Excellence, Not Perfection
John 2: 13-22
Today, we’re going to talk about worship – And I have to admit, I’m quite excited about it. I really love worship – I find it to be such a gift in ministry. I truly believe that gathering together in one place to join our hearts and minds in praise and worship of our God is exciting and life giving, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share some of my experiences and reflections with you this morning.
You see, when I was growing up, my family went to church nearly every week – much like many of you. When I was in middle school, on Sunday mornings, after the children’s message, like here at Western, all the kids would scamper off to Sunday school. However, in a minor act of rebellion, my friends and I would skip Sunday School and sneak up into the balcony and we would stay in the sanctuary through the worship service. Mostly, I remember doing this on Communion Sundays – I have a vivid memory of trying to sneak more than one piece of bread from the plate and then more than one little cup of the grape juice as it came by. Then, in high school, I would sit in the back of the sanctuary with my friends and we would write notes to each other all over our copies of the bulletin. Worship was something that I always sat through as a young person. I didn’t always understand what was going on and why it mattered to the rest of my life – but week in and week out, I sat through worship and on the way home, my dad always asked, “So, what was the sermon about.” To which, I most often replied, “I don’t know.” So my parents would debrief the service together – for their benefit and I’m sure for the benefit of my sister and me in the back seat.
I went off to seminary many years later and at that point in my life, I had no interest, whatsoever, in becoming a pastor of a congregation. Mission was my passion – being with people, helping others, building community, practicing faith in the world – that’s what I felt called to. Up to that point in my life, I hadn’t found great meaning in worship – I still hadn’t really grasped how worship related to mission. Worship, in my experience, hadn’t felt like a transformative experience that nourished me to go out and love God and love my neighbor. Instead, it felt rigid and polite. So, as I entered into Seminary, I decided that I didn’t want to spend my time in ministry focusing on creating the perfect worship service week in and week out. Rather, I felt called to engage faith communities in the work of Jesus in the world. And as a young seminarian, I just knew I would end up back in the mission field after graduation…and boy, was I surprised to discover the intimate necessity of worship for mission and mission for worship.
One of the requirements for ordination in the PC(USA) is to complete a year of Field Studies. Mine was a year-long internship at a local Presbyterian congregation and that experience transformed me and my understanding of worship. My eyes were opened to how and why worship (meaning collective worship in the context of a church service) and mission (meaning going and doing God’s work in the world) are inseparable from one another. The community was and is very active in mission, with a vibrant outreach to the local community. And the community strives for excellence in worship – offering their praise and their prayers, confessing their faults and reveling in God’s grace, listening to God’s Word and discerning God’s call – they strive for excellence, not perfection. One Easter, the pastor was breaking the bread for communion and whoever purchased the loaf for that week hadn’t realized they had gotten a jelly-filled challah loaf. You can imagine the pastors surprise when she breaks the bread and sees this red jam in the middle of Easter Communion – but, shocking as it was, after a little laughter was emitted in her voice as she said the words of institution, it was simply interpreted as another expression of why we require God’s grace. The community chooses to be nourished in worship and they work together, always including new voices of all ages, to ensure this outcome. Through worship, God’s people are strengthened to go out and serve with more fervor, with more confidence in the transformative power of God’s presence in and love for the world. It was an entirely different experience of worship for me and I was hooked.
So, now you have a little bit of an idea of my journey to the text this morning. The text draws our attention to the question: What does it mean to be the church of Jesus? It tells a story of a place of worship – and what happens when Jesus enters in. Let us listen for God’s Word for us today in our text from the Gospel of John, chapter 2, verses 13-22.
Let us pray, Gracious and Loving God, you have gathered us in and you have called us your beloved. Open our hearts and our minds as we listen for you Word that we might be transformed to glorify You. Amen.
John 2: 13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
Our text this morning is probably a familiar one to you. It is one of the few stories of Jesus that is recounted in all four Gospels. In the other three Gospels, this story comes at the end of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, it is often told as the reason for Jesus’ arrest. In the other three Gospels, Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem and he goes to the Temple and he drives out the moneychangers, charging them with having made the Temple a ‘den of robbers.’ He accuses the moneychangers of malfeasance – of mismanaging and mistreating worshippers. This, ultimately, becomes the final piece of evidence needed for the authorities to arrest and convict Jesus.
But, the story that we heard this morning is quite different from the other three Gospels. The Gospel of John places the story of Jesus overturning the tables and driving out the animals and moneychangers in the second chapter of the Gospel, not the twentieth. This takes place immediately following Jesus’ first sign at the wedding in Cana, where he turned water into wine. From the very beginning of the Gospel of John, we begin to see the theme unfold that breaking traditional boundaries, re-orienting and re-ordering the world is a result of the presence of God through Jesus. The location of this particular story begins to explain what power the Word made flesh has in the world.
Another difference from the other gospels is in the telling of the story. Unlike the other gospels, John’s account does not include Jesus’ accusation that the temple had become a den of robbers. Rather, Jesus overturns the tables because their practice of worship focused on the perfect execution of their understanding of the law, and lacked focus on the presence of God in their midst. You see, Jewish law was quite specific about the kinds of animals that could be used for sacrifice and the state they should be in when offered. For example, an unblemished cow could be offered as a sacrifice. As you can imagine, it was quite difficult to find an unblemished cow outside of the Temple – even if one might raise a cow himself, the journey to the Temple would risk the purity of the animal. So, there was a marketplace inside the Temple to monitor quality assurance of all sacrificial animals. Additionally, there were money changers to exchange the currency of the Roman Empire into the currency of the Temple that could then be used as an offering. It was all quite efficient and perfectly legal. But, as Jesus enters into the Temple, he breaks through the systems of efficiency to call into question the practice of worship.
While they were busy working on quality assurance of the worship experience in the Temple, Jesus boldly raised the more fundamental question about the purpose of worship. Was it the location and perfect execution of the order of worship that was important? Or, was honoring the almighty presence of God in their midst their purpose? Entering the Temple, and disrupting the market, Jesus reveals how deceiving appearances can be. While the practices of worship within the Temple walls appeared to fulfill its function, Jesus revealed that the source and object of worship had been eclipsed by the trappings of the service. When Jesus drives the animals out, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and demands the end of buying and selling, it becomes abundantly clear that through Jesus, God’s presence in the world is breaking forth in a bold, new way – God’s presence in the world breaks through the barriers of location and perfected systems of efficiency; God’s presence uproots the patterns which have numbed God’s people to the spiritual experience of worship. And, this, my friends, is good news, indeed.
Here at Western Church, worship is important to us. Speaking for myself, worshipping God is central to my spiritual well-being and I have heard from many of you how important the worship service on Sunday mornings is to you and your spiritual well-being. A lot of work goes into the creation of our services: The faithful Worship Committee prays over and tenderly cares for the worship experience as they strive to remove as many barriers between worshippers and the One to be worshipped. Our ushers and liturgists prepare the worship space with care – ensuring a sense of welcome, of hospitality, and a sense of respect for the Divine. We have impeccable florists – our flower committee works diligently to prepare such beautiful arrangements for our heavenly host in memory and honor of so many loved ones. This choir and the music of our worship is of the ilk of performances heard across the street at the Kennedy Center and transcends our hearts to hear the choir of angels. From the type-face of the bulletin to the final chorus of Amen, the worship service at Western seeks to point to the One who deserves all the praise and honor we can muster. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, engaging in the rituals of worship is important but the value is not in the ritual itself – it is what the ritual points us to. The flowers point to God’s diverse and beautiful creation within and around us. A sense of welcome points to the welcome God has for all of God’s beloved children in the kingdom of God. The music reminds of us to lift our hearts and voices in praise of the One who creates, sustains and redeems our life as individuals and as a people.
All of us participating in this ritual are human and none of us is perfect – not the preacher, not the soloist, not the usher. And in our text for today, Jesus frees of the impossible burden of striving for perfection in worship. Instead Jesus calls us to genuine worship, both inside the walls of this beloved church and out, wherein our hearts and minds are open to knowing and experiencing more of who God is. Later on in the Gospel of John, Jesus meets a woman at a well and she asks him where she can worship God – his answer seems cryptic but this text helps provide the key. God’s glory is all around us and God’s presence is with us always. We are not bound to worship in one specific location in one specific expression. Rather, we are free to be mindful of the presence of God throughout our daily lives, not solely on Sundays. As a community, we gather here in this place on Sunday mornings, and we are nourished as we learn again that we are forgiven and we are loved. And then, we then go out into the world and discover the places where God’s presence is made known. Our worship does not stop here.
The season of Lent is a season about preparation. To be clear though, it is not about preparing ourselves to be worthy of God. We already are worthy of God’s love – God has made this known to us in the presence of God in the flesh in Jesus. Rather, Lent is a season to wake up and open our eyes to be totally astonished. It’s a time to discover the shocking ways that God is in our lives and be amazed that God comes this far to be with us. And, this particular text draws our attention to our worship of this ever-present God. We come to church because in the rituals of worship – hearing the Word, partaking of the sacraments – here in this place we have an opportunity to perceive God’s grace most clearly. It is here where our senses are enlivened and our hope reignited for what God is doing in the world. But then, our worship does not stop here. We are then sent out to look for God, and even more, to partner with God in our various roles and venues to love and bless the people and world God loves so much. We are sent out to live as forgiven and beloved children of God – we are sent out to spread kindness, to show mercy, to labor for justice, and to care for the elderly, for the sick and for the imprisoned. Church is not meant to be the only destination to receive spiritual nourishment – it is also a community to practice faithfulness within and it is a place to be sent from.
Our text today challenges us to consider what it means for us to be the church of Jesus. In our worship, what happens to us when Jesus enters in? Amen.