jesus, in any way, shape, or form.

Of course, Jesus knows how likely we are to get stuck by the tables of the money-changers. He knows how attractive it has become to us to think that we can make our lives, our careers, our future, and even our kingdoms right there in the court of the Temple where there is undoubtedly a profit to be made, without ever stepping foot inside the actual precincts of God’s house.

Is it because of this that he seems to have rigged the tables of our money-changers to collapse like an old table in a church hall? Of course this is too fanciful, really. It seems unlikely that the Lord of lords and King of kings, that the God of love should operate like this – causing a commotion with such real and painful consequences for so many people. And I would not attribute our current economic reality to either the mind or the hand of God.

But I do believe that it is hard to see the kingdom of God from behind a money table. The money distracts us, especially when we actually have a little bit of it– how could it not?

And if those tables carry within the fibers of plywood, or the cellular structure of their metal legs, or the various moving parts that might operate more or less effectively – if these tables possess the mystical memory of tables long ago that were overturned as Jesus began to change the subject and to tell about the mystery of the three days of re-creation that was about to come, then no wonder every church has a table that is so prone to collapse and crash to the floor. It is as if the tables know, - having borne the weight of fortunes before, and seen them come and go; and having witnessed the transforming power of the gospel of hope that relies on no treasure but the love which is crucified for our salvation – it is as if the tables themselves would cry out for the sake of the kingdom of God!

And the fact remains that it is pretty deeply upsetting that so many tables out there in the court of the temple have been overturned. The fact remains that this economic reality is imposing real hardship, pain and loss on people’s lives. And I don’t for one minute believe that it is God’s doing.

But tables have a way of collapsing right out from underneath us – every church knows this, because we all have one of those annoying tables somewhere whose legs are getting too loose, so it comes as no great surprise. And if our own memories fail to remind us during times like these that Jesus did not go to the money-changers to finance the kingdom of God, then let the tables themselves remind us.

Let us see and hear how Jesus keeps trying to change the subject and teach us about his kingdom. Let us remember how it is he taught that we must all be born anew by the spirit of God.

And let us not be fooled into thinking that when the tables have been overturned that our work for the kingdom of God is in any real way imperiled. Even the tables themselves remember that when they came crashing to the floor the work of the kingdom was only just beginning, and yes, there is the Cross to go to, but in just three short days from that dark day, there is Easter, and the rising of the king…

…which of course seems impossible for us to believe. See how long it took us to build up this church, these pledges, our endowment: years and years! And he would re-build it in three days? Can we really believe this?

Oh yes, we can: that, and so much more, and so much more. Thanks be to God!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
15 March 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 16, 2009 .